Interview: Pineapple Express Director David Gordon Green
by Alex Billington
August 3, 2008
During Comic-Con this past weekend, I got a chance to catch up with David Gordon Green, the director of the upcoming comedy Pineapple Express. I first took an interest in his work two years ago when I saw Snow Angels at Sundance, a phenomenal heart wrenching drama that he wrote and directed. Now he's joined Judd Apatow's team and is bringing us the funniest stoner comedy of this decade. As he mentions multiple times, David's a huge nerd, just like all of us, and loves writing and making movies and it's refreshing to hear from such a talented filmmaker who just enjoys having fun in everything he does. We talked about working with Judd Apatow and his influences on the project, the math of comedies and figuring out how to make an audience laugh, his hate for credits, and so much more, so read on!
If you haven't already heard, Pineapple Express is yet another solid comedy in the vein of Apatow's previous hits and definitely will reignite the stoner genre. I'm amazed that David was able to see easily jump from a dark drama to a hilarious comedy and make it seem so easy - which is what I wanted to focus on with this interview. I hope this is a good primer on all things Pineapple Express for everyone who is about to head out this week and enjoy one of the best comedies of the year.
Did Judd Apatow and his team see Snow Angels before they asked you to come on to Pineapple Express?
David Gordon Green: Not before they asked me, but they saw it before we went into production, I screened it for them.
So that was sort of how you got on to it?
Green: Yeah, I was actually in post-production on Snow Angels editing that when I went to visit them on the set of Knocked Up and Danny McBride introduced me to them and that's kinda how it all got started.
That's awesome! So to start off, I really enjoyed the realism in the movie. To me, it felt like it wasn't cheesy, it didn't feel cartoony, it felt like everything was actually happening -- right down to the action.
Green: That's good to hear. It evolves -- I was watching it last night for the first time in a while and I was worried for a little bit because it gets -- with the titty twisters and some of the stuff, it's pushing it to Wile E. Coyote towards the end. But then you see the audience and I think by that point they go with it, where it starts out having that naturalism. But there was definitely a point in editing where we were trying to find that balance.
How do you go about doing that as a director? Are you basing the action purely off of what's in the script?
Green: No, it was a fun script and it was a lot of great situations, but one of the things I always look for in comedies is making sure that the actors are in situations where they have to react rather than them having to pull up a set up and pay off jokes like a lot of comedies. A lot of people love that and I like the Jefferson's as much as the next guy, but to me what real funny stuff is, is putting people that are ill-equipped to deal with situations in frustrating situations, so literally there's nothing that can happen other than funny stuff. The second they're just reacting to the environment or they're reacting to a scenario -- so we really tried to engineer that kind of a rhythm into the movie.
You started to touch on this, but with improv - how much of the script was actually what we saw last night?
Green: There were a few lines in the script. I think "fuck the police" was in the script.
So it's like a 20-page script for an hour and a half movie?
Green: Well, no, it was a full script but it was just a blueprint for what we needed to do and the great thing about working with Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] is that they're not possessive about writing. You get some writers, and even some directors are like, line reading -- you have to say this very specifically like this or whatever, but for me it's just like, let's just find what the human way to say this is, and the funny way to say this, and so you're using the script sometimes. Like I never brought the script to set. I didn't ever use it, if the scene was working, then it's working,
I'm always just trying new things and I'll be off camera just throwing out lines and saying, 'do a dead cat riff,' and then Danny starts talking about his dead cat while making the cake. To me that's a lot of the fun that keeps the energy of it up and I think ultimately it's what has really made Apatow's genre of comedy really successful -- that there's anchors of humanity, like there are human beings that are in these situations. They're not the typical cartoon-face comedians, they're like the guy that you grew up with, it's just funny that he's in a big movie -- really having those people that you emotionally connect to and then let the wild things loose...
How much involvement did Judd actually have? I've talked to other directors, like Nick Stoller of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I think Judd's involvement as a producer is very integral to the success of his movies and not so much, at least from what I've seen, that it would get in the way of your job. Is that true?
Green: Well, he was doing three movies at the same time with Walk Hard and Forgetting Sarah Marshall and this movie – we were all shooting at the same time, so that's a guy that's juggling a lot. It was his idea to have a weed action movie and he'd worked with Seth and Evan on the script for a couple of years, before I got involved, and a lot of it was in the development of it. Because once we started rollin', it was fast and furious and crazy.
He has great experience and is a great value to me, especially in the politics of once you're spending large sums of money, and things like that, it was great to have his support and he kept all the pressures and potential frustration from those entities away. A lot of the people I've talked to say, well, it must be interesting working for a studio and having the pressures there as opposed to your independent projects. I had ten times more freedom on this movie than I did on any movie because there's no financial burden, you've got people that are creatively supportive of what you want to do. At the end of the day, everybody's happy with the dailies and if they weren't, they'd say something, you trust that. When there would be something that would come up, it would always be smart criticisms -- they'd be like, well, have you ever thought about this? When you work with good people, they push you, it's not just people kissing your ass.
Sometimes I feel like movies are under-produced and they just let the director do whatever, but here it was a smart, challenging, always fun, kind of process. It's like being in film school, you're working with your buddies and in many ways there were probably 15 people that I went to film school with working on the movie all the time. Tim Orr, my DP, that shot everything since I was in college, and my sound mixer and even the guy doing the behind-the-scenes documentary, the camera operators, it was just fun being able to take huge leaps with my buddies. I saw a lot more of them than I saw any sort of studio suits and luckily we happen to be working with a studio that's extraordinarily supportive of what we're doing, so they're massively pushing this flick -- it's everywhere, it's on every street corner and bus stop. I was just in New York last week and I've never seen anything like this, so for me it's pretty overwhelming, when I'm always fighting to have a 2×2 square ad in New York Times at best.
And another thing in relation to Judd, I've also noticed that the length of his movies seem to always be longer and I don't know whether that's just how it happens...
Green: I will say one thing -- I could shave a few minutes off this movie, I could, like people always talk about the director's cut being a little longer, the director's cut of this would probably be a couple of minutes shorter.
Is that something that Judd did or is it something that you did?
Green: Well, no, it's interesting, it's what I think is really successful about his process -- we do a lot of test screenings and when you try new things and new jokes... Like, you could take out a joke, or if I lifted some improv -- say we have some improv, but you got to get a running start up to it, there's probably 45 seconds you could trim, but then you get to the big joke. Sometimes my instinct is to say, well, let's just cut that joke after 45 seconds and the time and the rhythm is a little more valuable, because then you play it for a crowd and they go bananas, so that joke is worth that 45 seconds. It's like the math of movies, which I didn't know anything about, but it is funny when you see the scores go up. And what are you going to do?
You're making a comedy, it's supposed to be an audience involved action comedy movie, you want people to be into it. The movie that people are jumping in and out of their seats about is the one that -- it's hard to argue with laughs. If it wasn't funny, nobody's laughing, they'd tell you, those focus groups can rip you a new asshole. But it's just fun finding the crowd, what the crowd likes, push some buttons, and I'm just really lucky that I got a lot of my sense of humor in there, because I didn't know that would fly. I didn't know that you could get away with Craig Robinson saying 'this is so exciting!' I literally didn't think you could say 'eat a box of nerds out of somebody's butthole' in a movie, and I'm just excited that people were supportive of that as an audience.
Now I've got some questions that we love asking auteurs like yourself. What's your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
Green: And location scouting. You get to knock on people's doors and go through their closets and shit. Even digging one step deeper than that, I just love being nosey and wandering around, I'm not an extrovert, I'm terrible at social stuff. But to sit and observe and learn from human behavior and to have people walk into a room and present themselves and their characters and their ideas, and ask them to try it like this, you're constantly learning about them, about yourself, about the project, about the characters. Going to locations, like, this is an amazing house, and why do these people have this weird shit all over the place, and it's literally, making movies is like a passport into just the craziest shit. I get to come to Comic-Con for free and they put me up in a hotel that's fancy and I get to go to film festivals and you get to go do weird shit and look at stuff and I just love -- the world is a zoo to me and it's confusing and baffling and highly entertaining, so aside from the production, which is all conveniently enjoyable, I like the observed kind of lifestyle that it supplies.
I've heard a lot of people say that editing is their favorite part.
Green: They just say that because they like to sit back and tell people what to do.
Well, they were telling me that the reason why they love it is because they finally get to see the movie come together...
Green: Air conditioning, ah fuck that!
And they get – yeah, it's like a vacation, they get to sit there, just eat food, and watch it.
Green: I love everything about making movies except credits. When you start to put the credits on the movie, everybody's like, 'not uh, my name needs to go first,' or 'how dare you put this order together.' Or like, 'don't I deserve the credit of this?' People get crazy over credits. I don't know if you've ever seen that go down, but it gets dramatic for no reason, except ego, and I don't like ego and greed – they piss me off real bad. I like working with creative crazy people and all that stuff, but when they get ego and greed, it makes me want to run away.
Not to spring this on you, but what are your five favorite movies of all time?
Green: Yeah! Oh no, the remake [joking].
I don't know, just making sure!
Green: And... Deliverance (1972). If I could put another one in there, I'd put Nashville (1975). And I'd put One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). And I'd put every other Jeff Bridge's movie... Just every Jeff Bridge's movie should be on the best movies ever made. All of them. Have you seen Stay Hungry? That has the greatest scene of any movie ever of like forty body builders in Speedos running down the city streets, it's amazing.
I'll write that down, have to check it out.
Green: You need to.
You just mentioned such a wide variety and the fact that you made Snow Angels – which is, this is a compliment though, one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen, but in a sense that this was so incredibly well made that I felt the emotions of everyone in it. And now you've made a movie where I've laughed my ass off the whole time.
Green: Just wait until one where I scare you until you poop your pants.
Exactly - are you ever going to do horror?
Green: I'm working on a horror movie now. And Danny McBride has just written this amazing fantasy movie about him fighting dragons.
Are you serious?
Green: Yea, we got that set up at Universal. We might call it Your Highness. It's amazing, about a prince that smokes weed and fights dragons.
Is it going to have actual CG dragons?
Green: No, creatures, there's a lot of creatures. No CG, like Ray Harryhausen. Stop motion stuff and then a lot of puppets and things, I don't know if anybody has been crazy enough to let us loose on that but we're working on a rewrite of that right now...
Oh, I just started an animated TV series that's pretty fun, we're doing a cartoon. I'm writing an arctic warfare movie. A remake of Six Pack, the old Kenny Rogers movie, I'm writing that right now. That's a fun one.
Is that in progress anywhere?
Green: What that? No, it's at Fox, it's about a kid pit crew at NASCAR.
Right. Is it going to be another kid's movie?
Green: Yeah, it's a kid's movie, it's like a family movie, it's about a bunch of crazy kids that run the show…
You've covered every last genre -- now you've got a kids movie in there!
Green: No, I know I've got another one in there. What else. I've pretty much gone through the shelves of the video store and I'm trying to make sure there's something representing all those. Oh, Danny and I just finished writing a shit-kicker demolition derby comedy. To start Danny as a demolition derby driver. That could be a lot of fun -- called The Precious View, about a crazy kid wrecking cars. We write all the time and we're just big nerds that think it's funny to have any opportunity and people are starting to pay us to do it, so we'll see how long that lasts. I hope this month goes well, it could open some doors. I don't think people are so excited about the returns financially of my previous films, but maybe this one will step it up a notch.
Is there anything you haven't mentioned or is there a dream genre, like you're ultimate favorite genre?
Green: My favorite genre?
Or do you not have one?
Green: No, I mean I'm a pretty well rounded nerd. But I am -- what I want to do -- I want to start a direct-to-video action movie label to start making low-budget movies. My friend and I have just finished a couple of scripts: One in the Chamber and Obstruction of Justice, and we're working on Chain of Command right now and Bite the Bullet -- it's a franchise of cheap action movie hero kind of stuff, that would just be a ton of fun, take the pressure off, just make something and just travel the world and have real choreographed fights. I get tired of movies now that have fights because you don't ever see where the punches are, because it's all sound design and switching cameras. I don't care if they're good actors, I just want people who can really fight in a movie, just get a bunch of stuntmen to act in it, it'd be great.
I must say, I never would have expected to go to a comedy and have that much fun watching the action, like all the scenes at the end in the barn.
Green: Yeah, I was just too much fun to do that.
Did you just get a bunch of guns and just put blanks in them and run around and just shoot each other the whole time?
Green: Yea -- the funnest thing is we got to go to gun training and shoot all these amazing guns. And I'm just like yeah, I'm a servant to reality, I need to know how these work. We got a video tape of that. That's fun.
That's awesome, are you going to put that in the DVD then?
Green: It is, yeah. The DVD should have some fun, crazy behind the scenes antics. But yeah, it was a great time making the movie and hopefully I can continue to have fun and making a living, keep me off the streets.
Thanks to David Gordon Green at everyone at Sony for arranging this interview! It was definitely an honor to talk with Green and I hope to catch up with him more in the future! Be sure to check out Pineapple Express in theaters this week.