One of our least pretentious filmmakers, David Gordon Green insists on making the movies he wants to make. Thanks to the cushion provided by big-budget forays like the “Pineapple Express” (2008) and “The Sitter” (2008), Green actually gets away with it.
In the early 2000s, Green planted himself on the map with coming-of-age character studies “George Washington” (2000) and “All the Real Girls” (2003), two films that established his taste for elegiac mood, complicated characters and a wide-angled lens. He began to assemble bigger casts but still-slight budgets with weighty dramas “Undertow” (2004) and “Snow Angels” (2007), which underwhelmed at the box office–before turning to directing mainstream comedies “Pineapple Express” and “The Sitter.”
With his new work “Prince Avalanche,” Green is back where he belongs: independent filmmaking. In remaking the 2011 Icelandic film “Either Way,” Green has made his most personal film yet. Set in early-90s Texas in a wildfire-ravaged, beautifully post-apocalyptic Bastrop County Park, “Prince Avalanche” stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as two slacker road workers assigned to repaint traffic lines along the park’s highway. They’re middle American dudes low on ambition but they’re also dreamers and idealists. While sweet and pensive Alvin (Rudd) attempts to maintain a long-distance relationship that’s already showing signs of wear, he tills the roads alongside his girlfriend’s dimwitted brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch). With a focus on character and dialogue — miraculously written in three days — the film leisurely ambles along as the two butt heads and form a close but testy friendship (trailer after the jump).
Ryan Lattanzio: “Prince Avalanche” feels more like your early, personal films instead of your more commercial comedies. You started as an indie filmmaker, then did mainstream movies and now are coming back to your roots. Why did you come full circle?
David Gordon Green: I hope it’s not full circle. It’s going to be a chaotic career until I bite the dust. The experience of making those films [like “The Sitter,” “Pineapple Express”] was more talking about making them: developing scripts, long pre-production, fingers-crossed that you’re going to get the greenlight, test screenings, reshoots. There’s a long and also very necessary process, but also you get an itch. Maybe the real scratchy part of this itch was when “Suspiria” fell through and I thought, screw talking about that movie, let’s just make a movie. I’m tired of trying to pitch things and explain to a potential financier why this makes a good idea. Why don’t I just grab great people and start making something tomorrow? Here’s a cool location that I’m passionate about. And that’s how this project came about.
Is the experience of making a passion project easier than movies with big budgets and big stars?
Those are easier because there’s a ton of money. The complexity becomes this expectation of what you need to deliver commercially and with “Prince Avalanche,” there’s no expectation. With those movies you get a nice trailer, you get per diem, you’re hanging out on set with your friends and you’re getting paid very respectable wages. I’ll lose money on “Avalanche.” Then I’ll do some commercials and it’ll be fine. “Avalanche” doesn’t exist to make money; “Avalanche” exists to exist, and to say something about who you are in the moment of your filmmaking process and in your career. Everyone from the musicians to the actors would say that.
“Prince Avalanche” is a remake of the 2011 Icelandic movie “Either Way.” How did you approach this idea of a remake as opposed to your previous, original films?
It wasn’t just a remake. This particular movie had a very efficient storyline and logistical production value that I wanted to duplicate in this particular location. About 45 minutes from my house there was this major wildfire. Walking through the aftermath of that fire seemed very spectacular, an apocalyptic background. I wanted to film a movie in this park before all this replanting. I had three months to scramble and put together a movie. I wanted it to be contained, with a couple of actors on the road, like something Wim Wenders would do. Over a drunken evening in New York I was explaining what I was trying to conceive of to a friend and he suggested I remake this Icelandic movie. I didn’t know what it was called. I hunted it down.
So “Either Way” was more of a template for this idea of an economical movie?
Yes. It fit the mold of what I wanted to do, which was a great character piece. I was interested in the concept of a guy who gets heartbroken and has no one to turn to other than this jackass that he doesn’t really respect. I’ve been in that situation and I thought that was something I could make quite relatable and put an emotional signature on, and personalize and transplant it to the ashy remains of this state park. It really spoke to me that way.
One of the best scenes in the film happens early on. Paul Rudd’s character encounters a local woman named Joyce, who is digging through the burned remnants of her home in the park. She shares a very personal moment with Rudd. How did you find this woman? I take it she’s actually a native of Bastrop County.
One of my producers, Craig Zobel, a film director in his own right (“Compliance”), is really a partner in this process. He was location scouting with my assistant director to find a house when they stumbled upon Joyce. They saw this woman out in the ashes of her home, started talking to her and she discussed looking for her pilot’s license in the ashes. They called me and said we’ve got a great location but even better, we found this amazing woman you need to integrate into the movie somehow.
We were working on what we referred to as the long weekend, where we shot a bunch of strange Paul things — fishing, working language tapes, walking around, wiping his ass with toilet paper, building his tent, cooking a squirrel — so we grabbed Paul and threw him into this scenario of talking to Joyce and when we filmed the scene I literally got chills at their interaction. There was nothing scripted; it was just her giving her story to Paul. It’s such a pivotal turning point in the movie.
We shot most of it in order and at that point we started scaling back the comedy. The movie deserved for us to go to the darkness of it, the meditative moment. It’s very odd to have these scenes with more comedic flavor and tone in the movie, and then to switch gears entirely. I look at “Badlands” as an example. I laugh my ass off through that movie. Not at the jokes but at these weird little things happening in the movie. I love that Terrence Malick can weave a subtle sense of humor. At least, he did. Not so much anymore.
Tell me about the shoot. How did you develop a rapport between crew members and between Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch? Everything looks so effortless and easy onscreen.
Everything was easy, which is weird. It’s very rare in a movie. I went to college with all my long-term collaborators, most of whom I went to film school with — my cinematographer Tim Orr, my sound mixer Christof Gebert and my production designer Richard Wright — so we had a core group. Even the dolly grip was this guy Steve Pedulla, the guitarist for this band Thursday. So it was kind of cool having a very eclectic group of people I’ve known for years. And then on top of that, Craig Zobel had a class a week at Columbia in New York and he got a bunch of the students to come down, hang out and help us out.
My script supervisor and a number of the personalities and faces hadn’t been on crews before. There was my seasoned but pretty youthful and energetic crew and then this new group of young and hungry filmmakers and some local talent from Austin. My old assistant [Joshua Locy, on “Pineapple Express”] was the art director. It’s a fun way to open up a really unlikely group of collaborators and so every day was fun, no days were stressful.
We finished two days early, which was strangely quick. It was really based on momentum and gut instincts and intuition rather than traditional development and analysis. We didn’t do any box office demographic surveys to see who were appealing to other than ourselves. But it was a small enough budget and we always looked at it like, if this movie sucks we just won’t tell anybody we made it. We’ll just hide it. Nobody even knew about the film until after we had filmed it.
Did you shoot on film or digital stock? It’s hard to place because “Avalanche” looks and feels like some lost movie from the past.
This was the first film I didn’t shoot in 35mm. This is my first exploration of digital. We used anamorphic lenses on it. We used 70s lenses so there are a lot of flaws and imperfections. We didn’t want it to have an American quality. We wanted it to feel like a strange European movie from the 80s. It could be like an Aki Kurasmaki movie.
You haven’t had a screenplay credit since “Snow Angels.” Why did you want to get back to writing?
In this specific instance, it was just for efficiency because the film needed to be written in about three days and I was the only one who would do it that quick. It was an adaptation, which is great because you can plagiarize the stuff you want to utilize and you can reimagine the things you want to reimagine. Remakes, and adaptations of novels, are great because there’s already a blueprint. I don’t know why there’s this weird backlash against remakes because what about books? You’re taking someone else’s story and you’re doing your version of it. It’s the same thing.
Speaking of remakes, what’s going on with “Suspiria,” which seems to be in permanent “pre-production” limbo on IMDb?
Nothing. It’s just not the right time for that movie to exist. It’s a classy, elegant horror movie and people want to see things that are a little more raw, like found footage. Nobody’s really begging for something that’s elegant, classy and expensive.
Since you’ve directed many episodes “Eastbound and Down,” what is your take on the TV vs. movies debate that’s been tossed around lately?
The trend is that TV is becoming a very interesting playground, and it is a fun place to play and I have a great time working with HBO. It’s fun to take a character or a scenario and really flesh it out and expand it over more than just a feature-length project. [The success of] film is a matter of where you’re looking. If you’re looking at the top of the box office to be your judgement of success or for what’s interesting out there, you’ll be limited in what you find. If you look internationally and in harder-to-reach places, there’s really interesting stuff out there. I just watched “Only God Forgives” last night.
Did you like it? I think I stand alone in liking that movie.
I loved it. It’s like a painting. And it’s slow-moving and every shot is fucking gorgeous. It’s just tone. For me, I don’t necessarily need the all-star comedy cast of “Grown Ups 2” to take care of me. I can take a very well-lit fluorescent light down a hallway and that can be enough for me in certain moments. But then, I actually would like to watch “Grown Ups 2.”
“Prince Avalanche” hits theaters August 9. Check out David Gordon Green’s pop culture diary — a list of everything he read, watched and listened to over the course of a week — over at Vulture.