Filmmaker David Gordon Green has had a deeply eclectic career of omnivorous tastes thus far. To perhaps best demonstrate the polar extremes, the 37-year-old director (who has already made nine features) has had films produced by Terrence Malick ("Undertow") and Judd Apatow ("Pineapple Express"). His body of work thus far has covered intimate indie dramas featuring children ("George Washington"), broad comedies ("The Sitter"), adult dramas ("Snow Angels"), and high concept absurdist swords and sorcerer pictures ("Your Highness"). His oeuvre has run the gamut of styles, tones and genres.
His latest film, "Prince Avalanche," debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last week to strong reviews (read ours here) and for those long-awaiting a return to Green's indie roots, this is the picture. And yet, "Prince Avalanche," is also simultaneously a step forward and a summation of all Green's films thus far. Unexpectedly moving and surprisingly funny, Green brings both his poetically observational eye and comedic sensibilities to a low-stakes, but involving picture about two estranged road crew workers who have to endure loneliness, isolation and each other in the remote, and recently fire-ravaged forests of Bastrop, Texas. A two-hander starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, "Prince Avalanche," is also a remake of the Icelandic movie, "Either Way." Partly motivated by Clint Eastwood, sonorous post-rockers Explosions in the Sky, the spontaneity of jump-in-the-van filmmaking and shot in secret last year, we caught up with Green at Sundance and he told us all the elements that conspired and inspired the making of "Prince Avalanche." Oh, and in case you're wondering if the inexhaustible filmmaker is going to take a break one day, well, his next film, "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage is essentially already in the can. “I work every day,” he said. “It's insane.”
“Prince Avalanche” is a remake. Tell me what inspired that.
I made this Chrysler commercial last year that had Clint Eastwood in it and it played during the Super Bowl and it ended up being this kind of big, spectacle [the famed "halftime in America" spot]. But the process of making it was very minimal, intimate and with a small crew – the fact that we had a huge movie star come in it was the cool part. We were shooting for weeks doing this, traveling around doing this thing and I was thinking, “Why don't I make movies like this?” Just a little band in a van, jump out and shoot a movie and I bet a movie star would like to do something like that.
So I had that kind of idea in my head. I was living in Austin and the state park had burnt in a wildfire the previous fall and I was out hiking around in the ashes thinking this is a cool place for a movie, this is a great backdrop I've got to take that process and do something here, maybe just grab a couple of characters and do something. Then I was up in New York talking to one of my buddies and I was telling him about it. I was like, “I just need a couple of people, just grab a couple of friends that are actors and go down to this park and make this movie with this lo-fi process.” He said you should see this movie “Either Way” my friend just worked on in Iceland and remake that. I said, “Is it good?” He goes, “I don’t know, I haven't seen it but you should remake it because it sounds like what you're trying to do.” [laughs]
So I tracked down “Either Way.” It had won at the Torino Film Festival. And “George Washington” had won that ten years before. So I was watching it, literally with the intention of remaking it no matter what. I didn't know anything about it, but I thought, “Whatever this is I'm going to remake it.”
And so I put it in and started watching it and I was watching it for opportunity thinking okay, here is what I’d do instead of what they did and it was kind of fun. It was an absurdist process and at that point there was like no reality that I was going to actually make something. So I kind of was watching it and that kind of strange idea was bubbling and gurgling and then I slept on it for a couple of days and I just got up and started writing my version of it.
That’s really awesome.
I thought, this is really interesting and I really like this idea. So I sent it to Paul Rudd. I didn't have the rights or anything, I sent it to him and said, “What if we do a version of this movie that's this and that instead of that?” He's like, "That sounds really interesting" so I investigated the rights, got in touch with the Icelandic filmmakers and they were like, “What? You're crazy but that sounds really funny, why don't you try to do it?” So they were really cool and we got Emile [Hirsch] on board and made it. You know I mean we started the project in mid-February of last year and we were sound mixing in July. It was that smooth and streamlined a process.
It was shot in secret and when it was “announced” it was already done.
Yeah, don't get your agents in a tizzy about it, don't make any announcements about it, let's just see if we can go disappear and make a little project. Because it may be incoherent, it may be really cool, it may be commercial. But let's not go in there with any sort of judgment or expectation. And so that was always really fun for once just to not have anybody ask what we're doing. It just a few phone calls, we put the money together had the cast locked in a day. We were shooting less than two months after I had conceived of what we were going to do and it was awesome. Just like really took all of what I love about the process and capitalized on that and then vacuumed the stuff that's kind of logistic heavy and paperwork and legality and negotiation which was like – we already know we're not getting paid and if you want to jump in the van and hang out and work with us, let's do it.
Was that in any way an antidote to bigger mainstream movies? Because you've experienced both of those worlds now.
Yeah, in a way. Those [bigger budget movies] just take a real long time and there's a lot of taking about making movies. I mean both [types of filmmaking are] amazing. I love both of them but like there's something to the momentum of low budget movies that you're in total financial control over, you know? You're not waiting for someone to write a check because you'll just write the check. I've been trying to make a couple of movies that keep on falling apart and it's just like disappointment. You think to yourself: why don't I keep momentum going and keep making things and if anybody wants to jump on these a harder, more complicated logistic heavy right to shoot kind of projects than they can and I'll be ready. I can't wait to jump into them. But in the meantime I just make something every day.
How similar or dissimilar is “Prince Avalanche” to “Either Way”?
It's a very respectful remake and I was very inspired by the original and there's a few shots exactly lifted from it. I showed some scenes to the actors and said, “Let’s do this.” But then there's other scenes like the whole weekend with Alvin, Paul Rudd's character, alone by himself that's not at all in the movie. The woman that they meet in the burned down house is not in the original movie. That wasn't even in the script. We just met her and filmed that.
So it's very different in some ways. I put my fingerprint on the dialogue and conversations and I personalized it to be meaningful to me and some of my relationships and my struggles with women and fatherhood and the things that the characters are discussing. In many ways it’s a conversation I was having with myself, between the me that is trying to grow up and the me that is trying to maintain that childlike youthfulness. And it's interesting trying to juggle all of those ideas and then use a movie as a creative outlet for it. And so it took a lot of detours in those ways, in very self indulgent ways but that was exciting to me.
The Icelandic filmmakers were at the premiere.
I had never even met them before. I went to a party and hung out with them all night. It was awesome, they loved it. We want to remake it again. [ed. Here’s our piece about the remakes of the remakes of “Prince Avlanche” that the team of filmmakers conceived.]
Explosions In The Sky and David Wingo did the score. It’s beautiful.
It's killer music man, those guys are awesome. Actually the main reason the movie got made was the drummer from Explosion in the Sky [Chris Hrasky] was telling me about the state park that got burned down and went on a hike and he took me out. They’re my neighbors in Austin and David Wingo who I've worked with on most movies as a composer, we're all buddies and we watch movies together all the time and talk about working together all the time and so it was fun. They'd be on set and they'd go home and jam and make some tunes and we'd edit it to some kind of demos. They were also all stepping away from their sonic wheelhouse.
Yes, it’s an awesome expansion and progression.
It's simple with the clarinet, tuba and piano and instrumentations that they've never used before. Wingo kind of tackled some scorey things and we had beat boxing in it. You know [actor] Michael Tully (“Septien”)? He does beat boxing on the score. It was really fun because I'd just go over there for an afternoon and say, “Well, what about this? “It's distinctive and interesting and it's music heavy so some people will think that maybe it's guiding the emotions a little bit but to me it's just another character of the movie just like the cinematography or the performances in it.
The conversations feel very naturalistic. What was the amount of improv vs. what’s scripted?
The actors say it's not a whole lot of improv but I don’t really use scripts to begin with. I let actors use them but they seem to think there's more screenplay. It was only a sixty page script and it's an hour and a half movie so there's got to be a lot of stuff that they made up. My process is really just like letting them talk through it all. We don't rehearse really, we read through it and then I kind of just see what feels honest and when they get off-book it's usually pretty interesting to me so I keep the cameras rolling. But you know if it feels good and it's totally scripted then that's fine too.
It sounds like you had fun making this so would it be difficult to going back to having big crews and teamsters?
The most fun ever. Big crews are fun too. It's just a different stress level. Here when you make a movie like “Prince Avalanche” it's a different stress level. Nobody is over your shoulder. Hopefully this will be a movie that people go see because my experience in the first four movies I made is that people don’t watch them. That's a very stressful thing to spend a lot of your heart and energy and effort on something and then people don't go to see it.
Well, that’s relative. Your early films are well watched by cinephiles.
Yeah, but sometimes they don't make business sense because they're not making the money that they cost and so that gets very frustrating for people that are investing in you. So the hope is about blending that process some of the more commercial content of my later movies that it can you know it can run both ways with audiences. I still want to make big horror movies, big action movies and I have some of those kinds of movies in development. But at this point I just didn't want to take the meetings. I didn't want to talk about movie making, I just wanted to make movies.
Big movies are also fun. You need to iron out logistics and do a lot of safety and stunt work and things like visualizations and animations, story boards and all that stuff has its place and I love learning about it. But I'm going to make something every day and when those [kinds of bigger-budget movies] come together and find their place I'm going to bust my ass and make them as good as I can.
So you're trying to find a balance and middle ground then.
Yeah, there is also a middle ground type of film. I'm in the middle of editing it — a movie that's called “Joe.” I'm almost done with it. And that's an amazing one because it's Nicolas Cage in a movie that’s not like anything Nicolas Cage has ever done before. We have this big movie star, it's a bigger budget than “Prince Avalanche” movie was, and it was totally fun. We had a few more toys and tools and crew but still it's just a brotherhood of people, a band of people that I work with on every movie and so you know it still has its logistics and its frustrations and its limitations but it was a cool kind of middle ground movie.
What’s “Joe” like tone-wise?
“Joe” is based on a Larry Brown novel, It's one of my favorite piece of contemporary Southern literature. He's an author that I knew years ago and worked on a documentary about him. Then my screenwriting professor in college adapted the book for me so it's kind of a fun very incestuous process but really great. Totally it’s dark as all fuck. It's a slow burn, dark heavy duty. If you read the book you'll see it's very grim subject matter. Ultra-real, a lot of the characters are day laborers or homeless people, people that are not actors.
It's Cage and this kid Tye Sheridan who is in “Mud” and “The Tree of Life.” He goes to some amazing places in this movie and it's just them and then raw local talent, non-actors with just amazing voices and faces and people that are never in movies and it's so strange and it's a totally different beast. Some of these actors couldn't read and you're telling them about scenes and having them memorize lines and it's a very cool process.
What happened to your horror remake of “Suspiria”?
“Suspiria” is caught up in legal crap so who knows what will ever happen with that one. It kind of falls into the “Confederacy of Dunces” category of “Someday these are movies I would like to make,” that I've been attached to and worked on. But it may never happen. For the bigger stuff I feel like the “Prince Avalanche” experience of letting projects be quiet until they’re real is the way to go. Otherwise it's just looks like a bunch of attachments, but the truth is I get ideas for movies every day. Only so often do they become real – hopefully more and more they become real. I've only made nine movies and I need to make a lot more so I've got to keep the momentum going and I think a lot of that has to do with spending the time I'd normally be talking about making movies and actually making them.
Magnolia Pictures has acquired “Prince Avalanche” for a release later this year. Stay tuned for a release date.