Elephant (movie)

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Movie poster for Elephant

Elephant (2003) is a film by director Gus Van Sant, an account of a school shooting in fictional Watt High School, in Portland, Oregon. Van Sant was awarded Best Director and also the Palme d'Or prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival for this film.


The title

The title is a tribute to the Alan Clarke, 1989 film for BBC, also called Elephant, which reflected on sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Van Sant similarly portrays school violence as something unfathomable, not unlike many other disturbing things in the lives of teenagers, which invite convenient explanations but ultimately frustrate analysis.

Van Sant has explained the "elephant" idea in several ways, besides the direct reference to Clarke's earlier work. It is an allusion to the proverbial "elephant in the living room", a large problem that no one talks about but everyone must find their way around as they go about their daily lives. It also invokes the Indian parable about the blind wise men who, unable to grasp the whole, interpret the elephant only in terms of the part they can comprehend: "An elephant is a tree", said the blind man who grasped the leg; "An elephant is a snake", said the one who touched the trunk; etc. Finally, during the press conference at Cannes, Van Sant mentioned that the creative staff had also experimented with allusions to certain policies and attitudes represented by the Republican Party, whose party symbol is an elephant.

Filming location

The movie was filmed at Whitaker Middle School in northeast Portland, Oregon; which had been closed in the summer of 2001 because of air-quality problems. For the twenty-day course of filming, the production company reopened parts of the school and used many extras to replicate the feel of an actual location.

North American premiere and release

Elephant premiered in North America at a benefit for a youth shelter held at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, October 4, 2003. The film was released for incremental distribution by HBO, in 100 theaters in the United States, beginning October 24. English language release on DVD and VHS began on May 4, 2004.

Prior to its distribution, the film generated minor controversy and divided reviews following the Cannes debut, particularly in the gay community. In the movie the two male killers kiss one another in the shower before they dispassionately commence their Columbine-like frenzy of murder.

Unconventional method

Van Sant originally intended to make a film for television about the Columbine massacre, shortly after the event; the idea of a factual account was eventually dropped. The approach chosen is described by reviewers as "poetic" and "dreamlike", and by Van Sant himself as a rejection of conventional narrative, building on what he learned from work on Gerry. The script was "written" to its final form during shooting, with cast members improvising freely and collaborating in the direction of scenes. Up-and-coming gay author JT Leroy, a friend of Mr. Van Sant's (who will be directing the movie version of JT's novel, as well) was among the writers.


The teen actors were chosen for the parts based on interviews and their ability to improvise before the camera. Some of the characters were developed from details selected from the interviews.

  • Alex - Harassed by jocks, accomplished but frustrated pianist and sketch artist. His advice to Eric: "Have fun". Performed by Alex Frost.
  • Eric - Slacker, Alex's best friend and the other killer.
  • John McFarland - Managing his alcoholic father, he has trouble at school
  • Mr. McFarland - John's father, who is an alcoholic
  • Mr. Luce - Principal of the school
  • Gay-Straight Alliance - An organization at many high schools which brings open-minded people together for fun as well as more serious discussion
  • Nathan & Carrie - Popular lifeguard and football player and his girlfriend
  • Elias - Photography student building his portfolio with portraits of other students.
  • Michelle - Ashamed of her body, the film follows her through the locker room and into the library where she assists.
  • Brittany, Jordan & Nicole - Three bulimic "teenyboppers" who talk incessantly, gripe about parents and squabble with one another
  • Benny - Kind and fearless student who rescues Acadia by helping her jump out of a window.
  • Acadia - John McFarland's girlfriend and member of the Gay-Straight Alliance

Many of the main characters' names are in fact the same as their real-life equivalents. Some of the habits shown in the movie (aside from the shootings) are done by the real cast as well, with Eli being an actual photographer and Alex actually playing the piano during his scenes (as well as incidental music elsewhere).

See also

External links

fr:Elephant it:Elephant ja:エレファント sv:Elephant


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