Joe: David Gordon Green on Nicolas Cage, Suspiria and Little House on the Prairie

At a press conference for his new movie Joe, Nicolas Cage said that director David Gordon Green wrote him a letter asking him to be in the movie. We interviewed Cage and Green at the Toronto International Film Festival, but now that Joe is opening Friday, I had the chance to speak with Green by himself a little bit longer. The film, based on Larry Brown’s book, stars Cage as the title character, the head of a tree clearing crew who develops a bond with his young worker, Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary’s abusive father Wade is played by Gary Poulter, a nonactor Green discovered who passed away after the film was complete. We delved further into Joe with Green and also got some updates on his Little House on the Prairie and Suspiria remake projects, and his next movie Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino.


CraveOnline: What was in the letter you wrote to Nic?

David Gordon Green: Basically, I’d heard he hadn’t worked in over a year and I assumed there was something bubbling in his brain about that and I felt like I had the key in this project. I’m a huge Nicolas Cage fan. I love an actor that is a credible comedic actor and then he makes a turn and wins an Oscar for a dramatic performance and then fights his way into Bruckheimer’s world and makes The Rock. I just love an actor that’s got that kind of appetite and takes those kind of risks and has that diversity to his career. So I wrote him my appreciation of that and said, “By the way, will you read my script?”


Did you write a letter to Tye Sheridan too?

No, he wrote a letter to me.


Did he really?

He did and I’d been in the editing room on Mud. Jeff Nichols ( is a good friend of mine. They were editing that in Austin where I live so I’d seen a few cuts in the rough cut stage of that movie. Jeff put it in Tye’s ear about this project as it started to come together, told him about the movie and I got a nice e-mail from him. Called him in. He lives in East Texas and we brought him into Austin, talked about the role and he did a killer audition.

As I had with a lot of the other cast of the film, I was exploring nonactors for that role. I was exploring nontraditional actors and auditioning kids at boys homes and group homes and juvenile detention centers, looking for the real Gary. Getting to know the technical requirements of the role started to make me doubt that I should do that, the more I was getting to know some of these kids. I thought it was very valuable research getting to know the look in the eye of a young man that’s going through the situation that is the domestic life that Gary Jones goes through. I talked to a lot of them and it was heartbreaking. But, I knew I was going to have to get emotionally really connected to a character and at the same time have a technical perspective to be able to achieve the structural narrative requirements of this movie, to make it what I wanted it to be.

When I met Tye, he had a beautiful understanding of the voice of these kids, but he also had some film experience. He also had not developed any bad habits. He also had an energy to take this type of research and join me on that adventure rather than me going alone to learn about the authenticity of some of these emotional circumstances.


What did he say in his e-mail to you?

He said, “I love the script and I would love to meet with you about it, and I’m the right guy for the job.”


I appreciate Nic wanting to get back into more grounded territory, but did you want some of the crazy Nic Cage also?

This movie, the character was about restraint. That was the one intention of every scene. I want you to feel these things internally and suppress them, keep suppressing and let’s not let the water boil, but let’s let it get hot. So the beauty of Nic in a lot of ways is the perception that an audience brings. Everyone has a different favorite Nicolas Cage movie or least favorite Nicolas Cage movie, people that appreciate the crazy and some appreciate the calm. Here, I wanted to utilize everything. I wanted to have all those unpredictable qualities and yet at the same time make something that he’s never made before so we could diminish people’s expectations in a way and not bring those perceptions to the table but utilize all the baggage.


He still freaks out a little with the dog.

Oh yeah, and it’s amazing, his process is really beautiful. We’d be lighting a scene and then you’d hear him getting into character. He’d just start talking out loud. He’s sitting at the bar one day and we’re going to shoot the bar scene where Willie-Russell comes in and he’s going to go to a difficult place where he is going to let a little bit of the gas out. He’s going to hit the pedal a little bit.

I see him, he’s just going through something in his head and we’re backing off and we’re getting everything set up technically. I just hear him talking to himself. That day in the headlines of the newspaper there was a story about African painted dogs. A kid had fallen into a pit at the zoo and been eaten by these dogs. I saw that’s his process. He’s talking about this. Then I just had everybody kind of hustle quietly and we just started rolling. What you see in the movie is him talking and telling a story to the woman behind the bar. He’s just telling her the story of the headline news of that day in reality, but it’s Nic getting into character. It really started to blur the lines between where Nic ends and Joe begins.


Is an interesting aspect of Joe and Gary’s relationship that Joe’s not really mentoring Gary? He’s just treating Gary like an adult.

Yeah, there’s no ageism in this movie. The kid works hard and he likes him. I think he sees himself in the kid. Early in the movie we kind of structure it almost like a flashback. The way we introduce Gary is almost like it could be Joe when he was a kid. You never connect the two. He’s looking at the car window in the rain. He might as well be looking at himself when he was 16 years old. There are all these moments of reflection where we cut to Gary so I really wanted to play with that a little bit and have those seeds of connection in nontraditional ways.


We talked about your admiration for people like the tree clearers in Joe and the backhoe drivers in Toronto too. It’s one thing to admire those workers. How did you make tree clearing cinematic?

Just get a good DP. Tim Orr shooting at the right time of day in the right location is pure cinema.


Did he shoot Prince Avalanche for you too?



So he saw something in the tree clearing and the road painting.

And in our new movie, locksmithing.


Are you still working on a Little House on the Prairie movie?



What stage is that in?

We are just getting the script in shape. Hopefully we’ll turn that into something. It’s a pretty exciting piece of property.


Looking at the original book or any of the TV series?

Using the novels, the book series as our reference.


I don’t know how much they differed anyway.

Quite a bit. But they’re great stories, just really great American pioneer stories.


Are you still working on Suspiria?

No, I put that on the shelf for a while. The horror genre’s playing its game right now with its found footage interests. We’ll wait until they want to put back on the Polanski.


Is that why Suspiria won’t work now, because everyone’s doing found footage?

It’s a relatively expensive movie to make, my particular version of it. You can turn a camera on it and do any number of versions of it but mine is not cheap.


You work in the low budget realm. Why would Suspiria the one you want to spend money on?

Well, every movie’s different. That’s just a movie that requires big set builds and big construction and international locations, a lot of things. A lot of production and logistics just cinematically to achieve what I want. I wanted to do basically an opera version of it, not a low-fi nitty gritty version of it. You can make a modest budgeted Joe, shooting in locations that are forests and costumes you get at the thrift store. By the time you make something that has a sense of elegance and epic scope to it, you have to construct most of that, building multiples of wardrobe and multiples of locations and some perspective. There’s a massive construction endeavor in the version of Suspiria that I’d imagined.


Was it going to be a very faithful remake of the Argento film?



Wouldn’t a period piece like Little House also be pricey?

It doesn’t need to be but there are certainly elements of epic scope. I’m looking at it as more of a John Ford movie, kind of in the great western genre. But at the same time, it’s a little house on a prairie. It’s not like I’m making a big special effects extravaganza or something like that.


In Manglehorn, does Pacino like to improvise too?

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We played a lot. I need to call him. He likes to play. We just finished production.


What’s the final cut of that movie coming in at?

The running time? 91 minutes. I love an efficient length of a movie.


But Joe is almost two hours.

Yeah, I know. I think a lot of it is my attachment to the source material whereas Manglehorn was an original idea that I got to play with. I find myself drawn to repeat viewings on movies that are around an hour and a half. I like that length.


Is Joe a particularly male story?

I mean, he’s a male and I think to be honest, I think it does deal with the issues of masculinity and manhood, the mythology of a man in his environment. I look at it as a father/son story but I think it’s relatable in a way and emotional enough where I don’t think it distances a female viewer from the experience.


Not a female viewer, but it deals with things that are male as opposed to what women in that community might be going through.

Right, but it would be interesting. That’s one of the reasons I’m really drawn to Little House on the Prairie is that I think finding the efforts and struggles of survival and hardship through a female perspective is very fascinating. It came through the exploration of Joe where I got excited about this and acquired the rights.


When did you first read the book Little House on the Prairie?

When I was 11.


When did you read Joe?

When I was 21.


So this has been on your mind for a while too?



What are some great scenes from Larry Brown’s book that either you didn’t shoot or didn’t make the final cut?

There’s an enormous amount about the Wade character, Gary Jones’ father, an enormous amount. Some of it we shot and some of it we didn’t, but when you’re trying to streamline the narrative and make the movie centered around Joe, you lose some of that. At the same time, there’s also some great stuff we filmed with Joe and his ex-wife. It just seemed like we were letting everybody know so much about Joe, I was really tempted to hold back. She did a great performance in their scenes together but the only thing that remains is her looking at him sitting in a jeep and he rolls down the window halfway and gives her a look, and says everything you need to know about those two people. So it was fun having those opportunities of okay, that scene works but it lets us know a little bit more than we need to know right now. Let’s let the movie breathe and unfold.


When you work with nonactors, are basic things like getting them to memorize lines more difficult?

Oh, I never try to get anybody to memorize lines. I’m not worried about that. As long as it sounds right. As long as they’re saying the right thing to some degree.


But even that, do nonactors ever have trouble remembering the gist?

I don’t remember ever having that problem. I’m very confident in my casting. I try to cast people that I really believe in their voice and what they bring to the table that’s going to be at least as valuable as anything that me or a screenwriter bring to the table. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.