|Interview: David Gordon Green on "Snow Angels"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The acclaimed director of "George Washington" talks about his latest work, a critically hailed adaptation of the Stewart O'Nan novel, as well as such upcoming projects as "Pineapple Express" and his possible remake of an Italian horror classic.
Since making his filmmaking debut in 2000 with “George Washington,”, writer-director David Gordon Green has been hailed by critics and cineastes alike as one of the most significant filmmaking talents to emerge in this decade–a deeply fascinating artist whose Southern-set dramas emphasizing character and mood over narrative drive (which include 2002's “All the Real Girls” and 2004's “Undertow”) follow in the footsteps of such maverick moviemakers as Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett while maintaining a distinctive touch that is all his own. Rather than stay in the niche that he has carved out for himself, he is now making moves to expand his artistic horizons into new and unexpected directions in ways that may well make 2008 his breakout year.
With his latest film, “Snow Angels,” he is working for the first time with material that he did not generate himself (it is based on the acclaimed 1994 Stewart O’Nan novel) but this look at some people in a small Pennsylvania town and how they react to a horrible tragedy in ways both nurturing and self-destructive is anything but an anonymous work–many of the themes that it invokes are ones that he has dealt with in his previous films. The difference is that this time around, he is dealing with them in a more directly emotional manner than in his previous efforts–aided immensely by a stellar cast including Sam Rockwell as an emotionally damaged man trying (and largely failing) to put his life back together after becoming a born-again Christian, Kate Beckinsale as his beleaguered ex-wife who is trying to raise their child and get on with her life, Michael Angaranao as a teenager bearing witness to the increasingly messy separation of his parents and Olivia Thirlby (the best pal of “Juno”) as the gorgeously gawky new kid in town who takes a shine to him–and the result is an immensely moving work that is sure to go down as one of the best films of the year.
Later this year, Green will shift gears even more radically with his first effort for a major studio, the big-budget stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.” Produced by Judd Apatow and written by “Superbad” scribes Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, this film is a raucous comedy about a couple of dope freaks (Rogen and James Franco) who run afoul of some corrupt cops in a work that, based on the hilarious trailer (which gets extra points for using M.I.A.’s great “Paper Planes” as its theme), looks to approximate the unapologetically broad action-comedy aesthetic that directors like John Landis and Ivan Reitman used to dabble in back in the 1980's with such beloved hits as “The Blues Brothers” and “Stripes” and the advanced word on it is so high (no pun intended) that it is already being penciled in as one of this summer’s potential smash hits. To shake things up even further, one of the projects that Green is currently working on is a remake of Dario Argento’s hallucinatory horror classic “Suspiria.”
With “Snow Angels” slowly rolling out across the country to largely rapturous reviews, Green got on the phone to talk about the film, his expanding artistic horizons, the joys of casting against type and even gives up a little information on his intriguing future projects.
Some of the initial reviews of “Snow Angels” compared the film to Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” presumably because both focus on people in small, snow-covered towns dealing with unimaginable tragedy in various ways. However, when I finally saw the film, it occurred to me that even though it was an adaptation of the 1994 Stewart O’Nan novel, it felt like a kind of summation of the key themes and elements of your three previous films–the ways in which people deal with sudden tragedy (“George Washington”), an examination of the scary and overwhelming power of young love (“All the Real Girls”) and a penetrating look at the slow and painful destruction of a family unit from both inside and outside forces (“Undertow”). When you initially began to work on this project, was this something that you were consciously trying to evoke or is this one of those instances of a critic reading way too much into the material?
It was definitely a consideration–wanting to fully realize the elements of story and character that I had exercised in the previous movies. One of the thing that drew me to this movie was that I thought that it brought a closure to a lot of the themes in both my personal and professional life. That was one of the things that encouraged me to make the film.
Although you worked for a while on a screen adaptation of “A Confederacy of Dunces” that eventually fell through, this is your first film based on material that you did not generate yourself. Even so, the end result has the same feel as your original material. Can you talk about the process of adaptation and trying to translate the book into cinematic terms in a way that honors the original work while still making it as personal as possible?
For me, any writing process is a matter of making a personal investment of finding how you relate to all of the characters making things personal to yourself. Stewart O’Nan’s book was a great resource because I could plagiarize everything that I loved about it and then I could personalize some of the things in order to make it more immediate and intimate with my own self-indulgent touches. The book took place in the 1970's and I made it a little more of a timeless contemporary setting. The novel was seen through the eyes of Arthur as an adult looking back and I thought that I didn’t want to give it the crutch of nostalgia–I wanted it to work as an immediate story as seen through young eyes. There were a lot of little details that I tried to take my own relationships in life and put in.
One of the things that I found especially interesting in the movie is the religious aspect of Glenn’s character. Because of how he unravels as the story progresses, it would have been easy to simply portray him as just another born-again nut but you paint him more complexly than that–his failing is not that he is a born-again Christian but the fact that he assumes that by simply claiming to be born again, that alone will magically change his life around even though he hasn’t yet addresses his more overtly self-destructive qualities. To underscore this, you have the character of Glenn’s boss who is also a born-again Christian but one who has been able to use that as a tool for putting his own life back together.
You also have Annie’s mom too–there is the scene of her grieving alone in the church sanctuary. I think that there are hopefully enough positive representations of that so that it doesn’t feel like there is any sort of finger-pointing at religion. I think that it is pointing fingers at all of the things that a guy is looking at to make his life better is leaning on–such as alcohol or relationships–without having the structure or foundation within himself to bring success to those potentially hazardous elements in life.
There are two especially striking scenes in the film that I wanted to ask you to talk about in detail as to their conception and execution. The first is the opening sequence in which a high-school marching band is bombing through an especially ragged routine based on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”–in just a couple of minutes of screen time, you quickly introduce a number of key characters and set up the mood and tone of the entire piece while surreptitiously building up to the two gunshots that the entire film will revolve around.
We had a couple of cameras on a couple of dollies and we just kind of drifted through the players and their imperfections. Then we had Tom Noonan come in as the band director and improvise some dialogue that would give a comedic and emotional application that would hopefully establish what the movie was going to be like.. I wasn’t very good [in marching band] and was ultimately kicked out, so maybe a lot of it was me bringing up this portrait of what me stumbling around with an alto sax looked like.
The other scene is the one that occurs later in the film when Glenn, who has by now fallen off the wagon and is spiraling out of control, finds himself in a fairly desolate bar doing this strange slow dance with a pair of complete strangers who hardly seem to even notice his presence. Like that haunting scene in “Undertow” in which Dermot Mulroney sits alone in the kitchen eating grey sheet cake while an old gospel TV show plays in the background, it is a sequence that doesn’t necessarily advance the narrative along and yet, it is such a striking image that I cannot imagine the film without it.
Originally, it was an upbeat piece of music and a bunch of people dancing at a wedding reception–you can see a chalk drawing of a woman in a wedding dress on the wall and a celebratory cake of some manner sitting on a pinball machine while Sam was watching a wedding on TV. When we got into the production of it and we had done a couple of takes of everyone dancing and having a good time along with Sam’s conflict of celebration and depression, me and my production designer, Richard Wright, had the idea of putting this CD in of Richard’s next-door neighbor that we had heard the night before. I had the idea of clearing everybody out but the two best dancers, who were the two people that Sam dances with, and play the sad song without telling them and see what that does. We just put the camera on a dolly and went in and out and shot a dance when they got to a song where they couldn’t find a beat until we rolled out of film–the longer it goes, the more uncomfortable and beautiful it ultimately blossoms into. It was one of those production moments when everyone was looking at each other with tears in their eyes and they knew that you just filmed something completely unexpected that you never could have designed or written just by letting actors that you trust go around in the moment. I am always a fan of the happy accident and that one is certainly high on the list.
Although all of the actors in “Snow Angels” are excellent, the casting might seem a bit odd to some people at first glance because you have filled a fairly heavy drama with actors not necessarily known for drama–Sam Rockwell is best known for oddball parts like Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” Kate Beckinsale is usually found in romantic comedies like “Serendipity” or dopey action extravaganzas like the “Underworld” films and Amy Sedaris is a flat-out comedienne. The only bit of casting that seems to make sense on the surface is the presence of Olivia Thirlby as the wonderfully gawky high-school dream girl because of her recent turn as the best pal in “Juno” but even in that case, it was a bit unusual because you hired her before she made that film.
For me, it is always about casting the unexpected–it makes your job and the product more interesting if you don’t know how they are going to do it. There are a lot of actors with whom you know what you are getting every time that you buy a ticket. That is fine for about three or four movies but ultimately, you want a movie that has the actor’s fingerprints on it–the rediscovery of who they are. That means taking someone like Will Smith, whom everyone knew from TV as the Fresh Prince, and showing him in “Six Degrees of Separation” in such a way that a new star was born in a peculiar and unexpected way. With all these actors, I wanted to make sure that they brought the baggage of what they had been. For Sam, that was the baggage of a guy that we loved and laughed at before–when he shows up and does very unlikable things, we see a horrifying experience for someone that we want to do better. With Kate, she brings a physicality and a romantic interest from her movies so on top of her pretty face, we now have the opportunity to discover the raw honesty of an actress. I was also balancing some of the emotional gravity of the material with comedic actors like Nicky Katt and Amy Sedaris. One of the things that the film is trying to do is invite a lot of independent film cliches and subject matter to present themselves in an emotionalized exploration that we haven’t seen this deeply before. That really was the challenge–can we take things that are topical but nothing revolutionary in terms of content and put a spin on it that is engaging for an audience to spend time watching in a theater together.
Location has always been an important aspect of your films–in many ways, the settings have almost served as characters themselves. Your first three films were set and filmed in the southern United States but “Snow Angels” takes place in Pennsylvania and was shot in Nova Scotia. Can you talk a little about your use of location this time around?
It was a matter of trying to find a timeless and faceless location that didn’t say too much. One thing that I wanted to avoid was the American strip-mall kind of town–the franchise-obsessed nature in which a lot of America is now engineered. I wanted to find a place that could speak to a time ten years ago or ten years from now and feel like it was a real place but an untouched place. The landscape for this movie being cold and harsh was a departure from my previous movies because the warm, inviting and romanticized South–a place where people sit on their porches and welcome their neighbors–was more of a social and talkative backdrop. Here, it was cold and intimidating and everyone is behind closed doors and that is where secrets begin–I wanted to start opening those doors and digging into those secrets.
“Snow Angels” is your latest collaboration with Tim Orr, the cinematographer with whom you have worked on all your previous films. Can you talk a little about the process of working with him and the particular visual challenges that were posed with this film?
Working with Tim is always inspiring to me because on one level, we can read each others mind and know what to expect but on the other hand, the accidents and inventions that happen along the way are always exciting for the both of us. I trust in him when he has to roll with the punches and when faced with the obstacles of low-budget filmmaking, I know that he is going to get innovative in his decisions. One of the obstacles on this movie is that the snow melted three weeks into the production and we had three or four weeks without significant snowfall. We had to find a visual character within the camera to get into the people’s lives without being able to lean on the backdrops as much. We had to shoot tighter with more close-ups but in doing that, I didn’t want TV-like coverage. Tim came up with this concept where the camera would be drifting and that the characters would seem inconsequential to the composition. There are a lot of times when the camera is off the characters during the important lines and often focusing on something irrelevant. In the scene where Arthur and his father are walking across the university campus, they stop but the camera keeps dollying–it felt as if the camera wasn’t just centered on these cameras but that it was just a camera set loose in this world that had the same anxieties that people in the audience might have.
Your next film, “Pineapple Express,” is a major departure from your previous films–it was produced by a major studio, it appears to be an unapologetically broad action comedy of the kind that people like John Landis and Ivan Reitman used to make in the 1980's and, thanks to the presence of producer Judd Apatow and star/co-writer Seth Rogen, it is already being hyped as one of this summer’s most eagerly anticipated films. What was the experience of making this film like for you, both in terms of the radical change in subject matter and in working within the confines of the contemporary studio machine after spending your career working independently?
It had a lot of the same creative team that I have used in all my other movies–about 15 people on the crew also worked on “George Washington”–so in many ways, it was like getting back in the ring with people that you know and trust. On the other side of the coin, we had a significant budget and big-name actors and producers and that gave us a ground of freedom and financial opportunity to explore improvisation and to play with new toys and try new techniques. Being a sucker for 80's action movies, I really wanted to try to bring that aesthetic to a contemporary movie. Every summer movie now seems to be striving to be bigger and more technically innovative and I wanted to take a step back and make it like the trashy and fun popcorn movies of my youth.
There are a number of projects that your name has been attached to but one of them especially intrigues me–a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal horror classic “Suspiria.” I am an enormous Argento fan but that would seem to be an exceptionally difficult film to remake because it was a film in which the filmmaking style was so much more important to its success than the storyline.
You could look at it in that way. The way we are looking at it is as the restaging of an opera–taking something that had creative innovations and collaborating with artists and technicians that we admire from all over the world in trying to make something of horrific elegance using Argento’s movie as a springboard to further developing some of his ideas and other times not. Other times, we will be embracing the plot holes and ambiguities of the movie. To me, it is a creative arena that I haven’t played in and it was in a genre that I am a huge fan of–I am a huge Argento fan–and I want to make a film that excites everyone who saw his film that isn’t overblown with special effects. I want to open it up to a new fan base and I really think that if we do our job right, it will be something that has the artistic achievements of directors who have worked outside the genre can come up with when they work in the genre–movies like “The Shining” and “Silence of the Lambs” that encompass the thematic possibilities of the genre without catering to the flaws of the genre.
Is this officially set to be your next project or is it still up in the air?
Not necessarily. There are a couple of other things as well and I have to finish the script. I am excited about the possibility but I will see what makes the most sense and that might make the least sense.
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originally posted: 03/22/08 16:32:33
last updated: 03/23/08 11:15:31