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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Interview: Talking JOE And The South With David Gordon Green

JOEday1-124.CR2The world of David Gordon Green’s Joe is all I ever knew and feared of my upbringing. Not my family, no, but some of my extended-extended family, cousins second- and third-removed, and certainly in the lanes and miles that radiated outward from this small blot on the countryside. I did not come from those people in Kentucky but they lived down the road only a piece. Based on a novel by late Mississippi hardscrabble writer Larry Brown, and adapted by Gary Hawkins, a former professor of Green and director of “The Rough South Of Larry Brown,” Green encapsulates the ragged raw character of a stripe of dispossessed rural whites, their expressed, spoken condition as near an ache as to vernacular poetry. Joe, played by Nicolas Cage in full ripe melancholy, is an ex-con who pines nearly every day for the sanctity and sanity of life behind bars. Joe is an ex-con of shaky temperance and with even shakier control of his temper. His life is half-a-hair away from eternal and unkillable chaos. But he struggles, from job to job, from drink to drink, from woman to woman.


We meet Joe killing trees, leading a team that poisons, then slashes them. There’s a rich line, “These trees are weak, they’re not strong trees,” which provides a bookend to an ending of pastoral hopefulness. He meets Gary, a bright kid (Tye Sheridan, Mud), kept down by a shiftless father who was once a rascal then an asshole on his way to becoming a worthless piece of hateful trash. In Gary, Joe sees a seedling to be preserved, trained as a sapling, to grow tall one day. It’s a ninety-two degree summer in this sun-kissed rural hell, beautiful, racked to ruin and ever more beautiful for that. Only a few things make it seem like it’s not the 1970s, and then you realize, it’s right now, but it’s not right now, it’s the South—Texas or Mississippi or Kentucky or where-have you—and it’s always the past. Fated clutter engulfs interiors: houses, stores, yards with trash pile high, too. It’s like low-light, low-life William Eggleston.

And as a born-and-bred Southerner, I thrilled to the lilt and twang of so much of the dialogue. The fearsome, fearful refrain, “You’re not better than me” is invoked at the worst possible turn of events where you would want to hear that out of a threatened man. “You gotta stand like you own land,” Joe tells Gary, and a sympathetic officer tells Joe, “You can’t be fist-fighting the law.” Joe’s sympathetic, too, cottons to the dilemmas of others: “Family’s all you got,” he tells the boy who has relations, but no family. Yet he forgives others their flaws, readily—“It ain’t his fault”—and he knows others don’t even have it as together as he does: “Probably ain’t nobody with any sense out tonight.” But later, Joe stews in his powerlessness: “Nothin’. There’s nothin’ I can do and I hate it.” Talking to Green recently, he agreed that his investment in the character of Kenny Powers makes it possible for him to linger over the distillate soul of Joe, a man who says, “I can’t get my hands dirty in ever little thing,” but who can reduce the particulars of his life this given week to the elegant summation, “I slapped some asshole at the bar the other night and he came and shot me.” What ought to be bleak is instead a report on the tender dramatic attentions of one of our most generous contemporary filmmakers.

Green says he and young actor Ty Sheridan were literally on the same page, with Sheridan readily going toe-to-toe with Cage.

Green: Sometimes an actor will read a script and say, “I don’t like the way that sentence is written.” So you change it, maybe without asking anybody. And then a lot of times you say, “Can you say it the way it is written?” But you know I don’t ever recall Ty‑

Sheridan (laughs): You probably never did.

Green: A lot of it is, once you’ve established something that feels real, I just judge the work. I sit by the camera. I’m not a script supervisor, y’know? I sit by the lens and watch what the lens is watching and listen to the boom mics picking it up and see what feels real. The script did a great job, and the novel’s there for those who want more substance or backstory and inner monologue.

Pride: Gary, your screenwriter, has a background in Larry Brown studies.

Green. Yeah, Gary Hawkins was a professor of mine at college and he had made an Emmy-award winning series on Southern literature called “The Rough South,” where you would focus on Harry Crews, or in this case, Larry Brown and do a documentary of their work and recreate some of their short stories and literature. I had worked on this documentary that Gary was making as my first job out of college. I was just a production assistant on this thing that Gary had done. And I met Larry and got to know him. Gary knows Larry’s work inside and out. As well as everything about Larry’s life!

Pride: To arrive at this distillation, these characters who are Southern whites, who are so articulate, and also so melancholy, do you think that the voice of Kenny Powers allowed you to come to this?

JOE-DGG-HeadshotGreen (smiling): Y’know, one of the beauties of having ‘Eastbound & Down, is it is like a cleansing. So I do a movie, I do a season. I do a movie, I do a season. And there is always a place I can go and let loose and be wild and express my most absurd comedic instinct. So, yes, it is nice… I learn a lot. Kenny is baffling in the things he says, and audacious in the way he deals with people. So, it’s like an experiment, how could those tools and those insights find their way into the sculpture of a dramatic film? It is really important for me to have both of those. If I don’t have a comedic outlet then I think my dramatic work would suffer.

Pride: How so?

Green: Because I think I would infuse it full of ridiculous crap. I caught myself on Snow Angels trying to lighten the mood so much with even the casting. Amy Sedaris, Nikki Katt, Griffin Dunne, Sam Rockwell, those are a lot of really funny actors. And so my instinct during the production was to have fun with the fact I have these hilarious people, even though we are dealing with dramatic subject matter. I wanted tension-breakers, and then I found myself editing out most of those tension-breakers. In Joe, I feel there is a healthy balance. There is a sense of humor about it. But it comes across as humanity rather than absurdity. Because my absurdity gets exercised elsewhere!

Pride: This episodic work, the Roughhouse productions, might be invisible to a some people who take you seriously as a feature director. It’s the opposite of Woody Allen, there are people who prefer your early, “serious” work.

Green: What is funny, being on airplanes as much as I am, you strike up conversations with people sitting next to you. And frequently what comes up is what I do, and I feel like I can judge what to tell them by how they look. If I want them to connect with what I have done. I will probably say something they have heard of, and if I don’t like them I can think of something they have not heard of. You can spot an “Eastbound & Down” fan from a mile away. They are not exactly the same crowd going to see a movie like Snow Angels or Pineapple Express.

Pride: Yeah, you could probably spot a Pineapple Express fan.

Green: But strangely, I feel like Joe is going to overlap with these. I think that people that have that interest in an edgy portrait of the South, a Southern character will get into what Joe has to offer, even though it is certainly far more weighted and dramatic. Certainly there are different tones and atmospheres, but I think they could find the same appreciation.

Pride: At times it feels like Joe could be from the 1970s. You have some clues. But at some point you introduce certain vehicles, Coca-Cola cans, and it’s like “Whoa, where are we?” Oh yeah, it’s timeless. It’s the South.

Green: And it is. There are no cell phones in the novel but as we were getting into pre-production, we were like, let’s make a contemporary movie. Let’s find these places we love that feel timeless, and these are characters that would dress kind of timeless. I don’t know, you could certainly have a Tommy Hilfiger shirt on Gary, but it would look weird. I do like a timeless quality. I have that in a few of my movies. Undertow, All the Real Girls, George Washington. I like to have that kind of vague quality that are not so of the moment [when they’re shot] that they look out of style. We shot this one a year and a half ago, and it’s just coming out. If we had made it “of the moment” with the hot soundtrack and the hot fashions, it would already be out of style.

Pride: It’s still valuable to have films like Sidney Lumet’s of the 1970s and 80s, or anytime Scorsese captured the New York streets. Accidental time capsules like Rogosin’s On The Bowery or Mackenzie’s The Exiles. But it is strange to go back to a film you like after ten years and you can only say, “Wow. Look at that hair.”

Green: I was watching Dances with Wolves last night, and it was made in the 1990, and it’s a period piece set in the 1860s. I’m watching it, thinking, oh, that is the 1990s version of the 1860s.

Pride: Joe is a good guy. There are more than a few lines where he’s so forgiving. It ain’t his fault, but he’s awfully mature for the messes he puts himself in. And how simply he puts it, “I slapped some asshole at the bar the other night and he came and shot me.” That’s a beautiful sentence yet he has covered the whole territory.

Green: Yeah, he is an outlaw, it is a redemption tale. It’s a contemporary Western. He’s a guy that has his code, and the law doesn’t necessarily agree with him. But sometimes the law sits down with him at the dining room table and tries to splash a little water in his face about his approach.

JOEday2-523.CR2Pride: It’s always leaking out of him the way he speaks. There’s that brokedown delivery of “I can’t get my hands dirty in every little thing.”

Green: Yeah, I love that line. There’s that moment when he is dropping Gary and his father off after a day of work and he sees Gary get popped by his dad. And he opens the car door. That was a Nic gesture, an added gesture that I thought was really interesting. He starts to make the gestures like “Okay, I see trouble, I am going to go take care of it.” But then he closes the door because, I’m not going to get my hands dirty with every little thing, y’know? He does want a clean house. He does want a get his point across. But he knows if he let himself out of the cage, so to speak, he’ll end up back in jail. I think there is a part of him that wants that cage. He wants to go to jail. So the sheriff actually says, “Why do you want to go back to the penitentiary so bad?” I think there is that side of him that says “Why don’t you call the police before someone gets killed.” And it’s like, “Call them on me. Tell them to come get me because I am afraid of myself.” I like that about him. And that is why Nic Cage is perfect to play that role. There is that anxiety of uncertainty of what he is capable of. I mean, he could probably paint you a realistic painting of his grandmother and he could whale the ass of a guy twice his size. He’d read you a poem and then whittle you a doily.

Pride: And just the way Cage can deliver stuff when he is given the room. There is that wry line about staying in, “Probably ain’t nobody with any sense out tonight.” And then the exchange, “You look like a million bucks”; “I feel like 100 bucks.”

Green: That was Ty’s line, he made that up. I love it.

Sheridan: We screened in several festivals that were not in America we were screened in Venice, and Deauville and I remember that line never got a laugh ever. Then I thought, oh no that’s not funny, people don’t think it is funny.

Green: I don’t exactly think “I feel like a million bucks” is a cliché in Italy.

Pride: I was reading an obituary for Larry in the New York Times on the bus ride over. The writer described as the great writer of “the painful hope of the rural poor.”

Green: What’s interesting is that Larry didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. He was a firefighter and he just lived a really rough life, worked a shitload of jobs, and knew how to take care of himself. He had these stories, and like Joe needed an outlet. This frustration and this hope needed to get out. You know? So he started writing.

Pride: He was writing like he didn’t have much time, and he did the right thing.

12-11-12_250.CR2Green: This story became a vehicle for a lot of other people. People from Larry’s original story [were involved], and Gary busting out of the world of academia for this script, and Gary Poulter, the guy that plays Ty’s father in the movie, was a street performer in Austin. First time he had been in front of the camera. A lot of those guys, the work crew just people expressing themselves and letting stuff out. Whenever Ty is getting trained by the guys, all of that is just their own stories. There was one guy who had just gotten out of prison and couldn’t get a job because his parole officer was really strict. And he had to go out of the city limits to be in a Nicolas Cage movie. Everybody has their story, and they use their particular frustration toward a hopeful ending, using this project as a springboard.

Pride: You did warn me the time of Prince Avalanche this was going to be a dark one. But it has a certain levity for those who care.

Green: But the next one is light. Romantic.

Pride: After Al Pacino in Manglehorn?

Green: Manglehorn is the dream one. It’s a light love story. Magical.

Joe is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and the range of digital download formats. Transcription assistance by Julie Gavlak.

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One Response to “Interview: Talking JOE And The South With David Gordon Green”

  1. Joe says:

    Is there a way I could contact David Green online? I’ve watched this movie over and over and David Green has done something I’ve wanted a director to do for years. I think Joe is perhaps one of the better movies made in a very long time. Thanks


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon