Life brought David Gordon Green back to Texas, where the director shot his last three features — “Prince Avalanche,” “Joe” and the upcoming “Manglehorn,” which stars Al Pacino as an ex-con trying to go straight in the Lone Star State — while living in laid-back Austin, among such indie helmers as Jeff Nichols, Andrew Bujalski and the Zellner brothers.
Last week, on the eve of SXSW, Green was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Austin Film Society, co-founded by one of Green’s inspirations, Richard Linklater. While Linklater hails from Houston, Green grew up in Dallas, where he had his first brush with filmmaking on the set of Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July.”
“I’m an extra in the movie,” says Green, who can be seen cheering a home run at a baseball game during the opening credits. “I look into the camera and wiggle my eyebrows. I feel like that’s the birth of what I was meant to do. That was the day when I thought, ‘I want that guy’s job.’”
Hollywood seemed a million miles away to Green in Dallas, until a moment in late 1993 when three films — Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World” and the Iowa-set, Texas-shot “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” — made the prospect of telling stories from the Lone Star state seem plausible. “That’s when the confidence swell hit me,” Green says.
Though Green enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin, his grades weren’t high enough to get into the film school (an obstacle Robert Rodriguez had faced a few years earlier), so he switched to the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he met the team — including actor Danny McBride, who presented the Hall of Fame honor to Green Thursday night at the Texas Film Awards — that he’s worked with ever since.
But Green maintained his ties to Texas. He developed the script for his third feature, “Undertow,” with an Austin-based screenwriter, Joe Stevens, and the support of producer Terrence Malick. And after Green’s kids were born in New York, he decided it was time to move. “I’m one of those weirdos that doesn’t want to live in an idealized city,” says Green, who likes things “a little bit rough,” and was seeking somewhere with a good artistic community.
“I love living in a place where your next-door neighbor thinks what you do is a novelty and where you’re interested because what he’s doing is another planet from your experience,” says Green, who has allowed the texture of his environment to inform his recent work. “On the surface, my last three films all seem to be character pieces, but they’re really landscape pieces,” he explains.
On “Prince Avalanche,” the idea for the film came from a location: Green had driven to Bastrop, Texas, in the wake of a wildfire that had torched the state park there. Surveying the aftermath, he felt as if every piece of ash-covered bark told a story and started brainstorming a project that might capture the spirit of rebirth he sensed in the place. A week later, he saw the Icelandic film “Either Way,” about two men responsible for painting the stripes on remote public roads, and was inspired to remake the film against the surreal, scorched backdrop before the trees bloomed again.
His next feature, “Joe,” was adapted from a book set in Mississippi, but he shot most of the film in the space between Bastrop and Austin, casting non-actors he found in Texas. Green would venture to spots where day laborers went looking for work in downtown Austin, and hire those with faces that struck him.
“It’s great, because they go there thinking they’re going to work on a construction site, and they end up with a speaking part on my movie,” says Green, who tapped the owner of a local BBQ joint for a speaking part and a downtown street performer to play the boy’s father. “He didn’t even have an address. But he had a great face.”
Green just finishing shooting “Manglehorn” and is editing it now in Austin. With that project, Green lives just a few blocks from screenwriter Paul Logan, who had written the pic — which stars Al Pacino and Holly Hunter — to take place in their neighborhood.
“We can walk to 90% of the locations in the movie,” Green says. “Believe me, you get to know your neighbors a lot better when you’re parking a big-ass truck in front of their house.”