Interview: David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green is that rarest of directors – unpredictable and eclectic in his films that means you hardly know what’s coming next. He’s directed gripping art-house dramas like his debut George Washington, broad stoner comedies like Pineapple Express and, unfortunately for him, historical spoofs such as Your Highness, which America’s Salon Magazine suggested might be the worst film ever made.

What it may turn out to be in time is a poor film made by one of America’s truly talented directors, a man who was compared to Terrence Malick but now seems to be inspiring others (see Jeff Nichols and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) in his own image. Wanting a change from Hollywood comedy last year, he made the low-key but well-liked Prince Avalanche under the radar but now returns to his early brilliant form. Joe is a Southern noir set in deepest darkest Mississippi, gripping and tense and a testament to working class America that signalled Green’s early work. It also heralds a return to the best work by Nicolas Cage, a man who more than equals his director as a purveyor of reckless and baffling career choices.

We meet at the Soho Hotel in rainy central London, a sort of new-money destination that’s a million miles from the stifling humidity of Joe. Green bounces over a sofa to shake my hand, looking youthful for his 39 years, having just finished his new Al Pacino-starrer Manglehorn (“it’s about an old man and his cat”) and prepping for its trip to Venice, where Joe premiered last year.

We chat about Green’s new elevation to an Academy voter (“I’ve been wanting that since I was nine years old”) and also how he might be influencing other filmmakers. He rates David Lowery as copying him in making weird career choices – he’s just signed on to the remake of Disney film Pete’s Dragon– even weirder when you think that Green rates the original film as one of his favourites.

But Green has chosen to go back to his roots for Joe. The genesis lies in a documentary about author Larry Brown, who wrote the novel Joe, that Green helped on in 2002, and became drawn to its story of downtrodden lives in Mississippi. It’s also is where he worked with Jeff Nichols, who directed his own America Gothic noir in Mud, released last year. “The South is done wrong a lot,” Green tells. “It’s a very vibrant, colourful, entertaining backdrop if you can get it right, with a lot of crazy characters. I just hope I can deal with their craziness with the greatest respect.”

Crazy it is – Joe features a scene where Nicolas Cage skins a real deer carcass – but could the violence that his character explodes with at the end of the movie represent America? “It could be, but it’s also a samurai looking for the perfect death. So it’s mythology”

Cage’s character is a tree surgeon whose job is to poison trees in preparation for felling. It’s a rather esoteric profession, so I ask why does it appear? “It’s a real job that Larry [Brown] had. To me it’s a beautiful motif for something, I just don’t know what it says. Cage has some pretty good theories that I would bastardise – about a man whose job every day is the death of beauty, who’s killing a healthy tree and what that does to your soul. You’re the grim reaper every day.”

He likes that it’s a portrait of the rural south in America, but he tells me it has an international appeal. “We played it in Zurich at a film festival last fall and a guy came up to me and said that’s the story of my childhood. And I don’t anything about rural Switzerland!”

He laughs when I ask if the film portrays anything of his own life in the south. “I had a loving household, not some of the shit that these guys have to go through. But a lot of my childhood was out in east Texas where a lot of people do have brutal jobs and hardships and difficulties, and I’ve always been a great observer and an appreciation and sympathy when I see things like that.

Sipping on a cappuccino, he tells me of his admiration of a “work ethic”, and how his respect comes from working himself from the age of seven “My next door neighbour was a construction contractor, so I was the kid at seven years old saying I want a job, put me to work. So I’d be floating sheet rock, renovating garages and kitchens for them as soon as he’d pay me $3 an hour. And then I’d negotiate a raise. ‘I’ve been working for you for three months, I want $3.50’. That’s the guy who taught me how to drive a car at ten years old.”  But Tye Sheridan’s character is actually taught to drive in the film, I interrupt. “But I wasn’t drunk when I did it!”

Green is a filmmaker who elevates the life of the common worker – from the industrial factories of All The Real Girls to the roads of Prince Avalanche. “Working class stories have always appealed to me” Green tells me. “I like watching movies with people who know how to work. I don’t have any sympathy for entitlement.”

Green’s meritocratic principle is perhaps what drives him to raise the profile of many of the actors he’s worked with. He’s hired rising stars time and time again, from Zooey Deschanel and his college friends Danny McBride and Paul Schneider in All the Real Girls, Jamie Bell in Undertow, even Jonah Hill for The Sitter, and in Joe it’s Tye Sheridan, the young actor of Mud and The Tree of Life.He says it’s nothing conscious on his part: “I’m just drawn to something that’s not the obvious movie-star ability. People who are good at their jobs”

So what drew him to Nicolas Cage, a man whose performances – if we’re being kind – were inconsistent over the past few years. “I read somewhere that Nicolas Cage hadn’t worked in a year. So I was like ‘why hasn’t Nicolas Cage works in a year?’ Something’s going on.

“The theory of Nicolas Cage of incredible to me: Valley Girl, Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, Moonstruck, Con Air, Leaving Las Vegas… so I was obsessed with this actor who make hard-to-define career choices. So when I heard he hasn’t worked in a year I knew it was because he wanted to do something different.” Really? “I knew that’s why and I didn’t know anything about Nicolas Cage other than I’ve seen all of his movies. Not only the interior – the professional aspect – of Nicolas Cage but the perception of Nicolas Cage is very valuable to this movie.

“So I wrote him a letter and said ‘what’s up? Why aren’t we making a movie? We should talk about this project I have and see if you’re interested in it.’ Then he called me up three days later and he’d read not only my script that I didn’t even send him – he got it through other ways – but also the novel. Yeah, I was right, he had an appetite! He was hungry for something, and he flew to again the next day and we immediately hit it off.”

Maybe it’s not hard to imagine, but Cage isn’t your normal film star. He went on the initial location scouts for the film, and, if anything else could add to the actor’s mythology, he seemed to use intuition to base his decisions on where to go. “We’d drive for an hour in one direction and need be like “no, not this way” and we’d then drive back the other way. It’s weird that an actor would want to do that. Three days later I could ask him his religious philosophies or his politics and be very comfortable. It’s a guy I’m immediately at ease with, one of my idols. Sometimes you don’t want to meet your idols – you’re like ‘what if he’s a dickhead?’ But in the case of Cage, he’s just this really smart sensitive gentleman. By the time we came to filming he knew the book better than I did, which gave a lot of subtext and insight to that character.”

They used to pull over at gas stations and fast food restaurants where they’d discuss the character. “He would stop at road side steak houses,” Green continues, “and he brings his own steak knife.”

“Nic Cage takes a steak knife?” I ask stunned, imagining him brandishing a Crocodile Dundee-style hunting knife to terrified waitresses. “It’s pretty impressive. It’s a fold-out knife and he keeps it in his pocket for steaks. He carries it around. It’s awesome. Whenever he knows he’s going to a restaurant he brings it out. I love little things like that about somebody.”

There’s an easy-going charm to Green as he takes me through these anecdotes that surely carries over to his direction. Perhaps that’s behind his casting, where he fluidly uses professionals and non-professional actors. According to Green, only four actors in Joe are professionals – Cage, Sheridan, and local actors Adriene Mishler and Ronnie Blevins – and there’s unquestionably an unforgiving realism to Green’s portrayal of real Southern life. ”I really enjoy the non-professional casting process, finding people who had a lot of charisma or (he pauses) were completely insane. Something really confident.”

The outbreak star is Gary Poulter, a journeyman actor who Green cast off the street and produces a searing and unpredictable performance as white-trash violent father Wade. “With Gary Poulter, there was a real natural confidence with him. You can say he’s a non-professional actor, but he’s been acting on the streets as a break dancer and a hustler for nine years. So he works all day every day for the change in your pocket.”

The tragedy of Poulter is that his great entrance into cinema – and his performance is Oscar-nomination worthy – proved to be his exit, as he died shortly after the film wrapped. Of course, it’s easy to wonder if the alcoholism that fed his character might be a real part of his life. “He would’ve been just fine if he could’ve kept it together. Nobody knows the circumstances of his death as it’s expensive to get an autopsy and there’s no one to pay for it, but man, what a great raw natural talent. And according to Green, he always knew his lines and was always a professional on set.

When he went to Poulter’s funeral, he saw pictures of Poulter as a young man in his heyday: “King of the dance floor, in the navy, everything going for him. It’s a beautiful life lesson of how fragile we all are to our environment or mental illness, or what we might not see coming.”

Photograph: Sarah Lee/Guardian

#Venice2013: Joe

Joe (dir. David Gordon Green) ★★★★


Nicolas Cage produces his best performance in years in Joe, an irreverent hardboiled southern noir set in deepest darkest Mississippi.

Beefed up with a lumberjack beard and burning cigarette drooped from his mouth, Cage is Joe Ransom, a woodsman with a kind heart but a repressed violent streak and a criminal past. He also happens to drink too much, visit brothels and keep a vicious American bulldog chained up outside his home. It’s easy to expect Cage to vamp up his performance, akin to some of his recent, shall we say, wayward work, but he’s remarkably measured, just balanced enough to think that he’s on edge right throughout the film but keeping his head.

Maybe its kudos to director David Gordon Green to keep Cage reigned in. Green started out as an early-noughties indie director but moved into Hollywood slacker – and far weaker – fare with Pineapple Express and The Sitter, but now he’s returning to more low key efforts, after the well-received Prince Avalanche, released in the UK in October. Here he creates an offbeat, syncopated tone, often wickedly funny but black as the espressos served all over Venice.

Joe finds himself feeling protective over 15-year-old Gary, new in town with his white trash family and especially his abusive father, menacingly played by the brilliant non-professional actor, the late Gary Poulter. The teenager gives Joe a righteous purpose, but Joe isn’t the caring father-figure he wants to be, instead a grizzled menace who lets rip just when it all gets too hot under the baking southern sun. It’s a thrilling ride, and must be Cage’s best work since Leaving Las Vegas, the film he won his Oscar for.


Go to top