Interview: David Gordon Green on Southern noir ‘Joe’

David Gordon Green is that rarest of directors – unpredictable and eclectic. He’s directed gripping arthouse dramas like his debut George Washington (2000), stoner comedies like Pineapple Express (2008) and the historical spoof Your Highness (2011) – which America’s Salon Magazine somewhat hastily suggested might be the worst film ever made. In time, the latter may be remembered as a poor film made by one of America’s true talents, a director who was once compared to Terrence Malick – who now seems to be inspiring others (see the films of Jeff Nichols and David Lowery). Wanting a change from broad comedy, he made the low-key but well-liked Prince Avalanche (2013) under the radar but now returns to his early form with Joe (2013), a Southern noir set in deepest darkest Mississippi.

With Joe, Green has clearly chosen to go back to his roots. The genesis lies in a documentary about author Larry Brown, who wrote the source novel, that Green helped on in 2002, and became drawn to its story of downtrodden lives in Mississippi. It’s also is where he worked with Nichols, who directed his own America Gothic noir in Mud, released last year. “The South is done wrong a lot,” Green explains. “It’s a very vibrant, colourful, entertaining backdrop if you can get it right, with a lot of crazy characters. I just hope I can deal with their craziness with the greatest respect.” Crazy it is – Joe features a scene where star man Nicolas Cage skins a deer carcass – but could the violence that his character explodes into at the end of the movie represent the US? “It could be, but it’s also a samurai looking for the perfect death.”

Cage’s character is a tree surgeon whose job is to poison trees in preparation for felling. It’s a rather esoteric profession, so why does it appear? “It’s a real job that Larry [Brown] had. To me it’s a beautiful motif for something, I just don’t know what it says. Cage has some pretty good theories that I would bastardise – about a man whose job every day is the death of beauty, who’s killing a healthy tree and what that does to your soul. You’re the grim reaper every day. He likes that it’s a portrait of the rural south in America, but he tells me it has an international appeal. “We played it in Zurich at a film festival last fall and a guy came up to me and said that’s the story of my childhood. And I don’t know anything about rural Switzerland.” Does the film perhaps portray anything of its director’s own life in the Deep South?

“I had a loving household, not some of the shit that these guys have to go through. But a lot of my childhood was out in east Texas where a lot of people do have brutal jobs and hardships and difficulties, and I’ve always been a great observer and an appreciation and sympathy when I see things like that. Sipping on a cappuccino, he tells me of his admiration of a “work ethic”, and how his respect comes from working himself from the age of seven “My next door neighbour was a construction contractor, so I was the kid at seven-years-old saying I want a job, put me to work. So I’d be floating sheet rock, renovating garages and kitchens for them as soon as he’d pay me $3 an hour. And then I’d negotiate a raise. ‘I’ve been working for you for three months, I want $3.50’. That’s the guy who taught me how to drive a car at ten years old.”

Green is a filmmaker who elevates the life of the common worker, from the industrial factories of All the Real Girls to the roads of Prince Avalanche. “Working-class stories have always appealed to me,” Green tells us. “I like watching movies with people who know how to work. I don’t have any sympathy for entitlement.” Green’s meritocratic principle is perhaps what drives him to raise the profile of many of the actors he’s worked with. He’s hired rising stars time and time again, from Zooey Deschanel and his college friends Danny McBride and Paul Schneider in All the Real Girls, Jamie Bell in Undertow, even Jonah Hill for The Sitter, and in Joe it’s the young actor of Mud and The Tree of Life. He says it’s nothing conscious on his part: “I’m just drawn to something that’s not the obvious movie-star ability.”

So, what drew Green to Cage? “The theory of Cage of incredible to me: Valley Girl, Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, Moonstruck, Con Air, Leaving Las Vegas. So I was obsessed with this actor who make hard-to-define career choices. When I heard he hasn’t worked in a year, I knew it was because he wanted to do something different. Not only the interior – the professional aspect – of Cage but the perception of Cage is very valuable to this movie. So I wrote him a letter and said ‘What’s up? Why aren’t we making a movie? We should talk about this project I have and see if you’re interested in it.’ He called me up three days later and had read not only my script that I didn’t even send him – he got it through other ways – but also the novel. He was hungry for something, and he flew to again the next day and we immediately hit it off.”

It’s not too hard to imagine, but Cage isn’t your normal film star. He went on the initial location scouts for the film, and, if anything else could add to the actor’s mythology, he seemed to use intuition to base his decisions on where to go. “We’d drive for an hour in one direction and need be like ‘No, not this way’ and we’d then drive back the other way. It’s weird that an actor would want to do that. Three days later I could ask him his religious philosophies or his politics and be very comfortable. It’s a guy I’m immediately at ease with, one of my idols. In the case of Cage, he’s just this really smart sensitive gentleman.” Green recalls how he and and his star would pull over at fast food restaurants where they’d discuss the character of Joe. “[Cage] would stop at roadside steak houses – and he brings his own steak knife.”

There’s an easygoing charm to Green, particularly in his casting. Only four actors in the film are professionals – Cage, Sheridan, Ronnie Blevins and Adriene Mishler. “I really enjoy the non-professional casting process, finding people who had a lot of charisma or were completely insane. Something really confident.” One such character was Gary Poulter, a journeyman actor who turns in a searing and unpredictable performance as white-trash father Wade. “With Poulter, there was a real natural confidence with him. You can say he’s a non-professional actor, but he’s been acting on the streets as a break dancer and a hustler for nine years.” Tragically, Poulter died shortly after the film wrapped. “He would’ve been just fine if he could’ve kept it together,” Green believes. When he went to the funeral, Green saw pictures of Poulter as a young man in his heyday: “King of the dance floor, in the navy, everything going for him. It’s a beautiful life lesson of how fragile we all are to our environment or mental illness, or what we might not see coming.”

David Gordon Green’s Joe is now on release in selected UK cinemas. To read our review, simply follow this link.

Ed Frankl