The genre-defying film “Joe” presents an unexpected yet engaging blend in its two central collaborators, director David Gordon Green and actor Nicolas Cage. Achieving a stunning handle on tone and naturalism from Green, it also breaks from what Cage calls “Western Kabuki” acting towards a more rugged, internal performance. The approach uniquely fits its premise: based on the novel by Larry Brown, the film follows Joe Ransom, a Deep South ex-con who attempts to help a drifter boy Gary (Tye Sheridan) escape the abuse of his alcoholic father (a fantastic Gary Poulter).
In our Venice review we called it “a muscular and textured piece of work,” and that depth likely has to do with Green’s level of familiarity with the material. While studying at North Carolina School of the Arts, the “Prince Avalanche” director worked on a 2002 documentary about the Southern author Brown. Alongside “Mud” helmer Jeff Nichols, the crew included DP Tim Orr, Green’s professor Gary Hawkins, and producer Lisa Muskat — all of whom would later collaborate in bringing “Joe” to the big screen.
Recently in Los Angeles, we got a chance to sit down with Green and Cage for an in-depth discussion about the film and its journey, and we started with exactly how they approached the story of an ex-con struggling to steer clear of the law.
David Gordon Green: It’s a portrait of a man exhibiting restraint. There’s been plenty of Joe’s life that was not bound by those chains, and here we’re exploring a moment where he’s trying to suppress some of those active instincts.
Nicolas Cage: I remember some of my early communications with David, where we were going through the script and pointing out, “He’s simmering now, he’s set to boil, and now he’s going to pop.” That really helped me get in touch with the trajectory of the character. He’s at this point in his life where he’s made past mistakes and doesn’t want to go through that again. So he stays at home, drinks at home, but he has this code of moral ethics, and he knows that if someone crosses that code he can erupt and go back to the penitentiary.
It’s a righteousness that doesn’t necessary line up with the social system of law, but you can kind of understand why he gets to that place. Dr. Hawkins [who wrote the screenplay] even said Joe is like a “samurai who’s looking for the right way to die.”.
The Playlist: The film feels extremely lived-in in terms of production design. How much did you alter with the various environments in which you shot?
Green: A lot of it is just really what’s there. The convenience store that they go to, we probably removed a third of the contents inside because we needed room to move the cameras, maybe covered up some logos, things like that. Joe’s house, that’s all the furniture that was in that house, and then we’d add a gun rack or other Joe accents to it. We created a lot of backstory to the locations as to why they’d be like that, and how we could alter them but not significantly. It felt like a very organic process, shooting the authenticity of the performance and then the natural backdrops.
Cage: There’s a very palpable difference between working on a set in a studio somewhere and being on a location, being in a real house that somebody lives in. You soak up those vibrations, and it informs the performance.
[To Cage] You went down early before production started — did you spend any time in Joe’s house prior to shooting there?
Cage: I didn’t, but I did spend a month beforehand getting to know everybody, rehearsing with them, walking around with David. We’d go out into the woods or go to a bar in a very rural part outside of Austin and just observe things and try to absorb what I call the “genus loci” of the place, the genie of the place.
There are some places I’ve made movies where I didn’t feel anything; then there’s others—Las Vegas, New Orleans, Asia—that you definitely do. Certainly so in Austin, and I think the results speak for themselves. There’s something there that people feel when they see the movie. You can smell that house, you can smell the burger, the cigarettes, the pork rinds, the hot sauce.
Did you clear time in the production schedule for those moments of discovery, as in “Prince Avalanche” and the scene with Joyce Payne in the burnt-down house?
Green: Not really. If anything we brought some of the wild cards to the foreground. Like, the first scene that we rolled on was a scene of domestic abuse with Gary and his father, Wade. We wanted to jump on what was uncertain to make sure we had a narrative and emotional backbone that we could reference through the movie. We didn’t shoot it linearly, which I typically like to try to do in some movies, but here, there’s history to the characters that I wanted to make sure we illustrated. When we referenced them, I wanted to make sure we experienced them already. So it was a little bit different in that way.
And also, we weren’t integrating into an environment where people really existed. We were finding characters, finding environments, and then blending the two of them. As opposed to “Avalanche”, where we actually were in a woman’s own home.
The way you integrate reality into your films is interesting. As opposed to a film like “Under The Skin,” where Jonathan Glazer used real people and then revealed the artifice to them after the scene, it seems you lock everything down beforehand and then aim for reality during filming.
Green: I actually can’t wait to see “Under The Skin”. Jonathan Glazer is brilliant.
Cage: I don’t know this movie, what is it?
The film’s kind of a “Man Who Fell To Earth” situation with Scarlett Johansson, who plays an alien stalking men in a van on the streets of Glasgow.
Cage: Wait, is this like some Cronenberg, Marilyn Chambers thing?
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. But they shot portions of it by installing hidden cameras in Scarlett’s van and having her pick up real Glaswegians.
Green: Which she absolutely could.
Cage: Holy shit. That sounds incredible.
It is. But for instance, the scene in “Joe” where he and Gary look for the dog — it had a very lived-in feel that set everyone involved loose.
Green: Well, that is pretty much what happened. It was really just knowing Nic and Tye and wanting to find those moments of levity that they had. So none of that was scripted. Nic had this idea of the lighter early in production, he sent the props guy to find this great Dupont lighter that made the “ping” noise, and then used it as an accessory in the movie. And then we had a location of this old boat graveyard—which I actually use again in [Green’s next film] “Manglehorn”—and just let them walk and talk. I don’t think there was ever a time in the movie where I’d say, “Nic, you missed a line.” We’d just let it unfold, and when it felt right we’d move on.
Cage: He did say once, “Order in the court.”
Green: Huh? Wait, what?
Cage: [To Green] “Order in the court.” I was doing this scene in the bar and I was getting pretty loopy trying to find the performance, making a lot of jokes and forcing the bartender woman to have some beer. I remember you just went, [yells] “Order in the court!” [Both laugh]
Yeah, but I just wanted to find this politically incorrect father figure, filtered through the vessel of an ex-con who maybe isn’t doing the right thing by giving him a beer, or saying if you use the “ping” from a lighter you’ll get hookers. Oddly that helped the film later on though when Joe gives Gary the lighter, because when I need to light a cigarette it provides a better way for me to invite Gary Poulter’s character into my truck. Normally Joe wouldn’t want anything to do with his character.
Poulter’s character Wade is such a great creation, in terms of that mix of fictional and real attributes we were talking about, like his love of breakdancing —
Exactly. Did you get a sense of his full background in regards to that living in Austin? [Poulter, discovered for the part while homeless by Green’s casting director, passed away in March]
Green: That was what he did as a living when he was younger, was breakdancing on the street corner. That was something that was too good to resist, a perfect illustration of letting someone integrate themselves. I mean, that dude can dance like a motherfucker.
Clearly. [to Green] And it was in that slow-motion scene of him dancing that reminded me of your–in my opinion–musical qualities, not just with the score, but with editing, shot composition, performance. Do you create those moments in the writing stages, and then keep them in your head when shooting? Or is it something that’s more found in post-production?
Green: Usually I have them in my head. And usually I just listen to good music and then have composers try to assess those images and create something unique with it. For this movie in particular I would listen to bands like Demdike Stare, Eluvium, music that had an electronic quality to it, had a pulse.
We were really conscious of the beat of the movie, and tried to avoid some of the languid southern clichés of music — that folky, twangy, regional sound. It’s a very gritty movie in a lot of ways but I wanted a very slick sheen to it, more so than I’d done in a lot of my other ones.
You definitely keep the regional flavor present though in the verbal interactions between characters, which had some people in my screening leaning in to catch it all.
Green: I like that. You know I had the same thing because I’ve just finished a movie where a lot of it is in Spanish, and so we just decided to not use subtitles at all. I think you put yourself in that environment that sometimes you do or don’t understand. If it’s something that needs exposition that’s not illustrated with the physicality, then you can subtitle it. But we were telling the entire story we needed to on the look on the characters’ faces and their inflections. Everything else is just sing-song.
How faithful were you to Hawkins’ original script?
Green: We shot the entire screenplay, but we would open it up to scenes where — I mean, like when I got to know Brian Mays, who plays the foreman of the work crew, and Gary Poulter I thought, “We’re missing a huge opportunity if we don’t just sic these guys on each other during a scene. So in the woods I said, ‘Gary, go over on the hillside, we’re about to wrap up for the day, we’re gonna film you smoking a cigarette.’ And then, ‘Hey Brian, go over there and give him a piece of your mind for being lazy.’ “
That was an entirely improvised scene. We did two takes, those guys just went at each other, and you got the strange poetry of the way that they speak. Or maybe you don’t understand what the hell they’re saying. [laughs] But I don’t think there’s any misunderstanding of what that scene’s about.
[SPOILERS] Can you both talk a bit about the bookending shots of the film? As essential as they are to the structure of the film, they actually came late into the production, correct?
Green: Yeah, they weren’t in the book and they weren’t in the original scripts. That ending didn’t even exist until halfway through production, when we really started to know the characters. It was important for me to have a moment of optimism, a moment of reflection, and it really started to become clear how this movie should end. I called up Gary Hawkins and said, ‘This is what I’m feeling as I’m getting to know Gary and Joe, and I want to emotionally find this place at the end.’ And then he wrote that scene really quickly. It really did feel like a perfect parallel.
Cage: It’s amazing to me the way the movie opens with the same shot and what begins with a smack across the face ends with an angelic smile on Ty Sheridan. What becomes with tree poisoning ends with tree planting, and even the obscured actor kind of has a Joe-like quality to him. Joe and that man are cut from the same mold. [END SPOILERS]
[To Green] I read that you and Jeff Nichols both worked on the documentary about Larry Browne.
Green: Yeah, we were both production assistants on “The Rough South of Larry Browne”.
Have you two talked about the influence from Browne on both this, obviously, but also “Mud”?
Green: Oh yeah. Larry was a very inspiring person to us. There’s actually a picture on IMDB of me and Jeff on the set of that movie. It was right when I graduated college, ’99, when I was 22, 23. I worked on that the summer I was making my first feature, so I did that for money. Just sitting down and talking to Larry about his life was great. It was before I knew his literature, and then he just became a very inspirational voice for guys like me and Jeff, who didn’t come from an industry family or have the navigation that could be very helpful to us. He just wanted the voice of a guy that came from a place a little left of center, and he gave us the confidence that we could do it too.
Cage: Larry’s one of the great success stories, in that he was living where he was living and working in the fire department, then decided one day to become a writer. He writes a story and sends it to The New Yorker, it gets rejected, and he writes another and another. Fifteen years go by, nothing happens, and then all of a sudden he becomes one of the great voices of Southern literature. Just amazing willpower and tenacity.
He loved dogs. When he started making some money that’s what he spent it on, he loved looking at dogs, making comparisons between people and dogs. That’s one of the many things I enjoy in the movie is the relationship between Joe and his dog. I felt like Larry was in the room in some way.
Green: One of the production assistants on the movie came up to me the other day after he saw the movie at SXSW and said, “Joe is the dog and Wade is the snake. At the beginning of the movie Joe lets the snake go and says, ‘Let him go, he’s my friend,’ and then at the end of the movie the snake asks him again ‘Are you my friend?’ Isn’t that interesting?
“Joe” opens in theatres and iTunes this Friday, April 11th.