Even when charged with excitement over his latest film, David Gordon Green exhibits the same relaxed vibe of any one of the slow-paced small towns he has brought to life on screen. But make no mistake: Green considers “Manglehorn,” his collaboration with Al Pacino, the opportunity of a lifetime.
The film showcases a side of Pacino that hasn’t been utilized in ages. He taps into his immersive creative method to conjure the title character, a senile suburbanite navigating his own loneliness in the face of a new romance, a contentious son, and an ailing cat.
You wouldn’t be wrong to call “Manglehorn” a “pure Pacino” picture, but it’s clearly a result of the creative machinations of Green. The director sat down with us to chat about the perfect storm that arose in mixing his intimate, naturalistic voice with the intensity of his star player, beginning with how a Super Bowl commercial became the unlikely impetus for the project in the first place.
Al Pacino is one of the first actors you think of when you consider the “New Hollywood” era of the 1970s. What kind of relationship do you have with that era of filmmaking?
I’m obsessed with it. I think ’70s American films and ’80s sitcoms are my forte. One of the great signatures of that decade of movies was the talent of Pacino. If you look at “Panic in Needle Park,” “Scarecrow,” “Serpico,” “The Godfather,” and so many of the iconic movies that resonated artistically and commercially and that will live forever in the legacy of filmmaking were Al movies. That was one of the great honors of this movie. We constructed it for him, and wrote it as a love-letter and an homage to him. Even in the art direction, we planted strange, subtle references to Al’s career throughout the movie. From the art direction at the bank resembling “Dog Day Afternoon,” to the stuffed lion he carries from “Scarecrow,” to flowers from “Sea of Love” to lines from “Scarface” to “Carlito’s Way” narration. The effort was to embody a legacy of a legend.
And how did Pacino’s film history, combined with your own creative sensibilities, result in a character like Manglehorn?
The story came about in a weird way. I was literally sitting in a conference room with him, trying to convince him to do a TV commercial. I had been brought in by an ad agency to do a Super Bowl commercial, and we wanted Al to be the spokesperson. I came in to see how that would go. And the meeting didn’t go that well. But I saw this process of him taking the script from the commercial, standing up, giving it a shot, and getting frustrated with it. Like, “What if we did this? What if I kicked a field goal here? Or what if I did this?” Watching him work in that room, I started drifting from what I was there to do, and thinking, “No, no, this is a man that I need to get in the ring with.”
He said no, and we ended up getting Clint Eastwood to do it. Pacino said, “I don’t want to do it. Get Clint Eastwood to do it.” So we did, which is awesome. On the way out of that room, I said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but I’m going to be back in a year and we’re going to make a movie together.” And he said, “I love it!” So on the plane ride home, I started thinking, “Oh shit, I told Al Pacino I’m gonna make a movie with him. Now I’ve got to fucking come up with an idea.” [Laughs]
So I just started thinking about him in the room, and that process. Him talking through performance and script and character is one of the most amazing things to witness. It’s unlike any process of any actor I’ve ever seen —it’s electric. It is true performance. I tried to incorporate it into the movie, where you’ll see close-up images of him spinning around. None of that is scripted. We’re overlaying that subtext. I’d just say, “Okay, Al, talk yourself into the character. Before we film the scene, I just want you to talk about the scene.” So I’d spin him around in a chair, and we’d zoom in and out of these super close-up shots. Before he goes into the tanning salon, let’s film this thing. And then we’d just layer over it to confuse everybody, and we had these different audio tracks and really complicated mixing pans that we were using to internalize you into Manglehorn’s head. Which is me trying to exploit Pacino’s process.
And it was such a beautiful thing to watch, to let himself mumble and stumble and talk his way through things. And then, once we started falling in love with this character, we wanted to make a movie about obsession. But keeping our whole process really obsessed with Manglehorn.
You started your career working with non-actors, and Al Pacino is about as far as you can get from that. Can you talk about the differences between developing characters with non-actors and with someone as storied as Pacino?
I just wrote the introduction to a book about this. It was fun to try to put that in my own perspective of what my process is. And I think it was all born with “George Washington,” where I worked with non-actors, kids who I don’t want to ask to memorize these long monologues because it was written by a 22-year-old white guy —what does he know? But I wanted it to feel authentic and real, and I wanted to listen to them and have them interpret and do what feels natural to them. I think that’s a roundabout way of saying that I’ve always been very open to discovering for myself, leaving preconceptions behind, and letting the performance really unfold. And that’s what you have to do when you work with kids if you want them to be good. Unless you have some of these strange little savant kids, who are pretty impressive.
But in terms of trying to make something feel natural and believable and real, that’s what “George Washington” was. And when I made that movie, I was kind of frustrated with myself because I didn’t think I had the vocabulary to be a director. I didn’t know how to line up the perfect intention to get what I want, or I didn’t know the perfect adjective to get them to this place. And what I really learned through the first three or four movies I did was just to let people be themselves to some degree. And to cast really well, so you can let the actors do the interpreting for you. I’m there to be the ringmaster of a circus, but if you’re working with the character Kylie [played by Skylar Gasper] or Pacino, it’s the same thing. She’s seven and he’s 75, but they’re the same —beautiful, soulful, and don’t give a shit about the camera. They’re really pure and giving to the process. One has significantly more training than the other, but both come from this mind-blowing place of purity.
And then you have Harmony Korine, who has acted before but is known best as a director and as kind of a strange character in his own right. What comes along with directing another director? And specifically working with someone like Harmony?
He’s the most incredible person to hang out with. The greatest joy I’ve had on a set, when the cameras are not rolling, is just hanging out with Pacino and Harmony —the three of us talking shit. And not only is Harmony a director, but Chris Messina just directed a movie [“Alex Of Venice“], and Pacino has directed movies. I’m working with people who get the constraints, the vernacular, the time crunch and the respect of the process, which is really helpful.
In the fight scene —or semi-fight scene, where Pacino clobbers [Harmony, watch it here]— we were running slow that night and trying to come up with a way to shoot it efficiently. We were running late and everyone was tired. And it was Harmony’s idea: “Hey, you just have to shoot it, one take, through the van. And you just focus on the dirt. And you kind of have a frame within a frame. And that way you can fly any line from any take into it.” I was like, “Of course! Thanks, director Korine.” So, aside from it just being fun and pleasurable…it’s fun to work with somebody that wants to make the process really playful and unique.
Sometimes I’d put a little earwig in his ear and just feed him lines and say “start talking about this,” or “go piss off Al,” a few words to get him started to go agitate and improvise. He’d be fucking with Manglehorn at the slot machines or things like that. And you can see it in the editing style; it’s kind of incoherent the way we edit it. We really took liberties with jumping eye lines, action axes and jump cuts to be able to use the best of the beautiful, strange process that’s Harmony. I cast him because I was at South by Southwest when “Spring Breakers” played. So, him and the cast went on after the show and were doing a Q&A. And I was like, “He’s the one I want to put in a movie.”
One big consistency throughout your filmography is the devotion to the character of the small town. I’m sure you’ve spent your fair share of time in L.A. by now —could you see yourself ever making a “big city” movie?
I could, but you need a lot of money to hire the right extras. I get really overwhelmed when there’s a lot of background in a movie, because I’m trying to keep my eye on what all the extras are doing. Sometimes they mug for the camera, so I get really stressed out. But on a small town street, there just needs to be three or four people in the distance, and you’re good. So it’s economic. But I also think small town tales are really rarely told well. They’re either condescending or cute or something that I kind of roll my eyes at. So there’s not a whole lot of small town or Southern stories that I enjoy.
So it kind of helps for me to minimize a backdrop, which opens up a backdrop. It helps you look at a wall of keys in a locksmith shop, rather than the busyness of the downtown hustle and bustle. It’s just a place I’m always drawn to. I live in Wimberley, Texas, outside of Austin, which has just been thrashed with flooding. But it’s a place that’s close enough to go to the Arthouse and go to the Violet Crown and go to the Alamo Drafthouse to see movies. It’s 45 minutes away, but you get to take a deep breath and breathe in the trees and meet the strange, salty characters that inhabit small towns. I’m always drawn to them, more than urbanites.
“Manglehorn” opens on June 19th.