The genre-defying film “Joe” presents an unexpected yet engaging blend in its two central collaborators, director David Gordon Green and actor Nicolas Cage. Achieving a stunning handle on tone and naturalism from Green, it also breaks from what Cage calls “Western Kabuki” acting towards a more rugged, internal performance. The approach uniquely fits its premise: based on the novel by Larry Brown, the film follows Joe Ransom, a Deep South ex-con who attempts to help a drifter boy Gary (Tye Sheridan) escape the abuse of his alcoholic father (a fantastic Gary Poulter).
In our Venice review we called it “a muscular and textured piece of work,” and that depth likely has to do with Green’s level of familiarity with the material. While studying at North Carolina School of the Arts, the “Prince Avalanche” director worked on a 2002 documentary about the Southern author Brown. Alongside “Mud” helmer Jeff Nichols, the crew included DP Tim Orr, Green’s professor Gary Hawkins, and producer Lisa Muskat — all of whom would later collaborate in bringing “Joe” to the big screen.
Recently in Los Angeles, we got a chance to sit down with Green and Cage for an in-depth discussion about the film and its journey, and we started with exactly how they approached the story of an ex-con struggling to steer clear of the law.
David Gordon Green: It's a portrait of a man exhibiting restraint. There's been plenty of Joe's life that was not bound by those chains, and here we're exploring a moment where he's trying to suppress some of those active instincts.
Nicolas Cage: I remember some of my early communications with David, where we were going through the script and pointing out, "He's simmering now, he's set to boil, and now he's going to pop." That really helped me get in touch with the trajectory of the character. He's at this point in his life where he's made past mistakes and doesn't want to go through that again. So he stays at home, drinks at home, but he has this code of moral ethics, and he knows that if someone crosses that code he can erupt and go back to the penitentiary.
It's a righteousness that doesn't necessary line up with the social system of law, but you can kind of understand why he gets to that place. Dr. Hawkins [who wrote the screenplay] even said Joe is like a “samurai who's looking for the right way to die.”.
The Playlist: The film feels extremely lived-in in terms of production design. How much did you alter with the various environments in which you shot?
Green: A lot of it is just really what’s there. The convenience store that they go to, we probably removed a third of the contents inside because we needed room to move the cameras, maybe covered up some logos, things like that. Joe's house, that's all the furniture that was in that house, and then we'd add a gun rack or other Joe accents to it. We created a lot of backstory to the locations as to why they'd be like that, and how we could alter them but not significantly. It felt like a very organic process, shooting the authenticity of the performance and then the natural backdrops.
Cage: There's a very palpable difference between working on a set in a studio somewhere and being on a location, being in a real house that somebody lives in. You soak up those vibrations, and it informs the performance.
[To Cage] You went down early before production started -- did you spend any time in Joe's house prior to shooting there?
Cage: I didn't, but I did spend a month beforehand getting to know everybody, rehearsing with them, walking around with David. We'd go out into the woods or go to a bar in a very rural part outside of Austin and just observe things and try to absorb what I call the “genus loci” of the place, the genie of the place.
There are some places I've made movies where I didn't feel anything; then there's others—Las Vegas, New Orleans, Asia—that you definitely do. Certainly so in Austin, and I think the results speak for themselves. There's something there that people feel when they see the movie. You can smell that house, you can smell the burger, the cigarettes, the pork rinds, the hot sauce.
Did you clear time in the production schedule for those moments of discovery, as in “Prince Avalanche” and the scene with Joyce Payne in the burnt-down house?
Green: Not really. If anything we brought some of the wild cards to the foreground. Like, the first scene that we rolled on was a scene of domestic abuse with Gary and his father, Wade. We wanted to jump on what was uncertain to make sure we had a narrative and emotional backbone that we could reference through the movie. We didn't shoot it linearly, which I typically like to try to do in some movies, but here, there's history to the characters that I wanted to make sure we illustrated. When we referenced them, I wanted to make sure we experienced them already. So it was a little bit different in that way.
And also, we weren't integrating into an environment where people really existed. We were finding characters, finding environments, and then blending the two of them. As opposed to “Avalanche”, where we actually were in a woman's own home.
The way you integrate reality into your films is interesting. As opposed to a film like "Under The Skin," where Jonathan Glazer used real people and then revealed the artifice to them after the scene, it seems you lock everything down beforehand and then aim for reality during filming.
Green: I actually can't wait to see “Under The Skin”. Jonathan Glazer is brilliant.
Cage: I don't know this movie, what is it?
The film's kind of a "Man Who Fell To Earth" situation with Scarlett Johansson, who plays an alien stalking men in a van on the streets of Glasgow.
Cage: Wait, is this like some Cronenberg, Marilyn Chambers thing?
Yeah, it's pretty amazing. But they shot portions of it by installing hidden cameras in Scarlett's van and having her pick up real Glaswegians.
Green: Which she absolutely could.
Cage: Holy shit. That sounds incredible.
It is. But for instance, the scene in “Joe” where he and Gary look for the dog -- it had a very lived-in feel that set everyone involved loose.
Green: Well, that is pretty much what happened. It was really just knowing Nic and Tye and wanting to find those moments of levity that they had. So none of that was scripted. Nic had this idea of the lighter early in production, he sent the props guy to find this great Dupont lighter that made the "ping" noise, and then used it as an accessory in the movie. And then we had a location of this old boat graveyard—which I actually use again in [Green’s next film] “Manglehorn”—and just let them walk and talk. I don't think there was ever a time in the movie where I'd say, "Nic, you missed a line." We'd just let it unfold, and when it felt right we'd move on.
Cage: He did say once, "Order in the court."
Green: Huh? Wait, what?
Cage: [To Green] "Order in the court." I was doing this scene in the bar and I was getting pretty loopy trying to find the performance, making a lot of jokes and forcing the bartender woman to have some beer. I remember you just went, [yells] "Order in the court!" [Both laugh]
Yeah, but I just wanted to find this politically incorrect father figure, filtered through the vessel of an ex-con who maybe isn't doing the right thing by giving him a beer, or saying if you use the “ping” from a lighter you'll get hookers. Oddly that helped the film later on though when Joe gives Gary the lighter, because when I need to light a cigarette it provides a better way for me to invite Gary Poulter's character into my truck. Normally Joe wouldn't want anything to do with his character.