Advance word on Joe, the new film from director David Gordon Green, has been that it’s a return to form for both the director and its star, Nicolas Cage.

It tells the story of an ex-con (Cage) who befriends a 15-year-old (Tye Sheridan) who’s on the brink of following his father into a brutal life of alcoholism and violence.

Having now seen it, we can attest that it’s a powerful story and a gorgeous piece of filmmaking from Green, returning to his stomping grounds of rural Southern drama after detouring into broader mainstream comedies (Pineapple Express, The Sitter). And for Cage, it’s the kind of hard-hitting performance that characterized his early career.

Screenwriter Gary Hawkins adapted the script from a novel by celebrated Southern writer Larry Brown, who died in 2004. Hawkinsa North Carolina native and Duke professor who was also Green’s directing teacher at the North Carolina School of the Artsdirected 2002 documentary The Rough South of Larry Brown, and the screenplay for Joe grew out of that project.

Joe involves several other usual suspects from North Carolina. Producer Lisa Muskat has worked with both Green and fellow N.C. filmmakers Craig Zobel (Compliance) and Ramin Bahrani (At Any Price). Danny McBride and Jody Hill (HBO’s Eastbound & Down) are executive producers.

With Joe releasing locally this Friday, we spoke with Hawkins about its origins and development. (Be warned, fairly significant spoilers follow.)

The INDY: You adapted Larry Brown’s novel after working with him on the Rough South documentary. How did you end up reuniting with your former student, David Gordon Green?

Gary Hawkins: I finished the adaptation in ’04 or ’05. I sent it around and everyone liked it, but no one did anything with it. Then, a couple years ago, David asked me if I had anything for his new production company, Rough House Pictureswhich is pretty cool, that he would call up his old directing instructor. I sent him Joe with the idea that I would direct. What he said was, “If it’s something you’re going to regret letting go of, then don’t let go of it. But if you are willing to let go of it, I will make you a hell of a movie.” So I let go of it.

How did Nic Cage get involved?

David talked it up at CAA [Creative Artists Agency], and the story is that Nicolas Cage’s agent was down the hall. He heard about it and read the script really fast. He called Cage, who read it and fell in love with it. Nic prepped hard for the role. He came with everything he could bring.

Had you ever attempted to adapt a novel before?

Yeah, I’ve done three or four. The first thing is that it helps that I actually make films. If you don’t know where it’s going to end up, you don’t know how to get there.

Joe is a 344-page novel. So generally, a 115-page screenplay equals about 40 pages of prose. That means you have to remove 300 pages from the novel. That’s the second thing you have to get straight in your headthere’s a lot of great stuff that just isn’t going to make it.

The other thing to do is talk about it. That’s what I did with Jeff Nichols. [Nichols, another School of the Arts alum, directed 2012’s Mud, with Matthew McConaughey.] I helped him with Mud and he helped me with Joe. There’s a lot of Joe in Mud, in regard to the male mentor.

Do you find that having dialogue with another writer helps in the creative process?

It’s always good to have someone to talk to, especially someone so well-read. The talk almost always comes down to motivationwhy would someone do that? There’s a daisy chain of cause and effect.

At some point along the way, I figured out that Joe was a samurai, searching for the right death. Then I was able to work backwards through cause and effect. What’s the right death? How did this and that lead to it? Once you have your destination, you realize what you can throw out and what you have to keep in.

When the movie begins, Joe is lost. And I’m here to tell you that a lot of guys my age are lost. America todayit’s just not set up for us. You’ve got the money you’ve made, your family has grown and your career is kind of wrapping up. Joe’s just driving around, drinking. And when he sees the boy, he finally has some purpose.

So much of the violence and tragedy in Joe is fueled by booze, which is also the refuge of the characters. It reminds me of the Simpsons line where Homer calls alcohol “the cause ofand solution toall of life’s problems.”

Wow, that’s great. That’s like Dostoyevsky.

My father was an alcoholic, and so was Larry Brown’s. Larry had a drinking problem. I don’tI didn’t inherit that. But it makes me nervous. If somebody starts drinking around me, part of me gets very watchful. You can drink, but don’t get too out of control or I’m going to check you. Larry and I both checked our fathers at some point. You step in and say, “That’s enough of this; we’re not doing this anymore.”

The dialogue in the film is so lean and powerful. Did the performers stick to the script?

Well, here’s my analogy on that: Larry Brown wrote a symphony, I turned it into a song, and Cage and Green jumped in with the jazz improv. [Laughs]

This article appeared in print with the headline “Rural rhapsody.”