David Gordon Green interview: Prince Avalanche
Pineapple Express and Eastbound & Down director David Gordon Green chats to us about his latest indie comedy drama, Prince Avalanche...
"David can’t come to the phone right now, his house is flooded." That’s my first introduction to David Gordon Green. A pretty good reason for postponing a 10 minute phone interview, you have to admit. I can't really hold a candle to Mother Nature.
So we hook up a day later. Luckily, that biblical rainstorm in Texas has subsided, and for a man who I imagine must have bigger things on his mind, he’s incredibly accommodating.
He’s also something of a challenge. How can ten minutes hold all the questions I have for a man who’s gone from American indie (George Washington, All The Real Girls) to stoner comedy (Pineapple Express) over to TV (Eastbound & Down) back to studio comedy (The Sitter) and now arrives with Prince Avalanche, a film that's hard to describe but very easy to recommend. And he directs Superbowl TV spots starring Clint Eastwood too.
As is always the case, ten minutes is never enough. Especially with a filmmaker as effusive as Green. Plus, I feel bad. If I run over that allotted time I fear I'm keeping him from a major clean-up operation.
So this is what ten minutes with David Gordon Green gets you: an insight into the Dallas sense of humour, why he's happy not directing Thor, and how not to market a David Gordon Green film.
So I’m sorry to hear about your house. Are things kind of okay now?
Yeah, there's a lot of flooding around my house but I'm just trying to mop it up, and pump it out and hope it doesn't rain too much again!
Our rain hasn't got quite that bad yet.
Yeah, at least it spreads it out up there. It's a consistent normal. Over here it's a desert and then all of a sudden it dumps rain and everyone gets in a panic.
Actually what's interesting about Prince Avalanche is the reason those fires that the film's based around were so brutal is because it had been over eight months of no rain. So when the fire started it just got out of control really quickly because it had gotten so dry. So it's kind of… fire, rain, drought… whatever it is there's always something Mother Nature is throwing at us.
You mention the forest fires as the backdrop of Prince Avalanche, but what's quite interesting is you don't give too much information about that in the film. There's very little context.
Yeah, I didn't want… you know, the thematic element of the reality of that fire was so brutal and so devastating that I think if you really brought that to the surface of the story it would have overwhelmed any sense of insight into the characters. Right now it plays like a backdrop so we can focus on the characters without feeling disingenuous to the canvas that we're painting on. But if we'd made it about that, if we'd made it more concept-driven, it would have been less of a character piece to be honest.
And I went into the film deliberately blind, in a sense. I knew it was directed by you, with a soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky, and that was enough for me. So I had no expectation of it being a funny film or a dramatic film. But how does that sit with you as a filmmaker? You obviously want as many to see the film as possible, which means telling them something about it normally. How much do you like people knowing about your films before they see them.
I want them to know as little as possible about them. That's the approach I had in making this movie. It's based on an Icelandic film, and that film was a great inspiration, but I didn't necessarily want to adhere to the tone that it had established, and I didn't know what was going to happen if I got Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in a room together, and I kind of wanted it to evolve.
I made the movie very economically and very quietly as an effort to try and explore the characters and the situation. Not to have to hit a comedic beat, or make it overly dramatic, but to be able to find it during production and really fine tune it in the editing room. And it was just a part of what I thought would be magical about the experience of making a movie that cost $5 to make where you don't have the burdens of expectation or anybody telling you what you've got to do opening weekend to be a success.
The fact that this movie got made is a success. It's strange to be able to pull something off on this level. And I find that, so often in my experience in marketing films that I've made, the distributor wants to mislead the audience. They certainly want to show the funniest part or the biggest spectacle elements the film has to offer. But they also want to make sure it appeals to the lowest common denominator of people, because that gets the most people into the theatre. So it's a really backward system of engineering when you look at the typical American marketing campaign.
I can't say with any experience what it's like in the UK, but it can be very frustrating knowing that they're misrepresenting what you've worked very hard, sometimes years of your life, tying to create, and then they're misrepresenting it in 30 seconds or in a three-minute trailer, or they're giving it all away. Both of those can be very frustrating for a filmmaker that is very obviously very possessive of his creation.
And in this sense I could let the film be a discovery for us. I can let it be a discovery for the audience. It's the kind of movie that's not going to… it doesn't open and close within three weeks like the typical film, but it's gonna find its audience over three years, or 10 years. People will start talking about it, and tell somebody about it, and they'll discover it in their own weird way. The theatrical life is only a modest introduction of what I hope this film can achieve in its existence.
And I think that comes from some degree of discovery, you know? If it had a massive marketing campaign, and everybody knew what they were getting into, it wouldn't have the same sense of intimacy. And when you make a movie this small, I think intimacy becomes a real asset, because it doesn't have to be Thor, or Avengers. You don't have to storm the box office or beat the audience over the head with your content. You kind of hand them a little appetiser. You can give them a taste.
One of the things that struck me was how funny it was. But there's maybe a perception that an American indie film, one directed by David Gordon Green, isn't going to be a laugh riot.
You know, it's interesting, I'll see it with some audiences who really get the sense of humour and really focus on that, because it's certainly engineered to be amusing. It's very frequent that I wake up thinking of something, even something new, about that movie that makes me laugh.
And it's a peculiar type of humour. It's things like Emile Hirsch talking about sleeping all night standing up …
It was the hips line that got me. 'We need to get your hips to a hospital'
To me that's funnier than anything in This Is The End. It's a very lyrical, surreal type of humour which you don't get very often.
Also you're queuing into what I queue into, but that's not necessarily what 90 per cent of the audience queues into. I mean … [laughs] … that's definitely very funny to me, but I've screened the film to an audience in Dallas, Texas and no one gets that, no one thinks that's funny [laughs].
But you don't have to ... it's not like you get the joke or you don't get the joke. Because it’s not handed to you like a joke. It's just handed to you like something weird that they're saying and some people laugh at that and enjoy it at the comedic level that it has to offer, and some people enjoy it for whatever narrative drive it serves.
How did you write those lines, then? Are those just voices in your head, or are you bouncing it off of someone?
It was… more than anything it was me, Paul and Emile coming up with our own strange sense of humour about this movie. But then another thing that was funny was that the subtitles of the Icelandic film … when I was transcribing it I kind of started writing it in a weird broken English kind of way, as if it was being translated by someone that didn't speak English very well. So there are certain lines or things that are dealt with in a way that I find amusing.
Like when Emile is talking about his weekend when he got a flat tire and he talks about how he ran over a very sharp object. Just being ridiculous and vague about what you ran over is something that I find funny. Because who wouldn't say I ran over a nail or something specific? But the vagueness to me becomes a strange sense of humour. So the lost in translation sense of the comedy was something I really got from the Icelandic version.
And I was watching Barton Fink last night for the first time in 10 years, and that's a movie that … again, it's not handing you jokes. Sometimes it's just a weird expression, or it's the way John Turturro will move his eyes back and forth or something outrageous that John Goodman says. It becomes a very funny movie. And I'd say that's funnier than a lot of their comedies. I laugh more at Barton Fink than I do at Burn After Reading, or Intolerable Cruelty, or The Hudsucker Proxy – those movies that are more engineered for laughs make me laugh less.
So I think some of it is my own peculiar sense of humour and sensibility. But the beauty of a film like Prince Avalanche is I can make that movie very personal in that it’s entirely my sense of humour. But if I'm making a movie like The Sitter for example, and I'm throwing my weird jokes out there, and we're showing that movie to an audience of 600 people who aren't appreciative of that sense of humour, or don't share that sense of humour, then people who are writing the significant size cheques for a movie like that get very concerned. So those end up being ironed out for the most part.
Whereas in a move like this, where it doesn’t have the responsibility of making a shit tonne of money, you can go with your own whim. And there are no jokes that don't hit because we're not even swinging, you know? [laughs] We're just throwing our weird stuff out there, so some people pick up on it, and some people don't.
A lot of people comment that there are two types of David Gordon Green film – the studio film and the independent film. But from the outside it seems you approach them both with the same sense of community. From the outside they both seem films you've wanted to make.
Yeah, yeah… I wouldn't ever make anything I wouldn't want to make. I bring my toolbox to every project and there's a certain responsibility you have that you don't on others. Certain projects can be more self-indulgent than others. If you're trying to service a very large audience your attempt is to appeal to a lot of people and make a commercial film right and make an audience really throw up their hands and laugh and that sort of stuff. So that movie is engineered from a different standpoint.
And so something like Prince Avalanche, it's so much smaller in terms of its necessity for return. It's liberating in a lot of ways but then it's creatively, technically and financially very constrained so you can't explore everything with every project.
If you give me a studio project with a bigger budget and an agreeable studio executive we can get pretty crazy and we can do big stunts and special effects and have a bit of fun with that and have plenty of time to do it. But what you get when you have certainly a far more modest project at stake is no-one's looking at you. You can just go an make your own strange sculpture and see what happens.
You always seem to be juggling lots of projects, and projects drawn from a crazy range of influences...
Yeah, I just really enjoy different kinds of things. Sometimes I want to help a filmmaker friend of mine and I'll produce a movie or help him get an actor attached or help finance a movie that he's working on or whatever type of project I feel like just needs to exist. Sometimes I'll work in that capacity and other times I'll want to go just hang out on a TV series. I work on the show Eastbound & Down and it's just all my best friends from college, we all bring our families and we hang out at the beach and each night is a blast and every day is just the strange realisation that you're getting paid to do what you love.
And so I guess I'm just trying to maximise the years that anybody allows me to do crazy shit for money [laughs]. Or in Prince Avalanche's case, just the opportunity to do something personal and something that people go see. It's amazing … last month I was out at Somerset House in London and did a screening of the film and there's thousands of people there, for a movie 15 people made over 13 days in a strange burned down forest in Austin, Texas.
For me that's its own strange ridiculous chapter of my life that I couldn't be more proud of and if I just gave my profession a signature that I do this one type of thing and that's what I do all day, I'd just get really bored. I'm not that type of craftsman. I'm a guy who has a curiousity and likes to explore genres and processes and wear different hats. Sometimes I want to write my movies, sometimes I don't. I'm pretty much up for anything. Other than acting! [laughs]
David Gordon Green, thank you very much.
Prince Avalanche is out in selected UK cinemas now.
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