David Gordon Green
A bolo punch of a reminder that, when not under the evil influence of Jerry Bruckheimer or making films for the financial pleasure of the I.R.S., Nicolas Cage holds sway with the best of them. As Joe, Cage commandeers a backwoods crew of “Timber!” yelling professional nature-killers who poison and hew healthy trees that can then be “legally” sold to lumber mills. This atmosphere-drenched union of debased Southern gothic and pitch-black comedy - a family skinning a deer in the front room has seldom garnered more laughs - could only have come from the mind of David Gordon Green (<em>Snow Angels, Pineapple Express</em>). Cage’s interactions with a cast of (mostly) non-professional supporting players and his unlikely role as father figure to the 15-year-old son (Tye Sheridan) of a monstrous drunk are enough to warrant an enthusiastic recommendation, but an eleventh hour child-in-peril subplot proves almost as toxic as Joe’s forestry skills.
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.
The greening of David Gordon Green. That's him on the right in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July.
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.
David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage
The casting of naturals in Deliverance — everyone from Bill McKinney, who was a tree surgeon at the time who played the rapist, to James Dickey himself, the author of the book — inspires me. Deliverance was really formidable in taking a Hollywood movie star (Burt Reynolds) and then integrating him into an environment that I found really striking and a narrative that I found really challenges the masculinity of these characters. It’s an ensemble where you never know what’s going to come out of their mouths. I think it’s beautiful.
If (Joe author) Larry Brown had been alive…I actually tried to convince Larry Brown to be in All the Real Girls, to play the uncle character, but he was a little too self-conscious. Joe is full of those kinda’ lively, naturalistic, authentic actors. The guy who plays the sherif in the movie (Aj Wilson McPhaul) is my next-door neighbor. I was scratching my head after a lame casting session one day. I was talking to him Home Improvement style through the fence. And I said, “Ah, you have a beautiful voice. Have you ever done any acting?” And he’s like, “I’m the Deacon of my church.” I said, “That’ll do! Come join the party.”
SM: Snow Angels was the first time you directed a film from a script you didn’t write. Does filming another writer’s words make your job as director easier or more difficult?
DGG: Not difficult at all. It was really solid work. In the case of Joe, Gary Hawkins was a professor of mine in college so I had a shorthand with him. He was the one who introduced me to Larry Brown’s work in the first place. He’s a tireless writer. When it came time for him to come up with the ending for the film, which was very different from the book…. The book leaves us with a bit of ambiguity. We were actually in production on the movie and I wanted to come up with something new. He was the kind of guy who could take the characters, take the scenarios, and come up with something that felt true to the book and wrap things up in a way that I felt went full circle and were very satisfying.
SM: Are you a cigarette smoker?
DGG: From time to time, but not a habitual one. Why do you ask?
SM: I smoke. Joe going out in the middle of a torrential downpour to grab a butt or lighting up just seconds after taking a bullet to the chest could only have come from the mind of a hard-core smoker. You’ve seen The Long Goodbye?
DGG: I love The Long Goodbye!
Elliott Gould in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. It's okay with me!
SM: There’s that great shot after Phillip Marlowe gets hit by a car and he’s lying on the ground with a burning Camel dangling from his lips. You were born in 1975, and it seems like there’s a big part of you that’s cinematically grounded between 1968 and 1978.
DGG: That’s the decade, man. I had a conversation with a friend the other day where I said I wish I was making movies during that time period. We were struggling with the ending of the new movie that I’m working on and I wish I could get away with a shock to the system like the ending of Medium Cool. The ambiguity, and subtlety, and beauty of those movies made during that time…they were imperfect and that’s what was so perfect about them.
SM: At one point it looked as though A Confederacy of Dunces would finally spawn a film version with you with the helm. What happened and what is it about John Kennedy Toole’s novel that makes it so damn unfilmable?
DGG: It was a good lesson in politics and paperwork, unfortunately. Just because you’re enthusiastic and powerful people are enthusiastic about you doesn’t mean the project can happen. Everybody wants their hand and it’s either by credit or paycheck. The legality of it was difficult, the property rights had just been passed around. Now it’s at a point in the market where it would be so expensive to make the movie in a period fashion they’d be better off making an animated TV series out of it or something.
It’s really unfortunate. We had an awesome cast and a cool script. I thought it was going to be a pretty amazing movie, but at the same time it brought me to New Orleans. I lived in New Orleans for seven years after the development of that movie fell apart. That’s where my formative years as a filmmaker were really solidified. I really value that experience and the reality check of the lessons it taught me.
Tye Sheridan and Nicolas Cage star in Joe.
SM: Earlier I mentioned the odd path your career has taken. Were you ever the least bit apprehensive about working with Nicolas Cage?
DGG: Oh, man, no! Working with him made me feel like I got into an Ivy League College. You learn from him. He just had so much generosity in this process, so much bravery. Everything from handling a cottonmouth snake to memorizing monologues at improvising and bringing his own stories. Moments like Elvis and the cigarette lighter with a cool face were things he brought to the film.
He would wake up in the morning with some crazy idea and call me or write me an e-mail and we were just thrilled to be able to integrate into the story. I wanted to make this the type of movie that he’s never done before and a character that’s unlike any he’s ever played. He’s been everything from an action hero to an Oscar-winning dramatic star and a comedian. It’s nice to feel like we’re a new benchmark on his resume.
SM: I always think of Lee Marvin when I think of Nicolas Cage. Both were tremendous actors who at times could be very lazy. In this instance, Cage really came through for you. He is simply sensational in the film.
DGG: We worked very hard to make this a distinctive fingerprint. That’s what we were shooting for.
SM: Having never read the source material, I was wondering how close the ending of the film is to the book.
DGG: In the book it was far more graphic. I felt that we needed to restrain it, make it less grotesque and less on the nose...leave the degree of subtlety to it and not see any of the events. I wanted to step away from it narratively and add to it atmospherically, so we added the bunny mask that the character puts over his face. I think that said all the creepiness we needed to say.
SM: Thanks for your time, David. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
DGG: Thanks. Let’s help spread the word. Hopefully people will show up for this one.
SM (Laughing): You can be a little more positive than that. I don’t think you can expect to attract the same crowd that went and saw all the big Nicolas Cage action pictures…
DGG (Laughing): We should’ve called it National Treasure 3.