Interview: David Gordon Green (director of Manglehorn)
Matthew Turner | On 05, Aug 2015
David Gordon Green is one busy man. After Eastbound and Down and the Nic Cage-starring Joe in 2014, he’s now got a film starring Al Pacino – Manglehorn – out in cinemas and on VOD this week. And he’s working on Amazon’s new comedy series, Red Oaks. And shooting a commercial for Nike.
After our interview with him last year, we catch up with the director to talk Al Pacino, inspiration and his versatile career.
Where did the idea come from? Was Al Pacino already involved?
The idea came from a meeting I’d had with Al about something unrelated. I met him and I started just kind of watching him and listening to him talk and thinking about a version of Al that I hadn’t seen since the early 70s, something a little bit more restrained and soft-spoken and finding a tender side of Al. So I kind of came up with this character on an airplane ride home from that meeting and I was literally just getting the locks changed for my house at this locksmith’s that we ended up shooting the film at, and I started thinking, like, ‘What if Al was a locksmith? What would that movie be about?’ And I gave the seeds of that idea to one of my neighbours, this guy Paul Logan, and I told him about this meeting and told him about my idea of Al as a locksmith and then he wrote the story.
So if your toilet had broken, you might have had a movie where Al was a plumber…
[Laughs] Absolutely! But that’s kind of how I work – I’m kind of logical in that way: if someone steps in front of me and all of a sudden they’re in my next movie. I don’t dig for things that much, I kind of look around at where I’m at and kind of explore the sensibility of an environment. And so a meeting with Al and a hang-out at a locksmith’s shop and all of a sudden a very loose narrative is born.
We’ve seen some speculation that the role is kind of a composite of parts that Al has played in the past. How much of that is true?
There’s a number of things. There’s things that we take from the art direction of Dog Day Afternoon and put it in our bank and there’s this kind of re-occurring yellow flower motif from Sea of Love, I don’t know whether that was intentional or not, but I noticed it and I always thought it was strange. There’s a line from Scarface and some voiceover elements of Carlito’s Way and he actually had like a kind of a bag that he carried in Serpico. So I was very conscious of trying to create something that felt like a love letter to Al Pacino and from the very beginning phase of this character design, I was wondering what would have happened to his character from the movie Scarecrow in later years and so I kind of used that as a starting-off point with the writer, of the tone and sensibility of the character.
Somebody said he’s wearing Serpico’s earrings too…
Oh yeah! I have those in there. We pierced his ear just so the audience would be, like, ‘I wonder why a guy like that would have his ears pierced?’
How aware is Pacino of “Shouty Al” reputation? You have him shouting, ‘I BROKE YOUR LAMP!’ in Manglehorn…
That’s the only scene where he loses his shit, but… no. I wanted this to be the opposite of that, as a rule, and then again, give him some signature moves just for my own entertainment during production. But I really wanted this to be the antithesis of the bravado Al and make it more about the vulnerable Al.
How did Holly Hunter and Harmony Korine come on board?
It was just me and Al talking about who should play his love interest in the movie and she immediately was part of the first conversation and I was very intrigued by her. I’ve been a big fan of her work from Raising Arizona to The Piano to Broadcast News and I’m just always charmed by her. And so I got on the phone with her and just really dug what she had to say about the character and just kind of fell in love with her. And Harmony – I live in Austin, Texas and I was at the premiere of Spring Breakers at South By Southwest and he was doing a Q&A at the end of the show with James Franco and the girls from the movie and I just couldn’t take my eyes off him, I thought he was really charismatic and interesting. So I’d been friends with him and I just emailed him and said, ‘Hey, I’m working on a movie with Pacino, would you ever want to act with him?’ And he wrote back ‘Sounds dope’.
“We shot for five weeks and we didn’t necessarily know what we were doing every day…”
Harmony’s role seems like it could have been a Danny McBride role…
That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. [Laughs]. You know, there were some versions of it where it was a little bit more serious and other versions where it was more comedic. And I think Harmony just kind of landed in this strange, otherworldly place where, just by the nature of his acting style, which is not really acting, it’s just kind of riffing and improvising and trying to irritate Pacino… it makes me laugh a lot, but it’s not jokey, you know I mean? I also like actors that don’t bring a lot of expectation, they just bring curiosity. So I think someone like Harmony, nobody knows what he’s going to do as an actor, including myself, until we’re rolling. And I like that, I like to be an explorer of performance.
Outside of Pacino’s back catalogue, were there any other key influences?
Not really. It was in the art direction and things like that – I wanted it to be this timeless place that had a lot of colourful elements to it and I’d just seen Only God Forgives, and I was really inspired by the colourful background of Bangkok. So I made the crew watch that movie, because I really enjoyed that – it seems ridiculous to think that you have a movie set in Austin, Texas and use a Bangkok backdrop for reference, but we kind of did just try to think of things that felt like either Cuban or Miami or Bangkok, or some place that was a little bit not authentic to Austin and then try to start to reveal the bigger picture, the backdrop, you know, and finally, at the very end of the film, you see that you’re not far from skyscrapers and the downtown area, you know, it opens up from being a little more claustrophobic in the beginning to a bigger picture, landscape and environment.
One of the reasons I asked that was because the bad date scene just reminded me of the bad date scene in Taxi Driver…
[Laughs] Yeah, we were thinking about Taxi Driver actually, although I am also a big fan of Todd Solondz’ movies and actually, after we filmed that scene, I wrote to Todd and told him that I was trying to channel him as we were filming the most awkward date scene since the opening scene of Happiness. But I think that [Taxi Driver] would be relevant too, so yeah, that was a good catch…
What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
It’s just a tricky – you know, the movie doesn’t actually have a traditional script and doesn’t have a traditional editing style – we shot for five weeks and we didn’t necessarily know what we were doing every day, we just would improvise some days and other days… I shot probably ten different endings for the movie, and different tones, like, I would have some scenes done comedically and then try a version where they’re dramatic. And so, for me, it was just trying to find a balance of tone and how I wanted to feel like some sort of subconsciously told narrative, rather than here’s the plot points and here’s the good guys and here are the bad guys, you know? So in the editing process, we just discovered so much that we responded to and then started building it organically that way.
Like the very ending wasn’t in the script – the very ending was only a result of us having two hours to kill before the night came, or we’d finished our afternoon’s work early and we were waiting for it to get dark so we could film the scene where Pacino and Harmony have that scuffle outside of the tanning salon. So we’re just waiting out at this location and then my art director said – oh, another little homage was to Blow Up, with the mimes. And so he said, ‘What if we do this fun little scene where he meets a mime?’
We really love the name Manglehorn. Where did the name come from?
I was in production on Eastbound and Down one year, and I got lost when I was going out to the country to run away from this hurricane and I got lost and turned around and couldn’t figure out where I was and I found a street sign that said Manglehorn Road. It’s in a little town in North Carolina and I just loved that name, I thought Manglehorn just sounds like a beautiful character and I’d kind of been carrying that around for a few months and then when I met Pacino, I thought, ‘Hey, I want to make a movie called Manglehorn with Al Pacino!’ That was when I gave it to the writer to get started.
That’s interesting, because you could have made it the surname of Joe, Nic Cage’s character in your previous film…
Oh yeah! [Laughs] You could go a number of different ways and that’s one of the fun things about the movie.
“I’m probably going to flip the coin and see what happens.”
Presumably having Pacino on board from the beginning means financing isn’t a problem the way it might otherwise have been?
Well, that’s the thing I’ve learned in my last few productions: if you find a great name talent that has international value to it, you can finance a great creatively liberating environment for yourself and Manglehorn is a very low budget movie. We just kind of saw what the world was willing to invest in an Al movie and I’m just finishing right now, editing a movie with Sandra Bullock for Warner Brothers that was the same idea, only it’s on a bigger canvas. So kind of my new motto is just find great actors and the money people will get off your back, if you work with talent that exceeds the value of the movie.
Did you cut anything out of the film that you were sorry to see go?
Oh yeah, shitloads of stuff. There’s some amazing things that we filmed. But I just fell in love with the guy, I mean I fell in love with the character of Manglehorn and some of the things that I put him through, I just couldn’t watch in a movie. So we put him through some dramatic scenarios and he performed them beautifully, but at the end of the day, I wanted the movie to be hopeful. And I wanted to sense that this man could love again and even in the original script, where we took him to the brink and then pushed him off, it wasn’t fair to the character, so a lot of what we’d do is film some harsh or dramatic, negative feeling things for the character and that was part of the juggling act and editing, of finding that perfect balance where we could love him and hope for him.
The film is released on VOD and in cinemas hear. Are you a Netflix / VOD user? And if so, what have you been watching recently? We know you were recently hooked on Scandal…
I am. I watch a lot of movies on Netflix and Amazon. It makes things very convenient. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of TV – I don’t have a lot of time to watch movies these days or go to the theatre, so I’ve been watching Bloodline on Netflix, which I really enjoyed. I found a great old movie called Money Talks, from the ’70s, with Alan Funt, that’s on Netflix that’s really good. I mean there’s some amazing stuff going up [on VOD]. I’m working on an Amazon TV series right now – Red Oaks – which is really fun and getting to know some of the stuff they’ve been doing on Transparent, which I think is really good.
How important do you think VOD is to the future of independent filmmaking and distribution?
For guys like me, I’m a little different than a lot of filmmakers in that I kind of go between a studio movie and an independent film and a television show and a commercial. I’m in production on two TV series this summer, I’m finishing editing a movie and I’m shooting a Nike commercial next week, so I kind of go back and forth, but I think for a lot of independent filmmakers, they’re looking to avenues like Netflix and Amazon like the new wave of television, as a place that they can actually make a living, make challenging content that doesn’t necessarily need to follow major franchise formulas. And so it’s a creatively liberating place right now because people will actually see it. I can’t really speak for the UK, but in the States, independent cinemas are very, very tricky unless you have a couple of very costly promotions or heavy-handed distributors that are going to really get behind your movie. It’s pretty difficult to sell it to an audience, these days, to come to the theatre.
Like, for example, with Eastbound and Down, a show that I worked on – you can’t have a character like that in a mainstream hit film. You can’t evolve a complicated narrative and have the awkward tones of a show like that in a movie that’s going to play to interesting box office, but if you give it time to live and breathe on HBO, people start talking about it and I remember the first season of that show, every time, every week the viewership would double because people were telling their friends about it. And now, the movie life, it’s like, if you don’t come in strong on opening weekend, you’re fucked. And it’s just unfortunate to live with something that makes things that disposable, because it can take you a year or two years or 10 years to make a movie and you’re going to give me Friday and Saturday night to tell me if it’s going to have a good life? That can be really frustrating, because I think many of my favourite films are difficult movies to follow and some that were either lost or misunderstood upon release.
The ’70s was a different era, the ’80s was a different era and now we’re in Major Franchise Land with movies that are rocking the box office and I guess guys like me, if we’re looking for challenging content and creative material as a viewer, we look to television and if we’re looking to make a living so that we can pay the bills and appreciate, you know, millions of people watching what we work hard for, we’re looking to television. Or, you know, some of the big Hollywood movies these days and the bigger studio tentpoles, they have so many people, it gets flipped with TV – now there’s like writers’ rooms and there’s a tonne of executive notes and all these things. Like television used to be that, where it was very aggressively produced and developed programming, now TV is a creative playground where everybody is very free and movies have become a little bit more, I don’t know, observed and restrictive.
“If [your movie doesn’t] come in strong on opening weekend, you’re fucked…”
Do you have a dream project that you’ve always wanted to get off the ground?
Yeah. At some point in my life, which I don’t know if I’ll ever live to see the day that it could be done right, but I’d like to do an adaptation of the Nick Cave book And the Ass Saw the Angel. It’s an incredible book that he wrote, I don’t know, 20 years ago, about a deaf mute named Euchrid Eucrow and it’s just this kind of beautiful American Gothic portrait of this kid. And it’s a book that I read every two years and I’m in love with the poetry of it and it’s got everything that I love from every genre. I would love to do that. And I’d also love to do a version of Lord of the Flies.
An updated version or a straight up version?
I’d want to do one very faithful to the novel, but expanded somewhat. I love William Golding’s writing, but I think there’s just so many things that it begins to tell you and I want to know more. And so I think it would be perfect for an expanded film or a mini-series or something – it could be really cool.
You mentioned that your career spans very different genres and formats. Do you have a particular affinity for any one particular area?
Oh, I love all of them. I mean, I don’t think I could have one without the other in my life. It’s kind of a difficult balance because I’m interested in so many things. And so, I’ve got six things being written right now for me, or books I’m trying to get the rights to. I’ve got such an appetite that needs to be fed and, you know, for example, this movie, I’m just finishing up a movie that I’ve been working on since August of last year and that’s a very long, time-consuming thing. It’s nice to know that next week, I’ll shoot a one-day Nike commercial and that’ll be a fun thing that I’ll be able to edit it together real quick. I’ve got these shows that I’m bouncing back and forth between New York and South Carolina. If I didn’t have that kind of energy, I think I’d probably just get obsessive-compulsive over one thing and I don’t want to be that kind of a filmmaker, that is the guy that, you know, everything must be this way and this is my vision and everything is storyboarded and detailed and preconceived. I’m much more – I don’t know, I like the jazz of the creative process and, hey, we just did a rock song, now let’s do something melancholy and trance, or do something that, you know, I’d like to go from a documentary to a Bollywood musical and not lock myself into a particular directorial fingerprint.
What’s your actual next feature?
My actual next feature, I’m just working on some deals right now, so I’ll know here in a few weeks, I think. But I’ve got jobs carrying me through this year on these shows, so then I’m going to try and look for something for early next year. I’ve got a couple scripts that are ready to go and I’m probably going to flip the coin and see what happens.
Manglehorn is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.