David Gordon Green talks about “Prince Avalanche” and his many other projects

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Since 2000, writer/ director/ producer David Gordon Green has directed nine feature-length films, serving as screenwriter on five of them; has directed commercials (most notably a Chrysler truck commercial starring Clint Eastwood that aired at halftime of Super Bowl XLVI in 2012); created an animated series Good Vibes; directed a TV pilot for Comedy Central, Black Jack, which never aired (it was written by local screenwriter Michael Starrbury); and is a consulting producer/director on the hit HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Green’s frequent collaborator Danny McBride. Needless to say, Green has stayed busy and will stay that way as he has a pile of projects lined up (his much-rumored remake of Suspiria by Italian “giallo” horror filmmaker Dario Argento is one of them).

Green, 38, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, raised in Texas, and then went to college at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied film, got noticed with his first feature in 2000: George Washington, about a group of children who hide a body in rural North Carolina, which was celebrated by many film critics as one of the best films of the year. Green followed it up with the 2003 romantic drama All the Real Girls, starring Zooey Deschanel as a young woman who encounters her first serious relationship with the town lothario, only to break his heart; that film was given a four-star review by Roger Ebert. After only two features and at the age of 27, Green had emerged as one of the most exciting voices in American independent films.

Over the past decade, Green’s films got more comedic and less serious. After 2004’s Undertow and an adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s novel Snow Angels in 2007, he found himself with a surprise crossover hit with the 2008 stoner action comedy Pineapple Express, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, which brought Franco a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as dopey drug dealer Saul Silver.

After directing two non-memorable comedies for the Hollywood in 2011’s Your Highness and The Sitter (Your Highness had been filmed in 2009, but was not released until 2011), Green turned his attention back to his dramatic roots after seeing the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way.

After seeing Either Way, Green started working on the script for his latest film, Prince Avalanche, starting Paul Rudd and Emilie Hirsch. The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and went on to screen at the Berlin Film Festival a month later, where Green won the Silver Bear for Best Director.

Prince Avalanche, opening this Friday, August 9, at the Lagoon Cinema and also available on demand, takes place mostly in the woods with two workers: Alvin (Rudd) the serious and uptight worker works for a summer alongside his girlfriend’s brother, the goofoff and immature Lance (Hirsch), painting and reconfiguring street lines for highway roads that were devastated by wildfire. The two men have somewhat of a “frick and frack” relationship, as the men are completely different from one another but still have to manage to work together. Over the course of the film, the two begin to bond in strange ways and actually at times feel like friends, but things change as often as the direction of the wind in this dramedy, anchored by the excellent performances from Rudd and Hirsch.

Green spoke with me by phone from Chicago last week.

Prince Avalanche is a remake of a 2011 Icelandic film, Either Way, by director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson.  Why were you interested in remaking Either Way?

It was a backward process in terms of traditional Hollywood development. I was looking to do something that was a simple character piece when I discovered this state park that had been ravaged in a forest fire. I was scratching my head coming up with ideas and various concepts of what I could do with a couple of great actors and disappear into the woods. I was talking to a friend of mine who was telling me about this Either Way film and he had a friend who had worked on it. I was describing the idea of the film and he had said, “Yeah, it sounds like this Icelandic movie.” I hadn’t heard of the film, but I hunted it down and fell in love with it. I decided to put my spin, personalize it, and make it more emotional [so] that [it] could have an equal balance of drama with some comedic elements. It just became a quick experiment [in making a film]. As far as a remake is concerned, typically I watch a movie and either relate or not relate to the characters, but here I was able to watch the movie, relate to things and then explore what I was thinking in how I would have dealt with it, if I were one of these characters. You’ll go to the movies with friends and you’ll discuss how you relate or don’t relate to the characters, but it’s rare that you can actually bring your own dialogue and recreate their scenarios in your own manner.

You mention the forest fire; could you explain the details behind this setting? 

If you Google “Bastrop Texas forest fire,” that is the city that was hit most by the forest fire; the thing that pops up is a water tower with a big smiley face on it. And I imagine if you do Google it, you’ll see an enormous fire and smoke all around this smiling water tower. And that was it as you drive around while the fire was burning and the fire was burning for a very long time; as you were driving around you would be greeted by the horror of the smoke and the devastation of all the homes and then this smiling water tower. I loved that conflict and contrast of that image. I live right outside of Bastrop and to see that really challenged me emotionally and I thought if I could make a movie that had that same internal contrast, that would be cool.

Does the film take place in the late 80s or early 90s?  It really doesn’t seem to be taking place in the present.

The original film took place in the 80s and I’m not sure what they reason was for that. I explored updating it, [but] the technology that would be apparent frustrated me and I really liked the isolation surrounding them. They wouldn’t have cell phones to call home, they couldn’t Skype with their loved ones. At the end of the day, this is a way they could meditate, they could write these letters home, be forced to deal with each other. They’re not going to be using their iPods, basically they are going to be at work and they are going to be at each other’s throats.

Talk about how you were able to cast Paul Rudd and Emilie Hirsch in the lead roles.

It was a really quick casting process. I have been friends with both of them for a long time, and we tried to make other projects work but for one reason or another, they never came together. I think we are guys who appreciate the Hollywood studio movies that we are able to participate in from time to time but also great appreciation for the stripped-down storytelling and lack of expectations you can get from a more independent-minded film.

So when I saw Either Way, and I knew I wanted to shoot in this location, I immediately emailed Paul and sent him photos of the location, sent him a copy of the film and said, “What about if we do this?” He wrote back and said, “Absolutely, when can we start?” That was February of 2012 and by May we were filming.

After I got Paul’s commitment, knowing Paul’s schedule was opening up and we could shoot in May, you really can’t mess around too much with a lot of agent and industry paperwork that can go into play when you’re making offers and having conversations. I immediately went to my Rolodex and looked up people: who could be one of the weirdest pairings with Paul or someone you would never see act along side Paul, and I was going through the beginning of the alphabet and got to “E,” landed on Emilie and thought that would be a really interesting dynamic. If I could give Paul the role with my dramatic weight and have Emilie be in the more comedic role, and play them to the opposite of people’s expectations, I could have something really cool. It was probably about eight hours after I reached out to Emilie that he was on board. It was great that our calendars all aligned and we met the landscape where there was a significant rebirth and see all the vivid colors coming on the forest floor. It was a really beautiful time to turn cameras on at this place and have these actors strip away a lot of their luxuries and accommodations that most movies allow us. It was really cool to be sitting out in camping chairs and turn it into a summer camp.

There are moments in the film when the actors seem to be given room for improvisation. Was there room for improvisation moments, or was much of the scripted film by the book?

There was a little bit of both. There is a six-minute monologue that Emilie gives trying to get laid at a party and that’s pretty much word for word scripted. And there were others that were entirely improvised; like the woman Paul meets whose home was burnt by the fire wasn’t even in the script. We just met her and filmed Paul’s first meeting with her. I was introduced to her and asked her if she would be in the movie to tell her story and she said, ”I’m not an actress.” And I told her, “Well, you’re a woman looking for her pilot license in the ashes of her home.” That was [something] amazing that I really wanted to capture. I asked her if I could bring this actor over to her and explore the ashes with her. She agreed to that and when the cameras were rolling, it was the first time that Paul and her met. It was the kind of production where you could be open to either or. You could fine tune and rehearse which we did with some of the sequences, or you could let it loose and have a curious camera, and both are equally exhilarating.

After doing a couple studio films the past years and now returning to your past “indie” roots, was it refreshing to go back and do things on your own terms and steer clear of a studio system?

It was certainly refreshing. But it will be refreshing to get back to studio movies too. I really enjoy the variety of processes and once I feel like I need to exercise a new muscle, I try to switch it up a bit. I went from four very low-budget independent movies to big budget comedies for a while and then I went from big budget comedies to do commercials and then go from commercials to a TV series and then to an animated TV series and then back to another independent dramatic film. I really do like the idea of mixing it up and having a career that is as curious as I am.

So having done films, television series, commercials, and now an animated series, what are still some of the challenges you face in doing these different types of work?

Every movie is a challenge. For instance, in Prince Avalanche one of the challenges was, how do we shoot a movie with no lights? We didn’t have a lighting package on this film. How do we do that? It sounds dumb, but like each of those overalls was like $300, so we couldn’t afford a bunch of multiples, so if they got covered in ash, you had to shut down and go clean them up. Or you couldn’t take it twice—you really had to hope you got it all the first time. We only had one camera, so if the camera malfunctioned, we were sitting on our ass for it. If we shot in the rain, we had to reconstruct the scenes. There is always a challenge, whether it be Mother Nature or a studio executive or bullshit a financier is going to give you or a temperamental actor—there are always funny things you’ve got to deal with. My job is somewhere between a waiter and a psychologist: try to make people’s order, make them up a dish that I think will be tasty and having to deal with a lot of peculiar characters along the way.

I have never heard an explanation like that before.

The challenges are part of the game. You’ll be approaching a scene and its got a lot of logistics and you’ve storyboarded everything out and you are ready to go and then it starts to rain on you and then it doesn’t work. Or you get half of what you thought you would get or the film wasn’t exposure right.

On my first film, George Washington, I lost three rolls of film in FedEx hell somewhere and they never showed up. In my head at the time, I felt that those scenes were a pivotal point in the narrative, so you’ve got to figure out a creative way to get around it. Movies are nothing but problems from the start to the finish of it; it’s just a matter of whether you have a good enjoyable group of people to navigate along the way.

I also love the uncertainly of going to make something. The scariest thing for me to make right now would be a documentary because I hold the documentary genre in such high esteem and many of my favorite films are documentaries that I would have incredible expectation and pressure on myself to do something in that arena. I’m so scared to do it, that I kind of have to do. I have a great instinct to follow my fears.

Talk about how you were able to get the Austin-based band Explosions in the Sky to contribute on the score along with long time collaborator David Wingo.

I have been a fan for a long time. They did a song that was in All the Real Girls and had a song that ended in Snow Angels. We call each other “frans,” which means we are “fans and friends” of each other’s work. So it’s a fun social dynamic we’ve had there. They are also my neighbors in Austin. It is cool to have that camaraderie. The whole reason I was able to find the location for Avalanche was because the drummer for Explosions, Chris Hrasky, said, “Hey man, you’ve got to go check out this location, you’re going to want to make a movie there.” And so I went down there and walked in the ashes of the fire on his recommendation and then it was very quickly there over a few beers we started talking about it; even before the movie was scripted, they were already talking about themes and ideas for the film. So we had them on set, collaborating and giving ideas and then when we got into the editing room and the score was done at the guitarist’s house. So we could walk from the editing room to the guitarist house and they would be jamming on some music and then bring it over to the editing room, and see if it worked. They were the first guys I showed the film to when we had a rough cut; they are all cinephiles and have a tremendous vocabulary of film, and it’s fun to speak the same language and same reference point.

Just as I wanted Paul to make a more dramatic turn and Emilie to make a more comedic turn, I wanted Explosions to work a little outside of their wheelhouse. It is not necessarily there signature music, although sometime—you can tell particularly over the ending credits—you can really hear the familiar guitar sound they have. But incorporating elements like clarinet and beat boxing and things aren’t there [in] traditional rock…it was cool to explore sound and storytelling through music with them.

I know this interview is to talk about your new film, Prince Avalanche, but it was announced earlier this week that you would have a newer film, Joe, premiering in competition at Venice later this month and playing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Would you mind talking about Joe quickly?

Yeah, a lot going on and it has been a crazy year. I look at Joe as a companion piece with Avalanche. When we prepping Joe, Nicolas Cage came to Austin and we started scouting locations for Avalanche together and that was fun with him. Joe is about a tree poisoner, a man and his rogue band of workers who work for the lumber company and poison trees so the lumber company can come and tear them down. Where that movie is about men in the moment killing the trees, Avalanche is the aftermath of the death of this forest. So there are strange parallels in both films. Joe is an incredibly dark and dramatic film and more like a contemporary western, and has a really beautiful performance piece by Nicolas Cage in terms of reminding fans of Nic’s [performances] through the years, the power of restraint and some of the interesting qualities he has and it was really amazing working with him. The young actor [opposite Cage], Tye Sheridan, is starting to come on people’s radar after he was seen in Jeff Nichols’s Mud this year, so it’s about them and basically casting homeless people and day-laborers from Austin and a very eccentric cast of non-actors being navigated by the two leads is something I’m really proud of and I’m very eager to unleash it.

Any chance you could mention a little about your work on HBO’s Eastbound & Down too?

Sure. I just finished [directing] my last episode two days ago. So we just rocked out the fourth season and [co-creator] Jody Hill is finishing up on the last two episodes. I did three of the eight episodes this season; they start airing at the end of September, and I’m excited. Out of the gate, people were identifying it with the more comedic work I had done, but then people who really invest in the show and give it more than an episode or two realize it has more in common with the dramatic stuff. Whereas Prince Avalanche walks the line and can invite fans of both of the paths of my career so far. It’s fun for people to picking up on Eastbound late in the game. 

What do you hope audiences take away from Prince Avalanche? 

I think it’s different for everyone. I feel that these characters are really relatable and you can certainly laugh at some of the things they say and the way they roll their eyes. And there are also really fragile little boys in these men you feel there is a vulnerability there and I think we can all watch ourselves through in the eyes of these guys and that they can act ridiculous sometimes and heartbroken at other times. Just find the humanity within it to me; it sets it apart from other buddy movies out there, the “odd couple” dynamic there. Look at these two characters as one character. You do have age and experience separating the two, but by the end of the movie there does feel like this commonality in one voice emerging from these two guys. Hopefully, there is enough ambiguity where they have enough to think about, talk about when the movie’s over and its not typical comedy or drama that hits [audiences] over the head with a certain genre, but lets the moment breathe and give you something to think about.