Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”)
Written by: Gary Hawkins (debut)
Though plenty of independent filmmakers shake things up with studio films and projects outside of their wheelhouse, few have taken the path of director David Gordon Green. After starting out with hard hitting independent films like “Snow Angels,” Green spent three years exclusively directing broad, studio comedies. Some of his work was well received, like 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and a dozen episodes of the brash HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” while others like “The Sitter” and “Your Highness” were critically panned and box office duds. After getting back to his independent roots with last year’s “Prince Avalanche,” Green continues down the small-scale path with “Joe.”
After bouncing from town to town with his family, Gary (Tye Sheridan) lands in a small Texas town looking for work. When he stumbles across some workers in a forest, Gary gets a job with Joe (Nicholas Cage) and the two quickly form a bond with one another. But when Gary’s alcoholic and abusive father puts Gary and his family in danger, Joe must decide if he should overstep his boundaries and help.
Despite the fact that he is one of the most frequently mocked A-list actors in Hollywood today, Cage is a former Oscar-winner and “Joe” is a reminder of how brilliant he can be. In Cage’s case, less is more, and by keeping things simple and understated, he is able to bring out a well-rounded and complex character. Joe is less of a role model and more of an occasionally belligerent, heavy drinker with a host of bad habits. The fact that Joe still comes across as a warm and caring paternal figure despite these character flaws is a testament to Cage’s performance and character design. Like last year’s “Mud” in which Sheridan held his own alongside a mammoth performance from Matthew McConnaughey, Sheridan never feels out matched in his scenes with Cage. There might be some typecasting issues down the line, but Sheridan is well on his way to being a very strong actor. When put together, especially in a segment of the film where the two go on the lookout for Joe’s dog, the two show dynamic chemistry.
Part of what makes “Joe” such a successful film is the atmosphere that Green is able to capture. Green often makes use of local “non-actors” in his films, which often give his projects a hint of realism. For this film, Green gave the huge role of Gary’s father to a homeless alcoholic man named Gary Poulter. Poulter, who actually passed away shortly after filming ended, gives a performance that is hilarious, extremely frightening and unsettling. It is simply astonishing that not only Poulter was able to pull this off, but that Green was able to coax such a brilliant performance out of a homeless stranger.
Story-wise, the film takes a few dark and heavy turns and certainly doesn’t shy away from displaying violence or grave subject matter. There is nothing glamorous about the world that Green has built, but the circumstances and stakes feel real and legitimate. As previously alluded to, “Joe” completely thrives on character design. Gary, while still being a minor, is a completely perseverant worker stuck in a terrible family situation. Joe, built from the same cloth, is tortured and nowhere near a good influence for Gary. Still, the two are drawn to each other. While many reasons point to this being a troublesome friendship, it is somehow mutually beneficial.
As good as “Joe” is, there are a few issues. The main villain in the film appears sparingly with very little context and mostly only to serve as a foil. There are also a few stretches, segments, and tone shifts in the film that feel haphazardly put together. Regardless “Joe” is a true and earnest film that features a mostly strong, albeit minimalistic script, a heaping handful of very strong performances and serves as a reminder that Cage is still very capable of a powerful performance.
Returning to what he considers his independent roots, Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage moves to the opposite end of the spectrum from his usual roles in big-budgeted Blockbusters to star in a film he had been looking for for an entire year. In filmmaker David Gordon Green’s indie drama “Joe,” Cage stars as the title character, an ex-con who befriends a 15-year-old boy (Ty Sheridan) who is living with an abusive, alcoholic father.
During an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, I spoke to Cage and Green about their new film and asked Cage what it’s like to get back to a role that allows him to focus on the work itself. We also talked about both men’s most labor-intensive jobs they’ve ever had in their lives.
Nic, how liberating is it for you to be able to take on a role like this? I know you probably have your pick of the litter when it comes to movies every year. I mean, how liberating is it for you as an actor to be able to focus on the work itself and not have to worry about anything else like green screens or CGI?
Nicolas Cage: This was a very liberating experience. I waited a year to find this script and to be able to work with David. For me this was a character where I didn’t have to act so much. I could be more truthful – not put things on, but take things off and sort of be more naked as a film presence and recruit any of my memories and experiences I went through for the last couple of years. “Joe” was a script that allowed me to do that. When I got to meet with David and understand his process, it was a very encouraging one and one where you work on the character together. He would interview me and find little memories I might have and find bits of dialogue and maybe put that into the role. I would say it was a joyous experience making this movie.
David, was Nic someone who was at the top of your list from the start?
David Gordon Green: He was the first person I talked to about it. I sent a script to his agent with a letter and said, “Hey, you know, I’ve seen all your movies and would love for you to consider this project.” Sometimes you get caught up in that submission process and it can turn into a long development process. In this case, it was a matter of a few days and I got a call back and it was Nic and he said, “Hey, I read the script. Call me back.” I saved the voice mail for nostalgia. So, I called him back and he said, “Yeah, I read the script and the book a couple of times…” So, not only did he flip through the pages of the script and make a judgment call, which is what I would typically get from a submission like that, but he read the script and was curious enough to open the novel a couple of times. So, there was something really exciting about that. Then he came down to Austin and we drove around in the countryside and talked about the character. Larry Brown, who was the writer of the novel, we talked about his work and what it meant to us and what we could do with his character. It was really a perfect fit.
Nic, talk a bit about picking projects. I mean, if David had called you up and asked you to do this and then someone called you to finish up the “National Treasure” trilogy, how do you chose between those projects? How do you make that decision?
I think it has to do with what is the best opportunity at any given moment no matter the genre. It could be a science fiction movie. It could be a comedy. It just so happened that this project came to me when I was actively looking for a return to a more dramatic, independently spirited film – where my roots were and where I originated from. I had seen David’s work and I knew the level of talent. So, I came out to meet with him. Even when I got the part, I came out a month early just so I could soak up Austin and get in step with his process.
Nic, you started your career around the same age your fellow castmate Ty Sheridan started his, around 15 years old. Were you that good at 15?
(Laughs) Well, first of all, I think Ty is vastly superior. I mean, he’s a great actor in every sense of the word. He’s full of life and charisma. But I try not to compare myself to other actors. It’s just something I don’t do.
David, I’m always interested when directors choose to use “non-actors” in their films. Do you ever think of those actors after the film is over? I mean, it’s like the story of the kids from “Slumdog Millionaire.” These kids are cast in this movie and are on a high and then when the movie is over, they’re back to their normal lives again. Do you ever think about that?
Yeah, I think about it a lot. I think it has to be very challenging to walk into the experience of filmmaking, which can have a lot of people giving you attention and taking care of you. [These actor] walked into a wonderful team of people and a very positive working environment. I’m there to design that. That’s part of my process and is very important to me. Bringing in actors who aren’t necessarily theatrically trained or haven’t had the experiences of on-camera performances, it can be very different from their everyday life. So, I think about it a lot. I know what it’s like even for me – I go from production to production – but when I wrap up a production, I have to switch gears and get back into my normal life and that can be very difficult. So, for a lot of these guys, I think it was such a novelty of an experience. But I know the guy who plays Junior in the movie, the foreman, he owns Sam’s Barbecue up the road. I just finished another movie with him. It is kind of fun to be able to pull some of these guys back on the team. For all of us, I think we look at it as a breath of fresh air in our often-frustrating lives. It’s just a matter of hoping people can keep it in balance and not become too entitled or have too unrealistic expectations after the process.
The physical labor Joe and the rest of his crew do in the woods seems like backbreaking work. David, we also saw your characters doing some hard labor in your last film “Prince Avalanche.” What has been the most backbreaking work you both have ever done in your lives?
NC: I used to sell popcorn at the Fairfax Movie Theater in Los Angeles. That was my first job. I took the tickets as well. I was also the usher. I was trying to figure out how to get from selling the tickets to being on the screen. I would watch the movies. One day, a guy was smoking in the movie theater and my boss said, “You’ve got to tell him to put it out.” So, I went up to the guy and said, “I’m sorry sir, but you’re going to have to put your cigarette out.” He had some girl around him and he just took one big puff and he just blew all the smoke in my face. And I quit. That was the most backbreaking work I’ve ever done. My dad said, “Go back to the movie theater and get your job back.” So, I had to beg the boss to give me my job back.
DGG: I used to insulate attics. I was a little guy, so they always used to send me into the nooks and crannies to roll out the insulation. I’d be crawling around in small spaces and sweaty. This was in North Carolina, so it was pretty intense in the summertime. I also did a weird job where I worked at a doorknob factory. I only worked 20 hours a week, but I was paid really well. I would dunk doorknobs in acid. They would bronze these chrome doorknobs and if there were bumps in the chrome, they’d have to redo it. So, it was just me in this Hazmat suit dunking doorknobs into tubs all day. I really worked out my shoulder muscles.
Premiering at SXSW this past week, “Joe” brings Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage back to his indie roots in the title role as the hard-living, hot-tempered, ex-con Joe Ransom, who is just trying to dodge his instincts for trouble – until he meets a hard-luck kid played by Tye Sheridan (“Mud”) who awakens in him a fierce and tender-hearted protector.
The story begins as Joe hires teenaged Gary Jones and his destitute father onto his “tree- poisoning” crew for a lumber company. Joe might be notoriously reckless with his pick-up, his dog and especially with women, but he sees something in Gary that gets to him: a determination, a raw decency and a sense of resilience he can barely believe in anymore. Gary has truly had nothing in life – he’s never spent a day at school – yet something drives him to take care of his family, to keep his sister safe when his father turns monstrous, to hang onto hope of a better future. Joe and Gary forge an unlikely bond. When Gary finds himself facing a threat greater than he knows how to handle, he turns to Joe – and sets off a chain of events that play out with the brutal inevitability of tragedy and the beauty of a last stab at salvation.
Shot on location in Texas, the film features Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter and Ronnie Gene Blevins leading a cast made up of a mix of indie actors and non-actors cast off the streets of Austin, Texas.
“Joe” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.
In director David Gordon Green’s character-driven dramedy “Prince Avalanche,” actors Paul Rudd and Emilie Hirsch play Alvin and Lance, two road workers whose job it is to paint the yellow lines running down the centers of highways. The narrative, which is loosely adapted from the Icelandic film “Either Way,” is set in 1988, but parallels the aftermath of the Bastrop County fires that occurred in late 2011. In the film, Alvin and Lance are assigned to repaint the traffic lines on an isolated country highway that was destroyed by the wildfire. During their summer working together, the men create an unlikely friendship despite their contrasting personalities and work ethic.
During an interview this past March at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Green, Rudd and Emile sat down to share some of their experiences during the making of what Green calls a “hip-pocket project.” All three walked into the interview room talking to each other about the time change (it was March 10, Daylight Saving Time).
“Prince Avalanche” is currently available on iTunes and Video On-Demand.
David Gordon Green: Why is there even a Daylight Savings? Let’s just stop it.
Paul Rudd: There are petitions to get rid of it.
DGG: It must be a corporate reason that they don’t.
Emile Hirsch: Someone’s gotta pay for that extra hour.
PR: I thought [Daylight Savings] was good for the economy – like it goes up a few percentage points. They did away with it for a while, but then it came back.
EH: Arizona doesn’t have [Daylight Savings].
PR: Arizona doesn’t have it? That’s SO Arizona!
EH: That’s so weird that someone says, “We’re changing the time.” The time shouldn’t be able to be changed.
DGG: Do you guys know about the history of weekends – like when weekends were created? It divided the country between the people who believed in weekends and the people who didn’t. There was this aggressive campaign about how everyone shouldn’t work seven days a week. But that’s something we just take for granted now – weekends.
EH: The idea that we’re changing the time, that’s insane. “It’s not 3 p.m., it’s 4 p.m.” Like what the fuck?!
PR: “Don’t worry. We’ll changed it back later on in the year.”
David, this is definitely your most intimate film since “Snow Angels” six years ago. Was this type of storytelling something you wanted to get back to after making three studio films (“The Sitter,” “Your Highness” and “Pineapple Express”)?
You know, through that period of time I always had a “hip-pocket project” – something that I knew I could do down and dirty and quickly in case the pieces on a big-budget studio movie didn’t come together. I was really frustrated with this one particular movie I had been trying to get made for five years. It kept falling through. I thought this was the perfect time to pull out a hip-pocket movie. I went through the ones I had kind of been developing over the years, but a lot of these projects are about timing. I can’t claim [“Prince Avalanche”] was a lifelong passion project. It was a whim that turned into a very signature piece of commitment and collaboration and trust with a group of artists. This was not something that has lived with me for years and years. It was very strange, but it was a beautiful antithesis to the traditional development process.
EH: I’m going to want that $10 bucks back.
DGG: (Laughs) Yeah, [Emile] paid me $10 bucks.
Paul, you’ve always been great at witty improv. Was it more of a challenge to let those quiet moments happen in this film?
PR: You know, there is a way these characters speak that is a little strange to me. It sounded to me, at times, like an American version of an Icelandic movie, really. The dialogue had these weird turns of phrases and that kind of thing. So, if we were having some sort of improvisation, the challenge was to adhere to those rules and rhythms and not veer away from that. There really wasn’t a lot of improvisation, was there?
DGG: Not in terms of big, broad strokes, but there was a lot of interpretation.
PR: Yeah, and I liked all the nuance and minor-key approach to all of it. I liked working that way. I wanted it to be contained. I wanted it to be dramatic. I wanted the humor to be character driven and not jokey. It didn’t seem any more challenging than anything else. That being said, it’s always kind of challenging. You don’t want [the film] to be bad.
So, the line “you got a little caulk on you” wasn’t supposed to be jokey?
EH: When [Paul] was saying that to me in the scene, I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know what caulk was. I had never seen caulk before.
PR: That’s not what I heard, Emile.
EH: No, but he kept saying that to me in the scene. He was like, “You got a little caulk on you. You got a little caulk on you.” And I was like, “What the fuck is he talking about?”
PR: In the film, you can tell he is making me laugh really hard. That’s why in that scene I turn around and I start laughing. You can hear me laughing.
DGG: We kept that scene in.
PR: Yeah, we kept it in because it made me laugh. Afterward I was like, “Man, I probably shouldn’t have turned away too much.” Now, that was one of those challenges you were talking about. I think if I was doing one of those lines like, “You’ve got a little caulk on you” and started laughing and it was in another movie, I probably would’ve made it a bigger jokey thing. But in this, I wanted it to not be a joke. But that’s still what happened.
EH: I didn’t know what caulk was.
PR: Now you’re familiar with it.
Starring: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”)
Written by: Danny McBride (“The Foot Fist Way”) and Ben Best (“The Foot Fist Way”)
It may only attract an audience who giggles whenever they hear the word “balls,” but “Your Highness” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a sloppy dish of vulgarity with a mix of frat-boy and deadpan humor served up as a mindless medieval parody. Call it a guilty pleasure if you’d like, but “Your Highness” is as funny as it is un-ambitious. Comedian Danny McBride and Academy Award nominee and winner James Franco and Natalie Portman are so committed to the stupidity, it’s refreshing despite some one-trick pony jokes. Plus, it’s a little dispairing to see that director David Gordon Green, who has given us some great indie dramas like “All the Real Girls” and “Snow Angels” earlier in his career, has decided to change routes, at least for his last couple of films. He may find success if he decides to stay, but it’s an unfortunate loss to indies.
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls”)
Written by: Seth Rogen (“Superbad”) and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”)
It might not take much to entertain a group of giggly potheads, but when it comes to stoner comedies, the best are the ones that can entertain even the most levelheaded audiences. Although there will always be an infantile “Harold & Kumar” to cancel out more developed efforts like “The Wackness,” the stoner comedies of today seem to be growing back a few more brain cells.
With a perceptive indie director like David Gordon Green (“Undertow”) leading the way in “Pineapple Express,” smokers and non-smokers alike have something to applaud. Not only is this Green’s most accessible film to date, it’s his first shot with an action/comedy hybrid and he makes it his own.
In “Express,” Seth Rogen (“Knocked Up”) plays Dale Denton, a weed-loving process server who witnesses a murder while smoking a doobie outside the home where he is supposed to serve papers. In his frantic state, Dale tosses the joint and screeches off just before the killers, Ted (Gary Cole) and Carol (Rosie Perez), realize that someone has seen them.
Although a bit too coincidental, Ted is able to track down Dale because the roach he throws out his car window is filled with a rare type of marijuana known as Pineapple Express. He knows what it is because he is the drug kingpin who has smuggled it into the city and handed it over to only one supplier, who, in turn, has only one distributor.
The seller is Saul Silver (James Franco), a full-time pot dealer who spends all his time at his apartment watching old TV shows and finding inventive ways to get high (he creates a “cross joint” that must be lit at three separate points for maximum puffage). Dale and Saul’s business relationship is brand new, but Saul quickly befriends him probably because he is the only one that understands his carefree ways.
Dale turns Saul for help when he sees the murder and the duo hightail it out of Saul’s apartment in fear for their lives. From here, “Express” becomes a buddy comedy with a lot more wit and unusual performances, especially from Franco, whose comedic timing is brilliant. As Saul, Franco shows his flexibility as an actor and always keeps that likeable smirk on his face.
As another Judd Apatow production, “Pineapple Express” is a hilarious and, at times, very violent kick in the pants that combines genres just as well as any other comedy this year. Sure, it might be lacking in plot, but it’s never lacking in pot (and that makes the half-baked humor all the more bizarre).
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls”)
Written by: David Gordon Green (“Undertow”)
In only two films in the past four years, director David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls”) has proven to have one of the most intriguing viewpoints of any young filmmaker behind the camera. Add the heart-wrenching “Snow Angels” to Green’s short list of accomplishments.
The story follows the intertwining and rocky relationships between Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and her ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and their four-year-old daughter lost in bickering; Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), a shy high school kid with an innocent crush; and his parents, Don (Griffin Dunne) and Louise (Jeanetta Arnette), who are recently separated.
Based on the novel by Stewart O’Nan, “Snow Angels” is rich in characterization and impressive in its metaphorical delivery of painful human emotion.