Few could have predicted the strange path David Gordon Green’s career would follow after his beloved 2000 debut George Washington, a moody, gorgeous art film that won the young filmmaker favorable comparisons to Terrence Malick. Green followed the film with a trio of critically acclaimed dramas: the 2003 romantic drama All The Real Girls, which gave a big boost to the careers of stars Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, and Danny McBride; 2004’s Undertow, a mythic tale of familial revenge produced by Malick; and the grim 2007 literary adaptation Snow Angels. Just when it seemed like the director was destined for a career as a low-budget arthouse auteur, revered by critics and politely ignored by audiences, he delivered a curveball in the form of 2008’s Pineapple Express, a goofy stoner action-comedy starring and co-written by Seth Rogen. It made Green an unlikely hitmaker and paved the way for the next phase in his career.
Pineapple Express also marked a reunion with Green’s buddy and close collaborator Danny McBride, who co-wrote and starred in Green’s next big studio film, the stoner fantasy comedy Your Highness. McBride also co-created the cult HBO series Eastbound & Down, which Green has worked on extensively as both a director and a consulting producer. Your Highness earned Green the worst reviews of his career, and his follow-up, the ribald 1980s-style comedy The Sitter, didn’t fare much better.
But Green’s latest effort, the lovely, modest, haunting character study Prince Avalanche, is rightfully being hailed as a return to form. The film casts Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as strikingly different men who bond while working in the woods together in the 1980s. Green is following that film with another intriguing change of pace, the gothic drama Joe, starring Nicolas Cage. The Dissolve spoke with Green in Chicago about going small, his desire to be disappear into his work, and working with both Clint Eastwood and Mr. Peanut.
The Dissolve: How did Prince Avalanche come about?
David Gordon Green: The film came about when I found this location. I live outside Austin, and there was this spectacular, very devastating wildfire. And several months later, I was wandering around in the remnants of the fire in a state park in Bastrop, Texas, and thought it seemed like a very cinematic, haunted place to make a movie. I was trying to come up with a great character piece that I could do there very quickly, before all the seedlings were replanted. And then I was introduced to this Icelandic film Either Way, and at first, I thought, “This is a very inspiring movie for the kind of project I want to make.” And then by the end of the movie, I thought, “I just want to fucking remake this movie and put my signature on it, and adapt it to my sensibilities, and relocate it to this location.”
The Dissolve: What about the film, beyond the location and the general gist, made you want to do a remake, as opposed to a film in the same vein?
Green: Well, their location was the vast, bleak landscapes of Iceland—very empty. And in our location, I think there was a great, dark, haunted quality, so it brought a melancholy tone immediately to the translation. But their movie had a great relationship between the two guys, and it played within a traditional Odd Couple dynamic, but felt fresh. And for my personal taste, there was a great balance of comedy and drama. And it all felt very real—never a comedy for the sake of jokes, but there was a sense of humor and lightness to it; never an emotion to feel manipulated, but there was substance as well.
The Dissolve: Was it a conscious decision to make more of a character-based, smaller, more intimate film, after the last couple of films you’ve done?
“I'm trying to think of anything more insightful that would connect them, but I really can't. Just like a great character actor, I like to disappear into my movies.”
Green: That’s what I wanted to do: something that, logistically, was very minimal. So, literally, I called some of my collaborators and great friends and said, “Let’s go…” You know, there are several projects that I’ve tried to make over the last 12 years of my career that have just been a lot of talking about it, trying to find money for it, money falling through, an actor bails at the last minute, or the actor’s not valuable enough to make the movie happen. And all this kind of shit that gets really frustrating if you’re sitting in my seat.
I had just gotten through one of those experiences and thought, “You know what? I want to start making this movie in this place right now.” That was February of 2012 when the idea hit, and in July, we were sound-mixing the movie. It was just amazingly quick. Where usually people don’t even write a draft of a screenplay in that period of time, this was all tidied, wrapped up, and fine-tuned.
The Dissolve: It seems like there were a lot of fortuitous coincidences in the making of the film.
Green: Absolutely. And certainly within the collaboration of people, that was true. But then also the fact that it rained on the day we were doing the pantomime scene in this burned-down place. It was just this beautiful—it couldn’t have been better from a production-design standpoint. It just adds this great, melancholy glow to the film to have little droplets of water under Paul [Rudd]’s feet as he’s doing this little pantomime scene. Everything from the weather to introducing this woman we happened upon who was looking through the ashes of her home for her pilot’s license—we met this woman and integrated her into the movie. Things like that that weren’t in the script. And, yeah, “fortuitous” is the right word. It was just brilliant timing and really flexible and intelligent people having a good time making a movie.
The Dissolve: You’ve been attached to a lot of projects that did not come to completion. When you look back at your career, how much of it is determined by desire and how much by circumstances, what can get made, and the vagaries of the film industry?
Green: The reality is that there’s always the business side of things. And so if you think about the property value, the marquee value, and the budget in certain contexts, you know whether you’re going to make something responsible and respectful of the business at that time. A Confederacy Of Dunces is a movie I’ve tried for a number of years to make, but the politics and expense of making a movie—it’s a period piece in New Orleans, this strange, ensemble character piece that’s not spearheaded by a huge movie star—became detrimental to trying to make that movie.
The Dissolve: Wasn’t Will Ferrell attached to that?
Green: It was before Elf, and no one would bet on him. And then he became “Will Ferrell,” and then that was kind of inappropriate for our movie. [Laughs.] So it’s all about timing in that sense… I remember screening Elf several months before it came out in hopes that these producers would embrace what Will had done. Because we did a stage reading, and it was brilliant, and we were really hoping we could get the financial entities to embrace a Will Ferrell movie of this budget. I was like, “This movie is fucking funny, it’s going to be a huge hit.” And obviously it was, but then things changed. So there’s always these strange factors that go into making movies. Mostly it’s about timing and respect for the business at the time. Avalanche was great, and it could come together really quickly, because it cost very little money and had Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in it. So everything made sense, and we knew realistically that that was not going to be a risky financial investment, so we could find money in 24 hours rather than 24 months.
The Dissolve: Even if the money people don’t understand it, you can just put Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch on a DVD box, and it can make a profit.
Green: On Pineapple Express, for example, it was a controversy at that time to cast James Franco in the movie, because his recent films as a movie star were films like Flyboys and Annapolis, and we wanted him to be the sidekick in a huge comedy. So they gave us the budget of a movie that they knew, as long as we promised to have a lot of weed in it, worst-case scenario, they could market it on video and get potheads to buy it, and they’d be fine. So they gave us that budget to make a movie, and I was always very respectful of it. I thought it was actually smart to do so, because we were taking a lot of risks in our casting and content that might not have hit. Luckily, at the end of the day, we were able to inject enough spectacle into the movie and have some action sequences and things. For a modest-budgeted comedy, that was unique. And then the movie was really successful, I think, in part due to the risks we took. It exceeded the necessary audience. And you hope a movie like Prince Avalanche can exceed the necessary audience, and that it can invite people that are fans of my more intimate, independent-minded dramas, but also some of the studio comedies I’ve done. I think there’s a middle ground that projects like Prince Avalanche and Eastbound & Down dabble in, having some melancholy tones and some dramatic elements, but also making sure there’s a sense of humor kept in check.
The Dissolve: It seems like that was something you were really frustrated with, that you made these films that were beloved and critically acclaimed, but that didn’t reach a wider audience.
Green: To a large degree, I do believe in that phrase that success is something you give yourself. Early in my career, I think I made the choices that were very reasonable at that time, and made movies I was really passionate about, rather than ones that were aiming for the big studio game right out of the gate. It’s probably a benefit to the fact that they didn’t make much money—or they didn’t make any money, really—but the fact that they didn’t meant nobody was begging me to go make a big movie. I think a lot of guys that make their first independent-minded movie that’s a big breakout get snatched and thrown immediately into a very aggressive, commercial world, which can be very dangerous if you haven’t built the confidence in yourself and your collaborators, and the experience to know how to navigate a little more. I think my greatest asset is my failures.
The Dissolve: What do you mean by that?
Green: Meaning I had four movies that were commercially unsuccessful, and I was able to continue making things, and committed to continually making things at any cost, and learning from that. Getting confident about what I like and what I don’t like, who I like and who I don’t like, who I respect and don’t like, where money is necessary and unnecessary not only in productions, but also in my pocket, and being able to make those calls without having the pressure of high-powered producers and studio executives and accountants and big money in your pocket, and the responsibility that means you need to buy a fancy car, and things like that. People get caught up in a lot of that stuff that wasn’t available to me and wasn’t interesting to me. So that was a nice way to ease into a career from an outsider’s perspective, and really keep my friends close to me.
If you make an independent movie and it’s really successful right out of the gate, your next movie is going to have the best DP and huge studio-executive notes. All these things that are conditioning you, gearing you, navigating you toward this bigger prize, where, with me, people have really always, my entire career, left me alone. Nobody’s ever messed with my cuts, or told me I could or couldn’t have something in a movie, because I just don’t think that would go down well. I really like the collaborative element of discussing this and that, and introducing it to an audience and introducing it to your friends, and working that way, from the inside out, rather than trying to make box-office gold as the most important thing.
The Dissolve: Looking back at your films, they’re very, very different. Looking at Snow Angels and Your Highness…
Green: Great double feature, by the way.
The Dissolve: What do you see as the connective tissue between them, beyond you as a director?
Green: I don’t know that it goes any farther than me and my involvement. I’d say the connective tissue would be me, my DP, and my production sound mixer. And we have such varied tastes in movies and music, and things we like and want to explore—we have such diverse curiosity in this industry—I don’t think you could find two movies farther apart from each other. I’m trying to think of anything more insightful that would connect them, but I really can’t. Just like a great character actor, I like to disappear into my movies. I’m not a filmmaker that comes with this big fingerprint of, “This is the type of film I make. I’m Alfred Hitchcock, and expect to be thrilled out of your seats and scared shitless.” It’s actually weird—this is the first time I’ve ever seen my name on a movie poster, and it’s strange to me, because I like the idea of the anonymity of filmmaking—of saying, “Go watch a Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch movie.” Screw that. Go watch a movie called Prince Avalanche and know nothing about it, and I think you’ll be seduced by the movie.
The Dissolve: At the beginning of your career, you were definitely heralded as an auteur in the same vein as Terrence Malick.
Green: I guess, but I’ve never taken a “Film By” credit. I think that’s a weird… I like to share a credit. Even on George Washington, I wrote it and directed it, and I share the first title card with the cinematographer. You know, just making sure everybody knows this is not just one dude. Because the auteur idea feels very arrogant to me. I think that’s a guy who needs a lot of love.
The Dissolve: Why do you think that feels arrogant?
“I think my greatest asset is my failures.”
Green: Because it’s one guy taking credit for a job 700 people did. It’s weird to me. I’ve worked on assembly lines before. I would zip the Ziploc bags to put syringes in. And I know the head of the corporation of the syringe company could not have existed if it wasn’t for me, because I had to medically seal these bags, and if I didn’t, he wasn’t going to look good. And so why that guy gets to make 20 times the money and get all the credit for his syringe company when I’m one of the guys on the assembly line—I just have a great appreciation for the guys supporting that guy. Certainly [he has] a lot more pressure on his shoulders—which, on movies, the director definitely does. A lot of these guys are going to work all the time regardless of the success or failure of Prince Avalanche, where people are going to look at this critically and commercially as if I’m responsible. So there’s less pressure on those guys, but if those guys do their job great, it’s going to make me look good, so I would like to show them as much respect by having a big—I saw a movie recently that had a “Film By” credit with just a shitload of names on it. There’s some movie recently that did that, and I thought that was really cool.
The Dissolve: Scott Tobias here at The Dissolve suggested that the connective tissue between all of the films you’ve done is a sense of play.
Green: That’s interesting.
The Dissolve: Would you agree with that?
Green: I would. Even in dramatic works—look at a movie like Snow Angels. I put Nicky Katt and Amy Sedaris in that movie because they’re playful and humorous, and they have a sense of life and lightness. Even [Sam] Rockwell is like a great comedian. I put funny people in dramatic roles. A new movie I just finished with Nicolas Cage—it’s like, this dude cracks me up till I piss my pants, and yet we’re going into very dark territory with his character. And I just don’t think I can go to dark places with people that bum me out. [Laughs.] So I think I do have that playful quality. Everyone on my sets has an enormous amount of fun, from the absolute chaos and antics of Eastbound & Down to a movie like Avalanche, where it’s just an intimate group of friends shooting the shit and going out for burgers and beer at the end of the day.
The Dissolve: You’ve also directed a lot of commercials. Is it appealing, doing that almost completely anonymously? I didn’t know, for instance, that you directed the Clint Eastwood/Chrysler commercial.
Green: That’s a great commercial to reference, because I think it inspired this movie. It was done with this very hands-on, small unit of collaborators. We each got in a van and we started making this commercial. We shot that for 12 days; we shot this in 16. Actually, at the Super Bowl party where I was watching that commercial for the first time, the drummer, Chris Hrasky, from Explosions in the Sky—I was watching it with the band—and he told me about this place to go visit, this park. So that commercial experience fed into this. So I went to visit this park at Chris’ request after seeing that commercial, because I was telling him about the production of the commercial, and he said, “You should make a movie that way in this place.” So it fed the machine that way. But the beauty of that, not only in that specific commercial, I get to work with an icon—like, one of the living icons of this industry—but I also got to see America in a new way.
I had access to everything, from automotive factories to slums of New Orleans and the beauty of San Francisco and brickyards and things like that. We really explored this country with a camera, in a way I hadn’t ever done before, and had access to places that you don’t really have as a guy just wandering around in somebody’s neighborhood. It was really beautiful to be able to find stories and images of people’s lives that way. And commercials are a different thing. I’m just finishing up a new Planters campaign with Mr. Peanut. We’re doing stop-motion animation with Laika, the company that did ParaNorman and Coraline, so I’m getting into the world of claymation with the guy that was the art director on Fantastic Mr. Fox. So I’m learning all about all this stuff, and working with Bill Hader as the new voice. And it’s just a fun education for me to be able to integrate live-action and stop-motion in a way I’ve only read about, or seen behind-the-scenes about.
I did a bunch of Nike commercials and worked with guys like Kevin Durant, who are just athletic icons. And it’s fun to see how their minds work, and how their lives are so different, yet kind of similar and relatable to the world of moviemaking. So I think there’s a great exposure I get from commercials. Sometimes it’s the minute photography of, like, a Raisin Bran commercial—slow-motion shots of milk cascading out of a carafe, and exploring new ways to shoot and light food, to pick out every perfect raisin, and things like that. There’s just always something different I’m looking to do. I just did a GE commercial down in Australia with Agent Smith from The Matrix, Hugo Weaving.
The Dissolve: Did it feel weird to be doing a commercial based on a film?
Green: Absolutely. I’m doing two more of them, too, though.
The Dissolve: Two more Agent Smith commercials?
Green: No, two new ones I’m not allowed to talk about yet, but they’re crazy and cool. For me, as a huge fan of movies and the experience of movies, to be able to work with iconic characters and actors, it’s just really fun.
The Dissolve: There’s an enforced succinctness. You get to tell a story in 30 or 60 seconds.
Green: It is. And the other appealing thing is, if they’re great, people will say, “Who directed that?” But if they aren’t that great, nobody says, “Hey, who directed that mediocre commercial?” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Considering the difficulty you’ve had getting films off the ground, how does it feel to now have two completed films that haven’t been released yet? It seems like with you, it’s either feast or famine.
Green: The funnier one was when Snow Angels and Pineapple came out, one was in April and the other was August, it was like back-to-back those movies, because again, those contrast each other a great deal. Tonal whiplash. Where Joe and Avalanche are kind of companion pieces. Nicolas Cage helped me scout locations for this movie. He was out in the forest, and then we actually overlapped some of the locations. We shot a lot of that movie in Bastrop, where we shot this movie. Lance LeGault, the older gentleman that comes by with the moonshine in this movie, we put some of his music in Joe. Joe is about a tree-poisoner and his band of guys that poison trees for the lumber companies, and this is about the post-catastrophe of basically a genocide of a pine forest. So there’s a lot of these kind of strange, very natural overlaps in what the films are, although that movie is far darker in tone, and grittier, and based on an amazing novel as source material. They feel like perfect movies to come out around the same time.
The Dissolve: How important is critical opinion to you?
Green: I mean, to be totally honest, I don’t read reviews, because they always make me feel weird. If my mom sends me one, I’ll read it, because she’ll send me something that is really insightful, or at least properly spellchecked. She sends me reviews occasionally that I really like, and that doesn’t mean they’re kissing my ass, but there’s something—if it has some sort of insight into the way I work, or something points at my work in a unique way, rather than just if they liked it or not, then… I don’t know that I gain a whole lot by critical opinion. Unless there’s something educational, or like, a good essay about a film or a series of films. People have sent me a few things over the years that I thought were nice in how they do look at parallels between films, because I don’t really look at my own work that analytically. I wake up and I work because that’s what I do when I get up in the morning, and sometimes that’s comedy, and sometimes it’s not.
The Dissolve: It’s more of an instinctive thing?
Green: Yeah, totally instinctive. And it’s so rapid-fire. I’ve got so much momentum to productivity, that I think if I really reflected on someone that didn’t like my movie, or if I really felt that great ego boost by someone that loved my movie, I think that would probably make me think too much. Somebody recently told me, “If you believe the good, you’ve got to believe the bad.” And I’d rather believe my friends. [Laughs.] And I’ve become friends with critics, too, and those guys, I do read. Even if they’re writing something negative, I think, if I have a relationship with a writer or journalist, sometimes I do keep up with their writing on me. And it’s not always necessarily pretty, and it doesn’t always make you feel great, but there’s a certain vulnerability there that you just expect as part of the job.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked about having mixed feeling about the test-screening process—
Green: I’ve talked about it? What did I say about it?
The Dissolve: Specifically in regards to the final cut of The Sitter, how there were eight minutes or so that were cut that you really liked.
Green: There’s a lot of crazy, dark stuff that’s not in that movie. But I’m not critical of that. I chose to use it in making that movie, but it did not dictate my choices for me.
The Dissolve: Which of your films have been test-screened? Prince Avalanche doesn’t feel something that would be.
Green: No, no. Pineapple, Your Highness, and The Sitter. I feel like there’s a great value in big-budget comedic movies being test-screened in front of an audience, so you don’t just put your self-indulgent sense of humor on a movie that may cost tens of millions of dollars. Because I think with a comedy, it is very apparent in a room if it’s connecting with an audience. A drama is quieter, and I don’t think I could put myself up to that in a dramatic effort. But I think for comedy, it’s really valuable, because there’s things I would edit out of a movie that a crowd will go apeshit over and love, and I want to make sure they have that opportunity and that experience.
There’s a couple of scenes in Pineapple that feel off for pacing reasons, and I would have lifted them out, because I don’t necessarily think they’re that beneficial, and it’s smoother without it. But then you’ll show it to an audience, and they get a huge laugh out of it, and you think, “That’s great. I guess they’re not being bumped by it like I am.” So you’ll put it in. And that movie had a few of those. I think that movie is about four or five minutes too long. But it really works, and it connects with people enough, so if my goal in that movie is to have everybody have a great time, then that’s what it is. So I learn a lot from it, and invite the process. But I wouldn’t do it on a movie like Prince Avalanche or Joe, because those movies were made more with me and my intimate group of collaborators as our ultimate critics, trying to design something we really feel like we want to unleash on the audience, without necessarily as much commercial consideration.