Interview: David Gordon Green of Prince Avalanche
Back in May at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I sat down with director David Gordon Green to talk about his new film, Prince Avalanche, starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. The film—a character study about two road workers who bicker and banter with each other as they tediously paint road lines in a burned down Texas state park—is a notably weightier comedy than most Rudd vehicles (this isn’t one), striking some beautiful, poignant notes along with the funny dialogue. It also happens to be a remake of an Icelandic film, Either Way by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (awesome name.)
Green is one of the most versatile directors working today, constantly switching between formats. He does comedies (Pineapple Express), dramas (George Washington), television (Eastbound & Down), and even car commercials. He chatted with me about how the post-rock band Explosions in the Sky influenced the film, reinventing actors, randomly meeting a woman who changed the entire film, the late, great Lance LeGault, and more.
So I hear you love Explosions in the Sky…
Yeah, they’re kind of the reason the movie exists. They’ve done a couple of songs for my movies before. Actually, they just finished a song for my new movie that I mixed in yesterday that sounds awesome. We’d been talking about what we could do together again but in a bigger form; they wanted to score a movie. It had been since Friday Night Lights that they scored a film.
I was at a Super Bowl party a little more than a year ago, and I had this commercial in it (the Super Bowl). It was this Clint Eastwood Chrysler commercial. It was kind of crazy and epic. I was watching it with the Explosions guys and I was talking about how amazing that process was. It feels very epic when you watch it, but it was a very stripped down crew, guys in a van jumping out and filming something. We never really knew what we were going to film that morning, but we’d get up and go film a brickyard in San Francisco or we’d film a train track in New Orleans.
I was talking to them about the process of making that, and they said, “You should take that process and make something in this burned down state park outside of Austin.” After they told me about it, I went hiking up there and I thought, “Yeah, absolutely. I have to make a movie here soon because it’s going to come back to life.” It was burned maybe three months before I was there. I thought, I want to make something here immediately with this run-and-gun process. I woke up one day with a title in my head. It needs to be called Prince Avalanche.
So it was location first, then title?
It was process first, then location, then title. Then, I was doing a commercial up in New York and I was talking to my art director friend. We were just sitting around, having a beer. I said, “Ok. I’ve got the process, location, and title. I have a bunch of scripts lying around, but none of them are going to fit what I’m trying to do.” He said, “You should just remake this Icelandic film that my friend worked on called Either Way.” I said, “Is it good?” and he said, “I don’t know, haven’t seen it.” (laughs)
So, I YouTubed the trailer and I thought it looked really interesting. It was just two guys painting stripes on the road. I tracked down the movie with the intent of how I would remake it. I was thinking, “What’s my version of this?” I started getting really excited because I loved the film. It’s a wonderfully made movie. I was trying to figure out how I could put my fingerprints on it.
What are your fingerprints on the film?
I think the emotional elements of the love stories. I really wanted to bring my honest threads of lost love. Their version is a little more straightforward. It’s a beautiful movie: almost all master shots, very little coverage in it, amazing landscapes. But [my version] felt a little more raw in its cinematography and more explicit in its emotion.
I love how contained the movie feels. The only time we leave the burned park is in the shot where we speed down the road to Paul Rudd’s girl, but that all takes place in his head.
Right, that’s not in their movie. That shot is just a way for me to integrate the frustrations of relationships. There’s always something interesting for me to explore. The balance of masculinity in a relationship, two characters at odds with each other, and yet, they’re saying the same thing. I kind of look at these characters as two versions of myself, both I can relate to an incredible amount. There’s the me that’s trying to be manly and mature, and then there’s the me that just wants to get laid and have fun. Those are the stems, and I just tried to find ownership of the characters in order to do what I thought I could do with [the film], as I’m sure [Sigurðsson] did with the original.
The location is absolutely gorgeous, but really grey. Talk a bit about the splashes of color you use throughout the film: The blue lines of paint on the trees, the mustard Emile plays with.
Yeah, there are those primary colors that explode, like the paint on the road, which you see close-up shots of. There’s the blue overalls, the red car. We really wanted to have an animated world. There’s not a lot of film influence in this, but I could cite a couple of them. Kings of the Road was maybe an influence. With our camerawork I could point to the Darden brothers. The biggest influence was Super Mario Bros. We really wanted it to be this weird, apocalyptic, wasteland landscape, and the Super Mario Bros. took over the reconstruction of the world.
Yeah! Jill Newell was our costume designer, and we were looking at Super Mario Bros. and The Sun, the Darden Brothers movie. It kind of became this odd…
Is that why Paul has the mustache?
Yup. We didn’t want it to be too obvious by making the distinctive Luigi, but we had the red helmets…you know, just trying to be subtle about it.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but Emile and Paul had not met before production.
Correct. We all met at my favorite seafood restaurant in Austin, and I just started laughing when they started talking to each other.
So they were funny with each other right away.
Well…funny to me! (laughs)
It was funny to me, too!
The best part is that they’re playing characters that aren’t necessarily what people know them as, as actors. In a lot of ways, Emile is comedic relief in the movie, and he’s never done a comedic performance in his life. Paul takes a lot of the depth and drama of the movie, and he’s mostly known as a comedic actor. I’m really proud of being able to take actors outside their wheelhouse and try something that the world doesn’t necessarily expect of them. Show them something fresh. I tried that with [James] Franco in Pineapple Express. He was mostly known for Flyboys and Annapolis—all these pretty boy movies—and then I said, “Let’s just make him as raw and messed up as possible.” I just did a new movie with Nicholas Cage where I took him in a way that I don’t think he’s ever played. [The role] is all about restraint and subtleties, a really tightly wound performance rather than a big outrageous one. I really like the idea of reinventing an actor, at least in my own way.
Before we run out of time, let’s talk about Lance LeGault. Were there things that he said or did that didn’t make it to the film?
Everything. (laughs) He’s amazing, man. He died right after we shot [the film.] He’s an amazing singer, and he sings one of the songs in my new movie. We’re trying to keep his presence alive. Lance was an extra in a Dodge commercial I did out in Tehachapi, California in the desert. We were filming the new fleet of Dodge vehicles blazing through the desert. I kept hearing this guy talk, and I looked over and thought, “Who is that dude?” He was full of tall tales and piss and vinegar, and I just fell in love with him. I started talking to him and I said, “You’ve got a great voice! You ever do radio?” He said, “Do radio?! Man, I sang with Elvis for over 20 years!” I found one of his records in a record store recently. He’s got albums from the ’70s that are amazing. He was a bad guy in The A-Team for a little bit, bad guy on Magnum, P.I. He’s just a wild card. It was an honor to be in his presence. He’s just so larger-than-life and says the weirdest things.
So the way he acts in the movie is really what he’s like.
Oh yeah. He has the weirdest way of speaking. It’s simultaneously scary and funny. When he smacks the boombox off the log in the movie…
That absolutely killed in the theater.
Yeah, it’s one of the biggest laughs in the movie! It’s all him. He’s just wild.
The interlude with the elderly woman searching for her stuff in her burned down house really gives the movie a beautiful shape.
It’s interesting—it wasn’t in the script. We were location scouting for the scene where Paul pantomimes through a burned down house. My AD Atilla and my producer Craig were looking at these houses and they saw this woman sifting through the ashes in her house. They started talking to her, and she was looking for her pilot’s license in the ashes of her house. They were like, “Hang on…let’s go get the cameras.” (laughs) They came and got me and said, “There’s this lady…I think we should film her. She’s amazing.” We got her permission to bring Paul and a camera over there, and [what’s in the movie] is all her story. I didn’t feed her any lines.
The beautiful contrast of the film is these things that are…like, there’s a background that’s very sad, and yet, there’s humorous things happening in the foreground. In that sense, she’s seeing her loss and her devastation, but there’s something just beautiful and absurd about her looking for a piece of paper in the ashes of her home. It’s all Joyce (Payne), an amazing woman of many accomplishments. She was an artist and had a whole room of ceramics that she had built and things she’d collected from her travels—all of that was gone. She was in a very affected, emotional place, shared it with us, and then we worked her into the truck [at the end] which kind of makes her a supernatural character.
One of the beauties of a low budget movie—so low budget no one knows you’re making it, no one’s looking at you, no one’s asking you why you’re deviating from the script, it’s a three week shoot, nobody’s getting paid—is that when an idea like [including Joyce] comes along, you have to follow your instinct and go chase it. Now I can’t imagine the movie without it. But, we would have taken a different journey if we hadn’t met her.
It’s funny, we showed it at SXSW a couple of months ago, and she didn’t tell any of her family or friends that she was in a movie. She showed up with her friend who said she called her at 1pm and said, “Hey, you want to go to this movie at 4? I’m in it.” Her friend said, “What do you mean you’re in a movie?” They show up, and there’s the red carpet, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are there, there are photographers everywhere (laughs).
You can really feel the weight of her scene.
It’s pivotal. It’s hard on a movie like this, because I think it’s a really likable, warm movie. It’s the first film I’ve made where I feel like it’s for everyone. There’s no vulgarity in the movie, there’s no violence, nothing questionable other than maybe some moderate conversation. It’s the first movie I’ve made that I think everyone will enjoy. Obviously, we’ve got the great acting talent of Paul and Emile and Lances charisma, but she brings an honesty to it that gives the movie such a gravity that can sustain on dramatic qualities without needing the big laughs of a comedy. All of a sudden, there’s a truth that she speaks that inherently weaves through the rest of the film. Once she shows up, the film can be as funny as you want or as dramatic as you want—you’re allowed to break all the rules at that point. I kind of attribute the movie to her in a weird way.