An Ungentrified Man

David Gordon Green wraps up his Texas trilogy with Manglehorn

Al Pacino and David Gordon Green on the set of Manglehorn

David Gordon Green is a relatively recent transplant to Austin, but, like every local, he's kept an eye on this summer's storms. He said, "I've been out of town, but I've got a guy with sump pumps ready."

Like Texas' floods and droughts, the director's career has had cycles. Initially lauded as an indie-drama auteur for George Washington and Undertow, he shifted to comedy for Pineapple Express and The Sitter. These phases aren't deliberate. Green said, "I don't really engineer it. I work very whimsically. I want to do something and if I've done something too long, I want to do something else."

His latest film, Manglehorn, is the closing chapter of a loose trilogy about masculinity in Central Texas. "There's a strange connection between them," said Green. "I was living in New Orleans when I had twin boys, and decided to move to Austin and work from home for a while." As a stay-at-home dad, he said, "you start reflecting on family dynamics." The first fruit of those ruminations was 2013's Prince Avalanche, examining sibling rivalry. That was followed by Bastrop-set Joe, which Green described as being "about father figures and masculinity that go against cultural norms." For Austin-shot Manglehorn, he focuses on Al Pacino as a disconnected patriarch and determined loner. Green said, "There's always that difficult friend that you always have to justify to your friends, or the guy at the end of the street who always keeps his curtains closed."

While Manglehorn's eponymous character centers on more conventionally dysfunctional fatherhood than Joe, its narrative "comes from a study of gentrification," Green said. That's something both he and writer Paul Logan have seen in their part of Austin. "It's a neighborhood that has seen good times one day and hard times the next, and what has been a locksmith one day will be a strip mall the next."

Manglehorn himself is the walking, talking embodiment of that phenomenon. He is iconic Austin honky-tonk the Broken Spoke made flesh: a slice of the old, surrounded by new growth. Even his trade, locksmith, seems antiquated. Green said, "I wanted it to have a fable-like quality, a toy maker or shoemaker." Then, when he was renovating his house, he walked into Sharp Brothers Locksmith in South Austin. He said, "I just thought this was an amazing environment with a strange texture, and the brothers who run it were really friendly and fascinating." That made them the polar opposite of Manglehorn. "He's a black-and-white guy living in a colorful world," said Green. "The characters we surround him with are full of life."

Not many people get close to him. There's his son Jacob (Chris Messina), a successful businessman alienated from his father; and Holly Hunter as Dawn, the bank clerk who naively thinks she can break through the irascible antihero's off-putting exterior. Then there's his proxy son, Gary, played by fellow dissident director Harmony Korine. Again, it was Austin that brought the two together, at a SXSW screening of Korine's Spring Breakers. Green said, "I was watching him after the show and thought, 'This guy has real charisma and real stage presence.'" While the rest of the film was heavily workshopped, Green used Korine as a little chaos bomb. "When he came to the set, I'd put an earwig in his ear and give him a little seed, and set him to irritate Al as much as possible."

Green's currently in post-production on his next project: Our Brand Is Crisis is a star-studded drama for Warner Bros., starring fellow Austin transplant Sandra Bullock. He doesn't see this as a jump from his Texas trilogy, but an evolution. He said, "One of the things these last three movies have done on a small scale is let me be comfortable with performance." The plot is inspired by the 2005 documentary of the same name about American political consultants in Bolivia; meanwhile, Green's long-gestating revamp of Dario Argento's Suspiria inches closer to hellish reality. Personal drama, comedy, remakes – what's left for him to tackle? "Broadway musical? I always love the idea of doing a documentary, or if I'm reading a script, I wonder, 'Is there a way that I can set that in space?'"

Manglehorn opens in theatres Friday, July 3. See Film Listings for review and showtimes.

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Manglehorn, David Gordon Green, Al Pacino, Holly Hunter

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