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Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant     Why did Kurt Cobain commit suicide? Gus Van Sant doesn't know, he wasn't there, and he's not going to speculate, making up Freudian motivations in the usual way of leaden Hollywood bios. Last Days, like it or leave it, is rich in visual information but obstinately bare-bones in what it tells you in words about the final hours of Nirvana's great guitarist-vocalist, renamed Blake for the movie and played by Cobain feel-alike Michael Pitt.

      Van Sant had started this project as a more standard screen biography called Kurt. "But trying to explain a life would be too much," he noted, at the press conference following Last Day's world premiere at May's Cannes Film Festival. "It would have been just a regular bio pic, nothing special. Then I started hearing things about Kurt, that he liked macaroni and cheese, and that's more interesting than fights with record companies over covers."

      So what's seen on screen, as Blake wanders through a Northwest woods and stumbles through his house? "It's all fiction, because we didn't really have a lot of information. Those days of Cobain are lost days, it's our challenge to make some fiction out of it, a   poem." And the suicide? "For most of writing the outline and the script, I was thinking of what had led up to the moment he was found dead. But there wasn't an explanation of that death."

     Michael Pitt, among the actors at the Cannes conference, endorsed Van Sant's hands-off on motivation. "You don't know. That's the nature of suicide. I played Blake as though I were remembering his death, for probably a lot of his life he knew he was going to do it."

     "Everyone has their own idea of who Kurt was and what happened," added Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, who pops into the movie as a kind of mentor, chiding Blake, "Don't be a statistic." Gordon: "It's frustrating when you see someone so intelligent lose perspective. Kurt had this psychosis, alienating him from what he wanted. In my scene, I sort of felt my character knew what would happen, but you can only protect people so much."

      How much did Pitt, stooped and emaciated in the movie, try to be like the real Cobain? "Basically, Michael has bad posture," Van Sant explained. "It looks always like he's carrying something heavy." Pitt: "I changed my diet, knowing the character was a junkie. But I didn't know much about diets, so I just ate lettuce and fruit. The whole time I was shooting, my stomach was in pain, which was good."

     Besided Blake, the most vivid character in Last Days is the mammoth house in the woods which Blake owns, in which the furniture feels left over from the last owner. (Rocker drug addicts aren't big on decoration.) "I'd bought a 1905 Victorian house in my home in Portland, Oregon," Van Sant said, "and that's where I was when I thought, 'Macaroni and cheese.' I was going to use my house, but I sold it. So we looked everywhere for nice houses, big houses, old houses.

We ended in Harrison, New York, with this 1860s home of a railroad baron, which was coming apart. I'm not sure exactly why, but it was saying something about American industry.

     "Even though we were situated in Oregon, we all came East quickly. I'm really happy we went there, because it brought all things together."

      Was he afraid to put Courtney Love into the movie?

      "Yes, we were afraid!" Van Sant joked, then gave a pragmatic reason we don't see her before the suicide. "As far as we know, Courtney wasn't there, though there's a voice on the phone that could be his wife. Courtney did know about this project for many years. I'd like her to see the film, though it might be too painful and disturbing.

      "I'd been warned about Cobain's family and friends, but that's sort of the interesting part for me, that I'd be making a film what was touchy. Drugstore Cowboy was touchy. Psycho was a classroom exercise in touchy. Roger Ebert said that film never should have been made. So touchy is an attraction, though Last Days is really more about my interest in someone who lived in the Northwest when I lived there, whose story says a lot about so many things."    

GERALD PEARY
(Boston Phoenix, August, 2005)

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