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David Gordon Green on why “The Sitter” is a family movie, and the absurd genius of Sam Rockwell

David Gordon Green on why “The Sitter” is a family movie, and the absurd genius of Sam Rockwell (photo)

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“The Sitter” hits theaters today, featuring Jonah Hill as an inept, aimless slacker who agrees to babysit a neighbor’s kids only to end up having a wild night involving high-speed car chases, an insane drug dealer, and more explosions than a Michael Bay film.

“Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness” director David Gordon Green was the man behind the camera for “The Sitter,” and he recently explained to IFC why the film is yet another ode to ’80s cinema, and why he considers it a “family movie” despite its “R” rating.

IFC: When we were talking about the trailer for “The Sitter,” you mentioned that it was the product of your love for 1980s comedies. What was it about those films that you tried to capture with “The Sitter”?

DAVID GORDON GREEN: I like movies about guys who have poor decision-making skills. Movies like that provide a lot of comic opportunity. “Risky Business” is a great example of a movie that starts with a bad idea. It starts with a bad phone call that Tom Cruise probably shouldn’t have made, and then a series of events that are the result of that. It’s a guy trying to dig his way out of the chaos he’s inspired. I think that’s kind of great.

IFC: Jonah Hill’s character really seems to share a lot with the leads from some of those types of movies, too.

DGG: Well, the other thing I like is despicable characters. In “Uncle Buck,” John Candy shows up as a gambling, smoking relentlessly obnoxious human being, but by the end of the movie, when we’ve gotten to know him as an audience and the kids have gotten to know him, we’ve seen how they affect his life. He goes from a despicable human being to a real sentimental, sensitive, interesting guy that we’re glad to be on the inside of rather than looking at this asshole from the outside.

IFC: When it comes to doing a film like this with child actors, how do you decide what the limits are? Did you feel like there were certain jokes you couldn’t make, or certain lines you couldn’t cross?

DGG: Everybody has their ethical boundaries, and these are impressionable kids who are young and new at movies — if they’ve ever even been on a movie set before — so of course we had limits. But at the same time, kids these days are exposed to a lot of insanity and vulgarity and the movies they watch are pretty crazy, so we wanted to make sure we had sophisticated kids who were mature enough to handle some of the situations. That also means we’re casting their parents and making sure they’re supportive of what we’re doing. But I’ve worked with kids on every movie, and I really pride myself on encouraging supportive, fun, good-natured environments.

IFC: We always hear about actors who start doing more family movies once they get older and become parents. Does that happen behind the camera, too? How doe sthat factor into decisions?

DGG: I’ve worked with a lot of the same crew over the years, from the same cinematographer and production designer to producers and sound mixers that have been on all of my movies. Now a lot of us have kids. I have twin babies now, so I’m looking at the world they’re exposed to and saying, “What the fuck?” It definitely changes your attitude a little bit about what’s out there. But I grew up in a big family and always hung out with really cool kids that brought a lot of insight to my life, so it’s interesting to make movies that reflect that rather than capitalizing on the “Kindergarten Cop”-type jokes in movies — not using the kids as the punchline, but using them as the heart and soul of the film.

IFC: You’ve mentioned the “absurdity” of certain moments in “The Sitter,” and a lot of those moments seemed to revolve around Sam Rockwell’s character. How much of that was Sam doing what he does and having an idea grow around him, and how much of that was in the original script?

DGG: I convinced him to join up because this movie would give him a real playground and a lot to chew on. He always finds fun reference points for his movies. In this movie he referenced Julianne Moore and David Thewlis’ characters in “The Big Lebowski,” and that weird, artsy studio that they had, and Ray Liotta in “Something Wild,” [also] Richard Pryor in “Bustin’ Loose.” He always has these fun, crazy reference points for movies. We talked a lot about that.

A big part of the process with Sam is working with my production designer, Richard Wright, who’s he’s done three movies with now. We did “Snow Angels,” and then Sam and Richard did “Gentlemen Broncos,” Jared Hess’ movie. Richard really knows Sam’s head and brings a lot of ideas that Sam can go off on and really design the environment that his character, Karl, would live in. So a lot of the stuff that wasn’t in the original screenplay — the bodybuilders and the weird, gym-like drug lair that he lives in — I have to honestly credit a lot of that to Sam and Richard and their ideas, which were somewhere between “Stay Hungry” and “A Clockwork Orange.”

IFC: We were talking about working with kids earlier, and you seemed to really stress the appeal of doing “family” movies. Is that a direction you see yourself going in down the road? Will we see you doing traditional family films?

DGG: “The Sitter” is a family film. I consider my last two movies to be movies for kids, aside from the fact that they’re R-rated — but that’s what sneaking into the movies is all about. Maybe we don’t get the receipts from that sort of stuff at the box office, but these are movies I think kids will respond to.

But to answer your question, yeah — I like the idea of making all types of movies, whether they’re documentaries, musicals, porno…

IFC: Wait… Porno?

DGG: Yeah, sure. I look at the careers of people like Lars von Trier and Alan Parker and guys that have had a real eclectic diversity of themes and projects that they’ve worked on — Gus Van Sant, too — and there are so many idols of mine to emulate within this industry.

So the idea of making a kids’ movie really appeals to me — especially if I could do something like “Old Yeller,” or a movie that felt like one of the old Toby Tyler movies where kids were being kids and nature was nature. I don’t know how much kids respond to movies like that these days — movies like “My Side of the Mountain” and things like that — but those were a big part of my youth. I’ve been kind of in the ’80s in my career the last few years, making movies that emulate ’80s action movies or ’80s comedies or ’80s sword-and-sorcery films, but it might be interesting to go back and look at movies like “Savannah Smiles” and movies that really touched me emotionally as a kid.

“The Sitter” arrives in theaters today, December 9. Keep an eye on next week for more from our interview David Gordon Green.

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

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