Spotlight on David Gordon Green


Filmmaker David Gordon Green has come a long away since his first indie feature George Washington back in 2000, which has taken him through the Sundance favorite All the Real Girls, the genre thriller Undertow and now Snow Angels, a suburban drama based on the novel by Stewart O’Nan. If that weren’t enough, Green is also directing the next movie written and starring the very hot Seth Rogen, the action-comedy Pineapple Express.

Snow Angels, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, stars Kate Beckinsale as Annie, a pretty waitress who has separated from her husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and trying to take care of their young daughter on her own, but his inability to accept their separation and let go leads to tragedy when he learns she’s sleeping with another man. At the same time, a high school student named Arthur, played by Michael Angarano, is discovering first love with an eccentric classmate played by Juno‘s Olivia Thirlby. The excellent cast is rounded out by Amy Sedaris, Nikky Katt and Griffin Dunne. sat down with Green while he was in New York for the film’s premiere. Has Todd Fields called you and asked why you’re stomping on his turf, since he also adapts books based in suburbia?
David Gordon Green: What are you talking about, “Little Children”? Well, I like his movies. I’ve never met him, but he hasn’t accosted me or anything.

CS: When did you first find out about this book from Stewart O’Nan?
Green: I read it in 2003 in January and I was hired to adapt it for a different director. It was a great opportunity to take that leap as a writer, to do an adaptation and I worked to discipline myself to work within a traditional structure, a series of characters and ensembles, and things like transitions that I never really thought about in my own work because I write pretty much stream of consciousness, organically. Most of my scripts when I write for myself are like sixty pages and impressionistic ideas in which I’ll just cast people and do something else with it, but this was an opportunity to try to step up to the plate and do something realistic. A lot of my life I had considered being a writer, so I thought if I ever get to the day when no one will let me direct a movie anymore, it would be fun to sit up on a mountaintop and scribble some ideas for other guys to make. So I was trying to explore the practical end of the industry.

CS: Was there something about this book specifically that made it something you wanted to adapt?
Green: Yeah, I just identified with all of the characters, all of them, and every situation in the movie I felt was something that either I could bring a personalized spin to, relate to, or there were things that I’d lived through personally myself or had affected me in my childhood, and all kinds of haunting, beautiful anxieties that I’d had. I tried to weave a degree of humor in it because the book isn’t that funny, but I wanted to make sure that I cast funny people in it, so it was about bringing humanity to some pretty heavy material.

CS: A lot of the movies you’ve done before were set in the South, while this book was obviously set in the suburbs of Pennsylvania or Connecticut, obviously further North. Were you still able to see relevance in the smalltown things you’ve done before?
Green: Yeah, there was enough of a kind of familiarity that I felt like I had a safety net of an honest connection to this place. After I finished my third movie, me and my cinematographer (Tim Orr) looked at each other and said, “Let’s get out of here for the next movie and go do something else. Let’s get out of the south.” So we found a different landscape and backdrop and it all worked out according to plan.

CS: The film looked great. Where did you end up shooting it?
Green: Nova Scotia. It was cold as hell.

CS: How did you wind up directing this after you finished the adaptation?
Green: The director I worked with went on to do another movie and I convinced them to let me have a shot at it.

CS: As far as casting, what made you think of Kate for the role of Annie, or was she already attached with the other director?
Green: Sam (Rockwell) was attached with the other director and he was the only one, but I loved the idea of him, and all the pieces started falling together after at, finding someone that had chemistry with him. With Kate, I loved the baggage that she brought. I loved that she hadn’t done this type of role and I loved that the roles that she had been doing–we love her in them–she’s physical, she’s beautiful, and you want it to work out for her. Having a character that can go to some pretty difficult places with the preconceptions that an audience would bring I thought was ideal as well as her authenticity because she’s the mother of a young daughter and an ex-husband, and has a new husband, she was willing to bring her genuine relationships and moments of her life to our little movie which was pretty generous.

CS: Amy Sedaris might not be the most obvious choice either. I know you wanted to bring some humor to it, but she has some really difficult scenes.
Green: That’s why it’s interesting. It’s not paint by numbers performances. It’s asking actors that you’ve not seen this side of, to reveal something intimate.

CS: What was your rehearsal process like for this movie?
Green: We’d go into a room and Amy would make us cupcakes.

CS: From her cookbook?
Green: Yeah, and we’d eat cupcakes and talk about the characters and play music, and sometimes pull out a video camera and explore lines and improv and other times, we’d read through the script, and other times just have a snack and get to know each other.

CS: How about the actual adaptation… did you have any communication with the writer Stewart O’Nan?
Green: I met him the other day, I loved him. I met him at the L.A. premiere, it was cool.

CS: When you finished writing the first draft, was he getting sent stuff so that he could look stuff over and make notes?
Green: I don’t know. I was scared of him. I mean you read a very private, personal book when you read it and I wanted to make a really personal, private movie, but I’m a different person than him, so I was sculpting it to my sensibility which was a very personal place to take it. I had a great desire for him to have an appreciation of what we were doing, but it was going to be different. His book was a period piece. It took place in the seventies, which I think was probably more of a generation of time in his life that he could look and reflect on.

CS: Yeah, I didn’t see the movie as taking place in one certain period.
Green: I was trying to make it vague and universal. There were a couple of cell phones and records and things to throw you off, but I think his book was so beautifully drawn and it was always a valuable resource to have on set for the characters to get back story and elements of deeper substance than my knuckle headed stage directions were sometimes, but luckily he’s really happy with it.

CS: Was the L.A. premiere the first time he got to see the movie?
Green: No, he’d seen it before and when I met him, he said he saw it at a press screening and said that after the movie was over, people were looking at him strangely because he couldn’t stop smiling.

CS: That’s good. I’ve talked to a lot of authors who’ve had their books adapted, and you have different camps: you have the ones who don’t want anything to do with it and never want to see the movie–the movie is the movie–and then you have the ones that are really involved almost to a fault.
Green: Well, I think he gets it. He’s good friends with Stephen King, and they wrote a book together and I think he helped him put it in perspective. It’s a different animal, it’s a different art form. Some things you’ll appreciate and other things you’ll detest I’m sure.

CS: I started reading the book after seeing the movie, and it has a very different structure and a lot more characters, so was a lot of adapting it a matter of simplifying things?
Green: Since I was writing it for someone else, I did have a disciplined engineering and architecture. I broke it down into a way that seemed like a manageable movie, so when I proposed what I would do to it, it made sense, in terms of three intertwined love stories and the character arcs within them.

CS: The book is from Arthur’s perspective, but we don’t see him for a long period of time. Was it hard getting the right perspective and get a good balance of all the different characters?
Green: A good balance of it, I wanted it to come from the young perspective of youth and hope and optimism which I think is good, but I didn’t want the nostalgia of a narrator looking back, a lot of things I just wanted to make contemporary, but not full strip malls and franchises.

CS: In the book, Stewart gives away a huge plot point in the first couple pages which you saved for later, which makes it far more shocking. I think if I read the book first and knew that was coming, I’m not sure if it would’ve affected me as much. Can you just talk about why you did that?
Green: That is one of the things that is difficult, being able to maintain a sense of drama and tension through the whole thing. There are devices, like having the little flash-forward to get people to know that something significant, dramatic, and potentially violent is going to happen. You can give that away right at the onset, and then you can build up to the moment in a way that there is always that overhang and canopy of tension.

CS: This movie mixes your voice and Stewart’s with some lines being taken specifically from the book but other things, like the band leader at the beginning, is a throwaway in the book, but it’s expanded into something significant in your movie.
Green: Yeah, Tom Noonan improvised a lot of that stuff. It was just him on set coming up with a lot of crazy stuff to say. He shaved off his eyebrows for it, and he had this whole back story, he’s great.

CS: So you do allow improv in your movies?
Green: Oh yeah, a ton of the movie, all the best lines other than the book I give credit to the actors. I think I came up with a couple good ones, but not many.

CS: I really liked that the movie deals with every phase of a relationship from first love to divorce and everything in between. Were those themes you tried to capture in all of these characters?
Green: I wanted the first love story to be about the kind of young, naïve, awkward sentiment of those seeds of love, of those first fireworks, and then another relationship about when you just make the wrong choices and you’re ultimately with the wrong person and you’re not connecting and in fact you’re destroying each other. Then, the third relationship is about when you disconnect from someone and you realize all the voids that it leaves because it was probably a pretty selfish disconnect and you want to put the pieces back together.

CS: I thought there even was a fourth relationship between Brock and Barb, which was sort of where Annie and Glenn were a year earlier.
Green: I didn’t think about that, but I like to think that it does.

CS: You mentioned before about wanting to bring some humor into it. Sam is kind of a no-brainer since he’s played damaged characters and he can do that very funny. In one scene, he’s really drunk and dancing in a bar, and it’s pathetic, but it’s also funny. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to laugh at a scene like that or not.
Green: Sure, whatever you feel is what you should feel. My whole pitch with the movie is that I think it’s an opportunity to go into a theater with a lot of people, maybe some you know and a lot of strangers, and explore these emotions. Some of them are really challenging, some really funny things are happening in tragic circumstances and they’re not comedic set pieces in terms of set-up and payoff and jokes. It’s just human imperfections, like a guy slipping and falling in a funny manner on his way to deal with a tragic circumstance. To me, those are interesting and it’s far more interesting if you’re feeling the energy in a room of other people.

CS: Did this adaptation give you more freedom to explore some of those ideas?
Green: I think ultimately, the adaptation gave me a traditional structure so that I didn’t have to worry about people getting the movie. The movie makes sense and then you can take all of your emotional risks and I can spend my time dealing with that and kind of design something that is going to take people emotionally to a place they’ve never been, because conceptually it’s nothing new.

CS: If I see the movie again…
Green: Oh, you will.

CS: Okay, I will, but I know that if I see it a second time and have the same emotional experiences, then I know I was right for enjoying it the first time.
Green: There’s a lot of layers to it and the more I see it, the more I realize what the actors were doing. Things that slipped past me on the set or even in the first cuts of the movie, not realizing the complexity of it, and the pacing of it, there’s some really amazing timing of some of the words that are said. Nicky Katt is a genius of comic timing and awkward pauses. It’s so funny to watch him and Amy Sedaris go off on each other.

CS: A lot of bad things happen to Annie, and while you do feel for her, there’s also some amount of karma inherent in that she’s sleeping with her best friend’s husband and treating Glenn so poorly. Do you believe that she gets what she deserves?
Green: Well, they are all characters I love, so I don’t hold them up to that light. I think there is complexity and there’s reasons and significance for every decision they make, but the audience is in on the broad stroke of a lot of it and not on the depth of it, seeing Annie or Glenn. If you were to lift out a one-minute sequence, you would think that there were some unlikable choices that they were making that would challenge your appreciation for your character. As a whole, hopefully, it’s complicated so that you could see why they do what they do, if not approve of what they do.

CS: I can see that, since obviously her relationship with Glenn is so bad for both of them.
Green: She needs an escape, she’s been with Glenn her entire life and that’s done, and she’s in a small town, and she’s got a limited opportunity, and nowhere to go, and everyone knows her. There’s no move she can make that’s the right move. She’s desperate, and she’s found a guy that’s witty and funny, and makes her feel good about herself and she clings to him and doesn’t want to disrupt his life and doesn’t want to necessarily incorporate him into hers.

CS: But he’s not good for her either, being the husband of her best friend.
Green: Yeah, but he’s entertaining and he’s a funny guy that makes her laugh and sometimes all we need is some fresh air.

CS: You’re making another big change with “Pineapple Express” in that it’s your first studio movie, as well as an action-comedy. Is that set in the South?
Green: No, it’s set in generic-ville U.S.A. After doing “Snow Angels,” I wanted to have some fun and get loose and through “Snow Angels” I was introduced to so many comedic actors and their abilities. I was just like, “I want to get an ensemble together and do something where we can emphasize the comedic elements of it.” Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen and their band of filmmakers were looking to do something different with their genre that they’ve become so successful in, as did me and my cinematographer and sound guy.

CS: Oh, you kept the same crew?
Green: Yeah, it’s done. It’s coming out in August. It went really well and as far as a professional transition it was pretty exciting to make.

CS: And you wrote this movie too?
Green: No, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote it.

CS: Oh, okay, so this is also the first time you’re directing someone else’s script. How did you hook up with Judd and Seth?
Green: I met them on the set of “Knocked Up” and then hung out on “Superbad” a little bit and we realized that our sensibilities and manner of filmmaking were pretty identical, trusting the actors to take it off the page, having a loyal crew base of people that you look to as collaborators rather than cracking the whip. Making movies is fun. It should be fun, there are a lot of things that I can do to make money that would not be fun. This is a way to get out and explore and experience, and Seth and Evan weren’t overly possessive of their script, and they wanted to improvise and they know that some of the greatest comedy comes not out of scripted, rehearsed material, but the awkward uncertainty of what you are going to say next, or the strangeness of listening, or the wild ideas that are thrown off screen while the cameras are rolling.

CS: Can you do that kind of thing on a movie like “Snow Angels”?
Green: We did a ton of improv, but I wouldn’t interrupt their dramatic moment with shenanigans. I would wait until we cut, but here and in a lot of others, I mean, there’s no reason to reset, every time you cut it takes five minutes to get up and going. I want to get to the meat.

CS: But after months and months of writing something and rehearsing it, you just throw away the script?
Green: Oh, yeah, you don’t need it, I don’t like movies that seem scripted. Every time I watch a movie and think, “Oh that’s really good writing,” that means I don’t really like the movie.

CS: Really? You mean, because you can tell that it’s written.
Green: Yeah, you know what I mean? You can picture that little smart screenwriter back there in his dark corner being a nerd. I’d rather surrender to the actor. I’d rather think it’s really good acting. I’m blown away by this and the technical elements that are disguised and the beauty of what it’s become, rather than picturing someone standing out either music, or screenwriter, or actors. There’s a lot of over the top ego that gets involved when you don’t get the right crew together.

CS: Given that more people will probably see “Pineapple Express” opening weekend than all your other movies combined, do you think they’ll be able to go back and look at your previous movies like “All the Real Girls” or “Undertow” and see them as something by the same director or do you think there’s too big a divide between that and your previous films?
Green: I don’t think there’s going to be a divide. I just think that it’ll be a door that’s opened. Hopefully, it’ll be successful and introduce other people to the other sides of my work and give me opportunities professionally to explore genres that I haven’t had the opportunity to explore.

CS: What do you want to do next? Do you want to try something different, like writing for another director?
Green: I’ve done a lot of jobs for other directors. Right now, I’m doing an adaptation for a John Grisham book. It’s called “The Innocent Man,” it’s his first non-fiction book, and I went on Death Row, so I’m doing the research and exploring the prison system of America–that’s pretty intense–and I’m trying to do this hundred million dollar action movie, and a horror movie.

CS: How is it that you’re doing a hundred million dollar action movie?
Green: It’s fun… I needed to blow some sh*t up.

CS: Are you going to write and direct that?
Green: No, I’m probably just going to direct it, and I’m finishing up the script on the horror movie, and working on this medieval project.

CS: What’s the horror movie about?
Green: It’s a remake of a Dario Argento movie called “Suspiria”. These Italian producers came to me about it wanting to a pretty amazing, ambitious, artistic…It’s in English about a New York ballet student that goes to Germany, but yeah, it can be pretty wild. We’ll shoot in Europe.

CS: Are you going to direct that too?
Green: I think so, I hope to.

CS: This is all stuff you’ve been working on since finishing “Snow Angels”?
Green: Yeah, I also want to start a straight-to-video action company that just does genre movies, me and my friend Darius just finished this script called “One in the Chamber,” it’s just about a guy going to get his kidnapped son out of prison.

CS: Like a revenge type of movie?
Green: Yeah, it’ll be great! Give me a couple of million bucks to go explore some schlock. I’d like to be the next Roger Corman, who would have his hand in “Piranha,” but also in Fellini. I like that idea.

CS: I like how you do these genre movies back-to-back with something like “Snow Angels” which isn’t genre at all.
Green: I’m looking to do some genre stuff and I’m also looking to do some crazy, very intimate, no budget movies. That’s my problem. I only have one me and I only have a limited amount of time before I die, and my other problem is that I like to do a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with movies, and movies are very time-consuming, so you have to make choices and that’s really frustrating.

CS: Yeah, I can see that because writing and directing a movie can take some time.
Green: That’s why I want to start producing more. I produced a few movies this year.

CS: Yeah, I loved “Great World of Sound.”
Green: Did you see it?

CS: Yeah, and I have “Shotgun Stories” at home just waiting to be watched.
Green: “Shotgun Stories” is beautiful. It comes out later this month.

Snow Angels opens in New York on Friday, March 7, and will expand into other cities the following week.

Thanks to Victoria L. Negri for her help with this piece.