If George Washington offered a tantalising glimpse of an extraordinary talent, the Sundance winning All the Real Girls confirms director David Gordon Green as one of the most lyrical and distinguished voices in contemporary American cinema. Relaxed, confident and witty in conversation, could it possibly be that we might get through an entire interview without mentioning Terrence Malick?
Jason Wood: I understand that you and Paul Schneider began writing All The Real Girls before your first feature, George Washington. Why did you wait until after George Washington to re-visit it?
David Gordon Green: I wrote it with Paul when we were right in the heat of relationships and, like the characters in the film going through a lot of ‘stuff’. I was getting a little aggressive with the writing and being a little too self-indulgent with the material. I needed to step away from the absolute moment of it. At the same time my goal was to make it at a point in my life where I could do it pretty quick so that it wasn’t a guy looking back on a series of events or a point in his life without nostalgia or sentiment. I didn’t want it to be an American Graffiti type of movie. I wanted it to be something that felt immediate. It was important to let the wounds scab over a little bit to be able to take more of a technical approach to it and more of an honest approach to the actors.
Also, for a first film I needed to make a movie on which I could get away with a little bit more and make a little less narratively, and so we designed George Washington as a vehicle that if a reel got lost in the mail then a reel got lost in the mail; we really didn’t need it. In my head, All The Real Girls was something that was so performance based that I needed to be able to burn a lot of film to let the actors loosen up and improvise and let it feel real. They had to feel they could mess up, whereas in George Washington they couldn’t as we had to keep going, we couldn’t do it twice as we couldn’t afford another take.
I understand that the collaborative process with Paul Schneider – who also appears in George Washington – was very important to you. However, was there resistance from the producers to having a relative unknown in the lead role?
We had several opportunities to make it beforehand if I wanted to look at other marquee-value actors. Paul was a guy I went to school with, where he was an editor, and was the right man for the role. When the money was offered to make the movie, it was also suggested that I should look at X and Y actor and Paul commented that this might be the only opportunity to make the movie. We talked about it and Paul suggested that perhaps I should do it, but it just wasn’t an issue. It never came up again as I made it clear that if you want to do this, and you are interested in the script, great, but it is with Paul. The second that Sony and Jean Doumanian, one of the film’s other producers, got in the room with him they recognised that Paul had a charisma, a voice and an approach to acting that isn’t traditional and so decided to take the risk that nobody was going to lose their lunch if the film flopped.
Again you cast a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, with the non-professional actors coming from the community in which you film. This is obviously very important to you.
Absolutely. To bring an authenticity to the texture it’s always important to me to bring people with dialects and accents so that the words that come out of their mouths are what they would say. A perfect example is the scene between Noel [Zooey Deschanel] and her friend sitting on a porch, one shot, two girls talking with Noel’s back to the camera. It was two actors talking in a scene that was not scripted. I knew the other girl, Amanda, a lovely twenty-one year-old with four kids, and wanted her to speak and tell her stories. I know that she comes from an amazing place and has an interesting background, and so we all sat down together to talk about what we wanted to do, which involved Zooey keeping within her professional understanding of what the scene needed to achieve, and Amanda bringing a real natural life to the dialogue and the improvisation.
It’s unfair to pick out performances, but once again Patricia Clarkson really impresses. Was she someone you had wanted to work with for some time?
I wanted to work with her since I had a real father/son bonding moment when my dad and I went to see The Untouchables and she walked on the screen and we looked at each other and went ‘damn!’ I was about seven but to have that, ‘hey, you’re my son’, that was cool. I finally brought my dad to the set fifteen years later. Also, I work with every actor in a different way but my approach is the same: to find out what they’re willing to give and where they are willing to open themselves up and invest in the character. I then try to give them as much freedom as possible. Patricia and I came up with a lot of the characteristics that her character has and I had a vague outline of what I want the character to achieve and how I want them to relate with certain people, and then we come up with her background and the specifics together.
Again with this film you ensured that your crew were fully integrated into the community where you shoot. Why is this so important to you?
It was particularly important on All The Real Girls because Paul lives there [Marshall, North Carolina] and my DP Tim Orr is from there so I didn’t want to appear rude. We had a lot of ties with the community and that is always important to me. For me being the outsider, I went there a year in advance and started working jobs and meeting people and understanding the place and discovering things, such as the richness that’s in the back alleys of that town that a normal film crew with its location scout just misses. A lot of the characteristics, the mannerisms and some of the dialogue that’s in the movie I got from working in a factory and talking to people.
Are you from those parts yourself?
No, I’m originally from Texas.
You display a very good nuance for life in these Carolina towns.
Well I went to school there and it’s cheap to make movies there. The picture of the American South in my opinion is often caricatured and simplistic. Everybody is named Billy Bob, has missing teeth and rapes each other’s cousins. Sure, that goes on, but we don’t all do it. It was important for me to step away from the Southern clichés of traditional Hollywood movies and show what I’m more familiar with and what is more interesting to me. The mission statement is to offer something that is a little less stereotypical and a little more authentic.
You also deal with the subject of youth and the travails of love without resort to cliché. The first shot of the film opens on Paul and Noel having already met. You avoid the preamble. Was this an early decision in terms of approach?
In a way, but it’s also kind of frustrating. A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘what a weird little love story, what a weird movie you’ve made’. Now to me, what’s weird is when you see a movie when people look great and have the perfect comeback when they’ve messed up their relationship and instantly know how to fix it all; the music swells and then they love each other. That’s weirder, isn’t it? I’ve had love at first sight, certainly, but never do the heavens open up and bathe me in light. Also, when people make out and they hook up and they stay up late, their stomachs growls and they fart to make situations awkward, funny and vulnerable.
If I’m going to show people my work I want to show them something that they’re not seeing everyday and in some situations they can fill in the blanks themselves. They met somewhere, that’s cool, the exposition and the obvious notes you can fill in for yourself. We even shot a lot of clichés, some terrible stuff just to see what we really needed and what the bones of the structure needed to be. Our first cut of the movie was three and a half hours long and it was really about filing it down to the essential elements. We wanted to try something different; you can see people stumble into romantic situations in any video shop.
Was there pressure from the producers and the distributor to make the film more conventional? I understand that you shot a lot of sex scenes?
From any financial entity there is a hunger to make a movie as marketable as possible, but that’s understandable as it’s their business and how they make their livelihood. At the same time they do present you with creative ways to accommodate that. We did shoot a lot of sex scenes and nudity but it took me out of the moment and replicated things I’d already seen before. It wasn’t in any way interesting to me. I think of this film as being the scraps that the traditional romantic movie would leave on the cutting room floor.
All the Real Girls has a timeless quality to it, making it very hard to date it.
A film like this doesn’t have an immediate life. It’s not Terminator 3, opening on one day around the world and making $200 million at the box office. In the States, All the Real Girls opened in February and it’s still playing, slowly travelling from place to place, and it will then open in Europe and other countries for the next couple of years. I don’t want it to go out of style, I want it to go ahead and just be out of style. The other thing that frustrates me with many movies is that everything is so contemporary due to product placement. Sure I’m somewhat manipulating the environment because everyone obviously goes to Starbucks and Wallmart. I want it to be a movie in its own little capsule so that twenty years from now people can say, ‘when and where the hell was this made?’
Both George Washington and All the Real Girls are distinguished by their cinematography. How did you originally meet Tim Orr?
Tim, Erin [the film’s costume designer who recently married Tim] and I all went to school together. In fact, 65% of the crew were at school together. Paul and I also worked at a film archive were Tim was the projectionist, so we all bonded over films whilst cleaning 35mm prints and enjoying illicit late night screenings of Deliverance, a real love story! Tim and I have always worked together and share a similar sense of composition. I completely trust Tim and the economic situation of the movies I make is that I don’t have time to be running around doing all the stuff. I also want my friends to do what their jobs are because they have a lot of fun doing them.
You pay a lot of attention to sound on the film, both the soundtrack – on which Will Oldham’s All These Vicious Dogs particularly stands out – and general sound design.
As much as the pictures, images and lighting are details that people absorb and make the movie something to look at, so sound, and indeed sometimes the lack of is also a huge part. Where we choose to have silence, where we choose to have music and where we choose to just have the ambience of the surrounding area, all that is very important to me. There is also experimentation within that. In the middle of some dialogue, the sound will drop out and you won’t hear the words the characters speak.
I understand that the title is taken from a David Wingo composition that wasn’t used in the film. What other titles did you consider?
I considered a lot of titles actually. South of the Heart was one but people that didn’t get the end thought that it was a TV movie title.
What future projects are you working on?
Well, as soon as I wrap Undertow starring Jamie Bell I’m going to be going down to New Orleans to tackle A Confederacy of Dunces. This will give a chance for me to do some comedic stuff. Steven Soderbergh is executive producing.
Finally, people seem unable to mention your work without making comparisons to Terrence Malick. Are there other figures that you would cite as influential?
Well, I like movies a lot, and admittedly I do find the American cinema of the seventies to be a rich source of inspiration but equally I find the Dukes of Hazard TV series has had an influence on me. Frederick Wiseman, 1970s Coppola and Robert Altman are all ballsy, brilliant filmmakers. I like a lot of more obscure stuff too; Michael Ritchie is I think a very under-appreciated film-maker, equally Charles Burnett’s The Killer of Sheep (1977), Billy Jack (directed by Tom Laughlin, 1971) and James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973). I think there was a period between The Graduate (1967) and Ordinary People (1980) where things started to rock. People were taking chances on the narratives and the cinematography, and actors were throwing their careers on the line and doing very complicated work. Things weren’t so on the nose and manufactured which was inspiring for me as an audience member, and so I try to replicate that kind of enthusiasm through the films that I make.
This interview was conducted with the assistance of the 23rd Cambridge Film Festival (10th-20th July 2003)