David Gordon Green has proved himself to be a remarkably flexible and unpredictable filmmaker. After All the Real Girls, he has vacillated between blockbuster comedy and intimate indie. His evolution from George Washington to Pineapple Express to Prince Avalanche brings him now to Joe.
In this dark drama, Nicolas Cage plays Joe, an ex-con who befriends a young boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan). The boy’s abusive father Wade (Gary Poulter) only further ignites Joe’s urge to step in as a father figure. As Gary’s safety is pushed to dangerous limits, Joe must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice and where his redemption lies.
I chatted with Green at The Four Seasons in LA this week about his complex film. It was refreshing to see such a respectable filmmaker be so incredibly personable. After a few Texas hellos, we got down to business, as Green revealed insights on his film family, his role as a ringmaster of sorts, and the complexities of Joe’s characters: Green has always had to ability to make his subjects simultaneously monstrous and sympathetic.
Meredith Alloway: You’ve said that the story of Joe is ultimately about people that sculpt your life. It’s fitting that screenwriter Gary Hawkins has been such an inspiration for you. Was that a theme you were interested in exploring?
David Gordon Green: Yes. It certainly was. Everybody has father figures or older brothers or inspirational teachers or gurus of their lives that help keep them on track. For me, it’s a perfect circle in a lot of ways because Gary Hawkins was a very valuable professor of mine in college. He introduced me to the work of Charles Burnett, Jerry Shatzberg, Polanski, [and] Terrence Malick. A lot of these guys that have become very influential in my movie-loving appetite were introduced to me by a guy who knew I would connect with the regional stories and voices of these directors. Having met Gary, who had a taste that was a little left of center and saw that little twinkle in my eye when I started to discover these films, it’s amazing to now be collaborating with him on a professional level. He introduced me to Larry Brown, the novelist who wrote the book Joe is based on. My first job was working on a documentary about Larry, with Jeff Nichols as another production assistant on it; Gary was the director of the film. I work with quite a large family of filmmakers.
MA: I was going to ask about that, your producer Lisa Muskat and then Tim Orr, your DP. Then you’ve also got Seth Rogen and that gang. What are those family relationships like? It’s definitely something all filmmakers look for.
DGG: I don’t think that’s what all filmmakers look for. I have a lot of filmmaker friends, in fact, that want the opposite of that. They don’t hire the same crew over and over because then they feel like they’re getting too close and emotionally attached. Personally, I like the social endeavor of the production process. I love having people to challenge me, to question what I’m doing, because if I know they’re coming from an intelligent and supportive place, wanting what’s best for the end product, those are questions I should be asking during the production process. I work with people that are inspiring and challenging. I’m fortunate enough that they happen to be my friends, and at the end of a hard day we can go out and celebrate with a beer or commiserate about how to be better the next day.
MA: You also
challenge yourself with actors you work with. You want your actors to get their
hands dirty and pull apart what you’ve written. Tell me about some specific
moments in the script where Nicolas and Tye brought something new to their
DGG: There’s a sequence where they’re searching for Joe’s dog. It’s all improvised. These are just two guys that have gotten to know each other over a few weeks, gotten to trust each other and have a sense of humor; know their characters and how they’re relating to each other. They’re just speaking from their hearts and they’re having fun with it and we get to see the humanity and humor of these characters. It’s one of my favorite sequences as well. 'How to make a cool face.’ The cigarette lighter--that was an idea that Nic had with a prop, and we integrated it into the movie. I don’t approach the process of directing movies like I’m the authority. I’m more the ringmaster of the circus. Let’s bring all the animals in the ring, and then let’s get loose. Play, feel out what works.
MA: You do have that playful tone in the film but underneath it there are some heavy issues. There are over a million kids in the US who are homeless, but you rarely see movies made about it. Was that something you were interested in exploring as well?
DGG: The dramatic realities of the novel really intrigued me. They’re heartbreaking circumstances that lead to inspirational discoveries. There’s difficult subject matter that’s dealt with … in tenderness. That was one of the things that really intrigued me about the story, the juxtaposition of brutality and humanity. Where you can find someone that has very likeable qualities and then find his flaws? Someone who has monstrous qualities, what’s sympathetic about them? Challenge the audience. Challenge the characters.
MA: There’s a scene that wasn’t in the novel with Wade, Gary’s father. You wrote it in to show more of his humanity. Why?
DGG: Gary Poulter, the actor that played Wade, who’s amazing, was a street performer in downtown Austin and he was a break-dancer. When you have an actor like that with a face like that and ability like that, you want to utilize it. If you don’t, you’re a fool. We knew he had these abilities and this amazing charisma and he was really funny, a wonderful guy in terms of our chapter together in his life. I thought it would be important to add some threads of humanity, humility and sensibility to this character that was going to such villainous places: he’s the bad guy in the movie but I wanted to make it more complicated than that.
MA: The scene where Wade attacks the other homeless man is crucial. Did you approach that scene to encapsulate the idea that a man is a villain, but perhaps he’s the product of his environment?
DGG: I’m not sure how much Wade is a product of his environment. I think he’s mentally ill and he’s taking out some of his own frustration and disappointment with himself out on his son. And I think he’s desperate, as he sees his son slipping away from his family life and drawn to Joe, as he sees his son rising to the responsibility of being the caretaker of his mother and his sister. I think it’s humiliating for Wade to deal with the descent of masculinity. He does what a lot of desperate people do, really unfortunate actions.
MA: There’s also the thread of alcoholism and substance abuse in a lot of your work, in Pineapple Express and even Prince Avalanche. Being from the south as well, I see it’s a big issue. Do you approach it from a personal place?
DGG: Alcohol, drugs, violence, affection, all these things illustrate the emotions that are explored with these characters. They’re all devices to get to know people, devices to watch a character exhibit something internal. In Avalanche, the characters use alcohol as medication and as a cleansing that connects two people in a joyous way. It’s a celebration of life, and getting over it, and moving on.
MA: I wish I were part of that party.
DGG: That’s a good party! That’s a positive party. In Pineapple Express, it’s what slows these guys down but also makes them really likeable. In Joe, it’s illustrated as a disease as something that really debilitates the character of Wade. At the same time, it helps suppress some of the actions Joe might normally do. He uses it to medicate. If he sees Gary getting hit by his father, and he’s about to open the door, luckily he’s got a little sauce in his truck to take that edge off. I don’t think Joe’s an alcoholic, per se. If so, he’s highly functional. I don’t think he’s ever late for work, I don’t think he wakes up too hung over. I don’t think he needs alcohol to talk to the ladies.
MA: Was it a conscious decision to have the last shot not have Gary looking at Joe, but down at his real father, Wade?
DGG: It was a conscious decision for a couple of reasons. One is, I wanted to reveal that his father was dead. I didn’t want viewers to see it through Joe’s eyes because that was less important. I wanted them to see it through his son’s eyes. Then, technically, we shot it day for night. It wouldn't have looked consistent if we were to show it from Joe’s perspective anyway. There’s a different exposure to it.
MA: It’s a story about redemption and Joe finds it when he puts himself in front of Gary and says I will commit this act you’re about to commit. Did you, even in your imagination, explore if Gary had gone through with killing his father?
DGG: Always. I think to communicate effectively with Nic, we needed to be in Joe’s head, and Joe’s playing out the story in his own head. That’s why Joe steps up to really be the protector in that situation. He’s considered what will happen if Gary falls on the other side of the fence.
MA: You had to go there with Nic to visualize it.
DGG: We talked about what would happen. You know if someone doesn’t step in, you know Gary’s capable. He’s a man. He’s not an adolescent in this movie. It’s the coming of age into manhood. He says to Joe, ‘I could kill him just as well as you could.’ And Joe says, ‘I know you could.’ Earlier in the film Joe says, ‘I don’t like to get my hands dirty in every little thing.’
MA: This is not a
little thing, though.
DGG: This is not a little thing, so it’s time to get his hands dirty.
Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm "All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing for film and stage.