David Gordon Green has had a fascinating career. Ever since he first burst onto the scene in 2000 with the independent film George Washington, he’s been heralded as one of the most exciting voices in the industry, capable of ping-ponging from small, melancholic dramas to big, bombastic comedies. His forays into bigger-budget fare haven’t always been met with open arms by critics, but he continues to demonstrate a refreshing willingness to experiment and try new things.
It’s hard to believe that his new film, Prince Avalanche (here’s our positive review), was directed by the same guy who helmed Your Highness. The loud, broad humor of the latter is nowhere to be found in the former, which rests a barebones narrative on the back of quiet exchanges and atmosphere. A remake of the Icelandic film Either Way, it follows two highway road workers who spend the summer away from the city (and their lovers) rebuilding roads that have been ravaged by wildfire. The landscape feels dead and rotten, and they gradually develop a friendship amidst the charred remains of strangers’ lives.
Anna Tatarska talked to David Gordon Green about the process of making the film. Here’s what he had to say.
AT: Prince Avalanche is at times very funny, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy.
DGG: Things I think I have [here] is a great sense of humor, but also a pride of character and an exploration of some sort of emotional journey that the characters are taking. This movie was never approached as a comedic film. In many ways the backdrop contrasts the comedy and makes things less funny, by the fact we’re in a burnt down forest and dilapidated landscape. If you’re trying to engineer something that primarily was supposed to be a comedy, you’d certainly want it take place a little more of a clean cut environment. But to me bringing the melancholy bubble to the film we’re making allows us to braze a little bit more awkwardly in a comedy which makes it funnier to me. I also wanted to start with a serious note so that people weren’t expecting a big joke out of it. To me it helps set up the mythology of a movie a little bit.
Looking at your character’s outfits I have to ask, was Super Mario Bros. your favorite video game?
I was working with our production designer, Richie Wright and our costume designer Jill Newell trying to come up with what the look of our movie will be like. It was proposed to me that it should look like “if Super Mario Brothers took over the military,” like a post-apocalyptic Mario Brothers movie.
Your film is a remake of the Icelandic comedy Either Way. What’s new?
In the Icelandic film there is a road that goes around the entire country, and it was about the development of this road they were painting stripes on. I chose the burnt forest before I conceived of the film. As a location I thought it was a beautiful, spectacular place so I wanted to make a movie there. That’s where it actually started. I loved the visual idea of death and rebirth in one element. Devastation of a destructive, environmental incident and then how Mother Nature will be reborn within it. And it’s kind of like what these character’s are like to me–they fall into pieces and then try to build up again.
What are the pros and cons of making a remake?
There’s no cons… unless you’re making a remake of Psycho or Suspiria, a movie that for some people has something “sacred” about it. Then they start talking shit, unless it’s great, then they don’t anymore. Nobody talks shit about “The Hills Have Eyes” remake because it’s fucking awesome. Everybody whines and groans and then it’s great and they shut up.
Can you tell me a little bit about the place where you shot? It’s such a powerful landscape.
It’s actually in the same area they shot Richard Linklater’s Bernie, just that Bernie was shot before the fire and we shot after the fire. That’s exactly this melancholy that I wanted the whole film to have, I wanted any joke have to fight the tone. There’s no easy laugh in the film, it’s all awkward because it’s under this sadness and devastation. It gave it this edge. I think it would be very compelling to make a follow-up film in another year in the same location and see how it has reconstructed itself.
You’ve decided to set the film in the eighties. Why?
By setting it in the eighties we had license to have some absurdity in the wardrobe but it also kept us technically isolated. We didn’t have to worry about cell phones or communication with relationships back home. Vacuuming some technological world of today was very helpful. I don’t know if the sense of humor in this movie is from any particular period. I kinda feel like it’s a Russian eighties movie, like Leningrad Cowboys or something. Kaurismaki is definitely what we were leaning toward.
It feels like you’ve accomplished a certain level of intimacy with the characters. Watching the film we feel as though we were right next to them. How do you work with the camera on set and how do you edit?
The camera in this film I guess is in the audience. A very curious camera that follows behind the characters a lot, in a way like a Dardenne Brothers’ movie would do. There’s no flashy editing, it’s very minimal. Set a scenario, put a camera in place, the actors will find their space in a location and the camera will find the way it looks the best. Sometimes it leaves the actors just looking at the landscape or a caterpillar. There’s no tricky shots, gimmicky camera moves, nothing masterful about it. It’s all very clumsy and to me that makes it more thoughtful.
How was it working with a male-only cast?
There’s a lot of females that worked on the crew, but it’s a very masculine story. It’s men bitching about being men. When I was adapting the Icelandic film I started writing it like a conversation between me and myself. It wouldn’t be appropriate it there was a female me, because I don’t really have much of that side in me. So a lot of what they’re talking about is what I’d be talking about with myself. Like, for example, I recently became a father and was very confused by that and there’s the other side of me that’s really embracing and encouraging of that. So there are a lot of very personal elements that were my own internal struggles with masculinity.
Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsh are an incredible team. I felt like the characters came to life once they’ve inhabited them.
It was really weird. The casting usually is a long process — you go to the agency, make an offer and blah-blah-blah… Here I went through my phone and was like, “Who do I like who’d work for free on a movie for three weeks?”
Paul was the first stop, because we’d been talking about it recently. And then I was like, “Who’d be weird enough to be in a movie with Paul Rudd?” There were a couple of names we discussed. Paul had never met Emile, but I know him very well. We like to sit around, bullshit, drink beer and talk about girls. I knew Emile was perfect for this role. I got them together for the first time at a dinner and I just watched them talk. I couldn’t stop laughing. I just knew that had to be it.
Two guys in the woods, not much dialogue, basically no action. It feels a little bit like a silent movie.
The other day I was watching Paul [Rudd] get out of the tent and put his trousers on, and he looked almost like Chaplin. Again, you put the title card saying people died and then for five minutes there’s no one talking.
Can you tell me more about the involvement of Explosions In The Sky in this project? You’ve worked together before, but this is the first time they’re responsible for the whole concept of the score.
The whole movie exists because of Explosions. They are an incredible band of instrumental musicians, they worked with my traditional composer David Wingo and made the score for this film. Their drummer, Chris Hrasky, is the one that pointed me to this location. They were on set, writing demos while we were filming. It was incredibly unique. They’re all my neighbors, so I’d just walk over, knock on the door and work on the score a little bit, then they’d come to the editing room and adjust the music. They have similarities with bands I love, like Mogwai or Godspeed. It’s this great, profound, instrumental take. For me it became really vital to the tone of the movie, to help keep our energy, melancholy and aggression throughout the whole film.
Michael Cimino once said he’d be interested in re-making Thunderbolt and Lightfoot with a female cast. If you were to do it with Prince Avalanche, what would it look like? I only know it could never be situated in the woods!
It would happen in the Netherlands. It would be two 80-year-old women discussing their lives. I think it would be amazing, I was thinking about it yesterday. I [also] want to do the Bollywood musical version, a prison road-gang in Australia version, a Turkish version is being written right now… What else do I want to do? Oh right, the Korean serial killer version and then the Dutch older women version.
Tell me more about your next project. How is Nicolas Cage involved?
We’ve just finished shooting this film called “Joe” [the film will premiere at TIFF]. It’s a beautifully dark film. Nicolas plays this character, Joe, that poisons trees and a young homeless boy comes to work for him. Lumber companies pay him under the table, because if the tree is technically dead then they can pull them. The kid’s an abused child that has a kind of terrible home life, so Nick takes him under his wing and they kind of poison trees together [laughs].
Why have you decided to work with Nicolas Cage, a once-great actor, who over the years has become a little bit of a joke among critics due to his rather poor choice of roles?
I think he’s a great actor, he’s been in some of my favorite movies and it’s always been a dream of mine to work with him. Something like Wild At Heart and Vampire’s Kiss. He’s an incredibly bold, brave and beautiful actor. And there’s no one like him on the planet, no one for that role that I could ask to do what I was gonna ask of this actor. It’s not like anything he’s ever done. It’s a very quiet, restrained performance. I think people will be very excited to see him, and working with him you get to see the intensity and commitment that he has. He’s going to be very proud of what he did.
Why do you think critics are so harsh on him? The public still loves him.
You look at every artist and wait until they die to really look at the body of work they do. I know that when we were working together kids would walk by and say that Ghost Rider was their favorite film of all time. There’s love that people have for this stuff that might just not appeal to film critics or journalists. I have the same, people might be like, “Oh, you used to make good movies,” and I’m like, “I used to make well-reviewed movies, but now I get to make films that make college kids laugh, and that’s cool too.” There’s a burden of expectations. When someone perceives you as being successful in one thing then they want you to keep on making the same thing. Like, I love Michael Bay movies, but the last thing I want to see is “Transformers 4” because I’ve seen three of them. I love it when people take chances and do something outside their wheelhouse.
So what new thing have you tried this time? What’s different about this film?
I’ll tell you what: My mom doesn’t like my vulgar movies. So I said I want to make a movie with no profanity. Yes, he’s jerking off and there’s the finger, but there’s no bad words in the movie. That is the only thing I can say I was consciously trying to steer away from. Even when improvising, if the actors would say “Fuck you” I’d be like, “No, no, this is not a ‘Fuck you’ movie, it’s a ‘Screw you, creepo’ movie.” We’re calling people dummies and making muscles. It’s infantile. I want the next kid that goes to an arthouse theatre to really see something accessible, interesting and fun. Or a woman can see the other side of a phone call with a boyfriend she’s broken up with; he’s not punching a tree, not in a fistfight or going to beat up her new boyfriend. He’s just sad because he’s not with a girl that he loves anymore. All of that is valuable in embracing the audience to some degree. I haven’t really tried to embrace the audience before, this might be the first one.
Due to this analogue reality that you’ve chosen, your characters write letters. Do you remember the last letter you wrote?
Yes. I sent it to a girl who broke up with me. I was in a very close friendship with a woman that I’d been in a relationship with, and then I got this mass email that she was getting married, as opposed to a phone call or a personal outreach to explain the situation to me. As far as I was concerned, that was the most cold and meaningless way to find out something that was going to rock my world. So I wrote her a letter and put in in the mail to show her that you can be personal, tangible, that you can actually exist.
This is your second film that indirectly touches upon an environmental subject. Are those matters important to you?
Yes, definitely. I recently bought a ranch, with naturally-preserved exotic wildlife everywhere. To me, time slows down when you get dirt in between your toes and there are birds in the trees. It’s just just something very soulful that helps me and my frantic, chaotic life to actually breathe. And climb a mountain. I don’t have any sort of activism on a political level, but on a personal level certainly. It’s a huge part of me trying to balance my sanity. I love insanity, it’s incredibly delicious, but sanity is necessary.