David Gordon Green interview: Hollywood's most unpredictable director on Sandra Bullock and Our Brand is Crisis

First the “new Terence Malick”, then bromantic comedy king - and now  political satirist?

Kaleem Aftab
Sunday 10 January 2016 14:56 GMT
US director David Gordon Green
US director David Gordon Green (AFP/ Getty)

The career of David Gordon Green has left many scratching their heads. He’s impossible to label. He’s the director whose first features, 2000’s George Washington and 2003’s All the Real Girls, were poetic meditations on small-town life which saw the twentysomething hailed as the new Terrence Malick, but who went on to make his name in Hollywood in 2009 with the stoner buddy movie Pineapple Express. His CV now reads as a bewildering mix of festival-primed indies and bromantic comedies.

Now 40, his career has taken another left turn, into political satire, with Our Brand in Crisis, a Sandra Bullock vehicle in which she plays a depressed spin-doctor asked to rescue a presidential campaign in Bolivia that has the International Monetary Fund depicted as the bad guys. It’s a serious topic, told in a comic guise with Bullock as the unlikely heroine.

Green knows all about political consultants. He has even been on the receiving end of their ire: in 2012, Republican spin-doctor Karl Rove slammed Green for making an advert starring one of the most famous Republicans on the planet, Clint Eastwood.

This was Green’s controversial Superbowl spot for Chrysler, which featured Eastwood proclaiming that it was “Half-time in America” over images of the car industry rebounding from the recession. Rove slammed it as a covert endorsement of the Obama administration and its car industry bailout while, to show that you can’t win in politics, the left condemned the advert too, when it was revealed that frames were altered to remove pro-union messages from picket signs.

Mention of the advert brings a smirk to the boyish face of the director in a hotel room in Los Angeles. “That was one of the best jobs of all time,” he states. “It’s the only thing that I’ve ever done that 200 million people have seen.”

The idea to use the politically unlikely Eastwood for the advert came late in the day. Gordon Green first went to Al Pacino, who turned it down, but from that meeting came their collaboration on the ill-received 2014 film Manglehorn. Then Eastwood came in for a day and Gordon Green was able to fulfill a childhood dream.

“That was great,” he says of Rove’s criticism, though he was surprised by the wider debate it generated. “I kind of thought that by Clint saying any of that stuff, that would defuse any of the controversy because when Dirty Harry speaks, people think it’s cool.”

His belief that the image of a movie character could overpower the words being said is proof of the cinephile in Green, the director of art house pictures who believes Godard’s maxim that “Cinema is truth, twenty four frames per second”. Yet the whole episode also taught him a lesson that is a central tenet in Our Brand is Crisis: “To me that is the beauty and absurdity of politics, that it’s constantly contradicting itself.”

Our Brand is Crisis was inspired by a 2005 documentary, of the same name, which looked at how American political consultants from the Greenberg, Carville, Shrum consultancy helped Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada get elected in the 2002 Bolivian election by devising a negative campaign rubbishing their opponents.

Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up
Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

George Clooney bought the rights with a view to starring, but by the time Green was charged with directing, the gender of the lead had been flipped for Bullock’s sake. “All they did to make the change was insert a female name,” she says of that process.

Green jumped at the chance to work with Bullock. She lives near him in Austin, Texas, and they have children of the same age; their kids go trick or treating together. He also likes working with star names so as to allow him to fade into the background. “People think ‘oh you got a big movie so you have the pressure on you’, but it’s great because it becomes our show, rather than my show.”

This all fits in with his ethos of seeing films as collaborative processes. “I don’t take a credit above a movie, like you see with a lot of people: ‘this is a film by so-and-so’. I think my name would actually be distracting, it’s confusing to people. I mean if you’re Alfred Hitchcock your name is valuable because if you’re presenting a film, it means you are going to be delivered a certain kind of thing, the same with M Night Shyamalan and David Fincher, [but] with me it’s confusing, my name should be on the end credits with the sound mixer.”

Arrogance and self-importance rile Green. He wants the work to do the talking and he believes that should he become happy with his lot, his work would suffer. Before Our Brand is Crisis, he’d just made three films in a row, Prince Avalanche, Joe, and Manglehorn, low cost but featuring a big name (Paul Rudd, Nicolas Cage and Pacino) that let him just concentrate on working closely with an actor. With its expansive locations and subject matter, he feels that Our Brand is Crisis took him out of his comfort zone – or rather “I think my comfort zone is the un-comfort zone. It’s hanging out with people that call me on my bullshit all the time.”

“There is a lot of arrogance in directors,” he continues. “If you look at some of your favourite directors from the 1970s and ’80s that don’t make great films anymore, and you ask why? Well I think it’s because they get laid too much. Where is that appetite, where is that hunger that really motivates the artistic sensibility? Once you’re fed, you are this cocky asshole, eating donuts, walking around a room and scratching your nuts.”

Green tells a story of how, when Pineapple Express opened, the midnight screenings on the first night made more than $2m, which was twice as much money as his first four films made combined. “Everyone was calling me and congratulating me, and I found that depressing. I find a way in those moments of success to just be hard on myself. That’s probably in my nature and why I use interviews as therapy.” Yet he’s not immune to box-office failure either. “I’ve always got anxiety. I always wanted my movies to do well, and I don’t traditionally make movies that do well, it’s always that struggle.”

It’s being constantly employed that makes Green happy: it’s probably why he’s so prolific. Recently, he directed the pilot and two episodes of the new Amazon Prime show Red Oaks, starring Craig Roberts as a tennis instructor in a Jewish country club. The series is co-produced by Steven Soderbergh, a director whose output rivals that of Green and in whom he sees a kindred spirit.

“It’s kind of funny because we [both] have this schizophrenic career and obsessions with creating things, because we don’t want to be the guys who burn out or just tell the same story over and over. There’s a lot of those guys who just follow their own formula, I guess that they get paid well, but anyone working gets paid well unless you need a fancy car or some shit.”

He’s also shot a season of the forthcoming HBO comedy Vice Principals, which he says is “Danny McBride and Walton Goggins and it’s ape-shit crazy in the best possible way”, and he is already working on his next film, which promises to be his most high profile yet.

He’s adapting Stronger, Boston marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman’s account of life before and after the tragedy, in which he lost both his legs. It will star Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman, and Green is excited about the challenges of telling the story on screen. “We have a great script, a great actor and our job is not to make it sentimental and cheesy. You have to be smart, because there are a million different perspectives on that incident. I mean some assholes celebrated it. You are not going to make a movie that pleases everyone.”

‘Our Brand is Crisis’ is released on 22 Jan

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in