Back in the day, David Gordon Green made his name (and generated comparisons to Terrence Malick) with moody indies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow” and “Snow Angels.” He was an unlikely candidate to make the transition to mainstream, hard-R Hollywood comedies.
That was before he joined the Judd Apatow crew in 2008 to helm stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.” Since then the North Carolina School of the Arts grad has directed the fantasy comedy “Your Highness,” episodes of HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” and the latest Jonah Hill vehicle, “The Sitter,” opening this Friday.
Green sat down with Indiewire last night at New York’s BAM (he’s currently the company’s Cinema Club Chair) following a special advance screening of “The Sitter” to discuss his reasons for abandoning his indie roots and what he has in the works.
You made your name tackling moody, expressionistic indie fare. Did you experience any kind of backlash from your fanbase when you made the move to more commercial fare with “Pineapple Express”? You didn’t have a huge one, but you did have your followers.
Yeah. I was going to say, “You mean my mom?”
Critics loved you!
Yeah, I had my following. A following that I was very appreciative of and that I wish that was bigger so I could continue to make dramatic movies that are supported by the proof of the commercial pudding.
So how did “Pineapple Express” come to be?
I was making “Snow Angels” and I was four films into a very heavy, upsetting and depressing mindset, living with characters that were very dark and living with situations that were very dramatic. I needed some form of therapy to lighten up.
I’ve always worked with the same core crew of people. “Snow Angels” was a really wonderful experience in terms of working with actors. But it was very harsh and very realistic in a lot of the situations we were projecting in the movie. And then sitting in that editing room listening to characters assault each other for months and months. I was just like looking at my friends thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this again. I don’t know if I can make movies again. I’m in a very dark headspace and I’m really depressed.”
Then you make something like that and no one goes to see it. You put you heart on your sleeve, you’ve made yourself very vulnerable. At least in your head as a writer and director, you’ve projected as much intimacy as you can without putting yourself in front of the camera. Not being accepted is really difficult.
[I was] looking at my friends who know that I’m a goofball as much as cinephile [and they were] saying, “Why don’t you just exercise something new for now, try stuff that makes you laugh?” My student films in college were for the most part comedies. When I started making dramas, my film school buddies were very confused. So that was the effort. I was going to make a comedy. I have a twisted sense of humor.
And then I met Judd Apatow on the set of “Knocked Up.” He invited me out there to spend the day because he had heard that I was thinking of trying something different. I was watching his process and actually relating to his techniques that he was using in comedies, which was exactly how I employed in dramas in terms of two cameras and improvisation. So he talked about his process and I talked about mine.
After that meeting, he talked to Seth [Rogen] and told them I wanted to do a comedy. He threw him the script “Pineapple Express” and said let’s get on board. There was no big pitch. It was just a matter of having some very supportive and powerful friends letting me into the club.
Were you confident you could pull it off?
I’m wary about everything I ever do. If I’m not wary, then I don’t do it. I was very confident that I knew that I could get something very funny out of Seth. And knowing I had a secret weapon in James Franco because nobody at that point knew how hilarious he was.
My only rule from the studio was to have enough weed smoking in the movie that I could sell it as a weed movie. From then on it was awesome. They were just really supportive. What went from a very insecure place went to a very exciting place. As we started, we became absolutely confident.
It’s funny because I spoke with your friend Jeff Nichols prior to his film “Take Shelter” opening and he said your move to comedies didn’t catch him by surprise.
Yeah, because he knows me from my school days. Jeff was a guy I had come to my first “Pineapple” test screenings to watch in an audience with me. I needed to have somebody from a very stable, core part of the group who wasn’t involved in the movie to watch it with me.
What did it feel like to have a commercial (and mildly critical) success?
I don’t know that critics liked it (laughs).
Some did, but it was not critically acclaimed. That’s when I stopped reading reviews. I knew there were not-so-kind things being said. I kind of realized, if I’m satisfied and I’m happy and I’m in a good mental space, then I’m making the right choices.
It feels great to have an audience love a movie. It feels great to have your phone start ringing about all the projects you want to make. That’s why a film like “Your Highness” gets made. People say, “What do you want to do next? You just made us $100 million on this movie. Let’s go!” You become a winning racehorse and so people want to bet on you.
You take the leap that is the most ambitious, imaginable, risk that you can take.
And that was “Your Highness”?
You’ve worked with Terrence Malick, who executive produced and wrote the story for “Undertow.” Has he seen any of your comedies?
You know what? I got a funny phone call not long ago from his assistant saying, “Terry’s busy right now but he’s been talking about “Eastbound & Down” and he wanted to let you know how much he likes the show.” So that was cool. I haven’t talked to him in a couple of years, so I don’t know if he’s watched my recent films. But I know that he watches that, which is pretty awesome.
I really respect his comedic talents and the movies he wrote like “The Gravy Train,” which I played at BAM a couple of years ago. He’s got a wicked sense of humor underneath that poetic skin.
Critics were quick to compare you to Malick back when you were starting out. That must have been daunting. Especially so early in your career.
It’s tough. On the one hand, that’s exactly the company you want to keep so it’s a dream come true. But it also gives you an expectation that you’re not going to live up to, so it sets the bar too high. You’re not going to make anybody happy because you’re not going to be him. If there was ever a conscious decision, it was that I need to make something that is funny and fun and shows people that I’m not doing the same movie over and over again.
That’s kind of one of the reasons I’ve gravitated towards not reading so much. It’s a funny thing to think about in terms of the box office of my movies. The first four films made under $1 million combined. “Pineapple Express,” the opening Tuesday night at midnight made more money than all those combined during their entire lives. It’s a strange thing to think of what you’re looking for and what you’re searching for in that moment. That was very gratifying, but it was also very depressing.
It was like, “Okay, great. I have a strangely successful movie under my belt, where is the audiences for those other movies?” That was at a time I was really heartbroken that those other movies hadn’t succeeded. It’s only once I started making comedies that people started looking at those movies. In a weird way, people are commenting and shooting me down for making these movies now and the only reason people have fucking heard of them is because of what I’m making right now (laughs).
It’s all part of a master plan.
It’s definitely a strange unfolding flower. People will come up to me now, like 19-year-olds, talking about my early films. And they know me because of my recent films. So they’ve used that to research another era of my career. Hopefully I’ll have the next era of my career beginning shortly. I always want to try new things.
About this next era. What can you tell me about your adaptation of the romance novel “Q”? It will mark your first published screenplay since “Undertow.”
Yeah, I’ve written some [screenplays] that haven’t been made, and I’ve written some that have been made that I’ve taken my name off of.
Can you hint at what they are?
No, they’re my strange secrets. They’re not movies I directed, obviously.
“Q” is a pretty witty book, but I’m making a very dramatic science fiction movie out of it. It’s about a guy that is visited by a 60-year-old version of himself that gives him a bit of advice. The concept of the book, which is not a secret, is that the woman of your life — you need to leave her before you ruin each other. So it’s a guy, wanting to basically save the love of his life by walking away from her. So it becomes a really interesting naturalistic science fiction movie, set in New York with really grounded characters.
It’s not like a time-travel movie, but it deals with time travel. It’s not technical, but very intimate.
When you said naturalistic, I was immediately brought back to your earlier work.
Definitely. But at the same time it’s something that’s universal. It’s not an indie movie. It’s something that I’m developing with Sony that I want to be a great, big love story. Which would be fun. There are not a lot of ones out there.
For more from David Gordon Green, check out The Playlist’s interview here.