While he stated early on that the eclectic careers of Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant were the ones he strove to emulate, the career of David Gordon Green has nevertheless puzzled those who expected him to follow a singular track. Perhaps because he was touted as the heir apparent to Terrence Malick in his early indie filmmaking days, a preconception was formed, and much has been made about Green’s “about face” turn toward studio comedies (three in a row: “Pineapple Express,” “Your Highness” and “The Sitter“). Perhaps settling into a pattern audiences and pundits alike are more comfortable with, Green has returned to his roots and quickly knocked out a succession of indie films. The latest is “Joe” a dark drama, but one that continues to defy genre and expectation.
Starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan, “Joe” centers on a tormented soul (Cage) grappling with the demons of his past while trying to stay on a straight and narrow path and out of jail. Complications arise in the form of a young boy (Sheridan) looking for work and struggling to deal with his drunken, degenerate father. As Joe and the boy bond, their relationship crystallizing, the ghosts of violent actions past return (as well as his deadbeat dad), threatening to undo this new friendship (read our “Joe” review here).
It’s a project that was dear to the 39-year-old filmmaker because during college, Green was involved with a documentary about the book’s author Larry Brown (made by his teacher Gary Hawkins, who ended up writing the “Joe” screenplay). “It was a story that always stuck with me and dealt with brutality with such a tenderness…” Green said earlier this week when “Joe” sneak peeked early for audiences at BAMcinematek. “That it felt like the right time in my career to make something like this.”
Green saw the movie as a Western, and said for research purposes, he only really watched “Shane.” It’s a dark, gritty picture, much like the book, but not without its moments of levity. While Green noted the book wasn’t particularly funny, he had a “hard time not squeezing in a little bit of absurdity into things, but I tried to do it within the reality and honesty of the world and didn’t want it to be distracting.”
Cage’s performance is raw, restrained, comedic and intense, and has been called one of his best turns in years harkening back to the now almost forgotten days when the actor was an indie king and before he took on an array of baffling studio pictures. “Everyone has a favorite Nicolas Cage film, everyone has a least favorite Nicolas Cage film,” Green quipped, nodding to the Hollywood and B-movie pictures that have dominated his career for the last decade. “There’s one I don’t like, what’s it called…” Green thought to himself aloud before thinking better and saying, “I shouldn’t talk shit. Working with Nic was amazing.”
Green said Cage possessed three qualities he was looking for in the role and something that no other actor could provide. “He could whoop your ass. He has a big strong, intimidating physicality. He’s won Oscars for prestigious dramatic work he’s done and he’s really made us laugh a lot as a leading man in comedy. He’s the only guy who can honestly say that. Is there another contemporary star that can say that? I don’t know.”
“There’s an unpredictable quality about him that I love,” he said. I’ve just excitedly followed his career. I wrote him a letter and said, ‘I want Robert Mitchum for this role, but he died so will you please help me out.’” Green said he wrote Cage the letter and then three days later a voicemail arrived with Cage’s husky, hushed voice, “Hey, I read the script, then I got the book and read it twice, call me.”
While Green was obviously hoping flattery and a connection to the material would spark Cage, what the filmmaker probably wasn’t anticipating was just how game the actor was. Having not worked in a year, Cage not only agreed to star in the movie, but flew the from Vegas the day after their phone conversation to Austin, Texas, where the director lives, to just hang out and ended up doing location scouting on Green’s prior movie “Prince Avalanche.” Months later, before shooting began, Cage again came down to Austin more than a month early to just hang out with everyone and get a feel for the locale, the myriad unknowns in the movie, and the role itself.
Green found Cage totally pretense-free. “The tricky thing about working with actors is that they have complicated schedules and they want a lot of luxuries and amenities, things that make life really nice and pleasant for them and Nic was like, ‘When do you want me to come out here?’ “
“He literally wasn’t on the tech scout where we know where we’re shooting he was just wandering around with us looking for where we might shoot,” Green laughed in disbelief. He would find Cage sometimes to the side, “on the bridge saying lines from the script and you’d see Joe growing his beard out, so it was a real awesome month of getting to know everyone and becoming involved in the casting. It’s just such a rare treat for an actor to be willing to go to those lengths for a role.”
Improvisation was a big part of the process too. “Discovering moments” on set as the director likes to say, and a lot of that discovery led to comic relief. “I run a very loose production, everyone gets to know each other real well, we’re finding out stories of each other and you learn about cool, funny things,” he said. “There’s a lot of humanity in humor I find, so I didn’t just want to make a movie that was burdened with violence but I wanted to shoot it beautifully. Even the most horrific images [we tried to shoot them] in a light that draws your eyes toward them, because it brings out an emotion in you rather than just repulsing you. We were playing with a lot of strange psychology on set trying to find that balance between the beauty and ugly and funny and sad, it’s just something I’m always exploring.”
Aside from Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan from “The Tree of Life” and “Mud,” Green’s “Joe” is populated with unknowns. A young sheriff in the film is Green’s next door neighbor, the foreman of the day laborers in the film runs Sam’s Bar-B-Cue in Austin, one of the antagonists in the film the director saw as a garbage truck driver in “The Dark Knight Rises” and so on. The main “villain” in the film was meant to be actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, but he was busy. Nelson had to reject the offer and said, “‘I’m already making this weird movie with James Franco.’ So Franco cockblocked me on that one,” Green joked.
Instead, they gave the third biggest role in the movie — Tye Sheridan’s drunken, degenerate father — to a homeless man in Austin that the casting directors met at a bus stop, Gary Poulter. He initially read for a smaller role, but impressed Green so much that he had him audition for the part of the abusive and indigent father who leads the family into ruin because of his alcoholism. Green thought he should okay it with Cage first. “I talked to Cage about it, I said, ‘Are you comfortable with taking on a wildcard chance like this?,’” Green recalled. “And we all had breakfast together, and Gary got up and did this long monologue from an Alice Cooper album. And that really impressed Cage.”
Unfortunately, a month after production wrapped, Poulter passed away (he essentially fell off the wagon hard). Poulter sadly did not live long enough to even see a cut of the film. “The last conversation Nic had with him was, Nic putting a hand on his shoulder and saying, ‘Just keep it together for one year, and I guarantee you, this movie is going to come out and people are going to start calling you,’” Green remembered. “‘You’re gonna be a saloon keeper in a Western, you’re gonna be a Civil War general, you just gotta keep your shit straight.’ But it just didn’t work out for him unfortunately.”
Green’s career is notable for its ping-ponging and zig-zagging. Once an indie darling, he then did three studio comedies in a row, ostensibly forsaking his indie roots only to return to make three indie films in a row. His next one, “Manglehorn” starring Al Pacino is already finished, and will likely turn up during the film festival circuit this fall. Green said his taste vacillates especially when it’s time to start flexing new creative muscles and keeping himself fresh. To that end, the eclectic filmmaker says he’s shifting gears again.
“The idea is that I can jump back and forth,” he said. “All the projects I’m developing now are larger budget, not quite so indie – but still independent minded. Some are comedies and some are dramatic works.”
Something that helps is directing episodes of “Eastbound & Down,” a show created by his producing partners Danny McBride and Jody Hill. Green said he would shoot episodes of ‘Eastbound’ in between his recent spate of indie dramas. “I think that was really helpful to all these dramatic efforts, because I get to do the funniest stupid shit that I want do on that show. So then you’re exhausted of doing funny stuff because you put 100% into making Daniel McBride say stupid stuff.”
“Joe” hits theaters in limited release this weekend.