David Gordon Green is one of those rare filmmakers who has the comic power to make fairly despicable or unlikable characters oddly sympathetic, and oddly, likable . While Green believes everyone in the world is likable – and how he thinks that I have no idea – he certainly seems to love his antiheroes. Very few David Gordon Green characters one would want to hang out with in real life, but on the big screen, he makes oblivious, frustrating, and moronic fools highly watchable. Hopefully that’ll remain the case with his latest R-rated comedy, The Sitter.
Thanks to David Gordon Green being able to say a 1,000 words a minute, similarly to Danny McBride, in my 15-minute conversation we were able to cover a lot of ground. From the greatness of breakfast tacos, a topic I didn’t foresee being discussed, to Soul Surfer topping Your Highness earlier this year, Green goes in every direction possible with any mentioned topic.
Here’s what The Sitter director had to say about why one should live in Austin, going through hell with actors, dealing with ego, and when too much Sam Rockwell crying becomes self-indulgent.
I’m guessing you’re in LA?
I’m in Austin, Texas, where I live.
Oh, OK. So you haven’t made the move to LA yet?
No, I lived out there for about six months.
Most directors say you kinda have to live there.
I don’t know. I’d rather live down here because they have really good breakfast tacos in Austin, and I’m a big fan of the breakfast taco. Like daily I’ll go out and get a breakfast taco. I can walk to 40 different joints, so I get all sorts of different kinds.
So that’s the only reason to live in Austin, right?
There’s a lot of reasons, but that’s my favorite. That’s the one I sell people on. When they think, “Oh yeah, there’s a hip music thing…” There’s a million incentives to come here just in terms of culture, politics, or lifestyle. But people who are on the fence say, “Well, maybe I’ll move to Portland, or what’s another hipster city I could live in?” Then they come here and they eat a breakfast taco and they’re like, “OK, I’m here.”
I was there in Austin earlier this year and I thought it was pretty great, despite some of those hipsters there.
Yeah. No, I mean everybody’s got that. Any city you live in, it’s kinda about carving your own little niche out of it and making yourself comfortable. And this is that. I can walk anywhere. I can walk to the Alamo Drafthouse, go get a beer and watch a movie.
To start, I unfortunately haven’t seen the movie yet…
Je-sus! [Laughs] Hopefully you’ll see it. Now I get an extra ticket out of somebody, so that’s good. If this interview goes well, you might be charmed into seeing it.
Well, I’m actually seeing it for free Tuesday.
Je-sus! Well buy some concession to support the theater.
All right. It’s still kind of a lose-lose for ya.
For me it’s lose-lose. But if it’s like an AMC theater, I’ve got a history with them. I was an employee there. I worked at the Lowe’s Theater chain. So if you can go to a theater that I actually still feel I support…
Well, I’m seeing it at a Regal.
Je-sus! Nobody’s winning now!
If I really like the movie then you win a little.
Yeah. Well, then you’ll tell your friends and write nice things about it and then it will be good.
Yeah, exactly. So it’s kind of a win for you.
OK. I hope. I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed until you see it.
[Laughs] To actually start, one thing about your comedies is I feel that you’re very interested in torturing your characters as much as possible. Is that the intent or is that just a misinterpretation of it?
That’s a very philosophical way to look at it. But I really just like to torture actors. It’s more of a masochistic…you know, I like them to get crazy on me. I like the challenges of working with performers and coming up with new and inventive ways that we can spar. The idea of directing movie is great, and seeing big movies on the screen, that’s great, but I really love the production process of turning on cameras with a group of actors that you’ve assembled and challenging each other. It comes across as characters going through hell, but that’s literally because I’m putting them through hell, and I’m going through hell, and we’re on this hellishly fun roller coast.
I talked to one of your frequent collaborators, Danny McBride, earlier this year, who said one of your directions on Your Highness was, “Talk like you’re taking a shit.”
I’m like that all the time. There’s just so much more sophisticated directions to Daniel McBride.
[Laughs] Can you give me some examples?
There was a lot of that on Eastbound and Down season 3. It was incredible. We took it to new lows. And new highs. It literally, for me, is about like…directing is like puppeteering. I don’t sit at a monitor and scratch my chin and throw my beret in the garbage. I just dance beside the camera and I’m like shadowboxing and talking to people. This is in dramas, too, by the way. Speak what you will of my dramas. This is kinda just my process, is really to engage performers and play music on set, and, in the middle of takes, start shouting stuff at them and, “Say this. Try this.” You know, put a few little cues into their mouths and they can improvise in the next scenario. For example, on this last Eastbound season, in the middle of the scene I just told one of the actors to punch Danny in the face. And he did it. It sounds like chaos, but there’s really a trust. There’s a real genuine collaborative enthusiasm that gets really put into place in the rehearsal phase of any of these projects. And it tends to get violent. It tends to get violent in my low budget independent dramas, it tends to get violent in these bigger budget comedies that I’ve been doing, and everywhere between. It’s like kids playing make believe in the backyard. Ultimately, you are going to start out king of the castle on the tire swing and then you’re going to pick up a stick and somebody’s going to get hurt. We’re little kids.
That’s a good analogy. When it comes to getting violent, you once said how, when you’re making a big movie you’re dealing with a lot of greed and ego. When you are dealing with that, how do you work under those conditions?
You gotta get the cameras rolling. Once the cameras are rolling, all the greed and ego goes away. If you cast well and you’ve done your job, actors are in a place. Everybody respects a rolling camera, at least on my sets. It could be studio executives, producers, PA’s, whoever it is, anybody. I treat everybody the same on a set. But once the camera is rolling and we say “quiet on the set,” then it’s truly a spiritual place that we can let loose and nobly mess with you. Greed and ego is left at the door. Those are the things… you know, if people ask me what I hate about movies, it’s very little. What I hate about movies is putting credits together, because it inevitably cites conflict as to whose credit goes where and what size the fucking font is. And those are just lame conversations. The most amazing thing is a movie like when Jim McKay made Our Song. Did you ever see that movie?
No, I haven’t seen it.
Great movie. Anyway, it’s a beautiful movie, and Jim McKay is a real inspiring filmmaker in a lot of ways. He had a big stamp of “Film by:” everyone that made the movie, alphabetically. So he could fall in the middle and everyone that worked so hard, so the PA that busted his ass named Adam Appleson, you know, top billing. That’s putting greed and ego aside and just really admiring the collaborative process that is all to infrequent. You spend a lot of time talking to lawyers, and you’ll hear a lot of people in negotiations as to how to address their vanity the most. And that stuff is so uninteresting. I just want to roll film.
If you don’t mind giving me an example, what’s the biggest vain thing you’ve ever had to deal with, without naming names?
I couldn’t not name names because I get adrenaline going so much, and then I become a shit talker, and I’ve learned not to do that in interviews with people I don’t know very well. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Let me ask you this then. Say when you get like a bad note maybe coming from ego, how do you usually deal with it?
I don’t think I’ve gotten a bad…Like something like, “We don’t like this?”
Yeah, or “Change this”, or, “Couldn’t you make it like this?”
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. How do I deal with that? You know what? I’m pretty diplomatic about that. I say, “Back off. Let’s let an audience decide.” The Sitter is a good example. I get extremely self indulgent in making movies. People talking about making movies, one for them, one for me kinda thing. I can’t make movies for other people. I’m too self-indulgent. I would feel like I was just in a job I didn’t like if I had to do something like that. I had a lot of jobs I didn’t like before I got into movies. So I finally feel like I made it.
If I want to go away and rocket out my vision hell or high water, and I’m willing to have no one go see it because it needs to be exactly my precise vision, I’ve made movies on those terms. In all of those cases, no one went to go see them. So I’ve been there and I’ve made those choices. Movies like The Sitter, it’s a movie that you want people to go have a great time. You want them to bring their friends, get a bucket of popcorn and have a blast, and have a few laughs, and be quoting the movie on the way out the door and thinking about it the next day. That’s the dream when you make a movie like The Sitter. I’ll put a in a lot of crazy. We just throw crazy shit against the wall in the production of any of these things I work on. It is fun. And it does get violent. It’s just really fun. But some of the stuff I personally like the best ends up on the floor because it’s too strange and it’s off-putting to people that don’t want to be challenged by a three minute shot of Sam Rockwell crying in the arms of a female bodybuilder. And believe it or not, a lot of people don’t want to see a three-minute shot of Sam Rockwell crying in the arms of a female bodybuilder.
I happen to love it. I happen to think it’s incredible. It’s going to be on the DVD in the extended version for all the self-indulgent people that like crazy shit. But when you show it to a crowd of 600 people that are supposed to determine how to market the movie and get the studio’s trust behind the movie, and of 600 people, 549 say, “Get that shit out of there!” There’s a responsibility, at least I have, to consider that.
So people reacted like, “Why is the guy from Charlie’s Angels crying so much?”
Yeah, exactly. People get really…and I’m talking to a journalist at a site of people that are on the sophisticated end of movie-going, I’d imagine.
I think so.
But you gotta take into consideration that for a movie to be successful, it has to be appealing…For a movie that costs a lot of money, it needs to be successful. You have to at least consider the appeal of a little bit more of a broad culture. I try to use kind of my own ethical and emotional gauge of when to push the envelope and when to say, “All right, that’s just for me and my deleted scenes.” Some deleted scenes I would never even put on a DVD because they’re so fucked up and I would be murdered by groups of activists for having done them. I wouldn’t want anyone to be aware of them other than me and my crew. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Would you mind giving me an example?
I become very vulnerable in the process of rolling film. I become vulnerable and almost like threats; I just start throwing things out, ideas out there. If the actors and I are in sync, they’re doing things, and they’re doing some things because of our trust. And because we’re in sync, they’re doing some things that they may come up to me that night and say, “Where I went with you I love and it felt really good and it was a great process. I would rather you not use that in the movie.” Things like that. So I have to respect that.
You mentioned, when it comes to films like this, you have to make a movie for everyone. Earlier this year, I would definitely say Your Highness wasn’t a movie for everyone. That movie doesn’t play for a good amount of people, so do you think it’s just not for them or does the movie not work?
That’s why we’re having a different conversation than if we were to talk before Your Highness came out, because I was editing The Sitter during the experience when Your Highness came out. Your Highness was made…I’m still 11-years-old, basically, trapped in a 35-year-old body. So Your Highness was made as my 11-year-old dream project, and it was made relentlessly with the support of a studio that was gracious enough to trust me because of the success of Pineapple Express. They trusted me and Danny and they were really supportive of whatever we wanted to do. And we said, “This is what we want to do, and we hope to God people want to go see it.” Some people did. Actually, I get stopped on the street more for that than any other movie. But I also got the most scathing reviews for it. Not for any sort of like, “You’re a sellout” kinda thing, but more for like, “How dare you? The audacity of a movie like that!” Which, you know, in its own weird way, in its own strange Vincent Gallow of kind of way…it kinda feeds your ego. You’re kinda like, “Wow. I’m a badass.” It’s kinda like putting your collar up on your leather jacket in 1984.
That’s a good way of looking at bad reviews.
You know, you gotta have some sort of defense mechanism. Otherwise, financial and critical failure don’t look too good on your report card. So that was a movie where I did have the…I made choices to put in the theatrical release of the movie scenes that we knew the test screening audiences weren’t really receptive of. And I was really encouraged by everyone that I was working with that we could get it to work and we could get people to wrap their head around it. You know what? I think that movie will have its own life in a different time. But it wasn’t the time. More people wanted to see Soul Surfer, so let’s let ‘em go.
[Laughs] I know I gotta wrap up, but to end on, the one thing you, Jody [Hill], and Danny do a lot is making socially destructive characters very empathetic, even when they don’t really learn any lesson. Is that something you aspire to do, making unlikable antiheroes very empathetic?
I think everybody in this world is likeable. You kinda gotta unfold them a little bit. It’s been some of the fun of a movie…I’d even cite my film, Snow Angels, as a movie where we were exploring the darkness of a character but trying to find the humanity within it. Kenny Powers on Eastbound and Down is exactly the same thing. This is a man, a genuine fellow with despicable qualities, and on paper, and if you just take a glimpse and watch one episode, you can’t stand him. You don’t want to be around him. He’s the crazy uncle you wish wouldn’t come to the family reunion. But if Jody and I and the writers have done our jobs right, and if the audience is willing to stick with it, which is the reason that they make…You know, first season of Eastbound was not a success, which is one of the things that we kinda cited at least in our mourning of Your Highness, trying to think of, “Well, just because it didn’t have the time to evolve like Eastbound did,” by the third season now…second season we got really significant numbers and HBO is begging us to keep the show alive for a fourth season after we finish the third. So it’s a whole different song being sung now than when people saw the pilot.
To be able to follow Kenny Powers or Jonah Hill – his character is Noah Griffith in The Sitter and has some very off-putting characteristics, to be able to follow any of these guys, or James Franco’s character in Pineapple Express, and to be able to find the sympathy within them, the humanity within them, it’s an absolute testament to the performance of an actor and the gift of an actor to be able to say some harsh and unflattering things and still maintain that audience’s respect. Or, perhaps dismiss the audience, they close their eyes for a minute and they come back in, they take ad deep breath and they get it, and they start to see that…And some of that is in the editing room, honestly. It’s like by lingering for a few extra seconds and seeing the eyes of an aggressive character start to drop a little bit or some sort of little inflection of somebody searching for something more, realizing that everybody’s got their wounds and every asshole is an asshole for a reason. Those are really fun. Those are really depressing attributes of characters, and that’s what storytelling is about for me.
The Sitter opens in theaters this Friday.