With Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green returns to the type of filmmaking that led Roger Ebert to christen him “the next great American filmmaker,” thanks to an early string of deeply felt, lyrical dramas that included George Washington and All the Real Girls. The Arkansas native shocked fans when he abandoned his indie roots for the high-stakes game of big-budget comedies, knocking out Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter consecutively. Those films trafficked in a bros n’ hos-type humor that was anathema to Green’s earlier, more sensitive work. But with Prince Avalanche, Green strikes a perfect balance between his two career phases, telling the story of two at-odds highway workers (a perfectly cast Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) who spend the summer painting yellow road-lines amidst a charred forest, eventually bonding over the very different lives they left behind. At times surreal, at times funny, the film is essentially what a bromance might look like if it was made by, well, David Gordon Green. We spoke to the director last week about the differences between working independently and with a studio, the biggest problem facing movies today, and the joys of alcohol.
Let’s talk about Lance LeGault [a character actor who appears in the film as a mysterious trucker]. What an amazing performance he gave in this movie.
I’m glad you recognized it. It was his swan song. He passed away a couple months after he had a heart attack, while we were editing it.
Can you tell me about casting him in that role? He was captivating in it.
I had a broad stroke outline of a grizzled salty dog that comes up and gives these guys some moonshine, but most of the dialogue is his. Although he has a line where he says, “You shouldn’t smoke because you look stupid.” That was a line that Sam Sheppard told me. I was smoking a cigarette on the set of The Assassination of Jesse James, and he said that to me.
Was most of the script written?
It was written. It was adapted from this Icelandic screenplay and I ripped them off a lot—legally. And then I tried to put my personal spin on it. The woman that Paul meets, that wasn’t in the script. That was just a woman we met during production, so we integrated her into the story. It was kind of a mish-mash of all my processes that I brought to life in one movie.
You shot the film in a forest that just suffered a large fire. Was reading about the forest fire your impetus to make this film?
Somewhat. When the fire was burning, it was like 45 minutes from where I live, and there was a huge water tower with a smiley face, and then you’d see these tremendous plumes of smoke, and then the smile. There was something so ironic and fucked up about that. I love the idea of making something funny against a melancholy backdrop. And then walking around the ashes was a really eye opening experience where you really felt the haunted nature of the devastation.
I imagine you’re constantly developing projects. Do you drop everything when you get a sudden impulse to make a movie?
I was working on an adaptation of a novel for Sony at the time, and I was prepping a horror film that I was going to make. So there were a lot of things that were in flux, and I just had this sort of impulse.
How do you put money together for a small film like this? Do you use Paul and Emile’s name?
Absolutely. I kept saying here’s this Icelandic film, I want to put this together with Paul and Emile, and I want a very reasonable amount of dollars to finance it.
How many people were on the crew for this film?
Probably 25 people, but sometimes there’d be 3. Sometimes we’d just have a camera assistant and an operator and a sound guy. But for some of the scenes we’d have a lot more people involved.
Coming off Your Highness it must have felt tiny.
Oh yeah, there would be 500 people on set everyday on the movie. So it’s nice to know everyone really well.
Did it feel like returning to your roots?
I was very comfortable because I didn’t have the anxiety of those early films. Those early films I was very stressed out a lot. When I made George Washington and All The Real Girls, I really didn’t have the production experience to have that filmmaking instinct. I had all my shot lists and was really trying to make sure that it all edited together. I did all this homework all the time that must have felt unnecessary. It was the bigger movies where I really got the experience of some of the world class assistant directors and line producers and stunt coordinators and technicians and editors. The resources there were just so vast, and the education was incredibly sophisticated even though those were goofy movies. And so with Prince Avalanche, I can have all those instincts and that education, bring that to the table in a very stripped down process, and be extremely confident with a crew that was way over qualified.
So your studio movies acted as a sort of a graduate film school for you?
Oh yeah. It’s amazing what can and can’t be done with millions of dollars.
How did you feel when you started making Pineapple Express, your first studio picture?
Scared to shit, but I had the help of really amazing producers and an extraordinarily supportive studio, and people that help you hire people that are going to make you look good, and people that are going to talk you through things without being condescending. When they are being condescending you tell them to go fuck off and fire ‘em.
You get to do that?
Yeah, you know like you’re some punk kid and they say, “Step back and let me show you how it’s done.” That’s just not what I’m all about. I really enjoy the camaraderie and the collaboration.
How do you get a busy movie star like Paul Rudd to come shoot your little movie?
He was excited about it. I’ve known him for a long time and we talked about doing things like this before, and I think it’s his choice to work on smaller movies. For him and me and Emile, it’s just important to keep those balances. There are a lot of things you can’t do on a tiny independent movie, but there’s certain things you can’t do on a big-budget Hollywood movie, so it’s nice to be able to stretch both appendages.
With a movie as stripped down and basic as this, how do you know that you’re making something that audiences are going to like? Is it a matter of trusting your instincts?
If you’re me, I don’t think you’re ever going to know if it’s going to intrigue audiences. I think you’ve got to assume it’s going to be very divisive and assume it’s going to be for some people and not for others. But the target for Prince Avalanche was to make it as personal as possible, and to be respectful of the Icelandic film it’s based on. I guess the cockiness comes in the fact that we think audiences are really going to dig what we dig. So if we make it for ourselves, there will be enough like-minded people like us to justify the responsibility of the modest budget it cost. It’s not necessarily going to blow the box office doors off of Omaha Nebraska, but I bet there’s a couple people that really get a kick out of it and quote it to their friends next day.
Can we talk about Eastbound and Down? I hear you just finished the fourth season.
Hell yeah, it’s so fun. This is our last season, so we’re trying to move onto other things with HBO. The weird thing is Danny’s got kids now, and all our buddies are spittin ‘em out, and it’s funny—there’s a lot of girlfriends and wives and kids running around the most trashy, vulgar HBO show.
What can you giveaway about the fourth season?
The only thing I know that is cool to say that i’m really excited about is we’ve got two new actors this season: Tim Heidecker and Ken Marino. We’ve had a wild summer unleashing those guys.
Can we talk about the role alcohol plays in Prince Avalanche? It really helped the two characters bond.
Oh yeah, the joys of alcohol. It’s usually so oppressive in movies. It certainly has its poisons, but for me alcohol has always been this fine, nice thing. When I’m shy it gets me to go talk to the girl, or when I’m bummed out it makes me happy. So this is just a little high five to people who know how to control their alcohol.
Why did you set this film in the late ‘80s?
Because I didn’t want them to be able to phone home. I love the romance of writing a letter, and I thought it would be really interesting to get dumped by a letter. It was more of a detached world, where isolation was really isolation, and I didn’t want technology to get in the way of a romantic journey. I don’t know why there are even thrillers anymore, because you can just Google who killed the girl.
Was making this film a reaction to your last few experiences in the studio system?
I wish I could say no, but I think it was just a way to simplify things and to take a deep breath, and be able to make something with momentum and efficiency. I’ve had great experiences with all my studio movies, but they take a really long time to make, and they pay you really well and it’s cool and they’re really fun, but I thought this would be a really great way just to strip away and to not focus on logistics—not development, not executives’ notes, not test screenings, not big marketing campaigns—just two guys acting in the woods.
There have been a lot of big-budget disappointments this summer. Is the studio system fundamentally flawed?
There’s one problem: they’re too fucking long. Movies should be an hour-and-a-half. Nobody wants to sit around for 10-and-a-half hours and watch a bunch of shit. I can watch a bad movie and have a great time for 89 minutes. But you roll around in these two-and-a-half hour movies, they’re boring no matter how exciting the movie is, and they make my butt itch. Movies that are over two hours long have better be made by Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, or 1970s Robert Altman.
You’ve been involved with the Suspiria remake for a while now. What’s the latest?
I think I’m stepping away from that for now, just because I’ve got so much else going on that feels really realistic, and I think the audience for horror films really like these lo-fi found footage kind of things. Suspiria needs to be a very elegant, beautifully considered and conceived, and probably relatively expensive, so I think someone else is going to have to jump in and do their version of it.
Your next movie is Joe, starring Nicolas Cage. What was working with him like?
He’s the best. A very respectful, amazing, and brave actor. He’ll do anything. It’s very cool working with a guy who’s that game to do something honest with a character. I mean anything. He’s willing to go to great depths to give a director what they want, and for us it was a very restrained, controlled performance unlike anything he’s ever done.