Interview: Filmmaker David Gordon Green of 'Prince Avalanche' & 'Joe'
by Alex Billington
August 16, 2013
Back in early 2007, when I was attending my very first Sundance Film Festival, one of the first filmmakers I ever met was David Gordon Green. I had just caught the world premiere of his depressing but well-made film Snow Angels, and was honored to be speaking the guy behind that. Over the last six years I've followed David's career closely, falling in love with his mainstream stoner comedy Pineapple Express, questioning his choices but enjoying Your Highness & The Sitter, and finally coming to admire his return to indie form with two films this year - Prince Avalanche, starring Emile Hirsch & Paul Rudd, and Joe, starring Nic Cage & Tye Sheridan (premiering at TIFF). I met up with David in NYC recently for a chat about his latest movies.
Although Prince Avalanche first premiered at Sundance in January, I didn't catch it until the Tribeca Film Festival in April. It's a much more lightweight, focused story about two guys working on painting a road in the middle-of-nowhere Texas. But there's so many layers and depth to it, from the context of the film to the performances and all of the dialogue and conversations the two are having. I was fascinated by it and found myself revisiting it for a second time just before speaking with David for this interview. I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time and I recommend it to anyone who admires intimate, smart and contemplative films.
My first question: how did you go from Snow Angels and George Washington in the indie world, then to Hollywood, and now you're bouncing back to the indie world? Why did you do that and why are you back now and what happened inbetween?
David Gordon Green: Great question. Well, after Snow Angels I felt like I had exhausted an emotional chapter of my life of making dramatic independent movies. I knew there was something very vast and exciting and hungry to make something comedic and to make something accessible to a wider audience. It was literally a conversation I had with my agent. I'm sitting in the frozen landscape of Halifax, Nova Scotia shooting a movie that's incredibly dramatic material and very dark subject matter, and my agent says, "What do you want to do next?" I said, "I want to make a big studio comedy with some action, and I want to shoot it in somewhere with a nice climate."
And so, he said, "Okay. We'll figure that out." I think he kinda didn't really know how that game plan was going to work out. And then Danny McBride had just finished Foot Fist Way. I remember, actually, I was shooting Snow Angels when that premiered at Sundance. That was a big deal when that movie started coming together. And Danny knows me really well. We went to college together. And he knew I had this great urge to make a comedy.
And so, after Foot Fist came out, he started making the rounds and talking to all the people of the comedy world. You know, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow, and Seth. They were making Knocked Up at the time and they were talking to Danny. He said, "Well, you know what you should do? You should hire David to make one of these movies you guys are cooking up." And then my agent followed up and I got a meeting and went out and hung out with them on the set of Knocked Up. And… watching them make that movie, it was really striking to me how similar their process was to what I was doing. And what they were doing in big budget comedies is what I was doing in micro budget indie films.
In terms of improv?
DGG: Yeah. The whole process. You know, I would watch him and he'd be talking over the take and say, "okay, now try it like this" without a formal reset; shooting two cameras at a time to try to make sure you get your side of the conversation and my side of the conversation. And so, it was really kind of exciting to see something that wasn't out of my wheelhouse.
Then it came together very quickly. There was no formal pitch to Sony. There was no presentation or argument about why me. The script to Pineapple [Express] showed up on my doorstep and they said, "You want to do it?" And I said, "Are you kidding? Of course." [laughs]
Do you just want to direct something that's fun, and cool, and unique, with good people in it? Is that always your main interest?
DGG: Yeah… For me personally?
DGG: I really look at my career like a character actor would. I like to disappear into my movies. You don't see "a film by" my name. This is weird. On [Prince] Avalanche it's the first time my name has been on a movie poster. And that was with some discussion. But I just feel it's a very collaborative art form. And I really like the anonymity of being a director. Otherwise, I'd be a movie star. And I have a drive and an incredible ambition. I would seek what I want and try to figure that out.
But I like to be anonymous. I like to just say, "Oh, I want to go make this…" And it's interesting now just in a day where the exposure of getting the awareness out of your film, where that meets the enthusiasm of the fan base of film. I'm a bigger fan of film than anyone in this city, so I know what both sides are like. But, for me it could be very frustrating because there's all this… Any time there's a seed of an idea there can be a headline about it or something. I'm just like, "Let me do my thing." [laughs]
Avalanche was a great experience because I just kinda told a few people we were going to go disappear into the woods and make this weird little movie. It's like, "Paul, I love your agent. Keep it quiet. Emile, you are one of my favorite people. Keep it quiet. Let's just get out there and really anonymously go make a movie that we don't have expectation of." It's a remake of an Icelandic film [Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's Either Way], so we had this great framework and a blueprint that we were very confident we could make a wonderful character piece within that architecture. But I didn't know if we were making a comedy. I didn't know if we were making a drama. And I still don't. Sometimes I watch it and I think it's really funny and sometimes I just go into the emotional side of the film.
And I love the organic process that's not burdened by expectation. So it was really a refreshing project to return to the movies that no one's looking at in terms of the production period. Nobody is looking at us. You know, we're not going to go over budget because it cost $5 to make.
I'm returning to that period of modest expectation, but I'm returning with the confidence of a group of collaborators that are all incredible at their jobs now. So it's not like when we were making our first movie and I had to have anxiety and sleepless nights about my shot list, and would I get all my shots, and did I know how to cover this so the editor didn't hate me, and all these things that I had the neuroses of on my first few movies. I was really lucky to, on that studio step, to really work with incredible technicians, line producers, assistant directors, stunt coordinators, second unit directors, visual effects supervisors—all these guys that would just… a few years of incredible schooling that I got.
We're now in a world where you are the selling point for a film, and I want to see the next David Gordon Green movie…
DGG: That's the good part. [laughs]
That's what I was thinking when you mentioned you like the anonymous side of it. But the other thing that impresses me is that you work so fast. You have another film this year…?
DGG: Oh, yeah. Are you going to be in Venice or Toronto?
I'll be in Toronto. I'll be seeing it for sure.
How do you work so fast on these films? Are you just moving along, like you were saying, anonymously and you don't care? Just, "hey, this is my job…"
DGG: I want to be the Richard Jenkins of directors. Because he's like the best. He can be hilarious in Flirting with Disaster, and then he can move you in The Visitor and get prestige and acclaim. And then he can show up in a couple Coen Brothers movies. He's just such a stylist of a normal guy, that probably has a normal life and has normal people problems and doesn't get so caught up in it, but he works all the time. That's kind of what I aspire to be.
In that sense of bouncing around, do you expect to go back into Hollywood? Or do you expect to work wherever you can again? What is your future path like at the moment?
DGG: I have the big projects that I'm developing with studios and excited about doing it. A lot for me is momentum, though. I've always got multiple things happening. I've got Avalanche - which is about to come out. Last Friday I wrapped the new season of "Eastbound & Down", so we're editing that. I've got Joe about to unleash in Venice. I've got a Planter's Peanut commercial - it's a stop motion and I'm working with the guys at Laika in Oregon to do all the stop motion for Mr. Peanut. And then I'm in prep for this new movie I'm going to start as soon as I get back from Toronto.
And in the meantime you're seeing films and catching up with things, too?
DGG: Not that much. I'll tell you what the shittiest part is, is that last year… This sounds weird to say. It's not bragging, but I've rolled more film than I watched film last year. That was a weird benchmark for me to realize that my obsession and compulsion with making things has replaced my obsession and compulsion with watching films. But I mean I've been to a lot of the major film festivals from Sundance, and Berlin, and Tribeca this year, and others, SXSW. And I've probably only watched like 40 movies this year.
Well, hopefully you'll be able to see more soon. Are you going to see some in Toronto and Venice? I guess you won't have the time with a film playing…
DGG: Yeah, you don't have time. So you go to these things and you are hustling. The bottom line is I want to make things that find an audience. That may not be a huge audience, but I want to make something that is specific to myself and certain people's interests.
One thing I really love about your films is the way you cast people I wouldn't expect to be cast. Then, as I'm watching it, I am completely convinced they are perfect.
DGG: Well that's good.
And that happened with Prince Avalanche. I'm thinking, "Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch…?"
DGG: Who wants to see that? [laughs]
Well, I like them, but in this kind of film? Then I'm watching it, whatever you did, whatever performance you made sure to get out of them makes it work. But how do you make sure to find those people?
DGG: I remember having a… not an anxiety, but I remember having to deal with reactions that people had when I put James Franco was going to be in Pineapple Express. And people would go, "What are you working on?" I'd say, "I'm making Pineapple Express with Seth Rogen and James Franco." People are like, "The guy from Annapolis and Flyboys?" And I remember knowing… I felt so dirty that I knew how awesome he was and how funny he was in that movie. I was just like, "Just wait." Nobody knew what that was. The expectations of that movie were super low. They thought that was just going to be a little stoner pothead comedy or whatever.
But I think what really elevated that movie is Franco. It's like putting a twist on people's expectation of this, at that point, pretty boy actor. I knew from "Freaks & Geeks" and from my relationship with him that there was something so crazy and interesting woven in there that if I could just bring that out and have him act a little ridiculous it was going to be amazing. And I really credit that to opening people's eyes to that film that otherwise wouldn't have been interested if it was more obvious casting.
And so, I do like challenging an audience with unlikely casts. I think it's exciting to take Paul Rudd on an emotional journey and see behind his eyes. We know he's a great comedic actor and he's a very likeable, relatable actor. But to see something that… I think he goes through some emotions here that's really profound and relatable to me.
And Emile, who everyone thinks of as McCandless of Into the Wild, or Milk. You know, the dramatic work he's done is certainly more prevalent. But he's hilarious in the movie in a very subtle, strange way that makes me really happy just to think about. Every time I think about him sleeping standing up all night long in his kitchen, just standing there, like I can't help but smile at how stupid that is, or the fact that he doesn't know what a fucking chiropractor is. It's not comedy comedy. It's just stupid shit that makes me laugh. [laughs]
Do you want to do that for more actors? Like, Tye Sheridan in Joe, is that your hope for these people, to find some side of them that most people don't know about…?
DGG: Tye is incredible. And his role in Joe is incredibly different from Mud and Tree of Life. And Nicholas Cage has never acted like you will see him acting in Joe…
Really? For as many movies as he's been in?
DGG: He's made a lot of movies and he's acted like a lot of different things, and there's never been a Joe. And I'm thrilled for people to see that. He's really excited about it, too, which is cool. That whole experience of working with a guy that's that much of a pro but that hungry to reinvent himself and do something that he hasn't done before and challenge himself not only within the realm of the character, but take great risk… He used a venomous Cottonmouth snake as a prop in a scene. He is holding this thing that could kill him by the neck.
A real one?
DGG: A real venomous Cottonmouth snake. We have a rubber one and we have a Rat snake and things that we could use, and this one, dude just goes for it. And working with the beauty of an actor that is fearless, that does take chances outside of their obvious wheelhouse, it's the greatest thing you can do. And then, just in terms of the perception of the movie, if I'd had two comedians, you know, if it was Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, you'd think you'd have a pretty good grasp of the movie. But instead, put somebody that you have no fucking clue what a Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch movie will be like! [laughs] Arrogantly, that just kind of entertains me and it gives me an exercise in the production that I get really excited about.
If you can think of it, what is your favorite film you've seen in the last year out of all these festivals?
DGG: That's a great, great question. The last year… at festivals or just in general?
Well, unless there's something else you've really loved that you've seen otherwise.
DGG: See, I know I'm going to fucking forget the best one. Whatever I say I'll be mad at myself. [pauses] Maybe Beyond the Black Rainbow? Did you like it?
Yeah, I did. It was weird, but it's cool.
DGG: Yeah. See, I was just really hungry for that type of material. When I saw that I got very excited.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
DGG: Great talking to you, man.
Yeah, man. I'm sure I'll see you in Toronto.
DGG: Yeah, see you in Toronto. It will be cool. I hope you like Joe.
Thank you to David Gordon Green for his time, and to Brigade Marketing and Magnolia Pictures for arranging. Prince Avalanche is now playing in select theaters nationwide and is also available on iTunes & VOD. His next film Joe (first look here) will be premiering at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals this fall.