As much as he'd despise the assertion, David Gordon Green's subtle ascendancy as indiedom's au courant film director — just like his deliberate and unhurried films — is slowly coming into focus.
Onboard for his "A Confederacy of Dunces," due next year, are Drew Barrymore (also a producer on the movie) and rapper/actor Mos Def. While the rest of the cast isn't in place yet, buzz has been developing. A recent stage reading for the film at the Nantucket Film Festival featured Will Ferrell and a spate of indie film regulars including Alan Cumming, Paul Rudd, Cathy Moriarty, Rosie Perez and Natasha Lyonne.
But before Green can even contemplate "Dunces," he has his current project, "Undertow," to contend with.
Most 28-year-olds aren't lucky enough to have seminal legends of music and cinema like Philip Glass and Terrence Malick knocking down their doors, but on "Undertow," that's exactly what's happened.
No stranger to precocious success, Green was already directing and releasing his debut, the Sundance hit "George Washington," at 25. His recent "All The Real Girls," starring Zooey Deschanel ("Almost Famous") and collaborator Paul Schneider, has been equally revered at the indie-friendly film festival.
Green's atmospheric cinematography and lyrical style have drawn comparisons to Malick, so when the '70s film maverick asked Green if he'd be interested in working together, it was an unexpected dream come true. "I've admired all his movies all my life," Green said from Savannah, Georgia. "So it's pretty surreal when you're sitting on the set and he's questioning your judgment calls, and you kind of wonder, 'Yeah, maybe you're right.' "
Based on a concept of Malick's, the script of "Undertow" reads like a wild mix of road movie, horror genre surrealism and Green's trademark impressionistic ambience. Or as he calls it, "Deliverance" meets "Apocalypse Now," but for kids. "It's got its dreamy quality, too, but it's a little bit more in your face. There's a lot of blood and slitting throats and knife fights and stuff. But then you sit back and look at the sunset."
A timely few weeks before shooting was complete, renowned composer Glass phoned Green out of the blue and offered him his assistance on any projects he was working on. Now Glass and "All The Real Girls" composers David Wingo and Michael Linnen will partner up on the "Undertow" score, which should be anything but overwrought.
"You see so many movies," Green said, "that deal with cinematic nostalgia — the music swelling on the obvious notes of orchestration — and it's just so frustrating [when] moments of drama [are] killed and overburdened with melodrama and moments of honesty [are] being killed off by the swelling of the strings. For me, it's just about an honest atmosphere and meditation on moments."
Indeed, the "All The Real Girls" soundtrack, which featured tracks by Mogwai, Sparklehorse and an original song by Will Oldham, is much more in tune with ambient and contemplative moods than sweeping cinematic gestures. Green's musical ideas for "Undertow" include using songs by Sixteen Horsepower and Captain Beefheart, although there's one key inspiration that's probably out of his price range.
"I wrote the entire movie to Neil Young's 'Cortez the Killer,' but I don't think there's any way in hell I could get [the rights] to that. But that's my favorite song of all time."
Still, he can look forward to working with one of his most beloved books when he takes on the adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's celebrated "A Confederacy of Dunces." Scoring that creative feather in his cap wasn't quite as easy as his recent coups. It was Green who had to bang down the doors of producer Steven Soderberg.
"They had another director that I told them was totally wrong," Green said. "I heard who they'd been talking to and I got angry and just tried to campaign for it. I mean, I've got no business making movies that cost more than $5 by Hollywood standards, but [I wanted it]."
His candid tongue has gotten Green in trouble in the past. He once made headlines by calling fellow cinemaphile Kevin Smith's movies the Special Olympics of filmmaking, but now he shrugs off the feud. "I feel like [Smith's] probably OK. He doesn't give a sh-- what I think anyhow. He makes money. I don't."
If there's one thing audiences don't recognize about Gordon, it is this type of sharp, wry sense of humor — but it's something he's hoping to put to good use. Green wants to make a live-action version of the cartoon "Fat Albert."
"I've had two goals as far as movies are concerned forever that I can remember. One of them was to [make] 'Dunces,' and [then] more than anything in the whole world, I really wanna do 'Fat Albert,' " he admitted. "I got really depressed because they were about to go into production on 'Fat Albert' a year ago with Forrest Whitaker directing, so I was super pissed."
Creative differences between Whitaker and Bill Cosby, who owns the rights to the original cartoon, caused plans to be scrapped, and now Green is campaigning hard for the film.
"I swear to God, I wrote Bill Cosby a letter 20 minutes [ago]," he said.