David Gordon Green: 'Our Brand Is Crisis' Was Not Made "With Any Sort of Political Agenda" (Q&A)
The multihyphenate talks feeling the pressure of directing a fact-based film, working with a female star like Sandra Bullock and preparing for the Boston Marathon bombing drama 'Stronger.'
For the third year in a row, the Toronto Film Festival is screening a film from director David Gordon Green, culminating with this year’s Sandra Bullock starrer Our Brand Is Crisis (Warner Bros.), which focuses on the use of American political campaign strategies in South America.
That "fun trend," as Green casually calls it, speaks volumes about just how busy the multihyphenate is. Beyond his impressive feature directing output, he also writes screenplays for other directors (the Nick Jonas-led fraternity drama Goat), executive produces for others (like The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter for pals Jody Hill and Danny McBride) and directs more TV episodes than some small-screen specialists (HBO’s Eastbound & Down and upcoming Vice Principals, Amazon’s Red Oaks). In fact, whenever Green has a week off, the self-described adrenaline junkie will quickly book a commercial directing job for a major brand like Nike.
The only thing that might slow him down is a pair of 4-year-old twin boys, who he was busy delousing before his interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Unmarried, Green, 40, declined to specify his co-habitation status ("I have a very strange life. It would be hard to describe in an interview," he says). Instead, the Austin-based director is more comfortable articulating his unconventional career choices, zigging between studio films and indies, satires and heavy dramas.
Green spoke with THR about the mindset behind tackling Our Brand for producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, how Bullock worked "her ass off" and why James Carville was never consulted for the film.
What's the allure of this particular festival for you?
It has great venues and huge, huge audiences. But I love it because it’s kind of the one annual meeting place of all my industry friends — filmmaker friends, distribution friends — around the world. For me, it’s just a chance to be social. It’s not like I see so many directors everyday because I’m usually working on my own sets. It’s kind of fun just to shoot the breeze and see who’s there and watch some movies when you can carve out a little time. But I’m not going to have a chance to see too many movies this time. My push on this one is just to spread the word on Our Brand, get that off to a fun start and then catch up with people that I don’t see very often.
You have a staggering amount of credits. How do you find the time to do it all?
It’s a mix between having an enormous excitement and ambition for what I do. Everyday it’s exciting to wake up. I wake up early, I jump out of bed and can’t wait to see what I’m getting in to that day. It’s also working with good teams, people that you enjoy working with, people that work efficiently and economically and keep a smooth running train. Every step of the process of filmmaking is so enjoyable for me, from scribbling down ideas on a barroom napkin to sound mixing and working on title sequences. I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie too. I don’t sleep enough, but I get up every morning and exercise and try to keep the body flowing.
I’ve got twin 4-year-old boys now, so taking them on these wild circus rides is kind of the more frustrating part of the journey. It’s trying to figure out where that balance is and how to keep the domestic humanity, humility and humor. Today is my day off from shooting, and I wake up this morning and they come to wake me up to tell me they have lice. So they’re being deloused right now.[Laughs.] Story of my life.
Our Brand Is Crisis is based on a documentary. How much did you rely on the doc itself when you were making the film?
I rely on some sort of foundation of truth and authenticity. And I think that the documentary and the director of the documentary, Rachel Boynton, were very valuable to me. It’s obviously not a re-creation of the documentary verbatim. We’re taking a lot of creative liberties and designing this character to be a Sandra Bullock vehicle. So it was just making sure we had enough of an anchor of truth that we could then take our tangents and detours and combine characters or traits from multiple real-life personalities into one character that was fabricated for the purposes of the film. So there’s a real creative energy and engineering that goes into it.
It was a lot of research, going to down to Bolivia and wandering around La Paz, talking to everyone from politicians to concierges at the hotel and people you meet at the coffee shops and really getting the conversation of what these events that inspired our film, what they mean to the culture, what they mean to people. And how can we use a political conversation as an entertaining backdrop for a movie that’s really inspiring.
But more often you are working on movies based on books or original ideas. What has been the biggest difference?
I’ve done stuff based on true stories or nonfiction novels too. Actually, the first time I met George Clooney and Grant Heslov was as a writer adapting John Grisham’s only nonfiction book, The Innocent Man, and spending time on death row. So I have experience in that process. If I’m adapting a [novel], I feel like I can be pretty liberal. Readers of books know that it’s going to change a good bit, and I feel like it’s not as stressful. But when you’re dealing with real-life incidents, you do have to be a little bit more well-researched and educated and respectful of the fact that these are people’s lives you’re simulating. But we’re not claiming that this is a re-creation of the actual events, but inspired by them.
Do you expect this film to spark controversy?
No, I don’t think so. At least it’s not my hope. My hope is it starts a conversation and debate. We certainly didn’t approach it with any sort of political agenda. But what I think it does do is bring an entertaining light to the conversation of American involvement in international politics. It is interesting to see everything from political strategy, the cat-and-mouse [game] of political strategists, and they may be doing something for a paycheck or they may be doing something for an overall cultural cause — and you never know who is who or why they’re there. Until I did the research, I wasn’t savvy about how involved in the international climate these hired American guns can be.
Why satire vs. hard-hitting drama?
We just didn’t want to be heavy-handed with a specific political message. We wanted to bring a wit to our perspective of it so it doesn’t condescend.
Do any real-life figures come off looking bad in the film?
The names were changed to protect the innocent. [Laughs.]
You go back and forth between true indie films and studio movies. What’s the mindset behind the choices you make as a director?
Just as I’d imagine you enjoy seeing different types of movies or different types of entertainment — TV, or you want to go to see a horror movie one week or you want to have a laugh because you’re going through a tough time and you want to see something funny — I have a whimsical, professional agenda. If I’ve made a very difficult, independent-minded [film] and I was in the editing room listening to the harsh realities of a great drama, then I [next] want to do something fun and laugh and hang out with my buddies and do something absurd.
I use work as my opportunity to explore places. It’s a passport to where I want to go. When the script for Our Brand came on my desk, a script about Bolivia, I just immediately stayed up all night reading. I got very excited about just that concept alone. Sometimes you want a comfortable cup of coffee that tastes just like you know it’s going to taste and other times you want to step out of your comfort zone and get a little wild. And this movie for me was an opportunity to combine a lot of these things that I like. I love to travel. I love to laugh. I love to find something that has a sense of drama and gravity to it. And this was a real performance piece.
How did it diverge from your previous films?
The last three films I’ve done were really me trying to minimize the logistics of the filmmaking process and maximize performance. So if it’s Prince Avalanche: two actors in the woods in one location so that it could just be a performance piece. Or take an actor like Nicolas Cage who has such an amazing diverse body of work, and let’s try to put him in this role that he’s never done before [in Joe]. Or [Al] Pacino in Manglehorn and try to do the same thing. Those have been really precise, scientific, calculated experiments with performance. When Our Brand came about, I was like, "How can I do this with an incredible, top-of-her-game contemporary movie star like Sandra Bullock and expand the backdrop to be a hundred times what I’ve been playing in, in terms of the size of the arena over the last few years and make it in an international playground?"
Most of your films and TV are dominated by male protagonists. Was it a challenge having a female star?
It was the opposite of that. You’re working with a collaborator, with Sandy. She’s a professional. She’s on set early, working her ass off, and she’s involved in the decisions in a wonderfully collaborative way. She brings a great sense of humor to the process. So not every day goes exactly as you’d planned. So sometimes there’s compromises or frustrations. She’s there with a sense of humor about it, rather than breathing down your neck and intensifying the anxiety.
I learned a lot from her, and just learned a lot about an actress that can take a long monologue, I can give a minute adjustment or pull lines out of the middle, and she just kind of nods, swallows the thought and then goes for it. She’s just really brave. We could take things that were written more comedically and try dramatic interpretations. If something felt like it was a little heavy-handed in its drama or exposition, we could try to do a take that had no dialogue. She could say a lot with her physical expressions or just the raise of an eyebrow. You’re working with somebody that really has that kind of athleticism about her performance.
How did Billy Bob Thornton get cast?
When we started throwing around names and his name came up, I just started laughing at the idea of picturing Billy Bob, me and Sandy chasing each other around in this film. And the wit that I know that they both have, the kind of dramatic sting that they both bring. It becomes a beautiful dance. When we were in preproduction, he said, "Guess what? I shaved my head?" [Laughs.] I said, "Send me pictures immediately." And then I saw the look that he was going for, and I was like, “OK, there we are, very James Carville-esque.”
Did James Carville consult at all during the filmmaking?
We actually didn't. There were a few things that I think were for legal reasons we had to keep at arm's length. We were shooting in New Orleans where he lives and I was very tempted to say, “Hey let's go grab dinner. I'd love to rack your brain. But I think there were enough very valid reasons from above that we thought we should probably keep a little distance from some of the truthful characters just because we didn't want to involve some but not others. We had our own internal politics and discussions on where our voice and authorities were going to come from, and I think it's probably wise not to make it too personal.
What percentage of your time are spending doing TV these days?
I just finished an Amazon series Red Oaks that starts playing next month. So that was the early part of the summer, and now I’m doing nine episodes of Vice Principals for HBO. So probably a third of the year. And then two-thirds of the year doing movies and then squeezing commercials in the cracks in weekends and holidays. I remember after we’d wrapped production on Our Brand, everybody’s excited to go take a Christmas break, and I immediately got a call to do a Nike commercial and jumped on it. Any time when there’s not work, I try to find something that’s a great creative opportunity, even if it’s writing with my friends or making music with my friends.
What’s your next film? Is it the Boston Marathon bombing drama Stronger?
Yeah. I’m planning on getting started on that after this show wraps. It’ll be a very intense and a more of a specific, true-to-life story with a living figure and re-creating recent events. Hopefully, we’ll be filming in the spring in Boston. The marathon is in April.
Stronger is very different from your previous films. Do you see it as a departure for you?
I see everything as a departure. When I read this electric script [by John Pollono], I was immediately scared of doing something that had such power to it, something that you can’t mess around with. It’s a lot less playful than some of my projects.