Although this week’s release of the raucous Jonah Hill comedy “The Sitter” demonstrates the very different direction David Gordon Green’s career has taken than the one most were expecting when he and I discussed the exquisite, delicate romance “All the Real Girls,” there’s no doubt he’s still the movie mad cinephile he always was. He’s taking over the BAMCinematek in Brooklyn, beginning on December 7th for a weeklong run of ‘80s urban adventures and in honor of the occasion, I wanted to republish this interview that was originally published in The Daily Texan on April 13, 2003 in which he discusses having actors “telling the narrative what the fuck to do” and how he had the first Blockbuster membership…well, maybe the second.
"He looked a lot younger than I expected," said Kenneth Turan, the film critic for The Los Angeles Times, of meeting David Gordon Green. "He looks like he's still in college."
The 27-year-old director, who originally hails from Richardson, Texas, has a way of sneaking up on people. His first film, the 2001 release, "George Washington," a deceptively simple tale about a group of young teenagers in rural North Carolina who learn about the complexities of adult life and the true meaning of heroism, slowly became one of the most talked-about debuts of the past decade, earning a place on many critics' top 10 lists, including Turan's.
At a time when special effects and tricky editing are the order of the day, Green's languid pacing and mood-setting cinematography set him apart. Turan sees this as evolution rather than revolution.
"You know what always happens is what's old is new. There's kind of like a pendulum and people get tired of whatever the last trend was, and this isn't a conscious decision on the part of filmmakers, but filmmakers tend to feel that they want to do something different. What that also ends up meaning, since there's very rarely anything really new, is that they go back to older ways of doing things that have fallen out of favor, and I know David Gordon Green is a fan of films in the '70s. Films that took their time; films that were not depending on razor editing to have an effect on an audience, and I'm happy to see that he's embracing these new but familiar ways of making films," Turan said.
Green's latest film on the well-worn theme of first love, "All the Real Girls" (which opens in Austin on Friday, April 25) starring Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider, is a case in point. As Turan notes, "He makes things that are so personal and so in the front of his mind as real as they are to everyone else."
Green has several projects lined up; he's scheduled to direct "Undertow," a film for producer Terrence Malick (a longtime influence on Green) starring Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell and Josh Lucas, and "A Confederacy of Dunces" for producer Steven Soderbergh and set to star Drew Barrymore in the next year. The one-time UT student, who transferred to the North Carolina School of the Arts after his freshman year, had a few minutes to talk to The Daily Texan recently.
After "George Washington," you had a bunch of movies that you wanted to make, like a sci-fi movie …
Yeah, we could never get the money for that one, but I was working hard on it, and just nobody seemed to want to fund a three-hour philosophical science fiction movie with no famous people in it. From now on, we just need to chip away at the financial system.
What were the reasons why you wanted to do "All the Real Girls" now?
We kind of had an obligation to do this movie while we were young, while these feelings were still fresh and these wounds were still bleeding. But I think it was just kind of timely and all that as opposed to those nostalgic filmmakers who are thinking about the good ol' days or whatever. We could just remember what it was like the day before when these events we could relate to were, when some of these relationships were a big part of us, so to try and make something more immediate was a challenge, and we decided we're going to make ourselves vulnerable, and we're going to be crying in front of our buddies and do it.
One of the general criticisms about the film has been that at 27, you may not be in the right place to make a film that you can't look back on without some perspective.
Certainly. It's self-indulgent. And what greater self-indulgent art form do we have today than making a movie and people going to see what you're doing? It's about who we were last year when we were filming the film. It's not about who we are today or who we were before, it's like it was very immediate in the emotional process to access that genuine feeling and trying to get that across as something that contemporary, as something that immediate. Amazingly, it's scary as shit. But I can totally see why if I waited 10 years, put on the old music that reminded me about how I felt in those days and made a period piece out of it, that would be like "great." But I'm not looking to make "American Graffiti."
Do you think your age is currently working for you or against you in the industry?
Well, regardless of my age, I'm really naive and immature, so I think that works to my benefit, because I can use the system for what it is and for how I need it to be and feel untarnished by a lot of the politics and paperwork that's a big part of the industry. It kind of comes with me being outside the business and having a life outside the business that I'm very content with. A lot of people have immersed themselves in their careers, and I've got plenty else I like to do besides making movies.
Although you have a definite signature to your films, how collaborative are your films because your friends are there?
You can't put a number on the value of trust, and when you're making movies, they have to be quick, and you can't waste a lot of time. And you have to have faith in the people you're working with, and we've been making movies together since we were in school and just shooting student films for free and making documentaries and trying to get things going and try and express ourselves in different ways and try to be as technically and artistically innovative as we can with limited funding. So you have people that can read your mind, you don't have to look over their shoulder and breathe down their necks about composition and technique because they get it, and it's just nice to have that shorthand with people that are great people to hang out with at the end of the day and grab a beer. You know, my director of photography and costume designer got married after the last production. You have that kind of intimacy and … you have that kind of environment it just gives everybody that smile and if you put yourself in that position, you're going to create something different. Regardless if it's good or bad or accept it or not accept it, it's different than just the mechanical, political process of the motion picture business.
How much of a voice did Paul Schneider (who acted in "George Washington" and is the lead and co-writer in "Girls") have in the screenplay?
Particularly on the story and where we were trying to go; what we were trying to achieve. It wasn't written in a typical way: a lot of movies come up with a concept, they come up with a structure, they map it out and how's it going to get from point A to point B, but what we did, together we came up with a series of characters in a place, and emotionally wanted to attach these characters to this place and I went off and wrote the script, based on page one. Rather than have the actors support the narrative, they told the narrative what the fuck to do. The characters in this movie are driving whatever narrative there might or might not be, rather than the story dictating the characters on how they're supposed to behave.
(Music supervisor and Green's best friend) David Wingo is an exception, but why do all the people who are successful in moviemaking who attend UT at one point or another leave before they graduate?
I'll tell you exactly why. Because they make it too academic there. You can't take the creative classes unless you're academically aggressive, and I'm not academically aggressive, and neither are any of my buddies, so we all just hit the road. Because like, I can't remember what it was exactly, but you have to get a certain GPA to take a lot of the RTF classes, so I was just sitting there in a lot of these lecture classes thinking, "when am I going to be able to get my hands on the toys?" And it offered a great academic background and a great education but after spending a year there, I was just like, "I need a conservatory or someplace where I can just get my hands on some shit and get dirty." But obviously, you're there. I don't mean to diss education or the value of that, but…
I understand completely.
For a guy that's just dying to get his hands on some stuff, though … And when I heard about the [North Carolina] School of the Arts, which had some 30,000 35mm prints and the largest technicolor collection in the world, and it's a state school that's cheap, I mean, that I can afford, I was like, "Get me there now."
There's a pretty big collection in Austin too.
Oh yeah, I spent the entire year while I was at UT watching videos. I was at the library, just like [in a zombie voice] "All these free films" that no video store in East Texas could supply, so that was amazing to be influenced by all that. That was how I would spend my afternoons, in my Jester dorm room.
What was your favorite place in Austin?
I went up to the hills. That's where I spent my weekends. Weekdays, I never really lifted a pen. I was a kind of a bum student, but like I watched a lot of movies there. I hung out and made a lot of really great friends and listened to a lot of great music and went off camping and hiking and cliff diving. My weekends were Lake Travis and a bunch of beer.
I read that you had the very first Blockbuster membership in Dallas.
You know what? I said that in an interview, which I thought was true for all my life, but then someone called me on it and did their research and found out that the very first one opened like 10 miles down the road from my house, but I was the very first member of the second Blockbuster Video ever, so I guess I can't claim that title anymore. I was really brought down to earth when I heard that, but also I hadn't rented there in about 15 years, because they [lowers voice] fucking blow. They ruined my neighborhood, now everywhere I look there's a Blockbuster, but that was a time when it was a novelty to have 10,000 videos show up at your doorstep. It was amazing. I was really blown away when I had that facility right around the corner from my house with [lowers voice in subtle disappointment] what I thought was the first.
Terrence Malick is a producer on "Undertow." What is it like to meet and work with people who you grew up admiring?
I'm really proud that I'm collaborating with actors, directors and producers that I've had my eye on and been an enormous admirer of their work and the diversity of projects from big studio movies to small, intimate movies like the one we're about to do and to be able to get in a room with these guys and sit on the phone and brainstorm ideas and get back and forth, like these guys are totally human beings on earth, like me and all my buddies are. And when I get them all into a room, and the chemistry is great, and everybody is on the same page as me, it's just really inspiring to kind of bring a level of expertise and experience to our ambition and get these guys to have the enthusiasm about things that we do.
In your commentary for "Pleasant Grove" (a short film Green made while attending North Carolina School for the Arts), you talk about how you were inspired by 1970s Sesame Street documentaries with the voice-over narration for your narrative films. Have you ever considered documentaries, and why was that a style that appealed to you?
They're the best. I'm an enormous fan of documentaries and me and [cinematographer] Tim Orr did one on the artificial insemination of cattle once that I'd like to put on DVD at some point, if it's ever appropriate to have something that disgusting. We did it on 16mm, I mean it's really, really gross … but what was the question?
Just have you ever wanted to make a feature-length documentary?
You know, the frustrating thing about performances is when actors come to read and say, "I saw this great role that you should check out and this is a performance I'm looking at to get into my character" and that's bullshit, unless they come to me with a documentary. And when people come to me with a documentary … even as semi-artificial as a documentary is, because everybody's going to be conscious if they have a fucking camera in their face, if you can get the voices and the unscripted dialogue and people that are really trying to be in their pants, you know, it's cool. There's more of a truth and a voice, and it's the reason why those Sesame Street documentaries really appealed to me because the kids were narrating in their own words. It's not somebody saying "read this. Sound cute." It was "tell us …'how to make a lamp,'" and I've just always been affected by those movies, and actually the documentary I made is like the same kind of shit. I play the banjo and I did the little banjo riffs that I ripped off of Sesame Street too. You know, just a little banjo holding it down during the show and one of the things in "George Washington" we were trying to do was to get the narration to have those mumbles and stutters and contradict themselves and have that mispronounciation. I don't know … all that stuff is just kind of valuable and ambient to me.
Last question, every time one of your films comes out it seems like you're already at work on another. Is there a plan for a break any time soon?
You know what I'm going to do in a year, because I'm going to be done with all my obligations to this point or a year and a half, I'm just going to buy some land and build a house. So that'll be a break, but it'll be a lot of fuckin' work [laughs]. It'll be a break from the stress of the industry, but I'll be fighting off a whole lot of new problems, and I'll be full of new learning experiences.