Tribeca: David Gordon Green Lets Rudd, Hirsch Loose in 'Prince Avalanche' (Q&A)

Prince Avalanche

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: David Gordon Green)

Two highway road workers spend the summer of 1988 away from their city lives. The isolated landscape becomes a place of misadventure as the men find themselves at odds with each other and the women they left behind. Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch.

Taking a break from his previous buddy comedy films like "The Sitter" and "Pineapple Express," Green tries his hand at adapting the Icelandic dramedy "Either Way."

NEW YORK -- Midway through David Gordon Green's latest film, Prince Avalanche, you'll find yourself thinking, "So that's how they put those reflecting dots on the roads."

The film stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as Alvin and Lance, two incompatible road workers laboring in a burnt out Texas forest in 1988. The remote landscape serves as the setting for self-discovery and mishap as both men deal with relationships and life while restriping the Texas roadways. 

Avalanche, a remake of the Icelandic film Either Way, is a dramatic departure from Green's more recent buddy comedies such as Your Highness and Pineapple Express. Instead of going for the big joke, this time Green relies on subtlety and nuance to present an honest portrayal of two guys just trying to get on with life, and each other. 

While in between post-production work on his next feature Joe, starring Nicolas Cage, and preproduction work on the fourth season of HBO's Eastbound & Down, which begins shooting in Wilmington, N.C., next month, Green took time to speak to The Hollywood Reporter about the film at the Tribeca Film Festival.

SUNDANCE REVIEW: Prince Avalanche

The Hollywood Reporter: Although you've done smaller, art house-type films in the past (Snow Angels, Undertow), you're mostly known for your broad comedies like Pineapple Express, Your Highness and the HBO series Eastbound & Down. Why did you want to adapt and direct the Icelandic film Either Way?

David Gordon Green: It all comes out of a very odd sequence of events. I had found this location outside of Austin, Texas, that I really wanted to make into a movie. There had been a devastating wildfire through the region and there was this beautiful rebirth going on. I literally was hiking around in this environment thinking I need to make a movie here immediately -- like today -- because it’s going to turn green and bloom again. I wanted it as a backdrop. At the same time, I was introduced to this movie Either Way. I guess that’s quicker than me having a genius idea of a concept. And I had a title. I had a dream of this title, Prince Avalanche. So I watched Either Way and thought this is perfect, because it’s funny, but it’s not a comedy. It’s emotional, but not necessarily a drama. It fills in the cracks of a human character piece, which is something that I really had the itch to do. After doing three movies that are shooting for big laughs and require a crowd to be on point with the jokes and the humor, I wanted something that took all the pressure off that and I was allowed to do and say things that I thought were amusing.

THR: The film is certainly a more dramatic piece than an all-out comedy. What type of tone were you going for while writing the script?

Green: I just wanted it to be honest. A lot of times when you’re making a comedy, you have to go a little bit bigger, larger than life, exaggerated, hit the nail on the head with the joke. And here, by taking wounded characters in a dramatic backdrop, you could inject humor in it without demanding humor out of the audience, without demanding laughs out of the audience.

THR: As you described, the setting was incredibly important to you. It's practically the third lead character in the film.

Green: Absolutely. Yeah, we treated it very respectfully and Tim Orr, our cinematographer who has shot all nine of the features I’ve done, had a very similar interest. He’d tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, here’s this bright, vibrant, green caterpillar on this black log. Let’s film it.' There was a lot of improvisation, not just in the performances, but also to the degree of us getting a POV with no actors in it. Just letting the camera exist and linger for a moment. That was important.

THR: There's a very poignant scene in the film where Paul Rudd's character meets a lady, Joyce Payne, wandering through the remains of her home that was destroyed by the fires. That was her actual home, correct?

Green: Yeah. The female character that Paul encounters wasn’t in the script. We were location scouting for the scene where Paul was going to pantomime this coming home from work scene in an empty, burnt down house. We were looking for that location, and then we met this woman who lived in that place where she is. And she’s not doing anything, she didn’t know who I was, who Paul Rudd was. We brought a camera out and threw her in the movie and just shot an inquisitive scene with Paul’s character Alvin exploring his environment and encountering someone special. We played the movie in South By Southwest and brought her out to the screening and she brought her friend who she didn’t tell that she was in the movie. I don’t think Joyce really had the concept of what was happening. It was pretty amazing.

VIDEO: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, David Gordon Green ‘Prince Avalanche’

THR: You also have the great character actor Lance LeGault in the film in his final role before he died. What was it like working with him?

Green: I do a lot of car commercials on the side and I was doing a Dodge campaign out in Tehachapi, Calif., and Lance was an extra in it. So we’re shooting this crazy parade of Dodge cars and Lance is in the background. He just keeps talking and I keep hearing this voice. He looked familiar. So I ended up talking to him and he asks, 'You ever seen a show called Magnum P.I.? You ever seen The A-Team?' All of a sudden I recognize him. So I ended up spending three days with him in the desert [for the commercial] while I'm going home at night and writing the script. I thought I had to cast Lance in this movie. He’s amazing. It was sad to see him go because he’s such a beautiful, charismatic personality. But we got this great, last portrait of him.

THR: How did Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch come onboard?

Green: Paul and I had been talking about making a movie since 1999. And actually in 1999, I tried to make a movie starring him and Steve Martin, but I couldn’t find the money for it. So we’ve been talking about it forever and we'll send funny YouTube clips to each other. That’s kind of what our relationship’s been to some degree over the years. (laughs) When I had this Prince Avalanche idea, he was the first person I reached out to. He wrote back saying let’s do it. Once he was on board, I reached out to Emile because I knew he was the real deal. He’s very specific about the projects he does. He’s a really talented guy but I knew a side of him that hadn’t been exposed on film yet. So I sent him the script and he asked if this was written for him. I was like, um… yes. Of course it was! It fit him like a glove. So it was fun chemistry to be able to let these guys loose on each other on this 16-day shoot.

THR: There's also no profanity in the film. Why did you make that choice?

Green: Well, to me, Paul and Emile's characters are little kids, kind of in their adult puberty. There’s a beautiful innocence to it, instead of giving somebody the middle finger or a punch, to just make a muscle and show them your bicep and let them know what they’re going to be dealing with, to me that’s just such little kid kind of funny. And it showed the fragile, innocent place that these characters are coming from.

THR: From a director’s standpoint, what was the biggest challenge for you going from broad comedies to a smaller, more dramatic production?

Green: That’s a very interesting question. (Pause) Actually, I don’t approach them differently at all. I find great similarities to it; it’s just a different tone. It’s a different set of characters and a different set of logistics. Also, nobody was on my back breathing down my neck. I guess the only difference comes in the post-production process. With a movie like Pineapple Express, there’s a responsibility to make a larger sum of money. So if you’re test screening your movie to an audience and they boo in one scene and applaud the next scene, you’re going to try to smooth out the boo and lean on the applause. Where a movie like Prince Avalanche can actually seduce you with the awkwardness and you can transform a boo into brilliance. You can’t do that on a movie like Pineapple, because there’s an incredible amount of your audience that would never take that risk with you. But a movie with the perception of Prince Avalanche, that’s what they go to you for, to challenge them to look at something funny or sad with them in a way that it's okay to feel vulnerable. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. It’s okay to be awkward for a minute because that’s where the true insight comes from.

Prince Avalanche will be released by Magnolia Pictures in theaters and iTunes/On Demand on August 9, 2013. The film was part of the Narrative  programming at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

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