Sundance: David Gordon Green jumps back to indie in ‘Prince Avalanche’
Published: January 25, 2013 11:32AM
Updated: January 25, 2013 10:17AM
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| IFC Films Emile Hirsch (left) and Paul Rudd star in the comedy "Prince Avalanche," directed by David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express").

“It’s been awhile,” director David Gordon Green said as we shook hands on Sunday. Indeed it had.

It was, in fact, 10 years almost to the day since I’d interviewed Green at the Sundance Film Festival, and the trajectory of his career has been little short of unprecedented.

In 2003, Green was in Park City with “All the Real Girls,” one of a series of small, contemplative films that had some people thinking of him as the next Terrence Malick. Instead, he became celebrated as the director of the big-budget stoner action-comedy “Pineapple Express.”

Back then, Green expected he would direct an independent version of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”; instead, he ended up with the Jonah Hill comedy “The Sitter,” the James Franco-starring “Your Highness” and a thriving business directing commercials.

But to spend time with Green is to realize that writing about his path this way is to not see the forest for the trees. The director views everything he’s done as of a piece, as being in the service of what he calls “my collective adventure.”

“I’m not one of those people who wants to do the same thing every day - I love experiences, going to new places,” says Green, 37. “I’d like to conquer the world in my own quiet way, or at least take a bite out of it. I wouldn’t change one day of my professional career.”

Green says he respects filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson but sees himself as different. “They shoot for perfection,” he says. “I have an instant-gratification work ethic. It’s more about movement, about getting things done.”

That attitude led directly to “Prince Avalanche,” Green’s current Sundance film, a low-budget, deadpan comedy starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as genial misfits painting lines on a deserted stretch of Texas highway. Its genesis was, by conventional standards, totally backward: The story it tells was the last thing Green came up with.

Everything started with that now-famous Clint Eastwood-starring Chrysler commercial “It’s Halftime in America” that Green directed for last year’s Super Bowl. “The production was very stripped down and minimal, but it played so epically - 100 million people saw it, and that was very inspiring to me,” he says.

“I thought there was no reason we couldn’t make movies that way, pulled off with simplicity and pleasure and not having to deal with egos and trailers.”

After the concept came the location. Watching that Super Bowl with Green in Austin, where he lives, were members of the band Explosions in the Sky. The band’s drummer had just returned from hiking in nearby Bastrop, where a catastrophic fire had created an unusual landscape that appealed to the director.

Backdrop in hand, all Green needed was an idea, which came via a friend in New York who told him about a two-person Icelandic film called “Either Way.”

“I hunted it down, watched it on an airplane, and 10 minutes in, I knew it was awesome,” Green remembers. He promptly made a “really quick handshake (remake) deal with the filmmakers. I conceived the idea in February, and we were sound mixing by July.”

Though Green’s string of comedies might seem unexpected given what his indie films were like, the director says that he has “a funny, bombastic side, and if I don’t let those animals out of the cage sometimes, I’m going to need a lot more therapy.”

More than that, Green says he was known for comedies when he was in film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

One reason he chose the serious “George Washington,” a film about troubled children in the South, for his first feature was that “defying expectations is of great interest to me. Expectations are all the more reason for me to do something different.”

Still, by the time he was making “Snow Angels,” his fourth small and somber film, “I was tired of crying in the editing room. My agent came to visit me on the set and I told him I wanted to make a big-budget studio comedy.”

At roughly the same time, actor Danny McBride - a buddy of Green’s from film school - was meeting with Judd Apatow, who wanted to star him in a stoner comedy he was producing for Sony Pictures.

Did McBride have any ideas on who might direct? He did, and “Pineapple Express,” which Green counts as one of his most pleasurable experiences, was born.

Green had a chance to watch Apatow direct and realized their methods were similar: “I thought, ‘All I need is funny people instead of people crying and it’ll be the same thing.’”

“Pineapple Express” went on to gross $87 million at the domestic box office.

“When the film came out, instead of the phone going silent, Sony called,” Green recalls. “They opened a sound stage full of Lexuses and said, ‘Go get one.’ That film was bizarrely successful: It’s referenced in rap lyrics, it got a Golden Globe nomination and there’s a smoothie named for it in Austin.”

“Prince Avalanche” was acquired at Sundance on Wednesday by Magnolia Pictures, and the company said it is eyeing a summer theatrical release.

Though he enjoyed the low-key atmosphere of “Prince,” Green remains someone who says, “My ambition is absurd, ridiculous, it has no bounds,” and his list of future projects reflects that.

Next is “Joe,” a dark drama taken from the Larry Brown novel and starring Nicolas Cage. After that, Green is developing a feature version of “Little House on the Prairie” for producer Scott Rudin.

“It’ll be my John Ford-”Grapes of Wrath”-Americana movie written by the woman (Abi Morgan) who wrote ‘Shame,’” Green says, referring to the 2011 NC-17 movie starring Michael Fassbender about a man with a sexual addiction.

As we exchange goodbyes, Green says, “It’s been a roller-coaster.” It certainly has. And it shows no signs of slowing down soon.