Filmmaker David Gordon Green can’t be pigeonholed. After beginning his career with independent drama fare like George Washington and All the Real Girls, he transitioned to broader comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness and directing ten episodes of HBO’s Eastbound & Down. For his new film Prince Avalanche, he’s going way back to basics. Based on an Icelandic film, Prince Avalanche was conceived, written, shot, edited, and now released within a calendar year. We talked to Green about this down-and-dirty filmmaking process and the “nature” of comedy.
NERDIST: When did you first see the Icelandic film, Either Way, and what made you want to adapt it for American audiences?
DAVID GORDON GREEN: Well, my process was very backwards in this particular instance. I was looking for a story I could do with two characters in this location of a burnt-down state park, that was relatively near where I live outside of Austin, TX. So, I was thinking of something I could do very quickly before the forest floor turned green again. I really wanted to take advantage of this kind of happy-sad, beautiful, devastated landscape before it altered. And the character of this environment really spoke to me and I wanted to make a movie there. So, I thought, I’ve got a couple months to try to whip something up, and, coincidentally at the time, I was introduced to the movie Either Way and it just seemed like a perfect fit where these characters were very interesting, the landscape was beautiful, and I thought it was a great way to reinvent their story.
When I was watching the Icelandic film, the characters really seemed to connect to each other in an interesting way and a way that, I thought, they were almost like the same person having a conversation with themselves. And so, I thought that would be a really cool exercise for me as a writer to take that dynamic and use me as the subject. I kind of felt like a lot of the time in my writing process, I was able to take those characters and transform it from a conversation between Icelandic characters and put it into my own words, into my own head, and my own personal dynamic.
N: This was shot right after those forest fires that happened in Austin in 2012, right?
DGG: Right. We really just wanted to beat the summer. It was a couple months after the major wildfire and we wanted to make sure we retained some of that charred-skeleton look of the pine trees. They were altering the landscape a lot; they were doing some major reseeding projects and tear down a lot of the trees that were unsafe, leaning or blowing in the wind, and wanted to make sure it was safe for everyone. So, we wanted to get in there while it was still a little more questionable.
N: What was the significance of setting the film in 1988, aside from it being after another famous fire?
DGG: My real concept there was to take advantage of isolating these characters in a way that I don’t really feel characters can be isolated in the contemporary age. You know, there’s always a cell phone or a way to Skype your loved ones or something that keeps you connected to the outside world. Here, I really wanted it to be a really meditative, contemplative, isolated environment where Alvin (Rudd) is forced to look this guy in the eye every day. There’s nowhere to hide. You can’t really plug in your headphones and cut yourself off from the world, and you’re not going to be constantly connected to your girlfriend back home, but you can have the nostalgia or sentiment of writing a love letter or opening up a break-up letter, whatever it is. The process of something being handwritten or face-to-face, eye-to-eye seems to make things a lot more personal to me. I have those frustrations with the modern world, and I really miss the more tangible moments of vulnerability.
N: Alvin as a character seems to really want to find himself through nature; was this a comment on your own desire to get back to a more natural state?
DGG: Yeah, you know, I have been a lot. I find that when people ask me what I like to do when I’m not making movies, and I’ll talk about all the camping trips and fishing trips and hunting trips and mountain climbing, and then I’ll really look at my calendar and realize it’s been a few years. It’s been a long time, actually. I’ve got a place up in Colorado that I live at part-time, and I try to really keep that connection, but it’s really an effort as opposed to that real “Man vs. Nature” dynamic. It’s something that I really try to hang on to. The last time I went fishing it was pretty awkward. [laughs] I think it’s one of those elements where you start to kind of question your own masculinity and your own place in the Man’s Man world and think of where you really do exist, and I’m having this conversation from a nice hotel room in the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. But, then, there’s nothing I want more than to unroll the scent of a moldy canvas tent and light a Coleman stove.
N: Since most of the movie is just the two characters, and saying what you did earlier about them being two halves of the same person, what were you looking for from actors, and what did Paul and Emile bring to the roles?
DGG: Well, I identify personally with both of those guys. I’ve known them socially for a long time, and they’re really good guys who don’t necessarily need a lot of the traditional Hollywood luxuries and the situations a lot of movie stars and directors can get pretty accustomed to, being pampered and babied. I’m guilty of that as well, but I wanted to make sure I was with partners in crime who really knew how to roll up their sleeves and have the appetite to leave all that luxury behind and put together a band of filmmakers to make something really distinctive. That really quickly narrows the list of actors who’d be interested in this kind of thing. I immediately knew Paul would be up for it because we talk about it a lot. We’d always talked about making something on a scale, talked about making something very personal. And then, thinking about who would be the least likely foil to Paul, another guy that could really connect with me personally would be Emile. I feel like I identify a lot with the youthful energy that Emile has. He’s kinda strange, puts his foot in his mouth, says the wrong thing, but has a heart of gold. There’s a real innocent and pure and naïve quality to Emile that I knew that I could capture in a way that felt not only vulnerable and honest but humorous. And it was the idea of taking these guys out of their wheelhouse, to a degree. With Paul, I really wanted to dig into something that had some dramatic gravity and depth to it, and with Emile, I wanted to show a side of the humor and absurdity that movies haven’t tended to capture with him.
N: Was this movie a conscious departure for you? The last few movies you’ve made have been larger-budget comedies, so was this returning to going shotgun about it?
DGG: Yeah, I mean, for me it’s just a matter of momentum. I really just want to be filming things and making things and telling stories and painting pictures. The larger-scale movies are fun and I have some projects in development I hope to make soon, but this was just a chance to write a script and make a movie rather than wait six months and develop a screenplay and grab the high concept and go through the traditional development, I just wanted to start filming it. And it was a great sense of urgency that I had to film this environment. You know, it’s like a documentarian finding the subject matter and has to just grab a camera and go. Or, if you’re a singer-songwriter, your dog died and you’re drinking whiskey on the porch and a song can just pour out of you; that was kind of the trend and momentum I wanted to instill with this.
N: From the time you got the urge to make a movie to the time you finished shooting, what was that time frame?
DGG: I tell ya, man, it’s something I’m really proud of because it’s very unique. The idea to make a movie happened in early February and we were sound mixing in July. Usually I don’t write a script that quick. Idea in February, script done in March, filming in May, sound-mixing in July; it was crazy. We edited it in like three weeks. And, the musicians, Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, were on set making themes while we were making the movie and in the editing room, we all kind of live in the same neighborhood, so we were all putting it together very quick. So, it was just a weirdly efficient process without the politics and paperwork that typically get in the way.
You too can take a trip through nature when Prince Avalanche comes to theaters, VOD, and Digital Download August 9th.