In the six years between Snow Angels and Prince Avalanche, writer/director David Gordon Green became a collaborator on a string of comedies of which he was not credited as a writer. In the two years since he’s utilized that process with drama Joe and now Manglehorn. He’s said in other interviews that it’s a way for him to have multiple projects going at once, passing ideas onto others to see what develops into something he wishes to pursue and what doesn’t. And as he tells us below, it also allows him to commence production from a less trained place than his industry experience has cultivated into his own voice.
That’s why the story behind Manglehorn is so intriguing. It’s still very much his as the title had been bouncing around his head for a little while and his meeting star Al Pacino ultimately jumpstarted the idea eventually passed along to screenwriter Paul Logan. This process has allowed Green to become a very versatile artist moving from stoner comedy Pineapple Express, heavy drama Joe, and a little Eastbound & Down in between. Manglehorn toes the line of both genres with some romance thrown in, adding to his filmography’s diversity with yet another complicated character wherein appearances are very much deceiving.
The Film Stage: You tasked your neighbor in Austin, Paul Logan, to turn your idea for Manglehorn into a feature script. What was it about him that made you think he was the one for the job?
David Gordon Green: Well I’d read some stuff he’d written. He was a lighting designer for the band Explosions in the Sky and he worked as a production assistant on Prince Avalanche, so he’s just a guy that you wander around and shoot the shit with. He knows a crapload about 1970s films—which are my favorite movies.
So I had this weird meeting with Al Pacino, unrelated to this movie, and when I got back from that meeting—actually it was an airplane ride from that meeting where I was thinking about all these ideas about what I saw in the room with Al and what could be a cool way to pull back some layers of what we know of Al and his recent work.
So I started telling Paul—we grab coffee and shoot the shit on the porch—I started telling him about it very organically. I’m sure you and your buddies are sitting at a bar scribbling down ideas on a barroom napkin. “Wouldn’t this be a cool movie to see?” or “What if that actor did this thing?” or “That director doing the other?” We all just sit around cause we’re movie nerds and we talk about that stuff.
This was one that Paul just started running with ideas and I was like, “Man. Shit. Start writing this down.” because the scenes started coming together in this bizarre way. What I’m drawn to about Paul—which is a quality that I don’t have anymore—is that he’s not yet been abused by development notes and standard structure and textbook writing ability. He’s really just writing from the gut intuitively like how I did when I was in 8th grade or even on George Washington, my first film. When you’re young and writing things you’re more experimental and now when I write I find myself being very—either technically considerate or thinking about things like, “Oh, I don’t want to write a scene that has driving at night because it’s a pain in the ass to film.” So I have all these cynical boundaries that have developed like tumors from working for the last fifteen years.
So I really like to surround myself with writers and collaborate with writers that are not so engineered. When an agency comes and starts telling me about these “hot” spec scripts to sell and how the studios are buying this guy’s writing—I have no interest in those guys. [laughter] They’re getting paid great and I’m sure their voices are trained with that kind of Hollywood impulse, which is very cool if you’re making these movies. For a movie like Manglehorn where we really just wanted a strange subconscious character piece, you want someone who’s thinking more organically, more spiritually about a character rather than the technical fabric of set-up and payoff.
Does that help also in how Austin, TX becomes kind of a character in this film? Did his not quite knowing the constraints of where the camera can go make you choose places you may not have gone to otherwise?
One hundred percent. He lives three blocks from me and we can walk to every set in the movie. We were shooting at the American Legion. We’re shooting at the locksmith shop. That locksmith shop—not to diminish Richard A. Wright‘s beautiful production design, but we didn’t touch anything in there. That’s literally where I got all my locks changed when I bought my house.
The locations are really informative of this character because where we live—this neighborhood—is really starting to flip. You live in a sketchy neighborhood twenty years ago and now it’s gentrified and prices have skyrocketed and things like cool locksmith shops are being bought and turned into condos. Manglehorn’s house has already been destroyed and it’s like a duplex, a modern architecture duplex. It’s crazy how quickly these things—the locksmith shop is sold now too.
Everything changes so quickly and in a weird way it’s perfect because that’s what this character is like. He’s just caught in the transition of this world and he’s still stuck in this age of romance. And now he’s just pissed because he doesn’t fit in with the rules of today. It’s really beautiful to watch the sad evolution of things.
It’s a weird perspective for the film to have and that’s something that—Paul’s been living there longer than I have. It was cool to see him point me to a park that I never—I have kids and I still never knew about this little playground or things like that. So he does have a cool perspective on trying to make it feel like a legitimate environment. We’re literally a fifteen-minute walk from downtown Austin and most of the locations in the movie are seemingly very obscured. You’d never know you were in a major urban area. All of a sudden you’ll see Manglehorn buying hotdogs and a skyline and a horse riding by. There’s a guy riding a horse. That’s not someone we hired. That’s a dude that rides a horse around. It’s a contradiction to itself and I believe that’s what helps tell the story of Manglehorn.
And with that contradiction—I loved those little vignettes of magic where memory is warped by nostalgia. It’s interesting that you have some people using it to almost forgive Manglehorn for who he is today while there are others like Chris Messina who’s remembering times when his father was even more fearsome. What is it about nostalgia and its ability to make Gary (Harmony Korine) smile while also preventing someone like AJ from finding real happiness beyond regret as a result of living in the past?
There’s a couple things. One is the way we approached those stories. I went to every actor in the movie that had a speaking part [and asked them] to make up a story that is almost possible/almost impossible. Maybe it just barely doesn’t defy gravity—something Manglehorn did. Make it super far-fetched. It’s almost a miracle that Manglehorn performed it. And then how did that affect your life?
So we did that with a dozen actors and picked a few that we thought were cool, breaking the standard screenwriting rule of “show, don’t tell”. I thought it would be more interesting to have everybody’s perspective of this magical guy who we just see as a melancholy dickhead. To be wondering about him. They say all these things, but what’s the deal with this guy? I thought that was interesting.
And then the movie itself is kind of a romantic study of nostalgia. It’s about how we romanticize the past—good and bad. If I went through something fucked up when I was nineteen years old, man, I got a way better story for you when I’m forty. That story’s been told six hundred times and I know the parts that turn your head. So I know where to put the emphasis and everything kind of falls into place. So if I think about the one that got away in college—there’s so much more involved now because when you’re forty years old you don’t have those hormones firing on the same level. You don’t have the romantic aspirations you had. Your emotions are far less vulnerable because maybe you’ve been burned or got tired of feeling that way.
But for some people—including myself to a large degree—I get caught up in that and I catch myself in a moment of contemporary frustration thinking about how it used to be so great. In the movie business we’re always talking about how movies used to be so great when we were kids. Talking about going to see The Goonies all summer in 1984 or whatever. And then my dad is like, “Man, you guys don’t know jack shit because when I was fourteen and going to the movies it cost a nickel and it’d be a triple feature at the drive-in.” Or whatever.
Everybody has that nostalgia about [his/her] childhood. I feel we all kind of form our romantic notion of culture when we’re eleven to fourteen years old. We have these things where the world really opens our eyes and we’re processing it. That’s love. That’s movies. That’s music. We’re sponges just saying, “Ok, now I can sneak into seeing R-rated movies. I’m going to eat those up.” Because that’s new material. And love: you’re starting to feel things you didn’t feel about people before. You’re starting to really connect with them.
Then it just changes and it changing as you mature isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sometimes I love the adrenaline of a first kiss or the first time you see a film in 70mm—something that would energize you to such a high degree. I wanted Manglehorn to reflect that. He’s a guy that never went beyond that. He got caught in that adrenaline and he couldn’t get over it.
Yes. And there’s a sense of identity in there too. Manglehorn is so consistent in his awkwardness and lack of filter that it becomes the job of the characters around him to form him in our eyes via their disparate reactions. How much of our identity do you think comes from within and how much is that outside projection?
That’s a really good question because some of the most loving and emotional friends I have—you’d meet and think were cold assholes at first. And then you get beyond the barriers. You know, we have those friends we have to kind of justify to people. I remember bringing like a “bad kid” home when I was in elementary school. My parents were like, “This kid’s trouble.” I’m like, “I know, but just give him a chance.” And then he became one of my best friends and my parents really dug him.
I think there’s just so many people, including myself, that are misunderstood and don’t know how to express themselves outwardly. We can have the most genuine and good-hearted motives in our interior, but we don’t know how to express ourselves.
One of the things—this interview included—I’ve done a lot of movies and have had to work really hard and train on how to verbalize my craft and where I come from and how I work. If you read interviews I did in 2000/2001, I come across like an arrogant asshole because I don’t really get the art of an interview where you have to reduce irony and sarcasm and things like that. These are all things you learn professionally and I think also personally. You realize that if you go up to a girl that you see and she’s cute at a bar and you say exactly what you think, you might get a drink in the face.
You learn the mannerisms and get more effective and sociable or you don’t. I have friends that don’t abide by any rules other than their own and God bless them. They’re amazing and funny to watch them not. But it can be kind of controversial in this culture. And every culture is different. Friends of mine from other continents come over here and try to socialize and it seems off-putting. Or even north to south: if I go into a diner in New York City and the waitress comes over and says, “What do you want?” I think she’s being mean to me. But she’s really just curious about what I’d like to eat. You know? [laughter]
I think it is a cultural thing and I think that’s why Pacino—I thought it was important to take a guy that has the bravado and bombasity of Scarface and The Godfather and all these things and take him to a broken-hearted, really almost juvenile in his head and set it in Texas, a place where guys come from the North for whatever reason we can assume or imagine. Put him into an uncomfortable canvas.
I talked to the art department about making him a black and white character in a colorful world. I’ve never used pink and turquoise so much in a movie within the lighting and the set design and the costume design and then here’s Manglehorn wearing vests that are brown and grey and black and white. We’re showing a guy who doesn’t fit in and doesn’t express himself. He has weird little qualities like a strange bracelet or earring and it makes you wonder a little bit more about this guy. What world did Geppetto get his ear pierced? [laughter]
Exactly. The way he acts—there’s this innocence to it. He’ll divert any conversation to some tangent that’s expertly suited to pissing off the person opposite him. But he’s not trying to be mean. How much of that was in the script and how much Al building his performance?
I think it was both. He’s a character that just doesn’t know the right thing to say. He’s trying to be sweet and he calls her [Holly Hunter‘s Dawn] a racehorse. There’s not a negative bone in that moment for him. He’s just trying to say something nice and something reminds him of some horse he saw and he doesn’t realize that would be the most fucked up thing to say to a lady you’re trying to flirt with. [laughter]
To me it’s funny, it’s awkward, and it’s sad. Sort of three things that, when you put them all in a moment, really excite me as a director.
Now you have a knack of finding beauty and intrigue in things that others might deem mundane. What is it about showing a veterinary procedure or the aftermath of a multiple car pileup in slomotion that catches yours and cinematographer Tim Orr‘s eye?
A lot of it is Tim and it’s a great compliment to him. I think he looks at the world really weirdly and he appreciates strange moments and objects. And strangely the human face: he always knows how to light and compose it really nicely. That seems like an everyday thing to say but a face is a different beast if the cameraman is loving it. We cast faces that we love. Every face in this movie, Tim and I adore. And it’s not just like here’s an extra or here’s a bit part. Tim Orr knows that we put these faces here to appreciate and glorify.
A lot of it is these little moments like—in the script it says the cat has surgery to get the key removed, but in our heads it’s an opportunity. When we met the veterinarian and we’re trying to get some kind of creative consult on what the process was like, I’m hearing him talk and thinking this guy is an amazing person and it’s kind of funny that he loves animals more than anyone has ever loved anything.
What a weird thing to inject into a love story—something that’s repulsive to look at because we’re squeamish if we’re not in the medical field and think it’s tough to look at. But from this guy’s perspective he says it with the most heightened romance of science. Like, “We get to do this to save these lives and it’s so beautiful. I go in here like this, do a little of that, and I take out his guts, and I put this thing in. And then it works and it’s happy and it’s healthy.” Hearing this veterinarian really inspired us to film this process of love because it is so—I talk about the juxtaposition of funny and sad and awkward, but this is like hard to look at yet it’s the ultimate in technology and emotion. It’s survival.
And the watermelon accident was really just something that we thought would be cinematic. To open it up so it’s not just a movie about an old man mumbling and changing locks, but there’s a sense of a very animated world outside around him. He almost ignores it. He kind of glances at it and takes a peek, but it’s not about that for him. He doesn’t fit into a world where weird shit like that happens. He’s trying to get to the vet just holding his cat. In the sound design it’s all about the cat purring, not the screaming of the people or the accident in this surreal, heightened world. For him it’s just about listening to the purr of the cat and making sure she’s feeling ok.
With what you just said, Manglehorn is this observer. He’s completely unfazed about the bank customer serenading an employee. He’s helping a trapped kid get out of a car and all he can think about is how dirty the car looks. What about his obsession renders everything around him noise to wade through until he can write another letter to Clara that he knows won’t get to her?
Strangely a lot of that is Al. He kind of latches onto something and ignores others. I’m not sure how to answer that question because that’s kind of what the character is. He’s kind of living life, but it’d be a lot better if he were playing along. He’s in it and he goes through the motions sometimes like at the bank and then something totally trippy happens like someone singing in public. And he just says, “Yeah, that’s pretty good. Alright.” [laughter]
He doesn’t appreciate it like we would appreciate it. If it happened to you or I, we’d go home and tell people about it. You know? We’d fucking tweet about it or something. It’d be a big weird deal and we’d pull out our phones and make a moment of it. “What’s happening? We have to document this.” But Manglehorn is just like—he grabs his cash and jets. [laughter]
To some degree that’s my sense of humor. Way underplaying it rather than going big. And in this movie in particular: heighten the magic? Let’s diminish the magic and make it almost irrelevant and then still let that live in our strange surreal world.
Manglehorn is now available on VOD and in limited theatrical release.