Director’s Notebook: David Gordon Green on Creating His Favorite Scene In 'Joe'

Director’s Notebook: David Gordon Green on Creating His Favorite Scene In 'Joe'

Jun 17, 2014

In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to David Gordon Green about his Nicolas Cage-starring dark drama Joe (out today on DVD/Blu-ray).

The last few years have been filled with highs and lows for David Gordon Green. He directed episodes and was a consulting producer for the cult hit series Eastbound & Down but also felt the sting of back-to-back studio comedy flops, Your Highness and The Sitter. Thankfully the return to his indie-film roots with the oddball comedy Prince Avalanche and the dreamlike character study Joe showed Green still has it. Especially the latter, as Joe is Green at his best. A gritty drama adapted from the novel of the same name by Larry Brown, Nicolas Cage plays the title character, a bearded gruff ex-con who tries every day to keep his head low and out of trouble. But when 15-year-old Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan) needs his help that’s when we see the real Joe, a crazed madman that the cops are even scared of.

Green and Cage show what is really behind Joe’s dark eyes in a haunting, highly improvised montage in the middle of the film where Joe in voiceover explains why sticking his neck out for the kid may do more harm than good.

Here Green took some time out to break down the scene and explains its unorthodox origin.


“The Exploration of Nic”

“In the two-minute montage with voiceover and music I’m trying to capture a 400-page novel. [The scene is] literally excerpts from the book that I wanted to make sure to get in. Subtext of character, things like that, I was trying to find an intelligent, nonpretentious, nonexpositional way to give insight to Joe and his internal struggle. We’ve seen his frustration with the law and his inner turmoil with this kid’s father. Now he deals with his own sense of justice and morality, so a lot of it is subtext and a moment of pause in the film. It’s a reflection with Joe.

"We ended up playing with a nonlinear editing style when we did it. We sat Nic down at the dining room table and a lot of it was [excerpts from] Larry and we also had Nic improvise. We would just have a camera on a dolly rocking back and forth and filmed 10-minute takes of Joe basically discussing his demons. One of the things that I found exciting about this character and this project was the exploration of Nic, on how to really embody somebody that has that struggle. A guy who considers himself a decent man but doesn’t quite know how to fit into what culture expects of him or what he expects of himself. At one point previous to that scene Joe says, 'You know how I get, I can’t get my hands dirty with every little thing.' Because I think Joe is scared of himself and he’s scared of what the world thinks of him. Later in the film the sheriff says, 'Why do you want to go back to the penitentiary so bad?' This alludes to the fact that Joe might have to be protected from himself, or thinks he needs to be protected from himself.

Typically when I do a montage I rarely conceive it. I take images that are excerpts from scenes that end up on the editing-room floor or some B roll that when we are waiting for the rest of the crew or actors to show up that day we kind of shoot some beauty shots, but with this we really designed all of these as elements of production. Everything from Joe paying his crew and adding weird elements like Gary putting the money in his shoe or the spirit of the work crew, one of the guys dancing in the background. These are things that I think help illustrate Joe’s world, meanwhile we hear him talking about his struggle looking at a guy who is almost seeing into the world of Gary Jones. Its almost like he has this spiritual connection, which we established earlier when he’s in the woods and Joe can sense Gary around him. Then in this montage we see flashes of Gary in his home life sitting in the kitchen with his mother and his sister, just little images that shows Joe connected to this kid.


“Things That Trigger”

“Nic came out a month early to Austin, Texas where we filmed, and I just started interviewing him in character. My sound guy came out and I have a little house behind my house, it’s kind of a workshop office, and we would sit and talk about Joe and I would interview Nic as Joe. And through those dialogues and through that creative process I learned a lot about Joe and the Joe that Nic was creating. We took that dialogue and infused that into the narrative and into the screenplay. So what you see in the scene is a blend somewhat of excerpts from Larry Brown’s book, that weren’t in the original screenplay, and then a good bit of it is Nic’s voice being interviewed by me.

"I don’t have everyone sit around a table for rehearsal and memorize their lines and look in the mirror and fix their hair. I say, 'Let’s get to know you.' Let’s go out and get a drink, let’s go to locations and start to get a sense of the characters and the environment and I do a lot of interviews because I want to keep the imperfections. If I asked you questions about yourself you’d have to think about them, even though you live in your own skin all day everyday, but to verbalize it to someone: Who you are? Who you represent? What you struggle with? I find that really vulnerable and can bring a nice realistic, imperfect pattern to the character. And when you have somebody like Nic who’s willing to play… I’ve been really fortunate to work with very playful actors that are into this kind of exploration and discovery of actors. There are a lot of directors who are way more prepared than I am, that are like, 'This is the script and you have to say these lines,' or 'Here’s the composition, I storyboarded it three months ago.' I don’t have any of that done. But I do know things that trigger, music that triggers something special or background of an actor’s real life that can trigger something special. I get to know people in a way that I feel really fortunate that they trust me in this way to get a little weird. But part of that process is an audio, not on camera, but on audio interview.

“We Deserve to Know More About Joe”

“This is a weird movie for me because I feel like it has a very straightforward narrative, and that’s rare for me. Most of my projects, everything from George Washington to Pineapple Express, I find more of my structure in the editing room but with Joe there was something that just felt very straightforward and a lot of this is Nic’s technical approach to the character. He would know when to unravel a little bit here, reveal a little bit of himself there, so it just felt right after the woman living in his house poses him some morality questions and there’s this kid that he has a very fatherly affection for, it felt right for that moment to do a montage.

"We actually put in some scenes earlier that gave you some of these notes, we saw an ex-wife that worked at the post office and a few others things that gave you more about Joe, and we ended up lifting those because once we got to that montage I felt that’s when we deserve to know more about Joe. I didn’t what to know it six minutes into the movie. There are a lot of movies that want you to know who you’re watching a movie about right away, identify the character and get the exposition out of the way so then you can get onto your high concept, but with this one we could afford to revel a little bit who this guy is and what’s his problem. I think at the point of the montage it felt natural to open up more. And the montage is scripted. It’s in the final shooting script of the movie but it’s incorporated from the elements of discovery that we had in our rehearsal process.


“I Want to Show the World of Conflict”

“The only thing we struggled with was the music for it. Finding what that tone was. Do we go emotional and sympathize with Joe? Do we go cold and calculated? And that’s what we ended up doing. It’s actually one of my favorite queues in the movie. But it was the only one that we went back and forth on a few times. There are these little pulses and synthetized sounds, it got pretty trippy and we also recorded sounds and slowed them down like 10,000 percent and use that as elements of music, so it ends up being a really dreamy sound.

"And then the moment where G-Daawg [Gary’s father] is digging through the garbage [was a challenge]. In the script the shop owner comes out with a gun and scares him off by shooting the gun, and when we started looking at it in the context of Joe’s struggle we thought that was cliché. Here’s this monstrous character and here’s another guy who’s pissed. So instead we shot it with the cook coming out with a plate of food to give him. Because if I’m dealing with a conflicted character I want to show the world of conflict. Let’s show not everyone is bad. There’s a moment of humanity and G-Daawg says ‘thank you.’


“This Movie Came from My Gut”

“Sometimes you make things that you anticipate great audience enthusiasm for and you love that moment of praise or success, this movie came from my gut and my heart in a way that it was kind of a creatively liberating movie that you would go with the organic tangents of opportunity. You very quickly lose design and expectations you have of yourself and you roll up your sleeves, work hard and trust your collaborators and make a f**king movie. I read an interesting quote from Seth Rogen the other day where he said, ‘It’s easier to make a movie than get a movie made,’ which I thought was really interesting. With this movie, it was literally a phone call to a board of financiers and go make a movie and everyone goes their way. Cast an eccentric cast, there were no struggles on it. So in a world of making difficult movies or challenging movies or nontraditional films, this was a really joyous experience. It reminded me how creative and how fun the filmmaking process can be no matter how difficult the subject matter. I’m over the point of trying to design a signature fan base or certain things that will always be confusing to people. I see myself as a character director. You see these great actors that can just disappear in a role and can do comedy or a drama or a TV show or spokesperson for Velveeta, all these things, why not do that as a director as well?”

Joe is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.




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