Writer-director David Gordon Green has crafted a quiet miracle in his feature-film debut, George Washington. Using a cast of non-professional actors and a crew of classmates from the North Carolina School of the Arts, Green tells the story of George, an African-American boy who must wear a helmet because his fontanel (the soft spot on a baby’s head) did not close. He and his friends–black and white children and laborers–haunt the rusted industrial core of Winston-Salem. The film floats through a series of conversations as real as the issues the children must face when a tragedy befalls them.
After high school in Texas, Green attended the University of Texas at Austin where, he says, “It was too competitive for me because you needed straight As to get in the good classes–which wasn’t going to happen with me taking biology.” So Green matriculated to the School of the Arts, where he met Tim Orr, director of photography on George Washington. For his work on the film, Orr has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award (the Academy Awards for independent films) in the category of best cinematography, along with Green, who has been nominated for best first screenplay. The film’s other nominations include: the entire cast as an ensemble for best debut performance, and the film for best picture, against such heavy hitters as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Requiem for a Dream. The awards will be broadcast March 24 on the Independent Film Channel, and rebroadcast on Bravo.
The Independent: I read that you headed out to Los Angeles after graduation to try to learn as much as you could about the film business?
Yeah, and I did learn a lot. I learned that I didn’t want to live in L.A. As far as the industry is concerned, it was vital for me to see how movies are put together and packaged, and to see the cynical nature of it all. But as an environment to live in–there are just so many desperate people looking for their big break. I’d rather go places where people aren’t in the film business and are content with their life and who they are.
One of the strengths of George Washington is the handling of race, or rather the lack of dramatic attention paid to it, an approach that rarely exists in American movies.
[Laughs]. It’s a reflection of my childhood, before politics and hostilities. Everybody gets their influential ideas about how they should behave and what they should believe in from their neighborhood. I went to a school and grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of different cultures and races. When you’re 7-years-old, you’re just friends with the cool kid and you want to beat up the nerd. That’s just the system. When I started waking up and being less naïve about things, that’s when I started losing a lot of friends, and it just wasn’t a very good day for me. So this movie is a little meditation on how things used to be. It was this little utopian environment where we were in a lower income neighborhood, but the overall atmosphere was so much more at peace.
What kind of films are you most attracted to?
American films in the ’70s seemed to have an organic quality where they took chances in style and content, and actors took on challenging roles. Films were more complex and one step away from the obvious. You find something new in those films every time–not an obvious emotion, or it’s not as cut and dry. I can watch something like Deliverance 600 times and feel a different way about it each time I watch it. In the ’70s, you had all these young guys making Jaws and The Godfather and The Conversation and American Graffiti. It’s exciting because you never know what’s going to happen next. Then these guys evolve into making Apocalypse Now, and now, unfortunately, they’re doing Jack or The Rainmaker. It’s just a matter of when the ’80s came around and Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop came out, the hit soundtracks, and Jerry Bruckheimer took over the wheel. He’s a smart guy who’s made a pretty penny and I respect that, but he’s sort of devastated an entire industry.
George Washington seems to be the antithesis of the prevailing movie style of overt audience manipulation.
I like to leave the guesswork to the audience. Take Happiness, for example. I was sitting there thinking, “Am I supposed to be laughing? Because some of this is really funny, as horrible as it is.” I love moments where you are just confused and the drama plays like comedy or vice versa and you are left to your own devices to try to figure out how you feel. It’s important for me to think that the filmmaker has confidence in me as an audience member. It’s important to have certain story beats so the audience can get into a groove and things aren’t just thrown at you for shock value.
Do you believe you can make films with that sort of idealism when they have to recoup their $50 million investment?
I like to think that it’s possible; it just isn’t done very often. Two summers ago there were some movies that did it, like Three Kings. You get a star that says, “I keep playing the same guy over and over. Let’s use my name value to get something stranger made.” I think it is possible. It’s just a matter of getting the right smart, talented people who are willing to take chances behind you. I hate to think I’ll just be making $2 million weirdo movies the rest of my life. Take something like Magnolia, where Paul Thomas Anderson got Tom Cruise. Then you pepper it with your friends and little quirky actors who are never going to get the big break and you make a complex ensemble movie. That’s brilliant to me.
But Paul Thomas Anderson’s next picture is an Adam Sandler comedy.
I can’t wait to see it! It’s Adam Sandler and Emily Watson–can you believe that? It’s going to be nuts.
With the budget you had, how were you able to shoot George Washington in 35mm Cinemascope?
Joe Dutton Camera in Wilmington helped us make the impossible possible. We really were making a no-budget independent film, but we didn’t want the crummy, grainy, poorly lit pieces of crap that we see all the time that look like no-budget independent films. We wanted this to look like Dr. Zhivago, and the big epics we always wanted to make. We told them what we were trying to do. They got behind it and made it affordable, so we got the look we wanted. Everybody worked for free on the shoot and donated all their time. We also rented a couple of houses and everybody lived together and we had a big slumber party for 19 days.
You were just out at the Sundance screenwriter’s lab, weren’t you?
I was out there with a script I’d written that I’m trying to get going. It was surprisingly helpful. You read about something like that and you figure it can’t hurt, and it’s up in the mountains. But actually I got a lot of insight and pointers, which is a good thing for a 25-year-old writer who isn’t cocky about his work and eager to have other people’s opinion.
What about other projects?
Right now we’re keeping our fingers crossed about this science-fiction script a friend of mine wrote that blew my mind. It’s more along the lines of Tarkovsky than George Lucas. We’ve dedicated the last couple of months to try and finance this thing. It would be a pretty strange effort, but I’m excited about it. The film is an atmospheric, philosophical meditation on life, existence and mediocrity.