After a few box-office flops following the commercial success of <i>Pineapple Express</i>, David Gordon Green quietly holed up in the burnt-out Texas woods for 16 days. He came out the other side with his newest film, <i>Prince Avalanche</i>, starring...
Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in Prince Avalanche. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
David Gordon Green is a tough man to pin down. He began his career with the intimate and lyrical dramas George Washington, All The Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels. Each film was deeply grounded in character and steeped in southern atmosphere. All of those films found strong critical success, but none were able to convert commercially.
In 2008, seemingly out of the blue, Judd Apatow tapped him to direct the brilliant stoner-buddy action-comedy Pineapple Express and the world quickly discovered Green had a funny bone and strong crossover potential. He used his newfound fame to launch one of the most iconic, if still relatively unknown, TV characters in Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers from Eastbound & Down. It seemed as though he could do no wrong, which allowed his next two star-powered stoner films Your Highness and The Sitter to be greenlit. However, both were critical failures and box-office flops, more or less, which seemed to emphasize that Green needed to get back to his roots. Devoid of all press, he quietly holed up in the burnt-out Texas woods for 16 days and came out the other side with his newest film, Prince Avalanche.
What results is a return to form where he effortlessly blends his past to make a drama peppered with offbeat laughs. The jokes aren’t engineered, but situational, and come from the deeply personal stories of the film's two main characters, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch). On paper, the plot of Prince Avalanche, where two dudes paint yellow lines down winding rural roads while coming to grips with love, loss, and the future, sounds really fucking boring. Fortunately, David Gordon Green is a master at mining humor and humanity from his actors and the framework of their jobs as road painters offers much fodder for Rudd and Hirsch to play with. There’s also a ghost-story element to it. Weird...
The film’s publicist shot me an email asking if I was a fan of David. I said yes, and he told me to come to the Crosby Hotel. Right as I stepped into David Gordon Green’s hotel room I immediately realized I was walking into a situation. The man was standing barefoot on his bed with his finger outstretched demanding a list of my favorite movies. I listed off a couple Luis Buñuel titles including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, and That Obscure Object of Desire. Hopping down from the bed, David pontificated on Buñuel’s device in That Obscure Object of Desire of using two women for one character’s emotions, saying that it couldn’t be done today, that it would be too gimmicky. I mentioned Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, which attempted to do the same in 2004, and of course garnered those gimmick critics. David stopped midsentence and started in on how much he loved Solondz’s previous film, Happiness, about people longing for happiness, but instead getting cum kisses, pedophilic fathers, and cursed by Jon Lovitz.
“I have Happiness memorized,” he says. “I don’t know what that means.” As we talk, I realize David isn’t a filmmaking enigma, but rather just a cinephile who loves all movies. He continued geeking out on Solondz and went as far as telling me I had to look up this old Sony Pictures Classics website that hasn’t changed since the 90s. “This is an early, early website for Welcome to the Dollhouse,” he says. “It’s hilarious... If old websites are funny.”
VICE: You’ve managed to stay away from getting pigeonholed or following a type, going from small indie dramas to studio comedies and now splitting the difference with Prince Avalanche. Do you actively pursue different projects or are you a man of whims?
David Gordon Green: Prince Avalanche has been an interesting movie in a lot of ways. I’ve traveled pretty extensively with it in the country and internationally and it’s the first thing that I’ve done that doesn’t piss anyone off. I’m sure there will be people who are bored by it. It’s not for everybody, but no movie I ever do will be for everybody.
I look at my career like I’m a character actor. Sometimes there’s a gig that comes my way that seems like a great idea, it has financing, somebody’s written the script, and actors are attached and that’s cool. Other times I need to dig into a personal place and make a movie like this where it’s very expressive. I’ve designed it specifically for a few people to watch—people I know that want to see this, who will know what that line means—and it has that kind of intimacy in the target of it. I wrote this movie for about six people and as long as those six people see it, then I’m totally cool. The various projects that I entertain always have some selfish core in there, which I don’t cry about. That’s the best part of my job.
With Prince Avalanche you’ve made your first remake, based off the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way. What was that experience like and how did you come across the film?
I found this state park in Bastrop, Texas, a few months after this major forest fire. I loved it and really wanted to put together something immediately and use it as a backdrop. It’s a beautiful landscape with this road winding through it. I wanted to make a movie that’s like two guys in some very simple scenario, really like a character piece, and get an opportunity to work with some of my actor friends who wanted to do something raw and small. I didn’t know who at the time.
My friend mentioned that he had just seen this Icelandic film about two guys painting stripes on a road and I said, “That’s exactly what I want to remake.” It had recently won the Torino Film Festival, which is a festival I had won with George Washington, so I had a connection there to track it down. I was watching it and excited that I couldn’t wait to remake this movie I knew nothing about. It was an interesting first viewing with the novelty of not knowing anything about it, yet trying to find something to get excited about. It wasn’t hard because the movie was fantastic. It was a very backwards process.
It seems as though this film just kind of appeared. How did it come to fruition?
It came together really quickly. I saw the Icelandic film in February and we were sound-mixing the film in July. I mean, it’s quicker than most scripts I’ve written. I wrote this in three days or something really quick. Just plagiarized it from the movie and put my own spin on it.
Where did you stray from the original film?
It was a 65-page script that worked as a great treatment where we could loosen it up and have ideas on set. We used that as an opportunity to integrate situations and characters like the older woman sifting through ashes in her house. She wasn’t in the script, that was just someone we met. But when you meet someone that has this incredible magical quality and you’re in production on a movie you immediately invite them into your creative process in any way you can. But once I found Either Way, it became a perfect playground to add my eccentric touches, modest symbolism, interpretations, and a lot of ambiguities into it. People can read into it or watch it on the surface and be fine with it.
Are you a fan of remakes now?
I want to do a lot more! People roll their eyes at remakes, but it’s no different than adapting a book. You’re taking someone else’s vision of something and taking characters out and rewriting the ending and all this shit. To me, it’s just a great foundation. I didn’t need to write anything to get the funding. I showed this film and said, "Me plus Paul plus Emile plus this film equals give us money." We got it in less than 24 hours. It’s a great blueprint: Here’s the idea and we’re going to go do our own personal thing with it. Through production we always had the confidence that we could turn to this brilliant original film if we needed to or take any detour that came to mind. It gave us incredible freedom, because everyone believed in the framework. I really enjoyed it. However, there are certain movies I wouldn’t want to remake.
Are you still slated for Suspiria?
I don’t know. I think that moment might have passed. I hope it gets made though. Either by me or someone cool.
Screw those “uncool” filmmakers.
Yeah, no uncool filmmakers. It’s just at a point where right now in the trend of the horror genre that everything is down and dirty and nitty gritty as possible. So maybe later.
David Gordon Green on set. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
In terms of breaking trends, you cast Paul Rudd in a more dramatic role than we’re used to and Emile Hirsch in a more comedic role. Were those important ingredients in making this film?
I like things that are emotionally challenging. Serious content dealt with in a funny manner, or something that’s funny taken very seriously. I wanted an actor known more dramatically and the other more comically and also someone that was open to being paid very little and going out in the middle of the woods for a couple weeks.
And sporting a badass mustache.
Yeah, sporting a badass mustache and some happening blue overalls.
Emile was a revelation to me. I had no idea he could be so funny. Did you have to work with him or was it natural?
I know Emile very well and knew that was all within him. Even hanging out on press days there are moments where you want to get him in a headlock and other times where you want him to ramble on. There’s a long story he tells in the movie about not getting laid and he’s very emotional about it. The one direction I gave him was, “This hurts to tell. It’s a painful story and I want you to make everybody in the audience cry when they hear it.” He goes for the drama of that, but it’s written so stupid. Now he sees people laughing and at first he was confused, because he thought he’d done a really dramatic scene. It’s cool now because he says, “I don’t care who laughs at that scene, cause I know there’s one guy who is on the same level as Lance. There’s one guy in the audience who’s like, ‘I know, man.’”
He’s got this idiot savant sort of presence. Where you dismiss him because he doesn’t know what a chiropractor is and then realize he’s somehow oddly perceptive. His stories are better than the sex would have been anyway.
Yeah, and the movie is still rated R. It’s the least rated R movie ever. There’s not even a cuss word in it. There’s a middle finger and Emile simulates jerking off. That gets an R and World War Z is PG-13.
World War Z was ridiculous. This is too, but in a completely good way. Was making the movie exactly how the movie appeared? Drinking hooch, hanging out, complaining, and cracking jokes.
It was 16 days of summer camp. It was a really good crew, most of the guys I’ve been working with almost 15 years since film school. Everyone works for $100 a day. My producer, Craig Zobel, works at Columbia and he brought a bunch of students down to come PA and hang out with us. It was a great mixture of old, cynical bastards and young, hungry, aspiring filmmakers. It was the kind of energy that at the end of the day, everyone goes to the same bar and gets trashed. It was an amazingly intimate experience.
Sounds good. Thanks for chatting.
Prince Avalanche is now playing in theaters and On Demand. Check out the film's website here.
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