Writer-director David Gordon Green, whose films range from the elegiac “George Washington” to the powerfully dramatic “Snow Angels,” the hilarious “Pineapple Express” and the medieval stoner misfire “Your Highness,” returns to the world of mini-budgets with “Prince Avalanche,” a chamber piece about two mismatched guys doing road work in a remote part of Texas devastated by a wildfire. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play the bickering pair in the film, a Beckett-like existentialist parable filmed in a state park outside Bastrop, Texas, which had actually been ravaged by fire in 2011. In fact, Green explained in a recent interview connected with the screening of the picture—an adaptation of the Icelandic picture “A annan veg”—at the Dallas International Film Festival—that it was the setting that started the project.
“I was talking to an art director friend of mine in New York, and I said, ‘I want to make a movie in this specific location in Bastrop, Texas, and I just want it to be two guys on the road but no cars,’” Green recalled. “And he said, ‘Oh, you should just remake this Icelandic movie that my friend worked on. It’s about two guys painting stripes on a road. I haven’t seen it, but that’s what it’s about. You should just remake that.’ So I tracked down the movie and watched it, and I said, ‘Absolutely. I’ll remake this.’ It was that easy—it was very strange.”
The devastated Bastrop Park, about thirty miles southeast of Austin, struck Green as a perfect backdrop. “This looks like a great place to make a movie,” he’d thought to himself. “You know, we could have just as easily made ‘Pineapple Express 2’ there. But this seemed that it took advantage of the melancholy backdrop, and used the backdrop to challenge the comedy. Every time you think you find yourself comfortably in a laugh in terms of the tone of the movie, something doesn’t allow that to settle in. I find that great because it’s challenging the audience in a way a typical comedy doesn’t. A big commercial studio comedy can’t afford to take those kinds of risks. With an inexpensive independent film, we can.” And state officials didn’t mind. “As long as we agreed to use washable, non-toxic paint, they were really cool, because they were not getting a lot of foot traffic in the park in those days,” Green laughed.
The Icelandic film hasn’t been released in the U.S., Green noted, but “it’s played a lot of film festivals. It’s a beautifully shot movie…just two guys in the desolate landscape of Iceland working on the road. It’s structurally very similar, emotionally and tonally we took some detours, but I really like the movie. There’s a very dry, Scandinavian humor to it. It’s a very peculiar sense of humor in that film, and we kind of put our own fingerprint of a peculiar sense of humor on this one.” And he admitted that it found it very easy to adapt: “Two days, two drafts. I wrote it and got the actors’ thoughts on it and then rewrote it….I watched [the movie] and I would just pause it every time there was a subtitle and just write the subtitles. And I found it really funny the way it would translate. That was probably forty-five pages, and then I put twenty pages of myself into it. I didn’t want to add too much to it, but I did want to personalize it and add things that I thought would be emotionally valuable.”
One addition was the expansion of the presence of a woman Rudd meets during a walk through the burnt-out forest. “In the original there is a woman who gets in and out of a truck—I just gave the woman a little more substance.” Green said. “That movie didn’t flesh out the character of this mysterious woman. I thought that would be more poignant in ours, because you’re not really sure if she’s real.”
Green explained how he decided on his cast. “I’ve known [Paul Rudd] for a very long time,” he said, “and we’ve talked about making movies forever. But I also look at certain actors that I really respect and admire and I like to be the guy that takes them on a little bit of a journey or trajectory. So I really wanted to do something with him that had a little bit more dramatic resonance rather than just taking advantage of his comedic ability, which is vast. Seeing him on stage and seeing something behind his eyes that shows pretty enormous depth, I wanted to make sure that I was there to get to play with that.
“I’d say the same thing about Emile. He’s a guy I know that has great energy and is really funny, but when you see ‘Into the Wild,’ you don’t really get that side. You see ‘Speed Racer’ and you get a different version. So I like to be able to introduce an actor in a different way. I remember when I did ‘Pineapple Express,’ and everybody was looking at me funny when I told them that James Franco was going to be in a comedy. And that was part of the beautiful discovery of the movie—that this guy is funny as hell. Throwing curveballs to the expectations of an actor is one thing that I’d really like to be known for.”
The third largest role in the picture—that of a grizzled truck driver who appears in a couple of scenes—went to veteran actor Lance LeGault, who died shortly after the shoot. Lance LeGault. “He was in the background of a Dodge commercial I was doing out in the desert of California,” Green remembered. “I heard this amazing voice…and that was when I was writing the script, and I said, ‘I think you have to come and be in this movie.’ He was an incredible guy, and in a weird way it’s a nice little swan song to a larger-than-life guy.”
Asked about the role of improvisation during filming, Green emphasized that it took various forms. “It’s kind of jazzy, you know?” he said. “I feel like if we improve our way through some of the dialogue and the shots—the sun’s falling through the trees in this way, or the caterpillar is walking across the log in this way, or something strikes us—I really do like the idea. People use the word ‘improvisation’ to specifically talk about music or dialogue, but I think there’s a really fun way to use that with the camera and visuals as well.”
And he responded to a question about switching to comedy after making a series of highly dramatic films. “It’s weird people think that’s weird,” he laughed. “If you’ve lived through an experience that’s heartbreaking or gut-wrenching, isn’t the funnest thing to do to go make a stoner comedy? People think that was something radical, but you’re talking to a guy who was up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in February snowstorms, dealing with child loss and suicide [in ‘Snow Angels’]—these very heavy elements of drama—and when my agent said, ‘What do you want to do next?’ I said I would like to make something really fun and funny and shot in nice weather in California. I mean, it seems like a natural move. I pride myself on being not any sort of master filmmaker, but a very curious filmmaker, interested in ‘why’ and ‘what if.’ What if Christopher Nolan, instead of doing a spectacular new movie, did a breezy romantic comedy? That’s a fun thing that I actually get to do. I don’t have a great interest in doing similar content all the time.”
And so after “Prince Avalanche,” Green moved to different territory with the upcoming “Joe,” based on a novel by Larry Brown and starring Nicolas Cage and young Tye Sheridan [of “Mud”], which he described as “a very Southern-textured, really dramatic movie. Working with both of those guys was amazing—two fearless actors, one very seasoned and been around the block—and we’re able to create a character different from anything Nicolas Cage has ever done before—and Tye just getting his feet wet. This was an opportunity to take advantage of their talent, and try to sculpt something very unique in tone and texture.”
That’s the same general principle that seems to underlie his work with Rudd and Hirsch in “Prince Avalanche.”