David Gordon Green: Neighbourhood watch

His feature about small-town America stormed the festivals. Ben Thompson meets the director
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The Independent Culture

For many first-time film directors, the release of a début feature is the signal to forget all that guff about artistic self-expression and honing your craft, and apply yourself to the serious business of establishing yourself as a showbiz personality. It would be fair to say that David Gordon Green is not of this party.

In fact, in a refreshing break with vainglorious convention, the writer/director of George Washington – which opens in Britain later this month, weighed down with accolades from the world's film festivals – seems positively reluctant to take his place in the spotlight.

"Obviously a film needs a public voice to get the word out," the 26-year-old Texan concedes ruefully, "but personally I'd rather leave that job to the actors and I should be where I belong: behind the camera."

If he'd managed to secure the services of a big-name star with a yen for indie kudos, Green might have pulled it off, but cast your film – as he did – with local unknowns recruited from barbecues and church youth clubs in an obscure part of North Carolina, and you'd better get out there and start talking to people. Even if your favourite topic is how you'd really rather not be.

"For some reason," Green expounds, "the generation of independent film makers which emerged in America from the late eighties to early nineties – Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino – all evolved into celebrities themselves." Green shakes his head, "It's really annoying." Perhaps it's no coincidence that the central character in George Washington is a young boy whose soft fontanelle obliges him to go through life wearing protective headgear.

Busy interview schedule notwithstanding, Green is certainly doing his bit to overthrow the cult of directorial personality, as everyone you talk to about him seems to think he is black. This misapprehension can partly be attributed to the slightly condescending, boosterish tone of a lot of the praise George Washington has received: "In recent film history there has been no greater achievement", "A dream of a movie... it could be a fairy tale by Faulkner!" But the organic way the film's largely black cast seem to grow out of their on-screen environment must also have played a part in it.

"I like to write about characters that are a part of me," Green insists, "but I don't necessarily want it to be obvious. Of course, the last thing I am is an 11-year-old black kid in North Carolina, but the thing that's great about movies is that they give you access to the world. 'Infiltrate' I think is too aggressive a word, but making a film gives you the chance to knock on somebody's door and ask them about the place they live in.

"I can't think of anything more boring than people making movies about their own lives," the director continues scathingly. "I spend enough of my life sitting around in coffee shops trying to figure things out; I don't want to watch someone else doing that for an hour and a half."

It's not that he objects to autobiography per se, it's just that he thinks people should be a bit more discreet about it. Green, it turns out, was not a complete stranger to the run-down neighbourhood captured in such lustrous 35mm, having put down roots in the small towns round Winston Salem, North Carolina, after completing his film course at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

When the time came to make George Washington, this gave him the twin advantages of working on home turf and in virgin cinematic territory. "It makes things much easier if you're not just a group of guys coming in from outside saying 'We are here to bring Hollywood to your town'," he explains. "Rather than going: 'Here's a hundred bucks – can I film in your yard?' you end up hanging around in someone's garden all day while they make a barbecue for the whole crew."

But couldn't this community-spirited brand of film-making just be another, subtler (not to mention more economical) form of exploitation? "The film isn't meant to be a documentary," says Green, "but rather a portrait that I've manipulated and turned into this dream-like world." Either way, in its benign – not to say lyrical – depiction of the eccentricities of the American backwoods, George Washington seems to be working to heal the wounds Harmony Korine's Gummo inflicted on American ideals of small-town life.

Green's future projects – "a very realistic team movie about what it's like to be in love at seventeen", and a science-fiction film to be shot in Nova Scotia or Iceland ("Beautiful nowheres that could be anywhere") – have an ominously Spielbergian ring to them. But there's a toughness beneath the sun-drenched and sometimes sentimental surface of George Washington that bodes well for the future. And any director whose CV boasts, as Green's does, a six-minute documentary on the artificial insemination of cattle will not be afraid to get his cinematic hands dirty.

'George Washington' (12) is out on 26 September.

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