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David Gordon Green On Bridging the Two Chapters of His Career With 'Prince Avalanche' and Location Scouting With Nicolas Cage

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 7, 2013 at 12:0PM

You'd be hard pressed to single out a contemporary filmmaker who took a detour more surprising than the one David Gordon Green did. After drawing comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick for poetically capturing southern life via the small-scaled indies "George Washington," "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels," Green opted to go mainstream with the gross-out comedies "Pineapple Express," "Your Highness" and "The Sitter." While his first foray into Judd Apatow territory was a success, both commercially and critically (for the most part), his two follow-ups disappointed at the box-office and received mostly negative notices, leaving many to wonder if Green's time was up. Clearly it's not if his latest return to form "Prince Avalanche" is anything to go by.
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The Cinema Society Emile Hirsch, David Gordon Green and Paul Rudd at a screening of "Prince Avalanche" hosted by The Cinema Society & Gents.

You'd be hard pressed to single out a contemporary filmmaker who took a detour more surprising than the one David Gordon Green did. After drawing comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick for poetically capturing southern life via the small-scaled indies "George Washington," "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels," Green opted to go mainstream with the gross-out comedies "Pineapple Express," "Your Highness" and "The Sitter." While his first foray into Judd Apatow territory was a success, both commercially and critically (for the most part), his two follow-ups disappointed at the box-office and received mostly negative notices, leaving many to wonder if Green's time was up. Clearly it's not if his latest return to form "Prince Avalanche" is anything to go by.

A unique blend of his lyrical qualities paired with his mainstream comedic ones, the film, a remake of Icelandic comedy "Either Way," centers on a mismatched pair (played by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) who spend a remote summer together repainting traffic lines in the aftermath of the 1987 Texas wildfires that devastated miles of wilderness. In his review out of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where the film world premiered, Eric Kohn wrote, "Pairing a lyrical vision of hope and renewal with sophomoric comedy tropes, Green shows that the two periods of work that comprise his career certainly came from the same person."

Indiewire sat down with Green in New York to discuss the film, his recent win at Berlin for Best Director, and his upcoming indie thriller "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage, that world premieres soon in Venice. "Prince Avalanche" opens this Friday in select theaters and is currently available on VOD.

The last time I interviewed you was at BAM following a screening of "The Sitter. You spoke of hopefully soon reaching the next era of your career following your foray into studio comedies. Do you feel like this film films kicks off your new era?

I don't know. I think at that point I was hoping to jump into some horror films and documentaries -- I had some aspirations in a different direction -- and for one reason or another those kept falling apart. But I do feel like this is a movie that bridges the two chapters of my career in a way that I'm actually excited about. It was unintentional, but I think the reaction has been really positive from people who were fans of my earlier dramatic work and also people that are fans of my bigger, more commercially-minded comedy stuff. It's kind of fun just to see both of those audiences show up to the same movie for once, because it's been really one or the other, black and white for a while. And I love the idea of not being so discriminating with your audience but letting everyone kind of come in and enjoy.

Was that deliberate on your part? Because "Prince Avalanche" really does seem like a perfect bridge between the two stages of your career.

No, it really wasn't. I didn't know what I was doing getting into this movie. The idea was to strip away all the baggage of the politics and paperwork of making a big budget studio movie, where we could have it cost so little money that it's just me and my trusty group of collaborators working on a great character piece: find a couple of actors, make it really bare bones, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. But I didn't know if we were making a comedy, if we were making a drama, where it would go. It was a very organic process. And it kind of just found its own voice during the production.

The woman that Paul [Rudd] meets going through the ashes of her home was not in the script, that was not an actress, that was just someone that we met and encountered during the production and we integrated her into the movie. And actually, that's a pivotal note, because when we met her, everything changed. I think we were constructing more of a comedy until that point. Some of the things we shot -- a lot of it we shot in order, but certain things we shot out of order -- had a comedic slant to it, like Paul reading the breakup letter and eating this cookie and we kind of had a funnier version of it. But now you can see, in the aftermath of her, a kind of absurdist, weird remnant of the comedy that we were making that's not in conflict but kind of in harmony with the drama it became. And then we basically just went more for the emotional attributes of the movie than the comedic.

It's based on this Icelandic film "Either Way" that had a very beautiful balance between characters and nature, and their environment. I was really striving to retain that although we were relocating it and doing our own personal version. I wanted to kind of keep that in mind as well, so we're making a movie that the location is very much a character in the movie, at the same time we're this character piece, at the same time we're a dramatic film dealing with things that make you laugh, oftentimes. It was a lot to juggle.

You were talking earlier about how the film was received. You went to Sundance, you won the award in Berlin. When I last interviewed you you said you had stopped reading reviews, that you were done with that. Are you now reading them again?

No. I'm one of the believers that if you believe the good, you have to believe the bad. And I think those can really start to affect a filmmaker's path, just as much as commercial success or failure would. If you look at either of those I would be very perplexed by my career. Because some of the work I'm most proud of was commercially or publicly probably perceived as failures. Every now and then my mom sends me an article or review or something that has a specific insight, and I'll read that. If something just feels like it has a specific value or perspective, or if I've had a really interesting interview and I wanna see how was interpreted, sometimes I will out of my own curiosity. I really do find myself in the most healthy possible way looking to my group of collaborators as my navigators. And when they're hard on my I know it's time to start thinking about new things and when we listen up and we decide to take a challenge together then we do it collectively.

So what was it like to win the award in Berlin?

It was awesome. It's the very first film festival I ever went to with a film, so I have a great nostalgia for Berlin and I have an incredible appreciation for that environment, that festival, and how supportive the German audiences have been for all my movies except for "Pineapple Express," that wasn't received well in Germany for some reason. I was on a press tour and we were promoting the film through Europe and all of a sudden our plans to stop in Germany were circumvented. But for the most part, I've just really love German audiences. The very first film I made, "George Washington," I remember the first time any movie I'd ever had played anywhere was in this beautiful old theater in Berlin. It was a thousand seats sold out for a movie by no one of note starring no one of note with no concept. And there was just that strange appreciation for that movie at that moment, and so it's just been a really amazing relationship I have with not only that festival but that city.

"Prince Avalanche" came out of nowhere for fans following your work. You had all these projects in development. You had the remake of "Suspiria," which I think you're still working on?

Yeah, maybe. It's was one of those times where you kind of get caught up in other things and need a little bit more momentum, and a case of how often how hard do you want to fight to make something that the world doesn't seem want.

Well that, and we talked earlier about the science fiction film that you were also going to make for Sony.

Oh, "Q."

Yes! What happened to "Q"?

[Laughs] Well, that's what I'm saying, this film kind of came out of nowhere.

Earlier, you had talked to me about the sensation of becoming a winning racehorse following the success of "Pineapple Express. The two comedies that you made after weren't as financially successful. Did that at all account for you going back to indie?

What it did is it gave me options because it put me in a financial place where I would do what I want. Bills were going to be paid for and I had just had twin sons born around that time, so it was nice that I could kind of have responsibility taken care of. Those movies provided a necessary financial foundation so that I could consider strictly the merit of whatever I wanted to do without any sort of financial consideration, which is awesome. I feel very grateful that the industry that I'd struggled to exist in all of a sudden embraced me. So that was nice to be able to make a good living and settle in with the fact that I don't even need to echo anything I don't want to do. And that's fun. I've been really fortunate to have lots of opportunities to do commercial work and balancing strange little personal movies with bigger budget nicer paychecks. I can kind of pick and choose.

So there was no pressure to make a move in a direction that was of any financial consideration after that. And I found this location that I responded to in Bastrop, Texas that was affected by this wildfire. I knew I had a very short window before it was in bloom again. It's like when you have a great actor and you have a little time slot where he's able to make a movie something you have to fast forward it and kick everything into high gear and rush the movie into production, but we were rushing it for the location, because that was going to be the central character. So it was great to be able to pull a plug on a number of the projects I had in various stages of development and be able to run with this. And it can be pretty frustrating to know that all the projects that I had seeds of ideas of or are in various stages of vulnerability or production or development, it's weird that they're announced in a way where people have this expectation that I'm doing things, and then people ask me for jobs and people are asking me why I'm doing this and that. Which, as a movie fan, I have this great appreciation for because I always want to see the what guys that I like are up to and what properties and projects they're doing, so I see that, but as a filmmaker there's all of a sudden this... like my mom will call me up and go "So, when are you going to make 'Little House on the Prairie'?" and I'm like, "Well, it's not been written yet, but hopefully someday it'll come together and we'll all be very happy."

Purely based off of something she had read online?

Right, exactly. She probably has a strange habit of Googling. So with "Prince Avalanche," a goal of that project was to do it really quietly, and without anyone but the Icelandic filmmakers knowing what we're doing. Agents were asked to be discreet and we put it together for so little money that it wasn't a lot of conversation or scripts going around. We put it together really realistically and practically and put together a really romantic vibe of production where we could actually strip away all the expectations and bullshit and focus on everything that we love about working with actors. So all the technical crew designed an environment where you could make something really pretty and really simple, and focus on the performance.

Your upcoming Nicolas Cage-starrer "Joe" seems dark, kind of hearkening back to "Snow Angels."

Well "Joe" is very much a companion piece to "Prince Avalanche." It's like it's dark, nasty, older brother. Actually, Nicolas Cage helped me location scout for "Prince Avalanche," which was really fun. We started talking about the movie then. And the first time I ever showed anybody the movie, Cage was there. "Avalanche" is about the aftermath of a genocide of trees, and "Joe" is about tree poisoners. It's all very much the balance of man and nature, and the conflicts he has with himself. It's just "Joe"'s the saltier, grittier, more of hard southern kind of tale.

This article is related to: David Gordon Green, Prince Avalanche, Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Interviews, Sundance Film Festival, Terrence Malick, Nicolas Cage, Suspiria