There can't be many subjects more shop-soiled and grubby with filmy fingerprints than first love. So, the most impressive thing about the US indie movie All the Real Girls is that, given its subject, it still manages to deliver something that's emotion-drenched and piercingly romantic. Directed by the 28-year-old David Gordon Green, and co-written by Green and the film's co-star Paul Schneider, All the Real Girls is set in a small Southern US town where the raffish Paul (Schneider) has shagged his way through just about every available woman in town apart from his own mother (Patricia Clarkson). In the film's opening scene, he's breaking through the defences of Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the virginal sister of his best friend Tip (Shea Whigham) by tenderly kissing her hand.
There's been no "meet cute" introduction scene before, and no silly plot impediments to their falling in love after, just the fact that Tip doesn't trust Paul to do right by his little sister, and the characters' own fallibilities. Noel wants to wait before having sex with Paul, which, of course, makes him fall all the more deeply for her, infatuated as much with his idealised fantasy of Noel as with the real thing. What follows is as densely textured, and as everyday as grass. Their affair unfolds like a series of recollected memories on hilltops and bowling-alleys, languorously leafed through like an old photo-album.
Like Green's debut film, George Washington, All the Real Girls takes its time telling its tale and isn't afraid to zig where you'd think it would zag, or to dally with interesting secondary characters (played by non-professionals). Near the end, when Noel does something unexpected and devastating, the "I love you" line she speaks is like a hopelessly tossed lifeline, thrown too late.
Instead of Motown classics or the latest Britney song, the soundtrack features an impeccable line-up of sadcore indie music talent, including Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy), Sparklehorse, and the now disbanded combo The Promise Ring, with incidental music by Michael Linnen and David Wingo. In fact, it was a song by Wingo, which had the line, "All the real girls/ living in the real world/ choose the dumbest ways to be", that inspired the title of the film, although it's typical of Green to leave that song out. He is horrified at the very idea of including it in the film. "That's the last thing you want to do!" he exclaims. "The only thing worse than that is naming the movie after the main character. Like, 'Hi, I'm Will Hunting and I'm good'. You can't put the characters name in the titles! This film didn't even have names for the lead characters when we shot it, but we were told that the press wouldn't be able to handle that, so we dubbed their names in later."
When I first met Green and Schneider (at the Berlin film festival, back in January) all three of us were desperately hungover. The two of them conducted most of the interview supine on the restaurant's comfy banquettes, but nevertheless seemed aglow with optimism, looking forward to the US release. Completing each other's sentences, the two old friends - both Southern boys - had an easy rapport. Schneider, who also had a part in George Washington, teased the frighteningly youthful-looking Green about a girl he had a crush on (whose name he doesn't want in this piece, but don't worry, she's no one famous).
I asked how they came to cast Zooey (pronounced Zoë) Deschanel, suddenly very hot thanks to this film and to The Good Girl, in which she co-starred with Jennifer Aniston. After wincing at the word "hot", Schneider murmured: "We both had ideas about what this girl Noel was like and what she looked like..."
"... and she looked exactly like each of our ex-girlfriends," joked Green.
Deschanel fitted the bill for both men. In fact, commented Schneider, it was lucky that the veteran casting-director Mali Finn was around for their first meeting with the actress. "We needed a more mature lady to navigate us through that!"
Luckily, Deschanel also had the talent. "What we needed was somebody who was better than what had been written," he continued. "We met a lot of actresses, and then Zooey came in, and we had a lot of similar tastes in film and music, and I liked the way I acted with her. She has the ability to deliver curve-balls. When you act with someone that focused, it raises your game."
"She's got great character to her face, with those huge eyes," added Green, dreamily. "She's like the eccentric girl- next-door."
The friends had a clear mission with this film. You might call it a joint manifesto. They wanted to make something that captured how they felt at college, "in the midst of our own love lives". A movie that wasn't a clichéd Hollywood young-love story, "with the hot young guy and the hot-cleavaged girl. That wasn't about how shiny they look and how beautiful they are. Or how rich he is and how poor she is."
"Honestly," said Green, "we just wanted to find something that was human. As fucked up, confused, awkward and humiliating as young relationships are."
When I suggested, trying to sound supportive, that the film's freshness springs from its unusual, semi-improvised- sounding dialogue, Green bristled. "People have been saying over the last couple of days, 'what a weird take on a love story', but I think it's weird in films when you hear chimes, and people fall in love at first sight."
Fast-forward to just a couple of weeks ago. Green is in London, on his own, to talk up the movie, which hasn't done quite as well as he'd hoped on its American release. "Not enough people went to see it," he laments, looking suddenly 10 years older than he did back in February. "It got good reviews, so I can't complain. It made its money back, but I think it was disappointing in terms of what the studio was expecting. Maybe it's not the crowd-pleaser that I thought it was.
"I guess it's hard to get college-age kids, the people the movie was geared towards in my head, into the art-houses. When they hear 'art-house', they think 'long boring movie with subtitles', and they'd rather see The Matrix Reloaded, or, in our case, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the romantic- comedy rival when our film was released."
Maybe the word-of-mouth on his film was negative, I suggest. After all, it's all pretty sad at the end. "No it's not, that's so wrong!" he cries. "It's honest, but it's optimistic. We're not putting a nice bow on it, but the movie doesn't need one."
On the flight over, he watched How To Lose a Guy, along with Maid in Manhattan, and would like to know how films like that make $100m. Not that he wants to make one himself, though money would be nice, of course. Did the double-bill help him to figure out what the trick is?
"I guess I see what works, because I'd see people laughing," he says, with slight bafflement. "I'd take off my headphones and watch people watching. And people really love it. They love it when they hear songs they've heard a hundred times before that they can sing along with. They love it when the actors lip-sync or sing along, too. And these movies didn't even have those scenes with hairdryers as mics! That would have earned them at least another $20m."
I ask if he thought of getting Zooey and Paul to lip-sync to, say, the Will Oldham track, and he says that he considered doing just that as a joke. "We talked about that, but we knew not enough people would get it. I did do some genre-bending on Undertow, my latest film, but I don't like to be a homage, in-joke kind of guy."
Although it has the same kind of budget, Undertow, now in post-production, has bigger stars in it, such as Dermot Mulroney (About Schmidt), Britain's Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), and Josh Lucas (the baddie in Hulk), as well as Green's usual cast of non-professionals, this time from Georgia where Green and his regular collaborators shot the film, mostly in swamps under gruelling conditions - mosquitoes, storms, truculent pigs, you name it.
Although he's trying to sound upbeat about it all, I get the impression that this is really what has aged him. He regrets that he didn't have the same amount of time to tinker with the script in rehearsal as he did with All the Real Girls, because it took so much time getting things such as Jamie Bell's Southern accent right. And then there were stunts and fight scenes to do, which he's excited about pulling off. "I like to describe it as a movie in which someone gets their throat slit and then keeps talking as the blood comes trickling out. That kind of film."
Given that Green's dreamy, painterly Southern-inflected style is so often compared to that of Terrence Malick, director of Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, there's a neat circularity to the fact that Malick had the original story idea of Undertow, and was the film's producer. "Three years ago, he came to me and said that he had this idea for a story," Green explains. "So me and this other writer, a friend of his, got together and wrote it."
What's the famously press-shy Malick like to work with? "He's very protective of his personal life, which you totally respect, but then he goes to the bars after the shoot like anyone else. He's totally open to new ideas, and totally giving of his ideas and supportive of what we were trying to create."
Malick will have seen Green's first cut by now, which is still "a little fat" at just over two hours. When that's done and dusted, Green will start pre-production on the long-delayed, much tussled-over adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's classic comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, working from a script co-written by Steven Soderbergh. Green is still having trouble casting the movie. "The only ones that we have cast so far are Mos Def, Olympia Dukakis and Lily Tomlin," he explains, not forgetting Drew Barrymore, whose production company Flower Films is co-producing the movie with Warner Bros. "Other than that there are a lot of possibilities. I haven't cast the lead role, Ignatius, yet. I've got my battles, between the people who want one thing and I have to convince them to want another thing, and between an actor who wants one thing and I have to convince him to want something else.
"I'm not a big reader, but it's a project I've been obsessed with since high school," he expands. "There have been a bunch of legal hassles with Toole's mother after his suicide, and estate issues, and the rights were at Paramount for a while. Originally, it was going to be with John Belushi and Ruth Gordon, and Harold Ramis was going to direct it, and when Belushi died it fell apart. That's how long it has been around as a project."
Then, after that, who knows. Green is "bummed" that he's out of the running now to direct that cartoon-to-film adaptation of Fat Albert, the all-African-American 1970s Saturday morning TV series. He has been tinkering with a script for a film called Precious Few, about demolition derbies, the car-crash-tastic outdoors events that are huge in the South. If it ever gets made, he'll cast Paul Schneider as a gay mechanic named Tess. "I just can't figure out how to fix that last act," he says. "Right now, it has too much stuff in it about white slavery. It goes a bit too far out. I need to reel it in. Someone will beat me to it, though," he says, sadly. "I always wanted to be a writer. Actually, I think I still want to be a writer - directing's hard. Writing's great because I can go someplace and write about whatever I want and not get bitten by mosquitoes."
In the meantime, the young writer-director is taking a month off in December. What's he going to do with himself? The reply is quickly shot back, as if it's all he has been thinking about for weeks: "Take a nap, a dump, and check my e-mail."
'All the Real Girls' is released 1 August