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Ben Sachs: How did you meet Joyce Payne, the striking nonactor who appears in Prince Avalanche?
David Gordon Green: My [assistant director] Atilla [Salih Yucer] and one of my producers, Craig Zobel, were scouting for the location where Paul would do the pantomime scene in the burnt house. Now, after the fire [in the area where the movie was shot], most of the people whose homes had burnt wanted to clear it all out, but Joyce refused to clear the foundation of her home because she was looking for these little artifacts. And so, when [Yucer and Zobel] were looking for the location, they ran into her. They were seeing if we could use her home but ended up asking her about her experience. We ended up using a different location for that sequence, but integrating her as a character.
Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch were cool with that?
Yeah, they're just cool about everything that's cool. They're also like me—they like to take chances without necessarily knowing where it's going. There's a curiosity to my process. You know, there are some directors who come in and do "precision takes." Like, this has been storyboarded and the camera's specifically there, and there's this symmetry . . . I think there can be excellent precision. Directors like Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher, these guys have great insight into the mathematics of films. But since I'm not nearly as smart [as them], I just like the rawness and unpredictability of filmmaking, being able to roll with the punches. You know, if it rains, you go film in the rain.
But you do have a great tracking shot at the beginning of Prince Avalanche. It feels very prepared, like the camera movement has been so well choreographed that the characters can go about their business completely unaware.
There are a lot of long shots—like the one where we're walking up the hill with [Rudd and Hirsch] when they're going to pound a stake into the ground. There's a lot of sequences of them not speaking and just doing some work. We were really trying to establish a physicality in their performances. Paul and I had talked about Buster Keaton and Super Mario Brothers as influences on his character—and trying to come up with a strange hybrid of those two. It was fun to find [moments] where their body language could say things we didn't necessarily want the dialogue to say.
Can you explain the Super Mario influence?
I'm not a big video game player, but I remember one time someone left a Nintendo at my house, along with the Super Mario Brothers game where they hit stuff with their heads. And the theme song was really nice—I always think about it. At one point, I was thinking about using that music as our theme song [in Prince Avalanche], finding an orchestral version of it.
And then there's that Super Mario Brothers movie , which John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins were in and which has a peculiar charm to it. I like that movie in a lot of strange ways—there are some really interesting things to revisit in it. It's been largely forgotten, but there's some really interesting character design in that movie.
We were making a movie that nods to a period of the past, and in my youth, all my friends loved playing that game. I played it a few times and thought it was fun, but I wasn't really into video games. I would never get very far [in them]. I would die.
But I thought there was a nice design to it. So, when we were talking about everything from costumes to performances, we would reference it. At the wrap party, we made big Mario and Luigi piñatas and beat the shit out of them. Candy poured out—it was magical.
You mention the period detail. This is your first period piece, isn't it? I mean, not counting Your Highness.
Yeah, Your Highness is a period piece. That's the truth, dude. It's historically accurate . . . But, I mean, I look at Undertow and even All the Real Girls as period pieces. They're not real. Even George Washington isn't real. They're very affected. There are no billboards or TV sets . . . Undertow even looks like a late-70s movie until you see, like, a George Foreman grill. I always fuck with the time period a little bit. [Prince Avalanche] is the first one that actually [takes place in] a pinpointed year, but I thought it was valuable to detach [the characters] from technology, from their families and girlfriends.
I really liked the sentiment of letter writing [which is an important part of the story]. I mean, I've saved every love letter I've ever gotten in my life. I have them all in a suitcase, and every now and then I'll get depressed and I'll open them up. I'll realize how poor the grammar was and [think] these girls that I was dating at the time must have been pretty uneducated. But I think there's a nice quality of—rather than saving an e-mail, having that tangible piece of paper with someone's personality behind the penmanship. I think that's really great. And the only way to have that and not make it feel super far-fetched was to place [the story] in the 80s.
Was that the primary factor for setting it in 1988?
Well, the original  Icelandic film [that Avalanche is based on], Either Way, took place then, and I never asked [the filmmakers] why. I imagine it was for the same reasons. I actually tried to make it contemporary for a minute, but I felt like we had to acknowledge too many things.
What surprised me most about Prince Avalanche was how much it retains the sensibility of the studio comedies you directed while looking like an art film.
It's interesting. Some people don't think it's funny at all and some people think it's funnier than my [studio] comedies. It just depends on where your sense of humor is. I think a lot of it's funny, but I don't think it's overburdened with comedy.
The difficulty of making a studio comedy . . . I mean, there are a million amazing things about it—I haven't had a bad experience. The greatest productions of my life have been those three movies, probably. They're just so much fun and you can get away with whatever you want to get away with. But the difficulty comes in when you start screening them for audiences, and everybody's watching that as a part of the process in which you market and distribute the film. So you want big laughs—that's the goal. The studio feels that if you spend tens of millions of dollars on a movie, they want a lot of people to want to go see that movie. There are elements in those films that I don't think are funny, but they get huge laughs, so they're in the movie. Or things that I think are hilarious but the audience rejects because they're too far out or a little bit too this or that. Sometimes that can be disheartening. You're finishing the film and thinking, "There's that great scene that I wish was in my movie." But in order to build the infrastructure that's part of the business of film, you make those compromises along the way.
Since Avalanche was such a low-budget movie, there was no one to set the terms of audience acceptance. We could really commit to what we all liked—the actors, the [director of photography], the sound mixer, and the production designer—and make a movie of it. It's really exciting to say that every frame of this movie is stuff that I responded to and chose without taking into consideration anyone other than my best friends. And the most rewarding thing is to unleash that on an audience and have it received really well. It's just that much more of a feeling of acceptance when something you feel represents your interests and tastes gets well received. There's no greater feeling than that.
What are some moments of the studio films that you regret having to cut?
Well, there's nothing I had to cut, I'll first say. It was all me—it was all choices I made. There was stuff I just really selfishly liked. Like, in The Sitter, there's a great sequence of bodybuilders shooting up steroids and there's a really trippy, drug-induced moment of a guy smoking crack and watching Mr. Belvedere. I thought those were really interesting, but they just weren't done with big jokes. The tone was so heavy and dark that people couldn't recover from it in a funny movie. Or there's a sequence with Jonah [Hill] and his father that gets really beautiful and really personal, but really dark. And once you've gone to that realistic, gritty place in a movie, it's hard to jump back out into the Adventures in Babysitting kind of tale that we're telling.
In Your Highness, we had a brutal rape scene between a minotaur and this young boy. It was interestingly shot and just the idea was really challenging. But we lifted that scene because it was at the cost of the scenes that would follow. Because it was too violent and brutal, it was inappropriate for that movie.
Again, it comes back to my curiosity in exploring this and that. You go into all these processes in every production with a shit ton of ideas—you go in excited to explore and experiment. But sometimes it's even for reasons of pacing that you lift a scene. There are a couple of scenes in my new movie that I just finished. They're really solid—there's nothing wrong with them—but I had to cut one because there was a long scene of dialogue coming up and this [other] scene made that feel too long. There are all sorts of instances where I have a beautiful scene that does exactly what I set out to achieve but doesn't wind up in the movie.
I read that Howard Hawks would keep ideas for scenes if they didn't fit into one movie and then use them later on.
It's interesting you say that. I've done several movies with a scene of people communicating in Morse code, and it's always been edited out. But I think it's an interesting thing for people to tap out communication. I did it in All the Real Girls, Undertow, Snow Angels, and this movie—it's never made it. It's also in a couple of scripts that I've written that didn't get made. So someday, I want to have a movie that's all Morse code—just people tapping out the whole time—and subtitling it.