Q&A: David Gordon Green on Prince Avalanche, Summer Movies, and Working With Nic Cage and Venomous Snakes
I want to be a fly on the wall when whatever future authoritative critic at Film Comment sits down to write the definitive director bio of David Gordon Green. What strange facial contortions will she/he make as her/his brain tries to fathom Green, the guy who gave us both Eastbound & Down and George Washington; what synaptic gymnastics will reconcile Snow Angels and Your Highness? It will probably look something like this. If you only know Green from Pineapple Express, you have to remember the shock many critics felt, not only that a promising art-house director was making a stoner movie but that he seemed to relish every aspect of it. It was as if a young Terrence Malick had put down Days of Heaven to make Porky’s.
Now after his share of tokes from the studio comedy bong, Green has returned to his art-film roots with Prince Avalanche — but again frustrating any expectations you might dare to have. No one knew he was making it, and when Avalanche arrived at Sundance, it wasn’t just another mildly amusing indie comedy that litters the slopes of Park City. Instead, Green somehow fused those broad comedy inclinations with his eye for visual poetry; suddenly, you could make Paul Rudd and Waiting for Godot references all in one breath. Again, it felt kind of like this. After debuting in limited release last weekend, Prince Avalanche expands to more cities this weekend (and is available on VOD and iTunes as well), and it’s a refreshingly oblique breath of air in a summer of blockbuster flops. So we sat down with Green to talk about what art films can learn from stoner movies, his solution for this summer’s big budget woes, and how awesome it was to work with The Rage Cage (Nicolas) on his upcoming film Joe, which will premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
I want to start by saying — ’cause I’m not sure how many people tell you this — I actually enjoyed Your Highness. It reminded me of the fun cheesy movies I enjoyed as a kid, Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. I half-expected David Bowie to come floating out of nowhere.
Man, that would’ve been awesome. We should have had him play the bad guy.
And the production design was pretty intense for something that’s ostensibly a stoner movie.
I think so! People give it shit, but I don’t think they knew where we were coming from or what we were going for. I will always be proud of that movie. If there’s any movie I want to turn on and kind of zone out to, that’s a fun one to pop in.
It’s a prime example of the subgenre of films that used to play in an endless Saturday-afternoon loop on local non-affiliated TV stations; you catch it halfway in and can’t help watching 10 minutes for some easy laughs.
Absolutely. That’s cool, man, that’s always good to hear.
Prince Avalanche is of course wildly different, and I’m sure everyone asks what it’s like “returning to your roots.” But I want to know what you learn on a big-budget studio stoner comedy that makes you a better art-house director.
A lot. In those films you have to become a ringmaster of sorts. You have to maintain an energy and a charisma; you can’t just scratch your head and look intellectual and fake through it. You really have to conduct a lot of those sequences in order to get a performer to be the most charismatic and humorous that he can be. I really have taken a lot from those experiences in every way: being able to juggle logistics, choosing your battles, when to fight the good fight and when to surrender. Those machines get so big, so expensive, and so precarious. It’s refreshing to be able to take the expectation off your back and make something that is personal and immediate.
So what wouldn’t you have been able to do on Prince Avalanche if you hadn’t made Your Highness first?
I guess I have a better sense of what I’m going to edit out, so why even bother shooting it. I’m a little more specific and not just letting it run and run. I have a lot less footage these days. Those movies, you have so much you’re trying to accomplish — well, I guess on any movie I never quite have enough time or money — but I’ve really learned the craft of editing in a way that I can bring a lot to the table in the production process. I can anticipate where the cut’s going to come so we don’t need those last three sentences of dialogue; I can think of a visual way to get us out of a corner so we don’t need to fake our way out and come up with something new.
So, say on Prince Avalanche, rather than let Paul Rudd and Emile riff, you can say, “No, we got the moment. Let’s go get some beautiful nature footage.”
Yeah. You also know how to read your talent and think, Hey, you guys haven’t gotten it, let’s push harder. Or: You know what, they’re burnt out; let’s not waste our time digging for it. I feel lucky to have had the experiences I’ve had and the diversity of projects I’ve worked on because I feel confident tackling any kind of material next. And excited about it.
Interesting. Even Paul Rudd can get burnt out. I picture him as always on for some reason.
We shot this thing in 16 days, and there’s so many different scenes we were trying to get. If it’s 10:30 and we’re jumping into the emotional scene, I don’t want to kill him for the rest of the day. I’ll be like, “Save it, we’ll come back.” Sometimes we’d do that — shoot one direction of the scene in the morning and the other in the evening.
Sounds enviably relaxed. In fact, I notice you worked with your friends Explosions in the Sky again for the score. It’s almost a family atmosphere?
They’re amazing. They’ve been buddies of mine, done work on a couple of my movies, and this was an opportunity to collaborate on a bigger palette. They collaborated with my buddy David Wingo, who’s worked on a lot of my movies. And I’ve grown up with him. We’re all neighbors, too, so we just kind of wander over to each other’s house and start working on it. It’s such an informal movie to make that it’s almost strange to be sitting in the Four Seasons doing interviews for it. I feel like we should be sitting in my backyard.
Well, this movie was notoriously chill; when it was announced at Sundance the press made a big deal that no one even knew you were making it.
I think the anticipation of a project for a lot of people can be very valuable, and it can get word on the street and certainly have people turn out because of the awareness of your movie. But in an ideal world, I would stick to the Avalanche plan of waiting until the movie is done to get the word out. I don’t want to be so locked into the movie I’m making: There’s some people who do press conferences before they go into production and tell you all about the movie they’re going to make. I’d be like, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m about to film.” I like the uncertainty of it. I like to be able to evolve it. If you talked to me about this movie beforehand, I’d tell you we’re making a comedy. Now I say we made a dramatic film with a lot of funny stuff in it.
This movie feels like the initial motivation may have been comedy, but then it became comic in the existential way people call Waiting for Godot comic.
That was really a model for this movie. I had assumed we were going to start riffing and do more improvisation. But when we got to this location and started meeting the inhabitants there, like Joyce who lost her home in a fire, the real beauty was letting the dramatic elements breathe and giving a great comedic actor like Paul Rudd some dramatic depth, and exploring the comedic side of Emile, who hasn’t unleashed that in a movie before. Playing to the opposite of expectations or the lack of expectations was definitely in our favor. It’s just really hard to do that sometimes. I say that as a credit to journalists and fan bases, because people are writing about things and that’s great. As a fan, I can’t wait to click on an article about what a filmmaker is working on next. But it can put a burden of expectation on what I’m working on.
Right. You could definitely feel that expectation when Joe was announced for the Venice and Toronto film festivals; everyone’s suddenly talking about you teaming up with Nicolas Cage.
Yeah, but nobody knew we were working on that until we were done with it, too! That’s an example of something that has kind of a cool fan base because it’s based on a novel that’s fairly successfully. So, that’ll be interesting to get the fans of the book and get the crossover there, but, regardless, the production was uninhibited by that.
So it doesn’t shut you down as much creatively?
Right! If you’re making Iron Man 3, everybody’s looking at it. You got to be better than Iron Man 1 and 2, AND you’ve got to kick everyone else’s ass. I bet there’s a day or two where you’re scratching your head going, “I don’t know how the fuck … ” Luckily, people get really well paid to make movies like that.
And then you get a summer like this, where all these mega-budget machines are bombing left and right, like multiple studio-killing Hindenburgs.
That’s where we come into play. People are putting all the financial expectations and pressure of box office on these movies, and we get to come in there quietly and responsibly and tell a different kind of story for people looking to find a breath of fresh air. And (a) It’s not so full of the chaos of some of these movies, and (b) it’s only 88 minutes, instead of two and a half hours!
I definitely appreciated the sense of purposeful obliqueness after watching — Man of Steel spoiler alert, though at this point who really cares — Kevin Costner get sucked into cinema’s most heavy-handed tornado.
Yeah, I really tried to weave in a sense of ambiguity that I thought was nice to meditate on and think about during the movie [and] after the movie. You have something to talk about. I mean, some of these movies this summer — at two and a half hours, the last thing I want to do is talk about that movie after it’s over. Just roll my eyes, take a deep breath, and get a pizza.
So, what’s your patented surefire advice for flailing studio executives after this summer of blockbuster fiascoes?
Make them an hour and a half long so that I want to see them twice. Look, I love big popcorn movies, but I don’t want to sit in a two-and-a-half-hour movie if it’s boring. Sit on my ass for two and a half hours? I may do it once; I definitely will never do it twice.
And then every weekend there’s a new must-see event film …
Oh man, it’s deadly. I mean, I saw all of them — well, I didn’t see R.I.P.D., and I didn’t see Grown Ups 2. But I bet you Grown Ups 2 is a reasonable length.
It better be.
I think there should be a rule. Unless you’re Paul Thomas Anderson, you can’t make a movie that’s over 2.5 hours. It should just not be allowed. Or Tarantino. Those guys can make them long because they can entertain me.
Good rule. Yeah, Tarantino can do a 25-minute scene of Christoph Waltz talking in a room and you’re enthralled.
‘Cause those two dudes know about great pacing. And the rest of these movies are just … exhausted. They blow their wad in the first act, so you’re just waiting around for a climax.
I can rip on this summer of shame all day — but tell us about Joe. I can’t lie; I’m one of those guys excited by the idea of you and Nicolas Cage together at last.
You know, I’m really thrilled, ’cause he’ll see it for the first time at the Venice Film Festival. He’s one of my idols, and this is very restrained — this is unlike anything he’s ever done in a movie before; it’s beautiful. It’s him and this young actor Tye Sheridan from Mud. And the rest of the cast was mostly homeless people and day laborers and people we got off the street to come be in a movie with them.
Whoa, really? What did the day laborers say when you asked them to make a movie with Nicolas Cage?
Fucking awesome! It beat their day rate at the construction site — “hey, come be in a movie with Cage.” It was amazing.
There’s something so mesmerizing about Cage for me. I was rewatching Face-Off the other day and realized that was where, when he gets in the prison fight — that’s where he transcends mere acting and becomes —
The Rage Cage!
Yes, the Rage Cage! You can literally see the “fuck it” look in his eye.
He’s a beautiful, very brave actor. You know, he used a venomous cottonmouth snake as a prop in a movie.
Oh, I didn’t. Which movie?
Yeah. He’s amazing. I really have nothing but excellent things to say. And the crew loved him. He’s so respectful. When you’re making a low-budget movie in the sweaty backdrop of Texas and don’t have a lot of games to play — he was just a dream.
I loved that in Kickass he did the whole movie as Adam West — and somehow it works. I’m sure Matthew Vaughn was soiling himself when Cage first came up with that. Did anything like that happen on Joe?
Oh, that happened every day. One thing: He does this amazing David Lynch impersonation. I would love to write a movie where he just acts like David Lynch.
Why not do it with both him and Lynch? I mean, Lynch was on Louie.
Oh yeah, I heard about that! I haven’t seen that one yet.
You should e-mail David Lynch and say, “Hey, you, Nicolas Cage; let’s go for it.”
Yeah, he’s not making movies right now. He should start acting. I tried to put David Lynch in Pineapple Express at the beginning. It didn’t work out …
What? I don’t know that, either. Well, I hope you get Lynch in your next movie.