INTERVIEW: Small Movie, Big Images; "George Washington" Director and D.P. Make Miracle
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 10.27.00) — Writer-director David Gordon Green and cinematographer Tim Orr pulled off a small miracle with their first feature film, “George Washington.” Shot in only 19 days in the lush wide-screen splendor of 35 mm Cinemascope, the movie aspires to more than most Hollywood movies ten times its size, scope, and budget, let alone an American independent. Using a cast of non-professional actors, Green tells the story of George and his friends — black kids and white train laborers in a depressed Southern town — through poetic images that have been compared to the work of Terrence Malick.
With its art-house aspirations and cinematic zeal, “George Washington” skipped the Sundance route altogether, going on to world premiere in Berlin, get acquired by mini-distributor Cowboy Booking and screen at the prestigious New York Film Festival, alongside the works of such esteemed international auteurs as Lars von Trier, Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee. Not bad for a first feature.
The Texas-reared Green met up with his D.P. Tim Orr at the North Carolina School of the Arts where they were attending the university’s fledgling film program. There, Orr shot Green’s documentary short on the artificial insemination of cows, “AI.” “We wanted to beat Kubrick to the punch,” laughs Orr. “Yeah, we slammed him,” Green echoes with a giggle, who looks more like the age of his kid-characters than his 25 years. During their New York visit for the NYFF, indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Green and Orr about ’70s movies, lighting and lenses, directing children, and how they made their low budget film look like 10 million bucks.
indieWIRE: How did you guys get involved with Cowboy Booking?
David Gordon Green: We met Noah Cowan in Berlin. He came up to us in Berlin and said, “Hey man, I really like that movie.” So, he had been supportive of the film since then, and wanted to get the distribution going. Of course, we were trying to sell it for 18 million dollars, but the big deal fell through.
indieWIRE: Seriously, did either of you think this was a movie that was going to get picked up and play at the major film festivals of the world?
Tim Orr: When we were making it, I knew it was going to be a brilliant movie. I thought it would do really well in film festivals, but I wasn’t so sure about theatrical distribution, because it is an art film and it’s different from most American independent films. So that was a nice surprise, but it didn’t come out of left field.
Green: I didn’t approach it naively, because I knew pretty well the independent scene; I worked in LA awhile and knew how the business went down. But in a way, I didn’t care. I said, let’s make this movie and make it by our rules, while we have the means to do it and when we can make the choices we want to make and aren’t answering to anybody but ourselves. And get a team of people we trust creatively and just try to have a great time over the summer and spend a lot of money. And if people like it, that’d be awesome, because we might be able to do it bigger next time and maybe we could get paid next time. We were running from the guts from day one on this movie. Obviously, if we were smart market analysts, we wouldn’t make a movie about 11-year-old black kids in the south that has no plot. I wasn’t looking to make “Mrs. Doubtfire” and I don’t think anyone particularly involved would even chuckle at the idea of Robin Williams in a dress.
indieWIRE: So at North Carolina, were you pretty much free to set your own rules there?
Green: There was a lot of creative freedom, because it was a brand new school and we were the ones defining what was good and bad. It also provided us with an amazing film archive.
indieWIRE: What were some of your favorites that influenced you?
Green: We should pitch the Clu Gulager short film, “A Day with the Boys.”
Orr: That was actually a good influence on “George Washington.” I found this short film made by Clu Gulager, who was a character actor (“The Last Picture Show“) in the ’70s and ’80s and he directed this short film that Laszlo Kovacs shot. It’s a very wild and great picture called “A Day with the Boys” about these kids who take this businessman guy in the woods and they kill him. We watched it three times in a row. It filtered in, in a way, among other things.
indieWIRE: What other things were you thinking about going into George Washington; in terms of getting the look you wanted, because it is an incredible look.
Green: We watched “Walkabout.”
Orr: For me, there was “Deliverance,” “Butch and Sundance,” “Days of Heaven,” of course, a lot of the ’70s films. I think the films in the ’70s look better than a lot of the films today. Certainly, films in the ’80s. It’s very raw and things look real and it’s definitely what I look for in a movie.
Green: Even the low-budget films, like “Two Lane Blacktop” and “Macon County Line,” they have this grainy “Billy Jack“-type of look to it that I totally get into.
Orr: We were dissatisfied with most independent films, because most low-budget movies don’t have a look. They just don’t look very good and there’s no reason for that. We wanted to try to make something where we took care to make it look and feel as good as we could.
Green: And as big as possible. And to show people it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any money and you can make a film that takes advantage of natural light and natural landscapes and not have to shoot under gross “Clerks“-esque situations. You can get equipment donated and make friends in the right places. Independent films don’t have to look as bad as “Chuck and Buck.”
Orr: For the budget of this movie, most films would have been shot on either DV or 16 and we shot 35 anamorphic.
indieWIRE: So the big question is, how exactly did you do it on a budget that was — is the budget publishable?
Green: It’s not publishable, but it’s probably less than that guy chippin’ ice makes this year.
Orr: People would be very surprised at what we were able to do for the amount of money we had. We wanted to make it look like a 10 million dollar production. It helped out, because we found great locations. A lot of production design was already there and Richard Wright did a great job augmenting what wasn’t there.
Green: In terms of facilities and resources, it’s a matter of: Call these places up, say, I want to learn what you do, I want to be your best friend, I want to sweep your floors, and learn how this lab works, and how this post-production facility files, and go to this camera company and do your slave labor for a month while I learn what you do and become your third cousin. It’s a matter of convincing people that you have something that’s going to make them want to get behind you and that they should be willing to do it for free. It’s a desperate process of working at a job that I’m miserable at, 9 to 5, and looking forward to every Friday. Why not just work a sweat labor blue collar third job at night, donate my time during the day to try to get involved with the right people — which aren’t necessarily the heads of studios — but they can be the guy who adjusts the lenses at the camera house.
Orr: Joe Dutton Camera in Wilmington really gave us a great deal, because they champion anamorphic. We went in there, wanting to shoot a widescreen feature, but don’t have the money to shoot anamorphic, because it’s usually more expensive for the lenses. And they just gave us a great deal.
indieWIRE: And what about the 35 mm stock?
Orr: We couldn’t afford Kodak, we couldn’t afford new film stock, so we had to shoot predominately Fuji short ends, which worked out great. There were seven different stocks used in the film, for one reason or another. We just had to use whatever we could get our hands on.
Green: A lot was donated from grants that we’d gotten from companies. I had some short films at festivals, and won some awards. And Ilford gave us some black and white for free.
indieWIRE: So how much of the look and feel and mood of the film was established beforehand verses what happened once you started?
Green: The look and feel, 100%. In terms of the actual content, 65-70%.
indieWIRE: Let’s talk about that. I read that the cast and crew lived together for a couple of weeks before production, and much of the film’s genuine quality came out of that experience.
Green: Yeah, it came out of the environment of the production. It was just tremendously effective in the chemistry of the actors with the crew, and our relationships with each other and get to a point where we’re comfortable with our vulnerability and can exploit that to our benefit. I think everyone looks at it in a very close way, as if it was a bonding summer camp for us all.
indieWIRE: How did you get the beautiful orange light of the film? How much of that was just natural “magic hour” light?
Orr: I used an antique suede filter on all the day exteriors, because I wanted to desaturate some of the colors and give it that golden glow. We tried to shoot as much of the film as we could in good light, good, late afternoon “magic hour” light.
Green: We would reschedule a scene more for the sunlight to be appropriate than the cast to be appropriate. The scene that takes place under the bridge with the Vernon character and the Sonja character, was written for George (Donald Holden) and Sonja. But Donald just wasn’t available. We needed him at this particular time so we could capture this light just right, because it looks so amazing at 6:45 when the sun’s coming through the railroad tracks. Damien had some good ideas, so I said, “Rock it out Damien.”
indieWIRE: Personally, he was my favorite actor in the movie. Not only did he have natural presence like the others, but he also gave a strong performance.
Green: He’s a guy that could improv his ass off. He spent two hours defining his character as a crack in the wall, and would trace cracks in these basement floors before a big scene and go into this intensely philosophical journey of his character. It was a beautiful experience for me as a director to be able to find an actor who’s that giving and interested in going into the soul of a new person. Without having acting training, without having read Stanislavsky — it’s instinctive.
indieWIRE: Did you actually have a script or was it mostly improv?
Green: We had a script. It’s actually close to the final dialogue of the film. There are a few scenes that were entirely not in the script, that were just tangents that characters took. The opening scene in the closet was based on the relationship that happened off the set between Candice and Curtis, and not necessarily [the characters] Nasia and Buddy at a point where she wasn’t talking to him anymore, and giving him the cold shoulder and he wanted to give her a piece of his mind. So we put them in a closet and he had nothing to say, all of a sudden. That beautiful tender moment where she’s digging for him to say, ‘Tell me that you love me,’ and she wants to love and he just looks at the wall. Moments like that feel just so much more genuine than anything a 24-year-old writer can come up with. I’m not smart enough to think of that. Give it to an 11-year-old and just put him in his place and give him that emotion and under the right circumstances, it can really take off.