When director David Gordon Green asked Emile Hirsch to star in “Prince Avalanche,” his new comedy about two road crew members working on a lonely stretch of Texas highway, the actor had an obvious question.
What, he wanted to know, would be the audience for such a quirky film.
“I said, ‘We may not even show it to any one at all, I just want to make this for us, and then we’ll see if we want to distribute it or show it at film festivals,'” Green remembered.
The response was an enthusiastic “sounds cool,” and so began an odyssey of experimentation for Green, the auteur behind Terrence Malick-infused mood pieces like “Undertow” turned dependable purveyor of studio comedies like “Your Highness” and “Pineapple Express.”
In the words of Green, the film, which opens Friday, was produced “for as close to zero dollars as we could get it,” shot over 16 days and cobbled together over five weeks of post-production.
“I usually don’t write a movie in the time it took me to conceive of, produce and complete ‘Prince Avalanche,'” Green told TheWrap.
(Green pictured in sunglasses, at left.)
The quirky indie was made possible after Green underwent a series of firsts — the movie represents his inaugural feature filmed with digital cameras and is the only one of his films to premiere on video-on-demand and iTunes the same day it premieres in theaters. It opens Friday.
Though Green admits he prefers to have audiences see his work on the big screen, he is sanguine about the direction the movie business is headed.
“‘Prince Avalanche’ is the perfect example of a film that if you see it large and on the screen you’ll have a greater appreciation for the cinematic qualities of the movie. But at the same time it’s a quiet, sensitive movie that you can watch while the kids are sleeping at home,” he said. “If I’d made some science-fiction spectacular and somebody is watching it on their phone, I’d be a little bummed out, but what are you going to do? Fight it.”
The low budget and lack of extravagances was made possible, in part, because the actors and crew members eschewed their standard rates in return for a cut of the revenue. It’s a formula that Green hopes to employ on future low-budget ventures.
“It’s great as a model if we can get it to work where you’re actually encouraged to make moves more cost-effectively and less abstractly and absurdly and extravagantly,” Green said. “It’s cool to know that if this movie is well received and lights a few fires at the box office through good word of mouth, then our dolly grip will be smiling at the bank.”
Green said he hopes to continue to make passion projects like “Prince Avalanche” in between studio efforts. He’s even intrigued by the possibility of following the likes of Spike Lee and Zach Braff by turning to crowdfunding sites to raise financing, although he admits he has yet to embrace Kickstarter.
That can be a controversial choice for a director — though Green said he doesn’t understand the criticism that has been leveled against celebrities or well-known directors who use a service that has previously been employed by less established filmmakers.
“I haven’t read the rule book, but it seems like a good idea to me,” Green said. ” I just want a business model that works. If there’s a way to use it that everybody's cool with it, then lets keep doing it, and if somebody’s getting screwed of taken advantage of then we should tell that process to go f— itself.”
Being economical allowed Green and actors Hirsch and Paul Rudd to experiment and change the film on the fly. Green said that "Prince Avalanche" started out as a comedy but took on added resonance as the actors explored their characters, finding hidden layers of heartbreak beneath their banter and bluster.
In one particularly moving sequence, Rudd’s character encounters an elderly woman sifting through the wreckage of her burnt out husk of a home for mementos and old family keepsakes. She points out a living room, reflects on all the happy times she spent there and the fact that the fire has destroyed the physical evidence of those moments spent with her husband and children.
It goes beyond performance, because the actress playing the woman is no professional. Her name is Joyce Payne, and she was a regular person who was cleaning up after her a forest fire destroyed her property.
“She was so special and vulnerable and kind of magical that we integrated her into her movie in a way that I feel is pivotal to the tone of the film,” Green said. “Meeting characters like Joyce really navigated that tone to be so much more sensitive and sincere and it became less about the absurdity and more about the poignancy.”
For Green, Hirsch and Rudd, the result is a beautifully modulated exploration of two struggling men who find themselves on a journey of self-discovery that is alternately funny, touching and at various points surreal. Despite avoiding easy characterization, the low-cost of “Prince Avalanche” is a low-risk adventure for the trio.
“We get to enjoy the opening weekend,” Green said. “It’s a celebration instead of us sitting on the edge of our seats wondering if we’re going to be blacklisted by Hollywood on Monday. We hope that we get good reviews and that people receive the film warmly, but our livelihood doesn’t depend on it.”