Among American filmmakers whose careers firmly exist in the 21st century, David Gordon Green has followed one of the more unpredictable paths. A film festival darling with his expressionistic character drama “George Washington” in 2000, he remained on that path with his next three features — “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow” and “Snow Angels” — only to take a hard right turn into the studio comedy arena with “Pineapple Express,” and he stayed on that route with “The Sitter” and “Your Highness.” From there he made “Prince Avalanche,” which merged the sensibilities from both stages of his career, before veering back to familiar turf with the southern-fried drama “Joe.”
Now comes “Manglehorn,” one of the more peculiar entries in Green’s ever-surprising filmography. The movie features no less than Al Pacino in the lead role as a jaded locksmith eager to reconnect with his estranged relatives while sleepily making his way through the daily grind. He finds the opportunity for fresh companionship from a bank teller (Holly Hunter) and hangs out with a scheming pimp (a hilariously cast Harmony Korine), but that’s about as much plot as “Manglehorn” offers up. For the most part, the delicate, meandering project serves as an intriguing showcase for Pacino and Green at once, bringing his world to life with a mixture of documentary realism and subtle fantasy.
“Manglehorn” premiered on the festival circuit last fall, giving the director enough time to finish shooting another project — this time, a studio movie based on a documentary, “Our Brand is Crisis.” Add to that a plethora of TV projects and producing duties and Green’s output looks more varied than ever. In a recent interview with Indiewire, the filmmaker explained why that will never change.
You met Pacino long before shooting “Manglehorn,” but didn’t know him well. What’s it like to watch an iconic actor perform in front of your camera?
You think you know them. Probably one of the five greatest things of my professional career is hanging out between takes where Pacino’s telling us stories about meeting Brando for the first time, and Harmony’s telling whatever story he’s got to tell about his wild life. It was just amazing. And those two guys were really were magnetic together. They loved each other. I talk to Al pretty regularly and he’s always like, “What’s Harmony doing?”
How does one lure Pacino for a small movie like this?
I met him unrelated to this movie. I was talking to him about doing this Super Bowl commercial that I was working on at the time. So at the end of the meeting he was like, “I don’t wanna do it.” And I was like “OK, that’s cool, I’m gonna be back in a year and we’re gonna make a movie together because this was an amazing two hours.”
This was a two hour meeting where I was watching his process. He had the script, he really wanted to do it because it was going to pay him a lot of money. But he literally can’t do something he doesn’t get. You’ll hear occasionally about him dropping out of the movie. It’s not money, it’s that he can’t find it for himself, and if he doesn’t find it, then he can’t show up. It’s amazing — the only times you’d ever have him late for a set, he just needs you to come talk to him in the trailer because he just couldn’t find it in his head. That morning he woke up in a bad mood or had a frustrating phone call and just couldn’t get there.
In his trailer, you’d have these magical moments. You’d think these would be frustrating phone calls to get, but when people would call and be like, “Al’s in his trailer, he’s not ready right now,” I was like, that means I get to have a moment. I get to go to his trailer and talk him into it and talk him through it and put the pieces together. He’s a purist. He can’t say fake shit.
So you took the understanding of his method from the Superbowl meeting to figure out how to pitch the “Manglehorn” role to him?
Yeah, basically. I just left that meeting swarming with ideas of the intimate subtext of this performer. Before I even knew what the plot was I knew I was gonna film him saying subtext to the scenes, and then put them over the scenes. I don’t know how I could utilize that, but you know there’s a scene when he goes into the tanning salon and we just spin him on a chair and film close-ups of him talking about the scene, what’s happening in his mind, things like that. That’s what I wanted to document. In a way, the narrative’s irrelevant. I wanted to film subtext and have him verbalize internal monologues.
It’s certainly your most experimental film. How would you describe it?
It’s a collage. The whole movie’s a collage. We also would interview the side characters, and I’d say, “Come up with a story that is barely realistic — something pretty impossible, but that could happen, about ‘Manglehorn’ and how amazing he is.’ I’d do that with all the characters: I’d just interview them about this magical experience. I did it with the nanny of the girl, Harmony and his son, and those scenes made the movie because they felt like if you could structure them right, they could feel applicable to the collage.
But it was kind of just a weird part of the process. We had a short script, so we did weird shit. We did a scene where I hired a group of six painters to come in and kill everyone in the bank. Just like, “What happens if we kill everyone in the bank? And then just go on with the movie, or the movie ends. We would just do weird stunts just to see what happens. I had 15 to 20 little security cameras, and we’d just film a whole scene in the bank with security cameras. You know, it was 25 days of shooting, but it was such a vague narrative anyway, so we’d just play with images.
Why did you have so much autonomy?
That’s kind of the beauty of it. No one asked me why we’re doing any of this stuff. Why we’re casting Harmony in a movie. To me, if you wanna make an independent film that’s a complicated, challenging narrative. You make a good TV series now because you have significant budgets to make challenging content come to life in that way. You can get unique casts. Television has kind of replaced what independent film was 10 years ago.
But the theatrical experience is still really important to me. I personally love those experiences, because I’m never gonna watch “Eastbound and Down” with an audience. The idea of making a movie for a theater full of people is still really valuable for me. And with those kind of movies, you can’t have them cost much, really, if you’re going to have that kind of autonomy and your name is my name. People don’t budget based on what the script is anymore — they budget based on what the package is. If the script for “Manglehorn” is 80 pages or 120 pages, then I get the exact same amount of money to make it. Nobody really gives a shit about what the content is, as long as I can put it on a poster together and sell it in Europe.
So you get Pacino on board, and then you can kind of go wild.
And just make it less than his international value. That’s where these types of films really live — overseas.
Yet now you’re back to doing a studio movie, “Our Brand is Crisis,” with Warner Bros.
But you couldn’t have “Our Brand is Crisis” without “Manglehorn.” Getting to the intimacy of great actors, which I’ve tried to do with “Prince Avalanche,” “Joe,” and “Manglehorn”- in the way where no one’s looking at you can be daring — you don’t have to follow any rules. So I could take that confidence to working with Sandra Bullock on this new movie, a not-huge-profile studio movie, still a star-driven movie.
I approached it with so much more confidence and bravery in terms of how you would approach this subject matter — Bolivian politics — and because of the experiences that I’ve had, it’s like I’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s just make a really cool movie. It’s fun to be able to have those conversations and not be shy about it. What do you do with $25 million? How does this work politically? That’s more important than the creative question, because I can always find some weird way to do some shit. But how does that machine really benefit me? When I made “Pineapple Express,” I didn’t really know how liberating the support of a strong, bold studio can be.
But isn’t it also restrictive?
Again, it all goes back to the package. There has not been one frustrating phone call from a studio executive about this movie about political consultants in Bolivia. You know, it’s not a superhero franchise. It’s like, “Let’s make a great Sandra Bullock movie.”
You develop a lot of movies and shows with your production banner Rough House. How do you define a Rough House production?
Hopefully, we don’t know. We’ve got several shows going now. We’re going to start shooting an Amazon show on Monday here in New York. Meanwhile, Jodi Hill is doing “Vice Principals” with Danny McBride, in Charleston, and I’ll go there and tag team it with him while he jumps onto the next movie. He’s doing a movie with Josh Brolin and Danny in the fall. I’ll wrap up the show, he’ll jump onto the movie. And I’ll start something in the winter. So by having that kind of brotherhood of creative partners, that pushes you and challenges you, and will they get behind the strangest of your choices, or inspire the strangest and unlikeliest of your decisions — that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people have an appreciation for.
Are there filmmakers who you really want to support?
If you go through the traditional route of putting together the financing of something strange — that, for me, is magical, especially for cool short films and things like that. If Aaron Katz has a weird idea, it’s kinda cool to just stop by and say, “Hey, how can we help?” Or anything Craig Zobel wants to do, we just jump on board. On my way over here, I was talking to Ramin Bahrani, and he’s meeting with Rough House on Monday to go over some of his stuff. I love how these people are all interested in doing weird shit. We just sold an hourlong dramatic series to HBO, which is really just us curating anthology stories from writers, actors, directors we admire, just so we can get content that we wanna watch. Again, we’re in the kind of pioneer days of television. Let’s use some of that infrastructure and those relationships to push buttons, get conversations going, and put a little kick in culture.
What is your perception of the kind of currency you have these days? A few years ago, you were the “George Washington” guy and making waves as an indie director. Then you made “Pineapple Express” and you were the studio comedy guy for a while. Now you’re doing all kinds of stuff.
My read on that is that I just want be a character actor director. I just want be Richard Jenkins and go into a role for a cool opportunity or a weird experiment, and maybe I’m the last guy on the list and I gotta fight for it. Or maybe I’m the first guy and I have the creative respect that I get to do whatever the fuck I want in it. Maybe someone’s gonna pay me a crap load of money, and I can put another house on my ranch. There’s any number of reasons that would draw me to the subject matter. That’s kind of what I was just talking to Ramin about. You have to find something at that moment that inspires you. And for me, it’s not developing a signature move. I’m not M. Night Schyamalan, David Fincher, or Alfred Hitchcock. They’ve done it well. It’s a really smart way to market yourself, and design an industry for yourself. But I’m always going to confuse people. The second you think you know what I want to do, I wake up on the other side of the bed, and I want do something else.