David Gordon Green has directed intimate, natural dramas (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls”) and wild comedies (“Pineapple Express,” “Eastbound and Down”). His new film, “Manglehorn,” is a gentle story with magical realism elements, starring Al Pacino as the title character, a lonely small-town locksmith who is still mourning a long-lost love. Holly Hunter plays a sympathetic bank teller and Chris Messina is his estranged son. I spoke to Green about
It seems to me that in all of your movies I have seen, the characters are most themselves and freest when they are outdoors.
Yeah that would be me in a nutshell. It’s nice to start with a character you know in a suit. For me it’s always interesting to take a step back and see where they are in their environment and open the cameras a little bit.
What is the significant of Manglehorn’s profession?
Actually, the movie was originally going to be a children’s movie and I kind of started with the idea of thinking of him as some sort of fairytale character. Make him like a toy maker a wood cutter. But then I was getting the locks changed on my house and there was this locksmith shop about two blocks away that was kind of an amazing wonderful place. Watching them at work, I thought, ‘Why don’t we just shoot it here and have it take place here?’ Now the story that we’re going to sell is about a kind of unlikely character to follow with an old school profession, an old school craftsman and then the location is really spoke to me, so I thought we should get out there to do a little training on the keys and it worked out really nicely for us.
Chris Messina is always excellent and I really liked his performance in this film.
Well, I created it for him. He and Al had worked together years before and knew each other and there was a time when there was a little friction between them. And so when Chris told me the story and I thought he would be perfect for the son. I could use that. So they hadn’t seen each other in years when we were filming the dining room scene. I made sure that we hadn’t rehearsed. I just wanted them to jump right in and use this strange dynamic they had in their personal life. Since then they have become great friends again. It was just nice to have a sense of history between two really talented actors that I could use as a another layer within the context of the film.
Three of your actors are also directors: Messina, Pacino, and Harmony Korine. What was that like?
It couldn’t be a more pleasurable, creative, and inspiring environment on set. Usually, I like to work fast and shoot quick and I don’t like a lot of standing around but on this movie between lighting sets and things like that it was just amazing to just be able to sit around with those guys and hear the stories of their careers and professional lives. When they had ideas, they would say that we could do the movie this way and challenge each other to not make it fall into a formula. There’s nothing standard about the way we shot the movie and edited the movie. We tried to be organic to its own strange, organic beast.
What do the costumes tell us about the characters?
Jill Newell is the costume designer that I use on most of my films. She had the great idea of basically Al’s character as a black and white character in a very colorful world. Holly Hunter or even some of the production design were in turquoise and pastels and pinks and then we have Al in heavy fabrics, outfits of brown and grey, black and white. Try to keep him as monochromatic as possible. And then, on occasion, bring out the purple pants, but in couple scenes of kind of emotional significance where he’ll be wearing purple and I thought that was really cool way to design these characters.
Holly Hunter is lovely in the film, warm and vulnerable.
I always loved Holly as an actress. I guess she first got on my radar with “Raising Arizona.” She always brightens up a movie. She has that voice and that smile. Actually, it’s not really her smile it’s the way she tries to hide her smile I find really endearing. I sat down and talked to her about the character and she got insane ideas. I mean I loved that she was adding these details. Like she brought these pictures of her holding her pets when she was pregnant and we ended up putting them in our movie. Al goes into her bathroom when he is visiting her in the home and he goes into the bathroom and he picks up these pictures and I just thought, “What an interesting choice that an actress would have that there was this point in this lonely character’s life when she was pregnant.” We don’t hear about her children or any other relationship and she went on a date with this guy and I was like, “So Holly, what does this mean?” And she’s like, “It means everything.” I just thought that there’s strange sadness and beauty in those type of ideas. And so if I could find somebody that brings that animated physicality and positivity with the expression on her face I know creatively she is going to be very challenging, bringing a layered, emotional depth. It was a great opportunity to work with one of my favourites.
Both of those characters really had experiences loss and a sense of isolation both of them really bonded with their pets and yet they reacted in very different ways.
Pets are the elements of our life that don’t hold a grudge. They are forgiving. They’re there at the door for us, if we had a good day or a bad day. They’re not bringing us down. They’re there to lift us up and they don’t need much from us. I think Manglehorn, whether it’s his granddaughter or his cat, they are these creatures of the world that challenge him. They don’t get a vote but at the same time create who we are and how we look at our day.
Tell me about Manglehorn.
I’m sure that you know people who you love more than anyone and sometimes they’re the ones that are most challenging but are also the most rewarding. And I have a couple of friends that I have to justify that if I was going to introduce them to other circles of friends I would be like, “Just so you know guys, he tells it like he sees it. Don’t actually listen to him. He comes across as harsh; there is no polite laughter at your jokes.” But when you get to know them you find very rich, rewarding emotion inside them and so I think that’s what Manglehorn is. He’s the guy that lives down the street that weirdo man that ignores you. But there is an incredible heart. If you’re willing to do the work, you’re going to find something within him that you can’t find in everyday love.
Letting Al loose was a amazing. He is a great technician so he shows up to set in character and if the character is going to have a difficult day, he shows up and he’s feeling the rock in his shoes you know as he’s coming in the set. I think that is an amazing attribute. You’re connecting to the reality of the person rather than someone who just snaps into character. And we rehearsed a lot and worked out the script for months beforehand, every nuance of it. So there is always a sense of control but after three takes we always say, “Throw the script away and do whatever you want. As long as it feels right.” We get a lot pretty inspiring elements that you can bring to the table when it wasn’t still engineered, when it was just left to the raw emotional instinct.
Like that story he tells. That’s a real story. It came from the writer and we wrote it down and Al said, “I want to read that story in the morning and I don’t want to be worried about the technicality of it because I feel it very closely, so let me just know the storyline.” For me it’s about finding something real, with naturalistic nuances and imperfections.
You included a very graphic scene of veterinary surgery.
I just wanted to show how difficult these types of operations are. They are very gruesome illustrations of love. Like intercutting the very awkward, hard to watch connection between two people flirting over a bank teller counter. At the same time we’re showing veteran’s commitment to the life and wellbeing of an animal. Both of which are hard to watch for very different reasons. And the surgery wasn’t even in the script. It was our technical consultant veterinarian, Dr. McLeod. His warmth and obsession with animals’ wellbeing and health was actually so powerful, it was funny. When he told me about it he just showed me such joy, I saw the love of medicine and the love of science that was exuberant in this guy. There is nothing we can do more powerful than actually hearing the joy and seeing the difficulty that people not in the medical field turn away from or shut our eyes to but know this is a miracle. I think it’s cool to challenge the viewer and challenge myself.