MovieMaker’s Editor’s Weekend Pick is director-writer-producer David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche, starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch.
Prince Avalanche, adapted from the Icelandic film Either Way (Á annan veg, 2011), follows two highway road workers (Rudd and Hirsch) who choose to spend the summer of ’88 away from the city, isolated in a burned-down forest while painting the lines that divide one side of the road from the other (perhaps a metaphor for the divisions the two find in each other and in their relationships with women).
MovieMaker’s Rory-Owen Delaney had a chance to sit down with the multi-talented Green, discovering how he was able to ditch the normal Hollywood deadline-driven, may-take-years-to-complete model; instead opting for a quick and organic filmic creation, finished in just over five months from writing the script to post-production. Green shares everything, including the origins of Prince Avalanche’s strange yet intriguing title, filming in a burned down forest that was growing greener everyday, Rudd and Hirsch’s initial meeting, twins, the Arkansas/Kansas drink Ale-8-One and how MovieMaker was integral to Green’s film education (we couldn’t resist mentioning that bit).
Rory-Owen Delaney (MM): Prince Avalanche feels like a return to some of your more independent roots. How did the movie come about? What was its genesis?
David Gordon Green (DGG): It came about when I found this location that I became obsessed with. It was in the aftermath of a forest fire outside of Austin, Texas. It really just spoke to me— there was an indescribable feeling that I had that something needed to be made here, and made here quick before it bloomed. I kind of liken it to a singer-songwriter picking up a guitar and strumming out a song based on how he’s feeling in that moment. I just wanted to add that kind of spontaneity to the filmmaking process, which is very difficult particularly if you’re trying to do bigger budget movies and studio films. There’s lot of politics in development and negotiation that goes into anything. But I put effort into having a real efficiency to the creative process, and making it one that went on instinct and impulse and intuition. So I was looking for a template to execute something very rapidly.
I also wanted to do a great little character piece. I have a lot of friends who are amazing actors and they’re always bitching about the lack of movies out there, or being typecast. Somebody’s going to complain about this, somebody’s going to complain about that. I thought it would be a good opportunity to make something for my friends and create parts that are really performance-driven.
I discovered the Icelandic film Either Way. The more I watched it, the more it became clear that this was the way to follow my intuition about the efficient path and turn something around before the summer, when I knew the park was going to start to turn pretty green—it was a beautiful monochromatic, the remnants of this fire. I wanted to have this timeless, placeless feel. I was looking for my film to be a movie for everyone to go see, but with a particular personal niche in mind: when I started discovering Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki and filmmakers I found had a great sense of humor, although you wouldn’t think of them as comedic, even Barton Fink. Barton Fink was a huge movie for me when it came out. So I wanted that kind of same strange late 80’s early 90’s appeal. Mystery Train was one of my favorite films, and it was something that makes me laugh, though they’re not even throwing jokes. Or Stranger than Paradise: the same odd, offbeat nature of that movie. So I wanted to find something that didn’t have an American vibe to it. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just see if I can get the rights to this film and remake it and put my own spin on it.” My phone calls were really well-received, and it was very quick obtaining the rights to the movie.
It was oddly quick. Production was 16 days, the edit was four or five weeks, and then we were sound-mixing by July. We started the process in February and we were done with the entire film by July. It was really nice just having a beautiful sense of momentum, when you don’t have a lot of money, don’t have a lot of resources, you don’t have a big lighting package or trailers or all these things. We were able to blaze through a movie whose greatest asset was its simplicity. We could work on the nuances rather than the logistics. I think I wrote the adaptation in two or three days. It was a very respectful adaptation. Some of it is literally lifted from the film. Some of the things I think are the funniest parts of the film are actually translated from the subtitles from an Icelandic translation. Putting it in an English tongue is really just using what the translator thought they would transcribe from Icelandic, so there’s a strange cadence, a strange sense of vocabulary which we kept that for humor purposes. There’s a scene where Emile Hirsch is talking about getting a flat tire and says, “I ran over a very sharp object,” and for some reason, that’s really funny to me that you wouldn’t say what you ran over. It’s just easier to say you ran over a nail or a tractor blade or whatever it was, but in the translation I would take things like that that I found funny to not embellish upon. And I’m sure some of that is intentional in the Icelandic humor and the Scandinavian sensibility of it.
MM: Were there any unique challenges in writing the adaptation?
DGG: It’s always a matter of making it personal and finding a self-indulgent door so that I can invest myself in it. I would be a horrible actor, I’d be a horrible novelist, but I love being a puppeteer. I love being able to express myself through creating something in another person’s mouth. So I wanted to make sure that I felt I related to both of these characters and in many ways were two different sides of me.
MM: We hear the production was all done in secret and you only announced it afterwards.
DGG: We never wanted to announce it. I thought it would be cool if it just came out or just showed up at Sundance in the program. As much as I am a huge fan of films and love reading about filmmakers I admire or projects I’m tracking out of enthusiasm and interest, as a filmmaker it can be very frustrating to have all these expectations. You’re getting feedback and talkback before you’ve even shot a frame of the film. If you’re making Captain America, I can see that it’s a property of a great history, and there’s a lot of baggage you’re accepting in the development of that project. But when you’re making smaller, stranger films, or even some of my larger profile films, people don’t know what you’re going for if you don’t necessarily know what you’re going for. You’ve got a seed of an idea wanting to open to discovery and opportunity. Why put these expectations on it? I see both sides, but this time I had a goal to see if I could come in under the radar, get a group of people I could trust not to splash it in the headlines, and financiers that understood the agenda, to open up the creative process.
Not a press junket goes by where I don’t get asked when A Confederacy of Dunces is going to get made and things like that. I actually have the frame in my office, the headline in Variety of when I was going to go make A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s just a beautiful reminder on my wall that just because it’s headlined doesn’t mean it’s real. There’s a million different reasons that movie didn’t happen—we could write a book about why that movie hasn’t happen yet, and we could write a book about why it should. But I thought Avalanche was a perfect scale and scope of a project that we could very responsibly go and quietly make and enjoy and share with the world. If it sucked then we could just sweep it under the carpet and no one would know.
MM: Another part of exploring the creative process and having more freedom by not announcing it, was the inclusion of [Prince Avalanche actress] Joyce Payne. She wasn’t even in the original script and you just stumbled across her.
DGG: One of my producers, Craig Zobel, and my AD, Atilla Salih Yücer, were location scouting for the scene where Paul Rudd does a pantomime. In the script it was this funny scene: He was going to do a weird little Buster-Keaton-silent-film homage in this burnt down house, so we were looking for a house. Craig and Atilla found this woman, Joyce Payne, and she was going through the ashes of her home looking for her pilot’s license. They started talking to her. At that point it was few months after the fire and most people had just leveled their homes down to the foundation, and she was one of the rare people you still saw sifting through it. After they talked to her for a while, they called me up and said, “There’s this woman. You’ve got to meet her. She’s got to be in the movie somewhere.” So we created this role for her. She’s not an actress and it’s not something we intended, but we thought, “We have this weird sequence where Paul’s got a weekend by himself; what if he encounters her and see where that goes? If she clams up and gets camera shy, then we won’t do anything with it, but if it’s cool we could maybe weave it into the tapestry of the movie.”
And it worked brilliantly. She was very open and vulnerable with us. That was a sequence where there was only the operator, sound guy and me, four of us walking through her home, getting her take on life after the devastation of the fire. It was really amazing and became pivotal and transformed the rest of the production. That scene that was going to be funny all of a sudden felt inappropriate going for laughs. Instead we had a melancholy version of it, as Paul’s miming his way through this house and talking to her.
It evolved into what I am proud of in terms of dramatic effect. A lot of that effect comes from absurd things intended to be funny that we started to play dramatically. If Emile’s got this monologue about not getting laid, he’s not playing it high-fiving his bros and talking shit. We edited all the profanity out of the movie, so there’s no swear words, there’s no violence, there’s no sex or nudity. It became this very innocent project at that point and changed everything.
MM: Talk about [actor] Lance LeGault. He’s an oddball, and reminds me of many of your other characters, though I know he passed away, unfortunately.
DGG: I met him while I was doing a Dodge commercial in the desert and he was a background actor. I heard him talk and thought, “Who is this guy?” I recognized him. He looked really familiar, but I couldn’t place him and then I got to know him. He’s larger than life, fully of charisma and use to play with Elvis—he was in a ton of movies with Elvis and was a bad guy in A-Team and Magnum, P.I. and had these strange roles. That was at a time when I had just written the script and was thinking of who to go to with that role. Actually I was thinking about getting somebody of notoriety to do it, to have a cool cameo from one of my heroes, but quickly Lance became my hero and so I had him come out and drag his oxygen tank out to the ashes of central Texas. It was really fun because he was simultaneously intriguing and intimidating. He’d get in your face and yell and you couldn’t tell if he was joking or serious. He always gave a vibe of coming out to do us a favor, and strangely, he was right. It was an amazing gift that he showed up in the film. He died shortly after the movie wrapped and wasn’t able to see it, but it was great seeing his widow come out to Sundance. She thought of it as kind of a beautiful, funny, sad swan song to Lance’s amazing life.
MM: Did you always have Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in mind for the roles, back when you first saw Either Way?
DGG: I was thinking very practically. As I said, I have a number of friends that I had on the radar of wanting to work in this manner, and they were both on that list. “Hey, let’s go get down and dirty and roll up our sleeves and make something weird.” That’s as complicated as it gets with some of my friends. I thought about Paul immediately because I knew he could capture that balance of funny and dramatic. I’ve seen a lot of his dramatic work on stage and see him as a really capable actor that has incredible amounts of range. We see a lot of his commercial comedic work, but I wanted to explore something that had a little more depth and tenderness to it, so he was somebody I got excited about immediately.
And then I was thinking about who the weirdest person would be to put into a movie with Paul Rudd, being very conscious of the fact that I didn’t want it to be an outright comedy, with actors that had a sense of humor but also a great dramatic capability. So I landed on Emile. Emile called me about a question on some script he was writing, and I answered the call and the question very bluntly, then I hung up the phone and was like, “What about Emile? He would be perfect.” So I called him right back and said, “Okay, I helped you out and now you got to help me out. Come be in this movie.” It was an opportunity to throw humor into Emile’s performance. I know him as a really energetic, funny guy, and thought it’d be fun to have him lighten up in front of the camera. He told me that before this film he’d never done anything in a movie that made an audience laugh. He said that was a real trippy experience seeing people laugh at things he was saying. One of the wonderful elements of making a film outside of traditional expectations, development, and structure is that you can get actors to take chances and produce a revelation for an audience.
MM: Talk about your friendship with [cinematographer] Tim Orr and what he brings to so many of your films, and Prince Avalanche in particular.
DGG: Tim has shot all my features. We just finished out ninth film together, which is pretty awesome to think about. We’ve been working together since film school. Tim is great because we can very quietly read each other’s minds. We have a similar taste in music and movies, so we can get into gear efficiently. And in a movie like this where you don’t have a lot of tools and you don’t have a lot of time, that shorthand comes in very handy. I think he’s got a wonderful eye as a camera operator. He knows where great light is. Sometimes people will say, “Okay, here’s where it takes place, now let’s light it,” but he says, “Here’s where the great light is, now let’s block it.” Actors can embrace that when they know what our process is and what the value of momentum in our process is. They don’t have to sit around for 45 minutes to an hour and a half between lighting set ups. They get to act, they get to get in front of the camera, if we just relocate it to a place where the sun’s in our favor.
It’s amazing looking at this crew: probably half of this crew worked on my very first film. Maybe more than half. It was a blend of tried and true collaborators: Richard Wright, my production designer; Chris Jeever, my production sound mixer; Tim Orr, my DP, and on and on. Then we had [producer] Craig Zobel, who’s teaching up at Columbia in New York—a lot of his students came down and helped out and hung out.
MM: You had a lot of interesting close-ups on scenes of nature. Was that planned or was that something that just organically came together?
DGG: I’m very interested in the environment and our landscape was certainly the first thing that called my attention to creating a story there. And then it slowly evolved to being a central character in the movie. I was constantly fascinated by the rebirth—through the 16-day production, even, you see the vibrant green ceilings of oak trees and pine trees starting to pop up on the forest floor. A turtle wandering through the woods going who knows where we just used our camera very curiously and saw what was going on. The movie’s about rebirth, so let’s start to see it come back to life—the skunks and donkeys and the strange creatures that inhabit it. Probably the strangest of all being Paul and Emile.
MM: And they had never worked together, right?
DGG: No, they had never met each other. It was funny: we went to a seafood restaurant where they met for the first time, and as soon as they sat down and started introducing themselves to each other, they started laughing thinking how bizarre a few weeks of this was going to be. They had a very similar dynamic in real life as they did in the film and that was fun to watch. I don’t know how much of that was method acting and how much of that was just real smart casting—but I’ll take credit for it.
MM: I haven’t seen Either Way, but was the premise of that involving painting the lines down the road [like in Prince Avalanche]?
MM: That was surreal in combination with the burned down park. How did that speak to you? They’re just going down this road for days on end just painting a line down the middle of this road and putting on little reflectors…
DGG: The movie to me is about meditation and reflection and relationships. The isolation and monotony of that job really speaks to me. I’m a lot like Alvin [Paul Rudd’s character] in the sense that I like to get away from everyone and have a task and be out in nature. I like to survive at the mercy of my own hands and I think it’s nice. I don’t get lonely. I don’t get bored. And one of the things that spoke to me on Either Way was the moment when that character who takes himself very seriously finds himself in this habitat of meditation. He gets his heart broken and has no one to turn to other than this very unlikely counterpart coworker. And as I started writing Emile’s character, I started to realize how similar I was to Lance and how I am also a guy who is struggling with the acceptance of adult life– the responsibility of fatherhood, I’ve got twin two-year-old boys. And how much that has changed my life from a guy who wanted to go out and meet the next girl and see what the next adventure was. And it’s really life-altering. The conversations that Lance and Alvin have about responsibility, love and relationships are the struggles that I have with myself. There’s the practical side of me and the romantic side of me. How those are at odds and at war with each other became a great character study.
MM: My wife’s best friend has twin two-year-old girls and I was at their pool party on Sunday.
DGG: It’s a handful! ‘Cause once they start walking, they’re in two different directions and you don’t know where to be here or there. You don’t know how to savor the moment with one because there’s death and destruction with the other one. A lot of this movie represents the conflicts and contrasts of my universe.
MM: How about the title? Where did Prince Avalanche come from?
DGG: It was a misunderstanding I had in a dream. I had a dream that someone was talking about someone of royalty, Prince Avanalvenalah—some long ethnic name and I misunderstood it and in my dream I thought, “That’s a cool name for a movie. Prince Avalanche.” And I woke up and I thought, “No, that really is a good title for a movie.” It was weird. It doesn’t really find itself too relevantly in the film, but I thought it was an appealing title.
MM: I wanted to ask you about David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky and how that music works for you.
DGG: I love it. I think its one of the signatures of this film, I think. And I’ve worked with David Wingo—I’ve known him since I was six-years old—and he really speaks the language of music in the way that I speak the language of film. Anytime we have a project that’s appropriate to work together on, I love to make it happen. And then Explosions in the Sky has done a couple songs for some of my movies. They did a song on All the Real Girls and a song on Snow Angels and have just become really good friends of mine. We are all neighbors in Austin. So it was cool. Actually the idea to go to this park was the drummer, Chris Hrasky’s. Chris told me, “You gotta go check this place out.” So that’s what inspired me to find this location in the first place and to start exploring it.
It was cool because they would be on set and writing themes and ideas for music during production. We were editing to temp music from the very first days of production and that’s really rare—really unusual. You know typically, you’ll have a rough cut of a movie and then you send it to the composers and you’ll have done all this temp track and then composers get kind of caught up in replicating something that you fell in love with, that you realized was cute from another movie. So you can kind of get into those complicated legalities and creative decisions. But we didn’t have any of that because we were editing it from the get-go to the music made from the guys that were going to score the movie. It was outside of their wheelhouse in a lot of ways, a departure for them, in using instruments like clarinet and beat boxing and things that aren’t what you think of when you hear Explosions in the Sky. At the same time, it had that tremendous epic quality and scope to it, which I wanted to help expand the vision of the film from being just an intimate Talking-Heads-character-piece to something that felt a little more expansive and profound. Often we’d use it to counter the dialogue. If the characters were talking about something funny, it was nice to put melancholy music or if the characters were talking about something dramatic, to lighten it up a little. In our efforts of conflict and contrast, it was a fun way to use music.
MM: Well my last question was Ale-8-One [“A Late One”]. I’m from Kentucky and I just thought that was awesome, I was so excited. I was like Ale-8, yes!
DGG: You’re the first person to ask me about Ale-8! I was born in Arkansas where Ale-8 and RC Cola are kind of what you drink as a kid. So we got to dust that off. And also it was very tricky to find a beverage that would allow us to utilize in a very fun, intoxicated drinking sequence—stranger than you might think. And in my new movie, it was an even greater challenge because I needed an actual beer that we could be drinking and driving with minors.
MM: Well, I know you got a million other interviews to do today…
DGG: Yeah and I’m headed to New York in the morning. So, all is fun! But I need to pick up MovieMaker, I haven’t read it in a while but it was definitely one of the fundamental magazines of my education.
To find a theater screening Prince Avalanche, click here.
To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.