BEVERLY HILLS, California — There was Stanley Kubrick, who flexed his masterful adversity by giving us the hilarious “Dr. Strangelove” and the trippy outer-space meditation “2001: A Space Odyssey” back-to-back. There’s also Steven Spielberg, who released sci-fi “War of the Worlds” and heavy “Munich” one after the other — in the same year! You could also mention Billy Wilder, Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers in the pantheon of directors who have made seamless transitions between movies of wildly different genres.
But has there ever been a director brave enough to attempt the back-to-back movie dexterity currently being navigated by David Gordon Green?
“It’s lovely to see someone use all of himself,” marveled Kate Beckinsale, who stars as a small-town waitress in a troubled marriage in Green’s heavier-than-a-brick drama “Snow Angels.” “And he hasn’t even started; it’s great to see him do that.”
Beckinsale’s “that” refers to the other film the 32-year-old auteur is finishing up these days: A crude stoner comedy called “Pineapple Express,” for which he teams up with red-hot pun purveyors Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow.
“It was like, ‘How do I spend a year of my life in an editing room laughing my ass off, rather than trying to find the emotional truth woven into a story [like “Snow
Angels”]?’ ” Green said of his boundary-breaking 2008 gigs. “[‘Pineapple’] was something to let
loose, shake [‘Angels’] off and shoot in an environment that was warm and where I could learn how to film a car chase, and blow up stuff and have shootouts. [I want] to exercise the 12-year-old boy and the movie buff in myself.”
Sadly, that’s a statement you rarely hear from filmmakers, who’ve become increasingly content with the categories of action (Michael Bay), drama (Lasse Halström) and comedy (Shawn Levy) that keep them happily employed churning out variations on the same emotional notes. While the move may be surprising, the fact that it’s coming from an indie maverick like Green is not.
“I got my start when I went to a college, a film school in North Carolina, and met a bunch of guys who had similar sensibilities,” Green said of his early days, which yielded the low-budget, eye-popping cult dramas “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls” and
“Undertow.” “It’s been a fun road of taking professional steps with these guys and making professional transitions and throwing some stories together. Sometimes experimentally, sometimes more commercially, and seeing what we can do to entertain people and maybe inspire the next guy to come make a movie.”
Michael Angarano, who plays a high school kid with a crush on Beckinsale’s character in “Angels,” witnessed Green’s close-knit team in action. “When we were making ‘Snow Angels,’ he said that [‘Pineapple’] is the biggest-budget movie he had ever done, with a crew that wasn’t composed of all of his friends,” laughed the 20-year-old “Sky High” star. “[Green] went to film college, and he basically met his production designer, who is his friend [Richard A. Wright]; his cinematographer, who is his friend [Tim Orr]; his sound guy, who is his friend [David Wingo]; and his producer [Lisa Muskat].”
“They’ve formed a really nice little niche for themselves,” marveled “Juno” actress Olivia Thirlby, who plays a teen who helps Angarano’s character after a heartbreaking death tears their small town apart in “Angels.” “He spent a lot of time on ‘Snow Angels.’ … He examines interactions, and he examines the nuances of relationships, and it does remain incredibly truthful to real life.”
With that North Carolina School of the Arts team in place, Green has carved out the powerful reputation of an acclaimed filmmaker as independent as they come. His films haven’t made a lot of money, but it seems like everyone in Hollywood knows them by heart.
“I liked ‘All the Real Girls,’ ” Beckinsale said of her favorite Green film, a 2003 drama starring Zooey Deschanel. “I haven’t seen a movie like that in a long time. The performances were so good, and it felt kind of poetic.”
“Don’t expect any fast-paced, plot-driven films; his films are always about people and circumstance,” explained Thirlby. “His films are very quiet and moody. He is often very influenced by the climate and environment in which he stages his films. And they’re subtle.”
Angarano chimed in with additional descriptions that would make most filmmakers run for cover. “He’s very interested in the details of everything — a lot of specific details of many things,” he said. “So you might see one of his movies and go, ‘Well, that sticks out. That’s odd.’ … He is an old-school filmmaker — he’s like Terrence Malick.”
Yeah, but even the Oscar-nominated “Badlands” director wasn’t crazy enough to take on a Cheech & Chong movie.
“I visited the ‘Knocked Up’ set right after I finished ‘Snow Angels,’ ” remembered Green. “That’s what really drew me to it — the common sensibility [people like Apatow, Rogen, Bill Hader and James Franco] had. The loyalty they had of their crew base, the freedom they give their actors and the risks that the director was encouraging everyone
to take as a team. So, we blended the Apatow camp and the North Carolina mafia, and came up with something I think is pretty interesting.”
“Pineapple Express” is a “Blues Brothers”-meets-“Harold & Kumar” comedy about two dimwitted potheads (Rogen and Franco) who run afoul of cops, dealers and henchmen after witnessing a murder. Green laughed at the recent perceived “leak” of an R-rated clip, which showed the main characters smoking up, and confessed that
Apatow and his gang have once again begun leaking the goodies and confidently building the same demand they did for “Superbad” and “Knocked Up.”
Rogen observed that, like Apatow, Green gives his actors room to improvise, but the latter emphasizes performance over line delivery. “Judd is very quick to give out new lines, different things to say, different jokes,” Rogen said. “Dave, his direction is a lot more attitude-based, and he doesn’t worry about changing the lines that much. But he’ll give you a direction: ‘Say it like a robot. Say it like a drunk robot. Now say it like you’ve got ear wax in your mouth.’ He’s much more a performance-based director.”
“I’ve been privy to some of the [Apatow] rehearsal processes, and David has an ear for what is real too,” Thirlby insisted. “When you improv with him, he has a good sense of how to let you simultaneously be free and knows how to guide you strongly in certain directions. Just as well, he knows what is heart-wrenching, and what is sad, and he knows what is funny.”
Like its two central characters, “Pineapple” already has a huge buzz. And with “Snow Angels” garnering awards talk for Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and the director, 2008 could very well become the year of David Gordon Green.
“I like when people say dramatic things in a funny tone, or when they’re laughing while they’re crying,” he said of the real-life balance between comedy and drama that so few filmmakers can capture. “I’m into all those very fragile, vulnerable human moments. And you can make outrageous comedies out of those, or you can make intimate dramas out of those. You could make an epic war movie out of those. And all those possibilities, those cinematic scenarios, are what make me want to get up in the morning and go make a movie.”
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