A seasoned writer and director of critically acclaimed dramas such as George Washington, All The Real Girls and Undertow, David Gordon Green has recently taken a decisive step into the mainstream arena, first with 2008‘s action comedy, Pineapple Express, but most recently with the surreal comic fantasy, Your Highness.
With that latter film out soon on DVD and Blu-ray, we caught up with him to discuss its making, and what he’s up to next. And as we gave him a call one grey day in July, we were rather envious to discover that he was on a sunny beach in America’s Deep South. “It’s a beautiful day out here” Green said. “I’m down in South Carolina working on this HBO show me and Danny [McBride] are doing.”
Is that Eastbound And Down?
Yeah, we just started filming the new season of that, so it’s a good way to spend the summer. We just try to pick, once a year, a few months where we get together, film a few dirty jokes and see what happens!
Fantastic! There have been some rumours that this will be the third and final season of Eastbound. Is that really the case?
You know what, people say that, and there’s the temptation to go out while you’re feeling strong, but it’s so fun that, if it doesn’t continue, I’m gonna kick and scream about it. Because I really like the gig. So, I hope they can wrap their heads around another adventure for Kenny Powers, because I enjoy the ride.
And the other thing you’ve worked with Danny McBride on, of course, is Your Highness. It must be strange to talk about that now, since you shot that about two years ago, didn’t you?
It was two years ago, but it’s not strange to talk about, because I had it in my head for about twelve years. So, it’s something I lived with for a really long time, and it has its own life now. It does its own thing, and I feel like the stepfather of this movie that’s been unleashed on the world. People are feeling the wrath!
But it’s coming out on DVD, and I hope it finds an even greater crowd, as word of mouth starts to spread. We worked really hard on it. It was a labour of love, strangely. Our heads were, for months, in the gutter of all this medieval strangeness, but we had a blast making the movie, and I hope people have a really good time watching it.
You clearly have a lot of affection for a lot of 80s fantasy movies. Was it your intention, to begin with, to go back and revisit all those films you watched when you were younger?
Absolutely. The movie as a whole is kind of- Our love, as eleven-year-olds, was everything from The Sword And The Sorcerer and Indiana Jones. We just used to have a good time, eating popcorn, and if we could sneak into something more violent, like Conan The Destroyer, or Beastmaster and things like that, that would be the better for us.
Danny and I, when we met in college, we bonded over that genre of sword and sorcery movies. They seemed to be neglected by most of our other film school chums, but we were really passionate about them. Not in the way that we wanted to do a spoof or a send-up, but we actually wanted to make one of those movies, put our stamp on it, and bring our sensibility to it, but work within the genre.
As much as [Your Highness] was going to be categorised as a comedy, I hope people give it the opportunity to live as just a wild adventure movie.
I understand that, when you were shooting it, it was pretty much all improvised in terms of dialogue. Was that a decision you made at the start of the process?
There was definitely a script that we all adhered to, but we had such an interesting cast. The movie definitely reflects the script, but I never want to use that as gospel. I’m not the kind of director who uses the script as a blueprint.
There are certain plot points in the movie that couldn’t be improvised, it would have been chaos if they had. But there was an awful lot of improv, and some parts that weren’t. It was definitely part of the process.
What was the shoot like? It was quite brief, wasn’t it, about three months?
Yeah. It was a very difficult shoot. We shot it in Northern Ireland, and we were always fighting the weather and the budget. We didn’t have any budget, and we were trying to make a big, effects-driven adventure movie. So, that was really challenging in a lot of ways, to really kind of maximise the spectacle that we wanted. We wanted big chases and sword fights, but things like that take time and take money, all these things we didn’t really have much of.
We shot from the end of July to the end of October, a three month shoot. We were overseas for a really long time. It was really challenging to get the movie made, and get the studio to believe in what we were trying to do. Universal, who were financing us, once they’d agreed to make it, they let us get on with it.
So, they weren’t nervous, then, of some of the more adult elements in the film?
They were worried it was going to be a spoof of a fantasy movie. There was definitely some hesitation to invest a lot of money in a send-up. This was never going to be a Monty Python or a satire. Once they saw who we were casting in it, and that we were going to get actors like Toby Jones and Damian Lewis and Charles Dance, and that we weren’t filling it with comedian cameos, then they started to embrace what we wanted to do a little more. It was great to have them behind our madness.
With regard to Natalie Portman and James Franco, were they on board quite near the beginning?
Yeah. I’d done Pineapple Express with Franco, so we had a friendship. Natalie and I had been talking about doing a movie for a few years, but never something that showed her comedic side. But then, the more we tried to get the cast together, we thought, “If we’re not shooting this as a comedy, why are we looking for comic actors? Let’s cast really capable, dramatic actors, and they can do funny things.” And that’s a lot funnier, in my own personal taste, than the big name comic actors who come out with jokes. I thought it would be funny to see Natalie play a very straight role to comedic effect.
Both Your Highness and Pineapple Express are a departure into comedy for you as well, aren’t they? You’re quite well known for more intimate dramas like George Washington, and that kind of thing. What made you decide to make that jump?
Throughout my career, I’d never made a movie that was commercially successful. It’s been my goal, as a filmmaker, to make all types of movie, but there was a point in my career when people wouldn’t let me make any more dramas. [laughs] So, I had no choice but to try something different.
But in a way, that was a great exercise for me, to be able to work outside my safety zone. It’s really terrifying to make a comedy, because funny movies need people to laugh to be successful. So, you’re like a comic putting themselves on stage to get a reaction out of an audience. That’s what a comedy film does.
So, when I did Pineapple Express, which was a Judd Apatow movie that came out on the heels of Superbad, there was a lot of pressure to make a really funny movie. It was an interest that I had, but a place I was at professionally, where I was making little dramatic movies that no one would buy tickets to see.
No one wanted to invest in more of those, so I have to thank Judd Apatow for taking a chance on a dramatic director. I had an idea of what I wanted to do with the project, and luckily, it turned out to be successful for everybody.
It opens up the possibility of other genres. Like, right now, I’m preparing to do a horror film, which is exciting. I’ve got a couple of horror films I’m trying to do. So, in my career, I’m going chapter by chapter, where I have a dramatic few years followed by something more commercially driven, and then I get dark, and weird out my girlfriends.
Is that Splatter Sisters you’re making at the moment?
Splatter Sisters is one I’m producing, with Adam Lowe, and that’ll be amazing. It’s a Marilyn Manson movie.
The film I’m trying to get going now is a remake of Suspiria, the Dario Argento movie. That’ll be a lot of fun. I’ve written it with the sound designer, so we’ve really written it from a unique perspective. We’ve come at it not from a traditional narrative way, but from the perspective of sound. It’s a fun experiment for me, to see how it works out.
That’s interesting, because one of the defining things about the original was the sound, with the Goblin soundtrack and everything.
Honestly, I’ve never watched the original outside of the VHS copy that I had, so I’ve never heard it. I was really excited by the colours and its artistic ambition, but I’ve never really been privy to hearing it with the intended sound design, because I watched it on a crappy sound system on VHS.
So, is Argento involved in any way?
Not really, other than giving his blessing to do it. He gave us the property to reimagine and take in a new direction, which is great.
How does that fit in with The Sitter, which is another comedy you’ve been making?
I finished The Sitter a couple of days ago. It’s kind of a blend of drama and comedy. It’s kind of a coming of age thing, a dark comedy like After Hours, about a sitter taking three kids on a coke run.
And I understand there’s another thing you’ve got on the go as well, called Blackjack, with Ving Rhames.
Yeah. We’ve got a bunch of TV stuff going on. We just finished a pilot for Blackjack with Ving, and there’s an animated TV series in October here in the States. They’re all fun projects, in a lot of different arenas. Animation’s a lot of fun, because I’ve never done that before.
I remember reading an interview that you did about ten years ago, and it said that you were thinking of making a sci-fi movie in the vein of Tarkovskiy’s Solaris.
It’s really funny you should say that, because I was just having lunch with the writer for that about an hour ago, and I haven’t seen him in a long time. [laughs]
That’s a coincidence!
Yeah, he’s literally sitting twenty feet away from me right now.
So, what happened to that project? Is it something that would ever get off the ground?
When I was talking to him, he said that the time has passed. We can’t make it now. I’m really interested in that specific subject matter. It was pretty profound, and one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I just have to convince the writer to let me option it again so I can go make it.
Science fiction is a misleading genre, in a way, for that, because it’s not Philip K Dick or Heinlein. It’s more in line with Solaris, a more meditative, somewhat surreal, very dramatic vision of technology in the near future.
It’s definitely of interest, but what’s weird is, at the time I wanted to make that movie, it was ten years ago, you’re right, I wanted it to star Paul Rudd, and nobody knew who Paul Rudd was, and they wouldn’t let me make the movie with him. [laughs]
Now, he’s become more of a household name since. It’s just that now people think comedy when they hear the name Paul Rudd. At the time, he was on stage in London, and he had this full beard, and he was this very dramatic actor. I met him, and I wanted to make the movie with him.
I don’t know if the pieces will fall together again the way the did ten years ago, but- There was something about that project, about making an intellectual science fiction film, that really appeals to me.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Terence Malick’s an influence on your filmmaking. Did you see Tree Of Life?
I have seen it. I adored it, in many ways. I thought it was a beautiful insight into a filmmaker’s soul, and you don’t get that a lot. It’s totally unique, and it doesn’t have any interference in its making that you get a lot of the time when you go to the movies. I admire the level of ambition and artistry in the way it takes the audience on a unique ride.
The reason I ask is because I was wondering if you’d ever consider making something as ambitious as that, as sprawling and grand in scale?
You know, Malick has been successful in building a mythology around him, so the industry opens the door to him. I’ve never had a movie I didn’t have to fight to get made, and I’ve never had anyone say, “Hey, you want to come and make this?” It’s always been a real struggle. So, it’d be about finding the right circumstances, finding the right frame of mind and the right story.
In America, there are very few filmmakers brave enough and audacious enough to make their own movies that are totally, uniquely them. Maybe Malick, and Michael Bay, and Gus Van Sant. Very few guys are in that arena. They make films that are uniquely theirs, and they’re not going to apologise for them. Those are difficult films to make within the industry that we work in right now.
I know this from my own experience: getting any movie made is a miracle.