American director David Gordon Green discusses his latest feature, Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino. David has made a number of films spanning independent cinema and Hollywood studios, including modest dramas and big budget comedies. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2014.
David Gordon Green: There’s a lot of great folks here [at TIFF], though, it’s cool. They have dinners for folks, so you go and shoot the shit with some South Korean director you’ve never heard of and then you’re like, “Oh man, you’re awesome,” and look him up and realize you just sat down with a genius.
Who has that happened to with you? Who’s the biggest genius that you didn’t realize?
That’s a really good question. It happens all the time. You know, one of the ones that I’ve become really good friends with is Luca Guadagnino. He made the film I Am Love (2009). I had a really good time meeting him and now we show each other rough cuts and he just finished a new movie.
Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about how the story of Manglehorn started with Paul Logan. You tend to do a lot of writing, adapt, you’re proficient in that. What’s it like pitching a story to another writer?
Well, with Paul it’s cool because he’s not like a jaded, cynical, conditioned Hollywood writer. He’s a lighting designer for that band Explosions in the Sky. So he was on tour with them, travelling around and I had met with Al Pacino for something unrelated. I know Paul’s a huge movie fan and a huge Pacino fan. So I said, “Hey, I had this meeting with Al and I got this idea for a character.” I was trying to get him to come here and hang out. Paul’s an awesome guy, you’d love him. He wrote it when he was on tour with the guys and I went to him with it because it needed that kind of organic honesty, rather than Act One, Act Two. There’s no real character – I mean, there’s a substantial character arc, but it’s not done in the traditional flow of a Hollywood narrative. It’s not like you set this up and you pay it off or you call back. It’s just little glimpses and moments in this guy’s life and he writes like that. I had read some of the scripts he’d written, spec scripts that Paul had written. I loved his voice, that rawness. He writes like people talk, rather than how people write. If anything, the challenge in this is that there’s a lot of writerly elements in these letters that Manglehorn writes, so it’s pushing him directions where you have to over-embellish a bit as if you’re a writer. Because it’s not him talking, it’s him writing, trying to be self-consciously romantic and poetic. That was kind of the game of it, but it was a lot of fun.
We worked on it over a few months, pretty quick. I think he wrote it in two weeks. 85 pages or something like that. Then we sat on it for a little while because I wanted to go to Al when I knew I could be serious with it and I just shot Joe (2013) – I had just started to edit Joe. I sent it to Al and he said, “Come on over,” so I flew out to L.A. and sat down with him. He was pretty quick to say, “Let’s do it,” and then I would just go to his house every month or every six weeks. We’d just get a group of friends together and we’d read it out loud, go workshop it and give Paul some notes. Just a healthy gentleman’s process, just casual, not like any sort of formal First Draft, Second Draft. He’d just fuck around with it a little bit and I’d take it over and say, “What if we tried a little something like this?” Then hand it back to him and he’d say, “You ruined my script.” You know, it was fun.
How did Al Pacino react knowing that it was written with his voice completely in mind? Did he find that it was maybe not as close as it should be or was it bang-on?
It was bang-on. It would help that he would say, “What if this happened?” Al had a lot of ideas. I like to work in a way where everybody brings their ideas to the table, it’s not so much “A film by… this auteur” type of movie. Everybody gets together and the boom guy has a good idea while he’s holding the mic. The crew really contributes to the process, the actors really contribute to their voice. I say it and it sounds a little idealized, but that’s kind of what we’re trying to do, make things that aren’t so… I don’t know, heavily composed. I’m getting ready to start a studio movie, so we’ll see if it can kind of translate – this process I’ve been trying to fine-tune over the last ten movies. See if it can be tested in deeper waters and bigger budgets, more of a commercial venue.
Would it be more like the literal commercials you’ve done or is that process similar to the films?
You know what? I think Manglehorn is the most like the commercials I’ve done in a weird way. I mean there’s lots of different versions of commercials I do, but the commercials that I really get my hands dirty and feel passionate about – I mean, you’re hired for a job so passion is an interesting word to use, but you really try to make something artful and interesting or you try to make something super clean and accessible and likable. But the more artful stuff I’ve done, like the Maserati ad I did last year, stuff like that. Those are inspiring processes, I love the productions of commercials; they’re short adventures and you can try out new styles, new equipment, new camera lenses, new crew… anything. Manglehorn utilized a lot of the tools and inspiration. Actually, the last three movies I’ve done were kind of inspired by the efficiency of this Chrysler commercial I did with Clint Eastwood. It was just a small crew and everybody hand’s on. It was a huge budget commercial, but it didn’t feel like it for a second. It just felt like the greatest time with people you love, making something cool. Driving around and shooting things in a casual, but creative manner. So I tried to really employ that process on the last few movies.
Wasn’t the shoot for that ad almost as long as Prince Avalanche (2013)?
Yeah, it may have been as long as Avalanche.
It’s funny that you’ve drawn a connection between those three films [Prince Avalanche, Joe and Manglehorn], because they seem to have thematic links; namely, what it is to be a man, passing down information, relationships between generations. But they’re all coming from different written sources. How much of that is your influencing it or bringing yourself to it, or is it just something happening coincidentally?
It’s coincidental. I mean it’s stuff I’m passionate about and that I know I can sink my teeth and head into it. It’s content I really get. I’m not trying to make some stylized, international espionage action movie. If there’s something I know and feel very confident, it’s the exploration of emotion and masculinity. So I do feel like they’re related. They’re of a mindset of a wave of my brain trying to make things that are technically, logistically, very very manageable – trying to weed out the things that are frustrating about movies and just focus on the love of production. I do love production, it’s the greatest thing in the world. There’s a lot of people that hate it and like to sit in the editing room and the climate-controlled bullshit, but I like to be in the heat with a camera roll and everything’s crazy, there’s chaos, there’s quiet and then something happens and we catch it and run away. I like all that. Those movies really are… most of the day we’re filming, most of the day we’re rolling film, we’re not prepping, lighting, rehearsing. The momentum of that process is very satisfying.
It’s interesting that you like production so much because the characters in these three films, it’s all about their jobs – they matter so much to them and they’re putting so much into them…
That’s me, man, that’s totally me. Yeah, it’s about painting stripes on the road or cutting trees or whatever it is that you care about and put your guts into all day, every day. I’ve worked since I was five years old – never not had a job.
When you said that you learned some things from the commercials that you applied, I’m wondering if for Manglehorn there was anything visually that you applied? Any experiments with your style?
Commercials are a cool thing in one respective because there’s no time or reason for a thirty second spot to have traditional coverage. So you think of interesting ways to best exhibit the place or the product or the person you’re dealing with. We did that with Manglehorn – we don’t need to see the faces, let’s explore the back of his head and jump from one shoulder to another because it’s an interesting juxtaposition, how to look at Manglehorn. I would use some of the tools and put it into a long form and it plays… certainly more eccentrically, because you miss it – you really long to see the reverse [shot], but we don’t show it to you. You wouldn’t miss it in thirty seconds, but you miss it in an hour and a half. I like kind of teasing and frustrating an audience in that way. There’s a lot of things within… I don’t know. There’s a lot of things happening, you have to bring the momentum of a commercial process. There’s a lot of commercial directors who just do eighty takes of whatever, their orange juice pouring into a glass – I’ve done a couple of those ads. The ones I like are the ones where you’re on your feet and trying to capture something of reality, something that feels meaningful and honest. The momentum is the process I’ve been drawn to over the last several projects. I don’t have a lot of time for development and talking about making movies. It’s interesting being at a film festival and you have to promote your movie and tell everyone your vision – why you did this and that. The bottom line is that I do stuff with a knee-jerk reaction and a heartfelt instinct – run with an idea until it feels like a bad idea and then I punch myself in the head and run the other way.
You’ve had a lot of films that have just been stuck and have not been able to get made, so I imagine that’s the reaction, right?
You say that, but I think there’s only three.
Maybe they get publicized more than most people’s…
Yeah, yeah, sure. There’s probably more than that. There are things that I’ve written that never went through. There’s two real ones, but for the most part a lot of filmmakers have the process of perfection: I’m going to write for the next year, work on my screenplay, then I’m going to cast it and if the cast doesn’t come together then I won’t find the money. That can take two years of your life and all of a sudden somebody has beat you to the idea – there’s millions of reasons that a movie can fall apart. I just like to have a variety of projects at all times percolating in some form. If it’s getting Paul to work on the next script for Pacino or optioning a book that I just grabbed because I thought it would be a cool property and I want to write it in the airplane on the way home, or TV shows I’ve gotten involved in. I’ve had a lot of fun exploring those things, so that when you actually complete something you look at the reality of the next push and see what’s real. Where’s the money? Where are the movie stars? What makes it make sense? Or am I just going to have to write my own cheque and make my own opportunity and see what happens.
When you’re actually getting to produce something, like Manglehorn, one thing that was interesting to me is some of the techniques you’re using in this one. I guess it’s the subjectivity during the panic attacks and you’re using superimpositions, blurs – it seems that it’s some of your more formalistic work in a while. How did you come across that style for this film?
A lot of it was my editor, Colin Patton, who I’ve worked with on a lot of movies lately. He’ll come to me and say, “Hey, we should think about transitions in this movie using a lot of long, long dissolves. Painfully long dissolves.” And I’d say, “Okay, let me see what you’re talking about.” So as we were shooting, he started assembling stuff and I really got into what he was doing. There’s great dreamlike, emotional layers to that effect. The movie plays pretty musical, it’s got a heavy use of score and things like that. I kind of wanted it to push and pull you through this weird character’s head-space: one thought process, one emotion, one situation bleeds into the next. A surreal use of sound design – when you hear or what you don’t hear.
How is your relationship with [cinematographer] Tim Orr, he’s one of your most consistent collaborators? How has it evolved into this?
Yeah, we’re about to start our eleventh film, which is pretty crazy. We went to film school together, as did a lot of the crew: my production designer, Richard Wright, and so many people I’ve known and been working with for fifteen years. Tim’s another guy that we’ll look at each other and say, “Is this something we want to approach in a traditional manner and just think about performance with nice lighting, make everything complementary and flattering? Or do we want to risk the grotesqueness of a fluorescent light, in a cool place if we want to try a unique camera move that’s completely unmotivated?” In Manglehorn there were no rules in the least, it was let’s just play and have fun and dance the camera. When we have an idea, if we have time, let’s do it?
A few critics have already noticed with this film versus the last two, that it’s maybe the more difficult. It didn’t seem that way when I was watching it, but I was wondering if this was something you’ve considered – that it’s more experimental, or…
I don’t know, it’s Al Pacino, he’s likable. Who doesn’t want to watch Al Pacino fall in love is the way I look at it… Or fall out of love. I don’t know, I don’t read reviews and I don’t really think too much in a movie like this. When you do a studio movie and you have to test screen it in Burbank for six hundred people and read the comment cards, it’s part of the process. I get it, they spent a shit-load of money, they want to know what they’re investing in and I respect that. Especially when you’re doing a comedy and the last thing you want to do is make a movie and have everybody just stare at the screen and not laugh if it’s supposed to be funny. Drama are far more subjective and harder to read in that way. Difficult is not a negative word to me, it’s a movie full of awkward pauses and moments where you’re not sure if it’s supposed to be funny or sad.
I remember watching Happiness (1998) at an early screening and I sat behind Todd Solondz and Francis Ford Coppola – this is like 1998. I was in L.A. visiting a friend or something and I’m sitting behind them watching this movie. I’m watching Francis Coppola and [wondering] what does this guy think of this… the most odd, disturbing, but painfully funny movie that I’ve ever watched. First and foremost, in love with the film and the filmmaking, but second, just so distracted by the two people that happen to be very significant sitting in front of me watching the movie. I’ve always loved thinking about that – those challenging notes of filmmaking or those difficult movie experiences for an audience. To decide how they feel. The hard thing about the comment card business is the ‘Would you recommend this film to a friend?’ ‘Most Definitely’ or ‘Absolutely Not’ – you have all those things. Everybody is always looking for ‘I would most definitely recommend this movie to a friend’. But the best movies in the world I wouldn’t recommend to my friends [laughs]. For a lot of my friends I would most definitely not most definitely recommend the movie to my friends. So the difficulty, the obstacles to making a movie are significant – getting them to connect to an audience is significant, getting them to make money is significant. It’s all part of where you play the art vs. commerce and how much of a sense of humour you have about it.
I guess you can’t predict it because I know with some of those films you thought there were scenes that were maybe slowing down the film, but they’d be the biggest laughs. You can’t really guess how an audience is going to react.
And audiences are different around the world. If I screen a movie in Southeast Asia, it’s different than when I screen it in Phoenix, Arizona. Who are you making it for? A movie like this you make for yourself and people who are close to you that get you. It’s your emotional outlet, it’s your therapy.
Is this move to the next film [Our Brand Is Crisis (2015)] similar to what happened after Snow Angels (2007) when you moved into Pineapple Express (2008)?
Not stylistically, necessarily, but I do love the idea – I was approached by this movie and it had what I thought was a great idea. So I got in the room with folks. I love the idea of taking movie stars on journeys that aren’t traditional for them to be using themselves in that manner – exercising different muscles for movie stars. When someone like Sandra Bullock, who’s extremely significant in a contemporary, commercial filmmaking environment is in a different movie, by far, than anything else she’s done… that becomes interesting to me. If it’s a repeat of a recent success, it’s less interesting. If it’s something that an actor’s going to do that’s paint by numbers and feels familiar in formula, it’s less interesting. But if someone really wants to… a discovery performance, a first-time actor, a first-time lead actor, a supporting character that’s trying to become a leading man or woman – those are interesting to me. Somebody that’s taking a risk and has a degree of hunger and appetite.
Is that something that’s happened with Al Pacino? Did he see it as an unconventional role for Manglehorn?
Yeah, absolutely. He spends most of his head-space and creative energy in the world of theatre and movies aren’t his priority right now. But when something comes along that he gravitates towards or in this case, I just said, “I’m making this movie with you or I’m not making this movie, so…” Although, I say that, but I had one idea where if he didn’t do it, I was going to get Bill Cosby to do it.
Would the character have been the same or would you have adjusted it for him?
Maybe it would have been more vulgar. To hear Bill Cosby cuss would have been cool. You know, there’s no profanity, no violence, no drug usage. It’s like a G-rated movie, but for twisted seventy-five year olds.
[Manglehorn] seems younger than he is. When I was reading what the age was, I didn’t picture him that old in the film.
I don’t know exactly how old he is, but he’s got some tales of some hard livin’. Love it, love that dude. There would be funny times on set and he would be like, “Let’s just get some good people and go have dinner.” And you know that having dinner after a hard day’s work, everybody that’s invited wants to go. You could bust your ass all day and be exhausted, but you want to go hear Al hold court and tell stories. One time he heard that Terence Malick was in Austin and they hadn’t seen each other since Al decided to not be in one of Malick’s films. So I was like, this is going to be the dream dinner. The film school nerd in me is going to geek out hardcore and go out to dinner with these two guys. So guess who was the quietest guy at the table? I was just sitting there at a seafood restaurant, watching these guys tell stories about 1970s Hollywood. It was the masterclass and the geek wet dream come true. It was amazing.
In the production, what was it like having someone like Al Pacino with different types of actors? A few must have been non-actors or have had less experience.
Yeah, it was no different… Holly Hunter is an Oscar-winner, acclaimed actress and obviously fits like a glove and knows how to roll with anybody. People like the vet or… the whole cast is a pretty strange cast of folks… the security guard at the bank owns a barbecue restaurant in Austin. We tried to put together a likable, lovable, eclectic batch of folks and everybody was really respectful of Al. Al loves the process and you’d introduce him to who he would be acting with and he’d just laugh at you. He’d look over at me like, “I don’t know, man, you’ve got something cooking, but…” It was always a good time.
You were mentioning earlier Al’s background and the living he’s done, and the character initially was supposed to have more of a shady past that was more obvious in the film. Did it get more subtle as [writing] went along?
I don’t know about subtler, we just decided to not reveal any backstory. It seemed unnecessary and less relatable if we made him a specific person rather than the guy who lived down the street. I thought the mystery of this man was more interesting than the reality. The miracle of who he is and the strange path that he walks is more interesting than if I tell you why he is the way he is. It’s just a fun thing. We played with a lot of things in production and improv’d a lot of stuff, scripted some stuff and put it together. The most interesting version of this movie is the one that asks all the questions and doesn’t give the answers.
Were there any moments during the production like [the one in] Prince Avalanche with the burned down house where something radically changed or you had something that came completely out of left field?
I feel like a lot of this movie was like that. I mean ‘radically changed’ is difficult, but the cat surgery. We met this veterinarian and it was a narrative moment of a cat that needed a procedure. We met this guy and he was just so interesting, and was going to spay this cat. Spaying a cat is kind of similar to the laparotomy or whatever it is you would do to get into it to remove an intestinal blockage. So okay, well let’s film a cat surgery. It’s an interesting illustration of love. It’s a challenging illustration of love. You can look at it as something that’s not for the feint of heart or squeamish, but it’s truly intellectually studied love. Nobody is going to become a vet unless they have a great love for animals. Nobody’s going to perform a procedure like this unless there’s a love of the survival of this condition. If you’re watching two things juxtaposed, the awkwardness of two people connecting in a very difficult manner and then intercut with that is the difficulty of this medical procedure. Then that becomes a heavy tone for five minutes of the movie. I think in the script it says something like: “His cat gets surgery.”
The heaviness of that is kind of off-set by these little flourishes of – I don’t know what you’d call it – a lyricism? Where they’re talking about the mythology of the character and that’s something that goes through your work.
Another thing, yeah. That was all improv, we’d just ask all the supporting actors to make up a story about the Magical Miracles of Manglehorn. So Harmony [Korine] would come up with a story about a dog that caught on fire. All these things that were just beyond reality, but I guess they’re kind of possible? That was the only guideline: you can’t defy gravity, it’s just got to be fucked up and pretty wild that it happened.
It kind of concludes on that point. We’ve been talking about film school – was that an obvious Blow-Up (1966) reference that we’re seeing at the end of the film?
That wasn’t in the script, that was never going to be it, and then we filmed it. We made it up on set and then it was in the middle of the movie. Then all of a sudden it became this cool ending and I think someone said, “You’ve seen Blow-Up, right?” And I was like, “Ohhh yeah. That’s cool, that’s fine, it’s been a while.” [Laughs]
It’s fun, it’s also like how the humour in some scenes reminds me of Weekend (1967), the Godard film, where you’ve got that tracking shot, but it’s also what we were just saying – surreal. What was the genesis of that idea?
The watermelons? A Richard Scarry children’s book that I read my kids. What’s the little worm? Lowly the Worm is that his name? He drives the pickle car and then there’s a watermelon truck that turns over. There’s a big ol’ traffic jam. It’s all these weird images and so it was going to be a funny scene, I was going to do this funny scene about a watermelon truck overturned. Then we were looking at it from up on the highway, you could see this little bridge, and it looked fucked up. It did not look funny. So what if there’s a dude with his shirt off banging on a horn that’s not honking, I started just getting into the trippiness of what it could be rather than make it some funny thing for him to be marching through.
Yeah, the sound design there is really ‘trippy’. What is the function of having that scene at the middle point of the film?
It just played the coolest. It was going to be just normally shot and we decided to lay this track down the whole thing and shoot it in slow motion. It just became heightened in a whimsical way. I just thought it seemed kind of eerie and beautiful as this man is in this odd headspace is taking his cat to the vet, because he’s worried about his cat.
It’s funny that you use the word ‘whimsical’ because that’s something people avoid. Is that something that you’re completely comfortable with?
Whimsical as long as… I don’t like ‘cute’ shit. Cute movies drive me up a wall. I go bananas when I see a cute movie, I have to leave. But whimsical? I don’t know. Whatever that word means, it’s trying something heightened and magical and a little otherworldly. As long as ‘whimsical’ is not implying ‘cute.’ Cute movies are the only kind I don’t like.
What’s an example?
I’ve learned my lesson, I don’t go negative in interviews any more. Anything that’s cute and has people prancing around being cute and rehearsed – it bothers me.
I guess it’s off-set [in this film] by the mythology – it’s rooted in the work. You mentioned how masculinity and interrogating that is something that’s interesting to you. What is it in [the story of] this film specifically that spoke to you?
I’m fascinated by heartbreak and the rawness of that emotion. How long that emotion can last. Any time a good buddy of mine gets his heart broken, now it’s not even cool, it’s not like: “My girlfriend cheated on me.” It’s: “I’m getting a divorce, David.” Oh god, legal problems and sad. So that sucks, but [the wisdom is] “time will heal it.” But what if time doesn’t do that for you? It’s always been very helpful to me to have a little time and let it breathe to feel through it, feel shitty in your stomach for a bit. Then you feel better later and then hey, seven years later you can call that girl again and be cool. She can become a great friend, you know that kind of thing? But what if that never happens and you just get sad for a long time and forty years later you’re still so sad about that girl. That’s the genesis of it: what if you never got over that? There’s the cliche of “the one that got away.” Everybody’s got that the girl from high school – I certainly do – the one that you thought, “What if that worked out? That’d be great.” Then you’re about to turn 40 and you’re like, “Man, I probably dodged a bullet on that one.” But what if not? What if you still had that passion and that longing to be with that person and your life had gone into a bottle because of it?
What was the story? There was a business man who was very successful, but the one thing he regretted was that?
It was an actor, I may have been discreet. It was an actor I talked to who was pretty successful and it was a drunken evening he was talking to me. I mean, not necessarily a household name, but a successful actor in his later years saying that he gave up, the life of being an actor was what he chose and he regretted it. I thought that was pretty interesting, to have reached success and found a claim, certainly recognition and income, but then that’s not what you wanted. He just wanted her back. I thought that was cool.
What was the other true story that you had heard that was part of the idea you pitched Paul?
This movie is such a collage of encounters and relationships and some of it’s Paul, some of it’s me, some of it’s Al, some of it’s weirdos I’ve met along the way. I like a movie like that, where I can pull from a grab-bag of creative inspiration and put everything into a movie. What would it be like if Al Pacino was in a tree holding a cat? I have a perfect movie to make that: Manglehorn. You can’t put that in The Godfather: Part III. Maybe in third one.
Are you going to be working more in TV, is that something you enjoy?
I love it. I talk among my friends, there’s a lot of people including me – I feel very much the sentiment for traditional American independent cinema as we grew up with, that era of great 1980s filmmakers like Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and 1990s with Tarantino and Allison Anders, and the filmmakers that were really making stuff that was cooking up a lot of ideas for us. Movies like that just don’t have a commercial marketplace right now, in terms of theatrical distribution. There’s a few cute ones a year that are successful, breezy charmers and pleasantries that people will go to see in theatres, but the challenging, interesting, introspective films are more and more difficult to make. So you could look at it like American independent film is dying or you could choose to look at it like I do: American independent film just conquered television. They’ve taken over networks, long-form storytelling. It used to be like The Thorn Birds (1983) and Noble House (1988). Now it’s True Detective (2014) and House of Cards (2013). There’s intelligent product out there. I just did a pilot for Amazon and everybody’s like, “Oh man, you’re getting into the world of TV, what’s that like? What’s Amazon like?” I was like, “Well, they were awesome. They had some creative notes that were all good ideas and they let us cast who we want and edit the show we love.” Where do you find that in independent film where there’s so many shady financiers that pull the money out two weeks before, the actor bails the last minute because he gets a bigger paycheque – the instability of that environment, not to mention the lack of reward because aren’t appreciating it in the theatrical experience, which is – by the time you’ve done your two-weeks sound mix – really designed for that and everybody is watching it in 5-minute increments on their iPhone.
But it’s cool, you know, I’ve seen Joe on the airplane from Venice over here the other day. That was cool, people were sleeping and watching Joe. I do appreciate the great many venues and formats that film can take on, but to me it’s equally alive in television, we’re in the pioneer stage of that medium where people are taking great risks and you don’t need huge movie stars. You just need content that people talk about. The Amazon guy says, “What’s the demographic you guys gotta hit? People who read.” That’s great. That means I’m not shooting for the lowest common denominator, I’m shooting for people who can enjoy something of literary merit and try to make something that doesn’t necessary have to pander to people, but can hopefully elevate.
Does that mean it’s an adaptation?
Not on that particular one, but I’ve got a bunch of TV stuff in the works. It’s a fun time for that, there’s a lot of creative freedom and financial well-being, things that speak to people that want to be making things, who want to work with actors and technicians that are inspiring, while making a sustainable living at it.
When you do something like Eastbound & Down, do you share a crew with the other directors?
Yeah, it’s just me and Jody. That’s the dream job because… “Hey Jody, you got this week? Yeah, I’m going to chill on the beach.” He’ll be like, “Hey man, we’re going to go ahead and shoot that bar scene from your episode at 3, can you come in?” “Alright man, I’ll come in after my yoga class.” I’m not even exaggerating, it’s the coolest job you could ever have because it’s all your friends and everybody’s reasonable about how to go about it, works hard, and is very creative. There’s nobody telling you, “That’s a bad idea.” That environment where it’s supportive. Eastbound is a perfect example because you can break all the rules that even the show establishes: “Let’s just take a tangent and piss the fanbase off,” because we want to, we want to have fun. “Let’s try something different, shake it up, see if it works.” You don’t fall on your ass too much.
We’re doing a new series with Danny [McBride] now, that will be kicking next year. Again, it’s just a really rewarding way to not have to over-analyze the opening weekend box office and have all those efforts of often years of your life and concept come down to some weekend – people not even writing about the movie, writing about the box office of a movie as if that signifies some sort strength of it, because that’s what matters. I think people liking a movie and talking about it and it getting into the cultural vernacular is kind of important, too, but the theatre in Missouri that was considering booking your movie, when they see what you made on Friday, is like “Eh, sorry guys. See you on Netflix.”
I always wondered if [Eastbound & Down] was like the Hong Kong film industry in the 1980s and 90s where you had all these crews working constantly and they just started becoming more experimental because they were so proficient. They were getting bored and trying new things and it sounds like that’s what Eastbound & Down is like.
Totally. It’s experimental because you can. It’s not one of those shows that needs everyone to like it, you know? You just need specific weirdos, enough people of that demographic that HBO finds necessary for their stability and you make something that has an edge for them and it’s fine. This lady, probably in her 60s, came up to me the other day and was quoting the show and really pumped about it. That’s awesome. My mom doesn’t watch that show.
Does that mean that your film work is going to take a back seat for a little bit?
Doesn’t seem like it, I start a new movie in three weeks. Hopefully this movie will come out at some point next year, then I’ve got a number of projects that are in various stages of being written or cast or financed. So again, I just look for creative opportunities. The beauty of things like commercials is that I’m not looking to a movie salary that fits my livelihood and income, you can go work in a creative field that I find really rewarding, but it’s short bursts of adventure. They can take care of all your financial responsibilities, that’s great. Having residual income on some of the projects – I’ve made ten movies now – so it’s kind of crazy thinking about a royalty cheque showing up in the mail, you’re pumped. It’s a nice dinner or a nice car. You never know, that’s the funniest part about it. Having that financial freedom is great and then you can make a movie and not necessarily blow the doors off the box office. They come to me and say we want you to make a big superhero movie, you can wonder if that’s a good idea or bad idea – you can consider things on their creative opportunity, rather than their financial opportunity.
Apart from looking forward, now that you’ve done ten, have you had the occasion to look back and consider the periods people tend to associate with your films? The first four, then the next three…
I haven’t really. I would like to, I’ve really enjoyed my films. I don’t mean that arrogantly, I just mean that I make things that I enjoy and respond to. I’m sure I would look back, if I was to watch the old movies, and roll my eyes at some things – certainly would do things differently on every movie, because I don’t perfect any movie, but go forward and move on. It would be fun to look back and see. They’re all personal in their own way. The last thing I wanted to do after Snow Angels (2007) was make another independent-minded drama. I was depressed, I was in an editing room getting yelled at by people in sad situations all day, every day for months… Meaning the characters in the movie. What happens if I make a studio comedy and have fun and live in some place that has a pleasant climate? I made Pineapple Express (2008) and that works, then people say, “Hey, what do you want to do? You can do anything?” Great, watch. So that’s fun, having those kind of opportunities and the real freedom comes when you’re making other people money. Then they totally get off your back. When people are expecting you to be very rewarding in your financial returns for them, everybody is your best friend, everybody will bend over backwards and be very supportive of your efforts no matter how weird they sound.
Does it help or hinder when you have a bigger star in that creative process? Does it take the heat off or does it put more pressure on?
That’s a great question, because I think it can do both. It can bring a perception. You’re not inventing someone necessarily. If you work with a Nicolas Cage or an Al Pacino, like on my last couple movies, you’re bringing the baggage of their resumes and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For some people that’s an incredible thing, for other people I think it’s something to overcome. I remember making Pineapple Express and I literally wouldn’t say out loud that James Franco is in the movie. People would say, “What’s the movie?” I’d say, “It’s a Seth Rogan movie.” Because everybody associated Franco, at that time, with Flyboys (2006) and Annapolis (2006). I knew I had a secret weapon. “Just watch, I’m going to show this other guy in this thing.” I love the dude, he’s so funny. He was at our screening last night here in Toronto, just a great friend and really wonderful actor. I knew I had it, but at that time, I didn’t want the perception to be ‘just that pretty boy.’ It kind of was that at that time and he really has come so far since then. I think realizing you can’t just define him as – he’s a good looking dude, but he’s also super weird [laughs] and now the world knows. But at that point it was something you had to tip-toe into or not, but I chose to keep it quiet until it was in the can and then unleash him.
Is that why he was initially the straight man [in the movie]?
Yeah, he was the other part. Yeah, it was more just an obvious casting choice. It was much funnier when they flipped it.
Have you ever really engaged with the intertextual associations an audience has with an actor? Have you ever played with that? You called it ‘baggage’, but I’m trying to make it a bit more positive – when you think of all of Al Pacino’s other roles, or Nic Cage’s other roles.
Well, there’s fun things in Manglehorn and some things I didn’t even know. I don’t know if it’s Paul that wrote this or Al that said it, but he leaves the bank and says, “The world is your’s.” He’s saying it to the security guard. I hadn’t seen Scarface (1983) in fifteen years, I don’t remember that line, but then everyone was like, “Oh that’s awesome, that’s from Scarface,” after I’ve locked picture on the movie. So I was like, “I… think that’s cool… I think that’s great…” Things like that, I think in the instance of Manglehorn I think work to the benefit of the film, other times it can be scary. That’s why it’s fun, I like working with someone like Sam Rockwell. It’s just Sam is Sam and he’ll be what he needs to be and he doesn’t bring a lot of preconceptions of who he is, you know? He’s just a fun, very versatile, very talented actor who can be beautifully dramatic and hilariously funny. Every time I hear Rockwell is in a movie, I can’t wait to see it.