Up until he directed Pineapple Express in 2008, David Gordon Green was more known for his ties to the independent film world and dramas like All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels. Written and produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Pineapple Express changed a lot for Green, as he was soon collaborating with his long-time friend Danny McBride on the bigger budget R-rated medieval stoner adventure Your Highness, which sadly, never found its audience.
For his second movie of 2011, Green is directing Jonah Hill in The Sitter, a high concept comedy that puts Hill’s character Noah in charge of a trio of troublesome kids who make his life difficult when he agrees to babysit them. Over the course of a single night, Noah and these kids end up falling foul of a drugdealer (played by Sam Rockwell) and getting into even more trouble as Noah tries to get the money the dealer is demanding if Noah doesn’t want to be killed.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Green earlier this week to talk about the movie and some of the other things he’s working on (such as reuniting with Craig Zobel to produce his follow-up to the awesome indie Great World of Sound). Green’s a really cool guy who hasn’t lost any of the energy and enthusiasm he brought to filmmaking from his pre-studio days, and he’s always fun to talk to.
ComingSoon.net: It’s been a while. I haven’t talked to you since Comic-Con before “Pineapple Express,” so I don’t know how many years that was.
David Gordon Green: That was like pre-puberty for me.
CS: So you’ve done two more movies done since then. I think I read somewhere about how you and Jonah met up at Sundance and this was a script sent to him by someone else that he suggested you direct?
Green: That’s crazy, you already know all the facts. That’s true. We were at Sundance and I was there going to just be a spectator and support all my friends that had movies there. I watched “Cyrus” and loved it, so we were drinking tequila after the show and danced on the dance floor with John C. Reilly. It was awesome. Jonah and I, we had always been talking about making a movie together since I met him on the set of “Superbad.” Just occasionally we kind of said, maybe it was the liquor talking or maybe it was his dance moves, but something about it seduced me.
CS: This is kind of high concept for you. We’ve seen these kinds of movies where they put Ice Cube wit kids or Vin Diesel, but usually they’re done PG for families, and you went for an all-out R-rated version of that.
Green: I was very clear that the version I wanted to make was going to be R-rated, but it’s funny, because I thought several times that this is the first movie I’ve made that I can tell you what it’s about. This is the first movie that you can genuinely write a synopsis for: “Jonah Hill takes three kids on a drug deal one crazy night in New York,” then you get the movie. I’ve never made a movie that you can actually describe clearly, so that is fun to have it fall into a genre but then break a lot of the rules of the genre and break some of the clichés of the genre. We really wanted to make the version that was very inspired by the ’80s movies that we loved and like, “Risky Business” and “After Hours” and “Something Wild,” “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Uncle Buck,” being probably the softer of them, but we really wanted to see if we could reach all ends of that, to have some very subversive absurdity, but also have the heartfelt innocence with the kids and make this movie something that had life. Rather than just a bunch of jokes, it would have dimension and character to it.
CS: This seems like a good companion piece to “Pineapple Express” in some ways, so was it intentional to go back in that direction after “Your Highness”?
Green: No, “Pineapple” was very much in the mindset of a stoner movie, and I don’t think that this falls under that. I guess they fall into the genre of movies about people making bad decisions, but I don’t really see a lot of similarities to it. I don’t know. Cocaine and marijuana are very different drugs, so until I make my black tar heroine movie, I think I’ve really found my string that combines them all. My approach to having a movie that has a balance of comedy and action and absurdity, I guess that’s maintained through the last three films for sure.
CS: Good luck finding a studio who’ll make that black tar heroine movie.
Green: Yeah, I can’t wait. Wait until this is a blockbuster and then we’re going to have “The Sitter 2″ starring Mo’Nique and it’s going to be about black tar heroine. It’ll be really good. Did you see “The Jerk 2,” the sequel to “The Jerk”? It was something made for TV. I like sequels that are Part 2 but are replacing the cast. They’re always funny.
CS: I never knew there was a sequel to “The Jerk.” That’s pretty funny, wow.
Green: Oh yeah, you gotta Google it. It’s a cool thing.
CS: Knowing you were going to have Jonah with these kids, were the kids pretty well defined from the script with all their issues? How did you go about finding those kids?
Green: There’s always a broad stroke architecture. Gatewood and Tanaka wrote a great script that I was really excited about, and Jonah and I made our list of what kind of qualities in kids we’d like to work with and who would be our nightmare. We had big casting calls and met hundreds of kids for these roles and found a really soulful voice in Max Records, who was in “Where the Wild Things Are.” It was just great having a meeting with him and seeing him audition and then new voices like Landry Bender who plays this little girl in the movie and Kevin Hernandez, who plays her adopted brother. It’s fun being able to let those kids loose, so you have the script. You’ve got me and Jonah’s idea and interpretation. Then you show it to the kids and you say, “What would you say instead of this?” Or, “What if we did this instead of that,” or “What would you do?”
CS: The question you probably get the most is how you get kids to swear and perform gangsta rap without completely freaking out their parents and guardians and whoever is watching over them? They must know what they’re getting into, but how do you go about doing that without them being scarred for life?
Green: You know what? Listen, the way I look at it is this. We have a really healthy, fun, very vibrant environment on movies, full of very ethical people, most of which, like myself, have children of our own, so we’re not going to go anywhere totally creepy with it. But once you get to know kids, most kids are like that and they have fun, and if they’re not like that in front of their parents, they’re certainly not like that very frequently in front of a movie camera. That’s what makes it fun for me is letting kids be kids and not trying to let Hollywood design what’s appropriate or what’s accessible, but let them and their parents navigate it. That’s part of the process, is making sure you’re casting not only great talent, the kids and their voices, but also that their parents are healthy and supportive and not exploitive.
CS: I spoke with one filmmaker about this and he just said that the parents have to have a sense of humor and understand the joke. So you find that’s the case as well?
Green: Yeah, always. It’s funny. I just got off shooting the new season of this HBO show “Eastbound & Down” and we had triplet infants in it, so we had infants in really crazy situations, but it’s baby babies, so you can’t even talk to ‘em. (Laughs) Having the coolest parents ever that understand what you’re doing and have questions and concerns and they’re smart about it and don’t just let everybody loose and step back, but they’re there and it’s really inspiring not only in a professional way, that “This is the way they should be raised in an environment like this,” but also just in a kind of parental way as an influence thinking, “This is giving kids freedom in a creative platform and a confidence in their own voice.” It becomes an exciting thing rather than a sketchy thing.
CS: I was kind of surprised Danny didn’t even make a cameo in this, or was he there and I missed it?
Green: There were no cameos. I’m not big on celebrity cameos. I did sneak Franco in there in an organic way through his “General Hospital” show. The only cameo that is not going to be as exciting for everybody, but it was for me, is I have one of my favorite actors is Eddie Rouse doing a quick cameo as Sammy Davis Jr. singing a song. Other than that, no. Danny was busy at the time and hustling on “Eastbound” scripts and stuff like that, so I’ll look forward to the next time I get to work with him, but we spend a very healthy part of every day in each other’s lives.
CS: I’m a big Sam Rockwell fan, so I loved seeing him in this kind of role as a baddie, which is pretty awesome. Who came up with that idea? When you read the script, was it obvious that Sam was the guy who had to play him?
Green: Well, it was a little different in the script, then getting Sam together with our production designer and our writers and coming up with what this would be and making it as eccentric and interesting. I credit a lot of that to Sam. Sam’s an actor I’d worked with dramatically in this movie “Snow Angels,” and here, being able to bring what I know was so fun and eccentric about Sam and what we kind of make fun of, not just what’s going on in the world of movies, but also in the world of art, was kind of a fun way to kind of pick and choose and have a little fun.
CS: I really hope Sam will one day get an Oscar but if he ends up only getting a lifetime achievement Oscar, that’s going to be the weirdest career highlight reel ever.
Green: He’s the weirdest guy, but I love him. It’s really exciting. He’s working with Martin McDonagh on his new movie right now (“Seven Psychopaths”), which is something I’m super excited for that collaboration. They did that play a couple of years back that was just so awesome to see. Sam has all the right fans. He just needs guys that take a risk and cast him in a great role, so I look forward to working with him again.
CS: Did you and Jonah throw ideas back and forth about some of the people you wanted to work with like Method Man and J.B. Smoove?
Green: Method Man I’ve always idolized in the world of music. It’s a really eclectic cast, but it’s also really good and there’s actors like Bruce Altman who’s a wonderful character actor that actually he had walked out of an audition with me because he was so offended by my process at one point for a different movie. When I read this role for Jonah’s father I was like, “Dude, I know Bruce Altman hates me, but I’m going to bring him back in and see if I can’t twist his arm a little bit and get something out of him,” and we had a blast. It was an incredible experience working with Bruce and Jonah and trying to access a little bit more of the emotion and dramatic material from the film as well.
CS: Jonah’s definitely been leaning more towards the dramatic side of his talents. He doesn’t come from the world of stand-up, but he’s really good with improv as well, so how was it balancing those dramatic moments with the comedy and any improvised bits?
Green: A lot of the balance I’ll credit with my editor Craig Alpert. He’s actually edited about eight of Jonah’s movies now, and I’ve worked with him three times. He grew up in the Apatow camp with those editors, so he really helped define the naturalism and honesty, but knows when you’re going a little bit too dramatic and you’re going to lose the comedic value. Sometimes you can’t recover from a dramatic scene and you can’t get back into the comedy because you’ve bummed everybody out. It’s just about experimenting and trying to get in the head of audiences and seeing what they think and what they respond to. Jonah’s an incredibly talented dramatic actor as well as a comedian, and I look at roles like Richard Pryor in the movie “Blue Collar” as maybe the greatest performance an actor has ever given, and think of comedians very often as digging into the darkness. Jonah and I were speaking last night of – he just looked at me and and said, “Let’s do a drama, dude.” I said, “Absolutely, sign me up.” That’s something I’d be really excited about.
CS: I feel like you’ve been pretty firmly in the comedic world for your last few movies but I’m not sure if your earlier movies would be considered that comedic. Certainly not “Undertow” or “Snow Angels.” Do you feel like you’re going to stay doing comedies for a while since you’ve done so well there?
Green: You never want to do the same thing again, which is why it’s hard for me to kind of find that linear connection even when I’m working in the same genre. They all feel very different to me. I literally don’t have any sort of design. Some people I know have the theory of “Let’s do one for them and one for me.” I do them all for me. Sometimes they’re commercial and sometimes they’re not, and I try to keep afloat and have a career that people will support because you need people to write checks and finance the movies. That can be really difficult, particularly right now for someone like me to get money for a movie that’s outside of a comedic wheelhouse, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make the compromises and the sacrifices to try to do it. All four of the movies I’m developing are not comedic, so we’ll see which one really lands, if it’s a horror movie or a drama or a documentary or whatever it is. It’s certainly a niche I have to fill. I wake up every morning thinking of what I want to do and I’m just as moody as the next guy. I don’t have the luxury of picking up a set of paints and painting a picture and being done in a day. It takes me a year or two, but I really do have kind of more of an immediate response rather than a bigger picture professional profile.
CS: Is it hard to keep so many things in development while you’re directing a movie and trying to finish it up?
Green: No, I’m a good multi-tasker. This year I’ve had a couple of movies and a few TV shows that I’ve been juggling and I also have scripts and projects outside of that and done some commercials. I keep real busy, not to mention I’ve got two 10-month-old twins running around and going crazy. So yeah, I have a real fun life and I get to have a lot of adventures and I really look at this career as a passport to the world, so why not try and soak up every opportunity until they slam the door in my face?
CS: I was excited to hear you’d be back at Sundance with Craig Zobel because I loved “The Great World of Sound.”
Green: Wait until you see f*cking “Compliance,” man. It’s really going to take you to the cleaners. It’s awesome. It is beautifully dramatic and creepy and compelling and claustrophobic and all these things that movies so rarely capture and in about 10 minutes, I’m actually going to go jump in a car and listen to the final soundtrack of it at Craig’s house. He’s a really talented guy that’s been very supportive every step of the way in my career. To see him actually have a product that backs up that talent with guts, it’s really bold filmmaking.
CS: Was he able to get a little more money to make that? I actually was pretty excited to see how Jeff Nichols has progressed from “Shotgun Stories” (which Green produced) to “Take Shelter.”
Green: Nope, not any more money because “The Great World” didn’t really open a lot of financial doors for him, and “Compliance” is not a huge commercial concept. It’s a really dark, disturbing story that’s done with utter realism. But with Jeff, he’s now just finished his third film “Mud” and getting great movie stars, like Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard and he’s working with these great actors and you will not believe what he’s getting out of these guys and what they’re willing to do for him. When you have heartfelt filmmakers and really bold, strong actors that are willing to take creative risks and risk their reputation for the reinvention and the inspiration that these director are going to provide, it just makes you want to high five your buddy and say, “F*ck yeah, let’s get in the ring and get dirty.”
You can read what Green said about two of his projects in development, a remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and an adaptation of Steve Niles and Greg Ruth’s graphic novel Freaks of the Heartland over on ShockTillYouDrop.com.
The Sitter opens nationwide on Friday, December 9.