With sixteen features under his belt, David Gordon Green is one of the most versatile independent film directors at work today. He is equally at ease directing intimate dramas about heartbreak in rural America (All the Real Girls) and big budget stoner comedies (Pineapple Express).
Nearly one year ago we sat down with him to discuss his career, sneaking into cinemas, and his previous feature Joe, a gritty Southern drama with an amazing central performance by Nicolas Cage. David Gordon Green returns to the big screen this week with Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino and Holly Hunter, which was in production at the time of this interview.
Curzon: You have had an incredibly successful career so far - how did you get here?
David Gordon Green: I have no idea! I was lucky - or unlucky, depending on perspective. My career has been a lot of jobs one after the other, and it began very early. I grew up for the most part in Texas, where there’s just not much going on. I loved movies but I didn’t know anybody who had any money or anybody who made movies. I didn’t even know that you could have a career in movies. I started working when I was five years old: mowing lawns, doing the paper rounds on my bike, babysitting. By the time I was 12 I was making good money on construction jobs. And I was saving it all up to make movies. And then I got a job as an extra on the Tom Cruise movie Born on the Fourth of July. You can actually see me at the beginning of the movie - about three minutes into the opening credits as they are still rolling and there’s me at a baseball game, I look into the camera and I wiggle my eyebrows. That’s when I saw my first movie set and I started to have a sense of it as work. The other way I fuelled my movie obsession and saved money is that I used to sneak into cinemas. I’m still a master of that.
C: What’s the first movie you remember sneaking into?
C: Yentl?! Really? What did you make of it?
DGG: I was maybe 8 years old. It was kind of boring - but I heard there was nudity so I was intrigued! I was up for adventure those days. But then it was really about watching movies, learning from movies. For the last 15 years, since going to film school and doing this for a living I have worked with a lot of the same collaborators - same cinematographer, same sound mixer, the same production designer. A lot of my crew are people I went to college with - we’ve made films for 20 years together, and now we’re paid to do it, which is cool. What was important was that we started making stuff that appealed to our sensibility, that wasn’t defined by any sort of commercial necessity - but at the same time we wanted to experience that too. So we went through that weird transition, reaching a phase when you think ‘ok, I’m tired of not making a living’. I still had a day job throughout my first three movies. So I decided I wanted to start trying to make a living out of this and I started directing commercials. This enabled me to pay the bills, and I started to make money. Then I got to my fourth film, and I thought I’ve been making a lot of dramatic films - I wonder what would happen if I made a big budget comedy? I realised how fun that can be and how nice it was to make something goofy that doesn’t have to fit in any sort of trajectory, and doesn’t quite make the same personal demands as a very personal movie.
C: You’re really open about this. I have met a lot of filmmakers and artists who think that they are compromising by doing commercial productions. Is it also in some way liberating? Is it good to move away from having this aura of expectation which inevitably creates a demand for the same thing from you? And then audiences don’t get it and they’re disappointed…
DGG: Yeah, it’s relaxing. Terrence Malick is the perfect example: I know him, and I know he’s really funny: it frustrates me that he won’t make a comedy, because it would be hilarious. I don’t want to watch another movie with voiceover! It doesn’t excite me as an audience member because I’m expecting it now. I like to watch people work and take chances, that’s when it’s fun to watch. Maybe it’s because I’m here in the UK at the moment, but I’m thinking of guys I admire like Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle: their career is all over the place - in a cool way. They’re not always making my favourite movies but they are always going for something that you can hear a voice behind. They’re not afraid to endanger their reputation, they’re not precious about it.
C: There’s a certain bravery about that, and it’s something that shows that you can be creative in a range of ways.
DGG: I don’t know if it’s bravery, but I would say that the scariest thing to do is to make a comedy. Because you’re watching an audience respond to it very immediately. It’s one thing if you’re making a thriller - there’s a suspenseful moment and something startling happens and everybody in the cinema gasps. Any filmmaker would know how to do that, it’s pretty easy if you know the first thing about sound design! But with comedy it’s hard to fake. A lot of things have to come together to make something funny: your own personal taste, a good script, a great comedic actor, and then the whole audience’s enthusiasm for what you’re doing. If those four things aren’t gelling, for whatever reason, something falls out of your control and you’re lost. There’s no way to fake a comedy. And it’s so subjective: what you may think is funny I might think is horrible. What I think is funny may be quite peculiar. The film I'm making with Al Pacino right now illustrates that perfectly. I think of it as a romantic comedy, but not sure most people would agree!
C: There’s a lot of humour in Joe which is not necessarily comedy - and a warmth to how you filmed certain behaviours and conversations. It’s not ‘funny ha-ha’, but people have been laughing in the cinema. Does that worry you?
DGG: No. A moment of uncomfortable laughing - I love that! The cast is made up of professional and non-professional actors together, and many of them were asked to improvise entire scenes. I found many of them really funny and also there’s a thrill when you capture a performance like that, you feel like you’re getting something out of them that you wouldn’t with a professional actor. Sometimes that mixture doesn’t work but Nicolas Cage was very open about working with them too, which helps.
C: And Nicolas Cage is very funny!
DGG: So funny! There are moments when he’s talking to Tye Sheridan’s character and he goes all bug-eyed - that’s usually when the audience will allow themselves to laugh at that kind of thing because it’s a Cage-ism. Even though his character is tragic, there are moments that are open to laughing. At the same time there’s also a strange vulnerability about him and his character, even though he is clearly so strong.
C: You can almost see a parallel between Joe and his dog - they are both massive, fierce animals that need to be restrained, but also incredibly loyal and protective. A lot of what you do with direction in the film seems to be about corralling that energy.
DGG: We talked extensively about that in rehearsals: Joe’s the dog, and Wade (Gary Poulter) is the snake. We always had this concept of the story between the two characters being a dog vs snake fight: one is aggressive, loud and in your face; the other is sly, meaner and more venomous. I’ll tell you a strange subconscious thing that happened when we were making the movie. There are two improvised lines in the film: one when Joe picks up the snake at the beginning and says “nobody mess with him, he’s my friend”. And then towards the end when Wade says to Joe: “Are you my friend?” Neither of these lines were in the script. Both actors just improvised them and I didn’t even realise. Isn’t that weird? Nic pointed it out to me when we saw the completed film together. People reading the interview may not get this straight away but when you see the film it’s really freakish that it wasn’t planned.
C: Of course there’s a lot of animal symbolism in the film - not just snakes and dogs, but also many scenes involving birds, and the deer...
DGG: The birds scene was almost an accident, it was a film test before we went into production! We were filming the old bridge because we knew we wouldn’t have to get a permit. So we got there at dawn and we started capturing all these vultures flying around. It was beautiful, but they were actually feeding on dead pigs at the bottom of the dried up river. That area of farmland is overrun by little wild hogs, and farmers sit up on their roofs with assault rifles at night and shoot the wild hogs. Then they drag them off into the creek bed and throw them away. It’s disgusting!
C: This is significant because in a way the visual language of the film is all about finding beauty and lyricism in something that is really quite disturbing and cruel - as cruel as nature is.
DGG: It’s tricky because I didn’t want the way we filmed nature to be so lyrical that it got in the way of the honesty of it. The whole point of the casting non professional actors was to find the real places and the real people. There is poetry in real life, especially in the way these people talk...
C: ...And in what they do too, however harsh - I’m also thinking of the scene in which the deer gets skinned in the film.
DGG: Is it brutal?
C: Yes - but beautiful too. It takes skill.
DGG: Yeah, you have to be delicate but very firm. And we only had one deer! Nic had never done that before, but Tye Sheridan had. He’s a young man but he knew how to quarter a deer! That’s because he’s a deer hunter - he hunts deer with bows.
C: Whoo. Sounds a bit We Need to Talk About Kevin! [laugh]
DGG: [laugh] That’s a scary movie!
C: Speaking of other movies, what inspires you as a filmmaker? Do you find inspiration in other films?
DGG: I watch loads of movies, but it’s mostly music that inspires me. I love Ryan Bingham, who wrote the song at the end of Joe. When I read books I’m always thinking of the script that could come out of them. More than anything, my inspiration is travelling - seeing people and experiencing different atmospheres. I spend a lot of time in airports eavesdropping conversations. I love it if I can find a fight, and watching people and their public displays of emotion - couples making out, people crying at the bus stop. I think about the story - why are they like that? There is something very spontaneous about how people act when they don’t know they’re being watched, and that’s what I like to get from actors when I put a camera in front of them. If you find the quality of unselfconsciousness in a performance, that’s amazing. We’re often too neurotic to do anything in front of a camera! The best and worst part of being a director is that I don’t really have a craft: if you’re a composer or musician you have a craft, you can play instruments and understand music. A cinematographer has a camera, and as an actor you have your body to work with. As a director, your main skill is in hiring good people. Not that it’s an easy job, but essentially your role is to combine all these people and collaborate together. I can’t fix it if I get the wrong people.
C: Some might say that that’s a skill in itself.
DGG: Yes. But if the apocalypse comes I’m f*cked!