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Director David Gordon Green Talks 'Prince Avalanche': A Sweet, Poignant Movie Inspired by a Super Bowl Party

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Aug 12, 2013 | 10:32am EDT

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

David Gordon Green, the versatile director behind dramas like Snow Angels and George Washington, as well as screwball comedies like Pineapple Express has released his latest dramedy: a soft, sweet film called Prince Avalanche, which stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as two highway workers bonding, fighting, and delving into their own psychological problems on a sleepy, fire-ravaged woodland community in Texas. Green met with Hollywood.com's Abbey Stone to talk his new film, which was born from a conversation with Explosions in the Sky at a Super Bowl party...

How did you go about adapting this movie that you liked that was already made?

The beauty of adaptations — I’ve done a lot of book adaptations, this is my first remake — the beauty is that you can just plagiarize all the stuff that you like. And you can reinvent the stuff that you want to expand or transform in some way. So, I spent the first day just transcribing the subtitles of the movie. Which sounds dumb, but there is actually amazing comedy when you just literally say what the subtitles say. In the Icelandic version, they’ve taken the concept and put the American words on it, but not necessarily how an American would speak. So there would be these weird things that I thought were funny.

When Emile’s character is talking about getting a flat tire, he says, “I ran over a very sharp object.” Which is not how you would tell somebody what it was. But to me, it’s funny to say there’s a sharp object. That’s kind of a lost in translation example of some of the comedy that was taken out of the transcription. And then I spent the next few days really personalizing it and identifying with the characters and making them people that I could relate to. Making sure they weren’t obvious cliché odd couple archetypes, and had some likable and unlikable qualities. Strange things that make me laugh, other things that brought me to an emotional place. In a way that you watch a movie and you identify with a character or you don’t, I got to not only identify with them, but I got to apply my identification with them and then transform them into me. So it was a fun process. So it took about three days.

Oh, wow!

Yeah. The start to finish of the whole process was very quick. I got the idea when I saw the film in February, and we were sound mixing the remake in July.

That is very quick!

Really rare. Usually you haven’t even gotten the meeting with the studio head by that point.

All the pieces kind of fell together, I guess.

Yeah, it was like a 16-day shoot. Very short editing period. Really efficient. No money wasted. When you don’t have money you can’t throw it around. That’s the best part.

You already touched on something a little bit that I was going to ask about. For every moment that’s funny or has kind of an absurdist, comedic element, you still really feel for the characters. I think that really comes through in the scene where Emile’s character is giving that really long speech about his weekend. With everything he’s saying, you want to laugh, but you also feel so bad for him!

[Laughs] The poor dude couldn’t get laid.

I know! It’s traumatic.

… by his best friend’s girlfriend.

So I guess I’m just wondering, was that something you were consciously trying to do? Or did it come naturally when you were creating these characters?

That’s just the kind of stuff I think is funny. I have a weird sense of humor that is not necessarily “jokes,” and not necessarily typical physical comedy, but it is the clash of where the comedic world meets the dramatic world. I find that very funny. Like, farting in church, as a kid, was the funniest thing that could ever happen because it’s forbidden and it’s rude and it’s loud and it stinks. So that, for me, makes me laugh because I’m not supposed to. So I always like those moments in movies where I’m challenged by the filmmakers or the performance. Something that makes me uncomfortable in that I’m responding one way, and I know it, but I feel like I should hide that feeling. So we try to capitalize on that in the movie. But it’s not really a comedy. It’s a weird movie. I think because we take dramatic, honest sincerity in some of the more ridiculous sequences, it has a melancholy tone that helps escort us into an emotion, by the end, of if that feels pretty genuine. At least that’s the hope, to engineer something that doesn’t feel manipulative, but takes you on a kind of a goofy journey that makes you feel like you’ve kind of experienced something slightly profound in the middle of this abstract trip.

I think you achieved that.

I hope so.

Speaking of that, your early work was very dramatic, and then you did much more broad comedy starting with Pineapple Express. And now you’re, it seems, getting back a bit to where you started. Is that a conscious decision you made?

I just like doing different kinds of stuff. I remember when I was doing Snow Angels, which is very dark, dramatic, depressing for most… although I find it life affirming in other respects. But sitting in the editing room and living with that story for so long was really hard on my heart. It was a difficult subject matter to be dealing with for such a long time. I remember thinking — actually, having the conversation with my agent: I said, “I just want to go do something really goofy and live in a nice climate.” I was up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, making that film. “I want to go live in L.A. and make something really funny. That’ll be my goal. Make a big, commercial studio comedy.” He was like, “Yeah right.” But we met the right people, made the right friends, and less than a year later, I was doing just that.

I have a great sense of ambition and drive to accomplish a lot in my life. I’m going to go out with quite a legacy, if I have it my way. And then maybe tomorrow I’ll be really impressed with what I’ve done in the last 15 years. So I just work all the time, and I really want to build a body of work that is challenging. Not necessarily just for the audience, but for me. I love to wake up with a curiosity and an uncertainty. There’s a lot of filmmakers who I think put an expectation on themselves to be brilliant. I put an expectation on myself to be vulnerable.

Oh!

And to face that vulnerability with this eager heart. So I learn a lot every day. Nobody comes to me to teach them things. They come to me to tell me things. And I like that. I’m very comfortable in that dynamic. I just finished a very dark movie, which I needed to do because it was a book that I was very close to. I was close to the author when he was alive. So I wanted to make this adaptation of this Larry Brown novel called Joe. It’s kind of a salute to Larry. And it was the right time in my life.

More importantly, though, it was the time when I found an actor who could play this kid. I met the kid, we had the movie. We were ready to go. I was just waiting — I had the book for years. I had the adaptation for a few years, even. And then I met the kid, and said, “Okay, it’s time to go. He’s 15. It works. It’s great.” So, a lot of it’s timing. Or someone will ring my doorbell and say, “Hey, here’s a script ready to go. You want to jump on it?” I’ll say, “Oh yeah? Let’s give it a shot.” Or, “Here’s a commercial.” I’m shooting a commercial next week. They called me up: “Commercial. Three days. New York City. You available?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll just wrap up my press tour, and we’ll do it. It’ll be fun. We’ll have a great time.” I really do have a whimsical life. It’s not burdened by expectations, or I don’t read a lot of press that gives me strange feelings. I have a lot of friends who say, “I can’t do that because nobody will allow me to do that because I’m this, x-y-z type filmmaker.” I don’t know. That’d be weird.

Yeah. Who says?

I’m a character actor. I’ll just jump into a new role and put on a funny hat, or take one off and laugh my tears away.

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

You reminded me of this when you said you were waiting to make your next film until you found the right kid. How much did these characters change when Paul and Emile got on board?

A lot! The inhabited the humanity of these roles that could have otherwise been cliché, or could have been derivative of the original. Or not as intriguing as the original. So we had that bar set. It was a good movie! So, if you’re not going to make it great, why remake it? I got really excited. I showed Paul the original movie before [we shot] the adaptation, and said, “What do you think?” And he actually had ideas before he even read it that I could integrate into the presentation of the script for him. So that was nice.

I had Paul involved in it, and then Emile called me randomly. I had just begun to think about who would play the other part. And then Emile called me with a question about some screenplay he was writing. One of the questions he asked — a couple of the questions were really smart, and I gave him my thoughts. And then he asked me some really dumb question, and I can’t remember what it was. I was like, “That’s funny that you would even ask me that. That’s weird.” I hung up the phone after that conversation, called him back in about 10 minutes, and said, “Will you read this script?” He’s such an energetic and enthusiastic young guy, so I could play on these strange comedic bits that I know Emile is so capable of. He’s like that character. One moment he’s really profound, and the next minute he’s bafflingly naïve. I just love the honesty of a character like that. It’s just so refreshing — somebody who is not afraid to ask questions that you may get laughed at for asking.

One of the scenes I wanted to ask you about specifically was the scene where Paul discovers the old woman in her burnt down house. I heard that she was someone you just found, and that was her house?

Yeah. We were in production. That wasn’t in the script. She was just going through, looking for her pilot’s license.

That’s crazy! That scene, to me, is so pivotal to the movie.

I can’t imagine if it wasn’t in it. It’d be such a different movie.

Yeah. So then, how did you shift gears when you discovered?

It was a real organic effect on everything. It just kind of echoed dramatically. The scene that follows that scene — where Paul is walking around, pantomiming talking to his wife — that was a funny scene in the script. But it was not a funny scene in the movie. It’s kind of quirky, but there’s that ending shot of him sitting in that little rocking chair, rocking back and forth, with a sad look on his face. To me, it just illustrates that we wanted to be appropriate. We wanted to pay respect to Joyce. After we met her, we were all in love with her. We had to be very sincere about the movie we were making, because not only did we have a cinematic backdrop that gave us great production value, and it was a cool movie, but we were embracing people whose lives had been totally f**ked up by this fire. It was devastating to see her loss, and what she was going through. The city was trying to clean off the foundation of her house before she found her log book. It was just a beautiful and profound moment that doesn’t exist without Joyce. If it wasn’t for her, we might just be looking at that movie like…

As a thing that we did.

Yeah. We just did this thing…

And then, she becomes such an interesting character as well. I feel like you’re not really sure if she’s real or a ghost — it kind of adds a dreamlike quality.

That’s just Joyce. It’s all Joyce. Joyce is a mystical creature. It’s very beautiful to have her say things like, “I’m digging through my own ashes.” There are all these things that you could write, but it wouldn’t be as cool as when Joyce says things. That are from her heart and she really believes. She was very traumatized by this, as one would be. It affected everything. It affected all of us.

I wanted to ask how you got Explosions in the Sky on board.

They got me on board! It was their idea to make the movie in the first place. Yeah. We were at a Super Bowl party, and they’re like, “We need to make a movie together. Go write something.” And then the drummer, Chris, said, “Why don’t you go make a movie in Bastrop, at the state park? It’s beautiful now that it’s starting to bloom again after the fire.” So, the next day, I went, and I called them up, and said, “Okay! I’m going to try to find a movie to make here. You guys better get ready.” And it was great. I got to collaborate with one of my lifelong best friends, David Wingo. They evolved their sound a little bit. For those who are familiar with their sound, I think it’s a little bit… this shows a different dramatic capability that they have. It integrated clarinets, and vocals, and beat boxing, and some unique instrumentation. Also, it’s really mellow for long periods of time, and has a strange haunting quality to it. It really is a great signature to the movie, the music. More so than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s a real present soundtrack. So, that’s all them. I think they’re going to do my next movie.

That’s exciting! I thought the music added so much. Really, so much about the movie is a sense of place. The music adds so much to that, and to the mood, to the nature scenes…

It’s interesting, because we’re all neighbors. We all live in the same neighborhood in Austin. So they would come and hang out on set, or write music and bring it to set. In the editing room, they would have tip stuff ready for us. And we’d start working on putting the picture to their music. And they’d take images and play with music. So it was very civilized, unlike usually, when you’re like, “Hey, here’s this tip score that was in Transformers. Will you rip it off and make it kind of your own — try to be legally safe?” It can be a very derivative process, but those guys are really unique and creative, and they love movies as much as I do. It’s kind of cool to be able to speak a common language with a group of people. It was a very enjoyable movie from top to bottom.

Good. We like to hear that. I was reading about the scene where Paul and Emile are singing, and how they were improvising. I’d love to hear your take on how that all went down.

There’s a guy named Tommy Sturgis, who was our boom operator. He had a little battery pack for his radio receiver. And it said “bad connection,” because there was a crappy cable. It had a little piece of tape that said “bad connection.” So that day, I started calling the boom guy “Bad Connection,” as a joke nickname. And then we were going to sing a song — in the script, it was like, they sing a song, they get drunk. And they said, “What are we going to sing a song about?” And I said, “I don’t know. We don’t have the money to license anything. We’ll have to make one up.” I said, “It’s called ‘Bad Connection.’ Go.” So then, they just free-styled that song. And then we went back after the movie was done, and in the beginning of the movie — where Emile puts a tape in — we did that in post-production. I had a couple of musicians do a version of “Bad Connection” as if...

Oh, as if it’s a real song!

As though it’s a real song. So they sing the s**tty song, get the lyrics all wrong. It’s pretty funny.

More:
'Prince Avalanche' Review
'Prince Avalanche' Interview: Paul Rudd
'Prince Avalanche' Interview: Emile Hirsch


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