A 'Prince' Among Men
David Gordon Green makes himself at home in Bastrop for 'Prince Avalanche'
David Gordon Green's career has had a lot of highlights: From his critically acclaimed debut George Washington and the Sundance smash All the Real Girls (which also helped introduce Zooey Deschanel to the world), to his high-profile studio comedies like Pineapple Express and The Sitter, the director's career arc has been steadily rising. So it's perhaps no surprise that his latest film, the Bastrop-set Prince Avalanche, draws from the best of both sides of Green's career. Like his early dramas, it's a lovely, contemplative film with a strong emotional core, and like his more recent Hollywood productions, it's really funny, pulling strong performances out of stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. It's just one of the two films that Green has made recently that is both shot and set in Central Texas – his forthcoming Joe also draws from the local pool – and it may signify a new era in the director's career: one in which he's fully in control of the production to make movies that look like Hollywood but feel like indies. The Chronicle caught up with Green to talk about the Bastrop fires, making movies on the fly, and what it's like when Nicolas Cage starts quizzing a road crew about how to do their job.
Austin Chronicle: Prince Avalanche takes place in Bastrop. Do you have a connection to the place?
David Gordon Green: I knew about it because, probably more than anything, [Richard] Linklater lives there. I just started reading about it, and certainly saw the imprint as it was billowing. You could see it from miles and miles away. So it was obviously a pretty enormous spectacle. And then, the post-fire rebirth – a friend of mine was telling me about a state park that I had been to, just kind of hiking around years ago: "You should go back down there now. They've opened the park back up and you can walk through the ashes of a lot of it." Some of it had been closed down at that time just because of the trees falling or whatnot. So I just went for a hike out there and really thought it had an amazing kind of apocalyptic, cinematic oeuvre to it.
AC: This is the first movie that you've both written and directed since before Pineapple Express. What was it like getting back to that?
DGG: Is that true? Yeah, I guess it is. I had a hand in all the scripts, but this is certainly the only one that has my solo name on it. I don't know if the writing had anything to do with it. It was based on an Icelandic film called Either Way, and so basically I plagiarized that film and then I tried to make it my own professional version of that. [laughs]
I was just thinking about it – most people, when they go to the movies, they respond or react or relate to characters, and they identify with certain things, and they kind of personalize those stories in their own lives. Some ring closer to home than others, but I think that's kind of what a lot of us get out of movies: a relationship or identification with characters and situations. So I kind of looked at it like that, as I was identifying with these characters and these situations, but then I wanted to make my version of how it would be. It was a really organic process from there, just to try to personalize it as much as possible, pay great respect to the original film, which I really admired, and then bring in what I thought was an essential and magical character, which is the landscape there in Central Texas. I undeniably needed to make a movie there. If I hadn't taken that walk that day, I probably wouldn't have made a movie at all, but seeing that – knowing that I had a really limited amount of time before the substantial regrowth of the plant and wildlife that was there – I just really wanted to take advantage of that short window. I kind of related to a songwriter who'll pick up a guitar when he's feeling something and can blurt out a song. But the film business is so much harder because typically you have to come up with a concept, and then go pitch it to a financier, and develop a script over a period of time, and talk about casting, talk about budget, talk about locations, and make it, edit it. It's like two years, at least, from the beginning of the concept until the movie's done – two-year, three-year, four-year, 10-year process. So with this it was like, "I don't have that much time, so I'm either going to grab an idea and make something very quickly and take advantage of this beautiful location and this story or not make it at all." Fortunately the actors jumped on board really quickly, and we got an amazing crew. There were a lot of locals that came out to help us. The community was really supportive of us. It was kind of an amazing opportunity. It was an anti-production. It was so unlike traditional Hollywood film development and film production: The idea came to me in maybe February of last year, and we were sound-mixing in July. That's as short a time period as you can ever have on a project.
To me, there was a great momentum to that, a great organic quality to that, of letting ideas unfold, and being in these locations and meeting a character like Joyce Payne – the character that they encounter there who is going through her home. That's not a character or a situation that was in the screenplay, but during location scouting, we met Joyce, and she basically allowed us to film her telling her story to Paul Rudd's character. It brought a very unique and monumental element to the film. So a lot of it was just letting the movie loose. "We're here in this place with these people. What needs to be filmed and then how do we make the best story out of it?"
AC: The scene with Joyce Payne is a very quiet, intimate moment, and there are a lot of those very small, contemplative moments – but it's also got Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, who are movie stars, in it. Does working with actors who can carry a lot of things when they're onscreen give you the opportunity to take more risks?
DGG: One thing that I've actually learned, in terms of the way the industry works in this day and age, is if you can have actors of value, or a concept or a property of value – something about your project that makes sense financially – and then make the movie for a lot less than that, then nobody cares what you do. They literally don't care. Nobody looks; nobody questions; nobody bangs on your door or looks over your shoulder or asks you why because you're making a very financially responsible movie. If you can find a financial boundary in which you can make your art, it's an amazing, satisfying experience for everybody. Investors are going to get their money back almost certainly, and the actors and the creative collaborators are going to be able to explore a process or an angle on the storytelling or a type of performance that they wouldn't otherwise get to explore. I think for an actor like Paul Rudd, it was an opportunity to not just be the funny guy onscreen, but actually have dramatic depth to a character. For a guy like Emile, it was the opportunity to not be the dramatic guy, but to make people laugh. For all of us, it was a way to approach filmmaking in a way that we hadn't in a long time. We didn't have any lights, a very small crew. All the toys and bells and whistles that typically accompany the well-funded and high-budgeted films that you might make – all that was stripped away, to be just about the process and just about the people.
It was an opportunity where I'm looking at our boom operator, Tommy Sturgis. He had a little microphone pack on the side of his head that said "bad connection," meaning the plug that is plugging in has a bad connection. When Paul and Emile and I were looking around and thinking what we should we sing a song about in this drunken montage, I just look over to Sturg and his mic pack and say, "I don't know. Let's sing it about a bad connection." So these guys improvised a song about having bad connections, and we're under a telephone wire, and it all makes sense. It all kind of connects. Having that kind of a process – rather than, if we were on a studio film, we would have had the Top 40 hit artist of today preconceive a song. We would have re-recorded it and rehearsed it in the studio, and then we'd be there trying to make it feel fresh. But here we're really kind of pulling a song out of our ass. I think that's the beauty of a movie like this – there's a spontaneity to it, a rawness to it, a comedic effect, and an emotional reality to it.
AC: After working on the big productions, was this something that you needed to do?
DGG: Big productions are a ton of fun – and certainly they're lucrative and very luxurious. I have a great time making those movies. This was really a reaction to – I've been working really hard to make a few films that I couldn't either get the money for, or the cast fell through. The logistics of preparing to make a movie became a full-time job, and I was talking to a friend – actually the drummer for Explosions in the Sky, which ended up doing the music for the film – I was talking to Chris [Hrasky], and what I like is not talking about making movies. I like making movies. I hate development. I hate these notes, and people criticizing things that they don't know anything about, and not taking these chances. I totally understand the business of making movies, but what I really love is when the camera's rolling. I was like: "I want to start rolling. I wanted to strip down the process and make something that's me and a group of friends questioning each other, rather than people we don't know – executives, or the strange people that can elbow their way into your process. I don't want to listen to them. I want to just get all my longtime collaborators and friends, and some great youthful energy, and young Austin locals and let's put a movie together that way, and let's do it tomorrow instead of two years from tomorrow."
So it was that kind of immediate reaction of a movie falling through and me saying: "Fuck it, let's roll. Let's leave and start filming something." It was great to be able to confidently do that. I'd say half the crew was very experienced – guys that I've worked with, many of whom I went to film school with, and then the other half were amazing locals that were hungry and ready to work really hard and that were eating sweat and ash of this forest for a few weeks. It was an amazing experience for all of us. It was like going to summer camp. We were all staying together in a hotel out in Bastrop, and getting together every night downtown and going to the bars and having burgers and beers, kind of semi-detached from our real lives for a few weeks. It became a very special bonding process where it's not above the line and below the line. That is very distinctive on the typical production, but here it was like every man for himself, and all for one and one for all.
AC: When it comes to Austin locals, you worked with a lot as your crew on Prince Avalanche, but you also worked with several as cast members for Joe. It's got Nic Cage, obviously, but it's also got names like Heather Kafka and Adriene Mishler. How did you find them?
DGG: Well, I worked with a great local casting director, John Williams, and his partner Karmen [Leech]. Since I relocated here, I've been doing a lot of commercials locally, bringing a lot of that business here and being introduced to a lot of the crew through those opportunities and even cast through those opportunities. Working with John and Karmen really opened my eyes to the talent base that is here in Austin. Some of it's formal, like Jonny Mars and Heather and Adriene that you mentioned who are great, and others were unexpected and locally found nonactors that we found dozens of for that film. Some of the strongest performances you'll see are people that didn't know they were actors 24 hours from when we were filming them. The production of Joe was spring-boarded off of the Avalanche production, where we made a movie down and dirty for zero dollars.
Actually, Cage was helping me location scout for Avalanche. He came down here and we were driving around, went hiking around in Bastrop. We were kind of pointing out hip places we could film Avalanche, prior to our Joe production. That was a fun process to see some of the repair crew, the road crew that we'd be emulating in Bastrop – Cage would come over and ask them questions about how they were replanting and trying to bring life back into the park, and you'd see the look on these guys' faces as Nicolas Cage is quizzing them on their job. It was pretty hilarious. And then it was just a fun way to open up the palette even bigger, where Joe is a very modestly budgeted movie, but there was a budget, and you could more properly hire and pay for folks to come out there and join and you can have a little bit bigger of a talent search. The cast is very large on Joe. We were going to really utilize a lot of local talent, and I wanted it to feel like a distinctive regionally set film. The novel that Joe is based on takes place in Mississippi, so I really wanted to relocate it and put a Texas fingerprint on it. Almost all the crew on that film, and all the cast other than Cage, are Texans. It's kind of a cool way that we could make something feel distinctive and honest and specific to this time and place, living here.
AC: How do you think working on movies like Joe and Prince Avalanche will influence the way you work on your bigger-budget pictures?
DGG: I don't know. I haven't made one. We'll see. I'm developing Little House on the Prairie. I want to do like a Grapes of Wrath/John Ford kind of version of the Little House on the Prairie novels. I'm working on those right now and then trying to think about, basically, taking the expanded version of these salt-of-the-earth projects that I've been doing, and making something that is on a larger canvas, and probably, just based on the property, more largely commercial-based. So we'll see how it affects it, but right now it just gives you great confidence and collaborators and lets you know who to fight for, who not to fight for, and where your real battles are. Sometimes on the bigger movies the battles are in executive boardrooms and boring places. Here, I'd rather have it be in a field of mosquitos that we're trying to dodge while we're shooting film. I'd rather have Mother Nature be my problem than someone that's not relating to the concept of my film.
Prince Avalanche opens Friday, Aug. 16, at the Violet Crown Cinema; see Film Listings for showtimes and review.