‘I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to put on a dress,’ laughs Michael Pitt. We’re sitting in a hotel room in the Czech Republic shortly before an air raid siren goes off outside in the town, and turns him white as a sheet. Till that point he’d been more than usually amiable. He wears a dress, looking drugged-up, bedraggled and mad, for some of the scenes in Last Days, the new film directed by Gus Van Sant. It’s a film loosely based on the life of the Nirvana singer whom, conspiracy theories aside, died by his own hand in 1994. It seems the Nirvana front-man really did like wandering round his house in Courtney Love’s wardrobe (not a good look, even on a woman) brandishing a rifle. Except for one thing. This is not a film about Kurt Cobain. The damaged, depressive rock star that Pitt portrays in Last Days is called Blake (‘it’s sort of a poetic reference to Kurt’ claims Van Sant) and consequently all similarities between Blake and Cobain are purely coincidental. Got it?
Michael Pitt is relaxed. This in itself is astonishing. He’s in the spa town of Karlovy Vary for its annual festival, a distinguished but very low-key film festival famous for making visiting Hollywood types slough off their LA paranoia. Usually when journalists meet this rangy 24 year-old New Jersey actor it’s clear that he’d rather be having violent root canal work with veterinary instruments rather than talking about his films and his life in any detail. It’s not that he’s ungracious. Merely confused and discomfited. Those who interviewed him onset for his biggest role to date, in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, had to get used to him fielding questions while lying on the floor. Others who met him in Cannes or New York junkets recently found him wired, fidgety and chain-smoking all the way through their allotted time.
But there’s an essential, winning sweetness about him that’s hard not to notice and be impressed by. He seems – as ever – slightly frail, etiolated, childlike and ethereal. As he talked and gestured with his slender hands I looked for the self-harming scars that were rumoured to mark his arms. I failed to see any. He’d got up early, had a massage in one of the famous local spas, and then taken a walk in the pine woods that stretch up the hillside to clear his head. ‘I like the forest,’ he says in his soft New Jersey drawl, his nostrils twitching with the memory of the pine scent.
He went to live in the forest while he was making Last Days, the last of a trilogy of films by Van Sant that began with Gerry (2002) and continued with Elephant (2003) (‘they’re each about death,’ Van Sant has observed, who when you think about it, looks like a mortician in Six Foot Under). ‘I had a house in the middle of the woods,’ Pitt recalls, like an imperilled child in a fairytale. ‘I stayed alone the whole time and I tried always to be battling with the things I thought the character was battling with – seclusion, drug addiction, severe chronic depression and suicidal tendencies’. The result is a striking performance that once seen is impossible to forget. It’s creepy, lingering and potent as a draught of deadly nightshade. Pitt, his long locks of yellow hair hanging over his face for much of the time in the film, mumbles incoherently as he stumbles about his dilapidated mansion and nearby woodland gardens, performing small tasks, making macaroni cheese, answering the phone and not saying anything, trying to play songs on his guitar and finally overdosing in the guest house.
Many have complained that the film just isn’t right. Not what they expected. Connoisseurs of standard Hollywood rock and roll movies, who have gone to see the film without actually reading up on it, expecting junkie chic and cool music biz scenes, have been infuriated and angry at this languid and mysterious descent into the deathly and distempered that Van Sant has come up with and called a film. One cinemagoer in Seattle even upbraided Van Sant for allowing Pitt to play guitar with the wrong hand (‘have they tried to play left-handed?’ counters Pitt). They all know that Van Sant knew Kurt Cobain. They all know that Cobain was considering doing a Van Sant film in the last months of his life, and that Cobain had lobbied Van Sant to get a friend a role on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. They know that Van Sant discussed the idea of the movie with Courtney Love, and has shown it to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.
Still, Van Sant has taken a line and everyone is sticking to it. ‘It wasn’t a biopic,’ insists Pitt. ‘It wasn’t based on times and dates. I realised in Cannes when I was doing interviews because I was talking about this so much – it’s not a film about Kurt, it’s a film for Kurt. And I’ve mentioned that to Gus recently. ‘
Pitt has described in the past how he was a latchkey kid to a ‘lower working class family’ who ran away to New York aged fifteen, went to live in a Chinatown squat with artists and poets before ending up in a stage production and, finally, the anodyne TV series Dawson’s Creek which he hated. He’s a classic product of downtown Avenue A culture - the rapidly disappearing milieu of the Beat poets. It’s not surprising then that he should be attracted to alt.culture icons like Larry Clark (he worked with him in Bully) and Van Sant (a chum of William Burroughs after all) and seek to make films with them, since they still give some dim idea of ‘outsider’ culture in a mainstream America that has now turned on the idea.
Its also been suggested that another misfit and outsider called River Phoenix is an inspiration for the film, and that the Blake figure is in some ways an amalgam of both Kurt Cobain and the tragic young actor who overdosed on speedballs in LA in the middle of filming Dark Blood. At the time of their deaths – mere weeks apart – many cultural commentators where speculating whether the suicide of Cobain or the accidental death of Phoenix (real name Bottom) would have a more profound and lasting effect on a certain generation. It soon became clear that Cobain was the man who held the torch for maudlin youth. But for Van Sant Phoenix’s death had a powerful and lasting effect. He wrote the novel Pink in 1997 to exorcise the fitful ghost of Phoenix, who had lit up My Own Private Idaho. I met him when he was promoting Good Will Hunting years later and we talked of nothing else but River Phoenix.
Almost empathetically Michael Pitt confuses the two, Cobain and Phoenix, during the questions. He never talked about the Phoenix connection with Van Sant during filming, he confirms. ‘When I was a kid I really looked up to River,’ he says dreamily. ‘He might have had something to do with why I became an actor’. Another question asks where he was at the time of Phoenix’s death, and he inadvertently starts talking about Cobain. ‘I wasn’t a fan when the whole thing was going on,’ he recalls. ‘I was in sixth grade and one day everyone is school was dressed in black. And they were saying Kurt Cobain just died today! And it really struck me because this was a school primarily where people were into rap and R & B.’
So far I understand there have been no River Phoenix fans sending hatemail to Van Sant because his character doesn’t buy a rain forest during the course of the film, and after all the musical aspect of the Blake figure tilts its interpretation towards a Cobain interpretation. The music in the film is not Nirvana music, much of it is original material by Michael Pitt and his band Pagoda who performed a set at Cannes this year (though the movie does open and close with a recording of Jancquin La Guerre’s 14th century French chorale). Pagoda is something of a preoccupation with the actor right now, who is busy recording an album which should be ready ‘by Fall’. ‘People don’t go out of their way to tell me I suck! Eventually what I want to be doing is directing, but music is a younger beast and I want to tackle that now – I can direct when I’m 60 if I want to’.
The inevitable question is how accurate can Michael Pitt ever be about drug use? ‘I researched it,’ he admits. ‘I have friends who have been in situations…it was something I could re-create. Initially I had the bright idea that I was going to do the whole film drunk or something…which thank god I didn’t. Someone talked to me. I was probably the cleanest I’ve ever been for that film. I didn’t drink beer’.
In fact he deplores the glamorisation of drug use in the movies, even if Trainspotting was a film that galvanised him as a youth. ‘Whenever there’s a junkie played you have a shot of the needle and the arm…What is this romance? Or Requiem for a Dream which is another movie I love. It has this shock thing. Look how I can shock you’.
In fact the most illicit substance in the movie is macaroni cheese made with far too much milk, which is apparently just the way Kurt Cobain used to make it.
He’s asked whether he thinks suicide is selfish. ‘I see why people think it’s selfish and sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t think it’s selfish. I’m probably an atheist though I was raised a catholic – and that whole religion is based upon the first suicide in many ways’.
He’s spent the last few years avoiding career suicide by steering clear of Hollywood movies, wary of even identifying what the offers were when asked. ‘Because I look up to Kurt and River Phoenix I’ve been fore-warned and a lot of my decisions I’ve made in my career are to counteract my fame’. He recounts with a shudder how he was chased by schoolchildren in the New York subway after appearances in Dawson’s Creek. Fame makes him nervous. Filming in Paris with Bertolucci for The Dreamers he was disturbed when people called him ‘sir’. It seemed surreal and slightly fake. What did people want from him? Could he even give them what they want?
‘If you grow up in a lower working class environment when most people think of you as trash, and then you get to this other place where people who normally wouldn’t be talking to you want something out of you. I could have made decisions to be more known. I’m pretty broke now but I’m sure I could have had a couple of million dollars’.
Pitt talks about filming Last Days with a kind of raptness and hero-worship of Van Sant that is very charming. He is, he thinks, ‘the best American filmmaker we have’ and you feel he really means it. The techniques of improvisation they developed while filming seemed to the young actor a liberating experience. The initial days shooting was just a trudge into the Oregon woods with Van Sant, Pitt, the legendary cameraman Harry Savides and a couple of focus pullers. ‘We had a 12 page script and it was just a map,’ Pitt recalls. ‘Gus would kind of orchestrate everyone’s ideas. Now when I get a script…’ his voice fades away with a grimace.
The air raid siren that went off in the middle of the interview is a strange hangover, a civic exercise lingering on from Soviet-era Czechosolovakia, a terrible wailing noise that filled the room and for a moment seemed to freeze Pitt in terror. But then he laughed about it. He’d been long enough in the pine-woods this morning to orientate himself and feel calm. Last Days may be about a suicide but it seems to have filled this unusual and fragile young actor with hope, whatever threats may fill the skies.