It’s been a rough few years for David Gordon Green. The once revered indie darling began to explore new territory as a filmmaker, making studio comedies with mixed results. Pineapple Express was met with a lot of love, but his two followups Your Highness and The Sitter were either dismissed or outright loathed. For those that shook their heads at his recent output, Prince Avalanche will be a welcome return to form for the director, and not only because it’s free of the studio system and a large budget.
For Green, it’s a logical extension to the more under-the-radar work he’s been doing lately. The movie (which stars Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd as two sparring highway road workers) didn’t get a major press release when it began filming, it’s presented a low profile marketing-wise, and according to Green, there’s a reason for that.
Sam Rockwell told me a few weeks ago that you’re one of the best actor’s director he knows. How do you score that kind of credit?
Well, Rockwell is one of my favorite human beings in the world, so it helps when you’re really cool. I give them a script, talk about character, and incorporate their ideas into a draft of the script. We do a lot of prep and have conversations about what makes a character tick. I try to let them loose, not necessarily sticking to the script. You should have fun with it while being who we created.
I’m not a guy who does a lot of coverage and makes them do the scene over and over from 12 different angles. I just don’t like doing the same shit a lot of the time. I have a short attention span, so I get bored. I like to come up with a way that efficiently covers a scene and is open to improvisation. I want to have an exit strategy if we need to edit our way out of a scene, but other than that, I don’t get a lot of gravy shots.
I think there’s a momentum and freshness they respond to. I’m never looking for the cool shot, but the great performance. I prioritize it like that, maybe even to my downfall. I don’t feel like I’ve made too many casting errors in my life, whether it’s non-actors or working with someone like Rockwell.
Is it like that for every actor?
For actors who can think on their feet I think it works really well. I’ve worked with a few actors who aren’t really open to the improvisation process, so those are the guys I don’t click with that well. I have an expectation of an actor understanding that character so well they don’t need to be told what to say.
If the script works and it feels natural, then it works for me. If not, then I want them to be able to say nothing or say something different. They have to trust me to make them look good, while I have to trust them to be believable and interesting for a long period of time.
What creates that trust?
Honesty, not being manipulative, or disrespectful to the space or process each actor has. Every actor is different. Some people want you to read lines with them, while others want you to leave them alone while they listen to their headphones. What was amazing with Rockwell is that we’d do a dramatic scene but he’d be listening to Barry White and dancing off-camera, but he’d be ready to go when we started shooting. He likes to contrast the elements. Other actors want to be really in the moment, feeling that emotion they’re about to walk into.
How about Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch?
They’re kind of in the middle. These characters were identifiable to them and myself. In the writing process, I felt like I was writing two sides of my own conversation, which these guys embody well. There was never an insistence they stick with the script, even though Emile has a six page monologue that’s verbatim from what’s in the script, because it worked. What we did in that scene is play it counter to the scene: it’s written funny, but I had him play it dramatically. I like the strange sentiment he has telling that story about not getting laid.
When do you know if a performance or duo will work?
Sometimes you don’t know until editing. I knew with these guys it would work when we sat down and ate seafood together. Watching them talk was very funny because they have nothing in common. I was fortunate to have their interest. Everything fell into place in a very convenient way, so I knew it would be special from the second we started rolling.
At the same time, nobody knew we were making something, so if it sucked, we were just going to throw it under the carpet.
Was it after the Clint Eastwood Chrysler commercial that you wanted to work with a smaller crew?
Yeah, I do a lot of commercials and love the anonymity of it. You can make a commercial and nobody knows who did it. Like a character actor, I want to disappear into the work and have it be about the work, not who directed it. That way I can try new things. Making that Chrysler commercial, there was such a freedom to that production that we knew Eastwood would be our anchor that gives us a prime spot during the Superbowl, but we were in a van with a small crew capturing small elements of nature. That was an inspiring process, leading me to leave the spectacle behind and make something intimate. That intimacy meant calling upon a crew with great experience and young talent that’ll work for donuts who want to make a great movie together.
There are some filmmakers who say that no matter watch the budget is, making a movie is making a movie is making a movie. Do you agree or disagree with that?
This feels incredibly different than Your Highness, because there’s major money involved there, people looking at you as being responsible for their investment, and the expectations Pineapple Express created. I kind of reject those expectations, because I don’t want someone prejudging me. In that case, everyone was prejudging me with really open arms to be excellent. Those things aren’t irrelevant in the business of film, but they can be frustrating burdens to bare when you’re trying to balance commerce with the bizarre project you’re trying to produce.
On Avalanche, it cost almost zero dollars to make. Financially we could put the money together quickly because the value of Paul and Emile. We knew we were going to be fine, so we had total creative freedom. My mom and the whole family tree can come see this opening weekend and the movie will be okay. We kept everything modest.
Do you pay attention to people who say Your Highness and The Sitter are examples of selling out?
To be honest, I don’t. I think if you believe the good press you have to believe the bad press, so I just neutralize them and try to work from a pure place. It’s nice to get paid, fabricate props in Ireland, learn about special effects, and shoot some spectacular things. I have my dream job. Not every movie is for everyone, but what movie is? I’m not out there making crowd-pleasers, really. My mom would be pumped if I made Forrest Gump, but I don’t know if I have that in me. I’m a little too perverted and artistic, and those two sides bump and grind into each other. Sometimes they fall into sync, like with Prince Avalanche, which invites a dramatic independent audience and a more accessible comedic audience. I do believe this is a movie that can bond audiences, but that doesn’t necessarily happen all the time.
The movie I just finished, Joe, is incredibly dark. Some people want to have a great time with a movie and see a romantic comedy, so they’re not going to have an appreciation for what that movie is. If people want to see an honest look at the South and a relationship between a tree poisoner and a young boy who’s working for him, then it’s an eye-opening performance piece. I see all types of movies and I’m interested in making all types of movies, which is the beauty of this profession. There’s opportunities to do crazy shit with this job, so why not take advantage of that?
And what about making Forrest Gump?
It’s not that I wouldn’t want to. I just don’t know if I’m capable of it. A film I’d love to make is something John Ford-inspired. To a degree, the uncertainty is what excites me, like, “Oh, I haven’t done that.” I’d really love to embrace my fears and make a documentary or a musical. It’s fun doing new things: I did an animated TV series for MTV last year, and that was a blast; we’re working on a new series for FX that got picked up; and I’m doing a stop-motion Mr. Peanut commercial with LAIKA.
Was there any uncertainty with Prince Avalanche?
The only uncertainty I had with Prince Avalanche is that, if an audience didn’t accept the chemistry of these guys, the movie would fail. The whole movie is them. Sometimes two voices is all you need, but you don’t really know until you see them come to life.
Obviously one character that’s been embraced is Kenny Powers.
I just finished my last [Eastbound and Down] episode last Thursday. I literally cried on the way home, thinking that might be the last time I film Kenny Powers. That’s kind of absurd, because it’s a bittersweet journey. We take him out to the cleaners this season.
I’m guessing he faces a lot of challenges.
I’ve caught myself saying things, so I’m not sure what they want me to talk about. There’s a whole new crazy cast of characters and a major set-piece that’s the concept of the season, so I can’t really say. I can say, it’s fucking funny stuff.
When you started working on the show, did you envision Kenny being able to have a happy ending?
I always assumed he’d be killed. There’s no way a man like that can sustain too much life [Laughs]. Honestly, I didn’t realize what we could get away with a character so unlikable, until I saw the magnetism of Danny. Somehow that guy can say the most fucked up stuff in a way that makes people happy.
Prince Avalanche opens in theaters and on VOD August 9th.