David Gordon Green on Prince Avalanche and its Nicolas Cage companion piece

David Gordon Green on Prince Avalanche and its Nicolas Cage companion piece

Having spent the better part of the last decade directing Hollywood stoner comedies, as well as several episodes of the lewd HBO sitcom Eastbound And Down, Southern-born filmmaker David Gordon Green has finally returned to his micro-indie roots. He shot his new film, Prince Avalanche, on the cheap at Bastrop State Park in central Texas, which was devastated by forest fires in the autumn of 2011. A remake of a little-seen Icelandic comedy called Either Way, the Sundance hit stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as mismatched road workers bickering and bonding on the fringe of civilization. Broad bromantic escapades rub shoulders with scenes of great natural beauty, as the two men grapple with each other—and themselves—against a gradually rejuvenating landscape. 

The A.V. Club: How faithful is Prince Avalanche to Either Way?

David Gordon Green: I think it’s really faithful. It’s not verbatim, but it’s really respectful. We definitely translated and relocated it to an incredibly different atmosphere, one that I think brought it into a more emotional arena. Either Way is probably funnier and falls into more of a quirky-comedy category. Not to diminish the dramatic side of it, because it has that, too, and I think it has a beautiful, vivid visual side. It’s all master shots; there are very few edits in the movie, and it is really intelligently composed and performed. There’s a couple of shots that I actually rip off. But, for the most part, I kind of turned it from this odd-couple dynamic to my own internal dialogue. They’re not just relatable characters, but very personal characters. 

AVC: How is it personal?

DGG: I very much identify with [Paul Rudd’s character] Alvin, who considers himself this man’s man, one with nature. I’m a guy that does a lot of camping and I live on a ranch and I think of myself in these terms that I can’t really live up to. I really see that romanticized version of who Alvin thinks he is, and I identify with that. He’s not quite as masculine as he thinks he is. With Emile, there’s the anxiety of fatherhood. I recently became a dad and have these strange conflicts myself. There’s that sequence where Emile is kind of crying, talking about not getting laid and that’s me! It’s not just that you didn’t get laid, it’s that you didn’t make this connection that you were very much investing your heart into having. And you didn’t get laid. [Laughs.] So I feel like the bolder, more practical side of myself and the younger, more adventuresome side of myself are at odds every day.

AVC: You shot in a Texas state park that’s been ravaged by fires. Was it difficult to get permission?

DGG: You know, they were excited about bringing recognition to the park; they weren’t getting a lot of pedestrian traffic. It hasn’t been a place for proper picnics. So they got some money and we paid them location fees and that helped them contribute to the restoration of their park. Last night, I had a screening in Texas and some of the firefighters were there. To see them respond really emotionally… One lady said she almost walked out after the first three minutes, when we show footage of the fire itself. She said, “I just couldn’t take revisiting that.” And some of them made an emotional connection to Joyce [Payne], who was a real woman looking for her pilot’s license in the ashes of her home. It wasn’t scripted at all; it was something very real for her that we documented.

AVC: That’s a powerful scene. Was the woman re-creating something she had experienced before, or did you just stumble upon in her in the woods and start filming?

DGG: My A.D., Atilla [Salih Yücer], and one of my associate producers, Craig Zobel, were location-scouting and they met her. That was her home you see in the movie, and she told that incredible story. When they repeated it to me, I said,  “Why don’t we grab Paul [Rudd] tomorrow and go over there and film that encounter?” So, for me and for Paul, it was very fresh. But sometimes I’d say, “Hey, can you tell us a little bit more about that thing?” Because she talked to those guys for like three hours and we went over there for only about 45 minutes the next day, not knowing if it’d end up in the movie. It ended up being pivotal. I couldn’t imagine the movie without it now. 

AVC: Has Joyce seen the film?

DGG: She has. She saw it at South By Southwest this year. It was amazing. She came with her best friend. Her friend was like, “What do you mean, you’re in a movie? You’re in a movie with Paul Rudd? When did this happen?” We brought her up onstage after the show, and it was really incredible. It was great to get the perspective of this very vulnerable woman. Her friend said—looking back on it, knowing [that’s when] she was in the movie—early summer of last year Joyce started coming out of her traumatic coma she’d been in after the fire. She’d been devastated, and this movie was kind of therapy for her.

AVC: Several media outlets reported in 2012 that you shot this movie “in secret.”

DGG: For my two cents, when there’s a trade announcement for your movie, it’s because you’re trying to get money. Once you make an announcement, it’s real and people start jumping aboard and investing. But we could cut through all of that really quickly because we didn’t need the money to make this movie; the money was readily available and minimal. I know Paul and Emile very well, so I was like, “Keep it quiet, we don’t need a lot of people involved in the process of this,” because we want to make this very quick and there’s a very small window where all of our schedules clicked and we were looking to make it before the park really started to re-grow. They were doing pretty monumental reseeding and some bulldozing efforts, and I wanted to capture it while it was still in that state of being reborn. Then we’d wrapped, and it came out in Variety, which was really bizarre. It was like we’d tried to do something devious, but we just wanted to keep it quiet so we could keep hands and meddlers out of it. We really didn’t have time for proper or traditional development. We had the idea in February of 2012, we were filming in May, and sound mixing in July. It was an unusually tight production schedule.

AVC: It must have been a radically different process than making your last few films, which were all studio comedies.

DGG: Yeah. Even on Pineapple [Express], we shot it one May, were done editing it in August, and it came out a year later. You’re sitting on this thing for so long and editing it for a while. You do your test screenings and re-shootings on it, and you’re trying to fine-tune it. Working on a movie like this is so raw; reshoots weren’t an option and going over-budget wasn’t an option, because there’s just not money to go over-budget. So there’s just a lot of the traditional luxuries weren’t accessible to us. We didn’t have any lights on this movie!

AVC: You shot for just 16 days. Was there a rehearsal process with Paul and Emile, or did they just jump right into the characters?

DGG: The rehearsal was basically eating dinner and talking to each other in character. We read through the script one night in Paul’s hotel room, and it was awkward so we stopped doing that. [Laughs.] But their personal dynamic fit really nicely into these characters, so it wasn’t something I wanted to polish too much. There’s a couple of scenes, like Emile’s long monologue, where he goes on for like five pages. I didn’t sit with him and give meticulous notes about it; I just told him I wanted him to really believe it and go for it dramatically. And he came in and, like, take one was flawless and amazing and it really came to life.

AVC: The movie has a great, stirring score by Explosions In The Sky. You’ve known those guys for years.

DGG: They did music on All The Real Girls and a cue for Snow Angels. We all live in the same neighborhood together, in the same part of town in Austin. So it was a lot of fun. They would come out on set and write themes. 

AVC: They were actually on set watching the process?

DGG: Yeah. Well, they come and go. They’re not out there every day, but two or three of them would come and hang out and get to know the actors, get to know the tone of the movie we’re making, then go away and start writing themes. Then they’d bring those to set, and we’d play those. It just really had the perfect class-project vibe to it. It was just a dream—a very streamlined, efficient way to put a soundtrack on your movie. And it helped that it sort of becomes a character in the movie. The landscape and the music are very vital in this piece. There are times where I can look at it and think it gets a little too humorous here and there, but I think the music keeps a nice reality check on the emotional quality. 

AVC: This is a little bit of a return to the tone of some of your earlier films. How would you respond to fans of George Washington or All The Real Girls who were disappointed to see you doing broad comedies for a few years there?

DGG: Well, I hope they like this one. I don’t know, I always make very self-indulgent decisions in what projects I want to sink my teeth into. I have a blast making big studio comedies; I think they’re a ton of fun. But there’s also a degree of logistics involved in them, and I think they take longer to make than they should. My personal taste in comedy is more offbeat, and I think that’s reflected in Prince Avalanche. There are moments that aren’t necessarily going to get a big laugh at a multiplex in Boise. Like when Emile says, “I ran over a very sharp object” when he’s talking about getting a flat tire. The fact that he says “a very sharp object”—rather than a nail or a tractor blade—that’s a funny joke to me, even if it’s not going to get a big laugh in a theater. I just think it’s exercising a very different level of my sense of humor. I like to do that, and on Eastbound,I like to say something so repulsive that it’ll make my mom sweat blood. [Laughs.]

AVC: You have another movie coming out this year, Joe, which is premièring at Venice.

DGG: Yeah, I just finished it a couple of weeks ago. I’m really excited about it. It’s a great companion piece for Avalanche. [Nicolas] Cage and I scouted locations for Avalanche together; we rode around and found a lot of the areas in the park that were going to be in the film. So we started talking about [Joe], and it’s very much a dark, disturbing older brother to Avalanche. It’s almost a modern-day Western. Cage leads a band of rogue tree-poisoners that work for the local lumber company; they kill trees so the lumber company can come in and bulldoze them. Cage’s character, Joe, takes this kid—played by Tye Sheridan from Mud—under his wing to come and work as a tree-poisoner. Weirdly, we used some overlapping locations. Avalanche is the re-birth of the forest, and Joe is like the genocide of the forest. 

And it’s kind of one of those seething Unforgiven kind of movies. And it’s cool working with an actor like Cage on something that is not like any movie he’s ever done. So I’m really proud of it. There’s a very realistic, salty edge to it. Besides Nic and Tye, most of the cast are homeless people or day laborers. Avalanche gave me the trust in real people, to cast real people rather than actors for some of these substantial roles. One of the guys, who is maybe the third lead in the movie, is a homeless man from Austin. He died shortly after we filmed it, but he was a powerhouse. You can’t find an actor that can just look like they’ve been living on the street for so long.

Being able to take chances on narratives like Avalanche and Joe is great. You keep the budgets low so you can take risks on it and it’s not an enormous financial responsibility, but the potential reward is fantastic. You’re basing it on the fact that you have some really credible talent attached to these movies and you’re helping them get out of their expected wheelhouse. When audiences see it and respond to it, there’s nothing that makes you feel better about not painting by the numbers.

AVC: Is the Suspiria remake you’ve been talking about for years still happening?

DGG: It’s an expensive movie to make the way I want to make it. So I’m having a hard time finding someone to finance it at a responsible level. With Suspiria, it’s an opera so it’s got to be colorful and profound and artful—or be someone else’s version of it. In the meantime, there are movies that take five dollars to make and audiences love them, so why spend tens of millions of dollars on them if you don’t have to?