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“It’s gonna be a good year,” David Gordon Green says, and while he may well be right, it’s also going to be a very strange year. Previously known for his particular, haunting films about young people set in low-income, small-town environments — especially 2000’s George Washington and 2003’s All the Real Girls — the 32-year-old director is now branching out in some unique ways. First comes his expansive adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s dark novel Snow Angels, about a small town ripped apart by family tragedies. Then, later this summer, comes his Judd Apatow–produced action comedy Pineapple Express, about stoners on the run from the mob. Vulture spoke to Green about adapting someone else’s work and making odd casting choices.
Your work has usually been pretty sui generis. How did you end up adapting someone else’s novel?
My friend Jesse Peretz [director of The Chateau] had optioned this book. I was looking to take a break and do some writing. He asked me to read it and consider doing the job for him. I’d never adapted anything before, so I just wrote it as I was reading it. I called up and told Jesse I liked the book and had adapted it for him. He liked it, and I did a couple of more versions for him. Then he went off to do another movie. Some time later, the producers asked me if I wanted to direct it.
So: Amy Sedaris as Barb, the waitress. Explain.
I just had a big crush on her and wanted to get her in the sack. [Laughs] We’d auditioned a lot of women for the role, and they were coming in acting like they were Flo from Alice, that whole “Kiss my grits” thing. Maybe that’s how I’d written it on the page, so I can see how it might be interpreted as such. But it wasn’t right. Finally, my casting director said, “You know what? You’re not finding who you like, and you don’t know what you want.” That’s one of those interesting points you get to as a director every now and then. They said, “Let’s open it up, and let’s not be so specific about who we’re calling in. Let’s just call in people like Amy Sedaris.” And suddenly I thought, Why don’t we just give it to Amy Sedaris? That’s exactly who should play the part.
That ties in to something else that I’ve heard you say, which is that you wanted actors who could do comedy in these roles, despite the story being so bleak.
Absolutely. I thought it was essential. In a book, you’re reading it, you’re alone, sitting on a couch, or reading in bed, or out in the backyard. The movie is a cinematic shared experience. In order to attach to the shared humanity of these roles, you needed human beings that were well rounded in the parts. Otherwise, if it’s just bleak and depressing, people can just turn on a soap opera. For me, it came from the fact that movies are a communal experience. And casting actors who could do comedy also freed me from having to write jokes or something.
Stewart O’Nan said that he’s impressed with how much Olivia Thirlby’s character, Lila, changed from the novel, with how much more lively and hopeful she is in the film.
That was a role I didn’t even audition anyone ever for. And Olivia had never acted before.
How’d you find her?
My producer, Paul Miller, met her at a party, and told me I should hang out with her. So we went and got a tuna sandwich one day. She was pretty extraordinary. She had a sense of self-awareness without being self-conscious, which is a very specific, wonderful attribute. I didn’t audition Michael Angarano, either. I just met him in an elevator one day, and I knew I wanted him for this role.
Speaking of raw acting talents, do you still keep in touch with the kids from George Washington?
I do. One of them is here in the hotel right now. I flew him out last night for a screening of George Washington. I lost track of one of them – Donald Holden, who plays George — but Damien, who plays Vernon, the big kid, is here right now. He’s 22. Curtis Cotton, the kid who plays Buddy, is now getting a degree in music theory in Greensboro, North Carolina. We got deferred money on the film, and it paid for a year of their college. I’m really happy about that.
Finally, Pineapple Express. How the heck did you get involved in that?
Basically, after Snow Angels, I just wanted to do something fun and loose and light, with some action in it. We’ve got a body count, though. Like 400 or something. But I needed some popcorn. It’s kind of like after Oscar season, when everybody just wants to see something like Wild Hogs. It was a blast. I can’t wait to do it again. —Bilge Ebiri