“The uncertainty appeals to me.” An interview with David Gordon Green (Joe)
Ivan Radford | On 25, Jul 2014Reading time: 15 mins
David Gordon Green’s Joe arrives in UK cinemas and on VOD today. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a teenage boy, Gary, taken under the wing of an ex-con, Joe, while being raised by his abusive father, Wade. The film boasts three stellar performances from Mud’s Tye Sheridan (Gary), newcomer Gary Poulter (Wade) and Nic Cage as Joe – sporting his first ever on-screen beard.
It’s considered by some to be a return, of sorts, to Green’s earlier film-making days, when he developed a knack for working for younger and non-professional actors in his home state of Texas. Since then, he has gone on to make everything from mainstream comedy (The Sitter) and TV series (Westbound and Down) to stoner crime flicks (Pineapple Express) and existential drama (Prince Avalanche).
What ties together such a varied career? We sit down with the director and chat tacos, TV, facial hair and the cult of Tye Sheridan.
We start with the most important subject: Nic Cage’s beard.
“That was my idea,” says David. “I was trying to make it very distinctive and he’d never had a beard in a movie. I asked Nic why and he said nobody’s ever asked him for one.”
So that’s his actual facial hair? 100% real Cage Beard? “Yes,” confirms David. “He’s got a nice, full beard! I wish I had one.”
Does that mean he suffered from beard envy? Green chuckles. “I have, like, 47 beard hairs, which doesn’t add up to much…”
Nic got involved after David sent him a letter with the script, saying what a big fan he was and wondering why he hadn’t worked in a year.
“I said I wanted to buy him a taco and talk to him about it. He got back to me within three days and he’d not only read the script but he’d read the book [by Larry Brown].”
The pair met in Austin, where Green hails from, and had that taco – “Maudie’s Too in Austin. You should go. All the best tacos are in Austin.” – and Nic agreed to be in the film. And grow a magnificent beard.
It’s a smart bit of casting from the director, who is well aware that the actor’s reputation for loud and crazy means that putting him in a quiet, restrained role leaves you waiting for an outburst.
“That’s the hope with the character,” he agrees. “That’s the beauty of casting Nic. He brings a baggage… I think is fun to play with the audience’s expectations.”
The film constantly wrong-foots you in that sense, hopping between kindness and violence in a way that echoes Cage’s uneasy balance between calm and anger. In one scene, a character attacks another, only to pause moments later and gently kiss them on the head.
“That’s what always appealed to me about Larry Brown’s novel,” says Green, getting enthused. “The balance between brutality and tenderness. The kiss moment you refer to, it wasn’t in the book or the script – it was just our actor who felt like he needed to redeem his moment and justify it in some way. It was a spur of the moment idea.”
Gary Poulter, who plays Wade, was a homeless non-professional who tragically passed away soon after filming finished.
“He was just a true talent, raw and unnurtured,” says Green, sincerely.
He explains that Poulter just “showed up” at a bus stop when they were researching the piece.
“I wanted to find some vagrant families I could interview and a get sense of the reality of a modern day family on the road and on the hustle and my casting director met Gary downtown. He said I should bring him in for the guy cutting up the deer.”
“He’s got a really interesting charisma and an interesting texture to his face,” he adds. “Half his ear was bitten off and no teeth. And he had beautiful blue eyes… and he could breakdance really good!”
Poulter auditioned for one part, but was so impressive that they asked him to come back for another part. Then, they suggested he try for the role of the dad.
“He came back next week and put down an audition that was incredible. It was not even a question. We were talking to reputable actors and this guy was just far and away the best.”
Green was already planning to work with Gary again, he says, until his sad death. “A one-stop shop, unfortunately. A beautiful guy to work with. We’d already talked about what we could do next.”
The director has repeatedly worked with non-professional actors as well as trained performers. Gary, he says, was “very disciplined”.
“Some guys, like Gary, I can just let him go. I dealt with him exactly the same as I would with a professional actor. Others that don’t take direction very well but are brilliant in their own right, you just have to let loose and figure out how to edit it.”
“Nobody’s ever asked [Nic for a beard]”
Letting loose brings us back to that idea of restraint, which Joe echoes by introducing a brutal pet dog. The idea of civilised human versus animal off the leash may not be subtle, but it’s a big part of how Green thinks of the project.
“I always referred to [Nic Cage’s] character as a dog. And the way Joe refers to Gary’s father as a snake. It’s just an outdoor adventure movie about a dog and a snake!”
That mix of outdoor adventure and coming-of-age recalls another movie: Jeff Nichols’ Mud, which also starred Tye Sheridan and had its own snake scene. When we start talking about Tye, Green races off again, excited.
“He had just the right amount of experience of when to hit his mark, yet he still feels raw and is still learning. It’s just a lot of fun to work with a guy that talented.”
The young boy first impressed Green in Tree of Life, when Terrence Malick’s casting director found him. When Jeff was making Mud, he shared a producer with Terry and was invited to the editing room to see Tye. The same thing happened when Nichols was editing Mud: David was in the cutting room and decided to approach him too.
Tye Sheridan, it seems, is something of a cult, a movement that secretly recruits new members in editing rooms across the industry.
“Everyone just spreads the word of Tye,” Green confirms eagerly. “When we’ve had an exciting relationship with him, we just start hustling for him.”
You can hear the passion Green has for developing new talent. Does he approach young people differently to older, professional performers? “I think I communicate well with adolescents and new talent of any age, who don’t have the resume or experience of other actors. I just enjoy introducing people to the process, no matter what their age.”
Together, Poulter and Sheridan have a father-son bond that is both horrible and yet unexpectedly moving. “It was trying to find those levels or humanity that connected these guys,” comments Green. “He was no fatherly role model but [I] wanted that to be distinctive and real, but also brutal, you know?”
The film begins with a shot of the young boy and his dad sitting down in the sunlit forest, before cutting to Nic Cage’s older man laying in bed awake. For a while, you actually think you’re watching a flashback. Was that an intentional move?
“Absolutely! It was conscious in production but also in editing, trying to structure almost a cosmic connection between these two characters.”
Green’s storytelling skull partly lies in his ability to use structure and visuals so subtly to inform his cast’s natural performances.
“If Joe is aware of his environment and something’s heightened is going on around him, he’s alert, he’s looking, he’s curious,” continues the director. “And then Gary is wandering in the fields and sitting in the graveyard. There’s a moment when Joe turns and looks off camera and there’s Tye who reaches over and moves the camera away from him. It’s trying to layer in… I wanted to play it like a flashback to see how these characters ultimately, emotionally entangle.”
That attention to composition extends to the beginning and end of the film, which echo each other in a cyclical way. But while he is technically astute, Green also has a loose approach to material and process – the kind of laid-back vibe you can imagine from a guy who directed Pineapple Express.
True to form, he admits, the ending was re-written two-thirds through production.
“I spoke to Gary Hawkins, the writer, and he came up with a great little scenario. Initially, it was “How do we film this in an hour and a half?” because the producers were like “We don’t have any time to redo the ending!” We were running out of days… So we came up with something really efficient that tells the story. We did it in basically two shots and it book-ends the style of the film.”
“Everyone just spreads the word of Tye…”
After Pineapple Express, Green stuck with James Franco and Danny McBride for Your Highness, before going on to make The Sitter – the most mainstream, and least acclaimed, movie of his career. Since then, he has directed Prince Avalanche and Joe, which were both better received and made on lower budgets. How does David feel about the perception of Joe as a “back to roots” indie project?
“What the definition of “indie” is is very subjective,” he replies, typically serious and joking at the same time. “It depends on who’s writing the cheque!”
“I think the only really indie movies are people who finance their own movies and don’t have anybody to answer to other than themselves.”
But one vein that has run throughout his work is his sense of humour. While he agrees that it’s remained the same – “Some people say the opposite, but…” – he acknowledges that it gets reined in depending on the project. More than that, though, he appears to enjoy the negotiation of boundaries.
“If you’re making a big budget “comedy film”, you need a lot of people to laugh at everything. So your sense of humour is a little more towards accessible comedy. Or when it’s something like Eastbound & Down, I can be a little more twisted about it because I know I’m not going to be there when someone’s watching it!”
He laughs – something that you do in both Prince Avalanche and Joe, despite their serious appearance.
“With something like Joe, it’s almost necessary so it doesn’t get bleak,” he argues. “You want a sense of relief and humanity that I think humour can bring.”
The other constant in David’s life has been Danny McBride, who, along with Jody Hill and Green, co-founded the production company Rough House Pictures.
“[Danny and I have] spent a lot time collaborating. He and I went to college together. I remember the first day he moved into the dorms! We’ve always bonded on our taste in movies. In a weird way, I said: “If Nicolas Cage doesn’t do this movie, Danny, you’re going to have to age 10 years and do it!” So he read the script and gave notes and watched rough cuts and gave notes.”
McBride and Jody, he says, know him well enough to stop him being “overly self-indulgent”.
“He’s there as support but also challenging me. We just finished this movie with Al Pacino, Manglehorn [which sees Pacino play a locksmith who is still hung up over the love of his life] and it’s great.
“Danny knows me so well to tell me: “Hey Dave, this is entertaining now, but in two months you’re gonna hate it.””
Are he and Jody usually right?
“Yeah, they are! I remember watching a rough cut of Joe at 9am on a Sunday after a proper night drinking… just hearing their voices is a very valuable part of the process for me.”
His back catalogue may appear haphazard, but his career’s consistent mix of serious and funny, dark and light, big and small, seems logical when you hear him talk about beards and tacos as casually as he does his creative process. For Green, you get the impression, it’s less about mainstream vs indie and more about familiar vs unfamiliar.
“In an ideal world, I’m balancing low budget movies, big budget movies, TV commercials, shows, you know, I just like to do a bit of everything. Comedy series with dramatic films. It all has its relevance. I wake up very whimsical: today I feel like doing this. A lot of the uncertainty is very appealing to me.”
He dreams of his career being like Werner Herzog, he confesses, where he can “make movies all over the world and chase the craziness of humanity on its uncivilised journey”.
Spending time in Texas, though, is still a priority – David has recently become a father as well as filmmaker. Joe, then, is perhaps more a geographical homecoming than an artistic statement of independence.
“I’m very comfortable when I work at home,” he says. “I have three-year-old twin boys so working close to home has been very valuable. I have enough insanity in one side of my personal life! So I’ve been trying to stabilise my professional life a bit.”
“Now that, you know, the kids are practically full grown at three and a half,” he laughs, “I feel like now is a point where I can make more significant geographical departures.”
“A lot of the uncertainty is very appealing to me”
Departure is a key word for the director, who embraces new territory as much as he extols the virtues of tacos in Austin. The changing world of digital, then, is one more frontier to explore.
“I just did a TV pilot last week [for Amazon’s new original series, Red Oaks] and had a blast doing it,” he says. You can tell he relishes the thought of being “able to have other platforms to take certain ideas to… Or if I had a horror or science fiction idea, I could reach into that bag of tricks.”
“I like what [Amazon] do,” he continues, his enthusiasm taking off once more. “They just play the pilot and see if anyone likes it. Steven Soderbergh produced it for me, it’s about a country club in New Jersey in the 1980s. The star is Craig Roberts, the young actor from the movie Submarine, who I got together with here in London a few days ago, which was fun. It’s him and Paul Reiser and Richard Kind. it’s an eclectic ensemble!”
He highlights the creative freedom VOD content offers to “get away with doing things we wouldn’t have been able to do” in a cinema or a TV series.
“Tonally, you can blur the line between comedy and drama a lot more when you don’t have a test screening audience telling you what’s funny, you know? You can go sensitive and subtle, you can go with letting a moment breathe. Especially with Amazon, where it doesn’t have to be 28 minutes and 30 seconds an episode. There’s no reason it can’t be 31 minutes.”
Apart from Amazon – “I just got my account there!” – does he use any other streaming VOD services?
“I have Netflix and Amazon. And HBO Go.”
What was the last thing he watched? “I just watched True Detective, I just finished that. On Netflix, I’ve been watching The League and I’ve just started Scandal. In a soap opera way, it’s kind of pulled me in!”
With Joe out in cinemas and on VOD the same day, how does he feel about digital distribution?
“I have mixed feelings. Like most people my age, I have the romantic notion of going to see movies in a theatre as an escape, a wonderful experience to enjoy with a crowd, but I know, as a father and consumer in every format and platform, it can be really nice to sit and home on a Friday night and not have to spend money on a babysitter and go wait in line…”
He recalls going to see Only God Forgives, which was given a day-and-date release in the US.
“I was in the middle of Oklahoma City when it was first released and I was so excited to seee it that I first watched it in a hotel room! But I quckly realised it was a theatrical experience and I turned it off and waited patiently for a few weeks until I could get to a theatre to see it properly. They got my money twice on that one!”
Even that torn desire between digital and theatrical seems apt for a guy so happy chasing every opportunity he can. He remains upbeat about Amazon’s Red Oaks.
“Again, I’m a guy who likes to try a little bit of everything. It’s certainly a new experience, but it seems like a really good operation over there, really cool executives letting us do our thing. I had a lot of fun.”
He may refer to Nic Cage’s character Joe as a dog, but you get the impression that David Gordon Green is the one always playfully tugging at a leash, no matter what it’s attached to.
“We’ll see what happens,” he finishes, optimistically.
You can almost hear him running across the car park for the next taco to come his way.
Joe is out now in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema. Head this way for our review.