Film: Angel of Authenticity

David Gordon Green discusses Snow Angels and the brilliance of Sam Rockwell

Mar 26, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Chris Reardon/Crossroads Films

Michael Angarano (left) and Olivia Thirlby star as burgeoning lovers in David Gordon Green's Snow Angels.

David Gordon Green's acclaimed but little-seen films are rife with authentic characters and real emotions. His debut, George Washington (2000), employed a cast of non-actors to tell the simple, loosely structured story of young folk in the ramshackle industrial environs of Winston Salem, N.C. It immediately signaled the arrival of a compelling new voice, a filmmaker who favored poetic minimalism over typical narrative-driven story lines and techniques.

His follow-up, All the Real Girls (2003), centered on a small-town couple (affectingly played by Paul Schneider and the luminous Zooey Deschanel) dealing with the soul-crushing travails of young love. It remains one of most accurate and moving portrayals of its kind in recent cinema. All the Real Girls also cemented Green's interest in non-traditional, emotionally driven stories and a lo-fi aesthetical approach marked by long, organically rendered camera setups and moody atmospherics.

Green's third film, Undertow (2004), an eccentric Southern Gothic thriller that didn't quite work as well as its predecessors, came and went quickly, evaporating from theaters after just a week despite the presence of a bigger-named cast and producer Terrence Malick, one of Green's filmmaking idols.

After a few years of nurturing other filmmakers' projects, Green is back with Snow Angels, an adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's melodramatic novel about a cross-section of small-town New England inhabitants, including a troubled married couple played by Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale and their much younger counterparts played by Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby.

CityBeat recently spoke to Green, whose energy and enthusiasm for his chosen art form was palpable through the phone line.

CityBeat: For a filmmaker with such a distinctive voice and style, why were you interested in adapting someone else's work this time out?

David Gordon Green: There are a number of reasons that it felt safe enough and close enough to what I had done before that I was confident in it.

It felt like enough of a progression and a different direction that it was exciting to me. It was honestly great to go somewhere new where I didn't feel as much possession and ownership of it. I felt I was a foreigner up in Nova Scotia shooting a movie — a place that had a different rhythm and feel to it. So it was cool to explore and expose myself to something new.

CB: Was it odd for you to start with someone else's creation and characters?

DGG: Actually, just this morning I met Stuart O'Nan, the author of the book, and we were talking about the difference between the book and the movie. He's very excited about the movie, which is rare for an author who lets somebody else take that wheel and do things differently. For me the book was just such a valuable resource. I was very specific in order to be honest to the world and the characters. On set Sam Rockwell is more likely to study the book when we were between setups than to have the script. There are lines in the movie that aren't in the script. A book can get into the richness of character and the depth of where they come from and back story and subtext and inner-monologues.

CB: This is a pretty heavy, melodramatic story. Were you conscious of trying to balance that with a healthy dose of humor?

DGG: It was essential. We cast all funny people. That was what gave me the freedom to take it to the places of emotional gravity, because there was a humanity, a sense of humor behind these actors. These are people that could be saying some heavy stuff one moment, and feel kind of unsympathetic, and then you see a sliver of a smile or they say something that is a comic relief but it doesn't feel false. A lot of the comedy comes out of human imperfection, which is something I'm a big fan of — not jokes and setup and payoff type of humor but it's just the things that you say that slip out organically. You know, whatever those genuine moments of nature not being quite as cool and smooth and you're not saying what you wish you'd said. Those moments can be really funny and add a tenderness to lighten up some of the darkness.

CB: Sam Rockwell was attached before you came on board, right?

DGG: When I heard he was involved I was through the roof. Because it immediately let me know that people were intending this movie to have that humanity, that sense of life. It would have a physicality and humor rather than if you cast, you know, acclaimed heavy actor X to come in and walk through the beats and make sure his hair looked good and probably play it as a villainous role. Sam is a guy who brings all the baggage in the world to a guy that you want to love and that you want to care for. You want him to get his life back together.

CB: He's a really expressive, unpredictable actor. Were you concerned about him taking this character too far? Did you have to rein him in at all?

DGG: No, you trust him. I see what you're coming from — there are a lot of actors that you need to rein in and they go over the top and have those moments where you go, "I'll figure it out in the editing room." But with Sam ... I'll give you an example: There's the scene where he's punching the tree. It's a monologue that if miscast it could fill in all the melodrama that you'd need for an episode of One Life to Live. But Sam hit notes of absurdity in it that he improvised. He's trying not to get emotional within the performance, but that's what made it so emotional. When I yelled "cut" I see our very strong, very talented, experienced boom operator shaking. I looked at him and said, "Jerry, what's wrong?' and Jerry says, 'I've been there, man.' It was one of those moments where you realize that a guy could have taken this into some of those mannered, over-the-top directions and Sam kept it so grounded that your very stereotypical-looking-boom-operator-movie-crew guy with his vest on and shaggy hair and beer belly has tears in his eyes.

CB: Are you concerned that as your budgets get larger and the actors' names get bigger that you're going to lose the organic, almost offhand feel of your earlier films?

DGG: I'm not really worried about anything. I just have fun. I surround myself with people who are very loyal in our collaboration. Some people come and go for a movie or two, but there are probably 15 people who worked on my latest movie who worked on my first movie. It's a pretty good thermometer of keeping yourself in check and making sure you're taking ambitious professional steps, but you're also satisfying your artistic and technical desires and needs.

I got into the movie business in the first place because I loved watching popcorn movies through the '80s. I loved sneaking into Tango and Cash or repeatedly going to see Never Cry Wolf. It was such a diverse assortment of movies that I was obsessed with that the only thing I can think of now professionally is to see what the opportunity is and weigh that. There's nothing I don't want to do.

I met the producer of the new G.I. Joe movie the other day. I told him that he's just lucky I'm not two years down the line because I would be making that movie, and we would be out in the pits with Snake Eyes and Lady Jane kickin' some people's ass, and Cobra Commando would be going down. I think he was surprised to hear that because of the movies that he'd been aware of that I made. But generally my enthusiasm is all over the place.

CB: So you're open to the possibility of making a big-budget action movie?

DGG: If I have any hunger or desire in terms of professional goals it would be to open more doors so that I can disappear into strange little neighborhoods around the world and have people trust me with a few bucks and few strange, unknown actors or non-actors to burn some film. But then I could also show up and make Transformers 3 if I needed to.

CB: The young people in your films have this genuine, very real quality about their struggles with love and other relationships. How are you able to capture that? Are you worried that might get tougher as you get older?

DGG: You cast the right people and you give them the space. If there's one anxiety I have it's the fact that as I get older I'm not broke anymore and I'm not heartbroken. It's been a while since I've had a girl break my heart, and it's been a while since I've had a job that I didn't like. So you do kind of wonder when you're writing these things, 'Are you bringing an authenticity to them anymore?' When I want stay connected to things on Earth and elements so grounded and emotional, really where am I coming from? Am I just looking back with sentiment to those moments and those times and those jobs and those feelings?

So I try — and Snow Angels is an absolute example of this — to make sure I get people who can be real in those moments. From Kate (Beckinsale) and her genius insight into motherhood and relationships, or Michael (Angarano) and his awkward coming to terms to the fact that he's actually kind of an adorable guy who girls are liking all the sudden. Or Olivia (Thirlby) who hadn't really been in a movie before and has this self-aware but not self-conscious, very relaxed confidence as an actress and as a human, or Sam who certainly brings expertise of craft beyond anybody's control. You get these people in a room together, and in this particular case there was no question that it was going to be interesting.

CB: What's next for you?

DGG: Traveling around and spreading the word on Snow Angels. It's a movie that I think people are going to identify with and be able to attach themselves to and hopefully take something away from it at the end of the day. And I've got another movie that's on the other side of the planet that's coming out in August called Pineapple Express (a crime comedy starring Seth Rogan), which was me exercising some different attitudes and agendas I have. And then I'll just take the next illogical step. ©

Go to for comprehensive movie times, reviews and listings. Opens 3/7/2008. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.