Writer-director David Gordon Green (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow”) made a recent stop in Dallas, his hometown, for a screening of his new picture, “Snow Angels,” at the AFI Film Festival. He was joined by the movie’s star, Sam Rockwell, who plays Glen, the emotionally troubled ex-husband of Annie (Kate Beckinsale), with whom he’s desperate to reconcile while keeping up a relationship with their young daughter.

Green had been hired to pen an adaptation of the novel on which the film is based for director Jesse Perez, but when Perez moved on to another project, he got the chance to direct it as well. “The characters and situation hit home to me,” Green said, “and then through my job as a writer I began personalizing things and found myself emotionally investing in their world. And I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to direct it and to be able to see it through.”

Rockwell found that the material spoke to him as well. “David had written a classic kitchen-sink drama,” he said. “It screamed out all those films that I’d seen in the seventies. It has a Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick vibe to it.”

“Snow Angels” was shot in Nova Scotia during the winter, giving the picture a bleak, chilly feel much removed from Green’s earlier films. “It was an intentional attempt to break free of the backdrop that I’d been working in, a departure thematically, and more so atmospherically,” he said. “I found it nice to be a foreigner. You look through different eyes, you’ve got different goggles on, when you don’t feel like it’s your backyard.”

Green described the process of making the film as one of designing “something that’s simultaneously private but ultimately universal. It’s about Glen…trying to find a rhythm within a life that has no groove.

“There was a lot of time when we took the dialogue off the script and improvised and tried things that weren’t preconceived. It’s not a fallback, it’s part of the design—it’s part of what gives [force to] a drama like this, which is not in any broad sense revolutionary or inventive or high concept. We’re dealing with not only topical issues but almost cinematic cliches. The point is to peel back the cliché to find the reality.”

That effort, Green continued, explains the use of humor in what overall is a quite tragic story: “We’re dealing with very sensitive subject matter that in the wrong hands would, I think be maudlin or melodramatic, and we wanted to have some humor in the imperfections [of the characters] to elevate the humanity of it. And so when we thought of a funny idea that wouldn’t betray the themes of the movie, we’d put it in.”

Rockwell and Beckinsale played many of their scenes not only with each other, but with little Grace Hudson as their daughter Tara. And contrary to common belief, both director and star said it was easy.

“You see a lot of kids that kind of play it sitcom cute,” Green said, “that come in and can memorize lines and are very conscious of the camera. This girl didn’t care about the camera—just playing pretend. [The adult actors] would just pull out of her what we needed in the scenes. So they were actually directing the scenes. She’s saying whatever she wants to say in playing make-believe. Every take was fresh, every take was one of a kind.”

Rockwell observed, “They say don’t act with kids or animals. We had both. But it really gets you back to the essence of what it means to be an actor. Kate and I had to be on our toes. You have to adapt.”

And Green appreciated having performers of their quality to work with. “I got into making movies because I love watching movies,” he said. “And when you’ve got great actors, I’m not a director that likes to stand a mile away with a monitor and tell the AD what to communicate to the actors. I like to sit by the camera and watch the show. I think it’s really valuable not to rush the efficiency of a performance, not to be so specific about what you want that you don’t let it breathe.”

The admiration proved to the mutual. Rockwell said, “David really understands what it is to be an actor—that you have to go there. Some people don’t understand that. Some directors, funny enough. They think it’s like a switch you turn on and off. It’s not. Emotion is like a cat—you’ve got to coax a cat. It’s very elusive. You’ve got to seduce it. And I think David understands that instinctively. He respects that process.”