Interview: Director David Gordon Green of 'The Pineapple Express'
Tue, 05 Aug 2008 17:16:48
When I spoke to one of independent cinema’s most critically-lauded directors, David Gordon Green, he joked that he was prepping for the premiere of his newest film, The Pineapple Express, by “making [his] own cologne out of some rum and brandy and fermented pears.” This facetious mien might come as a surprise to those only familiar with Green’s dramatic oeuvre, which includes movies like the stunning George Washington and this year’s Snow Angels, starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. The Pineapple Express couldn’t be more different than either of those films, and actor Danny McBride (who plays the virtually unassailable drug dealer Red in the movie), attests that the director has long had an affinity for comedic material.
Penned by frequent collaborators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also co-wrote last summer’s Superbad, Pineapple is about the fantastic journey that two pot smoking slackers, played by Rogen and James Franco, embark upon after one of them witnesses a brutal murder. As they dodge the bullets of vindictive drug lords and messily careen their way toward safety, an awkward and tender friendship develops between the duo, who typically dwell in the bifurcated realms of dope supplier and dope smoker.
Green spoke about applying familiar conventions of dramatic storytelling to this picture, collaborating with members of the Apatow fraternity, and having the chance to “do some serious damage” while shooting action sequences.
While you were shooting, were you able to tell if jokes were working right away?
It’s interesting, the difference between making a comedy and a drama. [With] a drama you need to let people soak [it] in and take a walk afterward and talk to them [about the material]. [With] a comedy, you’re watching it with them live. If they’re not laughing it’s not working; there’s no argument. There can be arguments and different opinions; some people think something is funny and others don’t. But if you’ve got 600 people in a recruited test screening in Burbank [and it’s not funny], you can hear the crickets. You’ve messed up.
Have you seen the movie with an audience?
Yeah, it makes me really happy to see it with an audience. It’s like getting everybody drunk without bringing out the alcohol.
Were there any conventions of dramatic storytelling that you found translated well to this material?
I use the same architecture and engineering that I do when I approach a drama. It really just had to be about relationships and honesty and sincerity of character. Then if you put them in a bunch of absurd situations, I think those dramatic foundations actually make it funnier than if they were approaching it making funny faces and wacky setup and payoff comedy clichés.
In the making of this movie you moved away from the director as auteur model. Can you talk about the collaborative process behind the making of this film?
I’ve always tried to move away from the director as auteur model. I think that’s kind of weird, when one guy’s running the show. I really like the collaborative energy of having smart department heads and a wonderful cast [where] everybody brings their ideas to the table, and [I] really try to take advantage of that. In an ideal scenario if you put your ego aside, everybody makes everybody else look good. If you’ve cast the right cast and you’ve cast the right crew then you’ve really got a tremendous scenario where the obstacles you face are met by people that are creatively problem solving, and that often inspires a new way of looking at things and some invention and some techniques that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought [of] if you could’ve had exactly what you wanted. The actors do a tremendous amount of improvisation in taking the script, taking the words and dialogue off the page. Everybody really does have that sense of trust and we’re challenging each other and we’re there to support each other and I can’t imagine a different way of making movies.
How do you balance encouraging that openness, improvisation, and experimentation while shooting and make sure that you hit certain comedic beats in the script?
There were a couple plot points that we really needed to stress, but it wasn’t a movie that would really fall apart if you missed [them]. It kind of just becomes its own chaos.
Did you bring on a lot of people that have worked on past films with you, even though you were working with a new crew with Judd [Apatow] and Seth, et cetera?
It was a great blending of the two crews and sensibilities. I brought my cinematographer that I went to film school with and [who's] shot all my movies and my sound mixer that’s done all my movies. There are probably 15 guys that I went to college with working on the movie at all times, from the guy that was doing the behind-the-scenes documentary to the camera operator. Having that confidence meant that I didn’t have to double check them, didn’t have to tap them on shoulder and have them make adjustments. I could let them loose doing their thing and worry about the bigger picture, which is always just a liberating feeling, knowing that you don’t have to micromanage.
“I would wake up an hour early without my alarm because I’d be so excited about what the day would have to offer.”
Danny [McBride] is fantastic, by the way, who I know you have a history with.
Absolutely. [It’s great] having actors that you can really throw into the ring. Any time you have [actors like] Seth and James and Danny acting in a scene, I would just wake up an hour early without my alarm going off just because I’d be so excited about what the day would have to offer.
I loved reading about some of the directions you would feed the actors, like, “Do it like a frustrated nun.” Do most of those precepts just strike you in the moment while you’re watching them in action?
They do. Just a minute ago I was approving the “Making Of” documentary. There was one I said where I told this guy to “yell like a magician.” That’s an impossible direction. Any textbook author would punch me in the face for saying things like that. But to me, those looks on an actor’s face when they don’t know how to interpret that direction, is often more valuable than if I gave them a very precise directable direction. I do like to throw them off. One of my favorites is, “say it like you’re taking a shit,” or, “say it like a robot.” There are some broad stroke easy ones to digest, but also, “say it like you’re hungry.” You give them impossible things to direct.
In a lot of ways it [could be] really evocative, because they’re trying to wrap their heads around it, and I can imagine that something creative has to come from that.
We’ll do a run of a line; if there’s a line that we know we want, we’ll have them say it every which way. We’ll have 15, 20 different line readings of the same line and then say which works within the rhythm. Sometimes we’ll just cut to James Franco and there’s just this weird moment where you actually see him listening to me and the sliver of a smile as he’s reacting to what I’m saying, trying not to laugh. You’ll use those moments in the down time when the camera’s running and I’m talking. Obviously you edit the sound so you can’t really tell and it looks like this strange, awkward moment between the two characters.
So you’re already working on the DVD? You’re doing a “Making Of” documentary; is there anything else that you can maybe hint toward?
Oh my God, there’s the Bible on this thing. We’ve got disc after disc and we’ve just got to make cuts and decide what—from deleted scenes to Ed Begley Jr. walking us through his household cleaning product line—[to include]. There’s a lot of deleted scenes. We shoot such a tremendous amount of film and do so much improvisation that there’s other variations of the scenes. The scene with Red on the bathroom floor [when] Seth comes in to try and rile them to save the day—we’ve got 40 different versions of that scene. Sometimes we’ll play another scene or two like that on the DVD. There’s a ton of playful stuff. The idea of having all this added value feature stuff we never took too seriously; we just want to have a lot of fun, something that the audience could put in and watch at home [and enjoy].
The film was a throwback to great action genre pictures of the ‘80s and early ‘90s that I don’t think really exist anymore. Were there specific films that you were referencing or that you had in mind whose essence you wanted to imbue into The Pineapple Express?
There’s definitely a retro feel to it. One of the things about contemporary action movies that I get frustrated with is that the action scenes are so shaky and close up that you don’t even see people hit each other anymore; you just assume it because of the sound effects. I really wanted to step back. Seth and myself and Evan [Goldberg] his writing partner, as well as my cinematographer and production designer, we would watch movies like Tango and Cash, They Live, Midnight Run, a movie we like called The Gravy Train, the less-known movies. The Blues Brothers we liked a lot. Some comedy, some action, some blending of the two. I think Midnight Run was a great inspiration to us [and had] a [good] character dynamic. It was a movie that felt like it could exist in this real world, but it’s so outrageous that you’ve kind of got to suspend your disbelief a little bit.
That’s one I have to revisit after watching this.
It holds up. It’s a ton of fun; it’s the character dynamic that gets it through anything. So if you have people that you believe and that you enjoy watching, you can take some pretty big leaps within the plot.
Were there any familiar elements of action films that you were dying to experiment with or exploit that you actually got to tackle?
Well, for instance, the car chase. Maybe three years ago when they were doing the remake of The Dukes of Hazzard they were filming near where I live in New Orleans and I went to crash the set one day and was talking to the stunt drivers. It was this company Go Stunts that was doing all these amazing jumps and chases and stuff. Actually, I got their business card and said, “You know what? I’m a little indie drama director right now, but one of these days I’m going to give you a call and we’re going to do some crazy shit.” They went on to do The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum; you know, the classic modern day car chases. It was fun on this movie to call them up and say, “Okay, we’ve got four days. How can we do some serious damage?” To have that kind of come full circle from me sitting back watching movies shoot in my backyard to the work that I really admire on the screen [in The Pineapple Express]—I really wanted to execute that and put it to the test.
That’s great, because the Bourne films people reference now as the quintessential car chases of our time, [the best since] The French Connection. To work with [that team] on this film must have been incredible.
It’s just a really innovative group of guys and modern technology with some kick-ass toys that can really make a car chase come to life moreso than in the ‘70s, The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. previous models.
How do you deal with the logistics of shooting action sequences and how closely do you work with Gary [Hymes, the stunt coordinator]?
Back to the collaboration, when you’ve got 500 people and eight different units working, it’s not like you can be everywhere at one time, so you really need to hire people that you trust—stunt coordinators and drivers and actors—all these people [who you can] let use their own judgment when it comes down to it if you’re not available for counsel. But you do a lot of storyboards and you design it and you do as much homework and preparation as you can. When you unleash the machine you can just hear the “ca-ching” of money when you look up and see all these different units and so many people employed on the film and you think, “Oh, gosh, this has got to work.” If you’ve done your homework and you’ve been very clear, [it works]. It’s all about communication and being able to navigate the authority of it.
Seth and Evan have this way of writing really tender male friendships in a manner that I think other machismo bloated films are afraid to broach. How did you explore and develop the relationship of your two main characters prior to shooting?
It wasn’t hard because Seth and James have known each other forever. They’re young actors that basically got their first jobs together. [They have] that long-term relationship, and they’re not the best of friends, but they’ve got such a wonderful foundation. If they knew each other inside and out it would almost be boring. But here they can discover things about themselves and each other through the process that made it really valuable to me to be a part of. You’re simultaneously creating characters but you’re also defining off the set friendships and relationships that are really apparent on the screen. Because, if they didn’t like each other, just as any romantic comedy, there would be no chemistry. These guys crack each other up at all times, and half of the job is trying to ruin the other guy’s close up by saying some absurd shit to make them laugh.
People might classify this as the pot comedy or the slacker comedy of the summer, but in many ways it’s the antithesis of that, the real message. Was that something you were conscious of when you were shooting, avoiding the pitfalls of your tried and true slacker comedy?
I can honestly say that we didn’t really think of a whole lot of negative things. We didn’t try to avoid [anything]. We really tried to make the movie that we wanted to see, and that was such a positive way to approach it. It was like, “What do we like? What would be amazing? What would make us laugh? Let’s be totally self-indulgent because they’re allowing us to, and they’re going to write not only our paychecks but a budget of substance where we can really let loose and make our dream film.” Obviously [it’s able] to hang its hat on being a stoner movie. That’s kind of how they budgeted it, thinking, “Well, we can get mid-20 million dollars worth of stoners to come see this movie,” and then the idea that once you appeal to them, then you expand and elevate and find an audience that would never expect to enjoy a movie like this. I think they’re really going to wrap their arms around it.