Interview: Prince Avalanche Writer-Director David Gordon Green

green avalancheIn recent years, writer-director David Gordon Green’s become known for big, profane, anarchic and silly R-rated comedies like Pineapple Express (2008), The Sitter (2011), and Your Highness (2011), starring folks like Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, and Jonah Hill.

But amid all the pot jokes and groin punches, it’s easy to forget that prior to Pineapple Express in 2008, Green made his name with small, thoughtful, minimalist dramas set in rural towns–films like George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), Undertow (2004), and Snow Angels (2007).

Last spring Green took his regular crew and actors Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch and snuck out to Bastrop State Park in Texas, which had recently suffered a devastating and landscape-changing wildfire. There they quickly and quietly shot Prince Avalanche, the kind of small, still-waters film the film maker got his start with.

Moody, amusing, and seductively thoughtful, Prince Avalanche is a remake of the 2011 Icelandic comedy Either Way and focuses on two very different men stuck together camping out in the park as they bicker their way through isolated, monotonous road work: pensive, uptight, 30-something Alvin (Rudd), who’s looking for love and meaning; and horny, hyper-active, 20-something Lance (Hirsch), who’s just looking to get laid.

I and another writer sat down with Green a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about how Prince Avalanche came together so quickly, why he wanted Rudd and Hirsch, and about Green’s just-completed adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel Joe, starring Nicholas Cage in the title role.

Prince Avalanche opens this weekend in select theaters across the country.

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prince-avalanche-615You’ve said you started this project with just the idea of shooting in the burned-out landscape of Bastrop.

David Gordon Green: Before there was any story or cast or anything, it was this location that spoke to me, and I decided that I wanted to make something there. Coincidentally, I was introduced to this Icelandic film Either Way, and I thought it was perfect.

It was a way to relocate the ominous background of rural Iceland and take something that had this great architecture and an interesting spin on the Odd Couple dynamic. We minimized logistics, kept a super-small crew, and were able to make a movie really quick.

How did that landscape then shape your writing and direction?

Green: The first thing that struck me was that it has this apocalyptic cinematic quality to it. What I love is that no matter how rambunctious or absurd or potentially humorous the film gets, you could never really make it a “funny” movie because you’re basically in this devastated graveyard. It was a very melancholy and haunted atmosphere, and I think that comes across. There is definitely a kind of beautiful rebirth going on in the forest at the time that we were shooting it, but it was always tinted with sadness. I think the characters are also going through this strange rebirth as well.

PrinceAvalanche-Still3How does that minimalism of story and scope affect your preparation and pre-production process when you’re writing and planning?

Green: The preparation of this movie was very neat. This was a movie that everybody got paid a hundred dollars a day to work on. It was not a union movie where everybody was getting paid dignified wages.

But two weeks before this we shot a major Chrysler campaign, and so the whole crew goes from this huge, epic series of car commercials and right into this movie. Maybe we had ten days between the two, so there was not much time to think or over-analyze. Basically we sent all our toys home from the commercial, kept the bare minimal equipment to make the movie, and then went straight from this movie into another commercial.

So I was trying to keep everybody fed with working on the two commercials on either end of the production and then do a movie in between. So it was really great to have that kind of momentum, but also we didn’t become a charity case—we had some substantial, lucrative projects on either end of the production. But you didn’t have your typical prep or wrap-out; you just had to kind of be ready to run.

It wasn’t a movie where you had to build sets for the most part. You just had to pitch a tent and drive that car. All of our props were in this little truck and trailer, so we’d just drive that around to location every day and stay at the motel down the street. So preparation was very minimal once we had everybody just show up.

www.indiewire.comAnd you shot it completely under the radar as far as the Industry and entertainment media were concerned.

Green: One of the things that can be frustrating for someone who has made movies before is the awareness and expectations. I’m a huge fan of movies and am part of that fanbase that’s always exploring directors I admire—I’m curious about what they’re working on and why and when. But when I’m wearing the the director hat myself, and I’m reading articles about movies that I’m just toying with the concept of making, it can be very misleading.

I’ll get a dozen e-mails from people looking for jobs on a film that hasn’t been written, and it may happen or it may not happen because Hollywood is a place where more projects don’t happen than do. That has a degree of, I don’t want to say “frustration,” but I do roll my eyes a lot at projects that are being prematurely advertised. Some of that is due to media leaks that people jump on in the hopes that their readership is interested, and sometimes it’s a producer trying to get people on the bandwagon in order to get financing together. Either way, it’s something that can be stripped away in an ideal world so that we can actually explore the process of making a movie without having any expectation of what it might be.

If I had made some kind of media announcement that I was making this movie. . . I mean, I didn’t really know what this movie was until about a week into production, and it was only then that I began to wrap my head around it. It had a very organic life to it.

large_Prince_Avalanche_1_PUBSThis woman that we met during the production who was going through the ashes of her home looking for her pilot’s license was not in the script. We met her and integrated her into the movie, and my introduction to her about a week into the production was really a pivot point. We shot it pretty much in order, and that was the point in the script that the film started to get funny.

Our intention going in was to make it a lot more comedic than we ended up doing, but instead we met her and that’s the point where it starts to get dramatic. We really ironed it out and minimized the comedy in order to focus on the more dramatic elements because I thought that was where our distinctive stamp was going to lie.

But once people are writing about your project and their assumptions of your project, it gives everyone, at least in their head, some concept of what you are doing, while I wanted to explore and experiment. Once the movie was done, then it existed, and that was awesome because it was what it needed to be, and if it sucked no one would even know that we had filmed it. And if it was something we were proud of and confident it could find an appreciative audience, then we could unleash it. It was unaffected by executive development notes or the stress of the potential greenlight. There was little money–just the camaraderie of a few friends that got together and made a movie that otherwise might not have existed.

It’s also a remake, but not many people in America are going into it thinking of it like that, or bringing the preconceptions people have when watching a remake.

Green: In September it’s coming out in Iceland, and it should be interesting to see how it goes. The original movie was very well regarded in Iceland and only in Iceland–it didn’t reach out much beyond Scandinavia–and it’ll be very interesting to see if they accept it. I’ll be very curious to see if it gets butchered there for being unfaithful to a masterpiece–it very likely will

prince avalanche 2Many of your recent films have been had big casts, but now you’re down to just two characters.

Green: That was also part of what I was trying to streamline. The larger casts, budgets, and logistics can be distracting to fine-tuning a performance. For a while, I considered getting into live theater–which is something that I have never done–as an effort to strip away the process and work on my relationship with actors and the process of performance.

Instead, we decided to do this, and now that we have, I think we should do it as a play. It really was an effort to minimize outside interference so I could take a couple of great actors and make a wonderful performance piece out of it.

With Rudd and Hirsch, what did you think each of them could bring to the film?

Green: Well, I was trying contrast an audience’s expectation for them. If you want to get those guys in a movie you’re going to have to either offer them a lot of money or offer them a creative opportunity. I’ve known them both for ten years, and we’ve always talked about making movies together. But I know the only way I could get Paul interested in a movie was if I gave it a little of the dramatic depth and emotional attribute that he gets in his stage work, but doesn’t get a lot of film offers to do.

prince-image-articleLarge-v2And I know Emile as a very excitable, enthusiastic and humorous young man, but he mostly does very poignant, dramatic work or movies where he has to cry. So it was a fun way to kind of get the subtlety of humor across and show the audience a side of him that I knew but they don’t really get exposed to.

But honestly, the simple answer is that I went through my Rolodex thinking of people I knew who would be the most unlikely combination in a movie that you could think of. And these two guys were people I knew and had personal access to, who I had great interest in working with, who I thought could be up for a stripped-down, scaled-down type of movie-making experience, and who would never otherwise be in a movie together.

Your filmography roams all over the spectrum from big studio films to small independent festival projects. You’ve seen all sides of the Industry.

Green: A lot of film makers get trapped or chose to remain in one arena or the other, where for me the great thrill is the mystery of what’s next and the curiosity to learn or try something new or expose yourself in a way, or make yourself vulnerable in a way.

Take for example Robert Altman doing Popeye. It’s an incredible movie and it’s a musical and it’s unlike anything. It’s just amazing that he would take that kind of risk with his career. Some people swear by the movie, and others think it’s ridiculous, but he went there with his career and put himself on the line, and did something that was totally unique–it’s inspiring.

www.indiewire.com2Emile’s character feels like a fan of one of your more recent, broader comedies, only he’s stuck in one of your older films. “Why isn’t anything happening?! Where’s the sex?!”

Green: I love that. His character’s bored to tears!

This film also has a really great, atmospheric soundtrack from Explosions in the Sky, who worked on the Friday Night Lights film and TV show. I understand they were involved early on?

Green: The drummer Chris Hrasky is the one who told me about the park in the first place. He sent me down there on a little hike and scout about and said, “You gotta go down there and make a movie.” So they were always very involved, and then came to the set a few times and hung out a bit. We’re all neighbors in Austin.

And I was excited to see you’ve already completed an adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel Joe, with Nicholas Cage as Joe Ransom.

Green: It premieres this fall in Venice. I knew Larry a little bit when he was alive—I worked on a documentary about his life, The Rough South of Larry Brown (2002). So I got to spend some time with him, and I was a huge fan. And then his wife Mary Annie and his son came out to the set of our Joe, and strangely Nicholas Cage even looks a little like Larry in it.

first-look-nicolas-cage-tye-sheridan-in-joe-david-gordon-green-skipTonally, I think Joe is a great companion piece to Prince Avalanche. When we were developing Joe, Cage came out, and we location scouted for Avalanche together, so a lot of the locations we were shooting in Avalanche were ones me and Nick found together. And then we went straight from this production, did a couple commercials, and then went into Joe. Joe’s a wild ride, but it shares a lot of the locations–we shot a lot of that in Bastrop.

The old man in Avalanche, Lance LeGault, we used some of his songs in Joe, so there’s a lot of weird overlaps and little nods to each other. Although Joe’s an incredibly dark movie, but I think if you’re a fan of the book, you’ll dig what we did with this movie—it’s a little different, but pretty gritty and raw. I can’t imagine what the crowd is going to think—it’s pretty brutal. To cast Wade, the kid’s father, we got this amazing homeless man from downtown Austin, on the streets. A real drifter.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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