Arkansas-born, Texas-raised writer-director David Gordon Green made a deep, lasting impression with his 2000 feature debut, George Washington, a lyrical, elusive movie about kids in rural North Carolina. Green followed it with three more acclaimed indie dramas, All The Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels, before veering into comedy with the 2008 film Pineapple Express. Given Green’s long association with Danny McBride and Jody Hill—with whom he’s also worked on the HBO series Eastbound & Down—that wasn’t as radical a change as it seemed at the time, and he’s since made big comedies (Your Highness, The Sitter) and small dramas like 2013’s Prince Avalanche. Now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and home-video streaming sources, Joe is Green’s latest, and one of his best: This adaptation of a Larry Brown novel features intense performances from young star Tye Sheridan and Nicolas Cage, who’s clearly savoring a chance to dig into a complex character.
Pete’s Dragon (1977)
David Gordon Green: I saw my first film when I was 2 weeks old. My parents took me to see Young Frankenstein. And I was told that I didn’t sleep or cry during the movie. That’s sort of a strange way to start my obsession with movies, but was nonetheless satisfying. By the time I was 5, I was watching a crapload of movies. Any time I could kick and scream and get my way to a movie screen was pretty awesome. At that point, it was right when VHS was coming out, and I remember the library had a very small collection of VHS cassettes—this is when they were a size of a car. So I watched Pete’s Dragon a lot. I think when I was 5, Pete’s Dragon was probably my favorite movie. I still remember all the songs. I probably haven’t seen it in 30 years, but as a kid, that was a very instrumental movie. Also, when you’re a kid, you watch the same movie over and over, especially when the library has such a small collection of options.
First Blood (1982)
Green: By the time I was 10, I was in Dallas. Actually, when I was 5 I would’ve been in Dallas too, so that would’ve been the Richardson Public library, where I spent most of my youth until high school. I became obsessed with Sylvester Stallone, and loved Rambo. First Blood was my favorite movie. I wasn’t allowed to see it. The neighbor two doors down from me, his parents were very open-minded about the films we could watch over there. So I would go over and watch First Blood a lot. I also had a poster for First Blood that my parents didn’t like. But I made a deal: There were certain chores that were beyond my regular chores that if I did for a month, they would allow me to put a First Blood poster on my wall. So that was in my bedroom. A picture of Sylvester Stallone and a machine gun is pretty much any kid’s dream.
The Dissolve: What do you think about the movie appealed to you at 10?
Green: I definitely remember being emotional about it. I think that’s probably around the time when Rambo: First Blood Part II came out. I didn’t respond to it as well because I thought it was more of just a straight-up action movie. It became like a patriotic franchise. But the first one had this really human story. I was a pretty sensitive kid, and I wasn’t just looking for the big explosions. I like great acton movies, but I think it had something a little more deep and interesting, kind of a haunted tone. I really liked John Rambo.
The Dissolve: The original novel ended with Rambo dying. As a filmmaker now, do you think that would’ve been a better choice for that first film?
Green: Not necessarily. I’ve thought about it. I was up in the location where they shot it, actually, walking down that highway a couple weeks ago. So I’ve been thinking about revisiting it in my head. There’s something beautiful and poignant to the ending that doesn’t seem so—I think it made the right choice for the film. Reading books, you can go to pretty upsetting places a little more casually. I just dealt with this myself in Joe—dealt with changing the ending a little from the ending of the book—and it wasn’t necessarily for the audience appeal. It’s kind of just what feels right for the character we’ve followed through the movie. You don’t ever just want to tack on a Hollywood ending or a crowd-pleasing ending, or something that feels cathartic for the character in one way or another, or leaves it open, or with a sense of hope. I was always very satisfied with the way First Blood ended.
Harold And Maude (1971)
Green: At 15, I started discovering movies of the ’70s. My parents sent me to a Jesuit school in Dallas because I had been getting in trouble, and I didn’t really have any friends at this school. So I became much more of a recluse. It was an all-boys Catholic school, and I was definitely not fitting into the athletic agendas, or some of the social agendas, or the religious agendas of the school there. I definitely retreated into my own head, and pretty much absorbed every contemporary film. I was reading a lot about movies, and discovering movies and filmmakers from the ’70s. Harold And Maude was the first one. I remember watching it, that first time, three times in a row. It opened up a whole other level of emotion and humor: the dark comedy, the challenging themes of “Are you supposed to be laughing, or is this supposed to be upsetting?” I just loved where that movie took me tonally. I had already had the seeds of wanting to make movies planted, but that was one where I first started thinking, “Oh, I could write something like this. These are worlds I could create. It doesn’t take a zillion dollars to produce.” So Harold And Maude was a really inspiring character piece, which of course then opens the doors to all Hal Ashby’s work.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The Dissolve: Were you still in a ’70s phase at 20, or did you shift gears?
Green: Nah, I was still in the ’70s phase. I think at 20, I started getting into—maybe it’s a cliche—A Clockwork Orange. That became a huge one for me. Something that was shocking, and some people hated it, and others obsessed over it. That would still play in theaters pretty regularly at midnight shows. I was at University Of Texas for a little bit, and I remember seeing that in the theater. There was just a point where I started thinking, “Okay, now beyond the accessibility of movies, there’s also these… This is just a bold movie.” It was made many years before, but it’s just as shocking and psychedelic and psychological as any movie anybody was making in the early 2000s.
The Dissolve: My feelings on that film have been all over the place over the years, from respect to repulsion, then back. Have your feelings on it changed at all?
Green: I was incredibly disturbed by it. I think I hated it, in fact. It’s one of those things where you are drawn to something you’re repulsed by. I mean, there’s nothing more disturbing than many of those compositions: the slant in Malcolm McDowell’s eyes, and the way [Kubrick] uses the zoom lens in that movie… It’s beyond Beethoven. It just masterfully gets under your skin. There are these—and I say the same thing about Wild At Heart—there are these movies that you don’t go around quoting them and telling your buddies, you’re not revisiting it and acting it out, you’re just being fucked-up by a movie. For some weird reason, you’re one of the people who likes to get fucked-up by a movie. I felt that way when I saw Enter The Void, which I still haven’t necessarily wrapped my head around. But it’s like, “I don’t know where you’re taking me, but I’m going to just hope I survive.”
The Dissolve: Did you know at that point that you’d be making films?
Green: At 20, I was in film school at North Carolina. I left University Of Texas in Austin and went to North Carolina and was starting to make my own strange little short films at school, and meeting my collaborators that I was going to be working with for the next 20 years. That was a very pivotal time. I was working at a film archive. It was the largest Technicolor collection in the world, and I was discovering movies like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. There was a point in my appetite that I was looking beyond just the movies I liked, but researching and reading about the movies and the people that I liked like. So if I liked Taxi Driver, I’d read about Michael Powell. This kind of started the reverse history of cinema.
The Dissolve: That’s what’s great about getting into someone like Scorsese: He’s very vocal about his influences, and he wants other people to experience the films that made him the kind of filmmaker he is.
Green: I love the loudmouthed filmmakers that let you in on things. Reading books about John Cassavetes, and then you look at a movie like On The Bowery. You start to see what the seeds of influence and inspiration were for filmmakers you admired. I still do that. It’s cool to watch and learn and see the tricks, or be like, “Hey, man, nobody in the world knows where he ripped that off except me and like, eight people.”
Angelo My Love (1983)
Number One (1976)
The Dissolve: By this point, your first feature, George Washington, was out. What was changing about the way you looked at movies?
Green: I was meeting filmmakers around the world. That year, I went to 17 different countries with that movie, traveled the world with it. I was in Edinburgh, and meeting Wong Kar-wai and Lynne Ramsay. I remember that was one night. And Jem Cohen, and learning about experimental film and these guys that worked off arts grants and lived their lives on the festival circuit. I was with a guy last night that I met doing that, Amir Bar-Lev. It’s fun talking through how crazy our lives have been since the year 2000. That was a fun reflection.
So I was seeing movies internationally all over the world. You meet somebody, and then you end up going to see their movie, which can be really awkward if it sucks. But in a lot of ways, it was a really inspiring year. It’s also weird, because I was among a lot of these guys. I remember going to the New York Film Critics dinner and I’m looking in the front row and there’s Benicio del Toro and Tom Hanks. I’m way out of my league and way overwhelmed, and sharing a table with Peter Bogdanovich. It was just the funkiest, weirdest place for a film-obsessed 25-year-old to be thrown.
The Dissolve: But if you had to narrow it down to one film…
Green: If I had to narrow it down to one film… I met Robert Duvall in a hotel lobby. I knew he had made The Apostle, and I was a fan of this film he made called Tomorrow. And I told him I loved Tomorrow, imagining that’s not a movie a lot of people go up to him about, so I was trying to think of what would make me cool. And he was like, “That’s cool that you saw that movie. But if you really want to get on my good side, you should’ve told me how much you love Angelo My Love.” I had not seen Angelo My Love. And of course, the second he went in the elevator, I was scrambling to find this movie I had never heard of. It was the first film he directed.
It’s one of the great movies of all time. It’s the best child performance in the history of movies, Angelo Evans in that movie. It’s about gypsy culture in New York City, and it’s just mind-blowing. It’s very difficult to find still. And through the wormhole you get into when you start digging about great child performances, I found maybe the greatest undiscovered movie of all time, called Number One. Have you heard of this movie? Dyan Cannon directed it. It’s 45 minutes long. She made it as an AFI student film. It was nominated for a Best Short Film Oscar. For most of my career, I’ve been making movies that have kids in some capacity. My first film certainly had a lot of youthful performances, and then I saw the power of what you could achieve with kids, letting them be even freer to be themselves, which Angelo My Love and Number One really did. I could spend the rest of my life trying to achieve what those guys did and never get there, because they are so amazing.
Titicut Follies (1967)
Belfast, Maine (1999)
Green: At 30, I was getting into Frederick Wiseman documentaries, and watching more painterly movies. I would probably put Peter Greenaway in that same category of movies that you can just stare at. I watched Titicut Follies over and over. I think that was definitely a phase, where I could sit and watch Belfast, Maine for five hours and take the journey with Wiseman, kind of explore something of myself in the process.
The Dissolve: Do you feel that influence crept into the films you were making at that time?
Green: With Pineapple Express, probably not. But I’ve always had an appreciation for what I’m not doing, and a jealousy of what I could be doing. Who’s content with what they are doing?
El Topo (1970)
The Holy Mountain (1973)
Green: Okay. Where was I living in 2010? I was living in L.A. editing [Your Highness]. I got really into Jodorowsky movies. That’s probably the first time I ever watched The Holy Mountain and El Topo. I started getting into the surrealism of those. Which I think probably in a strange way did find its way into Your Highness.
The Dissolve: Did you see them screened or on DVD?
Green: There was a screening at the New Beverly of Holy Mountain that I saw. Then I just kind of went apeshit and pretended I’d known him all along. It was later in my life than I’d like to admit to stumbling onto him. I’ve been trying to go to Paris so he could tell my my fortune.
The Dissolve: That brings us up the present. Any other movies you want to talk about?
David Gordon Green: At this point, at 39 years old, I have 3-year-old twin boys and I’m watching The Lego Movie and Mighty Machines and Rio 2. [William] Friedkin was in Austin last week showing Sorcerer, which I haven’t seen in 15 years, and I missed it to watch some animated frolicking-fest. Kind of shows the strange turns in an artist’s life.
The Dissolve: When it comes to introducing movies to your kids, how do you do it?
Green: Some of it is timing. I’m pretty enthusiastic about the Star Wars series, which is going into production at a point where I think they’ll like it. I’d like to enjoy them with my kids like I enjoyed the originals with my dad. I kind of keep pretty sterile on what I introduce them to. Like, we watch Microcosmos a lot. You go into the Netflix wormhole of that, and then there’s a lot of really amazing nature documentaries. I watch great Disney movies from my childhood that are all on Netflix too, like Aristocats and Robin Hood. I like the old-school animation, and I like the music. The music in the animated Robin Hood is incredible. There’s a great spirit to the style and atmosphere of those movies. I can watch those and not roll my eyes, whereas if I turn on even PBS and see some of that weird, new 3-D animation they have, it kind of makes me roll my eyes. I definitely try to keep it as old-school with my kids as possible. But then it’s fun to go to the theater, especially living in Austin, and going to the Alamo Drafthouse and getting a pizza and popcorn and watching Rio 2.