For reasons I'm not even sure I can fully explain, David Gordon Green latest work, PRINCE AVALANCHE (based on the 2011 Icelandic film EITHER WAY), might end up being one of my favorite films of the year. It's a fairly quiet films that doesn't lean too hard in either the comedy or dramatic direction, but it incorporates both in its circa-1988 tale of two road workers painting lines on newly paved roads in Texas after terrible wildfires destroyed everything in the area. The men (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) have nothing in common and little to talk about except for the fact that Rudd's character is dating Hirsch's sister (whom we never see).
The two men have to invent their own brand of small talk, but just as often, when they aren't working, they're exploring the burned-out countryside with unexpectedly moving results. The film blends humor with a few truly devastating sequences; it's a film where neither of its lead characters are quite sure what being a real man is about, so it almost feels like their trying on different "manly" personas for size.
For those of you who have been longing for David Gordon Green to return to the world of more introspective works (unlike his string of comedies that included PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, YOUR HIGHNESS and THE SITTER), this is the one you've been waiting for and is his first truly great work since 2007's SNOW ANGELS. His new film, JOE, a drama starring a bearded Nicolas Cage is set to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month, and I can't wait to see what people have to say about it. But this film was practically shot in total secret, and it wasn't even reported that they were doing the movie until it was done shooting.
I sat down with the director (who also adapted the film and shot it in 16 days) and his two leads in Austin in March during the SXSW Film Festival, and they were a fun and lively bunch (except for Hirsch, who was still recovering from a nasty cold). The strangest aspect of the interview was that Rudd had just started shooting ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND CONTINUES and was sporting the full Brian Fantana 'stache and hairstyle. Please enjoy my talk with David Gordon Green, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch…
Paul Rudd: Hey, what’s up?
Capone: How are you, man?
Emile Hirsch: I don’t want to shake your hand, because I’m sick dude.
Capone: Oh man, that's okay. It’s good to see you.
PR: You too. How’s it going?
David Gordon Green: It’s been a while.
Capone: It was that OBSSERVE AND REPORT afterparty where Danny McBride was running around introducing me as “The guy who didn’t like FOOT FIST WAY.”
DGG: You didn’t like FOOT FIST WAY? Well, I'm out. [laughs]
Capone: I was probably the last person on the planet to see that movie, so my expectations were impossibly high by the time I saw it. I’ll sit next to the sick guy.
DGG: That OBSERVE show at SXSW was incredible. Anyone would have walked out of that like, “This is going to be a blockbuster.”
Capone: A lot of movies that play here you get that sort of sense.
DGG: This is like the perfect crowd to heighen your expectations of most films.
Capone: Oh, I know.
EH: I didn’t really like FOOT FIST WAY either, though.
DGG: Really? It's got some good shit in it. I want them to do a sequel to that.
Capone: I bet you if I watched it again today, I’d probably go, “What the hell is wrong with me?” PR: Oh, man. That movie made me laugh so hard.
Capone: I love what you guys are doing on "Eastbound & Down." and I think it’s awesome, but for some reason. I think it had been built up in my head for years that I just didn’t respond the way I thought I would. Speaking of great screenings, I think last night qualifies. All I was thinking about even after the two movies I saw after it was, “What am I going to talk about? How do you even discuss a film like that?” Over analyzing it seems sacrilegious to a certain degree, but let’s try to do that anyway. First of all, is "Bad Connection" [a terrible song that Rudd and Hirsch make up in the movie] going to be on the soundtrack? Is that going to be purchasable?
DGG: [laughs] Did you pick up the song at the very beginning that Emile puts in the tape player is that song?
DGG: Yeah, the tape he puts into the player at the beginning to try to rock out to while he’s painting stripes…so they improvised the song in the movie and then when we were in post production we thought, “Wouldn’t that be weird to get musicians to legitimately make the real version of the song that then these guys have then fucked up?”
PR: I also like it, because it’s like a Joe Satriani/Steve Vai kind of vibe that…
Capone: See when you say those two it makes me think that the lyrics don’t matter, because it’s all about the guitar.
PR: Yeah, it's all this crazy guitar. I picked it up yesterday too where you were sitting there before Lance comes in, and you’re listening to him painting your shoes. There is that sort of [Satriani's] "Surfing With the Alien" guitar rock, but then as it approaches, the vocals come in. It’s like, alright, it’s not just a rad instrumental.
Capone: Walk me through how this all came together, because for most of us, we all heard about it at the same time, which was after it was done in secret almost. I don’t know if you intended it to be in secret or not. It sounds like the movie was going to happen whether you had discovered this Icelandic film or not; you had these ideas in your head and just happened to be in sync with that movie.
DGG: Yeah, something weird was going to happen. But when people talk about us making a secret movie, there wasn’t necessarily a strategy to that, but at the same time it’s really frustrating as a filmmaker that every time I’m trying to make a movie, everybody is telling me that that’s my next movie. I mean, my mom is telling me that she’s read that this is my next movie, and it’s like, “Why didn’t you tell me you’re making this movie?” I’m like, “Because people started writing about it a little early.” I'm working on trying to make these movies.
People like to make announcements about their projects, and this was just an effort in trying to say, “There’s going to be no expectations., there are going to be minimal awareness, and I’m going to get a group of people that are really close to me, and we’re going to try to make something that will exist or not depending on if we want to roll up our sleeves and have a good time, get to work and make something.” It was refreshing in that way to not have the demands and expectations of some of the projects that I have made, some of which have been made, some of which haven’t been made. But this could just go quietly exist.
I think to a large degree that ended up being something we were really proud of, because it was a very small crew and a very small cast, and it was literally just up to everybody’s ideas and energy every day when we would get up as to how to move forward. We had an 18-day shoot structure, and we wrapped two days early, which is incredible on a movie of this size to actually have some leisure time and go at the end of the day and have a beer with your cast and crew. It was just kind of the ideal scenario.
Capone: What about you guys?
EH: It was weird, because the idea of making the movie, David never explained fully what it was. Sometimes I would be like “David, is this going to be a movie that comes out in theaters?” He’s like “I don’t know, maybe. Maybe we’ll just show it to our friends and stuff, and it'll be really cool.” I was like, “That’s awesome.” So there was kind of this air of mystery about the movie even for me.
Capone: What do you remember about it, Paul?
PR: I was drawn to it for many reasons before I even knew what the movie was. I've known David for a long time and always wanted to work with him, so when he called me and said, “Hey man, how do you feel about going out into the woods for a few weeks? We’ll take some cameras.” The idea of working on something for the love of what it is and the approach and the idea of just telling a story without all of the hoops that you sometimes have to jump through with bigger things was really appealing, and part of that was the approach, like you say about making announcements.
I thought it would be a really fulfilling experiment and I didn’t know what it was going to be either. When I saw the Icelandic film that it’s based on, I thought there was a really cool movie, but I never even thought about it when we were shooting this, and it also seemed different. It took on its own identity, and then when I saw it for the first time, I was like, “Oh wow, that does really seem very true to the spirit of the Icelandic movie.” It just kind of came back to me when I saw it.
Capone: You went into making this in a different way than maybe you have in a while. Did it fulfill the need that you had at that moment, when it was all said and done? Did you go “Yeah, that was different. That was more enriching. That was an acting experiment that I wouldn’t have gotten to do otherwise.” Did you come out the other end feeling the way you had hoped to feel?
EH: I felt entirely fulfilled as an actor and just being able to work with Paul and David and create characters that were different for us and explore them in ways that felt thorough and rewarding. Every day we were doing like two scenes where, on a normal movie, you’d be thrilled to have, like “This is my big scene!” We had those like every day.
DGG: Also, when you work with actors that you really trust and you really believe in and with a movie like this again without the awareness and expectation of a big studio movie, for example, you can take great risks and you can try new things, and everybody can walk out of their own wheelhouse and explore things that they don’t necessarily expect of themselves in a lot of ways.
It was cool to be able to take an actor like Emile and bring layers of comedy to his performance that I don’t know… there’s not a whole lot of hilarious shit you’ve done in movies before, but this character had a of a stuff that really made me laugh. A part of what made me laugh is Emile actually being this character and lot of the poignancy of Paul’s character is that we have seen so many great comedies and a bigger comedic performance out of him, and being able to find the intimacy and heartbreak and dramatic side of Paul was a fun thing for a director to be able to explore and not necessarily have to push the obvious buttons that these guys are really well respected for, but be able to find those underlying layers of what we know they are capable of.
Capone: Paul and I have talked before about how much I love a lot of the dramatic roles he's done over the years, like the stuff with Neil LaBute, and that’s what excited me about seeing you in this role. It’s still funny, but it’s like I feel I walked out of this movie knowing more about these two guys than I have any other movie I've seen this year. Whether or not I want to hang out with them is another story [everybody laughs]. But you watch the way they react to each other and the way that they find the common ground that enables them to be friends, and just listening to them talk. It’s not about driving a story forward, it’s just about conversation.
DGG: In anticipation of BEFORE MIDNIGHT, I revisited Linklater’s first two films in that trilogy and really watched how masterfully those two actors and their collaboration with him can take you on a journey of two characters and you never feel like it’s pretentious. You feel like you are getting to know people and you're injecting yourself either into them or into their story, or somehow you are relating to the situations in such a beautiful way. Until I was watching those movies again the other day, I don’t think I realized how influential they were on a movie like this, where the success or failure of the movie rests on the shoulders of the two characters that you're spending time with, and if you didn’t want to be there, you’d hate the movie. So the beauty of great casting and great characters is to be able to invite the audience to take this period of the audience’s life and spend it in the life of these characters.
PR: I watched those movies again recently too and God, I love them so much, and there's so much dialog and yet what’s going on with those characters in so many moments just has nothing to do with what they are saying, and that’s why it’s so masterfully crafted and beautifully acted. It’s so moving.
Capone: Those things stand out, because hardly anything is like that in movies anymore.
PR: Yeah, it’s really the way it is in life. We never actually say what we're feeling or what we mean.
DGG: But also think about it: what movie are you going to make that costs $200 million that’s going to be more radical than the last one that cost $230 million? The most radical thing you could do is simplicity or deceptively simple character studies. It’s almost the most cutting-edge thing you can do right now, because everything is bigger and more extravagant and more impossible and more expensive. What if something was just stripped down to the bones and to the essence of these characters? I don’t know, it feels something very daring about putting your balls on the line in a very exposed way, rather than just he chaos of extravagance?
Capone: Conversation is the latest special effect.
Capone: I was going to ask you about the physical appearance of the characters being really telling as well, because Paul, your character has a really close-cropped haircut and your mustache is a way I’ve never seen you do it before, and it seems very controlled. While Emile is…well you even refer to yourself as fat, and you’re not, clearly, but in that movie maybe you were a little more. I don’t know, but the way they look is a nice short hand to getting to know these guys. Did you talk much about that or work on that?
DGG: Yes, we did actually.
PR: He and I had some conversations early on, which…
DGG: You said you wanted “'80s Roger Ebert glasses.”
PR: Yeah, I wanted some big Roger Ebert glasses, and I knew I wanted the mustache. I wanted nothing hipster about this guy at all, and it’s going to be set in the '80s, but it should be a very generic kind of look that does seem as if maybe it isn’t like other ones that I’ve done. I wanted him to have its own unique look, but I really wanted to have a mustache that had nothing hipster about it with just big Roger Ebert glasses, or Sally Jessy Raphael, and I kept going online to find pictures. I sent you a bunch of pictures of people with big glasses. They're hard to find. I think I had a pair of blue frames, and it was kind of walking that line and it’s a very slippery slope where it doesn’t seem comic, that it’s real, but it’s not silly.
DGG: For a while, I thought it would be cool if this was an other-world Mario and Luigi.
Capone: I can see that. I wanted to talk about the two older characters that float in and out of their lives. First of all, Joyce [Payne], you said she’s a “non actor,” but she’s not a non actor, she’s a first-time actor, because she's amazing. And then of course Lance [LeGault]…I grew up with "The A-Team," so I knew who that was, and it was awesome to see him again. Was there a significance that these were much older characters? You’re in this environment where there’s all of this destruction, and Joyce really humanizes what’s actually happened here, what they're cleaning up after.
DGG: I did want them to be older, and I don’t really know why. I just thought having that texture and that sense of perspective I think, that aged perspective…there’s a lot you can read into those two characters and their relationship with each other. There are a lot of things I can’t explain why we wanted in the movie, like there’s no profanity in the movie other than I guess if you consider talk about fingering as vulgar, and there's a middle finger.
But there’s kind of an innocence to it, and I really liked the idea of this movie appealing to older people. I don’t think this is a movie necessarily every college kid is going to rush out and go see, but I think sophisticated audiences and audiences that aren’t necessarily going to the movies every week might find an interesting connection to these characters. I really thought by having the diversity of these ages and the characters and their personalities, I wanted to break it up a little bit. There’s such an immaturity to a lot of the things that are happening in the movie. A lot of times I look at Alvin and Lance as like 11 year olds in their silliness of making muscles and threatening fights and calling people a “sack of crap,” and there’s a naïve quality to them, and I just think there’s something about the perspective of like an older guy that, as Lance came in and had things to say and had his perspectives on love and relationships and drinking. It felt a little more thoughtful.
Capone: I can’t even imagine what was going through your head as you were doing that scene with Joyce where she starts to cry. She said last night that was real. What do you remember about that sequence?
PR: It put a very human perspective on the destruction that we'd been shooting in for a while, because that was her home and that was her stuff and that’s the way she felt. She gave me a tour of her house and was explaining what was where. She had lived all over the world, and she was explaining the artwork, the books that she had, and it was ash. I don’t think I had ever been around--certainly nobody I’d worked with-- somebody that was so fragile at that moment, and it was very moving.
Capone: It looked like one of the most completely authentic things I’ve seen.
DGG: I had a very weird experience a few years ago. I was on a road trip, and the actor Thomas Jane called me and he was headed home to go through the ashes of his childhood home that had burnt down. So we went to his house with him, and it was amazing seeing his comic book collection. Like he was going through meticulously finding little elements of artwork of comics that he hadn’t opened since he was 15 or 16 years old, and that was a very moving experience for me to put that in perspective, and I always carried that little episode through this project. We talk about the devastation of a landscape, and "You’ve lost your home and you’ve lost these things," but the significance of your childhood memories that are in a little crumb of some great comic book that you used to read obsessively when you were a kid and what that does to the landscape of your mind is pretty phenomenal.
PR: I kept thinking with Joyce, as she said, “Where is the proof of the life that I’ve lived? If there’s no proof of it, did it happen? How can I show people?” I was talking to her last night, and she lost everything. I was thinking it must be hard when people tell you, “It’s okay, they're just things.” Even though they are, it minimizes the importance of what those things are and it could probably be very frustrating, but she says, “It is. I have no baby pictures.” I started thinking about that, like what is it like if you have no pictures of yourself as a baby? You’ve had them your whole life, and now they're all gone. Pictures of your kids, your grandkids--you'll never never see those. To really try and imagine that is really tough.
Capone: These are the things we could talk about for hours, but thank you guys so much.
EH: Thanks, Steve.
PR: Good seeing you, Steve. How long are you here for?
Capone: Until Friday, almost the whole thing.
EH: Have you seen anything else?
Capone: Yeah, actually the film that was right after yours, Joe Swanberg’s film was great.
EH: What’s it called?
Capone: DRINKING BUDDIES.
EH: Oh yeah, with Ron Livingston.
Capone: Yeah, Ron’s in it. Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick. It’s good.
EH: Isn’t Adam Brody in that, too?
Capone: I don’t think so. He’s in SOME GIRL(S) that’s playing this week.
EH: Oh, I saw him at the airport. Sorry I’m so sick, dude.
Capone: It’s fine. Just feel better.
EH: I’m just not talkative today, and I usually am. But it was great to meet you.