The Virtues of Reality TV & Awkward Masculinity: Wisdom From David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green has traversed many boundaries and forms in his career, starting with his striking dramatic work (All The Real Girls) up through his work in Apatow comedies (Pineapple Express) and television (Eastbound & Down).
At a press round-table at SXSW, I got a chance to glean some wisdom from David. He talks about subverting a popular actor's image, how reality TV has influenced performance and why he likes production more than development. His latest film Manglehorn harkens back to his dramatic work and stars Al Pacino as an aging locksmith. He started by qualifying something that is present in all of his films: an exploration of "awkward masculinity."
I do think that there is a common thread of the awkward study of masculinity. I've been thinking over the last few years just about how movies, and even conversations, culture -- everybody talks about puberty, young teenagers, this coming of age thing. I've always looked at every new phase of my life, which happens about every year and a half as the next coming of age. I'm just always looking at characters in these emotionally vulnerable points in their lives in studying the transition from point A to point B of that.
Being a long time David Gordon Green fan, I got to ask him a few questions about things I had been curious about over the years:
NFS: Your focus has always been on actors. How do you think the craft of acting has changed with digital filmmaking? Is it acting that is changing or just the perception of acting?
David: I think the perception of acting changed. I go back and forth between film and video in terms of the technical tool or aesthetic. I think the one thing that has brought around an appreciation for more naturalistic acting is reality TV. Everyone looks at it and rolls their eyes -- I don't. There's not any of it that I particularly engage in, but I do think that it give us an appreciation for narrative storytelling.
Obviously, those shows are a lot more scripted than they pretend to be. What you see is a degree of performance. I have a lot of friends that work in that realm and use the same approach I do. You try to find real charismatic people that have a voice, that are confident in front of a camera, that people want to look at. Maybe they're a little crazy or maybe they've just got a lot of confidence. Whatever it is, I think reality TV has changed the way that movies can feel. I think that's a very positive side effect of what is happening in the trend of that dimension of television.
Writing can be fun, it's good for my head, it's good for my soul, but I want to get it written quickly so I can get filming sooner.
In terms of Manglehorn, the casting of Al Pacino as a locksmith pining for his old love started when Green approached him for an advertising gig. Al Pacino passed on the spot (Clint Eastwood took it instead), but Green saw an opportunity in the interaction:
I saw him across the table and I was like: 'I see you still in there.' I know we know The Scent of a Woman and we've got the bravado and the cannon of that voice that can come out, but let's go back a couple of notches and find the little boy in the man. It really was a study working with Pacino and accessing his childhood, and his adolescence, and growing up, and his personal life. I got goosebumps thinking about it. For a filmmaker sitting down in a room with one of his idols and to get these intimate, personal details is just extraordinary. Then, it's just a creative wellspring of being able to talk about that. We really approached it like he was an 11 year old and temper tantrums.
Every successful artist has these weird psychological cracks. We all do.
Another interesting part of Green's instincts for casting includes what could be defined as a subversion of a performer's popular image. Green also spoke about how he choses to work with a particular actor:
"I do like the idea of a business model where I'm inviting name talent -- someone like Pacino -- and showing a different side of a very internationally known individual. I love those ideas of reinventing actors and using them in different ways. With the right star power, it makes a challenging movie really make sense to the business world.
Every successful artist has these weird psychological cracks. We all do, but these are people that are professionally exercising certain characteristics. Once you're known for a big action movie or Oscar-caliber bravado, that's what people want you to do consistently. For me, my job is to find those guys and say, 'I know everybody likes this stuff that you do here. I love it, I appreciate it, I've seen it all. Let's go back over here and go about this way.' They see that as a creative opportunity to not do what they [normally] do.
There's a number of actors I've spoken with about doing things like that and they're like, 'No, people don't want to see me do that. I've tried doing things that were off-center and I was rejected and I can't handle rejection.' You would be so sad of the people I could name that I've had these conversations with that won't do that because you know they'd kill it. You're just like, "You've got my number. When you come around and wake up one day and want to do something meaningful, let's do it."
NFS: Tarkovsky says, "The more you know, the less you know." I always think about that in context of filmmakers who are at the beginning of their journeys or those who have been making films for a long time. Do you find it to be true and what are you struggling with most now?
David: I do find it to be true. I like to do something new and I think that's part of why I'm always trying a different genre where I go from a silly comedy, to a dramatic movie, to a political movie, to a television show, to a commercial, because I don't want to ever get tired of -- I love filming. I love the process of filming. Developing sucks. Writing can be fun, it's good for my head, it's good for my soul, but I want to get it written quickly so I can get filming sooner. The production process is what I really love. I love anywhere from 15 to 400 people collaborating on a creative effort. That's a good day.
Thanks to David Gordon Green for answering our questions at SXSW!