The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
In January of 2001, Roger Ebert reviewed a debut film by a young director named David Gordon Green. The film was "George Washington", and Roger said, “This is such a lovely film. You give yourself to its voluptuous languor.” Over the next decade-and-a-half, Green has refined that loveliness in such acclaimed works as "All the Real Girls", "Snow Angels", and last year’s "Prince Avalanche". His latest, “Joe”, stars Nicolas Cage as the title character, a hard-drinking, hard-living guy who also may be the last chance at a normal life for a homeless boy named Gary. Tye Sheridan, already so memorable in Terrence Malick’s "The Tree of Life" and Jeff Nichols’ "Mud", makes arguably his greatest impact as Gary, a young man dealing with an alcoholic, sociopathic father who has pulled his family to the edge of society. Green and Sheridan sat down us with last week to talk about Roger, critics in general, what inspires them to work, and the life of a “Momentumist.”
This week we’re publishing a Special Edition to honor the year since Roger’s passing. Do you have a special memory of him?
DAVID GORDON GREEN: The most meaningful moment I had with Roger was at the Toronto Film Festival when I was there with my third movie ["Undertow"] and he'd responded really favorably to it. He was running to a movie and I was running to a movie in a different direction and we said "Hey" to each other and he introduced me to Chaz. He's like, "The movies can wait but this introduction can never happen again." I loved the moment of him wanting to introduce a filmmaker to his wife. I thought that was an incredible pause in our hectic, frantic festival life to have that kind of a human moment.
Tye, do you read critics?
TYE SHERIDAN: No, I don’t.
You didn’t as a kid interested in movies listen to what critics said?
TS: When I was a kid, I wasn’t even interested in movies. It’s just more and more that I’ve done has made it an interest. I don’t even read reviews now. I should.
[To David] Do you think he should? What’s your advice on that?
DGG: I don’t read reviews. I’ll read ‘em if somebody says, “OK, this somebody has something really insightful that they’ve written.” Or someone just wrote me that there’s a really cool article on Nic [Cage] in The New York Times. All of those things—“Cool”, “Nic”, “New York Times”—I’m interested. But if you said any of those things in a different context, probably not. I think reviews can make you self-conscious and can make you wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing—even the best of reviews. At the same time, a real insightful journalist can open up frames up mind or see links in your work that you wouldn’t even have the perspective to see yourself. So, if it’s something that’s smart and insightful, I feel like it finds its way to me.
I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit, Tye. You’ve worked with such unique directors as Terrence Malick ["The Tree of Life"] and Jeff Nichols ["Mud"]; how is David different as a director from the others?
TS: All three of them are really different. There are some similarities between Terrence and David. When I worked with him, he didn’t give me a script to read. He wanted everything to feel fresh, and David likes to put a lot of non-actors in his movies to give that sort of raw performance. Jeff, he’d been working on his script for ten years and it was really good, so why not stick to his script? Whereas, this script here was more of a generalized adaptation of the book and a story, and it was a blueprint. [David is] OK with changing some of the dialogue and fixing things, improvising in a scene. Nichols is very stuck to his script. He was going through the editing process in his head while he’s on-set and you see that. For David, it doesn’t come off that he’s thinking that—maybe he is—but he’s totally in the moment and he’ll deal with it later in post.
Is that true?
DGG: Um….No. (Laughs). I do try to be totally in the moment but I feel like I’ve got a good gameplan as to what we need and then let’s let it loose. Once we’re prepared, then we’re good, and let’s explore it and find the discoveries.
TS: I’m saying that if something doesn’t work out for him—one of his scenes—that should, it might not be as big deal as it would be…
DGG: I think there’s “Perfectionists” and then there’s “Momentumists”.
I’m not going to do more than five takes of something. I’d rather have the
fresh one-two-three take and then move on, and if we didn’t get something
golden then we’ll get it in the next set-up. We’ll figure it out. We’ll
reinvent it. Do what feels right. Not be so possessive about the process or pretend
that it needs to be calculator-scientific or preconceived so much. If you have
confidence in the story or, more importantly, cast the shit out of it so it
doesn’t stress you out, then the things that come out of their mouths, even if
they’re not rehearsed, are correct because they’re in the moment.
Has that directorial aesthetic changed at all for you over your career? Were you always a “Momentumist”?
DGG: Yeah. That’s why my movies are always crooked paths. There’s no real Spielberg polish on them, narratively or aesthetically.
Do you think “Joe” would have been the same if you made it ten years ago?
DGG: I wouldn’t have had the confidence. To deal with the themes that I think are pretty heavy-duty, to deal with the regional authenticity that I wanted the film to have. If you look at my early films, they’re kind of dream-like and stylized in their reality even if I’m trying to achieve something emotionally naturalistic. Here, the second your casting call is not in Los Angeles but at the downtown Austin Day Labor Center…I’m reaching for authenticity more so than romanticized movies I made earlier. Even “Undertow” has dark themes but it’s got almost like a young man’s pulp fiction novel quality to it.
You jump genre and scale so much with your projects; I’m interested in the variations in scale as much as genre. You make something intimate like "Prince Avalanche" after something much more expansive like "Your Highness". Why is that kind of career variation something that’s clearly important to you?
DGG: You don’t want to see the same movie twice in one weekend. You do every now and then. Every now and then…when I saw "Django Unchained", I went right back and watched it again. What was THAT? Usually, I see something, I feel it, and then I mix it up and want to do something new.
So, it’s a conscious effort to do something different than what you just wrapped?
DGG: I’m not sure how conscious it is. I think it’s more that I wake up in the morning feeling that I’ve done something…so, I went to Disney World one day, I want to go to Epcot Center the next day, and then I’m gonna go to a baseball game on the third day. I feel like I want to do different stuff every day.
Yeah, but there are a lot of filmmakers who go to Epcot Center every day.
DGG: Absolutely, and they create a signature and a brand for themselves. And they’re also the guys who say “It’s a film BY…Alfred Hitchcock.”
The Auteur Theory, which you kind of try to defy.
DGG: Yeah, yeah. (Laughs). I feel like it’s a weird quality to say “I made this film, ME, and look at all the things I did on this film. I didn’t even need anyone else. It was just me. I can do the music. I filmed it. I edited it all by myself. I digitized all the dailies. I transcribed all the music for the oboe player.”
DGG: “I catered it. One day I brought donuts.” I make fun of it but a lot of my friends are that way and they’re good at it. They have those signatures and they can really make it lucrative. If you’re making diapers, why try making rubber bands? It’s really great for a lot of guys. I just find it funny to mess around with it.
It sounds like you’d get bored making diapers every time.
DGG: I’d be SO bored. Or having to have a body of work where something is compared to this other thing. “Here’s my franchise and the first one wasn’t as good as the second one even though they have nothing to do with each other.”
Although, I hate to go there, these two movies—“Prince Avalanche” and “Joe”—both have a similar dynamic in their core in that they both have elements of one protagonist being a younger version of the other protagonist.
DGG: Yeah. I hadn’t even thought about that in terms of THIS but I agree. And I just did a third movie that feels like it’s of the same mental cloth. These three movies have been very low budget in and around Texas. Maybe that’s just geographically what’s tied me to them and all in a very short chapter of my life. Now that’s the last thing I want to do.
Those are his interests as a director, what about you as an actor, Tye? I find your work so far—“Tree”, “Mud”, “Joe”—such physical work. Motion, being outdoors, physical action—is that something that has interested you more as an actor than dialogue?
TS: Yeah. I just feel like to be a great actor you have to have depth in life. You have to put depth into your characters. To do that, like David was saying, you can’t do the same routine over and over. A lot of actors live in Los Angeles and they go to the casting agency and audition and come home and read a script—it’s the same thing over and over and you lose touch with reality. You lose experiences. You lose touch with reality. That is almost like what we should strive for as an actor—to gain as much knowledge as we can so we can put it into the characters. If you can’t, then what do you have to work with?
So, how do you maintain that grounded approach?
TS: I live in the middle of nowhere in Texas with my family. I’ve got a lake in front of my house. I do this but this is almost like something that’s on the side for me. I live a normal life with my family and I ALSO do this.
DGG: It’s funny because that’s also why you would cast Tye because he can ride motorcycles and shoot guns and do things that other kids would have to train to do. He’s got that physicality.
Is there anyone you look at, any actor’s career, and go “That’s it. That’s the arc I want to take and what I want to do.”?
TS: James Franco. (Laughs). I could never work as hard as that guy. I just want to do good work and keep it interesting and do new things. I feel like developing a style of work is cool and it works for some people but I don’t know if that’s going to work for me yet. I definitely want to try stuff right now while it’s still really early in my career to figure out what it is I want to do. Maybe I don’t want to be an actor. Maybe I want to direct or write or be a producer. Maybe I want to go and be a mailman. I feel like I’m so young and I haven’t really figured out my goal in life.
“Joe” to me feels like it could have been a Western—the last good man in a frontier town being overrun by evil and the kid who comes to him for help.
DGG: Yeah. We approached it that way. I really wanted to make a Western and I was drawn to a lot of themes of Larry Brown’s novel because I think of those themes of outlaw and redemption.
Were there any specific filmic inspirations of that genre or any genre?
DGG: That’s a really good question. What DID we look at for this? (Thinks.) What did I look at? Me and my DP will typically look at and talk about movies. “Avalanche”, I could name you 20. I feel like this was just knowing it and knowing these places. And getting to know these people. Actually, I remember I did buy my DP “The John Ford Collection”. But we never ended up talking about anything beyond “Tobacco Road” maybe.
You have always seemed to have such an interest in the natural world: “George Washington”, “Undertow”, “Joe”. You avoid sets almost entirely.
DGG: I hate sets. We did a few sets on “Your Highness” and “Pineapple Express” but yeah.
So, why is that one of your strongest fingerprints?
DGG: I think I’m really inspired by filmmakers like Werner Herzog who just get out there and get their hands dirty and subject themselves to the elements and enjoy the unpredictable qualities of that. Animals scare me if I’m camping or sleeping outside but I love turning the cameras on animals. I love being around animals when there’s a camera going. When I can see how an actor reacts…like when Cage picks up a venomous cottonmouth snake and uses it as a prop, I love the anxiety that I have because I see it in Cage’s eye for a second and I see him switch from anxiety to confidence to conquer the psychology of a serpent and then I’m blown away. It may rain today and guess what? I’ve never canceled a day because of rain. We just shoot in the rain.
It’s the unpredictably of the natural world that inspires you creatively.
DGG: Absolutely. Same with casting. It’s the old woman they encounter in “Prince Avalanche” or the old man living on the streets we cast as Tye’s father in “Joe”. Or the locations that we’re shooting in. Or the dramatic volatility that we’re exploring, often for the first time without rehearsals. Give me a camera and let’s party.