Born in Arkansas, schooled in North Carolina, and currently residing in Austin, Texas, filmmaker David Gordon Green is the personification of the intelligent, funny, laid-back Southern artist, with just a slight hint of the bizarre that he loves to throw into his films so casually, that you might almost miss them. And I'm not even talking about his adventures in comedy (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, YOUR HIGHNESS, THE SITTER and many episodes of HBO's "Eastbound & Down," which starred his longtime pal Danny McBride, who is often credited as a producer on Green's films, including his latest MANGLEHORN.
Green followed up his exemplary debut GEORGE WASHINGTON with impressive and thoughtful dramas like UNDERTOW, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, SNOW ANGELS (my personal favorite of his early works). But in the last couple of years, Green has stepped away from pure comedy and tried out something different even for him. He's completed what has become informally known as his "Texas trilogy," which began with the buddy comedy PRINCE AVALANCHE last year, continued with JOE (featuring a career-best performance by Nicolas Cage as the nicest guy in a small Texas town who also happens to have severe rage issues), and concludes with MANGLEHORN, starring Al Pacino, which is making its way into art houses this month.
While the three films don't have any plot crossover, there is thematic connective tissue among them as each of the main characters uses their repetitive, menial job as an opportunity to consider and reflect upon life and get into varying degrees of trouble, while the lead actors get a chance to show us a side of their abilities and talents that are rarely, if ever, seen. Green loves to populate his films with first-time actors just to challenge the habits of his more seasoned performers, and the results are often stunning. Pacino is magnificent but also tough to grasp as a A.J. Manglehorn, who runs a locksmith shop, is estranged from his son (Chris Messina), and is attempting to connect once again to a woman (Holly Hunter) for the first time in decades. It’s an uneasy, often uncomfortable film to watch (deliberately, I believe), and Green and Pacino make a fantastic pairing.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have interviewed Green about all three of his Texas works, and I spoke to him recently about MANGLEHORN, and where he goes from here and from the comfortable Texas settings he’s worked in for the last few years. Please enjoy my chat with David Gordon Green…
David Gordon Green: How you doing, dude?
Capone: Good, man. Always happy to talk to you again.
DGG: Good to talk to you. Are you in Chicago right now?
Capone: I am. Before we jump into some of the more obvious questions about this film, I’ve got to ask about having Harmony Korine in this thing. I’ve been lucky enough over the years to spend a little time with him—interview him, follow him around—and he’s such a lively guy and a great storyteller, and he’s not that different than the guy in this film. How did you get him to do this and get involved with him in the first place?
DGG: [laughs] Well, I’ve known him for a few years. He’s one of those guys that as a filmmaker you turn to people and say, “Hey, this is what I’m up against. What’s your experience in this situation?” He’s a guy, I trust his creative voice, and he’s a filmmaker I admire as well. So it’s just nice when you can hang out and shoot the shit with somebody, but also look to them for some counsel in a world where there’s not too many people you can trust to call upon.
He invited me to SPRING BREAKERS when it played at SXSW, so I was in Austin, that’s where I live, and I went to check out the show. After it he did a Q&A with the cast. That was right when we had done the first draft of MANGLEHORN, and I saw him up on stage and was just reminded of exactly that energy and charisma. I was like, in a weird way he reminded me of like early Dustin Hoffman with extreme energy. So he was on the way to the airport the next day, and I wrote him an email and said, “I know you were in GUMMO and a little role in KIDS. Would you ever want to act again?” He was like, “Maybe.” I wrote, “I’m trying to put together a movie with Pacino.” And he just wrote, “Sounds dope.”
Capone: How did Pacino react to him, just as an actor?
DGG: Great. I think they’re working together now in Harmony’s new movie [THE TRAP]. You can't even imagine how much…I laugh a lot on set—set are really fun, playful places—but with those two guys going at it, it is funny as shit. On one hand, you have Harmony telling any number of strange stories of his life, but then you got Al talking about the first time he met Marlon Brando on the set of THE GODFATHER.
So it’s the three of us swapping these very different lives that we’ve lived and the war stories and weirdness of the world as we interpret them, and it was just a brotherhood amongst all of us, including Chris Messina and Holly Hunter. It was really fun, more fun than I’ve ever had between setups on any movie. Sometimes you’re like, “Come on camera guys lighting guys, get it all set up, let’s boogie on this one.” On this one I was like, “Wait a second. Harmony and Al are holding court. I need to record this.”
Capone: I talked to Chris Messina not too long ago about something else, but I did ask him about this, and he admitted to getting occasionally lost to the idea of being in a scene with Al Pacino, o the point where he forgot that he was in the scene. I can imagine if Pacino was playing my dad, the same thing would happen to me.
DGG: It was cool. In the scene when they have lunch together, my dad is in the background, sitting right behind Al listening to that. You can’t imagine anything more intense. Pacino and Massina have their own strange history, and it was fun to be able to play with that. At the same time my dad is sitting there listening to this thing and I’m saying, “Oh shit. What is this?”
Capone: Speaking of strange conversations, there are a few scenes in the film where I feel like you maybe just threw Al into them and told him just just go. The scenes where he’s talking to his cat, or he’s talking to the kids, or the guys he’s talking to in the pancake party. I feel like some of those you wanted to see what type of conversations he would have with these people and the things he would say.
DGG: It just depends on which scene. There were a few scenes where, before we filmed the scene, I would sit him in a swivel chair and I would film him saying a subtext, and I’d just say, “Before we go to the tanning salon and film Gary walking you through this place, what are you thinking?” We literally would sit him in a location, or on one occasion we put him against a green screen and would just film him saying what’s going on in his head, and then we’d film the scene. So his inner monologue was all improvised, I guess you could say, but it was coming from the research of his character and the rehearsals we had done.
The other scenes, like when he’s at the pancake jamboree telling that strange stories to the fellas, is totally scripted, but those are all my neighbors that he’s sitting with, and I didn’t tell them anything. I just said, “Al’s going to tell a story. You guys respond accordingly.” So everything anybody is saying is improvised, and they’re responding to him very authentically. The other thing we did is not really hammer in memorization of things. It was more like “Here’s the essence of the story, take what you want from it and play with it.” Every side character I’d interview, and I’d say “Make up a story about when Manglehorn did something extraordinary that it’s almost impossible, but it really happened.” A few of those stories that made it to the movie. There’s one that Harmony tells, one that the nanny of the little girl tells, and one that Messina tells.
When you’re making low-budget movies like this, and there’s not really anyone breathing down your neck about financial responsibility, because it’s low budget and you have 25 days to do whatever you want, my goal is to put short scripts together so you can take a lot of strange detours and challenge the process as much as you're challenging the viewer.
Capone: Strange detours is the perfect description of what you’ve grown to do. You capture these great moments. If they are scripted, they don’t feel scripted, and I guess a lot of times they aren’t. Most people think of Pacino as a sort of larger than life performer and presence, and here he’s so sort of shrunken and quiet. Did you direct him to do that, or did he just sort of know instinctively that that was the way this guy would be?
DGG: We talked a lot about it. The rehearsal process with Al was about six months. Every month, I would go to his house, and we d get a group of people together and we would read the script, we would talk through it, again not for any memorization, but more for…like I had a sister character of his at one point in the script and I thought, “We don’t need that. We can combine some of these traits and make it a little less confusing.”
But you learn a lot by hearing him read it out loud. One of the things I learned was, some of the letters he was writing to Clara, I thought needed to be inspired more by like a junior high school poet. [The film] was written by a good friend of mine, Paul Logan. He’s a very cool, sophisticated writer, but I had to work with him and say, “Let’s not write that stuff amazingly well. Let’s try to find a realistic middle ground where it’s heartfelt and in some world it’s profound, but it’s coming from a juvenile broken heart.”
Capone: That is the essence of him at this point in his life. He is a guy that’s trapped himself in the past and is surrounded by these reminders. I don’t remember if you specifically say how old he is when he had this woman in his life, but it does feel like it could go back as far as high school. It’s sad in a way, and it’s made him angry.
DGG: We see a lot of love stories that are about beautiful love and beautiful people and the beauty of romance, but this movie I thought was an opportunity to explore how it sucks when you can’t get over being broken hearted, how that leads to anger and frustration. In some ways, it can really destroy some innocence of your own character when that happens, and you feel like the more relationships you've been in the less pure you are, the less naive you are, the less open to romance you are, because you get a little cynical sometimes, and you iron some of the poetry out of your life because “Screw that, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.” And this movie I think is about the awkwardness of love in Holly Hunter’s character and Al’s character, or the repulsion of love in the cat surgery. I was trying to find difficult ways to look at what we romanticize so often in movies.
Capone: That date scene, it really reveals that he hates it when someone cares for him. There’s a self loathing there that. What we’re seeing in this film by the end is that he finally is unloading all the things that have been dragging him down all these years. That’s a really great visual, actually. That boat full of things is a great idea. Literally unpacking his life. Where did that idea come from?
DGG: Again, we’re still messing with the stigma of love stories. In a traditional movie, you’d have a dream of sailing out to sea, and you’d see the perfect sunset, and there goes your poetry and your dreams. Let’s watch it and wave goodbye and have a tear in the eye. But we really wanted a little bit more punk-rock attitude. Let’s put our heart out with the trash.
Capone: Who put you together with Pacino, and tell me about meeting him for the first time.
DGG: I was sent to convince him to be in a commercial campaign that I was working on with an advertising agency, so I met him in LA. We had a two-hour meeting where I’m watching his process. He’s trying to go through the script and think about how he could do it. Maybe he should do it, maybe he shouldn’t do it. Watching his struggle. It was literally a two-hour performance in a room. It was amazing. At the end of the day, he was like, “You know what? I can't do this. Sorry guys.” And on the way out I was like, “Hey man, I get it. I’m going to be back in a year, and we’re going to make a movie together, brother.” And it was exactly a year later that I showed up and said, “Hey, remember me? You probably don’t. I worked on this script with my buddy Paul, and we want you to be in it.”
Capone: I remember you did a commercial with Clint Eastwood. Was it that commercial?
DGG: [laughs] It was that commercial.
Capone: I love that commercial. Was that a Super Bowl spot?
DGG: Yeah, it was.
Capone: That would have been a very different commercial. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to you about each of these last three films, and now they’re done, they’re out there. When all is said and done, where do you see the connective tissue among them, other than the central Texas location.
DGG: To me, these three movies are all strange portraits of masculinity. PRINCE AVALANCHE and MANGLEHORN are a little bit more directly related. But I think even Joe as a character that Cage played, struggling with who he is in society and who he is in this point in his life, and what his responsibility to himself and this kid is. But I’m very much interested in the internal struggles of masculinity as I see culture very much evolving in how we perceive males and females in the world today. It’s really interesting. And to take these iconic, very masculine guys and do something very different than they’re asked to do was a real great privilege, a real great opportunity.
I’ve tried to take a lot of those tools that I’ve used and learned and feel very confident and very proud of over the last three years of making these movies, and now I'm trying to inject them into my first female lead performance [OUR BRAND IS CRISIS]. I just finished a movie with Sandra Bullock, and I tried to take a sharp left turn with my thinking and use what I’ve been doing creatively as a launch pad into this and then take a new subject, a new direction of character.
Capone: You mentioned that new film, that’s OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, which I assume is based on the really great documentary from a few years back. How do you approach something like that when you’re taking a documentary and turning it into a feature?
DGG: For this one, we had to fictionalize a lot of charactersbecause of the political climate of things. We went down to Bolivia and did a lot of research and studied and worked with Sandra Bullock, and created something very distinctive and unlike anything she’s done, and I’ve had a blast working with her and doing something very distinctive at certainly a higher-budget level. It’s a studio movie. It’s a higher profile than I’ve been working at, but being able to bring some of the more intimate tools to the table on this one.
Capone: David, thank you so much for talking again. Best of luck with this. Is CRISIS coming out next year, then?
DGG: I think so. We’re trying to figure that out right now. I’ve got to do a little work this summer then get back to it and finish it up.