There are so many lyrical shots and goofy jokes in David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche (which plays for just two more nights at the Music Box) that it’s easy to forget the film begins with images of horrible environmental devastation. A wildfire has ravaged a large swath of the central Texas backwoods, we learn in the opening sequence, displacing many of the locals and damaging to the roads. The rest of the film deals almost exclusively with two men assigned to repaint the country highway: Alvin (Paul Rudd), a self-important would-be neo-Thoreau, and Lance (Emile Hirsch), Alvin’s girlfriend’s party-boy younger brother. These men represent familiar types of emotionally stunted male behavior, rather like the characters in a Judd Apatow-produced comedy like Pineapple Express, which Green directed.
However simple it may seem, these men are performing an invaluable service, standing at the front lines of environmental recovery. The film presents them as modern-day holy fools, placing their immature behavior against the natural beauty of the settings. (The cinematography by Tim Orr, Green’s regular collaborator, is some of his most impressive.) And since it takes place in 1988, that beauty is never interrupted by cell phones or other information-age white noise. Avalanche is a delicate, patient film, yet I don’t think Green could have directed it if he hadn’t first made his detour into broad studio comedy. The immature heroes never feel like poetic constructs—they come out of something far too recognizable.
In my interview with Green, the writer-director said he considered his three studio comedies—Pineapple, Your Highness, and The Sitter—the most satisfying productions of his career. That may sound perverse, given the artistry of something like Avalanche or Undertow, yet I believe he was being sincere. Since Green approaches filmmaking as an adventure that allows him to encounter new people and places, the idea of making millions of people laugh must feel very satisfying indeed.
I’ve decided to post the entirety of my interview with Green for a few reasons. The first is that he is one of the most lively and entertaining people I’ve interviewed, and I found his off-the-cuff remarks as interesting as anything he had to say about filmmaking. More importantly, I wanted to preserve the arc of our 25-minute conversation, which surprised me in its progression from glibness to sincerity. That surprise, I think, reveals a lot about Green, who baffled many audiences by going from poetic, independent art movies like George Washington to lowbrow studio comedies . His new film, Prince Avalanche somehow reconciles these two modes of his career, which is to say it may be the most surprising thing he’s yet made.
As you’ll see in the interview, Green enjoyed toying with me during our conversation, setting me up as the straight man while he told funny stories and lowbrow non sequiturs. Maybe it’s because I dress like a square that he had me pegged as a highbrow who thought less of him for directing The Sitter. I hope I dispelled that impression—regardless, I got plenty of good laughs out of our talk.
Green started in full swing: I told him in passing that my fiancee works the second shift, and he launched right into a story about working at night.
David Gordon Green: I had a job once dunking doorknobs into acid. It was at a doorknob factory. You know, they’d have chrome doorknobs and bronze. If there was a flaw in the bronze or hairs in the bronze, I’d have to dunk it to get all the bronze off it. So, I’d stay up all night dunking doorknobs in acid, wearing a Hazmat suit. It’s disgusting. Don’t do that job.
Ben Sachs: How long did you do it?
I had it for a summer. I made a shitload of money, because you’re exposed to all these toxic chemicals. Nobody wanted the job, but I just needed the money, so I did it. I’ve done some controversial things for cash. I’m not afraid to say it.
I was a sperm donor for a while. I used to work for a diaper company, taping diaper samples to my back to see if I’d get rashes. [I tested] nitroglycerin patches to see if my skin was sensitive to certain chemicals and things.
How much of this is true?
All of it! I do a lot of weird shit for money. Now I make movies—that’s the weirdest thing yet.
Good for you on being a sperm donor. I tried to be one in college, but . . .
It was great. It was, like, 80 bucks a pop. But you could only do it twice a week, and you couldn’t get laid outside of that. That wasn’t a problem for me at the time.
I wasn’t accepted as a sperm donor, because I learned that only about 15 percent of the male population has a high enough sperm count to be acceptable donors.
Yeah, you have to have shitloads of sperm. Because a lot of them die in the transportation process. I remember this guy named Joe who worked there [at the clinic], and you’d just hand him this cup. He’d be, like, “Oh, thank you,” very casual, just taking a cup of jizz. It was really uncomfortable. But then, I got a check for 80 bucks twice a week. If you’re trying to pay bills, that’s a pretty amazing way to do it.
Did you ever donate plasma?
I did, and I passed out, actually. I don’t know why—I’m not the kind of guy who faints at needles and stuff, but I did.
It’s a really long procedure. It’s draining.
Yeah. I fainted. So I stopped doing that.
That’s OK. They don’t give you money for plasma anymore.
I think they stopped about ten years ago.
Did you do that?
I didn’t, but I had some friends in college who did.
I wish I was a girl so I could donate eggs. They get all that cash.
It’s true. They get thousands.
Yeah. Or surrogates—they get tons.
Do you think there are moral complications involved with surrogacy?
I don’t think so at all, no. I mean, if you want a baby and somebody’s willing to house it for you. . . . There are different ways to go about parenthood.
Would you ever date a woman who was a surrogate mother?
If she was cool enough, yeah. If she’s cool and she wants to do something weird, that’s great. See, I live such a weird life, I don’t think that would even make it on the chalkboard as “eccentric” for me.
What are some of the weird parts of your life now that you’ve directed Hollywood movies?
My entire life is bizarre. Every day is weird for me. My work is weird. When I’m not working, which is pretty much never at this point . . . but pretty much everything I do most days is weird. I don’t sleep. I enjoy doing strange things—I’ll jump out of an airplane . . .
You’ve done that?
Yeah! If someone says to me, “Hey, do you want to do this weird thing?,” I will never say no. I’m not really afraid of death the way most people are. I like the anxieties and uncertainties of things. It’s not just an obsession with the peculiar. It’s like, I just want to do something that feels new and makes me feel a little vulnerable getting into.
Do you think that attitude enters into your filmmaking?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, my whole career is based on vulnerability and trying to do things I haven’t done or I’m a little uncomfortable with. That’s the beauty of it, I think. You don’t want to walk into something with such a cocky confidence, like you’re the master of your genre and everybody’s going to line up and love what you do. You go out with a degree of risk, put yourself out there, and hope that your audience responds or at least you’re personally satisfied in what you do.
I was drinking moonshine the other night. I was in North Carolina, this guy had made moonshine, and he just gave me a water bottle full of it. It’s very interesting when a guy you don’t know very well says, “I just made this for you. Will you drink it?” And you have a choice right then. Like, you like what you know of him, you don’t know where he comes from or really who he is, but your encounters with him have been pleasant. And he’s made something because you’re leaving town, and he’d like to greet you with his moonshine. You have a decision right then. You can either pour it down the drain or take a sip. [pause] So I poured it down the drain. No, I’m kidding—I drank it.
How was it?
Well, it didn’t taste good, but the effects were, uh, enlightening.
How does homemade moonshine compare to absinthe?
Well, absinthe—that’s a curious story. The only time I had absinthe, I burnt my eyebrows off. [To his personal assistant, who’s sitting on the other side of the room] Do you know this story? [She shakes her head.]
I was in Karlovy Vary at the film festival there, and I was drinking absinthe. I decided to light it on fire and then drink it with a straw. But the straw melted, I had to get too close to drink it, and I singed off my eyebrows. And then I immediately had a photo shoot with the European Premiere magazine. So, there ended up being a picture of me with singed-off eyebrows—like, they’re little yellow curls. And I look wasted—it was nine in the morning too; it was weird—and I’m kind of tripping out at all the weird patterns in the red carpet after taking the sideways elevator to get to where I was going. But then I got stuck in the elevator, which made me miss an interview [I was supposed to do] and that’s why I had an extra 45 minutes to kill at the bar at nine in the morning to have absinthe.
The caption for that [Premiere magazine photo] reads: “He’s 25 and ready to rock.” I kept that magazine for the photo. I’m the least photogenic person you’ve ever met, but that one’s just incredible.
Which film of yours were you screening at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival?
I can’t remember what that was for. Probably one of the first few movies, when I’d travel around a lot. But that was a good experience.
Do you still travel a lot to promote your films?
With the studio-driven, movie-star movies, the studios will send the movie stars out on a private jet to do all that stuff. I’m usually working on my next movie when all that’s happening. But with smaller-budgeted films, I find it necessary to go out there and give the film a voice.
I love traveling the world. I’m going to Sarajevo with the film in a couple weeks—that’ll be incredible. Any opportunity to expose my work to other cultures, that’s amazing. . . . I use my work as a passport, really. In the last year, I’ve gone to Berlin, Sydney, Bombay, Rio de Janeiro, Paris . . . and many more to come.
How did the audience in Bombay respond to Prince Avalanche?
I didn’t watch it with them. I was out on the street, hanging out and learning about Bombay. Sometimes you travel to see how people will respond to your work, sometimes you want to explore.
I asked because your films—especially your first four and now Prince Avalanche—feel distinctly American in their locations and poetry.
I don’t think of this as an “American” film.
It’s a remake of an Icelandic film, I know . . .
But I feel like there’s a weird Scandinavian tone that we related. I personally feel like there’s more of a European sensibility, even to the humor. I guess if there’s a model, it would be Down by Law. You know, it’s not jokey comedy. It has more of an absurdist tone.
Also, the way people bullshit in your movies feels particularly American to me.
That’s true. They do a lot of that.
There’s just a particular form of bullshitting you hear whenever you get out of an urban area in this country. All the Real Girls has the most of it, I think, of all your films.
It definitely does. That was a very immediate movie written at a very vulnerable time for me and the actor Paul Schneider. That was our vocabulary; it was our dialogue at the time. We were really just transcribing ourselves. It was a very interesting process.
Could you tell me about the writing process of Prince Avalanche? There are some conversations that sound very scripted—there’s a literary tone to them—and others that feel improvised. How did you end up with that mix?
There was a 63-page script, and I think all of it is in the movie, for the most part. And then we let it breathe outside of that. You know, that monologue Emile [Hirsch] gives about not getting laid and going to the party—that’s about a six-minute monologue—that was all memorized and delivered pretty much as it was in the script. But then, that character Joyce whom Paul [Rudd] meets who’s looking for her pilot’s license in the ashes of her home—she wasn’t in the script. She was just a woman we met and we integrated her real story into our story. We were just, like, “Hey Paul, meet Joyce. Now, here you go. Have the scene.” And so, we just spent 30 minutes filming her and Paul, and we thought, “Well, that was a really powerful scene. Let’s try to weave her into a couple other elements [of the film] and make her a character who’s almost like a mythological presence in the movie.”
Read part two of this conversation.