Talking to David Gordon Green About ‘Prince Avalanche,’ Getting Dumped, and Doing a Lot of Different Things

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What exactly a David Gordon Green movie is is a little hard to pin down these days. Before he directed episodes of Eastbound and Down or stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness, Green was known for his small dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls. In his latest film Prince Avalanche, those two halves of his career meet in this small-scale remake of the Icelandic buddy movie Either Way where two mismatched road workers essentially paint lines down a road.

Green quickly and quietly shot the film last summer in a forest area in Central Texas burned by wildfire months earlier, and while the dramedy may be a partial return to form for Green, it feels like something new from costars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. Rudd plays Alvin, a judgmental guy who values his alone time and who barely puts up with his girlfriend’s airhead brother Lance, played by Hirsch. Their frosty conversations and attempts to tolerate each other long enough to make it through the job make up the bulk of this eccentric, poignant, and surprisingly lyrical film.

I got the chance to talk with David Gordon Green — who’s already switching things up for his next film Joe, a drama set in the rural south starring Nicholas Cage — about Prince Avalanche, exes seeing your movies, and the joys of doing a lot of different things.

How much of the genesis of the film came from Either Way and how much came from having this amazing location?

Well, the location came first, and so I definitely wanted to pay tribute to that, but then I think it’s a very respectful adaptation. I know the filmmakers were very appreciative of our adaptation of their film, and I think Either Way is a kind of beautiful, funny story, and I didn’t want to mess with it too much. So we used that as the architecture, and then I personalized it and tried to make it my own. I think I sculpted the characters to be a little bit more identifiable to me; it’s just something I could relate to with the actors.

And we brought in this one character we met during production. She wasn’t in the script, but it was an opportunity of the production where we met this woman who’s going through the ashes of her home looking for her pilot’s license, so bringing that — just even that one note — into our version of it seemed to change everything a little bit more drastically. The tone changed after that, and we were able to really make it a pretty unique detour I think.

How much did you want to capture the burn area at that moment, a location that would look different months and years from then?

It was kind of a race to make the movie because I wanted it to be about the rebirth rather than the second chapter. I like that the very infantile stage of the forest floor starting to become colorful again after it had been ash for the last six months.

It also mirrors some of the changes the characters are going through. Were you looking forward to working with more dramatic material coming off directing comedies?

Very much. This was an opportunity to strip away all the logistics of major, expensive productions and focus on the nuances of performance. I didn’t know going into it if it would be comedic or dramatic. We wanted to keep that open, and then just play it honestly and see where it landed. I feel like there’s a very healthy mix. I think there’s some really funny things that even I still laugh at even a year later, but then I think there’s a heartbeat and a pulse to the film that’s very dramatically centered.

What excited you about pairing Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch? Were you looking forward to casting them against type?

That’s what excited me — them playing against type — and the fact that no one had ever put them in the same movie other than me. It was kind of a nice pat on my own back.

I just like the idea of unlikely people, not necessarily just the obvious odd couples, but people who are really unlikely to be interacting with each other. I think that’s when it really becomes funny. It’s not like it’s ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito — at it again!’ It’s something you wouldn’t predict. I’d like to see a movie starring Don Knotts and Michael Fassbender. Oh, wait, Don Knotts is dead isn’t he. Who’s the new Don’t Knotts? Some absurdist and some very serious actor is a funny combination.

Hirsch has distinguished himself in dramas, but this is one of Rudd’s most dramatic roles yet. What excited you about directing him in that character?

I loved the idea of bringing a little dramatic depth to his character. I’d seen him on stage in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in London on the stage in 2000, so I knew he was very capable. And he’s got this great warmth about him, very every-man, but you can see there’s something more going on in the back of his eyes, and so I really wanted to play with that and see what’s going on back there. I think this is going to open the door at least in my enthusiasm to working in more dramatic material for both of us.

One of the themes you explored with his character is the idea of loneliness versus being alone. Was exploring that notion important to you personally?

Yeah, I’ve never been lonely or bored, and I love to be alone. So I don’t know what that says about me, but I think as kind of public as my professional efforts are, my personal efforts are always to find solitude and peace. So I’m very Alvin. I’m very Alvin, and I’m very Lance, too. But I’m very Alvin in the respect of a guy who can handle himself on his own in nature — probably not as manly as he thinks he is but could handle it. Likes to be alone, is very wounded by the world around him, yet wears a mask of confidence. Like there’s a broken little boy in Alvin that’s a lot more like Lance than he’d care to admit and that admires that Lance can be so outwardly horny.

This is the first film since Snow Angels in 2007 where you’re credited as a writer. How was writing this film, and how do you like writing in general?

I love the writing process. I wrote it in about three days, so it was very quick. Because it was an adaptation, I had great source material. It wasn’t challenging. It was just adapting it to me. But I love to write. I think it’s a great way that I get to know myself. There’s a ton of stuff I write that never gets made, some of which never even gets read. But I write all the time. I’m always working on something.

How much was improvised?

There’s a good bit. But every time I mention that publicly, Emile and Paul say there’s not that much improv. It’s only a sixty page script, though. There’s got to be a lot of stuff.

I don’t really read scripts once they’re written. They’re used for budgeting and scheduling, and I don’t really need them any more. And I know that scene where Emile goes on that six-minute monologue about his weekend away — I know that’s all memorized. That was all very scripted, not that I said ‘you have to say it like this,’ but I remember being impressed when he had memorized it. I thought it was really good so we filmed it.

But unless there’s something to play with, I usually let the actors do what they want. Sometimes it’s more anchored in the screenplay, sometimes it’s nothing like the screenplay.

The monologue is one of several moments referencing the outside world that the rest of the film never really visits. Between staying with them in the forest and keeping the setting in 1988, it seemed like you were really interested in stripping away any possible distractions.

They can’t just pick this up *picks up phone* and see what’s going on or go and Skype themselves. Yeah, that was definitely a device. The Icelandic film takes place in the same time period, and I imagined I was going to update it, but when I got into it, I love the romantic notion of getting broken up with through a hand-written letter that came in the mail a couple days late. That means there’s been like four days that she probably knew it, wrote it, sat around on it, and then she licked the envelope and sent it to you. There’s something really powerful about that. About time and processing. Before he even realized it, she was four days already dealt with her own issues and then he called her up and got bitch-slapped on the phone. Sucks.

Did you draw on any personal experiences of getting broken up with?

Absolutely. All the best. There’s verbatim lines. There was a girl one time who just said, “You’re killing me,” and that’s the last line she says to him on that phone call sequence before it just goes dead, and you just hear the line *eh eh eh eh eh* So that’s the last line in a very frustrating conversation I had this one time with this young lady.

Like, “You’re killing me” is also a fucked up way to say goodbye.

So the movie’s very personal. But I like that. I like thinking that girls that I’ve known in this world will see this movie and think strange thoughts. One of the sick joys of my profession.

Or they won’t — or they’ll consciously avoid it. That’s good, too. Because that gives them the power. But if they see the movie — once they’ve witnessed it, I have the power.

Are you looking for opportunities to diversify what you’re doing, do more dramatic movies?

I have another movie that premieres at the Venice Film Festival next month called Joe. And then I’m making another small movie this fall. And then I want to make another big movie. Honestly I just like doing a lot of different kinds of stuff. It’s a pretty big movie in a genre that I haven’t yet explored that I’m excited about so I’m trying to put all the seeds of that together so that makes sense.

What excites you about the filmmaking process?

Honestly I just love working. Right now I’m working on a stop-motion animation commercial for Mr. Peanut, the Planters guy. So that’s really cool. I’m learning all about stop-motion animation from this company Laika that did Coraline and ParaNorman. It’s really cool to learn about all this stuff. So I’ll do that one day — and then we’re integrating live action into it, so I’m learning about that. So that could be a fun movie — try to take some of those tools and make a movie out of it.

I love doing a commercial. I do a lot of those kind of between movies. And I just finished the fourth season of Eastbound and Down, which is fun. I get all my exercise in funny, absurd, vulgar shit in that, so that was fun. I finished that last week, and that’ll start airing in September.

And then this other movie — I don’t know if it’s a comedy or drama that I’m doing this fall — it’s kind of like Avalanche in that way. It could go either way. It’s funny to me, but it’s also really sad.

I just get a lot of different itches and want to try a lot of different things. I wish I could come up with a great documentary subject. That would be interesting. I haven’t tried that.

And I love to travel around. I travel a lot and work wherever I can. I want to shoot a Bollywood musical. I was in India last summer shooting a commercial. I just got really excited about shooting something there.

What drives you to switch things up a lot? Do you like the challenge?

I’m a very curious filmmaker. I’m not a guy who has his own signature of like — I always think about Hitchcock. You always know a Hitchcock movie — he’s the master of suspense, right?

I do like looking at my career as like a character actor would — disappear into this part and then go over here and try a little of this. Do a little passion over here and a little good times over here. I’m just going to be this kind of weird jack of all trades, master of none. I like that idea. Dabbling.

Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.