DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: David Gordon Green Talks About “Undertow,” His “Southern Tall Tale”
by Wendy Mitchell
[EDITORS NOTE: Wendy Mitchell spoke with David Gordon Green about “Undertow”; the film will be released on DVD this week (April 26th, 2005).]
David Gordon Green‘s first two films, “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” were the opposite of action films; they were quiet, poetic ruminations on small-town stories. Green’s new film “Undertow” still has a lyrical quality and an emotional pull, but also more testosterone and aggression. There are even a few action scenes, chases, and bloodshed. It’s not your typical thriller, but it does offer a few thrills.
Dermot Mulroney stars as John Munn, a single farmer raising two sons, rebellious Chris (Jamie Bell) and sickly Tim (Devon Alan). Their isolated life in the back woods is interrupted by the appearance of Deel (Josh Lucas), John’s swaggering brother, fresh out of prison. When violence erupts, Chris and Tim try to outrun danger (and Deel) and meet up with people living on the fringes of society.
The film feels like a larger-budget production, although Green says the budget was less than $2 million (and some of that money went to government-issue mosquito repellant to survive a shoot in rural Georgia). When he was in town for the New York Film Festival, Green talked with indieWIRE’s Wendy Mitchell about Southern caricatures, ’70s B-movies, and what it’s like to have Terrence Malick looking over your shoulder. United Artists opened “Undertow” on Friday.
indieWIRE: How do you think “Undertow” fits in with your past films?
David Gordon Green: I think I brought a lot of the technique in creating atmosphere that I liked from the first two movies, and I brought it to a more aggressive narrative approach to filmmaking.
iW: What was the evolution of this project, did you know Terrence Malick [one of the film’s producers]?
Green: Malick got in contact with me when he saw “George Washington”… he had this script that Joe Conway, a guy on his basketball team, had written. Joe’s a high school English teacher in Austin, Texas. Joe had written the script and I thought there were a lot of interesting elements that I wanted to explore based on this true-crime story that a runaway had told on a runaway hotline. But the runaway was not telling the truth, obviously this is very heightened reality. It’s more “Pirates of Penzance” than “In Cold Blood”… except that it wasn’t a musical (laughs). That really interested me, a young person’s interpretation of tragedy almost embracing it as adventure… So I was really interested in taking a story like this that had elements of genre thrillers, horror movies, even a lot of ’70s action movies — a lot of drive-in, B, hell-raising redneck cop movies, and then put a level of absurdity and humor in it. It’s a Southern tall tale, but you’ve got a realistic foundation, you can embellish it. In many ways I was just as inspired by the fairy tale element as I was by the reality.
iW: Joe already had a script — how did you collaborate when you got involved?
Green: It’s important to me in any project that I do to adapt it so that it’s meaningful to me emotionally. So I took the architecture and personalized it. I made characters more familiar to me, I made circumstances more emotional to me, and I added the level of absurdity that I thought was important to this horrific narrative. And I was a lot more concerned about the honesty of the characters than the plot points. Anybody that wants to find holes in this, have at it, I’ll bring the holepunch! But it’s not about that, it’s storytelling, it’s about the legends and the myths.
iW: With all these male characters, why did you try to keep tenderness in the story?
Green: It’s an exploration of masculinity. Male identity is such a weird, nerdy thing, it’s dealt with so stereotypically. It’s so cut and dry, I wanted to make men that were funny and sad and angry and happy all at the same time, to try to make a more complicated emotion out of it. These characters are motivated by very unremarkable feelings, and it’s how they express those feelings that we tried to make distinctive.
iW: What was it like working on a bigger scale?
Green: It wasn’t really a bigger scale.
iW: Well, it feels bigger… and it was a longer shoot, you have more A-list stars.
Green: The stars are recognizable names and faces but they’re not bringing baggage, there’s no trailers, everybody was just sitting there sweating it out and taking a dump in the portapotty. They were very gung-ho, and everybody was swinging from trees just trying their damndest to make this movie.
One thing that was different is that a lot of the technical elements in the movie were new to me. Doing stunt work and doing more makeup, and using soft focus because the blood gags look fake, and being really particular about the color of blood. It’s just a lot of logistics trying to execute stuff like that, action sequences and trying to make it safe. People did get hurt [nails in feet, broken ribs] and that’s not good — everybody was getting beat up and attacked, not only mother nature and the environment but by each other. It was a bonding experience.
iW: I think of your first two films as being more poetic and still… This film has a different energy to it. Was that an adjustment for you?
Green: The camera department had to spend a little more time on the treadmill to get ready for it. Now [cinematographer] Tim Orr can bench press more than I can, which is a little disconcerting…but they had to train. We had this heavy equipment and we were lugging it back into places where people don’t normally film, for a reason. With the weather too, we had to run and gun and be on the top of our games. Technically there were a lot of obstacles.
iW: The casting is interesting… having Jamie Bell (who’s English) playing a Southern boy, and having Josh Lucas, who I tend to think of as more the romantic lead, “Sweet Home, Alabama” guy, playing this villain.
Green: Well Jamie was cast first… he was more like this character than anybody I met, and I looked all over the country. I’m the one that always laughs at the movie when the guy has the fake Southern accent, I hate that. Maybe that has something to do with being from the South and being particular about what I think is authentic. But after meeting hundreds of actors, trying to see who could wrap their head around this character, and get the physical instincts of this character, Jamie was the one that I responded to. He proved to me that he had that range of emotions and physicality from his previous movies. And he was a cool-as shit-kid who reminded me a lot of who I used to be.
It was him making the effort to do it authentically. And me having to crack the whip and get him to do it. But at the end of the day, he did an amazing job that we’re all really proud of and that’s due to his dedication to it.
iW: This will help him lose that ballerina stigma [from “Billy Elliot”].
Green: Yeah, I don’t think he’s getting back into toe shoes anytime soon. We flattened his arches a little bit.
Josh was just the actor I met with that could just humanize a villain the best. His ideas were the most interesting. I’m not looking for an actor to just memorize the script and read his lines and play what I tell him to play. I want to work with an actor who brings ideas to the table, who has fun with the character, who can take it to unexpected directions and can improvise. A lot of times I want them to tell me what to do, I’m not always the boss.
iW: You encourage improvisation, so how much of the script is left in the final film?
Green: I don’t know, I haven’t looked at it since we shot any of the film. I’m not possessive of what I write in any way… I don’t like a lot of that territorial stuff — I think that can be what makes a film flat and boring and unengaging and mediocre is that expectation. You can see that crafty writer behind the wonderful screenplay. I always get angry when I think a script has good writingŠjust go write a novel!
iW: This film seems fresh but also harkens back to a lot of films from the ’70s.
Green: It’s very derivative and cliché, but in a good way. I definitely wanted to work within a genre, and I was technically and aesthetically inspired by B-movies of the ’70s, drive-in movies of the ’70s… like the poor man’s version of “Stroker Ace,” the poor man’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” Movies like “Eat My Dust!,” this old Ron Howard movie. And “Grand Theft Auto,” or “Pit Stop,” “Macon County Line.” Taking movies like that that do have a value of camp and exaggeration, over the top-qualities to them, balancing them with like the ’70s aesthetic of “Badlands,” or “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” or “Deliverance.” Which are the three greatest movies in the world. “Walking Tall,” “Billy Jack,” I love all that. I think I’m certainly working three decades too late if my aim is to be successful.
iW: Speaking of “Badlands,” how was it having Malick as one of your producers — is that intimidating, is it comforting? Do you have to say “no” to Terrence Malick?
Green: Yes. It’s great because he’s encouraging of new processes, he’s encouraging of taking it off the assembly line. He realizes there are risks in that and he’s willing to support that. If there’s one thing that he energy of me and my crew doesn’t necessarily provide for, it’s a leverage muscle and sophistication within the industry, so that by getting guys like Malick and [another producer, Ed] Pressman to help us navigate it, and having them support some of the unconventional technique and style that we’re going for, that made it a lot easier. At the end of the day, he’s there as a producer to help you execute the job that you came to do. And protect the ideas of all the collaborators.
iW: Was Malick very hands on?
Green: Oh yeah, he was on set. It’s an interesting feeling to stroll over to the monitor and see Malick be exuberant and thrilled or critical of your work on the spot as it happens. And to ask questions as any producer would and challenge you as any smart producer would, and ultimately to encourage you as the gracious producers will.
iW: This film had a striking look, all these yellows and browns and reds. I was curious what the process is like when you and Tim [Orr, cinematographer] first start talking about each film. How do you decide what the look of a film will be?
Green: We watch a lot of movies. We talk about what the pros and cons of color and production design. It’s me, Tim, Richard Wright (our production designer), Jill Newell (our costume designer), and Scott Clackum (our location manager) — we sit down and have a few beers and watch a lot of movies. We do that for weeks and weeks and weeksŠWe all kind of get together on the same page. Not that we’re going to rip off other movies, but it’s helpful.
iW: What inspired the freeze frames in “Undertow”?
Green: That was inspired by the freeze frame at the beginning of “Macon County Line,” when the title comes up when he’s jumping over the rail… I love that movie. I think it’s just an effective way to weave still photography into movies. Plus it looks cool.
iW: I grew up in North Carolina, and one thing I love about the rural South is old dilapidated, abandoned spaces, and I think all of your films can take that dilapidation and make it look really beautiful. How do you find those places?
Green: I like to take rundown-ness and make it very beautiful, I don’t know why, I just like that. I’ve always been wandering around in rusted-out train tracks and dreamed of living in train stations and wandering into condemned buildings. That’s part of my childhood adventure. It’s something I also to explore in film because everything is so shiny and Ikea these days, nothing has texture or history or soul by the time you eat dinner on it.
iW: I’ve read some past interviews when you said you didn’t like some of the past film representations of the South, but “Undertow” has a guy with a corncob pipe and a possum in a cage. Were you trying to make these people redneck caricatures?
Green: I wanted to take that cartoonish element that comes from the media’s exploitation of the modern-day hick and make them believable people That was the goal. To show the root of where these stereotypes are birthed… those stereotypes didn’t come from nowhere, they come from somewhere. I’m not making this shit up.
iW: Do you want to do bigger budget films?
Green: Yes, I definitely want to do bigger budget projects.
iW: But you want to keep doing stories about people, and that isn’t what you usually see with bigger budgets.
Green: Well, that’s the problem, once you start trying to make a movie about people but you’ve got an enormous war to stage or a huge car chase to execute, you have to focus on that logistically. But if you can set yourself up financially but not neglect the heart, the root of character and performance, and still balance that with the healthy, ambitious side of technical chaos… it’s hard. And obviously the more money you spend, the more people you’ve got looking over your shoulder questioning your judgment. Until I’ve proven myself to be a more financially valuable commodity, I have to continue to make financially responsible films, which I’ve been able to do through the wonders of foreign territories and DVDs, so people will continue to give me modest sums of investments. I don’t know if I’m willing to make the compromises for the larger-scale projects.
iW: So what are you going to do next?
Green: I don’t know. Right now I’m just doing a lot of writing. I’m writing a project for Sydney Pollack to direct and I’m writing another movie for Seann William Scott to star in, a high-concept studio comedy. It’s called “Nerd Camp,” it’s about a summer camp for geniuses. So I’m exercising different chops. Playing in the studio arena as a writer has given me an interesting exercise in that corporate navigation. And being able to recognize the value of smart executives.
iW: Don’t you miss directing if you’re just writing?
Green: Oh yeah. I have several scripts that I’ve written, I’m just trying to see if money will stick and the right creative circumstances develop for one of them. There’s a demolition derby action comedy that I’ve written with Danny McBride, a “Smokey and the Bandit” type of movie, and then I’ve got this book I just adapted for Killer Films, called “Goat” [Brad Land‘s memoir of fraternity hazing]. And this Western I’m trying to get going and this science-fiction script I’ve had for years. Right now I’m also renovating this house so that’s a big job.
iW: Yes, I heard you got a house in New Orleans. And speaking of New Orleans, what happened with “Dunces”? [Green was slated to direct the long-awaited film adaptation of “A Confederacy of Dunces” for Miramax, but the project has fallen apart.]
Green: “Dunces” was burdened by the financial and political paperwork that ultimately shelved it creatively. It was at a standstill between so many people that had their hand in the project, and the financial baggage that accumulated over the last 20 years. We assembled what I thought was an extraordinary cast, and had what I thought was a wonderful adaptation of the novel written by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer, but it was a circumstance where every move needed to be approved and calculated and re-approved and the financial circumstances needed to be reconsidered and baggage kept getting bigger and bigger, so it wasn’t an ideal circumstance under which to make the creative movie that it should have been — so who knows if that will ever happen, I hear different things, I don’t think anyone can make it until someone gets paid off or dies [laughs].