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A Little Bit Ugly


David Gordon Green
Paul Schneider
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A Little Bit Ugly


David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider look scruffy. Their jeans are faded, their skin pale, their faces are unshaved. They look like who they are: two 20somethingish guys who spend a lot of time watching, making, and thinking about movies. They met at North Carolina School of the Arts, where Green studied directing and Schneider editing. They made a couple of short films, with Schneider acting (Pleasant Grove and A Biography of Barrels). Their first feature was 2001’s George Washington, a gentle, gorgeous, critically acclaimed study of kids in rural North Carolina, dealing with grief, romance, and hope.


For their second film, All the Real Girls, Green and Schneider share script credit. It’s the story of troubled, ordinary young love, with Zooey Deschanel and Schneider as the couple, again living in rural North Carolina, more or less (as Green observes, the exact historical moment and location for the film are never named, as he seeks a kind of “timelessness” in his work). Schneider and Green’s working relationship is completely tangled up in their friendship, at once earnest and relaxed: they seem to share thoughts while speaking, stepping all over each other’s sentences, appreciating and goading each other’s humor, often.



PopMatters:

Nasia [Candace Evanofski, from George Washington] is one of my favorite characters—ever.


(Paul Schneider and David Gordon Green look meaningfully at one another)



Paul Schneider:

She’s one of our favorite people ever. Candace is as amazing off screen as she is on.



David Gordon Green:

I’m going to see her next weekend. She’s living in North Carolina, in Hilton Head, going to school. I’m trying to get her a part in something. All those kids are just doing school right now. I’m hoping to get a couple more tv sales overseas and put them through college.



PM:

It’s hard to find girls who aren’t embarrassing in movies, and both Nasia and Noel [Zooey Deschanel, in All the Real Girls] are complicated characters. What’s your thinking about making such convincing girls?



DGG:

I’ll tell you exactly how it happened: I grew up in a house with three sisters.



PS:

And I grew up in a locker room!



DGG:

Honestly, though: boys, girls, black, white, old, young, Chinese, Hispanic. I just like dealing with people and trying to figure them out. If there’s anything that I can bring to characters, as a writer, it’s to be as genuine as I can to the faults and strengths of their experiences. And that’s not to romanticize them. Most days, I feel like I don’t even exist, I’m just this being, floating around, absorbing how other people exist. If I was ever to write an autobiography, I’d be the boring part, and everything that happens around me, that’s the exciting part.



PS:

Sometimes I think I have this objective point of view on my life. Like, if I fall down the stairs, I think that’s hilarious. It’s like I’m standing back watching myself falling down the stairs, thinking, “That guy fucked up!” Or, extend that to relationship mistakes: I’m laughing at myself, but what I do does have consequences. There’s a way to be able to look at that, and write about it later; it can still be emotional without being sentimental…



DGG:

...And that gives us a foundation, an appreciation for what we’re dealing with. Then the trick to making it good is casting. Casting in 99% of any movie. So you find people who can invest themselves emotionally. Some people—we discovered this a lot in auditions—have to look good and sound smart, to be clear and perfectly pronounced. That’s not as interesting to me as someone who’s willing to get a little bit ugly.



PS:

Another misconception, that we’ve come across mostly in doing press, is this idea people have about improvisation. They think that because these movies look unrehearsed, or off the cuff, or natural, they think that it’s just a couple of buddies turning on the camera and getting these actors together and they riff off each other. That’s totally not the case. Any good actor will tell you that improvisation only comes after a lot of study of the material, so you get in the tone of what you’re doing. Then you might say something that’s not written in the script, but it’s within this tone that you’ve worked hard to establish for yourself, acting. Interestingly enough, people think some scenes are improvised, and those are typically the scenes we spent the most time on—days and weeks.



DGG:

That’s because it’s hard to step on each other’s lines but also listen to each other. You’re trying not to distract yourself. And if you’re going to really listen to each other and be talking at the same time, like you do in normal conversation: it’s hard to do in a movie. Paul and Zooey spent just as much time trying to mumble and stutter and start as anything else, unlike other actors who polish and refine and every word perfect. I remember looking at Paul’s script, where he writes in the margins—“frogs in throat,” “more phlegm here.”



PS:

I’m still learning how I remind myself to do things. So I have fragmented sentences that tell me how I feel when I do certain things. There’s so much room, especially in a story like this, that’s so unremarkable, that’s about love. The plot is unremarkable. It’s stuff we’ve seen a million times in a million different movies, done very poorly and great a few times, none of which I can even remember right now. There’s so much to make it precious and clichéd, to make it actory acting. If you got into a room and turned a camera on somebody and said, “Act natural.” You can’t do it. That’s not to say that we work harder than anyone else, only that we do work as hard as we feel like we should, to get the result we want—which is not the conventional movie.



PM:

You mentioned audiences. Given the very positive response to George Washington, did you feel like you had to do something specific for the second film?



DGG:

We thought, what’s the movie we really want to make? And once we made it, we thought, it would be great to get 18-year-old kids to come to an art house, to expand the audience. Once we had it, we thought about an audience. It wasn’t like we preplanned, though we did talk about the fact that there is a commercial genre within which this film could fall, a movie about people in their early twenties, a love story.



PM:

A Julia Stiles movie.



DGG:

Right. It could be a Julia Stiles movie, and to get a number of people to make it, and get a number of actors to act in it, it would have been that. That could be interesting. Now I want someone to remake it.



PS:

On the other hand, we want to remake Mrs. Doubtfire. That wrenching pain of being separated from your kids!



DGG:

And having to dress up like a girl!



PS:

(laughs) Right, the transgender issues.



PM:

Dancing with your vacuum cleaner.



DGG:

(laughs) Let’s remake What Women Want. I’ll be Helen Hunt.



PS:

(laughs) All joking aside, a lot of those movies are educational. Someone asked us what movie we’d like never to have seen, that should be erased off the face of the earth. My first impulse to think about movies that I hated, and then I thought, no. Those movies really taught me a lot, about what I don’t want to do. The real answer to that question would be those breezy charmers, totally made by committee. The movies I want to see and respect are the ones that feel directed. A movie like Irréversible, there’s a mind behind that movie. Or Barry Lyndon. Or, there’s three great minds behind To Kill a Mockingbird: Pakula, Foote, and Mulligan, even beyond all the actors.


I want to feel this thrust of person. There are good movies like that and there are movies that are tough to get through, like the Tarkovsky movies. They’re amazing, but you don’t flip one on, on a Sunday afternoon when you want to chill before you go to the ball game. I feel like there’s a mind behind our movie—it might be David’s, it might be our collective mind. It takes chances, not in that we say, let’s take action against all these shit movies we see. But it’s putting yourself out there. When I first saw this movie, I thought, it is just wet with emotion.



PM:

That opening scene is stunning.



DGG:

But there’s a conditioning of the audience that’s hard to break through. It’s six minutes long, that shot, and a lot of viewers get bored after three. People think the movie’s supposed to come to you. But we’re more like, “We’re going to wait over here, and if you want to come in, okay.”



PS:

It also depends on what they’re expecting a movie to deliver. Every movie delivers something. We’ve talked about how great it would be if people were able and willing to spend 10 bucks on a movie where you’re getting questions, not answers. The hope is that there’s enough in this movie that will connect with an 18-year-old. It’s what I was going through when I was 18, and I’m not so extraordinary. There’s humor and beautiful visuals.



DGG:

But again, audiences are conditioned to get a setup and a payoff, where the narrative drives the film. We’re letting the characters determine if or if not there will be a narrative, and sometimes we just suspend that and say, “We’re just going to look at something pretty for a second.” Some of it is seemingly irrelevant to the concept.



PM:

Yeah, where did you find that two-legged dog?



DGG:

Exactly.



PS:

Like, people ask, “What happened to Noel and Paul after?” If you’ve illustrated these characters as truthfully as you can, you can’t know what happens. If they do live on their own, we can’t answer that question, because there’s no more movie. Also, maybe they haven’t heard of the bands on the soundtrack, but they will, in two years.



DGG:

You work back in time.



PS:

Yeah, the way that you research bands: this guitarist worked with this bassist and he…



DGG:

...I always thought that it would be a good class structure to start with now, and work backwards, rather than the boring silent films, which I still think are boring, start with something students can relate to.



PS:

Or you could start with something sort of mainstream and then get into the more obscure stuff. Make your own through-lines, whether they be through actors or music, or directors.



DGG:

Now you’re talking. We’ll open up our own school one day.



PS:

No, we would be total dictators: “You want to see that shit!?”



DGG:

What really influenced me in film school were the people who didn’t have their shit together. There are a lot who come prepared; they know how to edit and have a final cut system already and they have effects in mind. I like to see the people who don’t know how movies are put together, and see what comes out of them. They don’t know how shots are supposed to connect or the axis line, so they…



PS:

...They don’t have so much to unlearn.



DGG:

Like now, I feel like I’m trying to be dumber, trying to be more naïve in my process. On this new one, we’re putting constraints on ourselves, however arbitrarily. We aren’t using any equipment that wasn’t made before 1980. There will be no steadicam on this movie.



PS:

I Am Cuba!



DGG:

Right, ropes and pulleys. Filmmaking is a form of learning. There’s so much I learned about sound design on this movie. We went to Toronto to this sound lab, and I was exposed to something that I’m hesitant about, digital media and digital technology, which, on its face, seems boring to me. Now that I have found how it works, the stuff that’s time-saving and cost efficient and rock ‘n’ roll, everything’s different. I watched Spy Kids 2 the other day, which is a great movie, but I feel like I’m watching an Atari game. I kept thinking, “They’re satisfied with that? That’s what they want?”



PM:

And that is raising up a next generation of viewers who will expect something like that when they’re 20.



DGG:

I kept trying to squint so I wouldn’t see all the pixels.



PS:

But, digital or not—because there are digital movies that I really like.



DGG:

Like what?



PS:

Celebration. It’s a great movie. And did you see The Idiots?



DGG:

No.



PS:

Well, obviously the only stuff that I like that’s digital is Dogme, and foreign. And I know that something’s getting lost in the translation, and I don’t want to find it. But digital or not, 8 mm or not, your style has to fit your content. It so happens that that the content of David’s two films fits the anamorphic 35mm format. I really liked that Polaroid stuff in Run Lola Run. David was saying that after George Washington was made, Stuart Dryburgh called him. And Stuart Dryburgh, coincidentally was the first person I recognized as a cinematographer, when I read the credits for The Piano. I thought, “I get that.” Then I studied editing all through college, and that’s what I started to notice. I think Anne Coates rocked Out of Sight.



DGG:

Why are the people we always like older than us?



PM:

Do you think that there’s an expectation of younger filmmakers, that you will hew to a certain style and content?



DGG:

Is it an expectation or is it what young filmmakers want to do? Sure, people grew up on MTV now. But that’s why I value teachers who have an opinion and ask a lot of questions. It can make challenging movies that they’re passionate about exciting and accessible, instead of just throwing Death in Venice at you. You’ve got to fight the conditioning, and you need guidance. I know I’ve slept through 100 movies that I wasn’t ready for.



PS:

Like, Scorsese’s great, he walks you through the movie he loves. Some young guy in school will say he thinks Goodfellas is awesome, and Scorsese will say, “Yeah, but I think Peeping Tom is awesome.”



PM:

Isn’t that the way you understand art, or more broadly, experience—you’re pulling together pieces from your past, making sense of the present in reflections and frames?



PS:

It’s true, there are very few times you’re struck by an artist or an art form that you’ve never encountered before. That’s more to the point about how, hopefully, All the Real Girls is not derivative of other films, but from a lot of stuff, including music we listened to in college. Like, I just went to the Tate Gallery recently, and saw Mark Rothko for the first time, And I thought, “Squares? Black squares. That’s bad ass.” And the Tate thought it was so bad ass that they devoted a room to him, and let him design it. That was totally different. And you can take that as influence in another medium.



DGG:

It’s frustrating when an actor comes to you and talks about this actor or that actor. I’m more inclined to go with, “You know, my uncle used to do this weird shit, and this is how I remember it.” I like to be able to relate to something that actually exists, rather than the monologue from Training Day.



PM:

The Tate Gallery made me wonder, is there a way that, now that the industry, or important critics, have given you the big okay, that you’re expected to do something specific?



DGG:

I am, at this point, trying to do something different, a thriller with a lot of blood in it. And then I’m going to do something funny [Confederacy of Dunces]. Because at this point, it’s dangerous to… I would like to say that I do what I want to do, but I think it’s important career-wise to take new steps. I get to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre everyday, which I think is one of the greatest movies ever made and should be neither discarded nor remade, though it’s being both (laughs). You have to balance, between financial needs, what it takes to get your movie made, and what you want to say. I want the least amount of baggage so I can have the most creative control. It’s good to have, on a piece of paper, the words: “Final cut for you.” That means that I can’t do a lot of fancy stuff. And I can’t have a wicked title sequence. But that’s fine. I’m not interested in that.



PS:

And you prioritize your limitations. For George Washington, there weren’t any producers telling David what to do. But on the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of film either. So, if you didn’t get it in one or two takes, sorry. There wasn’t a lot of rehearsal time.



DGG:

(laughs) And there wasn’t any money to feed people.



PS:

So, on the new movie, we had more freedom in the sense of more film to burn, but there were also more people who made an enormous capital investment. That pressure wasn’t felt outright: we didn’t have producers on the set, pointing fingers. But there was an implied pressure. And comparatively speaking, it’s still not a lot of money.



DGG:

But to us, it’s tremendous!

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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