David Gordon Green is recalling his first experience of Edinburgh. “I met a cute girl, I remember that. It was a foggy night in a cemetery, a real romantic scene; it was a real Before Sunrise kind of moment.”
He laughs at the memory. Then 25 (he’s now 39), Green was the wünderkind of that year’s film festival, there with his debut feature George Washington – a poetic ode to childhood, made on a shoestring budget in North Carolina, where he went to film school, and responsible for transforming American indie film into a much more lyrical medium.
But the film didn’t just launch him as a major new voice on the world cinema scene. It also earned him the admiration of his hero Terrence Malick, who’d already signed up to produce what would turn out to be Green’s third film, Undertow, a pulpy modern-day riff on Night of the Hunter starring a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart and a hot-off-Billy-Elliot Jamie Bell. “You know what?” says Green, suddenly remembering something else about his visit to Edinburgh: “That’s where I saw Billy Elliot for the first time. I actually saw it twice at the Edinburgh Film Festival and went to meet Jamie Bell so I could make Undertow.”
If Green hasn’t made it back to the festival in the years since, he’ll at least be there in spirit next week when his new film Joe receives its British premiere. One of the highlights of the programme, it’s a gritty yet lyrical, violent yet tender revenge movie starring Nicolas Cage as an ex-con whose decision to take an old-before-his-time 15-year-old (Tye Sheridan) under his wing sets him on a course that could lead to ruin or redemption. Based on the book of the same by the late Southern cult novelist Larry Brown – whose work Green became familiar with while working as a production assistant on a documentary of Brown’s life straight out of film school in (“It was my first professional job”) – the beauty of the story, says Green, was that on some primal, mythical level, it was essentially a Western. Or as Cage saw it: a samurai movie.
“I thought that was pretty interesting,” he says, referring to the fact that Cage saw Joe as part of that tradition of lone wolf protagonists – scarred by violence, demons kept at bay by hard work and hard liquor – that are often to be found in both genres.
“I’d always wanted to make a Western, but I’d never really thought of making a samurai film until Nicolas Cage brought it up. That was one of the things that appealed to him about it. But it’s also a very personal and intimate work, so to me that’s the best of both worlds.”
It’s certainly the best of both worlds when it comes to Cage. Providing him with one of those periodic acting showcases that remind audiences of his brilliance as a performer, Joe sees him combine the dramatic nous he displayed in Leaving Las Vegas with the pressure cooker volatility that has, over the years, made him such an unpredictable presence in everything from cult films (Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart) to blockbusters (The Rock, Con Air), to more recent out-there fare, such Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
“I actually met him on the Bad Lieutenant set,” says Green, who reckons he’s seen every Nicolas Cage movie (“except for a couple of the recent ones”). “I was living in New Orleans where they were filming, so I went to crash the set one day because I wanted to see Herzog. But just seeing that side of Cage – I just loved the idea of using an actor who has that public perception. And it’s fun talking to him about it. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m a character actor who somehow ended up a movie star’.”
One of the things that keeps Cage fresh in Joe is that he’s frequently playing opposite real people rather than professional actors. In some scenes he’s the calm centre while the storm of real life swirls around him. Green laughs when I mention this to him.
“I love casting real people. I love crazy people; I love confident people; I love charismatic people – people that just draw me in. The guy who plays Junior, the foreman of the work crew in the film, he owns a barbecue restaurant down the street from my house. He’s not a trained actor; he’s just a cool guy. And the guy who plays the sheriff is my next door neighbour.” Most significantly, the late Gary Poulter, who plays Tye Sheridan’s abusive alcoholic father, Wade, in the film, was homeless and living on the streets of Austin when Green’s casting director found him.
“The unpredictable nature of making a movie like this is what excites me,” says Green, who embedded Cage in the local community for a month before shooting. “We didn’t really rehearse-rehearse, but we’d go to some locations and hang out with people who were going to be in the movie. And every time he met someone he’d look at me and smile – and there was always this look, like: ‘What the f*** is going on?’ And then on top of that, you unleash a few chickens in a scene.”
Unpredictable is actually a good word to apply to Green’s career in general. He followed a slew of esoteric art films by diving headlong into the mainstream with a bong-sized hit of stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, The Sitter) only to volte-face once again with last year’s lo-fi arthouse gem Prince Avalanche. This, he says, along with Joe and his already-shot next feature Manglehorn (starring Al Pacino) will comprise a loose trilogy of “soul-searching stories of masculinity in which guys are looking for love and trying to put the pieces of their wounded hearts together again”.
Needless to say, none of this has been part of any particular career plan – largely because while Green is confident in what he likes, he has no idea if anyone else will agree with him. He didn’t, for instance, think anyone would go to see Pineapple Express because he didn’t think people would find James Franco as much of “a funny little weirdo” as he did (they did and the film made $100m). Then again, his idea of a “funny as s***” film is also Terrence Malick’s Badlands. “There’s not that many people who think it’s funny,” Green acknowledges, “but I’m in the club.”
In this respect, having Malick as a mentor so early in his career has clearly been perfect given Green’s determination to march to the beat of his own drum. In fact, having recently been to dinner with Malick and Al Pacino, he still seems a little awestruck by him.
“If you’d told me in college that I would sit down with those f***ers for dinner it would have melted my brain.”
But what was Malick actually like to work with?
“Well, he kept f***ing up the shots because he would be talking to the birds.”
Talking to the birds?
“He likes to birdwatch, so he’d be there and we’d be rolling and he’d be like…” Green adopts a high-pitched voice: “‘Oh, the loons are mating!’ But aside from that,” he chuckles, “he was awesome.”
• Joe screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 25 and 28 June. It will be released nationwide on 25 July.