David Gordon Green has never attended the Texas Film Awards before, and he's not sure what to expect. "What happens? Are there, like, snake handlers? Is it formal? Do I have to wear fancy stuff?" An honoree this year, the 38-year-old writer/director also doesn't know that, right before his friend Danny McBride hands him his award, he and a hangarful of hundreds of guests at Austin Studios will watch a clip reel of Green's whole career.
He smiles. "There's kind of an inconsistency to the tones of my work, so I don't how they'll massage that detail. But that's somebody else's job, I guess."
That inconsistency has been the defining trait of a filmmaker who's always resisted definition – he calls it being a character-actor director. His first film was 2000's rapturously received microindie George Washington. A few years ago, a film festival in North Carolina gathered together Green and his cast and crew for an anniversary screening. "That was the first time I'd looked at that movie in 10 years, and that was really trippy. It was just so weird, that movie. ... To think that that led to any semblance of a career is bizarre. But I'm proud of it."
His career has since loped between low-budget dramas (All the Real Girls, Snow Angels) and big-budget comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness), as well as acclaimed work on TV (Eastbound & Down) and in commercials. The eclecticism of his work has given the press dyspepsia, peevish at the mental math it takes to reconcile Green's ease with both sublime stoner buffoonery and gutting dramas about abusive parents and missing children. But that isn't to say there isn't a traceable cause and effect to his choices as a director.
"Everything I do is a product of the moment of making [it]. If I'm in a depressed place in my head, then I don't want to make a dramatic movie; I want to make a comedy. So I do it as my own therapy and [with] my own agenda. Or I'm broke and I want to make some money, so I'll do a movie that feels like it has a little more commercial potential. I'm making very practical, normal-people decisions throughout my career, because of the normalness of my life."
He continues. "It's not healthy for me to tell dark stories when I'm sad. I did that on Snow Angels, and that was not healthy. You can see it in the movie. That's a movie that it'd be really tricky to revisit, particularly with kids now. That was a difficult place, a difficult mindset.
"I literally told my agent, 'Can I make a big studio comedy in L.A. that's fun and I can goof around?' And then Pineapple Express happened. But there wouldn't be a Pineapple without a Snow Angels. I don't think if I hadn't gotten to that place, where my work and my personal life were affecting each other in that way, in a negative place, in a dark place, that I would have had the instinct to try something as radically different as Pineapple."
He calls the seesawing between projects and tones "a nice way to keep everything in checks and balances." He followed up a string of studio pictures with last year's Prince Avalanche, a low-budget tone poem that shimmers between oddball comedy and muted grief. After that, there was another season of the HBO cult favorite Eastbound & Down. Following that "happy-go-lucky" run, Green taps back into darker matter with Joe, based on Larry Brown's novel. It's a breath-catchingly savage, sorrowful film, but not without its glimpses of grace and cock-your-head comical absurdities. Nicolas Cage is terrifically good in it – as is the young actor Tye Sheridan, who previously starred in Mud – but Green also cast the film with a raft of nonactors.
"The casting directors, John Williams and Karmen Leech, who work out of here, are really cool at hunting down some eccentric faces and voices and finding talent in unpredictable places. I just love that part. We'd go down to the day labor center downtown and pick up a van of workers and bring them to be in a Nicolas Cage movie. And they're all awesome. None of them are shitty actors. They're all incredible. We didn't edit around bad performances.
"In a way, it was beautiful that they didn't know what they were going to be doing when they woke up at 4:30 that morning, 'cause it didn't give them time to prepare. Sometimes I think preparation is the worst thing you can do, as an actor or as a director. You just get too into your head about how something's supposed to be, and then you don't let the mystery unfold."
He keeps his scripts short to free up time and money for improvisation on set – "the off-the-cuff stuff" – but he never comes off as holy or hifalutin about making movies; I point out that he doesn't sound precious about any aspect of the filmmaking process or his career.
"Nothing about it. There's nothing precious other than respect."
"Everybody. Everybody has to [have it]. Anybody that's not respectful, they'll feel the wrath."
What does your wrath look like?
"It's gross." (That wrath sounds considerably less intimidating when he immediately bursts into laughter.)
Back to that clip reel. He wonders aloud which work they'll highlight; there's a lot to choose from, and more to come. Joe has its U.S. premiere at South by Southwest in March, followed by an April theatrical run. He's editing his 10th feature now, Manglehorn, shot in Austin and starring Al Pacino and Holly Hunter. The morning after our interview, he flew out to Miami to shoot a commercial with LeBron James. And then there are what he calls "a number of plates spinning at all times": He mentions a Little House on the Prairie adaptation, muses about remaking Prince Avalanche in Australia ("a manly version of it ... like somewhere between Walkabout and Mad Max"), but shrugs at a recent trade paper announcement of a collaboration with Chris Pine. ("I have no idea where that one came from. I talked to Chris on the phone once about it," he laughs. "He's cool. And I like that Jack Ryan movie.") Still, even a workaholic always with an eye on the next thing can see the value in hitting pause every once in a while to look back.
"The other day, they asked me if I wanted to do a DVD commentary for Joe, and I was like, 'I don't really want to sit down and tell stories.' But the 60-year-old me would probably love a document of those stories, so why not, while I still remember them? Then at some point, when I'm bedridden, I can say, 'Oh, that's how cool it used to be.'"
The Texas Film Awards ceremony takes place Thursday, March 6. See www.austinfilm.org/tfa for ticket info.
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