David Gordon Green is a writer, director and producer best known for studio comedies “Pineapple Express” and “The Sitter,” as well as independent feature films including “All the Real Girls” and “Prince Avalanche.” Before premiering his 10th feature film “Joe” at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival, Green paid a visit to Emory University to deliver a talk to the student body. The Wheel had the opportunity to sit down with Green and learn about his experiences as a filmmaker.
Where are you from, what sparked your interest in film and what was your college education like?
I was born in Little Rock, Ark., but I grew up in Dallas, and I always loved going to the movies. I would go with my dad a lot. I always had a bit more than an entertainment interest in movies; I really just took them seriously. I loved absorbing anything I could get my hands on behind the scenes, or if I could find a script that I could read or movie magazines I’d subscribe to. I started really exploring what it took to make movies from a young age. I was always really drawn to the concept of movie-making.
My mother told me there was a great arts program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was just a campus of musicians, dancers and artists of various types and a brand new film school. So I went to school there. It wasn’t full of people with a ton of cash or networking. It was filled with people like me that loved watching movies and thought about making movies. I worked in the film archive, and that’s where I met most of the guys I make movies with. We went to school for a few years and started playing with equipment, talking about stories and things we’d like to make and our influences. We got out of school, saved up our money and started making movies. We just finished our 10th movie together, and we’ve done a ton of TV shows and commercials. It’s an interesting collective. Danny McBride and Jodi Hill lived down the hall from me in college, and now we own a company together!
You met a lot of professionals who work with you on your movies in college, like Tim Orr, your cinematographer and David Wingo, your composer. What do you feel the importance is of forming these creative partnerships?
You find people that are excellent at what they do, and some of your best friends maybe aren’t the best for the job. It’s about surrounding yourself with a group of people you’re inspired by. I want to work with people where, when we have a great success, we’re there to celebrate together, and when we have a great failure, we’re there to lift each other back up and get to work and not really be bound by the perception of traditional Hollywood observers.
You mentioned that you went into college without a connection in Hollywood. How did you overcome that networking obstacle?
We never asked for a connection in Hollywood. We just started saving our money and spending our money. We didn’t ask people for the keys to the Porsche; we just started driving the Jalopy. Eventually, people starting catching on and started paying us to do it. We turned a pastime into a career, which is the coolest thing you can do. It’s also kind of confusing sometimes because I don’t know how to take a vacation. If I have a few days off, I’m thinking about the next films I’m going to do, which isn’t much of a vacation.
In 2013, you directed both “Prince Avalanche” and “Joe.” What was it like directing two feature films in that short span of time?
It’s fun. There’s a lot of directors whose instincts are in perfection, but my processes are drawn more to the efforts of momentum, uncertainty and exploration. Just trying things. Not that we don’t have a massive amount of preparation for our projects, but there’s a lived-in, breezy quality to what we do because it’s loose and less stressful. We don’t necessarily have a concept of what we’re doing before we do it. We have a blueprint architecture for something that we want to accomplish, vaguely. We just try this, try that, improve through it and always have the script to fall back on if we need it, but for the most part, it’s just trying to find a fresh way to look at a story.
What are the roles of a director and a producer?
It’s different on a lot of projects. A lot of filmmakers like to have the “A Film By” credit because they’re the only guy that made it: they did write it, and direct it, and produce it and score the music for it. And then there’s other people that differentiate a little bit in that someone who would do the screenwriting would be different to the guy communicating with the actors and structuring the tech and artistic elements of the production, as well as the art direction and the costume design and the shots. I’ve had producers on my movies that I’ve never even met or heard of, but I always assume they’ve contributed something of importance to the film. Other times there are producers on set every day, asking you questions, helping you develop a script. A director is there to communicate between the various departments. In a healthy circumstance, everybody comes to him, and he’s giving the actors motivation and insight on how to interpret the screenplay. He’s talking to the producer about what they need to achieve within the set construction and talking to the cinematographer about ideas and concepts about how to shoot the film.
What difficulties arise in having a film that you wrote and produced?
The big question is this: where does the money come from? Sometimes money can come from a major corporation and a big movie studio. There are a lot of people that are savvy independent film investors. I’ve invested in a few movies when friends of mine are directing, whether it’s giving them money to get a project started or financing the completion. You become a participant in the potential profit of a movie. There’s a lot of risk involved because the idea of being a film producer or investing in film can be a romantic notion, but then the reality of having to hit certain deadlines with certain dollar amounts can be daunting, especially when the possibility of recoupment is questionable. There’s a lot of people that change their mind after realizing the depth of the investment. There’s always the danger, particularly in independent financing of money falling through.
One of your most recent films, “Prince Avalanche,” was shot in Bastrop, Texas, a pretty remote location. Did you personally scout out the location for the film?
“Prince Avalanche” is an example of a movie where the location was there before the script. It was a location that I had stumbled upon. Chris Hrasky, the drummer for Explosions in the Sky, the band that did the music for the movie, had told me to check out Bastrop State Park and that I should make a movie there. I watched this Icelandic film called “Either Way,” and I decided to remake the movie in that location. I do love the production value of a kick-ass location. It’s kind of cool to find a place that tells its own story and has a significance in terms of a backdrop, with cool characters in the foreground.
Where and when did you shoot “George Washington?”
“George Washington” was my first feature film. I shot it not while I was enrolled in school but where I went to school in North Carolina. I had made a short film in college called “Pleasant Grove,” which was the seed to the idea in “George Washington.” I made another movie called “Physical Pinball,” where I met a young actress Candice Evanofski, who starred in the movie. I decided I wanted to make a movie with her, so I wrote a role for her in “George Washington.” A year after I graduated, I went back to my friends and asked them to hold onto their lease. I just rented a big old house, got a bunch of used mattresses and threw them on the floor and had like 17 people living in a four-bedroom house and made a movie.
Have you had to work any odd jobs to finance any of your films
In Asheville, N.C., I had no money and I was picking up odd jobs when I could. I was working at a doorknob factory, dunking chrome doorknobs with bronze coatings into acid. I was working that job in anticipation of my next movie happening. I’ve had a lot of snaky jobs.
What kind of education did you have in film school?
It was technical and project-based. There were boundaries and limitations. We would have a concept for our project and get our hands on cameras and editing equipment. I tried to learn everything. When I realized what I excelled in or what I was confident in or what I was interested in, then I’d try to find the support of people who were better at what I lacked, like better editors and better cinematographers.
The Emory Film Program is, for the most part, history and theory-based. What kind of advantages do you feel there are to a strong academic background in film?
It depends on the person. Some people are more academic and intellectual about their exposure to film. Some people are more hands-on and in the field. Some people like to be in nice lighting and air conditioning, and some people like to be in the sweat and swamp of it all. For me, it’s both. Sometimes I like to sit back and read and reflect, and other times I like to take a big bite out of the dirt and learn a machine I’m not familiar with. In terms of a film school, the school I went to really worked for me. The curriculum was made by the student body, the kids I went to school with. We all have these long-shot ideals of what we want to be doing when we graduate. It’s nice to have people with a practical goal and a realistic means of achieving that.
What is the advice that you have for the future filmmakers of Emory University?
Surround yourself with people you trust. People that know how to challenge you and not just kiss your ass, and people that know how to support you, but not just ignorantly so. Assemble an A-Team. Find a lot of specialists that you have a good time working with. Figure out where your strengths are, and spend money and time responsibly. There are a lot people that I know who are really talented and great artists, but they’re crappy business people. Or they’re people that are great businessmen that are really smart with economics, but they don’t have anything creative about them. You need to find the balance between finance and creativity.
What is it like to direct two very different films, such as a studio film like “The Sitter,” or a personal independent film, like “Prince Avalanche”?
I like to challenge myself in different ways. “The Sitter” was a movie with a healthy budget, and we lived in New York City with the best of the technicians and a really talented cast. It’s nice when you have all of these resources at your fingertips and the support of a studio like 20th Century Fox. The film’s genetics are engineered to make it a hit commercial Hollywood film. From the beginning stages, you’re making a film that you know people will respond to and a film that will make its money back. It’s a really satisfying thing as a director when you see long lines for these films at the movie.
Right after I had done that, I wanted to switch gears. Jump into something more raw, personal, intimate and immediate. If it’s a big studio movie, there are lot of people asking you why you are doing what you are doing, with opinions on what makes a successful film. I wanted an opportunity to explore a performance piece with a couple of actors. I stripped away the excess baggage. There were no toys. There were no lights – we couldn’t even shoot at night. We didn’t even have trucks for the equipment. We rolled up in vans. The actors didn’t even have trailers; we set them up in log cabins in the park down the street. But the obstacles became opportunities for us. It was also a movie that I found very funny, and it didn’t need to appeal to millions of dollars’ worth of people. It needed to entertain thousands of dollars’ worth of people, which makes a big difference in your engineering of the film. It’s fun to let your imagination go wild. It’s fun to get in your own head and in your own passion about something.
Paul Rudd is a great comedic actor. Emile Hirsch is a great dramatic actor. What was it like putting them together?
In a lot of ways, flipping the stereotypes, it was fun seeing a comedic side of Emile come out, or a more dramatic side of Paul. I was trying to engineer a movie that had two of my friends that I could trust who would be down for a nitty-gritty movie like this. I had to narrow down the actors who would be up for a movie like this. The idea of a Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch movie made me laugh, because they would just never be in a movie together. We had no idea what the chemistry would be like, but we just did it. It was pretty clear from the first read through that we knew it was going to be a very funny dynamic, and it’s very similar off-screen as it was on-screen, which was very entertaining for me.
Television has acquired both narrative complexity and a cinematic aesthetic over the past few years. Do you foresee yourself directing and producing more in television?
I’ve done four seasons of “Eastbound & Down,” and I plan on doing a TV pilot and a show for HBO next year. We’ve got a lot of exciting things in development. Television has taken on a cinematic quality of excellence that it used to not have. But now it’s at a point of genuine substance, and the acclaim it’s getting and the viewership it’s getting is really deserved. It’s taken a bite out of the movie business, but it’s fun, lucrative and you can explore more complicated themes that don’t necessarily have to be so high-concept or star-driven; they don’t have to be dependent on the opening weekend box office. They can live and breathe, and people can think about them. They can infiltrate culture for a little bit before somebody tags them as a success or failure.
Is there any genre that you want to tap into?
I want to do horror. I want to do a classy, elegant horror movie. Like a Polanski movie, or something that has an artistic ambition to it. Or “The Shining,” which scares the crap out of people generation after generation because they’re made with substance.
– Interview conducted by Casey Horowitz