No one really knows what happened during Kurt Cobain's final days, despite — or perhaps because of — all the conspiracy theories. Director Gus Van Sant doesn't know either, but for his next film, "Last Days," he's imagining what someone in Cobain's position might have experienced.
"There are a lot of hypotheses about what happened, but I don't know of any full eyewitness account, just tiny momentary ones," Van Sant said. "Everyone has a different opinion, but there's not one true, authoritative account. He was just kind of missing."
Best-known for his mainstream success with 1997's "Good Will Hunting," Van Sant has made a point of directing provocative films, like 1989's "Drugstore Cowboy," 1991's "My Own Private Idaho" and 1995's "To Die For."
He started playing with the idea of "Last Days" soon after Cobain's death, but he took his time getting the cast and location figured out for the project, which recently wrapped shooting in New York and will be released next year via HBO Films and Fine Line Features. He almost started shooting it two years ago as a relatively low-budget film, but he "got scared" and did "Elephant" instead, winning Best Director and the Golden Palm at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
"Now we've done it, and it's too late to be scared," he joked. "I'm scared of it in general, but I'm happy with the way things have gone so far."
Like "Elephant," which improvised a story out of the Columbine high school tragedy, "Last Days" will have a semi-documentary visual style and won't really offer any conclusions as to why Cobain — or in this case, a Cobain-like character — killed himself, although there will be plenty of hints and suggestions in this fictionalized setting. "He's like a Shakespearean Hamlet, reflecting on his personal ghosts and demons, and while I don't know what his were, I'm imagining what they might have been," Van Sant said. "It's pretty much his thing. He's alone."
Michael Pitt ("The Village," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") carries the film as the doomed rocker uncomfortable with his band's growing fame, while other characters (such as those played by Lukas Haas and Asia Argento) flit in and out during their search for him. Argento doesn't exactly play a straight Courtney Love type, but the singer did give her blessing to Van Sant for the project when he spoke to her about it several years ago, he said.
"We're not showing anything specifically that's challenging anyone," Van Sant said. "There's not really any drugs in the film. Some people appear to be on drugs, but you don't see any drugs. There is a gun. But it's all oblique. There are a lot of little things that happen that add up to not so much the story as much as the environment. He plays his guitar, he sings a song, a telephone yellow pages salesman visits him, he watches TV. Things like that are very large. But there are no answers, no 'this is causing that.' "
Instead of Cobain deciding to kill himself, "Last Days" suggests that the troubled singer was already resigned to his own death and that the process was already in motion long before he went missing and was found dead from a gunshot wound. But being that this isn't a straight biopic, Van Sant stresses that people shouldn't read too much into his version of events.
"If you know something about the character, there's more of an impact," Van Sant said. "If you know nothing at all, there's still an impact, but it's more abstract. There's a lot of pressure suggested, and anyone that's experienced pressure can relate."