States of the Nation Cinema

By Jason Wood

all-the-real-girls-david-gordon-green-1.jpgAll the Real Girls, 2003

Acclaimed chronicler of the American South, David Gordon Green is emerging as one of contemporary cinema’s most distinctive – and lyrical – voices

If George Washington offered a tantalising first glimpse of an extraordinary talent, the Sundance award-winning All the Real Girls confirms director David Gordon Green as one of the freshest voices in contemporary American cinema. It also offers further evidence of his intrinsic feel for a specific sense of place, the emotional and physical terrain of the American South. He talks here about the particular processes that inform his approach to filmmaking.

Jason Wood: Like George Washington, All the Real Girls has a timeless quality to it, making it very hard to date.

David Gordon Green: A film like this doesn’t have an immediate life. It’s not Terminator 3 opening on one day around the world and making $200 million at the box office. All the Real Girls opened in the US in February (2003) and it’s still playing, slowly travelling from place to place and it will then open in Europe and other countries for the next couple of years.

I don’t want it to go out of style, I want it to go ahead and just be out of style. The thing that frustrates me with many movies is that everything is so contemporary due to product placement. Sure I’m somewhat manipulating the environment because everyone obviously goes to Starbucks and Walmart, but I want it to be a movie in its own little capsule, so that 20 years from now people might say, ‘when and where the hell was this made?’

JW: I understand that you and Paul Schneider began writing it before your first feature, George Washington. Why did you wait until after George Washington to revisit it?

DGG: I wrote it with Paul when we were right in the heat of relationships and, like the characters in the film, going through a lot of ‘stuff’. I was getting a little aggressive with the writing and a little too self-indulgent with the material. I needed to step away from the absolute moment of it. At the same time my goal was to make it at a point in my life where I could do it pretty quick, so that it wasn’t a guy looking back on a series of events or a point in his life without nostalgia or sentiment. I didn’t want it to be an American Graffiti type of movie. I wanted it to be something that felt immediate. But it was important to let the wounds scab over a little bit to be able to take more of a technical approach to it and more of an honest approach to the actors.

Also, for a first film I needed to make a movie on which I could get away with a little bit more and rely less on narrative. So we designed George Washington as a vehicle, so that if a reel got lost in the mail then a reel got lost in the mail; we really didn’t need it. In my head, All The Real Girls was something that was so performance-based I needed to be able to burn a lot of film to let the actors loosen up and improvise and let it feel real. They had to feel they could mess up, whereas in George Washington they couldn’t as we had to keep going, we couldn’t do it twice as we couldn’t afford another take.

JW: I believe you shot All The Real Girls with more conventional elements, such as more sex scenes and establishing shots or grounding between the characters. In what other ways did the film change during editing and how relaxed are you during this stage? I get the impression that you encouraged the film to find its own intrinsic rhythm.

DGG: Production is a discovery for me. I tend to put scripts down a month or so before we start shooting. Rehearsals and improvisation dictate where the characters will go and what interesting tangents we will take. All The Real Girls found its genuine moments in the eyes of the two main characters. We eliminated much of the introduction to the characters and jumped right to the moment that I thought their relationship became distinctive. Editing is an organic process for me. I begin with an image or word that I like and I pay little concern to continuity or the preconceived mechanics of the screenplay. I like to linger and not to take an aggressive approach to plot. Many characters ended up on the cutting room floor and virtually all the plot did as well. I feel quite fortunate that we had creative threads weaving a narrative rather than development mechanics. I give the audience a lot of credit for being able to fill in the blanks. I want everyone to spend their time wisely.

all-the-real-girls-david-gordon-green-2.jpgAll the Real Girls, 2003

JW: You pay a lot of attention to sound on the film, both the soundtrack – on which Will Oldham’s All These Vicious Dogs particularly stands out – and general sound design.

DGG: As much as the pictures, images and lighting are details that people absorb, so sound, and indeed sometimes the lack of it, also plays a huge part. Where we choose to have silence, where we choose to have music and where we choose just to have the ambience of the surrounding area, all that is very important to me. There is also experimentation within that. In the middle of a dialogue the sound will drop out and you won’t hear the words the characters speak.

JW: Again you cast a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, with the non-professionals coming from the community in which you filmed.

DGG: Absolutely. To bring an authenticity to the texture, it’s always important to me to bring people with dialects and accents so that the words that come out of their mouths are what they would say.

JW: With All the Real Girls you again ensured that your crew were fully integrated into the community. Why is this so important to you?

DGG: It was particularly important on All The Real Girls because Paul lives there [Marshall, North Carolina] and my Director of Photography Tim Orr is from there, so I didn’t want to appear rude. For me being the outsider, I went there a year in advance and started working jobs and meeting people and understanding the place and discovering the richness that’s in the back alleys of that town, which a normal film crew with its location scout just misses. I try to find locations that speak to me and don’t need a lot of set design or artistic interference. It’s a matter of living in a particular environment and listening and watching. A lot of the characteristics, the mannerisms and some of the dialogue that’s in the movie I got from working in a factory and talking to people.

The Hollywood picture of the American South is in my opinion often caricatured and simplistic. Everybody is named Billy Bob, has missing teeth and rapes each other’s cousins. Sure, that goes on, but we don’t all do it. The mission statement is to offer something a little less stereotypical and a little more authentic.

JW: Are there specific films and filmmakers with whom you feel a kinship, or draw inspiration from, in regard to how you approach both the physical environments and the characters your films feature?

DGG: I think Alexander Payne draws a rich sense of place and characters in his films. Obviously Omaha, Nebraska is a different animal than the rural South, and his style is quite opposite, but I feel that he approaches his subjects with all the honour and humour that a native would and the authenticity rings as a result of that. As for the South, I can’t think of too many films that are grounded in a reality I recognize. Tomorrow with Robert Duvall might be one. Deliverance and Mississippi Burning are others rich with familiar texture. The irony is that those two films were made by outsiders who happened to be more observant than most American filmmakers.

JW: I understand that your next film Undertow also has connections with the American South. Do you intend to continue exploring this physical and emotional terrain or can you envisage transposing your vision and technique to other regions or even countries?

DGG: I’ve worked fairly close to home because I know how to make films inexpensively using the resources of this region. I’ve chosen projects I felt I could bring an authenticity to, and which were realistic in terms of budget. Most of the projects in my head take place internationally but at this point I haven’t found investors willing to take a great financial leap with me. I fall in love with every country I visit and hope to have the opportunity to explore them with my films.

Jason Wood is a writer, programmer and filmmaker. He programmes The Other Cinema, London, is currently writing books on American independent and contemporary Mexican film and is editing Broomfield on Broomfield for Faber and Faber. He is a regular contributor to the film journal Enthusiasm and has recently published a critical study of Hal Hartley’s work.