“Let’s Use That Success to Take the Next Risk”: David Gordon Green on His Odd Career, Directing Legends, and ‘Manglehorn’


For a journalist, there’s nothing worse than a cell phone that craps out in the middle of an interview, and that’s exactly what happened about five minutes into my conversation with David Gordon Green.

First he started cutting out, in the midst of talking about the “strange kind of abstract theme” that’s appearing in his recent work, including his new Al Pacino vehicle Manglehorn, and then the line was dead. But he called back right away, and cut off my profuse apology with this explanation: “That’s all right! I think it might have been my end, because I farted real loud, so it got a little nasty and sometimes that interferes with the cell reception.”

Frankly, that might’ve been the most telling moment in an interview with a director who can be a bit of a puzzle. After all, how does a filmmaker go from the indie beauty of something like George Washington to the stoner dick-joke likes of Your Highness? But after spending some time talking with Green, I felt like I better understood that versatility; of course he can move between those extremes, because he’s the kind of guy who’ll make a goofy fart joke one moment and speak with great insight about modern masculinity in cinema the next. We talked about that versatility, the current state of indie filmmaking, and creating a “love letter” to one of his heroes.

Flavorwire: I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, because you’ve got such a fascinating filmography, in terms of the movements of your career — you started out making these very small, personal films, and then moved kind of unexpectedly into mainstream comedy, and now you’re on this run of again making independent films, but with these marquee names in them. Are these phases mapped out, or is it just sort of coincidental, the way projects come to you?

David Gordon Green: It’s neither! I’m pretty impulsive and I don’t follow trends that’d be more traditionally navigated by money producers and agents. I kind of just wake up in the morning and see what feels like a good idea. Nothing’s perfect when you’re working on an indie movie, especially these days; your American theatrical distribution is going to be very questionable. You have to achieve your romantic satisfaction on international film festivals and theatrical distribution in France and whatnot. Then you have to put $20 million into a marketing campaign. Studio experiences can be really exciting because you have the money to achieve some pretty ambitious things, not only in the production but in the exhibition of your movie. So that’s really cool.

It’s hard to find the middle ground; I just kind of shake it up, I do a little of this and that. I make my living doing commercials and television shows, so I use my feature career to really only do exactly what I want, and sometimes that’s very surprising to people, except those who know me really well. I just finished Manglehorn and Joe and [Prince] Avalanche, which were extremely low-budget, very eccentric, independent-minded character pieces. And I’m down this week working on a Warner Brothers movie with Sandra Bullock about Bolivian politics. I like to surprise myself and really engage full throttle on something that I would never have even expected six months ago.

How conscious were you, when you were putting Manglehorn together, that this would be a film that was compared to Joe — just in terms of a big star, whose recent work has been a little spotty, doing a small, character-driven film that really reminds us of what he can do?

Inevitably there’s these little threads that I’ve been doing over these last three movies, and I don’t really know how it’s related. I think it’ll happen in 15 or 20 years, when I’m Manglehorn’s age. I think it will come to me later, but right now I’m looking with cultural curiosity at the roles of men, their expectations of themselves, or their fathers, or their wives and girlfriends, and I think that’s a really interesting thing, of where we are now and where I am now in this world.

So talk to me a little about working with Mr. Pacino — about how he came onboard, and your initial interactions with him, which I would imagine to be a little intimidating?

I was doing the Chrysler commercial for the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, and they had asked me if I’d go and meet with Al about potentially being a spokesperson for it. I sat down in a room with him, and over the course of two hours, it was just an amazing energy. I felt this whole range of emotions; I was smiling one minute and tearful the next and curious the next. I saw the complicated layers, from Scarface to The Godfather, all these iconic characters. And I’m sitting in the room with him, he stands up and pushes the chair back, and he’s wearing a headband and I was like Who is this guy? This is amazing!

It didn’t work out on that commercial, and at the end of that meeting I went to him and was like, “Hey man, I’m sorry you’re not gonna want to do this, but a year from now I’m gonna come back here and we’re going to make a movie together. I’m going to find you again. Because not only are you a great actor that I’ve always admired, but I had an amazing idea in the room.” He just looked me and smiled and said, “I love it.”

So literally I went to work and designed the role for him with Paul Logan, who is a writer and my neighbor in Austin. We just engineered something as a love letter to Al. Then to get his opinion on it, it was funny — his process was, “Come over to my house and we’ll eat strawberries in my back yard and we’ll talk about it.” So I ate a lot of strawberries. We’d get friends of ours to come over and we’d sit in the back yard and read it out loud. For like eight months we workshopped this and we refined and edited it. You read about Mike Leigh’s process of working with actors, which I thought sounded like a really cool idea, and it was a lot like that – at least of what I’ve read about his process, finding who you want to be in it and then writing it, workshopping it and then re-writing it. We did that for a long time, and there were versions of the scripts that had other characters in it and we’d find or refine them or lose them.

It was a dream process, and I think the narrative took on a dreamlike tone, rather than following a traditional narrative. All of a sudden we started freestyling and I started to visualize the movie differently, just from sitting around watching him go over and over, and bringing different friends in to read different parts, females reading guy parts and vice versa. We’d reimagine something in a different way, and that’s really how the movie came about – just this beautiful creative process with one of my icons.

So much of his character’s inner life is wrapped up in those long, searching letters that we hear in voiceover. Where did those recording sessions fall in the process, and was that a different kind of collaboration?

It was amazing, actually — they evolved quite a bit, because at one point they were really genuinely well written, and then we decided they should be like a 14-year-old writing a love letter to his girlfriend. We would change the vocabulary a lot, and in production, almost every day there would be a point were Al would say, “Hey Dave, let’s go into my trailer and record letter number six.” And we’d do that same one 12 times during the movie — and it’s not like he would hear playback, he would just feel something and wanted to throw something back. I was very rarely even directing those parts. He would just feel something and sometimes there’d be a generator outside, and we knew it’d be shitty sounding, but we’d use it anyway. It was a really bizarre: We’d have 20 minutes between setups, “Let’s go into the back yard and throw down a love letter.” And sometimes, it’d be a very different selection from how he memorized it. I thought it would be different than it was, and it ended up that I loved the way that sometimes he’s reading, sometimes he memorized it, and sometimes he’s freestyling, mumbling it. We really used a wide variety of these opportunities we had during production.

I will say this, none of it was done in a studio. Usually we’d be like, “We don’t have enough time during the production of this no-budget movie, let’s do that in a recording studio in post-production,” but I don’t think we did any of that.

You’ve now directed two really legendary, larger-than-life performers, in these roles that showcased their quieter sides. Do you think iconic actors like these get pigeonholed into certain kinds of roles, to the point where they almost have to do independent films just to do something different?

I think at this point there’s a wave. I mean, I can relate to this; I remember after I did Pineapple Express, I could do any comedy in the world that I wanted to do. People were like, “Here’s a lot of money to do any of these movies” — so that can become really exciting for a guy like me. I’ve worked a lot of minimum wage jobs that were very difficult and have seen the world through some challenging obstacles, so this opportunity to do something that you’ve done successfully and have fun and make money is a pretty exciting thing. Most artists will jump on that for a bit, and if you’re Nicolas Cage or Al Pacino, these guys who have achieved so much phenomenal success, I can only imagine people want them to be that thing. Like they’ve climbed to the top of that mountain, and they want them to stay there and play, and then climb to the next mountain.

But my point is, let’s use that success to take the next risk. If we’ve gone to the top of the mountain on the last one, let’s dive to the bottom of the ocean with the next one and swim around with the alien fishes we didn’t even know existed. I really want that to be what I do — at least in that wave of what I’m doing now, to find people that trust me and have an appetite still. Because there’s some guys who won’t, who aren’t ready for it yet. I’ve approached some great actors that are in stride right now and I’ll say, “Hey you’re doing really great work, are you ready to get a little weird?” And they’re like, “Nah nah nah, I’m not going to fuck that up, I’m not going to risk that.” Some actors are afraid of the rejection of their core audience, but they’ll mature past that, they’ll get tired of doing the same thing over and over again, because they’re actors, they like to pretend to be different things. The great ones will always come back around to take these bold, challenging, small paychecks.

We’ve talked a lot about Al Pacino, but Holly Hunter is also really remarkable in the movie — and almost unrecognizable. She really disappears into this woman. How did you land on her for that role?

This might sound pretentious, but I look at Manglehorn as this black-and-white character in a colorful world, and we address that in production design and costume design, in the obvious places that you kind of make someone stand out by being less. And with Manglehorn, I wanted him to stand out by being less — not by being big and louder, but by being small and quieter. So with Holly I was really looking for someone where her voice and smile [are] irresistible, it’s adorable, but it’s not picture perfect. It doesn’t feel so manicured and posed… and maybe it’s her Southern accent because I’m from the South, but since Raising Arizona and Miss Firecracker and Broadcast News I’ve just really adored her. And with movies like The Piano, where so little is spoken but she says so much with her physicality, you really see the incredible range she has, with just one look… When she’s trying to hide her smile, is what gets me every time.

I was sitting with Al and we were batting around names and she came up. I just jumped on it. I said, I’m going to find this woman and I’m going to be on the phone to her in 24 hours. I’m going to find a way to make that happen. I didn’t know anyone that knew her, it was just one of those things where I said, I’m just going to throw Al’s name around and I’m going to get to her in 24 hours. And I did! [Laughs]

Well, congratulations on the movie, and lots of luck with it, I hope it does really well.

Oh man, watch out Jurassic World, here we come.

Manglehorn is out now in limited release and on demand.