David Gordon Green has been churning out some of the more unique and engaging independent films over the last decade and a half. Starting with 2000’s George Washington which played at TIFF, and spanning the likes of the surreal Pineapple Express or the cerebral Prince Avalanche, he’s had a varied and remarkable filmmaking career.
His latest, Manglehorn, is another delve into a complicated character. The titular character is played by Al Pacino, and the arrogant, curmudgeonly keymaker still manages to find enough humanity to become a kind of likable character, despite the many overt flaws.
It’s been many years since last we spoke, so I was happy to once again touch base with this remarkable talent.
Last time we talked, you were a 25-year old kid at TIFF there to chat about George Washington
That was a long time ago.
I bought you a bagel because nobody was giving you any food.
[Laughs] Yeah, that sounds like a typical day if I remember.
The next film you wanted to shoot was either on 70 or on IMAX because you had just used the Evita Panavision lens package on George Washington. You also told me that your favourite film was Bad News Bears. I bring all of this up to ask – what have you been doing since then?
Yeah, I’ve just been twiddling my thumbs, trying to get shit done. [Laughs]
When I was back in Toronto, it’s kind of funny, when I think about those days with George Washington where I was literally going to film festival parties to steal food just to survive or get you to bum a bagel for me and then 15 years later with Manglehorn, it’s pretty radical.
Hey, I bought you that damn bagel!
It was probably my fourth time there – Either way, it’s been a really radical and romantic road.
So, Manglehorn – You got to work with Al Pacino, that must have been a particular thrill.
[It’s] a movie I’m really proud of. It was just really trying to find a good Disney role for one of the greater actors maybe in the history of movies actually. He’s someone I really wanted to work with and when I met him one time, I was reminded of the smaller, gentler, sweeter, subtle Pacino from The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow, Serpico, The Godfather, not the man of great bravado and aggression but this quiet, funny, nice guy.
After that meeting, I went away and pitched an idea for a character to a friend of mine, Paul Logan, who is one of my neighbours in Austin, Texas, and he wrote it up for us. We sent it to Al, and it was probably three days after we sent it to him that I was on a plane to go talk to him about it and we spent eight months developing it together and coming up with ideas and doing readings with friends of ours and man, it’s been a wild ride.
I rarely do this, but from the opening scenes of Manglehorn I was wondering, where the hell did they come up with the idea of a key store? Who thinks to set a film here? Yet it’s so visually provocative…
It all came across way more organically than any sort of narrative engineering. There’s a locksmith two blocks away from my house where I got all of the locks changed and I decided, this would be a cool place to make a movie.
Then I was evacuating from a hurricane in North Carolina and got lost on a road called Manglehorn and I thought, this would be a good title for a movie.
Then I met Al Pacino and thought, this would be a good actor to be a locksmith in a movie called Manglehorn and so that’s what I pitched to the writer and he put it all together.
You make it sound extremely easy, my friend. Where did the cat come from?
That’s a better question. I had to find a cat that needed to get spayed, so that we could film the surgery and then get a close up of the key.
It was a very strange low fi way to make a movie, but I really loved that. It was very improvisational and a lot of non-actors in the movie. My next door neighbour’s the guy who’s telling the story, the nun at the carnival too – Those are just folks I know from town, so it’s really fun to be able to bring Holly Hunter, Al Pacino and a couple of other actors who are established into a world that is basically my backyard in Austin.
We are seeing Holly Hunter way less than we should be, and she’s fantastic in your movie.
Well, I appreciate that. She’s just someone I’ve always admired and loved her, the warmth of her spirit exudes in her characters and her physicality says a lot, from Raising Arizona to The Piano. I’m on kind of a rampage trying to work with actors that I’ve always admired, or work with actors that I’d love to take on a new challenging difficult journey and so she was one of them. When Al and I started talking about who would play Dawn, she was one of the first names that popped up and definitely someone that I pursued pretty aggressively for this.
And Harmony Korine in this film didn’t seem to be acting at all – that’s just him.
I’ve known Harmony for years. He was doing a Q&A for Spring Breakers at South by South West and I saw him up on stage handling the crowd and I went up after the show and asked him if he wanted to be in the movie and he just laughed and said OK.
He said “I don’t know if I can memorize lines and do all of that” and I said well, we’ll put a little earwig in your ear and I’ll whisper seeds of ideas and all you have to go do is harass Al Pacino. And he was like, “Oh, I could do that.”
I’d have a microphone around the corner and mumble stuff for him to go harass Al about.
You’ve had an extremely diverse career – other than your participation, what do you think connects these projects? In other words, what for you does it mean to be a “David Gordon Green” film?
Wow. Well, there’s only one thing and that’s that I love every character in the movie. I try to create a movie where I love everybody in it and I adore them with the camera, kind of worship them a little bit. That’s good guys, bad guys, questionable characters, hateable, or loveable, I just find a way to love who I’m painting portraits of and that’s really the only similarity.
I’m really hoping that during my career I can disappear into my work like a character actor does and pop up in unexpected places and surprise myself even from time to time.
You see that everywhere from your production of Camp X-Ray through to your sublime work with Eastbound and Down
I can find similarities in Kristen Stewart in that movie or Danny McBride as Kenny Powers or Al Pacino’s Manglehorn. They’re very difficult people for me as David to embrace, and that’s the effort of the project is to fall in love with them. With Kenny [Powers] it’s particularly difficult because he’s arrogant and racist and an asshole on every level, but can we just pause the aggression for a second and see the loneliness or can we see the reflection of a human being when he looks at himself a little bit or sitting on a roller-coaster in season two or whatever.
We’re trying to engineer these devices so that there was something sickly loveable about that asshole.
Are there other storytellers or filmmakers that you think pull off that magic trick that you learned from?
There’s a lot of guys that I’m really inspired by the diversity of their work – Robert Altman, the naturalistic style, and guys like Soderbergh and Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom for the diversity of the roles. I get pretty judgmental about filmmakers when they’re judgmental about their characters. And I’m not really sure who, it’s a fine line because you don’t want it to be cute, over lit, over postured love, but I want to look at characters that are difficult or have a tricky background or an impoverished background or an alcoholic difficulty or something that is easy to dismiss or keep at arm’s length emotionally and then figure out how to want to give them a hug at the end of the movie.
Take Pineapple Express– I remember everyone thought I was crazy when I put [James] Franco in a comedy. But I felt we could find the strange tenderness in this guy and really become emotionally drawn to him and he’s funny as shit. So let’s try and do that and I think it worked. I feel really proud of those unlikely efforts and it’s often a challenge but it’s kind of my favourite thing.
Is it dumb of me to see connections with somebody like Lars von Trier?
I haven’t watched his movies in the last few years, but he’s an amazing filmmaker, and, well, let’s see, I’m trying to think. Breaking the Waves is probably my favourite of his work and I think he definitely gives everybody a chance. Sometimes he gets a little icy.
It’s the Danish way of doing it vs. the Southern way of doing it.
So that’s something, I need to catch up on his work. I think that Melancholia is the last movie I saw of his.
What is still exciting you about doing all of this stuff? Is it working on films as a director or is it collaborating with the team that you surround yourself with?
I love producing and I’ve been having a great time helping voices of young filmmaker. Working in television where you can take larger canvases and tell very complicated and challenging stories and I think that’s really fun.
But I think ultimately, I had this strange perverse love of using the opportunity of movies as a passport into people’s lives. And I mean that in the production process. I get to know actors and I get to go into homes and location scout and look in people’s closets. I really just enjoy the strange explorations from an anthropological and often psychological level of research and trying to figure out what makes people tick and why people put the weird shit in their houses they put in there.
Is the Suspiria remake still happening?
I had breakfast with the producer last week and I think it sounds like it’s on an exciting new path, but not with me involved, but it sounds like it’s in a great position to realistically happen in the next year.
But you’re not going to be part of it anymore?
I’m not going to be part of it. My version of it was going to be too expensive for what the genre has to offer the industry these days. Horror movies are encouraged to be low budget and down and dirty and my version of that is very elegant and operatic so I don’t think, the version I want to make it’s not the time and place, but I’m pretty excited about what they’re telling me is going on with it so we’ll see.
If you could remake one film, one favourite film, what would you make, and which one do you love but you would never remake?
The one I love and would never remake is Deliverance. And the one I would remake is Prince Avalanche.
[Laughs] You want to remake your own film?
I want another shot at it. I’m really proud of it, I love it, but I have a different version of it that I think would be really cool to explore.
Are you thinking of actually doing that?
It’s all written, and it’s already a remake of an Icelandic film, but I want to do it in Portuguese.
Now is that just an excuse for you to go to Portugal?
No, there’s a lot of layers that are difficult to explain, but I did have this, I met a guy that told me a story I want to weave into the first Avalanche story, taken in a different direction and do some things that I wish I’d had a little bit more money to do, and then I can justify it creatively.
I think I can get it financed in another language, and I know some folks, some incredible Portuguese talent that doesn’t really have a lot of opportunity to express themselves because there’s not a huge industry over there. So I think it might be good, on a business level, I think it might be a good thing over there. I would like to, and I’ve never been to Portugal, so that would be an incredible exploration in the next wave of location scouting and character perversions.
How’s your Portuguese?
I’ll have to learn it from scratch. I’ve spent a little time in Brazil, but I don’t think I got much beyond a salutation.
I’m always fascinated by how we react to films differently if they’re subtitled or not. It’s got nothing to do with whether or not you speak the other language, but if it’s in a non-dominant, non-English language, we accept the film a little bit differently. Do you feel that some of your films are sort of dismissed as character pieces because they’re in English, whereas if they were in French or Italian they might be accepted a little bit more, let alone in Portuguese?
That’s interesting. I’m going there right now. I’m finishing up a movie about American political consultants in Bolivia. A lot of it’s in Spanish and I’m going through that right now with the studio, talking about how much do we subtitle, how much of that is vital information, and how much does an audience really respond to reading, and how much can just be felt through the narrative?
It is pretty interesting; the value of showing people the movie is what you’re understanding without the subtitles, it’s actually pretty extraordinary.
But I see what you’re saying in terms like it’s almost like making things more artfully legit if you’re heavily subtitled than some, because I’m always infusing tons of humorous beats or moments that probably devalue some of the prestige of my movies but keep me entertained, so maybe the subtitles work better.
One of the things that is a challenge about your cinema is that there’s an overt superficiality that has to be overcome which a lot of audiences won’t have the patience to do so when you uncover something incredibly sophisticated underneath. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
I’m not sure I understand that comment.
Let’s look at Eastbound and Down. I think a lot of people watch that as an incredible dumb ass who’s just playing a bunch of baseball and missing the fact that there’s some incredible not only storytelling but some unbelievably rich, deep character moments that you guys are eliciting out of that character
Well, in a weird way, I hate to say this, but I do have to consider the business model of the industry that I work in. sometimes I’m more on the fringe than others, but I think if you have something to hang your hat on to make it financially responsible. Eastbound is a perfect example, or Pineapple Express – You finance a stoner movie, right? So you’ve got a stoner comedy, and then you can try to find human elements in it and you can try to find strange, subversive things to comment one.
In Eastbound and Down, I don’t think anybody thought when they read the pilot script that we were going to be trying to make a complicated character piece, but the pitch was sold in the room to every network that was pitched the idea. It sounds like a good sell, and then the trick is making it smarter than that.
I could have found a way to make Suspiria – I think I was probably too honest about the end product to ever get it made because I wanted it to be an expensive art film. I think if I could have just hung my hat on an economical horror film, then I could have tried to do my art within it, that’s another way to go about it.
It works sometimes and it doesn’t other times but I think that’s all the effort for me is always to find the material that is marketable and then elevate it.
You’re still getting excited sitting in a theatre watching someone else’s work, or are you just concentrating on your own?
I don’t do near as much watching as I’d like to do. Most of my time is caught up either in production or my 4 year old twin boys. I don’t get enough time, but I saw a movie the other day called Heaven Knows What that really blew my mind.
Now that Danny [McBride] and Jody [Hill] and I have a production company that’s developing stuff, we’re starting to look at this wave of guys that are young voices that are looking for an outlet or opportunity to inspire us and keep us excited about what we do because we’re all doing well and keeping busy and having fun, but one of the things that’s most satisfying is watching the next guy who’s going to come and take all of our jobs and give them the opportunity to do so.
And do you still want to do that IMAX film?
Actually, I keep in touch with a writer on that project that, he’s adapting a book for me right now, and I think, the last time I talked to him about that project, he said he wouldn’t allow me to do anything with it, he’s decided he’s going to turn it into a novel now.
But an IMAX movie, yes, that would be great, but that particular one, I think he’s working on the novelization of the screenplay, so that’s pretty interesting.