david j. moore chats with Manglehorn director David Gordon Green…
One of the most interesting filmmakers working today, David Gordon Green has worked up an impressive list of films to his credit. He started with the true indie films George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), and Undertow (2004), and moved into studio-driven films like Pineapple Express (2008), Your Highness (2011), and The Sitter (2011), and he has segued back to indie fare like Prince Avalanche (2013), Joe (2013), and now with his latest, Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino and Holly Hunter. Pacino stars in a challenging role as a lonely locksmith, stuck in a memory of a past love, and when he meets a lovely bank teller (played by Hunter), his life veers in a different direction. Set in and around Austin, Texas, the film is a highly unusual drama from a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. (Manglehorn is currently in theaters throughout the U.S. and is also available VOD.)
david j. moore: How did the screenplay for Manglehorn come together?
David Gordon Green: I was evacuating from a hurricane when I was working on a show called Eastbound and Down. I was in North Carolina, lost and confused, and trying to ask somebody what street I was on. I looked up and I said, “I’m on Manglehorn Street.” That’s where I was, in the middle of nowhere. I thought, That’d be a cool name for a movie. Then I met Al Pacino the next week, and I was just talking to him, and seeing this strange, very small, fragile, and funny guy, and I thought This is a cool guy to make a movie with. He was more the Scarecrow than Scarface Pacino. I thought it would be cool to make a movie with him called Manglehorn. Then I went home, and got the locks to my house changed. I went to this locksmith shop. I should make a movie in this locksmith shop. It was really cool, just a few blocks from my house. I should make a movie with Pacino called Manglehorn here. Then I gave that idea to my neighbor and he wrote the script. (Laughing.) A little unconventional, but it worked out great. It was an exploration of character and subtext. On the surface, it’s about a strange man who’s not very lovable, but as you peel back the layers, you find a little bit more of a complex and emotional human being.
djm: Just in general, how much thought goes into the visual design of your films, especially this one?
DGG: Nothing is ever set in stone, but I always wanted to make a movie in a neighborhood that was significantly gentrified. I wanted to film in places that I knew were barely surviving, in neighborhoods that were being bulldozed to bring in modern townhouses. Literally, all of the locations I could walk to had that small town feel; they were lower-income properties in Austin. Manglehorn’s house is not there anymore – it’s a duplex. The locksmith shop is being bulldozed. It’s going to be a strip mall. We filmed in dying locations, which I thought were beautiful and said a lot about Austin’s history. They were a great backdrop for characters in a story; they were a little bit out of time and weren’t able to keep up with the world around them. Every now and then we would step back and see the skyline of Austin and literally the weirdest thing … most of where we filmed was about a ten minute walk from town and yet we still feel like we’re in a small town … and literally as we’re going in for the high-rise shot, a guy and a horse walks by. It was unplanned, but it was perfect. I asked him to do it one more time so that I could film him. We did a lot of work with the production designer and the costume designer to create a palate, but it begins and ends with real places.
djm: Talk a little bit about the scenes where Al Pacino is drafting the letters. Interesting scenes, but some of his voice-over work seems improvised.
DGG: His handwriting sucks! You can’t read a word of it! It was important to him that he write these letters. In the middle of the day, at lunch, sometimes at the end of the day, he’d say, “Let’s go to my trailer and I’ll read some letters.” Sometimes he’d write them and read them, or sometimes he’d just close his eyes and improvise things. We’d just edited things together to make it interesting. It’s a mix of him reading things the screenwriter wrote, reading things that he wrote, and reading things that he’d improvise.
djm: Roger Ebert described your work as being in the key of Terrence Malick. How does the comparison strike you, and what’s the organizing principle for the projects you choose to make?
DGG: Well, the Malick reference … early in my career I was making movies about … I don’t know why I was making these lyrical southern dramas. I will say that during the production of Manglehorn I had lunch with Terrence Malick and Al Pacino and Holly Hunter, which was incredible to be in a restaurant with those rock stars. Totally bizarre. I was hearing stories about when Malick tried to convince Pacino to be in Days of Heaven. So juicy for a guy like me to be in on that dinner. It’s inspiring. When Roger Ebert had something to say … he had affection for my early movies, and that was really nice. He helped give a voice to small movies. Malick was certainly a very big inspiration to me. I’ve departed considerably from that, and this may be a return in some ways to that. It’s a lyrical, strange, and magical movie. But I really look to do a movie that peaks my interest. What’s something I can disappear into – a world I want to live in for a year? Sometimes it’s a movie with a crew of 15 people like Prince Avalanche, where I just wanted to get the world off my back and relax in the woods. It really only had one location and two actors in it. Other times, it’s something ambitious and comedic and big budget and we can blow shit up like in Pineapple Express. I’m just finishing up a movie with Sandra Bullock for Warner Bros. about a Bolivian Presidential election. I’ve really gotten into Latin American politics. I have to shake it up and confuse my mother as best as possible.
djm: Is there a particular story you’d like to share about working with Al Pacino or Harmony Korine while you were making the film?
DGG: Volumes! Those guys have become good friends. They’re great creative resources. They’re creative people who don’t necessarily go with the grain of an industry. We’re constantly there to reassure each other and sort out our bullshit. We all get kind of confused about what we want. You get so driven by what money will get you, or what celebrity will achieve for you, but sometimes it takes the reminder of these very strange friendships that get it – that get the pressures of the creative process.
djm: Talk a little bit about the music in Manglehorn. The score is very unusual and gives the film a magical element.
DGG: Yeah, it’s by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo. Great musician friends of mine from Texas. I’ve worked with them a number of times. I wanted the music to be very present and rhythmic and add energy to it. It shows the energy and chaos of the main character’s brain. At times, he can be moving slow, but his mind is working fast. We just talked about making something inviting and energetic and giving the movie a little juice. In a world where there’re so many different departments and so many decisions to be made … my publicist came to me today with a menu for lunch, and it’s like I’ve got decisions to eat. You order what you want, and I’ll have the same thing. It sounds kind of weird, but when you’re with the collaborators you hired, you trust them. They do cool shit. You’re excited to go with what they’ll do for it. It may not be what I imagined, but it will be very interesting. I also know that they’re wonderfully collaborative. I’ve worked with some geniuses. In a big movie, you can afford collaborators who work slow, but on a little movie, they’ve got to deliver quick. Everyone’s on the clock, and you don’t have much money to spend. In a pinch, you need to have people you can rely on and deliver the goods. I’ve known David Wingo since I was seven. We met because we were the only two people seeing The Karate Kid in the theater by themselves. We really grew up speaking the same language. Explosions in the Sky are just bursting with creative energy, and they’re wonderful to collaborate with.
djm: Colin Patton has been your editor on several films. Are you really hands on in the editing bay, or do you let Colin just do his thing?
DGG: I try to let him do an assembly without interfering too much, though if I have concerns about coverage or transitions, I’ll get in there with him. Typically, I’ll take a two-week vacation after a movie and let him put it together. Depending on the movie, I’ll try to stay there for half-days. I don’t want to be the guy telling the other guy, “A little to the left, a little to the right,” or “A little less, a little louder.” I don’t need that. I need a technician as a collaborator. I sit there for a half a day, taking notes, and then he does a half a day and does what he does. I might pop in there at the end of the day. The next day we’ll talk about the pros and cons. While I’m doing press on Manglehorn, he’s cutting away on the Warner Bros. lot on my next picture. It’s nice to have those friendly collaborations. Editors love that movie as much or even more than you do sometimes. They’re there working late nights.
djm: How did you arrive at a decision to show or not show Manglehorn’s love interest, the woman he’s been remembering and speaking about through the whole movie? Why not let her presence be more ambiguous?
DGG: We thought a lot about that. We wondered if we should ever see her. There was a version where he thought he’d see her walk by his mailbox. There’s another version where she was going to be cut up in a meat locker. We had a few things in discussion, some of which we filmed, some of which we didn’t. I kind of thought that it was nice to … when we tried ambiguity, I thought, Let’s make her real. Otherwise, I thought people would think she was just in his imagination, that he had some kind of illness. He’s obsessed with the romantic notion of what love was when he was 23 years old. He’s worked that casual “what if?” that we all probably have about the one that got away, but he’s taken that “what if?” to a very unhealthy place. I wanted to make sure that we knew she was real. She can’t be an imaginary friend – she can’t not be real. Nobody liked the meat locker version!
Many thanks to David Gordon Green for taking the time for this interview.
david j. moore is a contributing writer to Fangoria, FilmFax, Lunchmeat and VideoScope Magazines. His book WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES was published last year.