The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
T.S. Spivet is a messy, warm comedy about grief, family and imagination. It's also ironically about being seen and rarely heard.
Name a movie that came out in the early 1990s and David Gordon Green can tell you not only which theater in Dallas it opened in but also the exact release date, right off the top of his head. And if you happened to have gone to the AMC Glen Lakes 8 during that time, he even may have torn your ticket as a film-obsessed high school student.
That attention to detail and the ability to evoke a specific place and time vividly have been signatures throughout his eclectic filmography, ranging from his 2000 debut "George Washington," which deservedly drew comparisons to Terrence Malick, to raunchy, big-studio comedies like "Pineapple Express" and "Your Highness."
Green's latest, "Prince Avalanche," in theaters this weekend, seamlessly blends these two seemingly contradictory artistic instincts within the writer-director: It has the unhurried pace and richly naturalistic aesthetic of his early, indie dramas with the comic banter and oddball characters of his later work. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch co-star as a pair of mismatched road crew workers stuck with each other in middle-of-nowhere Texas (specifically Bastrop, about 30 miles southeast of Austin, Green's adoptive hometown).
Set in the 1980s, "Prince Avalanche" is a remake of an Icelandic film called "Either Way," but it feels very "him," in that it melds the best of what Green has proven he can do over the prolific career he's amassed at just age 38. He's loved movies since his earliest days growing up in Richardson, Texas, but watching Oliver Stone in action while working as a 12-year-old extra on "Born on the Fourth of July" made him realize he wanted to become a director himself.
"I look at my career more like a character actor would. Sometimes you do something just because it'd be a blast and you get paid, sometimes you do it because it's very passionate and personal and you'd do anything to have it exposed to the world," Green says in his rapid-fire deadpan, with a slight drawl. "I would hate to put my heart on my sleeve for every project because after a few times, it wouldn't be honest."
Green discussed his work over a long lunch under a very specific tree in MacArthur Park, an urban oasis in the midst of a crowded, ethnically mixed neighborhood just west of downtown Los Angeles. Take-out lunch in hand from a nearby deli known for its mountainous pastrami sandwiches (one of which Green dared to tackle), we walked around the park and searched for this tree, where he shot a pivotal moment of 2008's "Pineapple Express."
James Franco as a pot dealer and Seth Rogen as his client are perched amid its branches at night, hiding from the bad guys on their tail and fumbling to form an escape plan. Bonding over their newfound friendship, Franco gushes to Rogen between hits off a joint: "They say, like, don't dip the pen in company ink—I'm totally glad I dipped in your ink, bro."
On this typically bustling, sunny midday, parents are pushing babies in strollers and kids are tossing breadcrumbs to the ducks in a pond. The ding of a bell from an ice cream cart competes with the whoosh of a city bus passing on nearby Wilshire Boulevard and the buzz of helicopters overhead. A guy in a baseball cap selling cherries walks by and asks if we'd like to buy a bag—no, thanks—while all around, scattered homeless people nap beneath shady trees.
A low-income area like this, where there's a great sense of character and community, is what inspired Green to make "George Washington" soon after he graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts. A lyrical coming-of-age drama about a group of kids dealing with the accidental death of one of their own, "George Washington" looks much more artfully expensive than its $40,000 budget would suggest.
"I've always been a very practical person. And I know in the independent films that I love—'Killer of Sheep' or 'Sling Blade' or 'Stranger Than Paradise'—they're accessible worlds to the filmmaker. 'George Washington' was a movie that was basically existing in my backyard, just waiting for someone to film it. Interesting kids, killer locations, just the beauty of youth and tragedy: That was just everyday life in the neighborhood in Winston-Salem where I was living," he said. "You're not shooting in mansions and highways, difficult logistical locations. You're shooting in mostly ghettos where you're welcome there if you're cool and respectful and treat everybody right. There's not location fees, there's not a lot of headaches and frustrations and ego and arrogance about where you are. You're just another part of the circus of life."
Green's longtime producer, Lisa Muskat, was amazed by the mature and graceful vision coming from her former college student, given his love for broad '80s comedies. Muskat said Green handled massive acclaim at just 25 "with finesse." That included packed houses at the Berlin Film Festival, inclusion at the prestigious New York Film Festival and a prize at Toronto—where Roger Ebert discovered it and became one of Green's earliest and most vocal supporters. (Here, here, here…)
"He printed something about it four or five times, and publicists came up to us and they were like, 'How did you get in his pocket?'" Muskat remembered with a laugh. "They were like, 'We've never seen this. He'll write something about a movie but he won't just continue to come back and keep on writing about the filmmaker and the movie like he's doing, and he's really championing David and that's a great thing for all of you.' And it was—he really helped from the get-go with David building his career."
Green sees the Malick comparisons in his own work, especially in "George Washington"—the use of voiceover, the importance of the environment to his characters—and even had a chance to work with the master filmmaker on the 2004 Southern Gothic thriller "Undertow," which Malick wrote the story for and has a producing credit.
"His movies were really inspiring, particularly 'Badlands' and 'Days of Heaven.' I love that there's a guy out there that has his own voice, that kind of does his own thing," Green said. "It was amazing having him on our set. For a lot of us, it was just really inspiring to have someone that we respected that much giving us ideas and being supportive of our process—having dinners with him and actually having him ask us advice on certain things."
Among the other dramas he made during these early years were the romantic "All the Real Girls" from 2003, starring Zooey Deschanel and a then-unknown Danny McBride, and 2007's "Snow Angels," about intersecting, doomed lives in a small town starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell.
All of which made the shift toward studio comedies such a surprise to his admirers. Following the Judd Apatow-produced "Pineapple Express," he released in 2011 "Your Highness," a sorcery homage that was a longtime dream project of his and college classmate McBride, and "The Sitter," with Jonah Hill as a college student stuck minding the kids next door. The latter two weren't received nearly so well critically; some wondered what happened to the thoughtful auteur they thought they knew.
"I was surprised that anybody knew who I was at that time," Green said. "I wanted to exercise something different. I was getting depressed making dramas and making movies that no one saw. You work really hard on something and it lives for a week and a half at the box office and then it's over."
As for the negative reviews for "Your Highness" and "The Sitter": "You make yourself very vulnerable in filmmaking. You expose your product to the world to consume or reject or whatever. I look at those movies as so well-received because really, massive numbers of people saw them. … I remember going to see 'All the Real Girls' opening weekend at the Laemmle 5 theater here and there were, like, eight people there for a Q&A. And it was like, this is a real bummer. I worked really hard and put a really personal story on the line and there's no one here on a Saturday night. And so it's cool to have the opposite of that happen on the opening weekend.
"You don't make a movie like 'Your Highness' expecting to get an Oscar nomination," he added. "You make a movie like that because it's a childhood dream and you can have a shitload of fun being a goofy 11-year-old."
Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which is distributing "Prince Avalanche," compared Green to Steven Soderbergh in his ability to operate in both the indie and studio worlds.
"We've done a number of films with Steven—'The Girlfriend Experience,' 'Bubble'—and we've had a really good relationship with him. It depends on the force of your will to make sure you want to do that," Bowles said. "(Green is) someone who likes to play with film and likes to work with the vocabulary. Those guys, I always find interesting."
Janet Pierson, head of the South by Southwest Film Festival where "Prince Avalanche" played to a warm reception in March, said Green's approach reminds her of Richard Linklater, who established Austin as a film mecca more than two decades ago along with Robert Rodriguez. She said the presence of young directors like Green and Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter," "Mud") in the city brings a whole new generation of recognition.
Green also shot "Joe," featuring Nicolas Cage and a cast of homeless people and day laborers, in the Austin area. The film debuts in a few weeks at the Venice Film Festival.
"David's doing it in a way that's very exciting," Pierson said of his ability to multitask.
Muskat points out that Green has the wherewithal to choose smaller projects that matter to him—or help finance others' projects, like college friend Craig Zobel's suspenseful "Compliance"—in part because he directs about 20 commercials a year. Among them is the 2012 Chrysler Super Bowl ad, "Halftime in America," starring Clint Eastwood.
"Having that extra cash flow gives him a little bit more freedom, but even if he didn't have it, still the philosophy of not being tied to the money helps you create choices," Muskat said.
Green said he fought for the opportunity to direct that Super Bowl spot, and spent four hours walking up and down a corridor of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum talking movies with Eastwood.
"It felt like it said something and it had a great opportunity for visuals and capturing the honesty of a country and a moment," Green said. "And then the exposure you have from over 100 million people watching something simultaneously, and the part of me that really loves the cultural phenomenon of media—I was really obsessed with that moment."
"Observe & Report" director Jody Hill, who also attended North Carolina School of the Arts with Green and McBride and established Rough House Pictures with them in 2009, said it's been enormously helpful to have Green go through these various steps of the filmmaking process first. Now, they all help out on one another's projects, which includes Green directing episodes of the HBO comedy series "Eastbound and Down," which McBride stars in and co-created with Hill.
"David has a lot of experience, whether it's been the indie circuit or the studio system, or writing assignments or directing assignments. David's done a lot for a really young age so he's a really good guy to call," Hill said in a phone call from the show's North Carolina set, where the final few episodes are being shot. "What's cool is that we all trust each other's instincts and tastes—even if it's not the same, these are best friends who also are guys I really respect.
"The kind of movies he makes, he just makes because he just wants to," Hill added. "David could get a kick out of making a Hollywood movie or some kind of quiet movie that maybe only a few people are going to watch. I really respect that he does kind of whatever he wants."
And as a friend to hang out with for the past 20 years? "David's funny. He's easy to talk to. He's very personable, he has lots of friends, he's definitely eccentric and has crazy, weird tastes, but to hang out with he's also just the kind of guy you can have a beer with and talk about whatever stupid movie is playing at the Cineplex."
Now, Green has a whole new generation to share his love of film with as the father of twin boys, Leo and Otis, who are 2½. Their mother is Green's longtime girlfriend, costume designer Jill Newell; they met while making "All the Real Girls" and have worked together ever since. (Newell came up with the idea for Rudd and Hirsch to wear matching blue overalls in "Prince Avalanche" so they'd resemble Super Mario Brothers.)
"You just carve time and you invite 'em into the process," Green said of juggling parenting and filmmaking. "They come to set as much as they can. We just spent the summer doing 'Eastbound and Down' so they were hanging out on the beach, partying every day with their shirts off, gettin' suntans and growing their hair long.
"I live a really fun life and I have a lot of great friends," he added. "It's just kind of fun to be a traveling circus."
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