David Gordon Green, Hollywood's Weird Go-To Guy

Writer-director David Gordon Green offers his take on Al Pacino's brilliance and what it means to be "independent" nowadays.

Movies Features David Gordon Green
Share Tweet Submit Pin

What’s it like to go from directing non-professional actors to the craft’s living legends? David Gordon Green’s career began with 2000’s George Washington, and in the decade and a half since, he’s had the chance to work with actors ranging from Sam Rockwell to Paul Rudd, recently adding Nicolas Cage to his list of collaborators with 2014’s Joe and Al Pacino in his latest effort, Manglehorn. Pacino takes center stage with the film, both behind the scenes—Green and screenwriter Paul Logan architected the film specifically for him—and in front of the camera. There’s hardly a frame in which the iconic thespian doesn’t appear.

The results represent modern-day mythmaking, capitalizing on Pacino’s screen persona and prestige alike to tell a tone poem about loss and moving on. Manglehorn feels like a personal project for Pacino, and for Green it’s an opportunity to come together with one of the greats and coax out a softer, more melancholic side—especially at a time when Pacino happens to be popping up in a surprising number of movies that each makes a lot of hay out of his status and iconography.

We caught up with Green to get his take on Pacino, on the magic of fairy tales and on the very definition of what it means for a film to be truly independent.

Paste Magazine: So, let’s talk a little bit about Manglehorn. I heard some rumblings online to the effect that you kind of made this movie with Al Pacino in mind. Am I making that up or is that more or less accurate?
David Gordon Green: No, I totally made it with him in mind. I met him and then designed the role for him. I never thought he’d do it, but I was excited that he accepted it!

Paste : I know Paul Logan wrote the screenplay, but did you guys collaborate on that or is that something he kind of did on his own?
Green: No, we worked on it very closely. I gave him the seed. I said, “I want you to write a movie called Manglehorn, about Al Pacino as a locksmith that is brokenhearted, and I want to see the smaller, gentler, subtle, funny side of Al.” And probably a week later he had a first draft, and then we talked about it for a few weeks, did various drafts, and I showed it to Al and we got him involved. We started workshopping it, and spent about eight months developing it, and then filmed it.

Paste : I was wondering while watching the film whether this character, Manglehorn, was kind of cut out of whole cloth, but I’m getting the sense that bits and pieces of Pacino himself were used to shape the character. Is that accurate?
Green: Yeah, I mean there are certainly bits of Al himself, but then also bits of his movies and characters. There are a lot of little subtle homages in anywhere from the art direction to various lines. There’s a line from Scarface in the movie that could sneak by you if you weren’t paying attention; there’s art direction from the bank in Dog Day Afternoon in the bank when [Manglehorn] goes into it; the yellow flowers are kind of a symbolic thing in Sea of Love; there’s a handbag from Serpico; we’ve got some voiceover from Carlito’s Way. So there are a lot of things, and I think the main crux of the character is inspired by his role in Scarecrow… I kind of wanted to see what that character was doing 40 years later.

Paste : [laughs] I like that a lot. I’m struck by the fact that in this year, he has a trio of movies out— The Humbling, Danny Collins and now Manglehorn—that to me all capitalize on his talents as an actor, but also his reputation. I don’t know if you had any thoughts on that.
Green: I haven’t seen the other ones so it’s hard to say exactly. I know he did Danny Collins, and then The Humbling, then Manglehorn, in that order. So I’m not really sure what was going on in his mind at that point, but I’m glad he’s doing some stuff that he’s passionate about. He brings a lot to the table, not only in a tremendous résumé but in a day-to-day work ethic.

Paste : This one, of the three, feels like it’s the most intentionally “about” him, which you already touched on, but how did you find the experience of working with him? I’m sure you’ve gotten questions like this already, but it feels significant to me: Was he collaborative, or did just he content himself with taking direction?
Green: Oh, he was amazing. He may be the greatest actor at taking direction. He can get the subtle nuances and the strange little technical things and still make it feel very natural. He’s just amazing, and he brought a lot of ideas. I think he just found it a refreshing environment, because me, the DP, the writers, we would just get excited to talk to him and hear his ideas, and then sometimes we would challenge him and say, “We don’t want your character to look cool in this scene, we want you to wear the purple pants…”
Paste: [laughs]
Green: He’d question me sometimes, but at the end of the day he was always very trusting of our process.

Paste : Is that more useful to you than somebody who just says, “Okay, I’m gonna listen to whatever you say and that’s all I’m going to do.”
Green: Yeah, there are a lot of skilled robots out of there that can just do that, but I wanted to really get in the ring with Pacino. You know, if you’re gonna do it, make a meal out of it.
Paste: It’s also interesting to me, you know, because he’s such a big iconic actor and he’s not the first you’ve based one of your recent films around, either. You kind of worked similarly with Nicolas Cage on Joe just last year as well.
Green: Yeah! That’s one of the things that I like to do, take great actors and take them to unexpected places. It was really fun to do a movie with Paul Rudd where I could do a little bit more dramatic work with him in Prince Avalanche, and with Nicolas Cage, who is certainly one of the greater actors of my childhood that I really always dreamed of working with, and being able to do something that he hadn’t really done before with Joe, and then Pacino… I’m really fortunate to be able to have great relationships with actors. I just finished up a movie with Sandra Bullock that’s quite a change of pace for her. I want to be the go-to guy for when movie stars want to get a little weird.

Paste : If I think back to your early films, I don’t know if they were necessarily non-actors or non-professional actors, but that’s kind of a big leap, working with those actors to somebody like Pacino. What are the advantages you find working with someone of Pacino’s experience or Cage’s experience versus somebody who’s less tested?
Green: You know, it just depends. I’ll give you an example in the scene with Manglehorn and his granddaughter at the park: I would just design an environment and the broad-stroke content of the scene, and then not tell either of them what to say. There’s just no difference between the beauty and realism of a girl who’d never been in front of the camera before, and a guy that’s done it a hundred times and won Oscars for it, you know?
Paste: Yeah!
Green: Like, they just fit perfectly together, and when you have that kind of chemistry with people that aren’t self-conscious in front of the camera, that aren’t worried about, you know, their lighting or their posture or their memorized lines—you’re just letting them be real, and if they can do it, it really doesn’t matter if they’ve got the charisma. The whole movie of Joe is non-actors, pretty much, with Nicolas Cage, and being able to find that electricity that feels real… I don’t know, it’s the greatest feeling going to bed that night thinking about what you did that day.

Paste : So, I get “why Pacino?”, but this is a fairy tale of sorts. It’s kind of fairy tale-infused. What drew you to that kind of structure and archetype?
Green: Well, originally with this movie, I thought it would be interesting if it was a children’s film.
Paste: Really?
Green: That was part of our original discussion. As we kind of got into the more melancholy attributes of the character, we abandoned that concept. But yeah, I mean, I just wanted to find an organic path and follow it and then inject the impossible. All of the characters that have speaking parts, I would interview them at the end of the day and say, “Make up a magical story about Manglehorn,” and the more that people would come up with—and I only ended up using three of them in the movie—when people would come up with these things, I thought that it was cool that there is this kind of lore and mystique about this guy that just seems like a guy who’s closed himself off from the world. Maybe there is this magical quality to him, and maybe that’s why people are so drawn to someone that seems to want to tuck away from the world, and they won’t let him go.
Paste: Yeah, those were some of my favorite scenes – the tall tales that people would tell about Manglehorn, like he’s Paul Bunyan or something.
Green: [Laughs.]
Paste: There’s something really special that gets captured there, and builds up his mythos in that way. But a children’s film? I can’t picture it that way. There’s so much emphasis on loss in the movie.
Green: Well, I don’t know, I kind of find those Grimm’s Fairy Tales ultimately have a lot of tragedy in them. A lot of them are depressing. Or Biblical stories, or even just mythology. I wanted to make something that kind of worked within that vernacular, and it was funny, because we initially made sure that there was no profanity, violence, or anything of negativity in terms of rating restrictions. We didn’t want any of that in the movie, and then we got rated “R.” And so I was very confused by that, so I went to the MPAA and did an appeal and then it got overturned.

But I talked to them and I was like, “So, what’s questionable?” There’s one time when Chris Messina says “shit,” he says, “I don’t give a shit about modern art.” It’s the only profanity in the movie. And I was like, “No one’s killed, there’s no one doing drugs!” And they just said, “It’s just overall kind of upsetting!” [Laughs.]
Paste: One word is all it takes! I thought you were going to say it had to do with the cat surgery.
Green: No, and I mean, after my appeal it just took 45 minutes for them to be like, “Okay, we’ll release it as PG-13.” But I just didn’t know a movie would be so upsetting that you wouldn’t let a 16 year old into it.

Paste : If you were running into roadblocks like that, do you feel like you could have made this movie any other way than independently? This is an independent picture; what would happen to this movie if you tried to run it through the studio system?
Green: Well, they wouldn’t have had any time for the conversation on this movie, just because that’s the reality of a movie this eccentric. You know, I guess my mathematical formula for making movies since I made Your Highness—and that was a $60 million movie that made $30 million, and people weren’t happy about that—my formula is, make a movie that costs 75% of its non-domestic value. If it’s a big movie, it’s a little movie…I’m making movies now that I think are extremely responsible, because I think everything they’ll make in the States is gonna just be gravy, because it makes its money in Europe and in international territories.

So, yes, it’s independent. It’s independently financed, and nobody messed with us, and nobody gave us creative restrictions and things like that. But that’s because everybody made money before the movie was made. I’ve had less interference on this studio movie that I’m doing right now than I’ve ever had on any independent movie. All they’re saying is, “Yeah, we have money to achieve what you’d like, and we’re supportive of it.” The word “independent” can get really thrown around in a negative way. There’s a friend of mine that’s been dealing with it. From the beginning, he had financiers who were sketchy and didn’t deliver payroll, and now he’s with a distributor that’s not letting him use the trailer or advertising materials that he wants, and like—what’s independent about this? Every step of his creative avenue has been plagued with conversation and frustration. There’s nothing independent about it. It’s just low budget. [Laughs.]
Paste: [laughs] There’s a fine line between those two things.
Green: So yeah, I’ve never had a bad conversation with a studio. I’ve never gotten in a fight or had a conflict. Everybody’s always been very reasonable and respectful of what I’ve wanted to do, so even when I’m losing big studio money for somebody, or betting on a bigger budget movie, my goal now is just to be real good, responsible and respectful of the fact that people are investing in me.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.