Most movies are driven by either character or some combination of plot, action, gags, and scares. Other movies, however, simply imbue the audience with a feeling. While director David Gordon Green knows how to conduct all the instruments above like a maestro, it’s the latter quality that most often typifies his work.
Green’s films are more like experiences than movies; you take them in, rather than simply watch them. Earlier independent projects like All the Real GIrls and Undertow brought viewers into a South they might not have recognized with a strong sense of setting and introduced them to characters who were more than just vehicles for bad decisions. These films have a tone all their own that, through pacing, music, and other elements, casts a mood over an audience like a spell.
In 2008, Green made an abrupt left turn from his previous films by directing the hit studio stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. Ever since, the latter half of his resume has been packed with movies starring the likes of Danny McBride and Jonah Hill. The director’s latest film, however, splits the difference between these two career phases, however, combining the naturalism of his earlier films with mainstream comedic star Paul Rudd.
Filmed in just two weeks in Texas, and loosely based on the 2011 Icelandic film, Either Way, Prince Avalanche is another film experience that creates a tone for audiences to luxuriate within. On the eve of its August 9 release, Green talked to Co.Create about how to create a distinct mood with a movie.
You need actors being natural and doing things that have this specific honesty or vulnerability about them, which, I think, invites us into the various moods that we want to try and achieve. For instance, I like the emotional situation of someone who’s in a headspace and needs to turn to someone and depends on someone that he doesn’t trust very much. I love an emotionally vulnerable man who has to turn and see this jackass he has to deal with. To me, that’s very funny and relatable. In Prince Avalanche, Paul Rudd is the one in that headspace. He’s got such a humanity about him and relatability, and he’s also very likable. He’s funny, but there’s also a great emotional complexity to him that I thought we could exploit in this movie.
Music can set a tone that’s melancholy, or humorous, contrasting with the moment, or amplifying it. Explosions In the Sky and David Wingo are two musical entities that I’ve collaborated with a number of times, including Prince Avalanche. They were all on set a lot of the time, hanging out and writing themes during production. Then in post-production, they would have one house set up as a recording studio and we’d have a house set up as an editing suite and we’d move back and forth between them.
We’ve got the camera where it’s placed [to get] enough of a perspective of where we are and who the characters are that you get enough of an expression and human face, but also the background. Prince Avalanche was an idea very much inspired by this place [the fire-devastated Bastrop State Park near Austin, Texas], and I knew we had a very short window to film there before the rebirth was so far along that it wouldn’t be visually interesting. So we basically put the concept together very quickly and made the movie. Before we knew what we were doing, we were rolling film.
I usually have some sort of idea of what I’m going to go for when we’re shooting so that I have a game plan, but I’m totally open to throwing that game plan out the door and discovering something new. Tim Orr, my cinematographer, is kind of a master of sculpting light and in this case there weren’t any lights except for the sun just kind of bouncing around with mirrors. Whenever we want to move the camera, it’s kind of a conversation, but he’s got a great instinct on when to move the camera and when to sit still and when to kind of romantically dance.
Editing is where you really decide how long the moment should go on or whether you should cut it abruptly to create a certain psychological effect. I don’t edit the movies myself, but I have a hand in the process obviously. This is the first film I’ve used Colin Patton, who’s been my assistant director for the last few films, as my lead editor. Having a good editor helps you know how long to let a shot linger, but also you have to feel your way through it. What feels natural, what feels funny, what feels the most impactful—you develop an instinct for what will get that reaction.