By improvising the film without a complete script, Gus Van Sant was able to achieve “ordinary conversations” allowing him to focus less on achieving a sense of reality and more on the artistic composition of the film. Van Sant wanted more freedom during production that could allow him to focus on the extra “fun stuff” that is outside of screenplay, such as cinematography elements that included utilizing long takes and intricate camera movements, like the extended tracking shots.
The lack of formal script is evident throughout the film in various scenes. His little use of dialogue and focus on following the characters, such as the scene where Nathan walks through the school, really required little need for script. By not using a formal script, actors were also able to talk as they would imagine the characters would talk, producing a more realistic style to his film. The scene where Carrie and Nathan are discussing her appointment is vague, but is realistic considering they were in a school setting.
Though this usually proves as a gain for the film, some instances where Van Sant introduces social topics into his film, such as the case where the gym teacher talks to Michelle about wearing shorts as opposed to pants, disrupts the acceptability of reality. Why would a gym teacher chastise a girl for wearing pants when it’s obviously cold outside? It seems completely unrealistic. Perhaps if there was a script present for that dialogue, it could ease viewers into accepting that Michelle is refusing to show her legs and that she is violating school policy, rather than the use of free dialogue where the gym teacher says that she should be wearing shorts because all the other girls are.
Another issue I found with the film was the setting and other account discrepancies. If this film was recounting the events of Columbine, then why was it autumn when the Columbine incident actually occurred in April? Granted I know some discrepancies were for artistic purposes. Van Sant took the liberty of the characters as an artistic endeavor; he did not want to accurately portray the victims, but rather create characters of his own. I think his intent was so he could interject his social commentary, total indie move (TIM). Yet, could Van Sant’s subject of the Columbine shooting be an institutional endeavor? What was his intent? Did he use basing his film off the Columbine shooting as a platform to promote his film? Is that not a Hollywood move? Taking the Columbine incident aside, Elephant is just a film about school shootings and other issues teenagers deal with in high school. I guess you could say, Van Sant was just trying to “have fun, man” with his social commentary, but did he really have to use Columbine as the subject?