An Interview with David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green shot his first film, George Washington, in 1999, the summer after graduating film school. Green set his coming-of-age story, which featured a cast of young nonactors he’d met in churches and at YMCA casting calls, against the wooded backstreets and abandoned industrial sites of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. George Washington went on to scoop up awards from multiple film festivals. His next film, All the Real Girls, starring Patricia Clarkson, Paul Schneider, and Zooey Deschanel, is a love story set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It fared well critically, but disappeared from movie theaters in just a few weeks. In 2004, his third film, Undertow, a dark, quirky thriller about a boy’s murder, suffered an even shorter lifespan: despite the backing of United Artists and producer Terrence Malick, the film all but vanished after a single Halloween weekend. In spite of the commercial challenges his films have faced, Green has emerged as one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic independent filmmakers of the last decade.
Like Malick’s, Green’s films are emotionally driven stories told through photography and sound—warm, yellow-gray skies hover over flannel-green trees and scalloped junk heaps. Green stays true to the term “motion picture,” orchestrating his scenes with slow camera approaches and long, static shots. Eschewing overly expository dialogue, Green’s characters speak with the natural clunkiness that comes from trying to communicate a multitude of intense and distinct emotions simultaneously. Underneath it all—perhaps in reaction to the nihilism and violence of the big-budget independents of the ’90s—Green’s most powerful asset is his sense of optimism. No matter how bleak the subject matter, his films hum with a feeling that despite the catastrophic nature of the present, these times, too, will pass.
When we spoke, Green had just finished the sound mixes for Snow Angels, his adaptation of the novel by Stewart O’Nan. Financed independently and featuring Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, and Amy Sedaris, the film is the story of a young man’s disintegrating family, his old babysitter, and a murder set against the brittle winter of a suburb of Pittsburgh. We met on a conspicuously cloudy Saturday morning in West Los Angeles, early enough to avoid competition with the serious brunchers.
THE BELIEVER: You’re from Little Rock?
DAVID GORDON GREEN: I was born in Little Rock. I grew up mostly outside of Dallas.
BLVR: What’s the topography like down there? Is it mostly hills or flat plains?
DGG: It’s not in anything. But it’s near a lot of things. So you can get to the woods real quick.
BLVR: Were you an indoor kid or an outdoor kid?
DGG: I had a creek by my house and I’d just get out and follow it around forever. Creeks and, you know, sports. I was lucky in that there were woodsy areas and I had places to go and hang out—hide out—get out. I played every sport: baseball, football. I played ’em all. I was terrible at football and too short for basketball. As far as the indoors were concerned, I still don’t have much interest in computers, video games; I never had an Atari, anything like that.
BLVR: When did you first start going to the video store of your own volition? Do you remember the first movies you rented?
DGG: For years I thought I was the first member of Blockbuster video. I thought I was the very first customer. In actuality, I was the very first member of the second Blockbuster video. There was, like, a pilot store, which I missed out on.
BLVR: But you hit the number two?
DGG: Yeah. It was right around the corner from my house. Actually, that’s what ended up turning my neighborhood to shit. All these chain stores would come and test-market their product. They had a sit-down Kentucky Fried Chicken with waiters. These chains would open a demo store up, and if it didn’t do well, if the people in my neighborhood didn’t dig it, the store would close down. They tested one of the first Applebee’s. The town became this weird testing ground for chain stores, so of course, all the interesting mom-and-pop restaurants that happened to be there would disappear. Now it’s just crap franchises.
BLVR: They discovered the perfect focus group community.
DGG: I remember opening day of Blockbuster video.
BLVR: You were into it.
DGG: Oh yeah. Opening day was… when did The Untouchables come out? Summer of ’87. The Untouchables was just about to come out on video. So it would have been the following February. Early ’88. The first movie I rented—and I was a little overwhelmed, so I ended up regretting my choice—but it was an Al Pacino movie called Author! Author! I was debating between that, Ladyhawke, and I Spit on Your Grave, but that last one, I was afraid my sisters would tell my mom I’d rented that. And it was not going to be the kind of appropriate thing to have around the house. But I was glad to see the Blockbuster open, finally, because it had ten thousand movies and it was better than Videoflicks and Video Shmideo.
The other movie I was afraid to rent was Surf Nazis Must Die. It doesn’t really live up to its title, but I do remember being very excited. I discovered a lot of the kind of B-movie schlock that I became obsessed with for the rest of my life.
II. MAN MET NATURE AND NATURE KICKED HIS ASS.
BLVR: You went to North Carolina School of the Arts.
DGG: That’s where most of my crew’s from. I met most of them there, in Winston-Salem. Just a great group of people that you can explore with and experiment with to build up your confidence. You get a chance to fall on your ass in front of people that are growing in their own ways—they’re not busy judging you. It was better to develop ideas with my friends rather than the usual route of having a great idea and throwing it out into a production, and being surrounded by professionals who’ve been doing their jobs for years.
BLVR: And to have them all standing around glowering at you. Like, “Hurry up.”
DGG: Yeah, you can see them looking and thinking, “Who’s this punk kid?” And maybe they’re wanting you to fail in this weird, small way. The people that I associate myself with are people that are looking to make a good product because it’s going to benefit them and it’s going to help launch their careers.
At the School of the Arts there was no alumni system, there was nobody who had a dad in the business, no way to facilitate introductions into the actual world of filmmaking. Just a pretty unique environment of people who just liked making movies and who came in from all over the place.
BLVR: And you had the whole area of Winston-Salem to work with, which provided the whole background for George Washington.
DGG: It was a great industrial landscape. A place that’s really foreign to most people, a kind of wasteland where man met nature and nature kicked his ass. I think that kind of thing is beautiful, and we shot that whole film there, just using what was around.
BLVR: Once you’d finished shooting, how long did it take until the film was ready to get sent out?
DGG: We wrapped on July 5 of ’99, and then we premiered it in February at the Berlin Film Festival of 2000. Then it came out the following October of 2000, so not a real bad turnaround, actually. We shot and edited the thing for about forty-two grand and had that pretty much taken care of by October. Then we just started hustling money. We got a guy to come in, and once he saw the cut, we got him to invest in the completion of it.
BLVR: You shot it on fifty-five thousand feet of film?
DGG: I can’t remember how much film we shot, but I know I’ve shot commercials on more. Maybe it was forty thousand feet. It was real simple: one take, alright, we got it; one take, alright, we got it.
BLVR: Just shoot a scene and move on.
DGG: That was one of the strategies in making George Washington. The scenes that I’d written and the shots I had in mind had to be disposable, so that if the film itself got messed up, it wouldn’t have to end up in the movie. You couldn’t rely on one scene to make it to the next scene, so we structured it in such a way where, “OK, so that plot element’s gone… what are we missing?” I mean, we tried to make that happen as little as possible. Continuity has never been my specialty. But the ultimate goal was to try and create something where the scenes weren’t necessarily thematically connected.
BLVR: Kind of like the Dogme films.
DGG: Except that they do that for the novelty of making rules, whereas we had to come up with a practical set of rules we could use to make a movie. After we wrapped, there were three weeks where six rolls of film were lost in FedEx hell. In purgatory. No one knew where they were. And so I said, “OK, this is going to be a short film.” [Laughs] I had to wrap my head around that concept for a little while. But then I thought, It’ll work. It’ll be a little dreamier, we might have to rely on voice-over a little more heavily…
BLVR: You were ready to work with whatever kind of material you had, to try and fashion a workable version of the story.
DGG: In postproduction I decided we should have the Nasia character narrate the movie. So that was all improvised. Actually, the monologue was written in the script, but it was written for the George character to narrate. We decided it would be better to have Nasia talk. You know, pull a little Days of Heaven out of our ass. Have a monologue that could connect the choppiness of the scenes we’d cut together that way.
III. WEIRDER, LITTLER, JUNKIER
BLVR: Was there a lot of studio involvement in All the Real Girls and in your third film, Undertow? It seems like they were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what they were seeing.
DGG: On All the Real Girls we got Sony Pictures Classics to pick it up; they cofinanced it. I’d go and get notes from them after they’d watch it. Maybe if we’d followed their notes a little more closely they might have advertised it a little bit more. But we made the movie we wanted to make. And then with Undertow, we financed it independently. Before we wrapped production, Bingham Ray, who was working at United Artists, came down and saw some of our dailies—he would come down and hang out on our sets just to have fun. Because we have a real good time making movies. They were originally going to finance the movie but they wanted me to make something bigger: a bigger-budget, bigger-star version of the movie, and I wanted to make a weirder, littler, junkier movie.
BLVR: Did they suggest any name actors?
DGG: Yeah, sure they threw some names out there, but I didn’t think any of them were right for the roles. So we went out and made it for, like, a million and a half bucks and United Artists bought it before we wrapped. Basically, they said, “We like what you’re doing… now we see what you’re doing… these actors do work… you’re right… so let us buy your movie.”
BLVR: Does that normally happen?
DGG: No, it’s pretty unusual. A movie can get sold at any stage. I just wanted them to buy it when they were confident in what I was doing. I’m not into deceiving people just to get a green light, and then have them yell at me in the editing room. They bought it at that point, and we’d shot the movie already, so their involvement was not at all in the production, but in the editing. Which you can feel in the film. It feels a little schizophrenic at times. I definitely wanted to make it funnier and more violent. But there were certain tones they wanted to lighten in order to make the film more accessible, more linear.
But then again, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that was compromised because of their input. Regardless of how smart they are, though—and these people were great. Bingham Ray is a wonderful guy and an amazing collaborator—but the momentum gets lost a little bit. Like when a garage band gets a great producer and goes into the studio for the first time. There’s just a different vibe about the whole thing. It’s not sitting around with your buddies bullshitting ideas and trying to push one aspect to the craziest extreme. You have to play the political game. A lot of people just say, “Do or die, I’m making my film.” I just don’t like that. I’m not that aggressive.
BLVR: Do you find yourself being drawn now to more literary projects? You’ve got Snow Angels coming out, a movie based on the Stewart O’Nan novel. And you did the adaptation, right?
DGG: Yeah, I actually wrote it for another director who got on board and then he kind of fell off. That was my first hired job, adapting that book.
BLVR: Did you shoot in Pittsburgh?
DGG: We shot in Nova Scotia. Where we thought we could guarantee having snow for the whole production.
BLVR: What happened?
DGG: It ended up melting. It was the most unusual weather in the area since 1942. It’s very frustrating having to bring down eighty dump trucks of snow.
BLVR: You didn’t get one of those big snowblowers?
DGG: We got everything from hockey rink shavings to soap blankets. At the end we just started trucking piston snow down from Newfoundland. A good part of the film takes place around this pond and the pond was melting. The last couple of weeks we got really creative. Every day with that pond got to be a nightmare.
IV. NOTHING IS WHAT I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE.
BLVR: How do you deal with the constant process of evolving from story to moving pictures?
DGG: It’s awful. I try not to preconceive anything, but the first draft is different from the casting, which is different from the production, which is different from the editing. Every day the story reinvents itself. Nothing is what I thought it would be.
BLVR: But somehow you just have to keep rolling it up.
DGG: Keep making decisions. I don’t really use scripts that much. I give them to the actors as a foundation for where we need to go, but if it’s cast right, you don’t need to worry about them saying the wrong thing. Because if I write something, it seems like I wrote it, you know? You can just smell that and think, “Some jerk wrote that.” Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes an actor doesn’t sell an idea 100 percent. It just sounds like something that’s coming out of their head. You can hear the gears whirring and they’re trying to think of what the smart approach is to getting a line across.
BLVR: How much time did you give to the rehearsal process?
DGG: Tons. Two weeks. Not condensed with all the actors. We spread out the rehearsals over a month before we started shooting. I got my two leads in a room, we did a couple of read-throughs, and we got ideas. We got back together the next week and we talked about the changes and the insecurities and the anxieties we all had and we figured out what was really working between the two of them as characters. I’m trying to remember what the first draft looked like, because I wrote it really quick, like in ten days.
BLVR: Do you find that actors like it when you lay down and say, “I’m in the trenches with you, and we’re all working toward the common goal of making this film.” Does that make them feel more comfortable?
DGG: It’s about getting the actors into gear. Sometimes you’ll have great actors who aren’t comfortable with improvising. Which can get pretty frustrating, only because my first instinct is to go freestyle. To just get them up on their feet. But every actor’s coming from a different place and they have their own strengths and weaknesses and your job is to sell them as two people in the same world. Some of them have to have their hands held and some I just let loose entirely. One of the stars of this new film is a three-year-old girl.
BLVR: She plays Tara, the daughter of Kate Beckinsale’s character?
DGG: She’s amazing. You know, I’m not going to give her a line. I’m just going to get her really comfortable with the other actors and have them bring her in to the scenario. Then I have to step back, because who am I? I’m not in the scene. I don’t want her looking at me. I want her to be focused on Mommy and Daddy—pretend Mommy and Daddy. They have to come in there and set the scene up together. If there’s a specific note that we need to hit, if we need to give her a line reading, we’ll give her a Skittle and tell her to say that line. But she’s amazing. Watching a child just let loose like that. Then you’ve got Sam Rockwell who can just go with what’s happening in the moment of the scene. Incredible.
BLVR: What’s the girl’s name?
DGG: Grace. She’s a local Nova Scotia girl that we met. Not an actress.
BLVR: Did Stewart O’Nan ever come up, visit you all on set?
DGG: I never met him. Should probably. I did such a liberal adaptation, I was sort of afraid to meet him, maybe. We updated it—it’s contemporary now. I personalized a lot of it.
BLVR: The novel doesn’t necessarily seem like it takes place in one specific time period other than in the memory of the narrator.
DGG: Stewart O’Nan wrote a novel that I would assume is very—if not autobiographical, then very personal to him in the way he relates to the town and to his friends, his parents, everything. And I did the same thing with the adaptation. I took some of the things that were meaningful to him and switched them with things I thought would be more meaningful to me. Which sounds arrogant, but necessary.
V. HAROLD AND MAUDE
BLVR: In All the Real Girls, there’s a scene of Paul Schneider’s character in a clown costume. He does a silly kind of dance for children at a hospital. At the end of the scene, he turns and looks dead into the camera—the music is still playing, people are still moving—but the scene fades out on Paul’s face, on his expression, which is very much like, “Haven’t you had enough of this? Can we just stop this for just a second?”
DGG: It’s a bold decision. People don’t even consider that an option.
BLVR: I thought about how that could be seen as a kind of mistake. I kept thinking about how mistakes become the finished product. How, when all is said and done, it becomes difficult to tell what’s intended in a finished cut from what’s not.
DGG: The reality is, that probably was a mistake. Like, I was talking to him while he was dancing and he just turned to the camera and had this kind of weird reaction to what I was saying. That’s what you find in the editing room. We all sit around and dig through the mistakes and incorporate a shitload of them.
BLVR: When the movie’s finished and it’s in the theaters, who’s to say that it’s a mistake?
DGG: The fact that I’m working here today, getting to make a living by making movies, is probably one big mistake. I love those little tics that pop up when you’re filming. You can’t predict them, and you can’t design them. You plan so much to try and put something like that in a movie and it just comes off feeling artificial. A little too tongue-in-cheek. It can be cool, like in Harold and Maude, where Harold kind of turns to the camera and gives a little eyebrow wiggle, like, “Hey, here we go.” But, usually… you know… I’m trying to think of the movie… what I just watched last week was Sixteen Candles. Where Anthony Michael Hall just turns to the camera and gives this look like, “This is getting good.” He’s mugging it. He’s got a girl in the car.
BLVR: Your vocabulary of filmmaking is so sharp in terms of knowing a reference or a precedent for a setup or a scene that you’ve shot. You’ve got no problem with pointing out where something’s been done before.
DGG: You mean like, “Here it is, here’s what I’m ripping off?” [Laughs]
BLVR: How’s New Orleans?
DGG: I love it, but it’s a pretty shitty year for it. I got lucky. The house is still there. But feelings are tense. There’s a lot of desperate people down there right now, lot of bad times.
BLVR: Do you keep your doors locked in your car when you drive around?
DGG: I don’t have a car. Got two houses now, and no car. I ride my bike and take the bus. I had a truck and ended up selling it for three hundred bucks. The guy that totaled his truck, he needed it more than I did. But see, I don’t have anything that anybody wants. I mean, there are bars on my windows, but if you broke in and got past them somehow, you’d be really bummed out.
BLVR: The guy’s thinking, “I did all this work for…”
DGG: Twenty-dollar television. Sixty-dollar DVD player. And a blender. That’s about all you get. I collect a bunch of stuff, but—
BLVR: Like what?
DGG: My house looks like a fourteen-year-old kid stole some cash and ran away from home, decorated it with his ass. There’s remnants of my toilet-seat watercolor painting high-school art phase—I used to paint on toilet seats I would find in the garbage. A large horned whitetail deer head that’s mounted on my chimney—a kill my grandfather made when he was young. He died last week. A suit of armor I won at a carnival in San Antonio. A treasure chest from olden times. A collection of medicine and doctor tools from the ’20s I got out of my great aunt’s house in Mangum, Oklahoma, when she died at 102 years old. An old douche bag I stole from an abandoned funeral home. A piece of chewed bubblegum I sculpted into a square that this pretty girl Erica Bader gave me in the fifth grade after she told me she liked my Gumby half-shirt.
VI. TERRENCE MALICK
BLVR: Terrence Malick was one of the producers on Undertow. How did you first meet?
DGG: We met at some kind of Indian coffee shop in Beverly Hills. It was great to sit down and talk to him. I grew up watching his movies and really admiring his work. Certainly he was very influential in everything my buddies and I were drawn to in making films. Getting his feedback, learning some of the practical knowledge and experience: that was the best part. He talked about how to balance an ordinary life with movie life.
BLVR: How to keep yourself aware that you have a life to live as well, outside of your work?
DGG: I remember what he said. It was beautiful. He’s always very elliptical and pleasantly, poetically vague, which is perfect. But I asked him, “What do you do in the downtime between movies, with these long stretches?” He’s gone twenty years between films. He says to me, “There are a lot of things I like to do in life that have nothing to do with movies.” And I think that’s the healthiest advice anyone can ever give you. With Hollywood you’re yesterday’s news if you get a flop at the box office. So you might as well be braced to have something else to do that’s interesting. Have something lined up to keep your stories fulfilled, and your ideas, because if you’re just cranking out movies three times a year…
BLVR: You end up writing about a movie maker writing about movies.
DGG: That’s why I kind of choose to live outside of New York and Los Angeles. To me, they can get a little overwhelming. There’s a tricky mental balance you have to pull off. I just bought this place in Colorado. Because I realized that a lot of the things I love—climbing mountains and hiking and camping, riding rivers—I looked at my calendar and I hadn’t done any of that stuff in eight years. If you asked me a couple of months ago, I’d be like, “Yeah, I do that stuff all the time,” but no—I don’t. I haven’t, because I’ve been trying to get my career going. Now that everything’s up and running, I can disappear for a while and I’ll be fine.
BLVR: You’ve got to sprint first, in a long run. You’ve got to do the work first and fast, but then you realize that the track is a lot longer than you thought it was. You’ve got to settle a little bit. Find your pace.
DGG: That’s the hope. That I can make a movie every two or three years as opposed to making one every year. I can do a commercial to supplement the income so that I’m not desperate or stuck doing something I don’t want to do. Or I can write a script for a studio job which I could write from anywhere in the world. That way, I can travel and be somewhere interesting while I’m writing it. Not just sitting at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, comparing my salary to the next writer. A lot of people get real competitive out here, and to me, it’s about the work. It’s not about getting caught up in who’s doing what or who’s doing better.