I could talk to David Gordon Green about his films for hours. Hell, I could pick any one film that he's made since his feature debut with 2000's GEORGE WASHINGTON and talk to him about just that one for hours. Born in Arkansas, schooled in North Carolina, and currently residing in Austin, Texas, Green is the personification of the intelligent, funny, laid-back Southern artist, with just a slight hint of the bizarre that he loves to throw into his films so casually, that you might almost miss them. And I'm not even talking about his adventures in comedy (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, YOUR HIGHNESS, THE SITTER and many episodes of HBO's "Eastbound & Down," which starred his longtime pal Danny McBride (who is often credited as a producer on Green's films).
Green followed up the exemplary GEORGE WASHINGTON with impressive and thoughtful dramas like UNDERTOW, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, SNOW ANGELS (my personal favorite of his early works). But in the last couple of years, Green has stepped away from pure comedy and tried out something different even for him. He's completed was has become informally known as his "Texas trilogy," which began with the buddy comedy PRINCE AVALANCHE last year and continues this month with JOE, featuring a career-high performance by Nicolas Cage as the nicest guy in a small Texas town who also happens to have severe rage issues. The trilogy will be completed soon with MANGLEHORN (starring Al Pacino and Holly Hunter), which should show up on the fall festival circuit later this year.
While the three films don't have any plot crossover, there is thematic connective tissue among them as each of the main characters uses their repetitive, menial job as an opportunity to consider and reflect upon life and get into varying degrees of trouble, while the lead actors get a chance to show us a side of their abilities and talents that are rarely, if ever, seen. Green loves to populate his films with first-time actors just to challenge the habits of his more seasoned performers, and the results are stunning, especially with Cage in JOE.
When Green was in Chicago last week, he brought along actor Tye Sheridan, the young man who plays opposite Cage as Gary, who works for Joe and ends up being protected by him when his alcoholic, abusive father gets a little too dangerous. Sheridan's first two films out of the gate were Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE (as one of Brad Pitt's sons) and Jeff Nichols' MUD, going toe to toe with Matthew McConaughey. He's also got four films in the can already to come out in the next year or so, and has just signed on to star in SCOUTS VS. ZOMBIES. This kid is going to be a major talent in the coming years. With all of that said, please enjoy my talk with David Gordon Green and Tye Sheridan…
Capone: Hey. Good to see you, David.
David Gordon Green: Good to see you again.
Capone: Tye, good to meet you.
Tye Sheridan: Yes, sir. You too.
DGG: I saw you outside a movie at SXSW. You saw a bunch of movies I’m sure, though.
Capone: I saw you like right after the press conference, because I knew you were coming here.
DGG: I thought I saw you at the Paramount doing something.
Capone: It’s entirely possible.
DGG: I don’t remember. I saw a bunch of movies.
Capone: I was at the Paramount quite frequently.
DGG: It was nice that I actually got to see a few things.
TS: What’d you see?
DGG: I saw a really interesting movie called THE MEND. Did you see that? With Josh Lucas. Really weird.
Capone: I didn’t see it, but I know exactly which one you’re talking about.
DGG: Really boozy, smart stuff. Really good. I saw a good number there.
TS: Did you see the Richard Linklater film?
DGG: I did not. It was only playing that one time.
Capone: I saw that.
TS: How was it?
Capone: It’s amazing and unprecedented.
TS: That’s so cool.
Capone: I’ve never seen anything. It literally is like you’re discovering like a new kind of filmmaking like that you’ve never seen before.
DGG: So good. He's always inspiring. But you know what? In a world where most movies are too long, let’s clear that shit out so that people can have like a movie that needs to be long and have the gravity of being a long, smart movie. To me, these 2 hour and 10 minute movies... Come on, man. Just cut it down to 1 hour 45 minutes, and everybody’s good.
Capone: JOE is almost two hours, though.
DGG: One hour 50 minutes. It’s six minutes too long, I couldn’t figure out how to cut it down. [laughs]
Capone: I’m fascinated with this idea about the connective tissue that you’ve now established between this film and PRINCE AVALANCHE and the next film. Did you plan it that way, or did you realize it was happening as it was happening?
DGG: I did not plan it that way. I didn’t even plan AVALANCHE. AVALANCHE just started happening immediately. Someone basically just opened a window, and I jumped out with that movie. That was really fun, and it was such a well of ideas and discovery of locations. I had recently moved to Austin--I'd been in and out, but this the first time I'd really planted a tree somewhere--and so I just started getting to know the people, getting to know the backdrop, getting to know what the outskirts of town were like, and really immersing myself in the character of the community, and it was just a real discovery.
There’s actors that overlap between the movies. There’s locations that overlap between AVALANCHE and JOE, and then JOE and MANGLEHORN. So it's of a mindset, of a tapestry about a lost masculinity and romanticism that I feel like are of a weird period of my work that I think I need to step away from before I get lost in the black hole of what it could be.
Capone: Speaking of masculinity, Tye, it’s crazy that you’re first three movies right out of the gate are with Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey and Nicolas Cage. Do you just feel the testosterone levels in your body rising exponentially? Or maybe they’re sapping it out of you.
TS: Yeah, exactly. The only thing I can remember from when I was working with Brad Pitt is like how cool he was. He was just a cool guy to be around. I don’t even know what he’s like. I can’t even remember.
DGG: Did you know who he was?
TS: No, I didn’t know. I was like, “Oh, Brad Pitt? That’s cool. That's a weird last name.” But then I remember working with McConaughey, and he would just drop down and do 20 push-ups. He’s an interesting guy. I like Nic a lot; he’s really fun. Have you ever talked to him?
Capone: Just a couple of questions briefly in Austin.
TS: Yeah, he’s really, really fun.
Capone: From working with him specifically, what do you learn about acting and living? He does both very well.
DGG: Some days better than others. [laughs]
TS: I remember going to work with him everyday, and I was constantly thinking of his beard. And that’s something I’ve always thought about. Because you don’t have a lot of fascial hair, do you?
DGG: I have like 73 facial hairs.
TS: Is that a lot?
DGG: Is that a lot? No, that’s not that many.
TS: I don't know why I brought up his beard just now.
Capone: It’s a powerful thing in the movie.
TS: Totally. Absolutely.
DGG: Well, it’s the first movie he's ever sported a real beard.
Capone: I asked that question at the press conference about the power of the beard. We were joking about it, but I actually think fascial hair like makes a huge difference in a performance like this. And if I remember correctly, you wanted him to have that for a very specific reason.
DGG: My specific reason is just because I don’t think Joe would give a shit. There’s a lot of people, especially now, that have these fashionable beards. I don’t think Joe would give a shit about a fashionable beard. I think Joe just wasn’t going to get up and shave that morning. He had too much to drink the night before, and it all he could do was get up when the alarm went off.
Capone: Didn’t you also say that with the beard he kind of looked like [JOE author] Larry Brown a little bit?
DGG: Yeah, once he started growing it and we realized there was this real similarity to the physicality of the author, it was too good to not keep it going. Yeah, it really was kind of haunting in a way, because I had known Larry a little bit when he was alive, and you just see these little look in the eye, or a shadow as he walked under a tree, and we were like, “Oh, there he goes for a second.” It was really interesting. Totally unintentional.
Capone: As a connoisseur of Nicolas Cage’s work, did you see the difference in the performance because of it?
DGG: Well, yeah. I’ve spoken at length about what a huge Nicolas Cage fan I am, and he’s the only movie star that has been the leading actor in successful comedies, won an Oscar for his dramatic work, and been an action hero. And for a guy to have those three amazing, landmark achievements for an actor is really incredible, and so I wanted an actor who I really admire for that diversity and the audacity of some of his choices. Everything he does is fascinating to me, and I wanted to do something he’d never done before.
I always set little strange goals and challenges for myself, but I wanted an actor that had the embodiment of those three qualities, and I wanted to take him out on a journey that he’d never done before, which is really tough when you think about a guy like Cage. But then we started going through the checklist of ways that he looked or how he carried himself. It was important to me for him to be really fit, and just have big arms like he'd boxed a lot in jail. I wanted big biceps for this, and he would get up at 4am and work out every day. He would grow out the beard to distinguish himself physically. We were really just trying to create something unique with this in terms of him and for his fan base. People that like any of his movies can look to this and see something that’s unique and inviting.
Capone: It seems like every few years he puts something out that makes us say, “There he is. That’s the guy we fell in love with.”
DGG: And just getting to know him and hanging out socially with him, he gets approached a lot, and in a week, he’s never approached about the same movie twice.
Capone: Of his list achievements, he was also in the beginning a very in-demand character actor, who eventually made that transition.
DGG: We talked about that. In some ways, he’s confused that he’s not Crispin Glover. [laughs] Who’s an actor that we both really admire. I’ll see anything that he does. And I think for an actor with eccentric interests to have landed a spot in the mainstream is incredible.
Capone: I don’t know what the specific story elements of MANGLEHORN are, but in PRINCE AVALANCHE and JOE there’s this idea of doing this repetitive manual labor that is in no way stimulating. But it maybe gives you a little time to meditate on your thoughts and your life. Is there something about that type of work that you find fascinating?
DGG: It’s all surgery. It’s all the microscopic psychology of what your job is. If you’re painting stripes on the road [as in PRINCE AVALANCHE], JOE’s about a man poisoning trees, and MANGLEHORN is about a man duplicating keys. So it’s about what you do, and what you do all day, and how that strangely either becomes you or is reflective of you.
Capone: From the very beginning, one of your distinguishing characteristics is that you put characters on the screen that we don’t ever get to see on the screen in other films. These are Americans, but we don't really find these people nearly as interesting as we should, and then you find the things about them that are interesting and the experiences in their lives. Where did that come from? Where did you sort of start getting fascinated by those lives?
DGG: I’m nosey. I’ma nosey and curious person. At the airport today, I’m greeted by two people that are going to help navigate my press day in Chicago, and immediately not only am I interested in talking to them about who they are, but I’m interested in their commentary on the people, the pedestrians at the airport, walking by while we’re waiting for Tye. I just love the stories that every single person has. You see someone that can’t wait to meet their loved one at baggage claim. Another one that’s coming here to whoop someone’s ass because they wronged their relative. Everybody has their own epic story, and I think turning a microscope onto the intimacy of that is really valuable.
It’s obvious that a film director would want to grab an actor at the top of the star meter and make a movie that people are really pumped about the concept. Like, “Oh, I get it. I could sell it in the room. It’s a perfect pitch.” But I like the broken noses and the pimples and the imperfect pitch. I like trying to find a way to navigate and make the low concept incredibly interesting. And a story like JOE, which is based on Larry’s novel, is such a beautifully written book and has so much content, subtext, inner monologue that we can utilize to the substance of these characters. We see the value in people that work hard every day and don’t necessarily have the ideal Hollywood narrative as a part of their life. To me, the relationship between Gary and Joe is that much more interesting because it’s that unlikely.
Capone: Nic said in Austin that he fell in love with what he called your “process.” What specifically was he talking about, do you think? Tye, what do you remember about the process that David used that was different than what you’ve been exposed to before?
TS: Well, David’s different from a lot of directors, because he’s David. He’s just very unique and he’s got his own style and process and the way he works. What I really, really love, like he mentioned, he’s so interested in what anyone’s story is and everyone’s story. But he’s also interested about how you feel about the scene, what your ideas are, and what your interests are in life in your work. He just cares, and it makes you drawn to him that much more.
DGG: I don’t think there will ever be a moment when I tell an actor that they missed a line from the script. I think the script is there as a guideline to get us budgeted and scheduled appropriately, and then have the actor interpret that as to what felt natural in the moment, and it is never the same thing twice. And that’s the most interesting thing to me, to see the evolution of an actor to their character as they get to know their character and how they speak and how they interact with the other characters. I’d rather explore that than control that.
Capone: Speaking of control, one of the key things about Joe is that he’s probably the nicest guy in this community, but he also has this fantastic rage in him that he can barely keep in. I feel like part of the reason he has the job that he does is because it’s probably in no way going to lead to conflict. We’ve seen Cage do violent outbursts before, but never quite like this. Was that one of the reasons you thought he’d be perfect for this?
DGG: I've always loved to embrace the resume of an actor, the good and the bad. Bring the baggage and let’s create a character knowing that a lot of America has preconceptions of who you are, and then let’s play with that. So, I like the unpredictable quality of what he can do with this character, and what an audience would anticipate of Cage interpreting this character, because you don’t know what he’s capable of. It could be anything, and I think by seeing these little glimpses of outburst, really dominated by the restraint of a character. That’s a word we used every day: Joe’s a man that’s practicing restraint through the entire film. It’s not a movie of bravado and outbursts. It’s a movie of holding back and holding your heart and scratching your head and trying to figure out how to be a man in a world that’s a lot more lawless than you’d like it to be.
Capone: I think one of the best scenes in the film--and it’s a minor moment, but it’s very telling--is when Gary Poulter, who plays your father, is hitting you. Joe sees it, and he starts to get out of the car but then he doesn’t.
DGG: Well that was Cage’s idea. It wasn’t in the script. He just said, “I would think about it, and I would hold back.” But it’s interesting, you mentioned Gary Poulter, and the scenes with letting Gary loose, that’s where we started the production of the movie. We started with Tye and Gary and got into the difficult scenes really quickly. Anything that dealt with the heaviest, most dramatic of subject matter, we got out right out of the gate like day one, day two, day three.
Capone: That must have been fun for you, getting beat up every day.
TS: You have to do it sometime or another, so it’s like, why not make it the first day? I don’t know if you’ve heard what we did in rehearsal with Gary Poulter, but what did you have him read that was some crazy idea that they had? How did that even come about?
DGG: Gary was a street performer in Austin, a breakdancer, and could do these amazing Vincent Price monologues.
Capone: Oh, I did hear about this. I saw an interview with Nic where he talked about that.
DGG: Yeah, it is going to be on the DVD. We have him doing this BLACK WIDOW monologue that is incredible.
TS: Do you have it on camera?
DGG: Oh, yeah. We filmed a scene with him doing it just in case we could get the rights and make it work out. We didn’t use it in the movie, but it’s incredible. But it’s also part of our discovery of the actors and how they relate to each other, and what they bring to the table. When you have an actor like Gary Poulter and you realize that man can breakdance, you have to have him breakdance in the movie.
TS: Yeah, that was really cool.
Capone: You’ve done it before where you use, I won’t even call it a non-actor, but first-time actors. But he and that wonderful woman in PRINCE AVALANCHE, you find these people. Gary is no longer alive, correct?
DGG: He passed away right after we wrapped. Yeah.
Capone: Just tragic. Tye, talk about working with him. What was it like working with someone who had no bad habits or any traditional acting tricks. What was it like being with someone unbridled?
TS: It’s great because they give such a free performance. They are willing to say anything they wanna say.
DGG: They don’t know the rules.
TS: Exactly. And sometimes, they get so nervous that stuff starts coming out of their mouth, and it’s like, “Oh my god. This is really great,” and you have to roll with it. When you’re doing the scene, you can feel it in the performance, and it’s coming out so natural.
DGG: I think Gary Poulter really looked to Tye in an opposite dynamic certainly from their characters, but he was like, “How do we do this, buddy?” He didn’t know the rules. I think it was nice to have Tye and Nic there to talk to him about how the slate worked, when to start acting. Do you do it on “Action” or when the slate snaps? How to get in character, or do you just jump right into it? Gary was trying to find his process. Was he a method actor?
Capone: If you think about it, Nic isn't a classically trained actor either. He learned on the job, so it’s great seeing like that come full circle.
DGG: Yeah. I think when Nic talked about the process, I think that’s it. It’s like, “Good morning Nic. Would you like to meet your co-stars for the day?”
DGG: It’s not full of celebrity cameos. It’s the opposite. It’s like, “I’d like you to meet this interesting guy I met at a barbeque restaurant last week. He’s going to be acting with us today.”
Capone: I don’t even remember what transpires in the scene, but there are these chickens all over the place that seem to bring out some great Cage-isms.
DGG: Yeah, when he’s cutting up the deer. We put chickens in the house just to make it…
TS: Where did you get tat idea where you’re like, “Hey, throw some chickens in there.”
DGG: I just wanted chaos. I wanted it to be chaos.
TS: But was that something that you had on the day?
DGG: Yeah, we requested chickens.
TS: You requested chickens?
DGG: We had two chickens, and one of them got out.
TS: So, before you shot that you knew you wanted chickens?
Capone: But you didn’t tell Nic? Was that it?
DGG: Yeah, I said, “Joe hates chickens” before he went into that house. It takes everybody off guard. You can’t worry about your cue, you can’t worry about the lines you’ve rehearsed when you’ve gotta deal with a fucking chicken. And then there's Kay, the actress over there sitting in the wheelchair and then this dude trying to stab at a deer carcass and then another blind man.
Capone: You’re finishing up the Al Pacino film, MAGLEHORN, but then I hear you’re starting to work on some more studio things?
DGG: Yeah, I’ve got a couple studio projects that I’m developing. My ideal career goes back and forth. It’s really lovely during these three movies to have none ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing. There’s no one from the financiers, to the distributers, to the actors saying, “What’s going on?” Or questioning why we’re lifting scenes or adding characters or grabbing non-actors off the street and putting them in movies. There’s no justification needed. It’s just total, liberating freedom. That being said, there’s not a lot of money to do a lot of stuff, so I’ll have these ideas of things that are going to have a heftier price tag, and it would be cool to be able to jump back and forth.
Capone: Jump back into the people questioning your every move and motivation.
DGG: [laughs] Yeah, well I think that’s part of the game you play when you’re making movies that cost more money, making sure there's a responsible financial ballpark to play in. That being said, I’ve done three studio movies, and never had an executive tell me No, never had anybody breathe down my neck. It’s just sometimes you have to get into the presentational, actorly element of directing.
Capone: Alright, I will see you guys in a few hours. Great to meet you, Tye. Nice to see you again, David.