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David Gordon Green continues to defy expectations

Matthew Odam
Director David Gordon Green poses for photographers during the photo call for the film ‘Prince Avalanche’ at the 63rd edition of the Berlinale, International Film Festival in Berlin, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

David Gordon Green had a dream last year. In it appeared the name of his next movie, “Prince Avalanche.

He didn’t know the story he’d tell. But the Austin-based filmmaker had a title.

A director dreaming up his next movie … it may sound a little precious. But talk with the filmmaker who has made eight feature films in the last dozen years and you quickly lose any sense of that notion. The hard-working multi-hyphenate has no interest in creating a cute backstory with a hook. Green’s mind moves as fast as his mouth. And in January 2012, it was working on a subconscious level.

With the title in place, Green started working backward to arrive at the minimalist film that makes its regional premiere Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre as part of South by Southwest.

Green was watching last year’s Super Bowl with his friends from the Austin band Explosions in the Sky. Then that beautiful and stirring Chrysler two-minute commercial starring Clint Eastwood, “Halftime in America,” aired. Green directed that. The filmmaker told his friends that the soon-to-be-famous commercial came from an intimate shoot with a small crew.

“We were out making this very epic thing very quietly, and it was a really awesome experience,” Green said recently over coffee on the same day he was putting the finishing touches on his next movie, “Joe,” starring Nicolas Cage.

Green wanted to replicate the experience from the commercial shoot on his next movie. He now had a title and a style of filmmaking. When Explosions drummer Chris Hrasky suggested the director shoot in the haunting burnt remains of the state park in Bastrop, Green had a location.

He still needed a story. A friend proposed a recent Icelandic film, “Either Way,” that his buddy had worked on.

“Is it any good?” Green asked him.

“I don’t know, I haven’t seen it,” his friend responded. “But it sounds exactly like what you’re talking about.”

The movie had a containable story that took place in one location and featured only a couple of actors. Sounded perfect. Green tracked the movie down, prepared to remake it before even seeing a frame. He loved it. It was exactly the kind of movie he had envisioned making. And, for the small-world file, “Either Way” had actually won the same prize Green’s feature debut, “George Washington,” won 11 years earlier at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema in Italy.

The only thing left was casting. Green called his friend Paul Rudd, who jumped on board. After flipping through his Rolodex trying to find a good fit for Rudd, Green settled on another friend, Emile Hirsch. He knew the two actors would understand the stripped-down process and not need trailers or any of the fancy trappings that come with big-budget movies. They filmed “Prince Avalanche” in 16 days in Bastrop in May of last year, four months after the dream that inspired the title.

The movie tells the story of two friends working on a road crew during the summer of 1988. Rudd plays Alvin, a type-A guy who takes himself too seriously and bristles at Lance (Hirsch), a fun-loving dimwit with a sex-addled brain who also happens to be the brother of Alvin’s girlfriend.

Over the course of the film, their friendship is strengthened by their isolation. The guys serve as mirrors for each other, and come to find solace in one another, as they question their own needs, desires and fears. The movie shows how easy it is to lie to ourselves and also delivers a touching meditation on the comfort friendship provides. “Prince Avalanche” is absurd, hilarious and strangely moving. The film earned Green the Silver Bear award for best director at the recent Berlin International Film Festival.

Green began his career with 2000’s “George Washington,” a small drama set in North Carolina that won wide critical praise for the director who grew up in the Dallas area. He followed the success of “George Washington” with several artful low-budget dramas (“All the Real Girls,” “Snow Angels” and the Terrence Malick-produced “Undertow”) in quick succession. Those films marked Green as a rising star and earned him comparisons to Malick and Robert Altman.

Then the graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts threw audiences and critics a curveball. Actually, he threw them a series of curveballs: big-budget comedies “Pineapple Express” (2008), “Your Highness” and “The Sitter” (2011). The last two were massive critical flops. Film lovers and many in the press wondered what had happened to their indie darling. Had Green sold out? Where were the touching dramas? What happened to all of that promise? Green laughs about the breathless response.

“I think there are a lot of people who don’t realize how much fun the big movies are,” Green said of his comedies. He also got the chance to work as a director and producer the HBO show “Eastbound and Down,” with his friends Ben Best, Jody Hill and Danny McBride.

When “Prince Avalanche” made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, many rushed to call the film a return to form for the 37-year-old filmmaker.

“It’s a return to making no money,” Green joked. “You become a lot of people’s charity case. You call in a lot of favors, you have your friends work for no money, and you don’t have the luxury of doing a lot of takes.”

Part of the reason he could take the guerrilla approach to the movie was his relocation to the Austin area. Green bought a place in town five years ago but made the city his permanent home about a year-and-half ago. He wanted a good place to raise his twin sons, but he also recognized Austin as a great creative hub. His relationship with Explosions in the Sky dates back to 2003’s “All the Real Girls,” and Green’s longtime friend and collaborator, composer David Wingo, also lives in Austin. Almost all of the guys live within just a few blocks of each other, though Green also has a house in the Hill Country. The director calls the group of friends “a great brotherhood.”

“We all motivate each other to do crazy stuff,” Green said. “It’s kind of fun to have a creative group of people who aren’t gonna let you sit on your ass or get too comfortable. And they’re successful in their own right but also have an amazing appetite. It’s fun having a relationship with people who will push you and give you a pep talk and help you back up when you’re down. We’re all kind of there for each other to build a community.”

Wingo and the guys from Explosions in the Sky visited the set during shooting, gaining inspiration. They’d go back to the studio and cut demos, and Green would edit the footage to his friends’ music. If they had questions or ideas, they’d just pop over to each other’s houses.

“It was like a high school class project in the coolest possible way,” Green said.

The self-proclaimed movie nerd (he had the first membership at the second Blockbuster Video store ever built) says he always likes to have a movie in his pocket that he can just run out and make with little money and the help of his creative friends. It’s an approach inspired in part by Green’s frustration with Hollywood. He has tried for years to remake Italian director Dario Argento’s horror film “Suspiria,” and he’s also run into roadblocks trying to get an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s beloved novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” made.

Trying to classify Green, who has gone from what he calls his “crybaby movies” to vulgar, big-budget comedies in “Your Highness” and back to intimate shoestring storytelling, is a fool’s errand. And the director likes it that way.

“I’m kind of a contrarian in that way,” Green said. “I kinda like (messing) with people’s heads. And if I’m very comfortable with something, then I want to do something else. So I don’t really worry about other people’s expectations. I like crazy (stuff). I want every day that I wake up to be different than the last. I want every day to have unexpected, interesting elements.”

In addition to his wide array of feature films, Green has also directed dozens of commercials. Most recently he shot a Nike ad featuring former Texas Longhorn and current Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant. He’s not embarrassed by the (literally) commercial nature of those projects and says that, not only do they pay the bills, but they also allow him to work with different crews and styles and approach filmmaking from a different direction. He calls the shoots “little adventures.”

Green’s got another feature film project in the works for the fall. He wants to shoot it in Austin, but beyond that he’s staying tight-lipped about the movie. As for what’s next: A Raisin Bran commercial. He hums with a creative energy as he talks about the upcoming shoot — milk cascading from a bottle into a bowl of flaky cereal. He’s not trying to be cute. He genuinely loves the work. All of it.

“I’m not very precious about much of anything other than aggressively, hungrily making things.”

What: ‘Prince Avalanche’ Austin premiere