6 Filmmaking Tips From David Gordon Green

By  · Published on October 29th, 2015

A $40,000 feature, which was rejected from Sundance, launched David Gordon Green’s career. Green wrote and directed his first picture, George Washington, at the age of 24, and since then, he’s made a total of 11 films. That doesn’t include the commercials or TV episodes he’s worked on, though. This is the guy who directed the Super Bowl Chrysler commercial starring Clint Eastwood and Your Highness. He’s carved out a diverse, singular career for himself.

Themes and ideas tie his body of work together. Even his comedies, like Pineapple Express and Eastbound and Down, share similarities with All the Real Girls and Prince Avalanche. They’re all about characters wanting more in life. As for Green, based on interviews, he appears quite content with his life and career.

The director’s latest, Our Brand Is Crisis, is a political satire starring Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, and Anthony Mackie. Green took a break from making overtly commercial movies after The Sitter, but his newest film is aimed at a wider audience. Once again, though, he’s pushing himself and making a different kind of movie.

There’s not many directors like David Gordon Green working today, which is probably why any aspiring storyteller should take his advice.

Don’t Wait for Grandma to Die

“The smartest thing was putting my own money down. I worked really hard and had a lot of jobs and then spent it all on my first movie. For me, that’s the thing. There are a lot of people who are just waiting for grandma to die to give them an inheritance, or for some rich friend to give them money to bankroll their first film. But for me the big risk that I first took was that I worked for like a year and a half to make as much money as possible then I’m going to spend it all to make a movie. So I wasn’t asking anybody for anything. I could just be in charge of every dime and be real smart about where I’m spending money, and very aware of it, so that’s something that I’ve always recommended to people whenever they ask, ‘How do you find money to make a movie?’ I say you go and you get a job and you make a movie.”

A lot of directors advise against this. It’s a risky proposition, but filmmaking is a business for risk takers. If no one else is going to give you the money to make your movie, then make it yourself. Plus, things are a little different now than when Green started out. George Washington cost $40,000, but you can now make micro-budget movies for less than a quarter of that.

Bring Sunblock, Because You’re Going to Go Through Hell

“I really just like to torture actors. It’s more of a masochistic…you know, I like them to get crazy on me. I like the challenges of working with performers and coming up with new and inventive ways that we can spar. The idea of directing movie is great, and seeing big movies on the screen, that’s great, but I really love the production process of turning on cameras with a group of actors that you’ve assembled and challenging each other. It comes across as characters going through hell, but that’s literally because I’m putting them through hell, and I’m going through hell, and we’re on this hellishly fun roller coast.”

On Eastbound and Down, Green told an actor to hit Danny McBride during a scene, without warning or notice. The lesson here: find collaborators that will let you abuse them. Robert De Niro once said he doesn’t need a director to act like a prick to help him play a prick, but sometimes turning up the heat on your actors or throwing a curveball at them will lead to something unexpected.

Try New “Shit”

“I’m not a guy who does a lot of coverage and makes them do the scene over and over from 12 different angles. I just don’t like doing the same shit a lot of the time. I have a short attention span, so I get bored. I like to come up with a way that efficiently covers a scene and is open to improvisation. I want to have an exit strategy if we need to edit our way out of a scene, but other than that, I don’t get a lot of gravy shots. I think there’s a momentum and freshness they respond to. I’m never looking for the cool shot, but the great performance. I prioritize it like that, maybe even to my downfall. I don’t feel like I’ve made too many casting errors in my life, whether it’s non-actors or working with someone like Sam Rockwell.”

Obviously on indies the clock is ticking, but if you have time to spare, why not use it discover something not on the page?

You Really Don’t Always Need Cool Shots

“When Easy Rider came out, it showed you that lens flares were not such a bad thing, and zoom lenses are okay in narrative film. You don’t have to project for the microphone, you don’t have to have everything perfectly composed and staged, and something about it struck a chord with culture: everything’s stripped down. You went from very composed Hollywood design of cinema, and there were a few independents working before that ‐ like On The Bowery did exist ‐ but Easy Rider is what kicked it.

There’s a real movement and a great audience that appreciates something to experience together that doesn’t have to be so polished and pronounced excites me. I don’t know what form that’s going to be, and I don’t know that it’s going to be a traditional theatrical experience, but something culturally is going to happen that does show everybody that old waves of polish aren’t necessarily all that we need.”

Some movies are more about performance than aesthetic. If there’s a great performance in a not-so-great shot, few people are going to focus on the composition or lighting ‐ unless the lighting or shot is really horrendous. Director Doug Liman, early on in his career, had a similar philosophy. On Go, he’d use so-so shots because he liked the performance in them ‐ and look how well that movie turned out.

Do Crazy Shit

“Not every movie is for everyone, but what movie is? I’m not out there making crowd-pleasers, really. My mom would be pumped if I made Forrest Gump, but I don’t know if I have that in me. I’m a little too perverted and artistic, and those two sides bump and grind into each other. Sometimes they fall into sync, like with Prince Avalanche, which invites a dramatic independent audience and a more accessible comedic audience. I do believe this is a movie that can bond audiences, but that doesn’t necessarily happen all the time. Some people want to have a great time with a movie and see a romantic comedy, so they’re not going to have an appreciation for what Joe is. I see all types of movies and I’m interested in making all types of movies, which is the beauty of this profession. There’s opportunities to do crazy shit with this job, so why not take advantage of that?”

Green didn’t have an audience in mind while directing George Washington; he just made the movie and hoped people would like it. Nothing more. The last major release Green directed, The Sitter, felt like a movie trying to please everyone. There wasn’t any “crazy shit” in it, and because of that, the film suffered.

Game Plan? You (Sometimes) Don’t Need to Stinking Game Plan

“We’ve got the camera where it’s placed [to get] enough of a perspective of where we are and who the characters are that you get enough of an expression and human face, but also the background. Prince Avalanche was an idea very much inspired by this place [the fire-devastated Bastrop State Park near Austin, Texas], and I knew we had a very short window to film there before the rebirth was so far along that it wouldn’t be visually interesting. So we basically put the concept together very quickly and made the movie. Before we knew what we were doing, we were rolling film. I usually have some sort of idea of what I’m going to go for when we’re shooting so that I have a game plan, but I’m totally open to throwing that game plan out the door and discovering something new.”

What We’ve Learned:

Throwout the rulebook. Improvise. Be quick on your feet. Take chances. David Gordon Green has rarely ever played it safe in his career. Even his most despised film, Your Highness, was ambitious in its own way. That’s an R-rated, dick joke-filled fantasy comedy that cost more than $50 million, which is hardly a safe bet. Did it payoff? Maybe not financially, but Green got the chance to try “new shit.” If given the opportunity, a filmmaker should explore new stories and genres. Green is lucky he can go from directing a tough drama like Joe to making a Mr. Peanut commercial with LAIKA.

No matter what he’s working on, he’s always trying to mix things up.

More filmmaking tips here.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.