By Patrick James; photo by Fred Norris/HBO on August 5, 2013
David Gordon Green doesn’t like jokes. But the Arkansas-born, Texas-raised director sees the humor in daily life, and he knows how to harness it to make people laugh (or cry, depending on the moment). Between 2000 and 2007, Green wrote and directed four films that quietly solidified him as one of America’s most promising creative artists. What stands out about this early body of work is a refusal to cheapen or sensationalize the emotional lives of his characters. In All the Real Girls, the schism between Noel (Zooey Deschanel) and Paul (Paul Schneider) is powerful not because the circumstances are extraordinary, but because they’re so cuttingly commonplace. In a town where real love might be the only world-class thing that happens, as the late Roger Ebert wrote of the film, “The thing about real love is, if you lose it, you can also lose your ability to believe in it, and that hurts even more.” The same could be said of innocence, always elusive for Green’s characters.
In 2008, the director’s star rose to fantastic heights when he made the buddy comedy Pineapple Express, a pot-infused riff on action flicks that was so deeply clever and had so much heart—and such palpable chemistry between James Franco and Seth Rogen—that it can be forgiven for inciting the term “bromance.” That same year, he’d direct and produce the HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring his fellow North Carolina School of the Arts alum Danny McBride as Kenny Powers, an oafish, mulletted ballplayer who would become one of television’s all-time great characters. That Green followed such a pensive, serious body of work with these wildly successful and pointed comedies suggested he could do no wrong.
That’s when things got tricky. Green’s next two projects were the star-powered stoner romps Your Highness and The Sitter—the latter less of a commercial flop than the former—which suggested a fall from grace (in the eyes of critics and audiences). All of which is why his newest project is so intriguing.
It feels like a cliché to say Prince Avalanche signifies a return to Green’s roots—and yet with its soaring score by David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky (both staples of Green’s dramatic output), its afflicted-but-visually-stunning landscapes and its quietly broken-down characters, the film feels infinitely closer to All the Real Girls than to Your Highness. It’s a somber character study set in the late ’80s that follows two men, played by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, who spend the summer painting a two-way road that bisects a recently burned-down forest. With every yellow line segment they lay down, they move a few feet farther along the road, though not necessarily any closer to understanding themselves (or the women in their lives, whom we never see). Amid the ashes and detritus of the fire, we enter a natural setting that’s as visually rich as the men are emotionally impoverished, and although it meanders, it moves with a pulse. The whole world and all its inhabitants—animals included—are visibly wounded. And yet they endure, right?
When Green phoned in from his home outside Austin, he was eager to tell us why he made this film, how he balances the artistic impulses that have shaped his career and what it was like attending school with Danny McBride. Hint: there were naked pull-ups involved.
Many of your films are beautifully natural, and you’ve mentioned in interviews that you have a deep appreciation for landscapes. Did that come from the environments you saw growing up?
David Gordon Green: Probably not. I spent most of my childhood in a suburb of Dallas, which is nothing profound, but I try not to make anything too pretty. I’m almost more of a critic of a too-pretty movie than a too-ugly movie. Once you glamorize everything with so much artificial lighting it takes you out of the reality of it.
It sounds like you have a vision for what you want to do as a filmmaker. Did you know what kinds of films you wanted to make back when you were in film school?
Yeah, it’s all been downhill since then. My first [short] was called Will You Lather Up My Rough House. There’s this preposterous set-up—it’s about a guy who invents soap and tries to convince his buddy to take a bath with him—but [it’s] played really straight, with two non-actors in it that are tremendous personalities. I keep trying to get them to be in [another] movie, but I think they were scarred by the process.
So you were making these wild, funny short films— a Sesame Street–style documentary about artificial insemination of cattle, a Western comedy about two guys trying to kill a horse—alongside composer David Wingo and cinematographer Tim Orr, with whom you still work today. How did you transition from these strange comedies toward your first feature, George Washington?
I’ve always been kind of schizophrenic in my taste. In college, I tried to do a dramatic movie called Pleasant Road, and I was very unhappy with it—I felt like it was a boring, uneventful failure on my part. And so that was the film that I tried to recreate in George Washington. I tried to take that failed experiment and then make a feature version of it that could learn from those mistakes. That was valuable for me, to build up confidence, to take something that I wasn’t extremely proud of and then turn it into something that I was—in a bigger form.
George Washington was a tremendous success for a first feature film. Were you prepared for that at all?
[Laughs] No way, dude. What was weird about our college was that no one knew anyone in the business, so when we got out of school we thought we were all screwed. [When the film was finished,] I was overwhelmed: all of a sudden I’m invited to 17 countries in a year for free. I loved travel but had no money, so I’d go to parties and steal rolls from dinners in my pocket to eat the next day. I vividly remember staying in France at this thousand-dollar a night hotel, and yet I couldn’t afford to go out to any meals because I had no money in my bank account.
How did you navigate that time?
Well, the best thing about [George Washington] is that it wasn’t commercially successful, so you didn’t have the ego from a lot of different people running up to you and saying “You’re the shit,” and “Everybody’s going to make a ton of money off of you.” All I had really was interesting people saying, “We want you to keep being interesting.” A lot of my friends who have made these out-of-the-gate successful films immediately have this whole other world of pressure that I don’t know that I would have dealt with well. I made a movie that nobody saw, other than some really wonderful critics that wrote nice things, but still my mom would have to bring those articles to church and point them out to her friends so that they would know that I was doing OK. The first four films I did, none of them made more than half a million dollars at the box office, which again was a good thing because I was able to sculpt my career the way I wanted to.
So with those first four features—George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), Undertow (2004), Snow Angels (2007)—you could organically hone your craft, without risking the economic stresses that might corrupt a young artist?
Yeah, though for about a year between All the Real Girls and Undertow, I was starting to get some phone calls from heavy hitters. I was going to make this movie of my favorite novel, A Confederacy of Dunces—I framed the headline in Variety with a drunk and ridiculous photo of me on the front page. But it’s a perfect reminder that a headline is just a headline. I look at it now and I know I would not have had the skills to navigate a situation with a movie that big with producers [looking for returns]. I would have been eaten alive—I wouldn’t have had my friends around me for support, and I wouldn’t have had the morality or confidence to stand up for myself.
But you have kept your friends around. How did you meet Danny McBride?
Danny lived down the hall from me in the dormitory at college. It was me and Danny and Jody Hill. It was just immediately a connection. We weren’t completive. We just spent a lot of time hanging out and working on each other’s films. If Danny was directing a short film and he couldn’t find anybody to be naked in a locker room doing pull-ups—well, hell—I’d volunteer and just tell him he owes me one.
And he paid you back when he took the part in All the Real Girls.
Totally. He’d never acted before that. Timm Sharp was going to play that part, and then he got cast in a Judd Apatow pilot for Undeclared. I was screwed because we were in production without a back-up so I called Danny and said, “Hey, I need you. You’re a funny guy. You can come be in this movie, right?” So he quit his job and rolled out to North Carolina. I basically said, “Hey, if you can’t act, it doesn’t matter. I just need you to be around there.” Then he just ended up being amazing, and we beefed-up his role.
He’s always had this natural charisma—Danny is everyone’s friend instantly, no matter who you are, where you come from—so the fact that he can actually fine tune his craft is something that I admire most about him. And he still brings that naturalism, that charisma, to bigger [projects].
Both of you rose to higher levels of fame later with Pineapple Express and Eastbound & Down. Did you feel pressure to make good on those higher profile projects?
I’ve always been a really responsible guy. I saved my money when I was 15 to buy a car when I was 16. I want to do things right, I don’t want to lose anybody’s money, and I don’t want anybody to be pissed off. So with Pineapple, if somebody’s going to give me substantial amounts of money and movie stars, I want to make sure that I give them what they pay for, if not more. After [producer Judd Apatow]’s success with Superbad and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, they were very confident that the signature of Judd was going to make that movie be totally fine, so there wasn’t really any pressure on that one. Eastbound & Down has always been a totally liberating place to go and do whatever we want. Your Highness was the trickiest one.
If we made that movie for 8 million bucks, we’d be geniuses right now. But at $50 million, it lost a lot of money. People were pretty frustrated at that point. Given the circumstances, I would have made Your Highness differently. I would have embraced the lo-fi nature of that project, rather than try to maximize what we could get because of people dropping their fingers and hoping we would deliver big bucks for them.
On Eastbound & Down, you, Jody Hill and Danny helped create this indescribable character in Kenny Powers. Why do you think people are so compelled by that show?
The beauty of that show is that it’s not screened with a big audience. A lot of stuff on that show makes people really uncomfortable, and people don’t like to sit around with a bunch of strangers in a large room feeling uncomfortable, which I’ve learned the hard way. In Eastbound you can get away with odd characters and disgusting, awkward situations because people are watching it by themselves—so they don’t have to be embarrassed to be laughing at things. And there’s an opportunity to bring a bigger dramatic arc to it. We don’t want it to be a comedy, we just put a lot of funny stuff in tragedy.
The idea of funny moments punctuating a tragic story arc is relevant to Prince Avalanche, which is based on an Icelandic film called Either Way. How did you choose where to set it, and how did you approach reshaping an existing work?
I wanted to have my own fingerprints and emotion on it, and the movie stemmed from the location. Munaf Rayani from Explosions in the Sky told me about this state park [in Texas] that had burnt down in a fire. So I go check it out, and immediately I’m like, “I want to make a movie here,” so I’m trying to get it together really quick before [the forest] turns green again. We shot it in 16 days, put it together really quickly and quietly.
It sounds like a return to the approach of your more serious, quieter earlier films. Fittingly, there’s a score by your friends and collaborators Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo. What do they add to your work?
Those guys are incredibly cinematic, their movie vocabulary is very vast. I’d go over to Munaf’s house, and he’d play me a little piano and they’d build sounds and concepts. And Wingo and I grew up together. I’ve known him since third grade, so we just like the same shit, same music and movies, so it’s not a whole lot of discussion we need to have.
In the movie, there are these two very different men. Paul Rudd’s character, Alvin, imagines himself as a Hemingway-style man’s man: orderly, self-reliant, quiet, handy. Emile Hirsch’s Lance is more aimless, carefree, the life of a party. Which one are you more like?
They’re both two sides of me. There’s the Alvin character, who is very gung ho and [irrationally] confident, not quite the outdoorsman he thinks he is—that’s me. But I’m also the young and naïve guy who goes to the party, hits on the pretty girl. So everything from having twin boys now, the values of fatherhood, the anxiety of getting a girl pregnant and the responsibility, and all these things that both these guys talked very openly about were things that are going on in my head: the frustrations of relationships.
They’re both kind of lost. They know where they’re going because there’s a road, and if they just follow the road and keep painting it, then they’re making progress. But we have no indication how far along they are—and they don’t know where they are. How much did you think about that idea of the road as a metaphor?
Well, you know, it wasn’t my creation, but I did notice that in the original. I always thought of it as a Waiting for Godot situation; a great, spiritual metaphor for lost souls. But we went pretty straightforward with it, not being too heavy-handed with any sort of analogies. There’s no profanity in it, which is odd for me—I guess there’s a middle finger, and we talk about fingering, but there’s no real vulgarity. The thinking was that there could be this naïve likability to these guys if we soften how they speak to each other, like they call each other “dummies” and stuff.
Considering the way they interact with each other, it almost makes them kids…almost like a cross between Godot and Stand By Me, which suggests that these men—and by extension, lots of men—are just big children.
I certainly am. [Laughs] Paul’s character makes a muscle with his biceps to try to intimidate Emile’s character—things like that aren’t really threatening. To me, that’s funny, but it’s also sad. There’s an innocence to exposing the futility of our attempts at masculinity. F
Prince Avalanche is in theatres and available on iTunes and On Demand Friday, August 9th.
Photo credits: George Washington, courtesy of The Criterion Collection; All the Real Girls, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics; Snow Angels , courtesy of Warner Bros. Indepedent Pictures; Your Highness, by Frank Connor/Universal Pictures; Prince Avalanche, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
This article is from FILTER Issue 52