By Aaron Hillis
Writer-producer-director David Gordon Green became an instant indie darling when his debut feature, “George Washington,” snagged four Spirit Award nominations and the New York Film Critics Circle’s award for Best First Film in 2000. An impressionistic drama set in the South (as are many of Green’s films), “George Washington” was primarily crewed by Green’s fellow North Carolina School of the Arts classmates and alumni, including “Great World of Sound” director Craig Zobel and others who continue to collaborate on each other’s projects. In fact, cinematographer Tim Orr and composer David Wingo followed Green through his next three films “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow” and his latest, the 2007 Sundance entry, “Snow Angels.” Adapted by Green from Stewart O’Nan’s novel, the film is a poignant small-town drama about relationships young and old, some beginning and others breaking, with a top-notch ensemble that includes Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Griffin Dunne and Amy Sedaris. I spoke with Green about the North Carolina film scene, what attracts him to youthful characters and how he ended up directing a Judd Apatow stoner comedy, the upcoming “Pineapple Express.”
I’ll get to “Snow Angels” in a moment, but I first want to ask you about the North Carolina School of the Arts, since so many of the scene’s filmmakers especially in the past year have been making names for themselves, winning awards and popping up at all the major festivals. Why do you think NCSA is breeding so many success stories?
I think it’s a real sense of camaraderie. When we were all at school, people weren’t so ego-driven. You go to a lot of film schools and there are a lot of really wealthy students that have family contacts and relationships that escort them safely and conveniently into the movie business. But this was just a bunch of hungry people from all over the country who really wanted to get involved in some way, making stuff that we believed in. “Chop Shop” just opened, and that’s awesome because [writer-director Ramin Bahrani] worked in the office at our school. Jeff Nichols has “Shotgun Stories” coming out next month, and there’s Craig [Zobel], [Aaron Katz’s] “Quiet City” and so many more movies that came out in the last little bit. We’ve got a bunch of knuckleheads with their fingerprints all over the industry in a minor scale, and hopefully taking some ambitious steps over the coming years.
You’ve certainly taken some of those steps. How have you managed to work with bigger-name casts and larger budgets and still maintain artistic control?
The key is finding responsible budgets that give you the creative freedom to be as productive and prolific as you want to be. It’s an industry that seems to like jumping on a moving train. If you illustrate the fact that you don’t need them, then people get weirded out because they want to be necessary. If they see you have a good time, and they can help you out, they can take a step with you and be appreciated for that. Perceiving your financial resources as a bank, for instance, gets really frustrating. If you look to the distributors, financiers, producers, sound mixers, art directors, publicists and exhibitors as collaborators in a creative endeavor, then everyone feels the rewards and satisfaction, regardless of their respective professions.
I hesitate to use the word “departure,” but “Snow Angels” feels different from your first three films. You adapted “Snow Angels” as a work-for-hire years ago, so I’m curious if I’m left with this impression because you hadn’t originally intended to direct it, or that it’s more plot-driven. Maybe it’s because there aren’t as many impressionistic visual digressions?
To me, you can say “departure.” I wanted to do something different, something that wasn’t in the South. The book gave me discipline as a writer, and not intending to direct it myself, I was wearing a different hat as I was writing it. I couldn’t lean on the kind of vague, impressionistic writing style that I had previously. I had to illustrate with words, conceive in my own head, and flesh out the character and story arcs in a way that I had never fully realized before. For this movie, having that discipline brought a different type of engineering to it. When the opportunity to direct came up, I took one step back to a place where I had more of a personalized ownership of the story. I enjoyed the more conventional storytelling structure, so that I could focus all of my attention and ambition toward the emotional risks of the movie.
I enjoyed your recent piece in MovieMaker Magazine about the film, especially the list of character traits you and Kate Beckinsale fleshed out via back-and-forth emails. How did these bits of trivia help shape her character when they’re as esoteric as “she likes to sit Indian style on bar stools,” or that “her first kiss was from a summer camp counselor”?
I would like to go over to your house and look through your books and DVD collection, and then make some judgments. I love getting into people’s closets, so luckily, a lot of the demands of my job are getting into people’s closets, which is location scouting, casting, rehearsals and all that stuff. It’s fun to be a collaborative designer of these closets and go through people’s dirty laundry. To me, that’s interesting and part of the fun, adventure and exploration of the job.
To me, the success of this movie would be dependent on the epic headlines of certain concepts within the movie that could be plucked from the front page of a newspaper, in terms of giving people emotional gravity and epic circumstances from which to launch. Ultimately, you pull out the microscope and look at the intimate details and awkward mannerisms of people who are looking at each other in the eye with either first or last love. To me, that balance of those two very distinctive concepts makes it interesting. I don’t think you can get away with the “headlines” until you’ve discovered those intimate details. Otherwise, you’ve got a concept-driven movie, and you should just have an asteroid attack the earth.
Some of the richest roles in “Snow Angels” are the youngest, which made me reflect upon all the strong youthful characters in your body of work. What attracts you to younger characters?
I’m stuck in my youth, for sure. I just got braces to retain how I was in my 14-year-old awkward phase. [laughs] There’s a lot of movies that deal with young characters, and most of them are pretty condescending or held up to such a sentimental light that it becomes annoying. Being stuck in that time of my life, I try to embrace the naÃ¯ve, awkward and hilarious qualities of that period when emotions are magnified, frustrations are amplified, and you’ve got the optimism of the rest of your life ahead. You can look at everything from politics to relationships with such an infinite possibility that it’s genuinely inspiring to see stories through those eyes. If I’ve done my job in the design of this movie, it’s to have an audience reflect on the frustrations and disconnections of their own relationships, but with the perspective of those early notes and times when anything was possible and everything was so alive.
How much does this attachment change as you grow older and get farther away from your childhood?
If there’s any anxiety I have as a filmmaker that has made a few movies and hopes to make a few more, it is the fear of distance that distance from when I was broke and working jobs that I hate. It’s the fear of the distance from those young and hungry emotions, those heartbreaks I had. So much of the world was unknown and uncertain. And now, you know, you make money, you have a cool girlfriend, you’ve traveled the world and you have a different perspective. So, I think stories do evolve as your perspective evolves. You hope that you can hang on to a grounded discipline of where you came from, what your life experiences have taught you, and how to bring where you are today into an honest picture of the stories you want to tell. It’s scary.
You’ve got another film coming out this year, and a huge one at that: the Judd Apatow-produced stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.” Will you continue to bring your collaborators with you as you venture into the Hollywood domain?
Part of the great thing about the loyalty our band of crew has is that you trust them. They’re going to shoot you straight, call you on your shit and keep your ego in check. They’re going to push you in ambitious directions, and then you feel like you’ve got your own minor army to protect you. Even on “Pineapple Express,” a commercial comedy with a substantial budget, big stars and a Hollywood set, there were probably 15 or 20 people who’d also been involved in some way or another on “George Washington,” a movie where nobody got paid and everybody sweat their asses off for a summer. So there’s something very satisfying about seeing a studio executive down the pipes looking over your shoulder and seeing a posse of fuckin’ solid dudes that got your back, and a bunch of new friends that you’ve met along the way to expand the team.
How in the world did David Gordon Green end up in Team Apatow? Now, there’s a departure.
Yeah, that’s the easy thing to say, but I hung out on the “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” sets, and we just realized that we have a similar approach. We make low-budget dramas, and they’ve been making big commercial comedies, so we just decided to join the two teams as an experiment, to see what would happen if we all got drunk and made a movie. It’s hard to argue with that. It was seeing their loyalty to their crew base, seeing the freedom they give their actors to fuck around and have a few laughs, and it really translated organically to the style that we’ve come to embrace through the four movies we’d made at that point. We just slapped on a Huey Lewis and the News theme song the other day and finished it up, so I think we’re in good shape.
The other new project of yours that I’m equally excited and totally baffled by is your remake of Italian splatter maestro Dario Argento’s giallo classic, “Suspiria.”
[laughs] Honestly, it was a straight-up remake, incorporating a lot of the artistic ambition that Argento inspired: from the Technicolor vibrancy to the plot holes and loose ends that the movie has. It is kind of right for a remake with today’s technology, and what we have to bring to the table in terms of artistic contribution and technical merit. It’s a movie that I love and I certainly have my anticipations and anxieties making it. It’s very much in the spirit and vein of what Argento set out to do with the original movie. I’m writing it with my sound designer, so it’s great to be approaching the technical elements of the script from more of a logistical ambition as well. It’s a different approach, but it’s worked out pretty awesome.
Some of your earlier movies were quickly compared to those of Charles Burnett and Terrence Malick. Now that you’re branching out into different genres, how do you perceive your own trademarks, and relatedly: How do you feel about being compared to other filmmakers?
I think any time you’re trying to communicate through a conversation or an article, you’re trying to [convey] a sense of style. Even in a pitch, you throw reference points in there. But slowly, I’m evolving from a reference point of Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett to John Landis and Robert Altman. [laughs] Or Roger Corman, if I have it my way. I try not to be put in a cage and professionally have ambitions lie way beyond an industry’s expectations. My hope is that I can dabble in all genres because, let’s face it, I’m a freakin’ movie geek and like a lot of different kind of movies. It would be fun to be able to blow up a few barns, have a few car chases, a few scares, a few laughs, and, I don’t know, make everyone cry now and then.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to pigeonhole you, but in terms of a signature, do you see any throughline that even critics writing about your films haven’t picked up on?
Definitely. Every movie I make has to have some dude running around in his tighty-whities because it’s funny all the time.
[Photos: Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale in “Snow Angels, David Gordon Green on the set, Warner Independent Pictures, 2007; “Pineapple Express,” Columbia Pictures, 2008]
“Snow Angels” opens in New York on March 7th.