Director David Gordon Green is currently out promoting Joe, a rich, atmospheric comedy noir starring Nicolas Cage as a backwoods professional tree-poisoner and Tye Sheridan as the teenage boy in need of protection from a mean-drunk father.
Words flew from Green’s mouth at such a rapid rate that 20 minutes on the phone with him yield almost twice the amount of material as would an average interview. Here is our talk in its wordy entirety.
Scott Marks: Do you remember the first time you watched a film and it dawned on you that it was made with intent and purpose, not actors and actresses making up the dialogue as they went along?
David Gordon Green: That’s a really good question. I grew up in Dallas and didn’t really know that much about the movie industry other than maybe a behind the scenes making of Return of the Jedi TV special. A pivotal movie in my experience was Born on the Fourth of July. I was an extra in it. I was 12-years-old and I got to skip school. If you watch the title sequence to that movie there’s a moment where I look at the camera and wiggle my eyebrows.
SM: I’ll have to go back and check.
DGG: You have to look carefully. In the beginning there’s a baseball game with the young Ron Kovic, and his girlfriend runs up and cheers him on. That’s me sitting over her left shoulder right behind the backstop. And my dad is the score keeper of the baseball game wearing a little Styrofoam hat. I look at that as the moment where I realized that’s what I need to be doing.
SM: What an incredible memory for you.
DGG: Yeah. Being 12-years-old and watching Oliver Stone and (cinematographer) Robert Richardson. Yeah, it was pretty pivotal for me. I always wanted to do something in movies but that’s when it hit me that this is how it goes together. Seeing Robert Richardson up on a crane swinging around with his camera… it was the circus I wanted to be a part of.
SM: Your career has followed one of the wildest and oddest trajectories of just about any other director currently at work. The last thing one expected from the director of George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and my favorite of the bunch, Snow Angels, was a pair of mainstream pot comedies. What brought about the sudden change?
DGG (Laughing): I’m glad to hear that Snow Angels was your favorite, because it was a difficult movie to make. It was a hard movie emotionally to sit with me. It took me to a really dark headspace. I was really proud of the movie. When it didn’t perform at all, I was really frustrated because I put my heart and soul into the movie. Then I thought, why not see what I have to offer the world in the opposite direction. What if I did something that was actually fun? I call my agent and said let’s get me on a big studio comedy. I went and pitched to shoot that Adam Sandler movie, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. I really wanted to get that movie and it didn’t work out.
SM: Oh my God, did you luck out.
DGG: You say that, but Alexander Payne had done a draft of that script that was really awesome. I said, "I could do this movie and it would be as funny as crap." And I just got this bug up my ass to make a comedy. Danny McBride had met Judd (Apatow) and Seth (Rogen) after The Foot Fist Way came out and they began talking to him about Pineapple Express. They asked who he thought should make it and Danny put in a good word for me.
It was weird to have this very aggressive, hard-driven dream to make a broad comedy. That was my agenda after making this melancholy movie. It was refreshing and it re-inspired me in an industry that I’ve always loved. I realized there was a way to balance all of it, that I can go from a dark indie drama to a big mainstream comedy or HBO series. There is no gatekeeper that can tell me I can’t. It’s an industry that’s filled with many incredible passports to the world, so why not take advantage of that?
Joe Trailer 1 (2014) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan
SM: With Joe you’ve managed to pull together your Southern Gothic tradition and flair for dark comedy. All roads led to this film for you. This is a very funny movie.
DGG: We’re doing an On Demand release at the same time as the theatrical release and the humor of the movie is so evident with the theatrical experience that I worry a little bit about it being lost when people watch it alone on TV. They won’t have that person to look at and share that tension-breaker with. We really wanted to make a tense movie, but have some levity as well.
SM: I could be all alone in a room watching the film for the first time and the scene when they skin the deer in the living room would still cause me to laugh out loud. Where did you find these people?
DGG (Laughing): The woman in that scene who makes me laugh so much was played an interview subject in the movie Bernie. I just finished another movie with Kay (Epperson) and she’s incredible. A lot of the other actors we just met everywhere from a bus stop to the day labor center to a barbecue restaurant in Austin, Texas that one of the guys owns. They were people who didn’t know they were actors and we wanted to give a good exhibition of their capabilities.
SM: While I’m watching the film, and long before I did my research and discovered your love of John Boorman’s Deliverance, "Dueling Banjos" is playing in my head.
DGG: It’s one of my favorite movies. I have the entire film committed to memory, which is kind of disturbing. On my office wall I have three framed movie posters: Deliverance, Medium Cool, and Badlands. Depending on my frame of mind at the moment, that’s the poster I stare at while I write.