Gus Van Sant befriended Kurt Cobain during his rise to global stardom. Now the director has made a film based on the grunge superstar’s harrowing Last Days…
HERE HE IS, shuffling around his remote country mansion, drifting through the twilight of his existence and barely connecting to the people around him. Simple tasks like making macaroni cheese become supreme efforts of will. He can barely light a cigarette. It’s only when he immerses himself in music that any spark of humanity is rekindled. This we know: soon, he’ll take his own life.
Fact or fiction? Welcome to Gus Van Sant’s Last Days — a bold and absorbing account of the last days of Blake, a troubled rock star, played here by Michael Pitt and modelled all too clearly on Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. But Van Sant’s film isn’t a rock biopic in any conventional sense. Expanding on the opaque, open-ended style of his last two films, Gerry and the Palme D’Or-winning Elephant, it belongs to a left-field European tradition that includes Chantal Akerman and Béla Tarr (the director’s own reference points), and also owes a debt to Andy Warhol.
Last Days is a soul-sapping, profoundly unsettling work. But it’s also a beautiful, haunting and bold piece of pop art. It takes the most momentous, tragic hours of a highly eventful life and methodically drains them of drama. Van Sant is careful to avoid any Big Movie Moments. He wants to reclaim Cobain and other doomed friends in his recent past from Hollywood myth and melodrama. On those terms, he’s succeeded.
“I was just trying to concentrate on the last couple of days with hopes that they illuminated the other stuff,” Van Sant tells Uncut at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where Last Days received its world premiere. “Those last days were quite reserved. He probably was just hanging around, trying to avoid people, probably doing drugs again — I guess that was documented by the police. He wasn’t seen in the movie as a star so much. He was just a guy at his house.”
The film ends with a disclaimer that, even though Blake was clearly inspired by Cobain, the story is fiction. “It’s all fiction,” Van Sant nods. “Even though we have a lot of information about Kurt, those particular days are kind of lost days. That was the appeal to me, these small ideas about his life. It’s kind of a poem about Kurt.”
Last Days is not just about Cobain, though. In the silent spaces between its non-linear scenes lie unspoken epitaphs for others: River Phoenix, star of Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, who died of an overdose in 1993; Elliott Smith, who wrote songs for the director’s Good Will Hunting and killed himself in 2003; Hunter Thompson, who committed suicide last year.
Also lurking between the lines is the story of an indie visionary from the Pacific Northwest who got sucked into the corporate entertainment machine and grew to loathe himself in the process. In other words, this is a film about Van Sant himself.
LOS ANGELES: 1992
Van Sant first met Cobain in 1992, when the director was in LA campaigning for No On 9, the US equivalent of the battle against Clause 28. Van Sant, Cobain and Courtney Love gathered at Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg’s flat to discuss how Nirvana could get involved. A few months later, on August 22, they played a No On 9 benefit in Portland.
“Then later Kurt called to try and get his friend a job on Even Cowgirls Get The Blues [Van Sant’s 1993 film version of the Tom Robbins book, starring Uma Thurman ], so we sort of had a relationship,” says Van Sant. “Then I offered him a role in a film the winter that he died. I had sent a script to his manager that Courtney later said he’d read.”
The script was called Binky. “It was about a guy who dropped out of society,” Van Sant recalls. “Originally he was a film director, then a mathematician, who sort of went schizophrenic and started looking for a son that he had by checking every house in the city. We find him in a doorway, and he lives with transients and winos. Kurt would have played a young version of this guy.”
The script remains unfilmed — one of many question marks left behind by the Nirvana singer’s death.
“I wanted him to be in the movie because I thought he was very alluring,” reflects Van Sant. “It might not have worked. But I didn’t get the chance.”
Cobain’s body was found at his Seattle home on April 8, 1994. According to the coroner’s report, he injected himself with a lethal dose of heroin, then shot himself in the stomach and head. Van Sant, already reeling from the “much more cataclysmic event” of losing River Phoenix, felt a shudder of recognition.
“Somebody was in trouble and nobody could help them,” he says. “Where were they and what were their last moments?”
Van Sant began toying with the idea of a straight movie biography. In 1996, he visited Courtney Love in the very house where her husband died.
“I asked her to play herself in a biopic project,” the director nods. “She said she could never, ever do that, and I realised it was an insane offer.”
The biopic was shelved. But as Van Sant continued to meet Cobain’s former friends, a more intimate portrait composed of tiny personal details began to suggest itself. His love of macaroni cheese, for example, would later resurface in Last Days.
“I wrote this list of things down, and I originally cast an actor called Holger Thaarup from Denmark,” Van Sant recalls. “He was 14, and he was really a symbol of this character. Holger didn’t speak English. I was going to have the character silent.”
Courtney Love initially approved this semi-abstract approach. But then, in 1997, Van Sant met Michael Pitt. Just 17 at that time, he was an aspiring actor with his own band, Pagoda. Thaarup was out of the picture. Pitt became the new Kurt in waiting.
“I don’t think I took him seriously at first,” Pitt tells Uncut. “It was a long time ago, but when it got more and more real I had a lot of fears about it. Fears about people giving me shit. I didn’t want it to come across as though I was using it for personal gain, because I take my music seriously.”
Once again, the moment passed. Van Sant shelved the Cobain project as he became involved with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Now living in a mansion near Portland, bought with the profits from his first hit film, 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, he began to feel like a “sitting duck” for the many parasites that cling to successful artists. Like Cobain, he became alienated by his own fame.
“Nirvana were much more overnight and much more successful than me,” he admits. “But it’s maybe true with different types of artists. You try and go as far as you can, but if you actually get to the top you might be dissatisfied… Success becomes the thing you’re dissatisfied with. I think Kurt was like that.”
Burned by the critical reaction to 2000’s Finding Forrester, Van Sant returned to his indie roots with Gerry and Elephant, at which point he picked up on the Cobain trail again. In context with its immediate predecessors, Last Days became the third chapter in a loose trilogy about untimely death.
“As we moved further along, these other references for Blake started coming into play from Gus’ past,” says Last Days producer Dany Wolf. “Like River Phoenix, who he lost tragically, and more recently Elliott Smith. So it becomes this thing: you have this friend, you’re all busy in your artistic careers, you’re not in touch as much as you’d like. Then all of a sudden they’re gone, and you want to deal with that in some way.”
Van Sant met with Courtney Love again, this time to discuss plans to cast her in Sarah, the cult novel by JT Leroy that he was adapting. At the meeting, she raised the subject of the Cobain film and, once again, gave her blessing. But by now, with open hostility raging between Love and the surviving members of Nirvana, Dany Wolf got the jitters.
“When Gus first brought it up I was like, ‘What? She’s gotta lot of lawyers, she sues everybody! We’re never gonna get that music!'” says Wolf. “But then Gus explained to me that it would be more along the lines of Elephant and Gerry, where it was this poetic vision of what those last days could have been like. There was no official clearance because there was nothing to clear. But I must say I know a lot more about legal clearance than I did before the beginning of the project.”
NEW YORK STATE: 2004
Last Days was shot near Garrison, a sleepy satellite town in upstate New York. Despite extensive location trips through Oregon and Washington State, including one to Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Van Sant couldn’t find a suitable location. His original plan to shoot in his own Portland mansion evaporated after he moved out in 2000. He finally settled on Castle Rock, the former home of railroad baron William Henry Osborn. Built in 1881, the house was “dilapidated inside and out” — the perfect representation of Blake’s (and Kurt’s) mental state in those final days.
Off-camera, a party spirit took hold.
“That music room you see in the film was full of everybody playing,” Wolf recalls. “We had one crew house, seven bedrooms where everybody hung out, great parties, a lot of fun. It was like we were on tour. Michael had his own recording studio, a rehearsal space in this house we rented for him. It was very rock’n’roll.” Wolf insists there were no drugs on set. Pitt tells Uncut he was tempted to get fucked up for the sake of the role, but changed his mind.
“I actually toyed around with that idea,” he says. “But no, I didn’t drink, I didn’t do anything. I was probably the cleanest that I’ve ever been in my life.”
Maybe so, but Pitt does a very convincing junkie in Last Days. What’s his off-screen attitude to drugs?
“I think they’re fucked up,” he shoots back. “I think they fuck you up.”
Has he ever tried heroin?
“What’s heroin?” he asks with a deadpan smirk. “I never heard of it…”
There’s no Nirvana music in Last Days. Instead, The Velvet Underground vies with 18th-century choral music and an avant-garde sound collage. Pitt also plays two of his own garage-punk tunes, while his friends The Hermitt have a cameo. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a friend of Cobain, acted as music consultant.
A Nirvana soundtrack would have missed the point, claims Van Sant. “Maybe if there was some obscure song nobody had heard. Even then, I wasn’t really interested in that. I thought there was a lot of music that sounded like Kurt’s music, but the movie isn’t really about him, it’s a lookalike. I wanted the music to be the same thing.”
At Cannes, Last Days left reviewers baffled, drained, angered and exhilarated. Everyone wants an explanation for Blake’s death — and Cobain’s. But the film doesn’t offer any. That, says Van Sant, is precisely the point.
“We do suggest things,” the director argues. “He’s being asked to do something he’s not really interested in, which is to go on tour around the world. You get the idea that he’s living in a place where he can’t really be by himself. You know his family is disintegrating, there’s this question of divorce, is his daughter going to be taken away? And drugs. But everything’s sort of on the margin.”
Like Gerry and Elephant, Last Days is almost infinitely open-ended. We might find Van Sant’s true reflections on Cobain lurking between the lines, but he wants us to draw our own conclusions.
“There’s so much room for thought that my opinion might be there,” the director says, “but there’s a lot of room to throw in your own opinion. The story represents a sort of Everyman. He’s vulnerable, and trying to escape at times. In this case, he winds up dead.”
“I don’t know if Kurt did kill himself…”
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon on Kurt, ghosts and conspiracy theories
UNCUT: Did you have any qualms about working on this film?
MOORE: I had a bit of a concern because it was about somebody I knew, and there’s a community of people that knew Kurt. It’s a very protective thing because you don’t want people to commercialise somebody who’s already been commercialised to death. But the idea was coming from Gus [Van Sant] and I knew I could trust him. He was somebody Kurt really admired. I knew Gus was the only one that could do it where I wouldn’t feel too weird about it
Why is there no Sonic Youth on the soundtrack?
GORDON: Gus wanted to remove it from familiar expectations about that sort of thing. His choice with the score was really interesting because Kurt was really interested in experimental music as well. People sort of forget about that.
You encouraged Gus to include a ghostly final scene where Blake’s spirit leaves his body. Why?
MOORE: I love that because we all know Kurt died in a very harsh way. It wasn’t just an OD. He actually killed himself violently, it was so aggressive, and he wasn’t an aggressive person, he was a smart person, he had an interesting intellect. So it kind of made sense because it was like: wow, what a fucking gesture. But at the same time it was like: something’s wrong with that gesture. It doesn’t really lie with what we know.
The film doesn’t explain why Kurt killed himself. Can you?
GORDON: I don’t even know that he killed himself. There are people close to him who don’t think that he did…
Do you believe the theory that Kurt was killed by someone else?
I do, yes.
© Stephen Dalton, Uncut, August 2005