One of those revelatory little movies that comes seemingly out of nowhere, David Gordon Green's feature debut, George Washington, stunned critics and festival audiences with its atmospheric snapshot of kids and grown-ups adrift in a small, nearly desolate Southern town. With cinematographer Tim Orr, Green found beauty in the American ruins, establishing the style of narratively unhurried but emotionally direct filmmaking he would use in Washington's well-received (though not widely seen) follow-ups: All The Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels. Green's latest, Pineapple Express, is a departure, at least on the surface. Working with producer Judd Apatow, Green directed a script by Superbad team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, about a process server (Rogen) who goes on the run with his pot dealer (James Franco) after witnessing a murder. But maybe it isn't that big a departure. Orr is still on hand, as is Green's old friend and writing partner Danny McBride. And there are other similarities as well, as Green describes in this interview conducted the day after Pineapple Express played to a San Diego Comic-Con audience.
The A.V. Club: How did you go from screening George Washington at the Wisconsin Film Festival to showing your action-comedy movie at Comic-Con?
David Gordon Green: Took the shortbus. Well, it's a good question. I mean, the easy answer is, my taste is all over the place. I'm a well-rounded movie nerd of every vocabulary and vernacular, and comedy and action is something I've been wanting to do, as well as horror, as well as animation, as well as special effects, as well as science fiction, you know? So I got on my feet with a couple indie dramas and navigated the industry in a way that I could sniff things out, how they work, and not get in over my head, and surround myself with people I trust. And there was time. I had done this movie Snow Angels, and spent two years or more on that as a writer, and really invested a ton of emotion and personal issues, and brought a lot of moments from my life to this movie. And I really strongly feel that when you approach a drama, you have to approach it with energy, honesty, sincerity, and absolute commitment, or don't do it. And in that movie, I really did invest 100 percent of myself at that time into it, and I thought it would be the healthiest thing to recharge those batteries rather than jumping back into something else personal and intimate. I wanted to goof off and blow stuff up, and have a good time with a significant budget, and make the studio transition to open doors professionally, and see what was on the other side of the planet.
AVC: Pineapple Express seems to draw pretty heavily from late-'80s action comedies. Did you have any models in mind?
DGG: The few references that we looked at a lot: Midnight Run, that's kind of an obvious one; Tango & Cash, Running Scared—the Billy Crystal one, not the Paul Walker one, although I like that one. That movie is amazing and insane. It's wild, I've seen it six times. It's either impressive or repulsive or both, but you can't get out of it. It's amazing. Blues Brothers, Raising Arizona, and The Gravy Train.
AVC: What's The Gravy Train?
DGG: The Gravy Train is the funniest movie ever made. Early '70s. Terrence Malick was one of the writers, Frederic Forrest and Stacy Keach star, Jack Starrett directed it. I just saw it on the screen with a crowd three nights ago in New York, and it jumped to my top five of all time. It's not available on DVD, unfortunately, but it's so funny. It's just the relationship of two guys in situations that they're ill-equipped to deal with, and it's really funny to me.
AVC: The action-comedy genre is tricky, because it isn't always clear when you're supposed to laugh, and when you're supposed to be thrilled. How do you find the balance?
DGG: For this project, it was literally Seth and the rest of the actors and myself looking at each other and saying, "What's the movie that we really want to see? Let's make a movie that caters to that, and we've got a budget that gives us tremendous freedom. Let's take advantage of that, and use this as an opportunity to exploit the sense of humor that we have and the sense of interest in action that we have, and even in gore that we have, and make an emotional relationship movie within all those absurd and extraordinary elements." That was the effort.
AVC: Actors tend to get praised for versatility in playing a lot of different parts, whereas directors are supposed to keep to one voice. Does it worry you that this will confuse people?
DGG: No. I like that it would confuse people.
AVC: Would you worry about finding David Gordon Green moments within this?
DGG: The whole movie is my moments. I really just tried to put the movie that was my sense of humor on the screen. I was watching it last night, and there's things like the little girl in the swimsuit at the fence, and it's kind of like some eccentric non-sequitur stuff that's traditional within the films I've worked on. But I've always tried to layer a sense of humor and naturalism, and have been inspired by filmmakers like Robert Altman that hire people they trust to deliver performances that they can devour, which is great. It's something I approach every day, with an appetite to make a meal out of everything an actor has to say. So whether that's a tear-jerking drama or an outrageous comedy, it's kind of the same approach. And I'm not really worried about people's perception of what I do, or people's analysis of why I make the decisions I make. I wake up every day with a new interest and a desire for an education. I work with a collective of department heads and people that I really trust, so I look to my cinematographer Tim Orr, my sound mixer Christof Gebert, and the people I've had the valuable opportunity to work with time and time again since film school. And I look to them for advice. I don't look to a studio or an industry to navigate that, or a fan base. I really just think, "What have we done, what have we not done? Should we fine-tune where we've been, or try to blaze new trails?"
AVC: There seemed to be a lot of improvisation in Pineapple Express. When did you know you had the right moment?
DGG: For me, it's just my instinct, what I like and what feels honest. And sometimes you're doing an improvisation and a lot of pop-culture references pop out, and that's funny in the moment, but you know that's not going to live forever. And I wanted this movie to be timeless, and to design it to a style where nobody's worried about it feeling contemporary three years from now. It's all over the place to begin with. I have a great editor, Craig Alpert, who helped me figure out what that balance of action and comedy was going to be, and try to sift through all the miles of footage that we shot. So we burned a ton of film on this movie, but we really made sure we didn't lose sight of the heart, we didn't lose sight of the love story that is these two main characters amidst all the outrageousness.
AVC: It's from a tradition of stoner movies. Was there anything you sought to avoid, apart from being not funny?
DGG: Stoner movies weren't really where I went to for a reference point. As a genre film within this budget level, you've got a responsibility to make a movie that's going to appeal to stoners, and then the objective for me becomes, "How can I get everyone I know that's a movie lover to love this movie, beyond that?" It's not a movie that you have to smoke a joint before you go to enjoy. For some, it will be its own magical experience, but it's totally unnecessary with something like this. There's something for everyone.
AVC: This movie suggests that if you smoke a joint, your world can descend into something like Martin Scorsese's After Hours.
DGG: I've heard that reference a few times, and it really makes me happy. That kind of downward spiral of a movie that balances light and dark beautifully is an inspiring thing that I didn't think about while we were shooting it, but in hindsight, it certainly is an influence on my sense of humor.
AVC: At the Q&A; last night, you mentioned that people don't know that you're a funny guy. Why hide it for this long?
DGG: I've always tried to have humor. I've been a comedy writer for a while. Danny McBride and I have been writing partners for a number of years on studio writing jobs and rewrites and polishes on comedy scripts and things like that. But it has been difficult for someone to take the leap with me as a director, because my work is so dramatic, I guess. What they're exposed to in terms of my product has been dramatic. So it was just about finding a group of people that trusted me and thought that risk was interesting, rather than closing the door because it wasn't obvious.
AVC: There's a lot of violence in the film. That's an unexpected interest for you too.
DGG: A lot of that stuff, honestly, we didn't think would make it. We filmed a lot of this crazy stuff and we had this dummy of Craig Robinson, so why not blow his foot off? And then we didn't use that at the first test screening, and we said, "Let's just throw it in," and people love it. And so we're like, "Okay, great, now we get to use the crazy stuff." We let the audience decide for us. We had our humor conservatively presented, and then we just said, "Let's let loose and really push this through to be the movie we wanted it to be." And the audience gave us that support.
AVC: Rogen and Franco switched roles early in the process, when Franco took an interest in the part written for Rogen. What do you think the film would've been like if they had kept—
DGG: Too safe. It would've been too safe. I think a lot of what's exciting about the movies that Judd produces and that Seth acts in and writes and we all enjoy is that they take risks. It's not just cookie-cutter, down-the-assembly-line type of ideas. You don't hit every one out of the park, but you can't ever fault a movie for not taking some chances, and I think that's exciting, to cast some unexpected faces and voices, and put people in roles that aren't obvious, and a director that's out of left field a little bit. I think that's a lot of what the fun is.
AVC: You talked about this as a film that gets you inside to show people something else you can do that they couldn't see before. Now you're inside. Assuming this film is successful, what do you do next?
DGG: I'm working on stuff all over the place right now. I've got a horror film that I've written, I've got an animated TV series I'm doing, I've got an arctic warfare movie I'm writing. Danny McBride has written this great vehicle for himself as a prince in the Middle Ages, and it's just a creature film that we want to use a lot of old stop-motion technology for. It's a really funny script, we should get that set up. So I'm at a point where I'm getting a lot of opportunity through perception, so the next few weeks will be really telling as to what the reality is, and whether that perception becomes a reality of opportunity, rather than just being a novelty of expectation. So if people do allow me to have more significant budgets and try things in new genres, then I can do those and take the money from those and make strange little intimate indie movies that my friends and family see, if no one else. I just like working all over the place—I don't ever like boundaries or catering to expectations, and if anything, I like going in the opposite direction, in support of the people I trust. That's where the good times are.
AVC: You said last night that independent movies are having trouble finding theatrical distribution. Do you see that changing at all? Are new venues popping up?
DGG: I think it's going to take a reinvention of the system. I think it needs to be like a good indie-rock label coming out and saying, "We know what indie movies are, we know how to get them out there, we know who wants them, we know what their value is." Because the old model is not working. It's not working in the production, it's not working in the marketing. Audiences are getting lazier and lazier and not seeking things out. There's got to be a revolution, and somebody's got to come up with an inventive way to access those audiences. There's no lack of quality product.