Driven by striking performances from Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, “Prince of Avalanche” is an offbeat comedy directed by David Gordon Green about two men painting traffic lines on a desolate country highway that’s been ravaged by wildfire. Against this dramatic setting, beautifully shot by frequent Green collaborator Tim Orr, the men bicker and joke with each other, eventually developing an unlikely friendship. Funny, meditative and at times surreal, “Prince of Avalanche” features a moving score by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, and was loosely adapted from an Icelandic film called “Either Way.”
At the recent press day, Green and Hirsch talked about their collaboration, what attracted Hirsch to the project, finding the right tone for the odd couple dynamic, creating the film’s haunting look and visual design, Lance Legault and Joyce Payne’s unique contributions to the story, training to paint lines and avoiding the dangerous propeller on the paint machine, and celebrated the liberating effect of alcohol.
They also discussed their upcoming projects including Green’s feature films, “Joe” and “Manglehorn,” and finishing the fourth season of his HBO TV series “Eastbound and Down,” and Hirsch’s Navy Seal action thriller, “Lone Survivor,” and his mini-series “Bonnie and Clyde” that will air on the History Channel, A&E and Lifetime. Here’s what they had to say:
Q: This was such an interesting idea for a film. We don’t think about these guys that do this kind of work.
David Gordon Green: Painting stripes on the road, yeah. My dad is friends with a guy that makes the paint. That’s pretty interesting. He was kind of a technical advisor on the movie because we had to come up with a paint that we could actually wash off the roads, just hose it off. It’s harder than you think, especially when you have those little fragments of reflective qualities in it and things like that.
Q: In the Icelandic movie, “Either Way,” were they painting the road?
Green: They were, but they were more manly. They actually did it by hand. They measured it out and then would do it by hand. And these guys were maybe a couple of years more in the future and they just had a machine that would go push them to do it. But yeah, the Icelandic film was a great inspiration, not only in terms of being a great character piece but I liked the meditative quality of their profession. I’ve had jobs in factories, like I’ve worked at a door knob factory and a medical supply factory and a couple of these jobs where by doing something so routine, precise, exact and consistent throughout the day, especially when it’s accompanied by these little sounds and things like that, it gives your head this beautiful place to meditate and opens your mind rather than closes it off.
Q: I can’t even imagine two people having to spend two months together.
Green: But if they were as charming as Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, you’d be delighted.
Q: I would, but actually to work with somebody constantly and there’s no break, there’s no relief, and they’re so entirely different, how did you get that flavor?
Green: I just wanted to create an experience for the audience where there would be enough of a back and forth odd couple dynamic where you could get the real contrast of these characters and how they complement each other in a strange way that starts to evolve through the narrative. I also greatly identify with both of these characters, and I see them as different sides of myself, and I think the audience can find elements of themselves or people that they know and invest themselves in the characters like I did. It was a fun way to develop a film, because typically you’ll see a movie and you either identify with the characters and you relate to the scenarios or you don’t. But, in this opportunity, I get to watch the Icelandic film and I get to relate to the opportunity to see myself in these characters, and then think, okay now, what if I really did embrace them and what if they said what I would say instead of what they said. It was a cool way to get an ownership of it.
Q: This was Lance Legault’s last film. Can you talk about his contributions?
Green: Lance Legault is a character actor that played the old truck driver that came by and gave the boys moonshine. Yes. He passed away shortly after we finished the film. He was an amazing singer. He used to play with Elvis. And he was a great character actor that popped up from time to time. I’d met him when I was doing a Dodge commercial out in Tehachapi, California in the desert, and we were racing all these cars through this small town, and he was a background actor in it. I’d just hear this booming voice and see this guy out of the corner of my eye, and he’d come down from Bakersfield just to hang out and be a background actor. I started talking to him, and this was right when I was conceiving of putting this movie together and thought it’d be a great role for a guy like that to kind of stretch out and dust himself off and have some fun with us. It was a real privilege to be able to work with a guy that had a mind that worked as his did, and contrast these characters even further, and put the legitimate fear in Emile’s eyes in some of these scenes, even though he’s dragging an oxygen tank up a hill.
Q: Emile, how was it working with Lance?
Emile Hirsch: Lance was just fantastic. He just had such a spirit and a presence to him. There was a real brashness to him in a good way though. He wasn’t afraid to say exactly what he was thinking at all times. Sometimes it would be wildly crazy. I almost couldn’t believe he would even say it, even things in front of his wife sometimes. Like stories he would relate about just being a total badass musician around Elvis in Vegas in the 60’s and stuff. We were like oh my gosh, did he just tell this story in front of his wife? But he had just been around that long, and he and his wife had such a comfortable relationship. She knew what a beast he was.
Green: (laughs) She loved what a beast he was.
Hirsch: She loved what a beast he was. Yeah. She had a smile on her face.
Q: Emile, what attracted you to this project and made you want to do the film?
Hirsch: Well, first and foremost, the attraction was just a chance to get to work with David. We almost made a film together eight or nine years ago that just never happened. So I’d been plotting and waiting and this came about. And then, additionally, I loved the script when he sent it to me and the chance to play a flipped perspective of the character that I portrayed in “Into the Wild,” where he loves nature and he is this very self-sufficient, productive guy. And now, to get to play this very immature guy who hates being alone and just wants to go back to the city and get drunk and get laid and not develop himself emotionally. I found that to be very interesting partially because in a lot of people’s minds I’m so firmly identified with that type of perspective. So, to flip it around, there was kind of a perverse pleasure in it. And I think within myself, too, people assume I’m this camping, hiking, fishing guy, and there is a part of me that does love nature and loves the outdoors and loves to go hiking, but there also exists in me a city housecat facet to my personality which I was happy to embrace.
Q: The environment is obviously an important part of the story. I’m from Texas and I was there after the devastating wildfires. When you were shooting there, did it inform your performance or did it change any of the dynamics?
Hirsch: I think at times the heat and the barren nature of the forest appealed to the boredom in me where I was like, “Oh, there’s nothing to do out here, and it’s so hot.” So I was able to transfer that into the character.
Green: There’s always this melancholy umbrella over it, even in the scenes and in the notes, they get a little humorous in the movie. There’s a haunted quality there. We tried to use the music to create a harmony with the landscape, and then the characters and the performers are just in the foreground with their narrative. But we also integrated characters like Joyce Payne, the woman that Paul Rudd’s character encounters going through the ashes of her home looking for her pilot’s license. That was just a real bashed up fire victim. When we were in production on the movie, we were actually looking for the house where Paul does the pantomime scene, and we stumbled upon Joyce and said well why don’t we integrate her into this movie and tell her story. And so, it was beautiful to find this strange, very mystical story that she was telling and who she was and what she had to say, and then we wove her into the movie as the mysterious co-pilot of the truck. Having those opportunities brings a real sensitivity to the reality of the devastation that a forest fire can do. We had a screening for the Bastrop Fire Department, a benefit for them the other night, and it was amazing seeing a woman who was a firefighter in that fire coming out and responding very emotionally to the movie. And then, you’ll see on the other side is a kid that thinks it’s a really funny movie and considers it a comedy. I like the juxtaposition of an audience’s reaction, because depending on the day or the moment or the scene, I feel the same way.
Q: Emile, how much did you train to paint the lines?
Hirsch: There was a technical advisor we had with the machine. Most of the training was primarily concerned with this propeller that was on the paint machine. But it was because it was an earlier model of the paint machine, so if you put your hand anywhere near this propeller, it would have just ripped it off. And I asked the guy. I said, “Is there a reason why this propeller isn’t covered?” and he goes, “No. There’s really no reason. All the later models, there’s a little metal barrier over this thing.” And so I said, “Why is that?” and he goes, “Well this was just an early model. It’s just that they hadn’t really thought of it yet.” And I was like, “Can you imagine?!” So, most of the training was actually training to not get your hand ripped off, because that machine was very dangerous. If it got any little piece of clothing, it would have just sucked you in.
Q: I liked the design of the movie and the little details like the truck, the overalls and the tape that they’re listening to. How did you guys come up with the production design and decide how you wanted each character to look?
Green: Well the film takes place in the 80’s as a device to keep our characters isolated, so there are no cell phones and no emails back home or Skype and all these things that keep us so connected and in communication. I love the romance of a handwritten letter, and I started with that and insisted upon that and created a world around that. But as far as the art direction and costume design, Richard Wright and Jill Newell are very frequent collaborators of mine and department heads, and we just got into what we were interested in. We wanted it to feel not necessarily like it takes place in a specific year and a specific place, but there were moments when I thought we could be filming it and we might be in Romania. It was just nice to have a canvas that we could take a lot of liberties with and find our own personal taste and sculpt them accordingly and find these strange little artifacts and flea markets and things like that and utilize them.
Q: Were there any particular equal time boom box arguments that you drew on?
Green: (laughs) The equal time boom box argument was from my childhood. I have three sisters and we were all very competitive. And I didn’t like to listen to Abba and the Grease soundtrack as much as they did, and they didn’t like Metallica as much as I did.
Q: Where did the German language tape come from?
Green: Well, at the time when we were developing this and I was writing this, I was planning a trip to Germany. And so, I had these German language tapes that I thought were really interesting and had a funky beat to them. So I thought that’d be an interesting way to work those into it and add a little bit of an international interest. Our man’s man, Alvin, has this sense of being an outdoorsman who can fix things. He considered himself very worldly, yet he hasn’t really seen the world.
Q: Emile, because you had to listen to that tape over and over in some scenes, did you eventually learn any German?
Hirsch: I was surprisingly bad at German.
Green: He learned fluent Japanese though.
Hirsch: I really think so.
Q: Your character is reading a comic book and only one comic book is left. If you were in the same situation in real life, what book would you want to have to read?
Hirsch: What comic book or what book? Let’s go with comic book. I was always a big Calvin and Hobbes fan and The Far Side as well. Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, those are my two favorite comics, although I did read X-Men.
Q: My favorite scene is when they’re getting drunk. Was that exactly as it was written in the script?
Green: Nothing in this movie was exactly in the script. I think in the script it might have said they get drunk and push each other around in a wheelbarrow, which was in the original film, and so I can’t take credit for that idea. It was really just feeling our way through it and seeing. I like the idea of them playing soccer on a hill with a bunch of tree stumps in the way. It seems geographically handicapped, but they go for that in a way that only a drunken fool can. I was thinking about this the other day when I was watching this. It’s weirdly a celebration of the liberation of alcohol. A lot of movies point to the reality of the frequent abuse and tragedy of it, but here it’s like these two guys have a lot of problems dealing with each other, and this is a way that they can vacuum their inhibitions and get a little crazy.
Q: Emile, you’ve been an actor for a long time now. I doubt you’ve had any menial jobs where you’ve had to do something like this to make ends meet.
Hirsch: Yeah. This was the menial job.
Green: This production.
Q: Your character is this aimless drifter type. Have you known people who’ve had to do something just to earn money? Did that resonate?
Hirsch: Oh yeah. I mean, most of my friends are very rarely employed to begin with, so I totally got that. That’s business as usual.
Q: Can you talk about what each of you have coming up next?
Green: I just finished a movie called “Joe” with Nicolas Cage that’s going to be at the Venice Film Festival next month which will be fun. And I just finished shooting the fourth season of this HBO TV series that I work on called “Eastbound and Down.” I just finished that last week. And I’m starting a new movie in the fall called “Manglehorn.” Oh, and a Planters Peanut commercial with stop motion. It’s been fun learning with this company LAIKA out of Portland, Oregon. They’re incredible stop motion animators, and so, we’ve been working on a new Mr. Peanut that’s pretty fun. They did “ParaNorman.”
Hirsch: I worked on a film that Peter Berg directed called “Lone Survivor.” It’s based on Marcus Luttrell’s book about a Navy Seal mission, “Operation Red Wings,” in 2005, and that will come out in December. And then, I did a four-hour mini-series about Bonnie and Clyde called “Bonnie and Clyde” which is going to air on the History Channel, A&E and Lifetime on December 1st and 2nd which is kind of a reimagining of that story.
Q: Did you train to play a Navy Seal?
Hirsch: Yes, a bit. We had lots of Navy Seals kicking our asses.
Green: He was jacked. He would take weird pictures of himself in the mirror flexing and send them to me. It was like, “See. I’m not what I was on ‘Avalanche’.”
Green: It was pretty intense. I was impressed.