Using predominantly non-actors in an improvisational mode, Gus Van Sant’s atmospheric and topical meditation on modern American violence, “Elephant,” chronicles a seemingly average day at a prototypical American high school. Conversations and characters intersect; moments are repeated and followed from different characters’ points of view.
“It’s a heightened naturalism,” says cinematographer Harris Savides, “a tweaked naturalistic look that’s real, but a little better than real.” Images are somewhat romantic and a “little creamy,” he says.
Shot over 20 days in a decommissioned Portland area high school with a small crew, “Elephant” used very few lights. Savides preferred natural, available light. In order to manage the grossly varying light levels, particularly in the school’s dark, tomb-like corridors, Savides shot the film on a low-contrast stock and then printed it on high- contrast stock, resulting in richly detailed images.
Van Sant opted for the boxy 1:33 aspect ratio (rather than the standard 1:85) for two reasons: He wanted Savides to frame the feature for TV, as the film’s intended outlet was cabler HBO; and he found the format reminiscent not only of his own 16mm short films but also of how films were projected in high schools in the pre-video era. Once the film was projected, the idea of a theatrical release took hold.
“Elephant” is the third collaboration between Savides and Van Sant (after “Finding Forrester” and “Gerry”). Savides began his feature career lensing “Heaven’s Prisoners” for director Phil Joanou, and he recently completed helmer Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” with Nicole Kidman. Savides is set to lens Van Sant’s untitled next project.
Savides credits Van Sant for knowing exactly what he’s going after. “I may not make it hard for him,” Savides muses, “and he doesn’t make it hard for me.”
Key tools: 35mm Arriflex, shot in 1:33 aspect ratio
Aesthetic: Heightened naturalism
Biggest challenge: Choreographing and shooting lengthy Steadicam takes