“It belongs.” That’s the sentiment legendary actor Al Pacino conveys when it comes to working with David Gordon Green on his new film, “Manglehorn.” In this case, Pacino was referring to some of the odder choices the director makes in the movie —sequences that seem bizarre on paper, yet somehow make sense in the grand scheme of the film. For “Manglehorn,” these include a musical number, cat surgery, and Pacino repeatedly sticking his hand in a bee’s nest. Whenever Green mentioned these ideas, the actor just went with the flow. He may not have been able to explain why they were in the film, but to him, they fit.
“Manglehorn” features Pacino as a lonely locksmith who writes letters to a long-lost love. Co-starring Holly Hunter and enfante terrible filmmaker Harmony Korine (seriously), the film is an intriguing character study regarding an older northeast transplant living in Texas searching for salvation. I sat down with Green and Pacino during the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about their work on “Manglehorn,” where the title of the film comes from, and the scene Pacino had difficulty shooting.
I was wondering if you could both talk about the first time you became aware of each other’s work. David, when was the first time you saw one of Al’s movies?
David Gordon Green: Well, I can’t remember the first movie of Al’s that I saw, but I do remember when Blockbuster Video opened. It was the second Blockbuster in the world and it opened right down the street from our house in Richardson, Texas. The first movie I rented at Blockbuster was “Author, Author.”
Al Pacino: [Laughs]
That’s a unique one!
Pacino: I love it. I am glad someone saw it!
Gordon Green: Imagine an 11-year-old movie nerd walking into a video store that advertises “We’ve Got 10,000 Videos.” And I am usually going to the corner store that’s got a few selections of “Pete’s Dragon” and a pirate movie. And all of a sudden, I get 10,000 movies and I had to choose one.
Why did you pick that one?
Gordon Green: I don’t know. Something drew me to it. But I have been a fan of Al my whole life. I am a huge fan of ‘70s American films and I think in my late high school years and my early very formative college years, watching movies like “Panic in Needle Park” and “Scarecrow” [were important]. Obviously “The Godfather” and “Serpico” [were key], but for me personally, there was a resonance most immediately to “Scarecrow.” There’s a very vulnerable character in that movie that I just love. And I just fell in love with the heart, tragedy, and beauty of that character. I always dreamed of making a movie with him.
Al, what about you? Which work of David’s did you see?
Pacino: I was really thrown by “Prince Avalanche.” That really got me. David has got a great eye, and he writes this relationship with these characters that come alive in a funny, deep way. And I thought, “gee, I love this guy’s work.” So then he sends me a script.
It’s interesting because we don’t normally hear you with a Texas accent, which you have in this film.
Pacino: Yeah, that’s the idea. And I was thinking all about that, coming from the Northeast, where this character sort of comes from, maybe even…
Gordon Green: He comes from up north somewhere but has been [in Texas] for awhile.
Pacino: Yeah, I was trying to get —and I am so glad you mentioned it so I can finally get to tell Dave— a person from another place who adapts the style of speaking. He’s been there for, like, over 30 years, so you pick up certain things. But you’re not a native. So I am trying to do both. It’s too damn subtle for [a born Texan].
So where does the word “Manglehorn” come from?
Gordon Green: I was working on a season of “Eastbound & Down,” and a hurricane was coming to the beach, so we all had to evacuate. So I got in my car and drove to a little town where a guy I know, a backhoe driver, has some land out there and he was going to let me crash there. When I was driving around, I couldn’t find the street sign, I was calling him saying “I don’t know where I am. But the street I am on is called Mangle Horn.” It was two words. And I said “What the fuck is Mangle Horn?” And he said “Oh that’s the old man, his name was Mangle.”
What an odd first name.
Gordon Green: Yeah, Mangle. Who names their kid Mangle? You know, I like drawing from things in my life, either a dream or some sort of experience or something weird that I am exposed to. In an interview Holly [Hunter] did a few minutes ago, [there was] this weird couple words that she said. I thought, “oh that’s a good title. I’ve got to write it down.” It was “Rigidity descends.” That’s like a novel. So I kind of collect little things that I like. And when I met Al, pieces of “Manglehorn” started coming together.
Did you have the film in mind before you met him?
Gordon Green: Not before I met him, no. I met him and that’s what inspired the character and the film. We first met at the boardroom at ICM. And then a year later we met at his house and ate strawberries and talked about a script.
So Al, did you get stung by bees in this film?
Pacino: I actually did. It didn’t last long. I was lucky. They were the kind that really hurt you and swells you up. They just give you a little bite on the neck.
Gordon Green: I have to say that I am really proud of Al. We had plans in case Al was really scared of bees of how we would try to shoot it or if we needed a green screen or something. Or do it with a stunt double. And Al was like “no, these don’t bother me.”
Pacino: I like all those bee scenes. I am more apt to be hesitant when I have to work in a tree.
That scene where you and the cat are sitting in the tree, with your feet dangling off the branch, is great. How did you go about that?
Pacino: We talked a lot about it! And I remember being on that tree thinking, “I know I can do a little bit longer than this cat.” I got to know the cat and I know the cat is not going to be happy. I believe I said to David, “We’ve got about eight seconds before this guy starts to go, and I don’t want to go with him!” I don’t have his facilities.
Gordon Green: What you see in the film is exactly what we had. There was not a second on either end. About a second after we finished, the cat starts twitching and Al says “OK, we’re done!” [laughs]
Pacino: But it was long enough.
Gordon Green: It was perfect! It’s just on enough to go, “what the fuck are they doing and how does he get down from there?”
Pacino: That’s what makes Dave’s films so…you almost feel like you’re being touched by them. Because he does things like that, and what it does is it leaves you with a feeling of something you don’t even know yourself, and you’re sort of in a world [where] you think anything can happen. That’s why when he works that way, he works like a modern artist, like a Jackson Pollock, to see how is it forming. He is creating a world. But it isn’t the world that we usually see in movies.
It’s a step off.
Pacino: Yes, it’s a step off, and it’s hard to define it, even now when I am trying to describe it in interviews.
I really enjoy that there is a musical number in this movie.
Gordon Green: Yeah, I just ended up going to a Wednesday night gospel service with a friend of mine at a church, and those two people were singing that song and I was like, “we should have that in the movie.”
Why did you think that would fit into the film?
Gordon Green: Lyrically, I think it’s really appropriate. And I like the spontaneity of two people feeling something and just walking into a non-traditional place to express that…
Pacino: Also you’ve got the two characters who are apt to fall in love.
Gordon Green: I remember when I pitched it to Al, I said “I met these people and we are going to have them in the bank singing a song.” And he says “It belongs.”
Pacino: You don’t even know why it belongs but somehow…
Gordon Green: That’s also coming out of the harshness of the cat surgery. I wanted to look at love in the most visually difficult way you can look at love. You can look at love from that veterinarian, who’s a lover of animals, who has a soothing warm, loving voice and is doing something that takes intellect and compassion. And yet somehow, for some reason, that type of love is very tough to watch. There were a lot of people yesterday in the screening who looked away from those images, and yet that’s someone meticulously concentrating on something because of his love. There is open heart surgery literally as Al and Holly’s characters are starting to put their pieces together in something that’s equally as tough to watch because of its own awkwardness.
David, during the Q+A at the premiere, you mentioned the idea that Al’s character is a “Geppetto looking for his Pinocchio.” Can you both expand on that a little?
Gordon Green: The movie has always been a fable for me. It’s like a modern-day Aesop’s Fable. And I have always loved the Geppetto character. Even in some of Al’s wardrobe, we were looking for that timelessness of heavy wools and leathers and things like that. I have always loved the longing this character has, wanting a son, and he lives in this world of puppets and imagination. It’s kind of this isolated world. It’s important to me and very relatable to this tale of a locksmith.
Pacino: I didn’t know anything about [the Geppetto connection]. David never informed me of that. But it sounds good to me!
“Manglehorn” has no release date as of yet, but that’ll likely change soon.