David Gordon Green is a jack of all (movie genre) trades. He’s the director behind George Washington, Pineapple Express, and Snow Angels. Lately, it has been a Central Texas trilogy of sorts with Prince Avalanche, Joe, and his new film Manglehorn. It stars Al Pacino as a small town locksmith A.J. Manglehorn, who keeps to himself. He has two loves, his cat, and one that got away named Clara. Manglehorn is trying to handle the possibility of a new love in Dawn (Holly Hunter) and attempting to maintain a relationship with this son (Chris Messina) and granddaughter.
It has been a long time since Pacino has moved me in a film (though I admittedly haven’t seen everything he’s done lately). I had forgotten how amazing it is to see him walking, talking and moving with importance on the big screen. Green made me remember. He did the same thing with Nic Cage in Joe, so that’s where we started.
I’m thinking about it, with Nice Cage and Joe, and now Al Pacino, I feel like you are becoming the prover or the reminder. How does that make you feel?
Great. If I can fill one niche in this industry…where my place is, is working with actors and giving them an opportunity that’s a little left of center of what’s typically coming their way these days. What’s a proud word of saying cocky? I’m proud of my casting instinct. I’m very proud of my casting instinct. When I see a non-actor, somebody I just meet in the world, and I think I can get it out of them. Like where I met the little girl that’s in Manglehorn. There’s just nothing fake about her. She’s not a little starlet, actery kid. She’s just a very real blooming personality and she’s never been in a movie. Let’s do it.
That’s just an example of one end of the spectrum. And then the other end is you meet Nicolas Cage and you have this script that requires these various abilities of an actor, of a character, of a perception of an actor, and he’s doing a very different thing in his day-to-day professional life. Let’s see if we can turn what he’s doing on its ass, dig out something he’s never done before, and fulfill what I need of that character.
Or with Manglehorn, it’s like I met Al unrelated to Manglehorn. I just literally met him in a meeting that didn’t go particularly well, and I had an idea based on that meeting. When I left, I said, “I’m going to be back in a year and we’re going to make a movie together.” And, “Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
Did you fully believe that that was going to be happening for you in your future?
It was interesting. I was pitching an advertising company. I was doing a commercial campaign, an advertising company, and I went into try to persuade him to be a spokesperson, more or less, for this product. Ultimately, we ended up doing it with Clint Eastwood, who is….[laughs] You know. But we started with Al trying to get him onboard this thing.
He was just very resistant. Interested, hesitant, passionate, and, “Not for me.” I’m just watching him for two hours. and I’m just seeing these things that are not the Al Pacino that I’ve seen in movies in a very long time, like since Scarecrow, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time. Scarecrow, The Panic in Needle Park, early Godfather. It’s an amazing, obviously, body of work.
Are you the first to have Pacino talk to animals in a movie. And, if so, why did it take so long?
To talk to animals in a movie?
I don’t think I have seen him do it.
He may not.
Was that just like, “Yeah, you are going to have a cat and you are going to love that cat. Let’s go with this. Have conversations with the cat.”
Manglehorn is like a 12 year old in my mind. He’s always been a little kid. He only communicates with kids with any respect. He throws tantrums and he likes cats and kids on the playgrounds, clowns. He’s not a grown man. He hasn’t evolved past the cute girl that was sitting across from him in class that he had a romantic design of that was never fulfilled. There’s nothing that’s not adolescent about Manglehorn.
And so, in talking to animals and the innocence of that character is I think what makes me not hate him, because he’s a hateable character. He’s a despicable, melancholy asshole that needs an access point of emotion to let us give a shit. To me it was just like make him strangely naïve and against the grain in the colorful world. He’s this black and white character and he’s never matured.
I was actually thinking about it and, at the end of the film, do you think that’s the happiest Manglehorn’s ever been, or do you envision a younger Manglehorn who was happy?
That’s a great question I’ve never been asked, and I think it’s the happiest he’s ever been, because I think he’s just always….He’s just one of these people that’s always looking at the dark side. He’s always looking at the problem. And he’s not letting the problem ever heal. It’s always picking at the scab of his life, probably since he was a kid.
I heard in the Q&A that wasn’t necessarily how you were thinking of ending the film.
No. We explored a lot of endings. What I like to do is shoot 80–90 [page] scripts, because you are going to be able to raise the same amount of money for an 80–90 page script as a 100–120 page script. You have the same amount of money. People don’t budget a script based on the reality of the scenarios. They budget based on the value of who’s in it. So like, OK, you’ve got Al and you’re making a weird movie. Might as well make it a short script so that you get more days.
So we shot a lot of different things. and we had some endings that were more tragic than others. It was following the trail and kind of organic path of that character. I wanted It to end as happily as I could design it.
Do you have a standard style or approach with actors, or do you direct the likes of Holly Hunter and Al Pacino differently?
I have a standard go-to and then a bag of tricks when those don’t work.
What’s your go-to?
My go-to is, “Here’s the script. Throw it away. We get the idea. Here’s the scene. We understand the characters. We don’t need it. Let’s just talk through it. You guys can talk on top of each other. We’ll put a couple of cameras on it and let’s just make it feel real. If it’s not working, we won’t say anything. We just will have no dialogue.”
With those particular actors it’s great, because they can get it and they don’t need cues. They are not waiting for their monologue. Some actors need more structure, rehearsal. We would do rehearsal for this movie, but, for example, the dinner scene we wouldn’t rehearse because I want to see what that’s like the first time those words are said. Once he says what he says, I want to look at her face hearing it for the first time. I don’t want her to process it.
But my typical process is let’s just read through it a bunch. We know the character. Throw the script away.
For me there was an unexpected singing moment in the movie. How did that find its way into the script?
At one point it was a homeless man and an accordion. Oh, this is what it was. I think in the script it was a homeless man and an accordion comes in. it was going to be something out of Lady in the Tramp. I’m trying to make this fable movie. Going into it, it was going to be much more of a magical fable about this locksmith. It was going to be very much Grimm’s Fairytale in a contemporary world.
But as we started finding locations and casting the movie, the more grounded and on earth it felt, the better, in a way, so that the magic became this irrelevant backstory. There is magic of this character that is discarded very casually almost. You are breaking the rules of film by telling, not showing. You don’t ever show anything really magical that the guy does until the very end.
But the romantic notion of the homeless accordion player left me when I was casting. A lot of times I’ll cast at churches, because you’ll see performers in choir or things like that. I love preachers and I love just people that are nontraditional…like deacons at churches that have to give a sermon. You are finding voices that are confident and are trained in that way or experienced in that way, but they’re not trained actors. So I was at a church and that couple sang that song. So it’s like, “That’s done. Well, let’s just have them sing the song.”
The man, Tim, just passed away a few week ago, which is terrible. He didn’t get a chance to see the movie. It’s just one of those interesting things. I didn’t know him well. He was just a great performer. But it’s just kind of an interesting goodbye. There’s just going to be this weird love scene of a random character who has no relevance to a movie that’s this man that his family, and friends, and church will watch this movie. It’s like there’s this weird little captured moment of this man that’s not around anymore.
You’ve kind of had a makeshift central Texas trilogy. Do you have plans to continue that path?
I like working here. It’s a great place to work. And I live here, so that’s nice. And just a great community, and support group, and film festivals, and Violet Crown, and Alamo, and great places to watch movies.
So, yeah. I’m about to finish shooting a movie that we’ve been shooting in Bolivia, and Puerto Rico, and New Orleans, Colorado, and in LA. That’s definitely far from Central Texas. It’s about Bolivian politics. So thematically it’s another world.
Is this with Sandra Bullock?
What about plans directing comedy again? Is that something you want to do?
I’ve got two new series, an HBO series and an Amazon series I’m doing all summer that are comedies. One is the new Danny McBride series, our counterpoint to Eastbound and Down. And the other is this show I’m doing with Craig Roberts, who is a British actor. He’s directed a film that’s here at the festival. Him and Paul Riser about a Jewish country club in the ’80s in New York. So that’s fun.
I saw Danny McBride is an executive producer on this. What did he bring to the table?
Danny and Jodie Hill and I have a company. We just roundtable all our ideas. So I go to them before I go to anybody with an idea, and then we spitball it and support each other with notes on scripts. Jodie is going to do a new movie in the fall and we’re just doing that with his movie right now. We’ve got a number of things in development at our company and these shows and stuff. It’s just kind of fun to be able to have these guys that you are actually…there is a business reason that you would take the time and do it. So you are not just acting favors of all your pals to read your screenplay again, which you wear that welcome out after two years in the business.
But we’ve really designed a collaborative group of people within a business structure that makes sense. we’re just there for each other and try to balance things that are going to be a little bit more lucrative and things that are going to be heavily seen, like an HBO series or some strange art film like Manglehorn. [laughs] We want to confuse people.
Manglehorn opens June 19, 2015.