September 14, 2007

Green on the Scene

How indie maverick became the unwitting nexus between Apatow and mumblecore

By Vadim Rizov

The ringleader: David Gordon Green helmed the Apatow-produced Pineapple Express (left) and the grueling Southern gothic Undertow (Photos: Sony Pictures, WireImage, MGM)

If you're not a box-office trendspotter, the only two real stories in American film this summer came from opposite ends of the commercial spectrum. Beloved by everyone, the Judd Apatow collective delivered the one-two blast of Knocked Up and Superbad; in the micro-realm, "mumblecore" dominated blogs and mainstream news articles with a fraction of the financial resources or box-office. While it's not obvious now, in a year it should become apparent that director David Gordon Green is the bridge between the two. At that time, the stoner action comedy The Pineapple Express will be the latest Seth Rogen (presumable) blockbuster. And the man making it will be the author of -- per Matt Dentler, South by Southwest film festival producer and unofficial godfather of the mumblecore scene -- "the first major mumblecore films of the last 10 years."

This is not as unlikely as it seems.

"I first got involved with Pineapple Express when I was on the Knocked Up set and recognized my own processes in terms of collaboration and improvisation," Green explained. "Everybody always has a good time, because you put the right people together. You let them loose, and it's a fun journey regardless of whether you're making an independent low-budget Southern drama or if you're making a big-budget Hollywood action movie. Working on this movie reminded me of things like The Blues Brothers, a really inspiring and strange movie that wasn't initially reflected in my professional career."

Green's eight-year-rise from American indie film savior to viable commercial bet is one of the fastest on record. Not since Steven Soderbergh's meteoric ascent from untameable eccentric to Ocean's franchise manager has a voice seemingly so unviable commercially become, well, commercial. A far cry from 2000, when Green emerged with George Washington at one of American independent film's low ebbs -- Sundance had calcified into irrelevance, with bidding wars erupting over the likes of Happy, Texas, and Mr. Sundance himself off in Hollywood doing Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Enter Green's mumbly, Malickian vision of a poor but rapturously decaying South. Totally unmarketable -- not many people paid to watch semi-articulate Southern black pre-teens analyze their love lives -- but Green was obviously an underground force to watch. (Remove the age, race and location, and Dentler's mumblecore diagnosis seems particularly astute; it's all about love, social context aside.)

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On the path to follow-ups All The Real Girls and Undertow, Green started hanging out with Hollywood types, pitching himself in meetings and quietly becoming the next big thing. Which is where the Apatow parallel comes in: Green doesn't just have two movies coming out next year, one of which is the high-profile, Apatow-produced Pineapple Express (the other is the grim Sundance drama Snow Angels). He's also found the time to produce two movies for friends: Craig Zobel's Great World Of Sound (opening today in New York); and Jeff Nicholls' Shotgun Stories, opening next January. Much as Apatow makes his actor friends famous before spinning them off to make their own films (as with Superbad), Green is using his name and clout to give his friends the same access.

He doesn't see the comparison as far-fetched. "I like putting people together and having a good time," he said. "I think it's one of the reasons we clicked. (Apatow) is a wonderful producer and kind of father figure."

So George Washington isn't just the origin of mumblecore; it's the beginning of a core group of friends coming together creatively -- the Freaks and Geeks of its scene. Green and Zobel, who met in the latter filmmaker's first year at the North Carolina School of the Arts, collaborated on each others' short films. Zobel eventually assisted Green in miscellaneous logistics for George Washington. But while Green's debut went to the festival circuit, Zobel went another way, taking a directing job on a doomed, disillusioning project ultimately taken away from him in the editing room.

"I had the hubris at the time to think I could make it good. Then I basically bailed on making movies," Zobel recently told The Reeler. "I felt really used and abused, left for L.A. and worked on re-enactments for America's Most Wanted as a production assistant, completely depressed out of my mind. David was the one who resurrected me and said, 'Shut up. You're not quitting movies. You're making All The Real Girls.' "

If George Washington was the initial meeting, Undertow is a second milestone, when Green's collaborators started coming together and realizing they could work on their own -- not only Zobel and actors like Pat Healy (Zobel's lead, also seen this year in supporting roles in Rescue Dawn and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but most of the crew as well. Many were NCSA alumni who subsequently worked on Great World; Zobel was there for the second unit. The shoot was, by all accounts, torturous. "David had a couple of kidney stones during that time," Healy recalled. "I seem to remember him keeled over by the side of the river in tremendous pain."

To many people on the outside, Undertow was a failure -- an attempt to blend Green's impressionistic methods with a genre storyline that did neither half any favors and made no money to boot. Green is more upbeat: "Undertow's the most fun anyone could ever have doing anything in their lives, so I never skipped a beat," he said.

Green's collaborative tendencies join him to the mumblecore "movement," such as it is. (Other colleagues of Green's are included among this crowd as well: Michael Tully, for starters, an old-school North Carolina compatriot and one-time make-up artist/costume designer on George Washington whose documentary Silver Jew premiered last spring at SXSW.) Set aesthetics aside; although they share frequently tentative dialogue and characters whose introspection generally stops shy of solipsism, the mere fact of insisting on 35mm film stock and privileging style as much as content sets Green apart. The issue is more of similar working methods -- the key missing link between mumblecore and Hollywood, where being good at bringing up your friends with you isn't just playing nice, but leads to greater success for all. "David and I talk all the time about how smart Judd Apatow is," Zobel said. "He's making lots of money now and that's great."

And now Zobel is in the position to do for his friends what Green helped him to do. "I think a bunch of us want to keep working together," Zobel said. "I don't care what my credit is, it's just: 'Yeah, you are the people who should be making movies right now. I want to watch movies by you more than by people who are making movies right now.' " Of course, they are the ones making them now.

Comments (5)

It should be noted that the connections run even deeper. Andy Reed who shot QUIET CITY and worked on DANCE PARTY USA got his start as intern on ALL THE REAL GIRLS. Erin Fisher who stars in QUIET CITY was an art director on THE FOOT FIST WAY starring Danny McBride. Brendan McFadden's (producer of QUIET CITY and DANCE PARTY USA) first job in LA was working on a David Gordon Green directed commercial. In fact nearly every single crew member on DANCE PARTY USA and QUIET CITY went to the North Carolina School of hte Arts. Also don't forget THE GUATEMALAN HANDSHAKE which has numerous links to many of the above mentioned films.

Trying to pigeonhole so many artists into a brand-named 'movement' does them a disservice. Any generation of filmmakers is going to have a lot of cross pollination. The big filmmakers of the american film renessance of the 70's are lucky they didn't get bundled into a buzzword. The inevitable backlash against just the word 'mumblecore' is going to close a lot of doors for people I think.

Yeah, a lot of these came up. I didn't feel like mapping it out exhaustively - Aaron Hillis already did it for me. But yes, everyone should remember that etc.

OMG it's Wiley Wiggins, straight from my DVD shelf to the article!

I know a lot (all?) of those dudes hate the label, but in the short term it's pretty inevitable and opens up opportunities like the recent IFC showcase for movies that got screwed on the festival circuit. But people like Bujalski, Katz, Duplass etc. are too talented not to outlast the label, and it made a convenient hook for this. And these movies are a *lot* closer together in style than, say, Coppola and Altman, c'mon.

What someone needs to do is write an article about the North Carolina School of the Arts and how it is the driving force behind this generation's most creative, inspired, and successful filmmaking (I didn't go there, so I can say that). Seriously, check out the list of names from that late '90s class: David Gordon Green, Craig Zobel, Paul Schneider, Danny McBride, Nate Meyer, Tim Orr, Jane Rizzo, Ben Best, Christof Gebert, Richard Wright, and the list continues. Not to mention subsequent classes, which have spawned the QUIET CITY crew and many others (even non-graduates such as Will Janowitz). It's really quite staggering when you stop and consider it. What do they put in the water in Winston-Salem? Or maybe it's just the young ballerina girls...

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