For a long time, after each new mass shooting, the actor Alex Frost would guiltily ponder whether the first movie he ever appeared in may have motivated the perpetrators. Frost played one of the gunmen in Gus Van Sant’s unflinching look at adolescent life, “Elephant,” when he was only 15 years old.
“The older I get, and the more I understand about shootings, gun control and the public mental health system in America, the less I think it’s about inspiring people to do things,” Frost said during a recent video interview. “Movies don’t cause people to kill people.”
Released in U.S. theaters 20 years ago this week, “Elephant” chronicles one tragic day in an American high school from the viewpoint of several students, including the killers. With a more experimental narrative featuring an unemotional tone and a multiple-perspective structure, it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2003 — still the most notable accolade for Van Sant to date.
The film was one of three unconventional features inspired by real-life events that Van Sant made in the early 2000s, including “Last Days,” about Nirvana’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, and “Gerry,” which starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as two hikers. “Elephant” continues to resonate.
“It’s less sympathetic making a story about Kurt’s missing three days or getting lost in the desert, but everyone cares about school shootings,” said Van Sant in a video interview.
The sensationalism he witnessed in the media coverage of both Cobain’s death in 1994 and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre pushed Van Sant to devise a different dramatic take on the factual accounts.
First intended as a TV movie, eventually the project landed at HBO Films. The director avoided Hollywood actors and headed to Portland, Ore., to find real teenagers with the help of the casting director Mali Finn. She conducted interviews with the teens about their everyday challenges, which served as the basis for the characters.
“The film was a hundred percent improvised by the students,” Van Sant said. “The spoken words are their improvs and some of their situations came from their own stories.”
Frost had been taking piano lessons for many years before the production came to town. His musical experience became part of his fictional role. And he said that during his initial audition for the film, he was open about the bullying he had faced.
Similarly, John Robinson, who plays the blond-haired character that shares his given name, had expressed during the casting process the hardships of dealing with his father’s alcoholism. Van Sant later asked him to fold that vulnerable part of himself into his character.
“Twenty years later that just feels so wild that a director gave that kind of freedom to these young kids,” said Robinson by phone.
Robinson stole the now-emblematic yellow T-shirt bearing the silhouette of a bull from a friend who had bought it during a trip to Spain. In pursuit of realism, Van Sant asked the cast to bring their own clothes to wear.
“Looking back on it, the movie feels like a diary,” Frost said. “You are pulled into the daily life of a bunch of teenagers, and all they can do is tell you their truth.”
Neither Frost nor Robinson had previously aspired to be in entertainment. But after “Elephant” premiered at Cannes, a new path emerged for them. Robinson, for instance, got an agent and was cast in Catherine Hardwicke’s 2005 film, “Lords of Dogtown.”
Van Sant recalled critics at the time saying the film didn’t provide specific answers as to why violent incidents like the one in Columbine occur.
“I didn’t envision an endless number of shootings, which is the way it’s happened. It wasn’t even in my imagination,” Van Sant said. “We’re still in a similar place today that we were back in 1999. I hope there can be a change.”
Popular media such as video games were blamed in the aftermath of Columbine. (The shooters in “Elephant” are seen playing a game featuring digital versions of the protagonists from Van Sant’s “Gerry.”) But the director believes the root of the violence lies elsewhere.
“The conformity of society is so oppressive — as far as get good grades, play sports and don’t be an outcast — they’re reacting in a very violent way against it,” Van Sant said. “It’s impossible for kids to understand that whatever they’re experiencing isn’t forever.”
Two decades on, Frost still admires Van Sant’s unnervingly lyrical vision for “Elephant,” a movie he said he thought would open viewers’ eyes to issues they normally wouldn’t want to look at. His creative pride, however, feels entwined with moral disappointment.
“Back then, we really did think, ‘This is a problem and it’s going to be solved. There’s no two ways about it.’” Frost recalled. “But watching how the issue has been expounded and overcomplicated by so many factors, it’s almost like we’ve given up hope on trying to fix it.”