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Interview: David Gordon Green on "Joe"

by Peter Sobczynski

One of America's best filmmakers discusses his latest work, the haunting drama "Joe."

If last year's "Prince Avalanche" signaled that innovative indie filmmaker David Gordon Green was getting back to the artistic roots that inspired such cinematic marvels as "George Washington," "All the Real Girls," "Undertow" and "Snow Angels" after a detour into making broad studio comedies that inspired one very funny movie (the hit "Pineapple Express") and a couple of flat-out embarrassments (the wholly inexplicable "Your Highness" and the merely terrible "The Sitter"), then his latest project, the searing drama "Joe," reaffirms his position as one of the finest filmmakers working today. Nicolas Cage, in one of the very best performances of a career that has also proven to be somewhat uneven in recent years, stars as a small-town man with a violent past trying to walk the straight and narrow who befriends a young boy (Tye Sheridan) and finds himself become a unexpected mentor figure. When he discovers that the kid's father (Gary Poulter, a non-actor that Green found on the streets of Austin and hired and who died two months after delivering a stunning performance) is a monstrous and abusive drunk, Joe knows that he needs to save the boy from the dark fate that once claimed him, even if doing so winds up destroying his own world in the process.

Bleak, brutal, beautifully acted and spotted with moments of welcome dark humor, "Joe," now in limited release and also appearing on various video-on-demand services, is one of Green's best films to date and will almost certainly go down as one of the best films of the year. Recently, Green came to town to talk about the film, working with Cage and the challenges of dealing with exceptionally dark material.

"Joe" marks the second time, following "Snow Angels," that you have adapted a book into a film. How did this particular property come to you--was it something you were familiar with even before the idea of turning it into a movie ever came about?

Larry Brown was an author that I was introduced to in college in film school by my professor, Gary Hawkins. Gary was working on a documentary about Gary's work and I got to be a production assistant on that film and got to know all his literature as preparation for that job. When Larry passed away, Gary told me that he had done an adaptation of "Joe" and asked if I would be interested in reading it. When I read, it was at the perfect time in my life to come full circle with a story that had been in my head and that had spoken to me very cinematically years ago when I read the novel. I read the script and loved it, reread the book and really committed to try to bring Larry's work to life in a way that I could put some personal ownership and investment into and to make an authentic piece of classic Southern literature into an entertaining movie.

I am just really drawn to characters that have those struggles and have that look in their eyes. Those stories are more interesting to me than some of the high concepts that are floating around out there. It's fun to bring a perspective that to me is real and honest to an industry that is traditionally polishing these images or avoiding those concepts altogether. On top of that, it is cool to go into the woods with a bunch of your friends and shoot a movie with snakes and rain and all the elements of masculinity around. Maybe I read one too many Peckinpah biographies. Going outside of the Americana element, look at Herzog--who I had the privilege to watch work on "Bad Lieutenant," which is also where I met Cage. This is a guy who invites the curiosity that he has about the uncertainty of the world and he will bring a guy like Bruno S. in to be the star of his movie. "Stroszek" and "Kasper Hauser" are films that are beautifully and respectfully inviting neglected stereotypes to be shown as authentically as they are. That is the same with "Joe."

"Joe" also features some of the darkest and harshest material that you have ever presented before in a film? Where you consciously looking for something this bleak in the wake of such comparatively lighter fare as your more recent projects or was it just something that came out of the material?

It came out of the material to some degree. During the production, we became conscious of when we were choosing to be brutal and graphic in regards to our displays of violence. We started to realize that there was a power in that and we wanted to engage that power. We also started to balance that power with some humor. If we were going to shoot a scene of someone getting a savage beating, I would spend the next day filming that same character breakdancing to kind of give that character a little levity and some air to breathe. We didn't get caught up in the darkness and things didn't get too bleak because there was always some light and humanity to balance it out. I think as we did take steps into brutality and violence, as with the domestic situation involving Gary and his father, we made sure we were countering that with improvised scenes like the one with Nic and Tye talking about making cool faces or sharing a cigarette lighter. There were all these things that Nic and Tye brought to the table regarding how to bring a smile to these characters that are stuck in difficult situations.

One of the most interesting aspect of "Joe" is the way that you have blended together professional actors like Nic and Tye with non-professionals who had never acted before like Gary Poulter in such a way that there is no obvious separation between the two groups when they share the screen. How difficult was it to bring together people like Nic and Tye, who presumably have certain methods of approaching their performances, with people with absolutely no formal training to speak of?

It takes an instinct and a lot of experience in casting--I have learned from every casting choice. It isn't just casting the right non-actors--it is casting the right traditional actors as well. You can put a brilliant and theatrically-trained actor in the ring with some non-actors and their lack of polish and inability to hit their marks can throw the professionals off. When you have actors like Tye and Nic, you introduce them to the other cast members and they get so pumped. "I get to act with this dude?!" I would bet you that with those two guys, there was just as much enthusiasm to act with the others as it was the other way around. I cast them for their charisma--they have something that they want to express and have the ability to express and it is just a matter of giving them an outlet. It is really nothing more than sitting everybody down, going over the objective of the scene and then getting out of everyone's way. More often than not, I would just create a scene because I loved the performers.

You know who Bill McKinney is? He was this great character actor who was best known for being the hillbilly rapist in "Deliverance." I worked with Bill on "Undertow" about 10 years ago and it was one of the most valuable experiences that I have ever had because he was a non-trained actor. He was this very successful tree surgeon and then all of a sudden, he worked with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in films like "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Thunderbolt & Lightfoot." These people found this dude who was raw and untamed and that was kind of the glory of him. I heard him talking with this joyous confidence about how much fun it was working with those guys and how he thought they liked working with him too. I loved his perspective on his career because he had a pretty successful career as an actor.

IThen I did this Chrysler commercial with Clint Eastwood a couple of years ago right after Bill had passed and Clint hadn't gotten the news yet. We were getting ready for our day on the set and I told him that I felt lucky to have worked with Bill while he was living and to see the look in Eastwood's eyes of true, sincere heartbreak when he learned that his buddy from back in the day had passed away. Then I started getting Eastwood's stories of working with this kind of crazy off-the-cuff character actor. Seeing the beautiful poetry that these two worlds could make was an inspiring thing that I kept in mind when we were putting this movie together.

Another striking element in your films is that they have a genuine sense of place--the locations that you choose convey a reality that just isn't there in most other movies. Using "Joe" as an example, can you talk a little about the process you use for for casting the locales?

t started when we made "Prince Avalanche," which we shot on the other side of the highway. Nic was talking to me about "Joe" while I was location scouting for "Prince Avalanche.: We would be over there and I would say "over there on this side of the highway is where Joe lives and over here is where Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are painting the highway." We shot from where the forest fire stopped and it became this kind of strange thread that came between the two projects.

I guess I am just drawn to places. Take the convenience store in the movie. We actually had to reduce 50% of the product in that store because it was floor to ceiling with everything from electronic equipment to Rubik's Cubes to Slim Jims. You find these places that you couldn't art direct--you couldn't conceive of them because people wouldn't believe that they existed. We'd get outside of town and dust off the polish and go to places where you might think twice about going inside. That anxiety and uncertainty is the kind of thing that I love.

Some people are looking at this film as Nicolas Cage's return as an actor after several years of somewhat questionable projects.

He is a beautiful man and he said that he was drawn to this project because Joe is the most like him of any character that he has ever played and you could feel that every day. You could feel the authority and restraint of a guy that has these instincts and ideas but is like Joe in that he is boiling on the inside but taking a breath and stepping back. We used the word "restraint" on the set a lot and one of Cage's beautiful qualities is that he is a very smart and sensitive guy and he wants to take action at all times. It is fun to see where Joe ends and Nic begins and as I've gotten to know him, it has become more of a lovely blurry line.

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originally posted: 04/13/14 15:51:14
last updated: 04/13/14 16:32:13
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