The Return of David Gordon Green

Published August 9, 2013

ABOVE: (LEFT TO RIGHT) EMILE HIRSCH, PAUL RUDD, AND DAVID GORDON GREEN AT SUNDANCE, JANUARY 2013.

No one can accuse director David Gordon Green of a cautious career. After a series of earnest, well-received indie films,  Green made an unusual switch to slapstick studio comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008) and The Sitter (2011). He also directed 10 episodes of his friend Danny McBride’s HBO series, Eastbound & Down, wrote a cartoon for MTV called Good Vibes (2011), and directed big-budget, Super Bowl-slot commercials for the likes of Nike, GE, and Chrysler.

But now, fans of All the Real Girls (2003) and George Washington (2000) can rejoice: Green has, at least for one film, returned to his indie roots. Set in Texas in 1988, and based on the Icelandic film Either Way (2011), Prince Avalanche features Paul Rudd and a slightly chubby Emile Hirsch running around the woods in workman’s overalls. Rudd and Hirsch play Alvin and Lance, two not-quite-friends hired to repaint the road after a wildfire consumed the area the year before. Alvin likes to fish, write letters to his girlfriend Madison (Lance’s sister, voiced by director Lynn Shelton), and indulge in some quality introspection. Lance reads comics and counts down the days to the weekend when he can go back into town and “get the little man squeezed.” The only other people the pair encounters are a slightly deranged, elderly trucker (Lance LeGault), and a woman searching through the ashes of her former home (Joyce Payne). Delightful and at times very affecting, you leave the film wishing that Hirsch in particular was given more comedic roles.

We spoke with Green the day after the film’s New York premiere at the Magnolia offices.

EMMA BROWN: I heard that you got stuck in an elevator at the premiere last night.

DAVID GORDON GREEN: No, but a lot of these people were. I got out. I escaped.

BROWN: Through the roof hatch?

GREEN: I’m stealth. I have my tricks. I don’t let technology and mechanics hinder me from a good time. There was a party in the other room; I needed to get to it. Sometimes you do what you can, you’ll turn on your best John Maclean and get to it.

BROWN: Whom would you save in a fire, Lance or Alvin?

GREEN: I would save Alvin. He’s got a big warm heart and I think he’d need a hug.

BROWN: I was surprised to hear that the woman whose house burnt down in the film, Joyce Payne, is not an actor, but someone who had actually lost their house to a wildfire.

GREEN: Yeah, none of that was scripted. The character wasn’t even in the screenplay. We just happened upon her when we were location scouting, and [she] told her story of looking through the ashes for her pilot’s license. It was a really odd, magical moment that was a pivotal point in our production.

I don’t even know that she knew she was in a movie when we were filming it. We just kind of wove her into the narrative and we were there listening to her story. I’m not sure what was going on in her head, but it was really fun when we screened the movie and her friend knew who Paul Rudd was, and they saw that it was actually well-received by an audience. It was a very exciting moment for her to have overcome such a vulnerable chapter in her life and used it to the benefit of a movie that was really capitalizing on the emotional backdrop. We’re shooting in a forest that has been devastated by a wildfire, and people have lost their lives and their homes and assets to this catastrophe, and so making sure that there’s a relevance to this movie, some poignancy as opposed to just making it some sort of cliché odd-couple comedy.

BROWN: I also heard that you devised the title, Prince Avalanche, before you knew what the movie was going to be about. Is that true?

GREEN: I think I [decided] that I wanted to make a very stripped-down movie, found a location, came up with a title, found Either Way, adapted it, and then cast it.

BROWN: So you didn’t have Paul or Emile in mind while you were writing the script?

GREEN:  There was nobody, really, [that] I thought about. My casting process was: who are actors that I like that I know I can enjoy spending time with that I could, not reinvent, but show a side of that the audiences don’t necessarily expect. Use the risk of a low-budget film like this rather than just play the obvious card of what [the actors] are known for.

BROWN: Did you ever considered having Paul and Emile in the opposite roles?

GREEN: No, I don’t think I did. But it’s funny, I remember in Pineapple Express we switched which actor was going to be in the characters. I do like doing that, and I’ve done it for certain scenes in films before. But I think it was always just older, wiser and then younger, more obnoxious.

BROWN: Lance is still quite lovable.

GREEN: He’s incredibly lovable. That’s the whole reason the movie works: people that are questionable in their ethics and values are somehow sensible and relatable. Some people get really sad when they don’t get laid. I think that’s a very funny quality.

BROWN: When Alvin is describing Lance’s shortcomings, he mentions that he can’t gut a fish, build a tent, or tie a knot. Can you do those things?

GREEN: I can’t tie complicated knots for sailing, but I can gut a fish, build a tent, and tie some knots.

BROWN: Can Paul?

GREEN: Yeah, Paul’s great at that. He’s very handy to have around on a production. We’re both kind of like that: we’re very urban guys, but have a great appreciation and affection for nature and solitude [and] probably consider ourselves a little bit more of outdoorsmen than we really are. You see how insignificant you really are when you’re lost in the wilderness. I have a place up in the mountains of Colorado where I like to become anonymous and disappear. Walk down the path and see a little black bear giving you the cross-eye—[which] can get kind of squirrely. If you see a baby, you think mama bear is gonna be creeping up behind you and then you’re fucked. [laughs]

BROWN: Did you name the character Lance after the actor Lance?

GREEN: I did not. That was a pleasant confusion—Lance LeGault came second. We wrote the script and then I started writing his character for him, just to make things frustrating for us all.

He was an amazing guy. He passed away shortly after we filmed. I’d met him in the desert of California; I was out working on a car commercial and heard this voice and turned around. He used to sing with Elvis and lived a hundred lives—a true, larger-than-life character, and it was amazing to be able to integrate who he is into our movie. It’s certainly a character piece—Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play the central characters—but there are environmental efforts to really open it up and have organic actors, organic performers that come and go through the story. The momentum of the film I think really kicks into gear once you start exploring the natural background. We wanted to make sure we had an expansive quality to it, not just such a claustrophobic story or a narrative that could just as easily be a play.

BROWN: Director Lynn Shelton makes a cameo as the voice of Lance’s sister and Alvin’s girlfriend, Madison. I didn’t know that she acted.

GREEN: It’s weird. I called her about SAG contracts because we’ve been friends for a little while, and there’s a few filmmakers where you can go, “Hey, this is an actor I’m thinking about” or “This is a situation I’m in,” and get their two cents on it. So I was calling her about something totally mundane and then we were talking and I started thinking about her voice: “She’s got a good voice for a phone call.” Then I just said, “Hey, would you want to be in this movie, we’ll just record you from Seattle.”

BROWN: You made quite a few indie films like Prince Avalanche at the beginning of your career. Was there any one event that made you want to try working within the studio system, or were you just ready for a change?

GREEN: I was making this film Snow Angels (2007), a very dark and depressing movie that I’m very, very proud of. I remember making it and throwing a lot of myself into it—making it very honest and raw. And I remember thinking I can’t keep doing this. I need to exercise something else. I want to have fun, I want to make a movie in Los Angeles that’s funny and makes people laugh. I want to make something that’s commercial and people are excited to buy tickets to. But I think for my own sanity it was important for me to try something new, make myself vulnerable in a different way. Not in an emotional way but in a comedic way, which is [an] even greater anxiety because the reception of your film is [based on] the vocal element of an audience. When you’re making a movie that needs to play as a broad commercial comedy and people aren’t laughing, you’re fucked. If they really embrace you, you know it in the moment. I really wanted that experience. It was strangely easy because I found the support of Judd Apatow and Amy Pascal at Sony. They trusted me and, I’m sure despite my resume, let me unleash a side of myself that I hadn’t shown to the world yet. It was really exciting.

BROWN: How did you present yourself to them? “I know I made these small movies but this is why you should trust me with a big budget film…”

GREEN: I wasn’t defensive. I was just very confident and enthusiastic about it and I think they could sense that. I think there were enough little nuggets of humanity and humor in the projects that I’d done that they saw. Trying to make things that have a bit of reality or honesty in the absurdity is important.

BROWN: Did you ever consider that filmmaking might be emotionally draining process when you were in film school? Was that an obstacle that you were prepared for?

GREEN: I had no idea what I would face. The reality is that the obstacles are very different than any textbook or classroom setting would inform you of. The tough decision of: “Do I hire my best friend or the best guy for the job?” The high-class problems of casting choices, of marketing a film, of someone wanting to capitalize on an opening day release by mis-marketing your movie—but they’re sure that’s going to be a route to success—rather than honestly marketing it as the movie it is and anticipating a good word of mouth. There’s so much more complexity to, not only the development and production, but the release of a film than anybody knows until they get their hands really dirty in it. It’s more than just having a good idea. It’s having the wherewithal and the common sense and the psychology to get dozens or hundreds of people together and ring-lead them into a circus that can be heaven or hell.

BROWN: Do you cast your best friend or the person who’s best for the job?

GREEN: It depends. [laughs] Luckily, in my case, a lot of my best friends are the best person for the job, but sometimes I’ll give a buddy a chance to prove himself. Other times I want to go with a tried-and-true person. It can absolutely cause problems.

BROWN: Do you think film school is worthwhile?

GREEN: It can be. For me it was essential. For me, it was the introduction to the cinematographer I’ve used on every film, the production sound mixer I’ve used on every film, the guy that does behind-the-scenes on my movies and pushes the dollies—60% of the people I work with are guys that I was in boot camp with, basically, going through that very vulnerable period of your life where you’re balancing your academics, chasing girls, and making movies. Fifteen years later, nothing has changed.

PRINCE AVALANCHE IS OUT TODAY, AUGUST 9, IN LIMITED RELEASE.