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David Gordon Green, 'Prince Avalanche' Director, Explains Why He Left Indie Movies For 'Pineapple Express' and 'Your Highness'

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DAVID GORDON GREEN
David Gordon Green talks "Prince Avalanche," explains "The Sitter." | Getty Images

Let's just say that film fans who have followed director David Gordon Green's career for some time were left perplexed after watching "The Sitter." Released by 20th Century Fox, the Jonah Hill comedy was a disappointment with critics and at the box office -- "The Sitter" owns a Rotten Tomatoes score of 22 percent and earned just $34 million at the global box office.

Green, however, is certainly not apologetic for the film, even if it even it doesn't speak to his core audience the way festival favorites like "All the Real Girls" and the box-office smash "Pineapple Express" did. The reason he chose to make "The Sitter," though, had everything to do with the stress he suffered while making his pet project, "Your Highness."

Which brings this full circle to Green's new festival favorite, "Prince Avalanche" -- which is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival after debuting at Sundance in January. In this ultra small film, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch star as road workers who are tasked with repainting the dividing lines on a highway after a fire destroys a large chunk of forested land in rural Texas. Pretty much the entire movie is just the interactions between Rudd and Hirsch -- it's the antithesis of a big movie like "Pineapple Express."

Here, Green discusses why he returned to his roots, so to speak. Also, how and why he made the jump to studio films in the first place; and he explains in detail, why he decided to make a movie as polarizing as "The Sitter." He also reveals his dream of Paul Thomas Anderson making an Adam Sandler movie -- as opposed to "Punch Drunk Love," which was Sandler making a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

"Prince Avalanche" made some headlines as a "secret movie."
But it's like, people like the headlines of a big movie starring a big star. People aren't as interested in some sort of journalist announcing a movie that doesn't cost much money happening in a place with a low concept, you know? It doesn't make the headlines very often so that's kind of what "Avalanche" existed as -- kind of just a strange little idea we put together very quickly and efficiently and economically. And just by the mere fact that we didn't talk a lot about it before we made it -- the idea was conceived in February of 2012, and we were filming in May, and there was sound mixing in July. It doesn't give people a lot of time to, like, digest the True Hollywood Story of our process.

Because it's just you guys out there. I mean, you guys can do whatever you want, right?
It was like going to camp every day. So you have a crew of 15, 20 people that you've worked with for 10 years that are designed to be the finest of friends. Socially, it's an incredible place to go where it's everybody you trust and enjoy intimately. So, it's a great environment there. And then the script was loose. Like, it was a 60-page script based on this Icelandic film and there would be things: like, we'd be location scouting for an environment and run into this woman. We met this woman, Joyce, who was going through the ashes of her home. And we were location scouting, and my assistant director started talking to her, and he was like, "David, you've got to meet this lady and put her in the movie."

That's really how it happened? That's a big part of the movie.
Yeah. So there wasn't that scene in the script, but, so, I met her and then I was like, "Okay, Paul, we're gonna bring the cameras out today and you're gonna meet Joyce and just start talking to her. And you're in character -- see where it goes. It may not lead anywhere, but it may be poignant." It ended up being incredible. And that's this woman talking us through the devastation of her home, which is burnt in a fire and becomes this pivotal thing. So then we kind of sequenced her into the movie in another way, layering her in with a kind of ghostly relationship with this truck driver. And all of a sudden, it feels essential. I mean, I can't imagine the movie without it, but it's not in the script.

Has that ever happened to you before in any other movie?
Not to this degree, because -- you know what? I take that back. "All the Real Girls," we just lifted the entire first act out. Yeah, the movie doesn't even acknowledge that there's this first act that we've lifted. Because when we got into making that movie, all of what we were really responding to and connecting with in terms of these characters was all after this stuff, after these characters had met. So we just ended up not even bothering. Some of it we didn't even bother filming. Anything that we had filmed, we just left in the editing room of how these characters meet and all these things -- it just took on a different organic process that felt healthier and more unique to the movie.

Speaking of a movie like "All the Real Girls," did doing "Prince Avalanche" feel like going back to basics for you after three big studio movies?
Well, the beauty of it is, every movie, any director's going to create a movie with a degree of insecurity or anxiety. The very interesting thing about this was stripping it all away -- strip away all the baggage of financial responsibility, which is what we did for this movie -- but then giving me the confidence that I have now, as opposed to the uncertainty I had when I was making my first four films.

Before "Pineapple Express"?
Yeah. So, I basically, those four films, I'm just getting my feet wet. I'm learning every day. And here I go with considerably more confidence.

Does a movie like "Pineapple Express" give you that confidence because of the strong reception?
Well, no. It gives me that confidence in that, all of a sudden, a lot of the mystique of that level of filmmaking is gone; I know I can do it. From doing the studio movies I've done and the commercials I've done at this point, this visual effects process -- I mean, you tell me what you want to see and I can probably figure out how to do it. Like, there's no mystery behind the curtains anymore for a lot of these processes. Which is good in my confidence; it's bad in my curiosity.

When a movie like "The Sitter" doesn't do as well, can that hurt your confidence?
Well, it just depends who you're talking to. Because that's probably the movie I'm stopped most often on the streets and quoted. And by specific audiences, not necessarily a prestigious film-literate audience. Or "Your Highness" is another one. Like, those are the movies. Nobody stops me on the street and quotes "Snow Angels." I think nobody has any idea that that movie exists, really, other than that very specific pedigree of film-goer. So I make every movie -- every movie's for a different crowd, and, sometimes, I don't even know who I'm making them for.

I've heard that in film school, a movie like "Your Highness" was very much more your tone of film.
Right. Yeah, you know, I think I made more comedic-geared stuff. Like, my first film I ever made was about the guy that invented soap as if it was just invented recently, and he's trying to convince his roommate to take a bath with him. It's called, "Will You Lather up my Rough House?"

That's a great title.
Yeah. And then that followed by a comedy about three guys trying to kill a horse. I mean, there's always some degree of oddity, absurdity into it. But I always look at the next opportunity as a way to challenge myself and maximize an opportunity. You know, working within the studio game is really a fun way to collaborate with people, to get your crew paid, everybody goes and has a good time. You can't have any more fun on a movie set than you do on "The Sitter." Everybody's unleashed in New York City, we had a healthy budget. It was incredible. You're working reasonable days because there's kids. So it's short days for a long shoot in New York and everybody's really well paid and you have a blast. And I hadn't spent that much time in New York City before, so it was awesome to be able to actually hang out here. And we edited the movie here.

Was it always the plan to go back to do something like "Prince Avalanche," or did that just pop up?
I don't really plan like that. I kind of just see what I'm passionate about doing or what seems like an interesting whim. You know, one of the things that I find myself responding to is reality.

How does an interesting whim turn into a movie that now exists?
Because with "Prince Avalanche," for example, I can make a couple of phone calls -- I can call Paul and I can call the Icelandic guys -- that's two phone calls. And if those guys are on board, those Icelandic guys want me to take their property and Paul wants to be in it, we're ready to, we can roll tomorrow. You know, I can spend years trying to develop "A Confederacy of Dunces" or "Suspiria," these projects that seem like they're coming together. And there are these huge, strange announcements and everybody's super stoked, or super pissed, or this guy's gonna kill my dream project, or this guy's a genius. And then those go away and they never happen.

Is one more appealing to you than the other?
I have to balance all of it. Like, right now, I'm color correcting a movie, promoting a different movie, prepping the new season of "Eastbound and Down," writing a screenplay, and casting a movie that I want to shoot next fall. It's the best thing. And I'm editing a Nike commercial. And I'm juggling twin 2-year-olds [laughs].

How did the jump from indie movies to "Pineapple Express" happen?
Sheer will. And judgment.

Someone took a chance on that, right?
Judd Apatow. Judd took a chance on me. And Amy Pascal at Sony. I mean, two amazing people that have been very valuable in the relationship in my life. But, for me, I had made four pretty dark dramas that were very emotionally draining and I knew I couldn't creatively exist there for another round at that moment.

It was just weighing on you?
Yeah. I spent a year in the editing room on "Snow Angels," or, not that long, but post-production was substantial on it. And as proud as I am of that movie, my agent came to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we were filming it in the brutal winter, and he's like, "Well, do you want me to keep my eyes out for the next kind of thing?" I said, "How about a funny-as-shit Hollywood studio comedy that shoots in Los Angeles?" And he was like, "Good luck."

But actually saying that out loud is what made me say, "You know what? Fuck it all. That's exactly what I should do next." Which is exactly why in the frustrating last collapse of "Suspiria"'s go-round, it's like, fuck it all. I should just take my will back in my own hands and always have my hip pocket movie, just keep moving forward, keep making things that I'm passionate about.

You've built up a good reputation as a filmmaker but a lot of the movie writers I know didn't love "The Sitter." I'll admit, I wasn't the biggest fan of that movie. But you've built up so much goodwill, that left a lot of people perplexed.
I don't know. I don't really read that much stuff about my movies. So honestly, I don't mean that I'm not aware or that people critically weren't that supportive of that movie.

I feel it has a lot to do with your first four films. A lot of people who liked those didn't like "The Sitter."
But what do you think from a journalistic perspective? Like, say there's a press screening of "The Sitter" and they don't take favorably upon it. What do you think the consensus of why I would do that would be? I'd be curious what that is.

Well, that's what I found curious. It wasn't like, "Oh, I can't believe he did that." It was more confusion than anything else.
[Laughs] Well, "Your Highness" was an incredibly difficult job. It was a massive undertaking and it was one that was going to be released the way that I needed that movie to be released. So, that's the psychological undertaking as well. And there were brilliant studio heads at Universal that were supportive of me that ended up -- the theatrical version of that movie is what I needed it to be.

And so, that's great, but it's also not just two years. Like, I've been wanting to make that movie since I was a kid. So that's a passion project. And just as much as I want to go from "Snow Angels" to "Pineapple" and have some levity in my head-space. I want to just go have fun, I want to just let loose. I'm friends with Jonah Hill. Me and Jonah are gonna have a great time. I'm gonna call my friend Sam Rockwell and we're gonna put him as a bad guy. We're gonna have a great time.

See, I would never have thought that, because "Your Highness" looked like a lot of fun, too.
Yeah. And that's the opposite. "Your Highness" was designed to be my absolute -- it has to be my baby, everything about it. So any decision that's compromised, I get very aggressive in how to fix that. And that's juggling technical logistics for, to a large degree, the first time -- these visual effects. Huge stunt sequences. Like, say what you will about the comedy's dumb, or whatever, too many dick jokes or whatever, you know...

The world always needs more new dick jokes.
But look, it's an incredibly complicated movie in terms of the number of logistics. And so, "Sitter," there's none of that. "Sitter" is literally a great group of people. I get my production designer that I've been trying to get into the studio game. I get my composers that I've been trying to get in the studio game. My producers I've been trying to get into -- everybody joins me for a great time in New York. We make a movie that appeals to a specific group of people. It does what it needs to to make its financial ends meet and be responsible. But there's also a version of that movie, of things that we shot, that are, by choice, not in what has been released of that movie.

In what way?
Because that wasn't what the crowd that we were appealing to wanted to see. You know, there's certain things that I would -- there's certain things in "Pineapple" that I think are not so funny, but they'll go over really huge in a test screening in Burbank -- and so they're in the movie. Or there's things that I think are freakin' hilarious, and they're just an awkward two minutes. Which, we get away with those awkward moments in "Eastbound and Down" because there's not a crowd of people responding in sync with the movie. But when you're doing a movie like "Your Highness," it's gonna be what I need it to be, and I'll fight tooth and nail to get it there. With a movie like like "Sitter," we're having a great time, let's get the crowd to have a great time -- the specific crowd that we're shooting for. It may not be for the people with the utmost journalistic integrity, but, again, it's something that I just spent a week in Oklahoma City on a Nike commercial with NBA stars...

Kevin Durant, I'm assuming?
Yeah. So it's like, these guys, and people are quoting. I mean, I brought one of the actors from "The Sitter," the older guy from the movie is down there with me in the spot. And everybody's getting his autograph. I mean, it was just like a fun, fun vibe.

You kind of alluded to this earlier, but you're not surprised that David Gordon Green fans that have been following you for a long time weren't 100 percent on board with "The Sitter." You kind of knew that would happen?
No, that's fine. The good thing about being me, is there's not the expectation of a Christopher Nolan or a Paul Thomas Anderson or a David Fincher. Like, these guys have a harder time going to detach from what's brilliant and interesting and sophisticated about themselves. And so, those guys, I don't know how much of that is their fan base, of which I'm a part of, encouraging this one very specific outcome. But I get away with that, and they don't. [Laughs] I'll bet you I can recover from that a little easier, I don't know ... You know, the big fans of "George Washington" are not gonna like my MTV animated series, and most of them don't like "Eastbound and Down," although, that show has started to really started to grab people as people realized it's not what they thought it was.

I love John Hawkes on "Eastbound."
He's great, and he's a perfect example of an actor that if he showed up in the next Adam Sandler comedy, it would be an awesome, interesting thing that I would love to see.

You should work with Adam Sandler.
It'd be great. I would love to. Well, you see a movie like "Punch-Drunk Love," which I love.

That's my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Really? You like it better than "There Will Be Blood"?

Yeah.
Really?

I do.
Wow.

I like it better than "Boogie Nights." I love those movies too, but there's just something about "Punch-Drunk Love" that I just really enjoy.
I love it. But here's what I think: I love that movie. I've seen it a dozen times. That's Adam Sandler making a Paul Anderson movie. I would love to see Paul Anderson make an Adam Sandler movie, if that makes sense. I would love to see that. That would be awesome.

I feel like Sandler still has something to offer the world other than "Grown Ups 2," does that makes sense?
But think about how many directors and actors don't like to leave their safety zone, their zone of expectation.

You go back and forth.
That's why I admire people like like Danny Boyle or Steven Soderbergh. Gus Van Sant is really interesting to me that within a contained period of years, he did "Good Will Hunting" -- which is a major blockbuster, Oscar -- and then "Psycho" remake.

And then "Elephant."
Like, what ballsier move could a director do than to remake, shot by shot, a classic? Like, say whatever you will, that's a guy with major cojones making films. And then to go from that to "Elephant," all in a very contained number of years, I just love the audacity of that guy. I think it's amazing that he can actually -- you know, and I'm sure not without his insecurities and anxieties -- but it's just, it's the constant drive of enthusiasm of an actor or director. It's the constant drive of curiosity or hunger, appetite, that I think when you lose that, when you get comfortable, when you're derivative of yourself, it's all gone.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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