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It's hard to believe, but David Gordon Green is a grown-up now. The director who has built a career on aimless, screw-up guys, from the small-town losers of All The Real Girls to the stoner princes of Your Highness, is now a father to two twin boys, and when I spoke to him late last week in New York, he was en route to his first vacation in nearly two years, with big plans for sitting in a hammock by a lake.
But just because he's making cash by directing high-profile commercials and putting his muscle behind other peoples' low-budget projects doesn't mean he's left those small-town screw-ups behind. His new film, and one of his best in many years, is Prince Avalanche, starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as a pair of would-be brothers-in-law who are spending their summer repainting the lines on a road that cuts through a forest recently devastated by a forest fire. They fight, listen to music, talk about girls, fight some more, get into some surreal adventures and, in an oblique way, learn something about themselves. It's a dreamy, silly and surprisingly tender film, adapted from the Icelandic feature Either Way but infused with Green's own sense of place-- rural Texas-- and deep affection for guys who just can't seem to make their lives go anywhere.
Prince Avalanche is only the first of two movies Green has out this year-- premiering at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals is Joe, another rural drama, this one starring Nicolas Cage as the father figure to a lost boy, played by Mud's Tye Sheridan. Near the end of our conversation Green talked about getting Cage on board, and how the legendary actor wound up serving as an accidental location scout on Prince Avalanche. But first we got into his somewhat anonymous work making commercials, why he considers his career "self-indulgent," how Prince Avalanche could be the sequel to Prometheus, what movies scare him now that he's a father, and why it's a good thing he didn't grow up in the age of the Internet. Check out our wide-ranging conversation below, and catch Prince Avalanche in theaters and on VOD this weekend.
I’m about to get in a car and drive to New Hampshire.
Oh, really? What’s up there?
Two days of me in a hammock on a lake, with some old friends.
Oh, like vacation?
Isn’t that weird, I haven’t taken a vacation since December of 2011.
Jesus, why? You made two movies in that time, right?
Two movies, plus TV series, and about 20 commercials.
I had no idea. Where’s the IMDB for commercials?
You know, that’s the beauty is that nobody knows what you do. No one ever looks it up unless it’s good and then they’ll be like, “Who made that cool commercial? Oh, that’s him?”
I always Google voiceovers to try to figure out, because somebody told me that Jeff Bridges did Home Depot and I was like, no way, and it was totally Jeff Bridges.
I’m sure he did. That shit pays.
So, when we talked for The Sitter, you said something and then I didn’t ask you to follow up on it, which was killing me. I was asking about how it was kind of ‘80s inspired and you were doing these movies that felt like throw-backs and you said, “I’m self-indulgent as a filmmaker in a way I don’t apologize for. And then you just kind of moved on from that and I really kind of wanted to figure out where…
Well, yeah, but when I think of self-indulgent, I think of a lot of different stuff than what you do. Like, I think of movies that are 4 hours long.
I’m self-indulgent because I don’t like 4 hour long movies. I like 90 minute movies.
So, why is that self-indulgent?
Because I’m making what I like all of the time. I’m indulging myself in my projects. I have a lot of fun working with really cool people and making projects that I really enjoy and have some great reason to make.
When you say, “I don’t apologize for it,” do you feel like people are asking you to apologize for it?
No, I don’t apologize for being self-indulgent. Like I have a process that I really like, and I don’t know, but I do, sometimes people are like, “Why would you make that,” and I’m like, “I don’t know. It seemed like a great idea. What are you talking about?”
You feel like you should just be able to be like, “I just thought it was funny.”
Seemed like a good idea. I don’t hold the filmmaking process so sacred. I just like, I explore it like a character actor explores a role, like this is a funny hat, let me put this on and see what happens, or I need to personally express myself in this way that feels profound right now or, you know, or let me go have fun and learn how to choreograph a huge fight sequence in a movie. I don’t know. There’s a million reasons why I would make a movie.
Well, when movies cost, you know, whatever, at least a couple of thousand dollars, it’s way more expensive than a hat to try on. That seems like where people are like, “Ok, why do you want to do this? What are you going to do with our money here?”
Well, I think there’s a great responsibility of making films, like I make them very responsible. As much as I can, you know, you don’t really know how they’re going to be received, but I never go into a project thinking, I’m going to blow a lot of cash for somebody.
Not even when you have a lot of cash to actually spend?
I’ve never had enough money to make a movie, so I can use those budgetary constraints as creative playgrounds. Like, on Avalanche, everybody got paid 100 bucks a day to come do the movie and there’s no lighting package and there’s, it was pretty good food, pretty good lunches, but…
That’s enough. That’ll keep people moving.
Yeah, but you don’t have any budget to go over schedule. So, you can do it for free and work a little longer, but I kind of like it when it’s not a conversation. Nobody is negotiating anything on that movie, because there’s wasn’t anything to negotiate with. It was perfect.
If there’d been more budget, is there stuff that you would have done?
Under different economic terms, I would have done a totally different movie. I would have shot on the moon.
Like on the actual moon?
Cause the landscapes are similar.
Absolutely. This could totally be a story that takes place on the moon.
Oh, yeah, like two people, two guys in a space ship.
Helmets instead of hard hats.
You know, at the end of Prometheus, where it’s her and Michael Fassbender’s head in a bag. I feel like this could be that.
Maybe it will be. If this is super successful, as I predict it to be.
Yes, it will make just as much money as Prometheus.
It’ll be the blockbuster summer hit of 2013. It will be good. I’m gonna crank it out quick too, with visual effects and everything.
If you could, would you make a movie again with total unknown people? Not that you don’t like the relatively famous people you’ve worked with, but it seems like you can’t make a movie with nobodies in it…
…because you can’t get money for it.
You just have to pay for it yourself or find a benefactor that was willing to lose money. You also have to resign to the fact that most people probably wouldn’t go see it, because most people like to go see movies that have movie stars in it. There are some people that dig through the, you know, the rubble and find the crazy little movies that don’t have that, but that’s like three a year, maybe.
Yeah, but I mean, enough people have seen George Washington by now.
They have by now, but when it came out nobody saw it. It made like 50,000 bucks.
Yeah, but eventually….
A lot of people have seen it now. It’s really cool. I bet it made more money last year than it did the year it came out.
You think so?
I get cost reports. I know.
Oh, nice! I mean it’s very rude to talk numbers, but I’m glad that you... So, you know that it made more money last year?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it made more money three years ago, than it did two years after it came out, I’ll say. It’s consistently gone up.
Cause, I mean, I think I have the disc from Netflix still. It’s not on streaming.
No, but it’s an expensive Criterion DVD. You should just buy that.
I try not to buy DVDs. I feel like I’m just going to get stuck with an out of date format.
Me either. I get some screeners every now and again, but I don’t purchase DVDs. I don’t need the library.
I know, I don’t want the stuff.
And I don’t watch movies over and over and over like I used to.
Really? Do you feel like you just don’t have the time?
The only movies that I ever revisit are like the Before Sunrise movies. I think those were really great to watch over and over again, because I feel like they’re my friends.
You’re helping a lot of people make their movies these days. You’re producing like a ton of different…
I just went to visit a set in LA the other day for a movie that…
It’s called Camp X-Ray. My good buddy from college, Pete Sattler, is on production on it right now. It stars Kristen Stewart, about Guantanamo detainees. It’s really awesome.
Yeah, it looks great. He used to be my props guy. I went to college with him and it’s just really amazing just watching him work as a director as opposed to a props guy or graphic designer, all of the different jobs he’s had. I come from a community of really supportive people that are always looking. You know, there are so many movies that we all want to make, you have to bring more people into the making part, like you need a lot of people to make your movies. Like me and Craig Zobel wrote a horror movie and I was reading it the other day and we were talking and he was like, “Man, I don’t know.” I said, “If you don’t want to make this, maybe I’ll make it. If you don’t have time, what if I did that or what if we give that to so and so, our other buddy?” You know, it’s kind of fun to have people that you can say, we need to accomplish a lot as a collective, very casually, and so, the more people we have working, the more we get done, the greater legacy we leave behind.
Do you think its easier to get these smaller movies made now than it was when you first started?
I don’t know. I think it’s easier to make them, but I don’t think it’s easier to get them made. I think I got out by the skin of my teeth, in terms of making money in a business that’s model is totally crumbling.
So, you feel like you were making more money from what you were doing. It was harder to get it made, but once you did it…
I was surviving. I’ve survived as, since my second movie, I’ve survived as a …
Only as a filmmaker.
Only as a filmmaker. I started doing commercials after my third movie and then that made it, that made me a normal life.
But yeah, its much harder now to get distributors, I mean, think about how many movies go to Sundance every year and how many of them sell and then how many of them actually have a theatrical exposure and how many of those actually do well.
Yeah, but you do get some of them VOD. You’ve got a lot more options.
That’s a revolutionary thing that’s happening right now, but the perception of that is in transition, like when people make box office reports, how do they take into account how many, they don’t, those numbers aren’t announced on Friday afternoon like the rest of them are, so it’s like trying to accept the changing perception. The media doesn’t quite know how to wrap it’s head around it yet.
Does that blow your mind, as someone who didn’t grow up in a city, that people can get that stuff on VOD, like when you think about what you went through to get access to small movies like that?
Oh, it’s pretty amazing. Actually yesterday, I spent a while thinking about this, if I’d even had the Internet as a kid, it would have been bad news because I was a sponge of a hundred percent of things movie related that I could get my hands on. And I succeeded in that from about age 6 until I went to college, and then that world opened up to libraries. But like, I mean, I would go to the library every Thursday and read a Variety that was three weeks old and read everything, cover to cover. It would take me two hours to read it.
This was when you were a kid?
Yeah, I mean in like fifth grade, I’d go to the library to read. I knew more about the box office from 1986 to 1996. Now everybody knows about that kind of shit, but at that time nobody knew how much Goodfellas made or Dream Team made at the box office. I can tell you everything about the summer of 1987, I can tell you how much The Untouchables made or the Snow White rerelease and Full Metal Jacket and Dragnet and Innerspace and all these movies that were, I was just kind of geeking out at a place where my brain was so hungry for new information but there wasn’t all that access. I mean Premiere magazine came out, I have every issue of that magazine from ’87 until I went away to college. I was just so hungry for it, but if I had Internet access and could google an interview with a filmmaker I liked, it would have been over. I probably wouldn’t have been very productive.
Yeah, you probably never would have gone to college. You would have just been on the internet.
I would have just bugged out and not had a social life and not had, I mean, I worked all of the time. So I had jobs and chased girls and played soccer, on the soccer team, and I probably wouldn’t have had any of those activities, because my passion for filmmaking was too intense.
How does making Prince Avalanche fit into your life now that you have a family, when you’re going off into the middle of the woods for a month to go pay everyone 100 bucks a day.
Yeah, we shot for 16 days. So, it was very civilized and they would come out, they would come out and visit me on like Wednesdays and I’d spend the weekends there, because it was an hour away from where I live.
So, you weren’t like setting up a cabin in the woods.
They [his twin boys] now just recently learned to be quiet when it’s rolling. They’re behaving themselves now. They spent the summer on the Eastbound & Down set, so it was kind of cool to, because everyone’s having kids, on the crew. Danny has kids, our location guy and our sound guy. So, we kind of created an environment where we try not to say too many disturbing, horrible things.
I mean, everyone grew up around their Dad’s friends who are, you know, being jerks in the backyard. It can’t be that different.
It’s like kids being exposed to their dad having a really good time with a really good group of people, and something nasty comes out of their mouth every now and again. It’s not the worst thing in the world.
Do you feel like it’s going to affect what you make going forward though?
Ummm, yeah, definitely it does. I think it would be very difficult to tackle subject matter like Snow Angels and live with that in my head for so long. I wouldn’t be able to deal with that. It’s just too intense.
That’s interesting. I wasn’t even thinking about the dark stuff, being what you couldn’t get into.
I’m ok with dark stuff, like I just finished an incredibly dark movie, but with Snow Angels in particular, dealing with child death, it would be something I don’t want my brain to even fucking think about it. It would just too nasty and I’m not that mean spirited of a person at this point. It was a great exploration as a young guy, kind of thinking about it from the outside perspective, and I was looking at it from a place where I was very much affected by headlines when I was a kid, of disappearance of kids and death of kids.
Oh, and you start getting afraid, as a kid yourself?
Yeah, so I made that movie from a very vulnerable place that i had as like, from a community affected by these things, but I think now, the true horror of that nature would be too much for me to fuck around with.
Do you think Suspiria is ever going to happen.
I don’t know. I hope so. I don’t know that it necessarily will happen with me, but I hope somebody makes a really cool version of that movie. Is that darkness something you'd be worried about?
I love horror movies.
So, that’s a different type of darkness you think you could dig into?
Oh yeah, easy. That’s just gore and tension and suspense. Those are games. But I don’t know. Having kids changes your perspective on so much that, I just, I was very naive to that. I just thought it’s just something that you do.
Just get an assistant to come with you.
Everybody does it. It’s a radical emotional umbilical cord.
I assume that Joe is the dark movie you were talking about? What's the darkness in that?
Child abuse and tree poisoning.
But that wasn’t too much for you?
That’s like, it’s not something I’m affected by on a daily basis. I’m not a guy that’s going to do that. Joe is very much a story of a father figure in this kid’s life, getting him out of a bad situation. So, it’s about the strength of masculinity and the strength of character that someone has when someone is in a difficult situation. So, to me, it’s very heroic, you know. Millions of people are in nasty situations and it’s just about finding, identifying with characters that can help dig him out of hard times. So, that’s what the movie’s very, very touching in that way. It’s Nicolas Cage and then this kid Tye Sheridan and it’s the two them and just like, kind of, unbelievable, very raw performances as Cage brings this kid into his life and helps him escape the reality of his fate.
As someone who grew up obsessed with all of the big mainstream movies, Nic Cage has got to be like crazy touchstone.
One of my idols. Not even the mainstream movies, I mean Wild at Heart and Vampire’s Kiss and his entire body of work is pretty incredible and this is not like any movie he’s ever done.
Did you give him the crazy hard sell?
No, he flew up to Austin to come talk to me about it. I remember the first day I met him, I said, “What do you want to do today?” He said, “What do you want to do?” I was like, “I want to go explore this burned out state park that I think I want to make a movie in.”
Oh, this was before you started making Prince Avalanche?
And he said, “Ok, let’s go.” So, we found all of the locations for Prince Avalanche together. He was a great location scout.
Did he get a credit?
No, he should have. But he would ask all of the road workers a lot of questions, like I know everything I know about that park because Nic was…
Talking to the road workers?
Inquisitive and people loved hanging out and talking to him.
(First David Gordon Green image via cinemafestival / Shutterstock.com)