At 27, writer-director David Gordon Green has already cemented his place as one of America's most original and exciting filmmakers. His 2000 feature debut George Washington–which he made on a tiny budget with a largely non-professional cast–was a thrilling anomaly in independent filmmaking: a hypnotic, dreamlike meditation on childhood that couldn't be further from familiar irony-laden indie fare. Green's follow-up, the romantic drama All The Real Girls, is more conventional and narrative-driven than George Washington, but just as beatific and uncompromising. Powered by a luminous turn from Zooey Deschanel, the film chronicles the early stages of a romance between a small-town lothario (Green's longtime friend and collaborator Paul Schneider) and a radiant 18-year-old (Deschanel) returning to her small town after a prolonged absence. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Green and Schneider about the art of film, the movie business, and why All The Real Girls didn't end up as a Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle.
The Onion: What were your childhoods like?
David Gordon Green: I had a great childhood. I loved it.
Paul Schneider: Yeah, the two of us both have married parents and supportive families, really smart people. The only fight that ever happened in my house was about money, and it wasn't that big of a fight. My parents didn't give that much of a shit.
DGG: Mine were about who got the front seat in the car. Things like that.
PS: I had a lot of fun growing up. It was like sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll outside of the house, and then inside the house was a normal, fun, idyllic, smart childhood, with one channel on television, with The Price Is Right.
DGG: We totally had cable in my house.
O: Do you think that played a role in your decision to film George Washington with a cast mostly composed of children?
DGG: My childhood reflected George Washington a lot. The school I went to was 85 percent minority, of every culture. It's interesting that, up until around age 12, you're friends with people from every walk of life you can imagine. This was just outside of Dallas, where it was wonderfully colorful, like Sesame Street on acid. That was terrific. Then you get to the age where you start reading into history books. And I don't want to sound negative, but honestly, the frustration in my life came out when everybody started getting hostile with their political interests and religious perspectives. Everybody starts developing their own specific identities rather than working for the community. They're working specifically for who they are and where they are, and what their heritage is, and what their parents feel like, and this stuff.
PS: The funny thing about showing George Washington in New York is that all these people were like, "If this is the South, where is all the racism?" We're like, "Listen, you fucking moron, don't you think the more it becomes an issue, the more you're propagating it?" It's like you're subverting your own fucking motive by bringing it up every time. When I grew up in North Carolina, where we partly shot All The Real Girls, it was like me, Chris, Anwar, and James Kim, the Korean kid. [Racism] just didn't exist.
DGG: Were there a lot of Koreans living there?
PS: He was one of a small community, but he's definitely our friend. Hanging out with redneck Koreans is awesome.
DGG: I always wanted to hear a really authentic Italian accent coming from an Asian guy.
PS: The biggest thing in my town wasn't racial–it was the socioeconomic split. It wasn't racism, it was classism.
DGG: We didn't even have that. I grew up on a pretty nice middle-class street next to projects. But it was great. And then on the other side of the high school was where all the richer kids lived. But it was nice, because there was a park right in the middle of it, before they gentrified it and made it so the Mexican kids couldn't play soccer there anymore. Everybody would go and play soccer. I was really into sports as a kid.
PS: It was amazing. There was plenty of access to marijuana and Robitussin.
O: Could you talk a little bit about how George Washington came about?
DGG: I was in L.A. for a little while after I finished college, and the idea of working my way up in the industry was not interesting to me, so I went back and said, "I want to make a movie for as close to zero dollars as possible," and got my buddies together that I wanted to work on it. About 90 percent of the people who worked on it were people I went to school with. I said, "I have a script that I think we could make." It was sculpted in a way that if any one scene is absent or gets lost in the mail or it rains that day... There's only one scene we absolutely need. Everything else can go with the flames. So that scene was a very specific interior that we structured out. We wanted to do a hectic, no-budget production. We modified every scene and every technical aspect so that we could get it in one take and go. There's a 19-day break between Dawson's Creek episodes, so we could take their equipment for close to zero dollars. So come January, I just told everybody, "Heads up, if you want to stop working the temp job at the law firm and you want to be a DP on this movie, and jump into the department head that I know you'd be amazing at..." Or, "If you want to go out and get a summer job so you can move to L.A., you can do that, but if you want to be the production designer on this movie, do that." We gave people that option.
PS: The funny thing is that it was definitely a vacation to do that movie, even though that vacation meant working 20-hour days for no money, and sleeping like fucking link sausages on the apartment floor of your friend's building. I drove a kiddie train at an amusement park while I was making that movie. I had a very small role in it, so I could up and leave for three days and then come back. It was great fun, just because you're with your buddies making movies. It's different definitions of fun. If fun for some people means financial security and health insurance at a job they can feel safe in, that's great. That's totally out there for people to get involved in. And if your idea of fun is destroying your relationships that you've built up in a town, just so you can go to another town and rock with your buddies for no money, and then go back and try to rebuild your relationships, then great. The idea of health insurance is pretty fucking cool, though.
DGG: We're getting there.
PS: Maybe next time.
O: Why make George Washington before All The Real Girls? It seems like All The Real Girls would have been easier to get financed.
DGG: It would have been. In many ways it would have, but it had to do with the insecurities we had technically. I knew we would make All The Real Girls. We needed to make it. But we had such an enormous obligation to ourselves to make the movie right in every way, whereas George Washington–which, again, gave us a lot more flexibility–could be our guinea pig. It could be our test to see if we could pull it off technically. Because with this, we needed to burn film and be able to prep stuff. We needed to get the right actors.
PS: We needed to get the right Noel [Zooey Deschanel's character]. That was a big fucking deal.
DGG: I was insecure going into George Washington. But we were fortunate that after we shot it, this producer Sam Froelich saw it, and said he wanted to invest the money it needed for completion. It was a movie about his region, and he really wanted to support it, so he helped get it out there, and while it didn't make money...
PS: It made critics happy, which means that producers are likely to be more confident in you the next time around.
DGG: It did really well with the international audience. It did really well in France and the U.K. It made more money in the U.K. than it did in the United States. It plays more like a foreign film, even though it shouldn't. The bottom line was that it opened a lot of doors. It's not like people were banging down our doors, saying, "Let's throw you a lot of money," but people would take your phone calls, and at least sit down with you and say, "What do you think?"
O: You talked about casting. When did you realize you wanted Zooey Deschanel for the female lead?
DGG: The casting couch. [Laughs.]
O: Was it apparent from the beginning?
DGG: Well, we both went to L.A. and looked at a lot of pretty girls.
PS: Girls that we had masturbated to in movies. I'm not fucking kidding you. I've jerked off to girls, and then I'm meeting them in L.A.
DGG: And then they're auditioning with Paul and trying to make out with him.
PS: I remember [Deschanel] came in and we talked, and she was one of the few people who could get off the page, put the script down, and start talking.
DGG: She wasn't like, "What do you want?" She was like, "I think this might be interesting."
PS: She was not like a model trying to be an actress. She was just a girl out there who's eccentric, but also sort of the girl next door. So we read with her, and then we were like, "Okay, thanks a lot," and Dave was like, "Go and talk to her." So I ran out to the parking lot. I thought it felt good, so I talked to her more. She's the sort of person that throws curveballs when you're acting with her in a movie. If you're acting with somebody you find really fucking boring, you're going to be thinking all these really self-conscious thoughts, like "How next can I be clever in this scene, and how next can I look good?" But she's the kind of actress that makes you focus on her, as is [Real Girls co-star] Patty Clarkson. And then all the other actors, too, they're so into it. You focus on them, so even though everything's scripted out, they still throw curveballs in the way they read their lines. It's like, "Whoa."
DGG: It's not frustrating, because it's in a giving way.
PS: Not to fuck you up, but to make it better. You've got two people on the same page about inventing–even though it's already been written–the way it's going to be portrayed. It's an exhausting process, but it's so much better than going in there and letting it suck.
O: You made reference to George Washington opening some doors. Did you get people calling you and saying, "We want you to give Joe Dirt that David Gordon Green feeling"?
DGG: People see a movie and say, "Let's call up that guy and see what he has to say," but as soon as they find out about the methods of how I do things, and the collaborative effort that I put forth... And by collaborative, I don't mean committee-based decisions, or test screenings where an audience decides how your film is going to end.
PS: Collaborative in the sense that it's all buddies.
DGG: You hire people you trust and have relationships with, and have ultimate confidence in the way they work.
PS: You have the same taste in music and all that other shit.
DGG: If you can't communicate with people... I'm not into hiring the most experienced people. I'm hiring, in many cases, the inexperienced person.
PS: People call David, and they're like, "Let's see about this project that we like. It's a great script." And he's like, "Well, I kind of want my buddy Paul to be in it." And they're like, "Oh, great. What has Paul been in?" And he's like, "Well, he's kind of driving the kiddie train at the amusement park." And they're like, "Well, good luck to you. Take it easy." And then David's like, "Well, good luck to you. We'll see you at an awards ceremony."
DGG: There were studios that read the script and were like, "Yeah, we want to do this. We want to finance it for $15 million..."
PS: They wanted to make it a Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle–because, you know, he's from the South.
DGG: We didn't know what to do with the title, so we thought if we could just come out with three simple words, like Out For Justice, we'd have a title.
PS: They're like, "We're looking for a breezy charmer who can help open it." The thing is, we wanted the preview to run in front of films like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and Just Married, and not in a joking way, so that the people who see those movies can have an option to see a different kind of movie.
DGG: I still believe that that audience would like this movie.
DGG: If you took an audience and said, "Surprise! Actually, we're giving you all your money back. Instead of seeing Just Married, you're going to watch this movie..."
PS: They'd totally go back to see this movie. The idea is to give people what they don't think they want, and they hopefully realize they do.
O: How was making this movie for a studio different than making George Washington independently?
DGG: It was very much the same. Pretty much the exact same crew, plus more friends. Plus friends of friends got to work on it. Everybody came down from New York.
PS: We got paid a little bit.
DGG: We got paid enough that we didn't have to sweat it, and they were creatively supportive of every avenue that we wanted to do. They were collaborative and had ideas, but they were good, valuable ideas and ways to rethink things. They were coming from a different perspective of either the lives they've lived or the relationships they've had. Or they're more experienced in marketing, and how to get the movie to people. I wanted those considerations in the editing process. You know, "If we have this scene in there, are too many people going to shut it off? Are too many people not going to get what we're trying to do?" 'Cause we had some funny shit we filmed. Some of the dumbest crap you've ever seen. There are probably eight days worth of filming that aren't even in the movie, just full of fucking around. Especially with [the character] Bust-Ass. There's so much weird incest stuff between him and his cousin that didn't make the final cut.
PS: There's this misconception that independent filmmakers are bucking against the system, but that's not the case. It's like, Sony Pictures Classics has made some of my favorite films of all time. Some of my favorite movies of all time are from Warner Bros. I mean, was To Kill A Mockingbird a totally independent vision free from commercial considerations? No. Like, Goonies is a great fucking movie. There are tons of people in Hollywood who want to do the right thing. Sometimes doing the right thing means making a movie for less money but still getting it out there.
DGG: When Sony came onboard, and Jean Doumanian, the producer, they were like, "What's the value of this movie?" Either we make it for more money and have stars, or we have less money but more creative freedom in casting and editing. We found that that was more interesting. To do it at that financial level–and I don't even know what the final budget was, because I asked them not to tell me–and to find that boundary where we can have all that freedom and still have ambition, and still be able to say, "I'm not going to compromise certain points in this movie that I think need to be made..." And that can happen in a $50 million movie, too. You just need to get somebody else to be in it.
O: Are you interested in making $50 million movies?
DGG: I've got so many big ideas. Now, if Paul would just get famous, then we could make Me Chinese. Me Chinese is going to be the career-killer.
PS: Dave's going to make all these great auteuristic films, and then he's going to make this one for $100 million, and it's going to be a $100 million fart joke. There are so many beef Meximelts in this movie, it's ridiculous. It's such pretentious bullshit when you talk to directors and they're like, "Fuck those financiers." It's not your fucking money. If you're so auteuristic and individual, go get a job and make $5 million so you can make your movie. You do have responsibilities to people who are giving you tons of money. To listen to directors talk about how they won't listen to producers, it's like, "C'mon. This is not building birdhouses." You're not going to hear that grousing from us, because it's not our fucking money. It's a lot of money. We grew up in a way that that's a ton of money to us. Staying in this fucking hotel is a lot of fucking money.
DGG: If somebody had told me how to make George Washington, I would have been like, "Fuck you. It's my fucking money." I did go out and work for a year, and at the end, I knew that whatever money I had saved up was how much it would cost to make that movie, so every creative decision was mine.
PS: What's funny is that our idea of a real sacrifice was working for one year. [Laughs.] "I'm fucking telling you, I worked for one year, dude." All these people are working in banks for 30 years and swallowing every pill that America gives them to swallow, and we're like, "Dude, I temped for five weeks. I'm making this fucking movie."
O: In the press notes for All The Real Girls, it says that you wrote the script in college, and that it changed over time. What was the original script like?
PS: We came up with the idea in college. Everybody in college goes through the same shit, and they either have an opportunity to write about it or they don't. Or they could write a song about it, or commit suicide about it, or whatever. So the idea was to ventilate some of the general, unremarkable, everybody-deals-with-it type of relationship bullshit that everyone deals with in college. That story became a screenplay when we both moved to L.A., and then I moved back and David kind of kept writing, so we were always thinking about this movie, and every idea is in relation to this movie. So it changed a little bit, and David would work on the script and send me revisions, and when we got on-set for him to direct me in the movie, there really wasn't a lot of talk, because we'd already discussed it so much. It was the kind of set where we could ask the boom man for his input, because he's our great friend who's a great editor and writer and director, and our sound mixer is a great writer and sound man and drummer, and everything. Everybody wears so many hats on the set, and it's such a great collaborative process, only because there's so much confidence in the script that the boom man can say, "What do you think of this?" And David will be like, "I never thought about that." Whereas on another movie set, the boom man might get fired because he talked to an actor. What the fuck is that all about?
DGG: I worry sometimes, because we're really enthusiastic about what we do. I hope it doesn't come off as cockiness. We're talking sometimes at Q&As after the film, and I wonder if we come off as assholes because we love our friends. I kind of feel like we're so into the self-promotion of being good and loving your friends.
PS: Yeah, but if we say "This movie rocks," and I think it does rock, it's not because I rock in the movie.
DGG: I agree.
PS: We're saying it because our group of friends, who we've had since college, we rock. I can say that stuff without feeling pretentious, because I'm not talking about myself. I'm talking about the process, and our group of friends who decided not to work in banks. If we come off as cocky, fuck 'em.
O: You've said that all the films that inspired you came out between 1968 and 1980.
DGG: Yeah, between Medium Cool and Ordinary People.
O: What is it about that time period in particular that speaks to you?
DGG: It's when film discovered naturalism and human dialogue. And people like [Robert] Altman were capturing the rhythms of speech as it happens, with people stumbling on their lines and stepping on other people's lines. Artistically, the inspirations of French and Italian cinema were coming to America in a way that I personally could understand better than their influences. I think everyone started rooting themselves on Earth, with realistic budgets. And big stars could come to a movie like Deliverance and get raped. Honestly, movies were taking risks with music and cinematography and sound design. Hollywood was constantly on the cutting edge, and reinventing itself every week. What do we have to look forward to now, maybe six movies a year? In seriousness, I look forward to 40 movies a year, because I get a pulp entertainment out of seeing whatever. But in reality, six movies a year probably sing to me. Whereas, in the '70s, even the pulp entertainment–even watching Macon County Line is amazing. Even watching Electra Glide In Blue and The Bad News Bears changed my life.
O: On the Internet Movie Database...
DGG: Everything there is wrong.
O: Well, you're listed as director of the upcoming A Confederacy Of Dunces.
DGG: That's right. I'm doing this really low-budget movie now, and then I'm going to do Dunces. We're trying to put the right cast together and make it rock and not suck. Again, it's a bigger-budgeted movie, but you've got to work with people you trust who can make the movie right. If it has a higher profile and commercial potential, brilliant. Bring the lines at the movie theater. I can't wait.