February 16, 2003|I met David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider in the lounge mezzanine of Denver's historic Mayan Landmark Theater; they met each other while attending the North Carolina School of the Arts. Green: "I wrote the script for All the Real Girls before George Washington, while Paul and I were still in college. I wanted to make a movie that captured the genuine feeling of being young and in love." Schneider: "We both got dumped by girls that we were madly in love with. We were completely depressed and we just sat in my room listening to the most melancholy music we could find."
Green represents a different kind of film brat: He's outspoken in his disdain of the New York and Los Angeles circles. (Green worked in a doorknob factory to help fund his first film George Washington.) Reared on the transcendent cinema of the American '70s (citing, in our first moments together, Electra Glide in Blue, Bless the Beasts & Children, McCabe & Mr. Miller, and the early work of Errol Morris), Green's films are delicate evocations of the grace of imperfection, his ability to locate his quietly observed characters as products in (sometimes ironic) symbiosis with their environment garnering frequent comparison to the films of Terrence Malick. Green's work is more specific than that, however, in that both of his films to this point have touched upon the sublime of archetypal liminal passages: first-love, first-loss, and endless summers--the best bits of Days of Heaven, in other words, found particularly in George Washington's non-omniscient narrator.
A FILM FREAK CENTRAL tradition now to ask our interview subjects, when in pairs, to photograph one another for our graphics, the snaps that Green and Schneider chose for one another--and chose with a great deal of glee--are indicative of the sort of eye towards imperfection that populates their stories of heroic boys with unformed heads and of children weighted by adult suffering. Far less structured than the usual interview, our story begins somewhere around a discussion of Haskell Wexler's incomparable Medium Cool.
DAVID GORDON GREEN: [Medium Cool star] Harold Blankenship is the best child actor of all time, in the history of movies. There's never been anyone better. He's insane. I'm trying to find him. Those American filmmakers [in the '70s] were just amazing--Coppola, Rain People? Amazing, brilliant movie--underestimated. Last Picture Show, Paper Moon...
CENTRAL: The Conversation is my favourite film.
DGG: It's not my favorite movie, but it may be the best movie ever made. I saw an academy ratio of that one, I'm not sure where the print came from--you know, I'd give anything to sit in on an editing session at Walter Murch's barn in Simi Valley. I love Michael Ritchie, too--Smile and Downhill Racer.
PAUL SCHNEIDER: (from across the mezzanine) Aw man.
DGG: What's wrong?
PS: We're a little light on the chocolate.
DGG: That's all right, we can take it blonde.
wanted to ask you about the dreamlike naturalism of your films,
particularly of George Washington,
and of your focus on those exact moments of transition in a young
DGG: You don't overanalyze it, you just think simply. If there's anything that you learn from watching Malick movies is that you break everything down into the utter simplicity of a place, of characters, of mannerism, of dialogue. That it's not about trying to outwit yourself or outwit your characters and make everyone seem so clever and glib--it's just about the bones of finding a place and finding an emotion. If you don't exaggerate things too much, their dialogue and their movements and their wardrobe--every element artistically then... Then you have this naturalistic mannerism wherein the actors feel free to be human beings.
PS: (arriving with chocolate milk) Sorry it's so light on chocolate.
DGG: (sing-song) It's going to be dee-licious! (looking at his beverage) It's more mulatto than blonde, really. (laughter) It's really about observation and listening--and any movie that I really respect is, from the characters to the actors to the audience, about taking the time, taking the pause. It's not about an inundation of exposition, story, narrative, but the details in the background. Sounds, lack of sounds, sense of place. I think that contemplative, meditative nature of the process leads to that definition of a dreamlike naturalism.
you use phrases and theories like "story of place" and "sounds versus
lack of sounds" you almost sound as though you're referring to British
Romanticism, or a Faulknerian naturalism-into-modernism.
PS: Well actually, Yeats is... (laughs)
DGG: I'm the most illiterate... (laughs) Actually, I've never finished a full-length novel.
PS: There is, I'll tell ya, and you can relate to this, Walter--see, I'm the nerd that likes The Thin Red Line, I think it's the best Malick movie--and suck it if you feel differently. (laughter) In all his films, his stuff read the wrong way could be so pretentious, but the language he uses is such earthy language. Nick Nolte talks about all that he's sacrificed, poured like water on the ground--he's not trying to impress you with his language. In the same way, these films, I don't think that anyone's trying to be clever and bounce you out of the realism of the environment--so, poetry not really, but I've always been really influenced by the earthiness of certain authors. Hemingway...
PS: Right, exactly, exactly. No one's trying to impress me.
think that cleverness is, in large part, the death of modern cinema.
DGG: I just couldn't agree with you any more. I've already gotten in trouble for talking about this, but let me just say that I couldn't agree with you any more. Really, though, as far as literary influences, I confess that I've really probably only read twenty books that I didn't have to read for school--and of those, there are only a couple that I've read more than once. The two that matter in this context, one was porn.
PS: Porn? A porn book?
DGG: Have you read hardcore Sixties pornography novels? Hard Rocks?
DGG: Yep, that's a classic. No--the two books are Huckleberry Finn and A Hundred Years of Solitude.
naturalistic, they each have elements of magic realism as well.
DGG: That's right--in both of those books there's this dream-like sensibility of the language that they use. I mean, as much magical realism as there is at play in the Marquéz, you can read any page--and that's all you need, I can't hold a conversation about the book--you read any page and there's something interesting at work there. Something is happening justified by the characters rather than the story pushing the characters around.
PS: To extrapolate on that...
PS: (laughs) Right, to exfoliate on that, um, I don't read any fiction these days because what I'm so much more interested in these days is the lack of artifice of documentaries. Like we've talked about, stuff like Thin Blue Line or Harlan County, U.S.A..
DGG: Street Wise...
DGG: Lindsay Anderson is the best in the world.
PS: Right before we started this film I saw a clip of David Smith talking, who is Susan Smith's husband after she killed their kids. They go to talk to this guy--he has this great accent and here's this guy, all deference to him, who doesn't sound that educated but he has something going on in his voice. Talk about a guy who really wants, really needs to say something but just can't get it out. And this guy was talking and it was fascinating--he's trying to sound fancy, spitting out all these words with this super southern accent, trying to sound fancy and there's something boiling in his chest. He's gotta get it out, but he just doesn't have the mechanism. I would've watched that guy all day long--more than some other idiot in some fake movie...
DGG: Training Day?
PS: Right! So much more than Training Day--I don't wanna look at that shit all day.
you seen Antwone Fisher?
DGG: (laughs sardonically) I can't wait to see that!
wanna scoop your eyes out.
DGG: Cinematic influences that people cite usually, actors/writers/directors--they look at films that have some sort of major influence on their society and I think that in our lack of poetic education and literary...
PS: In our lack of smarts...
DGG: (laughs) Right, I think that what we look at is our interactions with people and our environments--that we're touching on some of the same illness as poetry, trying to vocalize what can't be vocalized.
PS: Right, I mean if I just studied what people generally acknowledge as the great actors--people like Denzel Washington and his carefully overheated speeches--wouldn't my acting be just the same kind of incestual, warmed-over soup? I'm far more interested in listening to one of my friends back in Asheville talking about how he wants to kill his barber.
DGG: We got a lot of that with George Washington, a lot of people saying, "Who'd wanna listen to a bunch of black kids talking about nothing."
stop being a pretentious asshole in a second...
PS: (laughs) Don't you never.
this poem by Wallace Stevens that talks about the nothing that's there
and the nothing that isn't.
PS: That's what was so hard about this last movie--there's definitely more narrative to it--more plot structure. Things happen in a more traditional way--events have pay-offs. The challenge was to how to go about using language to set up and pay off without sounding like you were setting up and paying off...
DGG: Without sounding manipulative, without sounding like you were just another manufactured attempt at mediocrity.
PS: Every time we had to explain something we were like, "Fuck--how do we go about this without getting into exposition?"
DGG: You have to give the audience some credit, I think, is what it boils down to. You give them credit for being able to think for themselves. You leave them with controversy, with some strings untied, with some events open-ended.
PS: A lot of break-ups don't have any kind of reason, y'know, they just disintegrate for no real reason. I mean, something real happens in this film, but by the end you realize, I hope you realize, that that's not Paul's problem, that there's something else going on, that maybe the bad thing is life and part of growing up is dealing with that reality.
lot of the beauty of your films comes from that celebration of struggle
and imperfection--to the point of deformity.
DGG: Well, struggle... Imperfection, that's infinitely more interesting to me. Imperfection is sad and funny and that's everything in my life, that blend of funny/sad. Life's tragic and hilarious.
DGG: And it's important to look at exactly where Morris drew the line between that honesty and the sell-out of everything after: The Thin Blue Line.
PS: You didn't like Mr. Death?
DGG: Fuck that! I hate, hate, hated it. It sucks so bad... it sucks so bad.
PS: Wow, no kidding? I guess we haven't talked about that.
DGG: Compare that to Vernon, Florida.
that you mention that, that's exactly the film I compared to All
the Real Girls.
DGG: That's exactly the film I jerked off to for twenty years of my life. That, and Gates of Heaven--the guy with the jar of sand that grows, but he means it and Errol at that time could sit back and see that and not be so much in your face as a presence in that moment.
PS: But he's a massive presence in The Thin Blue Line.
DGG: See, but that's what I'm saying, that's where it stopped. It's a very biased narrative movie, but it's a very emotionally honest movie--I don't think his stuff is like that anymore.
PS: What I'm taken by in Morris is his ability to do a Vernon, Florida where he just turns on the camera at the right moments and then do a movie like The Thin Blue Line where he's in there with multiple recreations, with evolving recreations, even--a movie where he's smart enough to make you think the way that he thinks. The same way that Lars Van Trier can do a Zentropa and then do Breaking the Waves.
the same time, though, Vernon, Florida has a very
sneaky sort of structure to it.
DGG: And he makes subtle statements in compositions--in editing. He's an amazing smartass. He's a genuine asshole and I love a genuine asshole, but now he's gotten cocky and that's not as interesting to me. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is like a cartoon to me and I hate that. But the discussion of imperfection is interesting to me because it highlights how much we've been conditioned to watch movies in a certain way--as not any sort of reflection of real.
PS: A lot of people, when they hear Nadia [from George Washington] screw up her voiceover they say, "She just fucked up, they're just kids, they don't know what they're doing--this is ridiculous"--and then there are maybe five people out of sixty who might say, "Oh my God"--and maybe those are the people who watched the movies that we watched and in the same way.
me about this idea of yours to do a Tarkovsky-like sci-fi movie.
DGG: I really want someone to give me money to do that. It'd be a movie starring Paul Rudd--it'd be three-hours long.
PS: I play a male nurse in it.
DGG: Right, you play "Erickson" in it. George Smith is this buddy of ours, this writer who's this amazing cinematographer and he wrote this screenplay that just blows my mind. He's too smart. It's about finding the right time to make that film, y'know.
PS: George is the kind of guy who'll write the Great American Novel and they'll find him mowing a lawn or something for a living. He's spinning off this stuff, smarter than all of us, and he doesn't seem to care--it's not fair, I mean, for those of us who try so hard.
of Tarkovsky, and speaking of the Great American Novel, I read that
you're doing the adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces
from a script by Steven Soderbergh.
DGG: Yep. It's going good. We're trying to get the finance and the cast--we're putting it together. It's solid it's solid. That was the third book I'd reread, by the way, I didn't want to mention it because it sounds too much like a lead.
you seen Adaptation.? I'm thinking you're not much
a fan of it for its cleverness.
DGG: No, not so much--but it does put your balls on the line and any film that does that is valuable whether I do or do not like it. There's several movies the last couple of years that I found innovative in a way or progressive in a way that I think is supportive of the ultimate environment that the filmmaking community should support and there are others, like the most successful independently produced romantic comedy of all time, that is so detrimental to everything that art should stand for that it makes me sick. I couldn't watch it--it makes me sick. I saw part of it once, another hour of it on an airplane, and every single person on the plane was laughing and I just wanted to scream, "What are you laughing at?" I mean, you have a movie like Love Liza coming out and it's having a hard time finding an audience--then you have this other bullshit just pulling them in.
PS: What's interesting is that I was thinking about the great American public and how foreign directors--Lasse Hallström for What's Eating Gilbert Grape...
DGG: Even Deliverance--Boorman's not American.
PS: That's a great example. You get these foreign directors and they come over and they see American culture in this way that hurts because it's bleak, and hurts because that outsider perspective is so often incisive--brilliant--in its cynicism about us. Y'know, I was talking to this guy about how I hate when a performance splashes out of a movie, just sticks out as something that doesn't fit.
Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.
DGG: Right, and he's so good--he's either in the wrong movie or the movie that it should have been.
PS: We went to a Benedictine Monastery in college and took a vow of silence for five days and in the Benedictine Corral, they had this guy with this rockin' tenor voice but he doesn't rock. He takes the shine out of his voice to make a whole. You don't want to have a chorus with one guy that stands out.
thing about David's films is that the characters seem to be on an equal
footing with nature, with the score, with the...
DGG: That's my... I mean, the whole thing, the whole shtick of making movies, is finding that moment where everything's at a balance--and this is coming from a guy who loved Back to the Future.
the Future and Predator are the two
defining films of the Eighties.
DGG: Yes! Thank you--thank you.
PS: What about The Goonies?
Data kid, and Gedde Watanabe, they ruined my life in elementary school
and junior high.
DGG: (laughter) I thought you might say that. Y'know--the Feng Shui character [in All the Real Girls], I asked some other Asian guy what he didn't like about the film and he singled out that girl and said that he thought she was the stereotype of the wise Asian character. The oracle.
PS: Shows how smart we, and our friends, are. We just didn't pick up on that cliché.
DGG: Our whole thing behind that was what would this knucklehead, this moron, name his Asian kid.
but there's something sweet about that effort--I mean, "feng shui" is a
DGG: These people are not the smartest people in the world, but they're really trying--and that's something about both this and George Washington that we're not trying to use negativity as currency--these people are funny, and maybe it's because they're not very bright, but the humor isn't mean and it's not meant to be exploitive.
a scene inside a car in All the Real Girls that
really illustrates what you said about David Smith...
PS: Yeah, right, Paul says, "I've regretted every girl I ever touched," and Noel says, "What does that mean?" And he...
DGG: He knows what he means but he can't articulate it--he's so frustrated that all he can do is holler "fuck" and slam the door.
PS: He's going through the most introspective period in his life when you meet him and, worse, he finds himself attracted to his best friend's little sister. He has to think about himself in a way that he's never thought about himself. He doesn't know how to say what he means.
DGG: How do you show that? How do you show a film that's just all internal conflict?
PS: There's that scene in Blue where Juliette Binoche pounds a bunch of pills, breaks a window, and she spits out the pills and says to the nurse, "I can't do it" and all the nurse says is, "That's okay."
DGG: American films, you'll get a Nurse Ratched scene with speeches and moralizing, screaming and fighting--but like in Talk to Her you get this whole long song where Almodovar is essentially saying, Hey, let's just sit back and watch beautiful no-conflict.
PS: Right, and not impose his judgment on what you're seeing.
DGG: This is really the wise-man school of documentary filmmaking. There are films directed by committee without any sort of mind behind them, but it's possible to be naturalistic and still have design.