Desert Island Films: David Gordon Green Projects

          The trailer for Prince Avalanche hit the internet this past week, and the David Gordon Green independent comedy is set for an early August release. The film is the first feature Green has written since 2007’s Snow Angels, and it stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. More importantly, it takes out of the fast pace of city life and into the middle of nowhere, returning Green to the roots of his early independent work which garnered him such high praise before his pratfall into generically bad comedies such as The Sitter.

          This is not to say that Green should be tied down to drama, or independent cinema, but his work is always most impressive when it carries his distinct style. Some of his best work comes in surprising areas, including episodes of HBO’s “Eastbound and Down” which are downright poetic in their approach and presentation. It is simply a relief to see that Green has retained more control in the content of his upcoming features, though I have my reservations about the other two films we can soon expect to see from the director.


          The first is called Joe, and will also be released in 2013. The film stars Nicolas Cage as an ex-con who meets and becomes a role model for a 15-year-old boy. Although it takes place in the south, which aligns with many other Green films, the screenplay is written by Gary Hawkins, based on the novel by Larry Brown. There is also the issue of Nicolas Cage, who seems to just back projects that are direct rip-offs of immediate successes. Stolen took from Taken, and it is hard not to notice the similarities in Joe’s plot and Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), especially since both star Tye Sheridan as a boy meeting an unorthodox role model. Even more interestingly, Green produced Nichols’ debut feature, Shotgun Stories (2007), which is good enough to be on this list for this contribution alone. Mud’s role model, and title character, is played by Matthew McConaughey. On a side note, I have no doubt that we will be seeing plenty more of Sheridan in the years to come. At his young age he has already worked with Green, Nichols, and made his debut in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.


          The second film in the works for Green is a remake of Dario Argento’s seminal horror masterpiece, Suspiria (1977). Although I am happy to find that Green has adapted the screenplay himself, I can’t help but feel somewhat hesitant in dishing out hope that the film will be a fraction as good as the original. Part of the problem in my imagining the production is due to the fact that it will be unlike anything Green has done before. Even when he transitioned from the heavy drama of Snow Angels to the stoned comedy style of Pineapple Express, Green was able to retain the laid-back pacing that has been constant in his entire filmography. Though the original Suspiria (1977) is not nearly action-packed, it will be interesting to see how Green handles suspense.


5. George Washington (2000)


          Green’s debut feature, George Washington, established the filmmaker in many ways. Casting his film almost entirely with non-professional actors, even finding people on the beach he wanted to be in his film, Green manages to create an authenticity which would remain in all of his early films. George Washington deals with an extremely difficult subject matter, one most directors would not willingly go near, especially not as a first feature. A cast full of non-professionals and many children must have made for an interesting experience on set, but the result is nothing short of a confidently created masterpiece in independent cinema.


          The film tells the simple story of a group of children who band together to hide a tragic mistake that occurs among them one day. It is a painfully depressing film, and not one I would recommend in the hands of nearly any other director. Green never exploits the situation, nor does he seem to ever want to manipulate the audience into feeling anything. We are presented with a specific time, place, and a specific incident. This film is a slice of life, where we can witness what happens without feeling as though the filmmaker is attempting to sway us in any direction with the material.


          It is also worth mentioning that this was the third film credit for Paul Schneider, who has the small supporting role of Rico Rice and would return as the lead in Green’s sophomore film, All the Real Girls.


4. “Eastbound and Down” (2009-2012)

          “Eastbound and Down” was created by Ben Best and Danny McBride, who had previously collaborated on the successful screenplay The Foot Fist Way (2006), which was directed by Jody Hill. Hill also produced, wrote and directed many episodes of “Eastbound and Down,” along with Adam McKay (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Bergundy) and David Gordon Green.


          Green went to school with McBride, and was the first to cast him in a film as the supporting character Bust-Ass in All the Real Girls. Ever since then Green and McBride have worked together often, perhaps explaining why the atrocity that was Your Highness ever occurred. Although Green only worked on 10 episodes in the three seasons, this is only one less than Hill and eight more than McKay. I find myself lulled into artistic appreciation while watching Green’s episodes, especially a few in season two which are remarkably poetic for a comedic television series starring one of Hollywood’s biggest mouths.


3. Shotgun Stories (2007)


(The following is an excerpt of Ryan Izay’s 2007 review via Real Movie News)


          Independent filmmaker and soon-to-be Hollywood’s hot commodity after directing Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green is a name that is usually connected to rural American stories, simple and somehow still intensely engaging and fascinating. There is an undeniable link in D.G. Green’s choice to produce Shotgun Stories, a film in a similar vein and pacing. In fact, Shotgun Stories is the ultimate rural American story, about a blood feud. Brothers fighting brothers brings the undeniable connection to our country’s history, and basing his film on such a strong subject Jeff Nichols is able to complete his directorial debut with a simple and extremely effective piece of independent filmmaking. There less shots in the film, more attention is given to those chosen, and they are all confident and impressive choices for a first-time director. But most impressive is the cast. Michael Shannon is a long under-rated actor and he carries the film in many scenes, but what is more amazing is the way Nichols seems to bring the best out of actors who I usually tend to dislike. Somehow none of the performances feel like a performance, which adds realism to the story, which drags us in with beautiful and dangerous images.


          The significant details that make this otherwise film straightforward film something marvelous from each scene to the next are not always subtle, but they are always simple. The names of the brothers that are feuding are a perfect example. While the brothers from the legitimate Hayes family are named Cleaman (Michael Abbott, Jr.), Mark (Travis Smith), Stephen (Lynnsee Provence), and John (David Rhodes), the brothers from the illegitimate Hayes family are simple named Son (Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon), and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). Even from birth it is obvious that the illegitimate brothers were given less care and attention, and they naturally are filled with feelings of resentment towards their half-brothers who have received so many more opportunities while they were left with a spiteful mother and absent father.


          Thirty-some years of repression leaves Son feeling unsatisfied after hearing their father has died, and after crashing the funeral they were not invited to he makes a rash speech about what a horrible father he was to them, regardless of how well he treated his second family. This speech upsets Mark and Stephen Hayes the most, and a gripping cycle of revenge becomes inevitable. Having never had parents that actually cared, the illegitimate Hayes brothers have learned to count on each other and their sense of protection over each other is strong enough to create tense and unsettling situations. Son is a man who already bears scars from a shotgun across his back. Although stories circulate that he received these from a robbery gone wrong or from cheating on another man’s wife, the only important truth is that he got the scars protecting his brothers. As expert as the direction is, Nichols also manages a script that never overdoes it on dialogue. Part of what makes the actors so believable is their lack of emoting. They don’t talk about the past, their feelings, or much else that isn’t of immediate significance. We hear more gossip and bullshit than actual facts, leaving us to decide what to believe from the time we spend with them.


          Even as I write this review I am amazed at how directly I speak of the characters in the film. Few films have the power to make me forget that I am watching actors, and David Gordon Green’s sophomore film, All the Real Girls floored me in a similar way. Half-Nelson and nearly every performance Gosling gives seem to do the same. These are the type of films that can be cherished, because the filmmakers brought something to life in a way that returns my hope that film can always retain a certain element of magic, even without making 3-D pictures or using blockbuster special effects. Shotgun Stories is more than just another film, it is a gift, a piece of art, and truly unforgettable.


          Some films may not be well suited for a music-only track, but this is the best candidate I have seen in some time. The music is simple and perfectly suited for the tone of the film, and the cinematography along with the simple music by the band Lucero is perfect.


2. Pineapple Express (2008)


          My top choice in the Desert Island Stoner Comedies list is also number two on my D.G.G. list, because it is more than just a film for potheads. Pineapple Express is Green’s sellout film, being that it was the first time he directed material that he hadn’t written himself and it was a his first blockbuster with stars and a finale filled with action and effects. After this film he was lulled into several other mainstream films, with screenplays written by others. The result is a watering down of the director’s natural and iconic style, but Pineapple Express is the perfect marriage of mainstream action/comedy and that signature directorial approach.


          Green’s films prior to Pineapple Express always took place in southern small towns, often in North Carolina where the director attended school. This small-town vibe carries over into Pineapple Express, with plenty of insert shots of naturalistic background actors and country scenery. The final shootout occurs in a barn, which is an odd location for a film which has an otherwise urban-oriented screenplay. There is also the wonderful addition of McBride to the cast, whose longtime friendship with the director has greatly helped his career.  


1. All the Real Girls (2003)

          Though this was neither Zooey Deschanel nor Paul Schneider’s first film, it was a big break for both of them. It was their first starring roles, and under Green’s direction they are at their best. If I were to make a Desert Island list for both of these actor, All the Real Girls would be number one on those lists as well. The acting is spectacular all around in Green’s second feature, which is ironic considering he took a dramatically different approach in casting the main roles in this film. George Washington was met with such critical success that even supporting roles are easily filled by marvelous actors, and Green shows his abilities as a director are even more spectacular when working with trained talent. The film co-stars Shea Whigham (Silver Lining Playbook, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter), Danny McBride, and Patricia Clarkson (Shutter Island, The East). There is also the odd addition of Matt Chapman, best known as the voice actor for the web series “Homestar Runner.” His character is named Strong Bad in both the series and this film.


          There is no easy way to explain why I love All the Real Girls so much. It is a film which often infuriates me, sparking a great number of emotional reactions that are only possible with great filmmaking. The characters are flawed but real, and by the end of the film it is impossible not to have an investment in their lives. This film breaks my heart, but only because of how much it is able to capture the feeling of heartbreak. Even when the situations in the film are in no way reminiscent of my own personal heartbreak, I find myself relating to the characters and feeling their pain. First love and the subsequent heartbreak is universal, and Green’s ability to direct his actors makes it possible for audiences to experience a rural southern lifestyle unlike their own and still relate to the emotions of the film’s characters with ease.



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