A gripping mix of friendship, violence and redemption erupts in the contemporary South in “Joe,” the adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel, celebrated at once for its grit and its deeply moving core. Directed by David Gordon Green, the film brings Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage back to his indie roots in the title role as the hard-living, hot-tempered, ex-con Joe Ransom, who is just trying to dodge his instincts for trouble – until he meets a hard-luck kid (Tye Sheridan) who awakens in him a fierce and tender-hearted protector.
At the film’s recent press day, Cage, Sheridan, and Green discussed how the project came together, Cage’s experiment with Western Kabuki or Baroque style of film performance, why he enjoyed playing a role where he didn’t have to design his performance from the outside in, Cage’s advice for young actors auditioning, the life lessons Cage and Sheridan learned from their parents and mentors, what talented non-pro Gary Poulter brought to his role, the directing process and improvising on set, what it was like capturing the authentic look and feel of the movie and its characters, Cage’s intriguing new film “Left Behind,” and the connection between his character in “Joe,” Haagen-Dazs Vanilla ice cream, and the Bruce Lee/Chuck Norris fight in “Return of the Dragon.”
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: Nic, I’m wondering if you can talk about what attracted you to this role and how this project came together for you?
NICOLAS CAGE: The project came together because David wrote me a great letter and expressed his interest in doing the movie with me. I read the script. I immediately connected with the character of Joe, and then I read the novel. I read it twice. And then, I wanted David to know how enthusiastic I was about it, so I went to Texas and walked around for a couple days and had some tacos and talked about it, and said, “I really want to make this movie with you.” Also, I’d been waiting a while to find something. I took a large part of the year off where I could maybe realize some of my film performance dreams. I’d experimented with the more abstract, what I call Western Kabuki or Baroque, style of film performance in some of the more adventure films that I had done. I was at this point where I wanted to just find a part where I didn’t design the performance. I just felt it or could just be in it. Whatever the mistakes I had made in the past, which I won’t go into detail with, I wanted to put them into a character, a portrayal of understanding, and use the mistakes in a way where I wouldn’t have to act so much. When I read the script “Joe,” I felt that I understood why he was in the situations that he found himself in. I understood his need for restraint. I understood the dialogue. And so, I thought this is what I’m looking for where I could just be. I could just feel this.
Q: Did you audition for David, and if you didn’t, what was the last film you did audition for, because I would imagine you would make the most out of that process?
CAGE: It’s an interesting process to be sure and it’s something I have some thoughts on. I don’t remember the last movie I actually went into a casting office on. Going into a casting office is a real baptism by fire. It’s a real trial. One of my thoughts on it is, if you’re really special, meaning you’re doing something unique and original, it could scare people. If you go into a casting office and you’re a new voice and you’re doing something kind of original, they don’t know what box to put you in. They’re looking for Ryan Gosling or someone and if you don’t fit that — and Ryan’s great by the way; I think he’s one of our greatest actors – then you don’t fit the mold. So, what I would offer to young actors is, yes, go into the office, but also videotape yourself, put a frame on it so they can look at it, and then maybe go home and have their salad or whatever and go, “Wait a minute. What did that kid do in that videotape? Let me look at that again.” And then, they see when the unique performance is framed that there is something special there. I would suggest that young actors do that.
Q: Nic, your character Joe ends up being this mentor-father figure to Gary. Was there ever someone in your life that took you under their wing, either when you were a young actor or when you were thinking about becoming an actor?
CAGE: I had a very strong relationship with my actual father, so I’m lucky in that way. But yeah, there were these…let’s call them angels in my life who took a liking to me. What does a father really do? My definition of a father is someone who empowers their children. Sometimes, like with Tye’s character at home, that’s not happening. There’s abuse, because the child may have more potential than the father, and the father takes it personally and abuses the child. I have found people in my life. That’s not my situation, but my science teacher, Mr. Phipps., my drama teacher in high school, John Ingle, and my kung fu teacher when I was 12, Jim Lao, these are people that saw potential and wanted to encourage potential. This movie to me is really an ode to those people.
Q: What life lessons did you learn from your father that you’ve passed along to your sons?
CAGE: I tried to give freedom and see where the potential is going. If it’s drawing, then I make sure we have the best pencils, paints, paper and canvases. If it’s music, I make sure we have the best instruments so that they find their own way. They meet the instrument and then they start to have that relationship. It’s always about not forcing but providing.
Q: Tye, is there something similar in your life that you learned from your father?
TYE SHERIDAN: Both of my parents have always been really supportive and totally respected whatever it is I wanted to do. When I got cast in a movie and I told them this is something that I wanted to pursue, they were super supportive. I think that really determines…. There’s something about confidence. If you have people that totally support you and have your back, I feel like you have all the confidence in the world, and you believe that you can do things that most people can’t achieve. I feel that’s really important.
Q: Nic, you mentioned some of your past performances where you went out of the box and were experimenting with film acting and went more surrealistic and more operatic. And then, in a film like “Joe” or “The Frozen Ground,” it was more photorealistic and more naturalistic. How do you decide which direction you’re going to go and which way to shape your performance? Is it the material? Is it the script that dictates it? Or is it the director?
CAGE: It is the material. It’s also where I’m at in my life. There has to be a mechanism in the script that would allow me to go into that Western Kabuki or Baroque way where it still connects with the audience in a contemporary environment. Like these Silent Film actors from the 20’s or German Expressionistic actors like Max Schreck, they could do all that because that was part of the style back then. I was trying to figure out how to bring that back into contemporary cinema, and the way to do it is to find someone who is a) either going nuts like Peter Loew in “Vampire’s Kiss,” or b) he’s on crack like Terence McDonagh in “The Bad Lieutenant,” or c) he’s sold his soul to the devil and his head goes on fire into a flaming skull and he’s in black leather and you can be an actual moving tattoo. Those were all fun ways to have it still connect with an audience. But again, when I got around to “Joe” and also “The Frozen Ground,” it was like now I just want to infuse the vessel of the character with my memories and my life experience and not design a performance from the outside in. You can go as big as you want as long as it has emotional content. I always say, “Well if you think it’s over the top, then tell me where the top is first. I don’t think anyone can, but if you can tell me where the top is, then I’ll tell you whether or not I’m over it.”
Q: For all three of you, can you talk a little about working with Gary Poulter who plays Wade Jones. He’s not a professional actor but he’s very talented. Was your approach different with someone like?
DAVID GORDON GREEN: Gary Poulter was a gentleman that was discovered by our casting directors at a bus stop in Austin, Texas. They brought him in for an audition. First, we were going to consider him as the guy cutting up the deer and he did great. He was awesome. “Can you come back tomorrow and read for the guy that runs the convenience store? A couple days role and a few more lines of dialogue.” “Great.” He comes back and nails it. And then, I just started talking to him and he had a story in his life. He’d been a street performer for a number of years in Austin. He was a really great break dancer. He had all these strange, beautiful, oddly elegant attributes. He had beautiful blue eyes if you looked at him up close and just strikingly handsome features lost somewhat under the leather and the wear and tear of living a very difficult life. That was all very intriguing to me to peel back the layers of leather of this man and find the sensitivity, find the brutality, and use that for the character. In the novel, “Joe,” it’s almost a balanced vehicle between Joe and the Wade characters. There’s a lot more material in the novel, and when we chose to make the movie specifically about Joe, I wanted an actor that brought those layers and levels and that depth that we couldn’t necessarily expose narratively scene for scene, but we could with a look in the eye. So, when he came in and brought his stories to our film, it was just immediately electric. And introducing him to Nic, it didn’t matter that the guy had never been in front of a camera before. He just had the guts and the instinct and knew how to hit a mark and could actually deal with subtle technical direction and emotion because he had so much. He had in many ways been acting his entire life, and so there were so many ways that I could find access to his vulnerability or his rage or any of these things that you wanted to explore within his character. It just became a beautiful playground and a very healthy place for a man looking to make a change with his life and find a creative outlet.
CAGE: I loved his face. He reminded me of Richard Farnsworth. I mean there was something in his face. I could see him playing a Civil War Captain. I could see him playing a cowboy in an old Western movie. He had all this charisma and he was always on point. He always had his lines. He never missed a day. He was on time. I said, “Gary, just keep it together for a year and your phone’s going to start ringing and your life is going to change.” He took this long pause and he kind of looked at me with these big, sad blue eyes and said, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah man, really.” So when David called me two months after photography and told me he’d passed on, it was pretty upsetting.
SHERIDAN: It’s sad to see someone with such talent go. And the fact that he didn’t make it long enough to see the final cut was really heartbreaking for me because I know he was so passionate about this film and about this story and all the characters and everybody that worked together as a family on this film. Like David mentioned, he had so much confidence in front of the camera. There’s something I feel that’s very interesting about someone who’s never worked as an actor in film before. They go in unaware of everything that could go wrong, because they see a film and they see how polished and perfect it is. They feel like they can’t mess up in a way. They have so much confidence going into something like that and it was just great to be around someone who had that kind of energy.
Q: David, I know that you encouraged this script to be more of a guideline and you want your actors to play and improvise on set, and I definitely felt that those were the moments of levity in the film that I really enjoyed. Can you talk a little bit about how you worked on set and was there time to play and improvise?
GREEN: The beauty of this process was we had a great novel. Larry Brown wrote a tremendously effective book that we had as more than a blueprint, but as a guideline, as a resource, as volumes of interior monologue and subtext that we could use as an emotional archive. We had this fantastic book. We had a great screenplay by Gary Hawkins who was one of my college professors who had known Larry very intimately and made a documentary portrait of his life. I’d done Larry and his life and was very inspired and intellectually engaged by this guy that really had a beautiful creative story. When it came time for the production of the film and it came time to find the faces and the voices that were going to inhabit these characters that had been on the page for so many years, I found it my job to make that transition an organic one. Find people who not only can understand where that character is coming from, not only memorize lines and recite it to us all in rehearsals, but bring themselves, bring their own emotional honesty, bring the depths of their personality and their experience which often leads to an improvised process. There were times as I watched Tye and Nic get to know each other, and they’d just start telling stories that would make me smile, I would keep a little journal and a little notebook. And then, on set, I’d be like, “Hey, remember that time when you were telling that one thing?” And so, having that kind of an opportunity was great. Also, casting a lot of the supporting actors who were non-traditional that wouldn’t even read the script, but I’d talk them through what the character was about and who they were, and then let them use their own authenticity and their own instincts and interpretation of that situation. Who am I to tell them what to say in a way? So it was great engineering structurally to have that architecture of the screenplay. And then, also the real beauty of an opportunity like this where you’re trying to make something naturalistic is to let everyone be themselves and bring themselves.
CAGE: It was a very pleasant experience and playful, too. One of the things I love about working with David is he would get the scene the way it was written, and then he would go back and say, “Let’s do it with no dialogue and let’s just see what comes out of the looks and the faces. Now let’s try and improvise.” It was a process of discovery that we were all into together, and when you have that kind of environment on the set, spontaneous things happen that become electric and become fresh.
SHERIDAN: I feel like David has the ability to sense when his characters are feeling bogged down, and then he throws in, “Okay, let’s improvise a little bit and play around with it to lighten the mood and reenergize.” Not a lot of directors have the ability to do that or have that talent. It’s a rare quality that I think David has hit right on the money.
Q: I loved the authentic look and feel of the movie and the characters. For all of you, what was it like capturing that authenticity? Also, is it easier or harder these days to capture that in a movie?
GREEN: That’s a very good question. Is it easier or harder? We all live in a world of reality television so it’s less surprising to see a camera on a street corner. It’s less surprising to see a production. Certainly, a lot of us who frequent the Los Angeles area don’t even bat an eyelash at some production that’s closing down the street and taking us on a detour. In that way, I kind of like that the production element can be that much more intimate because the mystery has been dissolved a little bit. When I was a kid and you’d watch a behind the scenes documentary about the making of a movie, it would blow your mind learning the steps of Foley and the art form behind the magic of it. And now I think everybody pretty much has a good, clear concept of that so there’s not that obsession with that. It’s also a world where people know where the lines of documentary, the lines of reality TV, and the lines of fiction and narrative filmmaking are starting to blur a little bit. I actually think there’s a lot of value there. There’s a lot of value in some of the great documentary performances. You see a movie like “Grizzly Man” and you’re like if only I could take Timothy Treadwell, I could make an amazing script for Timothy Treadwell. I know I could access him because I’ve seen Herzog’s work, and I saw how he constructed a narrative out of found footage and things like that, and I see these little glimpses of brilliance. And so, I think in that way it’s become a lot easier. It’s about trying to market a film to be appealing to an audience and trying to get a movie that emotionally connects with an audience and invites them into a world that does have an authenticity, does take you to difficult places, has enough emotional honesty and levity to be able to make that something you want to look at, and then an attractive quality within the cinematography, music that brings you in and makes you feel fulfilled, and all these technical elements that come in to make it a rewarding experience and not just the dramatic hammer coming down to tell you their melodrama, but really open up insight into the characters and their revelations of each other.
Q: David, you did a few big Hollywood comedies and now you’ve moved back into the independent world. Is this kind of rejuvenating and refreshing for you in a way to get a little bit out of the Hollywood system and does it bring you more freedom? Also Nic, could you comment on that as well?
GREEN: Every new project I do is a new invention of myself and reinvigorates me as to why I love the industry. The difficulties for filmmaking can be infinite. It can be trying to raise the money for a passion project that has no name actors and no high concept and any of that can be very frustrating. It can also be frustrating when you have all the money at your fingertips and you’ve made your dream production, and then the machines of marketing start swirling, and all of a sudden there’s a million people making decisions that you thought you had control of and then you don’t, and everything starts swirling out of control. There are those types of pressure, but then there’s the enjoyment of seeing all of a sudden there’s a line around the block to see a movie that you’ve worked really hard on, and that’s really [rewarding]. You’ve always got to balance the frustrations with those elements of making movies that get your heart beating. Sometimes it’s the satisfaction of an audience cheering the death of Willie-Russell or these moments of things that when you see the engagement of an audience it’s really satisfying. Sometimes it’s about the process more so. Sometimes I want to laugh and sometimes I want to cry. I want to explore my process just as you as an audience want to go see a different type of movie. You’re not going to see the same type of movie over and over and over unless you’re really in a strange mindset. Sometimes I do get obsessed with a certain filmmaker or a certain tone of film and I want to dig in deep, but for the most part, I like the diversity of what this wonderful industry has to offer us that I could jump from a comedy to a drama to an action film to a horror film. I can’t wait to do a documentary someday if I could only find that subject matter that insists I obsess over it.
CAGE: I have to agree. Let me just say that I think “Joe” is a unique movie. It’s an original movie. It’s David’s vision and it has its own voice. I’ve not really seen another movie quite like it. But, if you look carefully at my filmography, you will see in between the adventure films, there have been a “Bad Lieutenant” or a “World Trade Center” or a “Lord of War” or a “Matchstick Men” and I want to keep it eclectic. I see myself as a student. I would never call myself a master or a maestro. If you take the path of the student, that means that you have to try a little bit of everything in the hopes that you’re going to learn something or strike some kind of new note or new sound or new expression in the process. I’m not going for grades. I’m going for an education. That means I’m going to continue experimenting and trying new things to try to evolve and learn.
Q: David, whenever I come see your movies, I learn about a new profession that I never knew existed. Did you feel like you had to educate yourself in terms of how they kill the trees by putting poison on them? Was that interesting to you?
GREEN: Sure. Larry (Brown) knew that world well as an author. And then, I found some technical advisors, one in Mississippi and one in Wisconsin, and just talked to them about it. I find professions very badass. I just finished a movie about a locksmith and now I can break into your car which is cool. (Laughs) I always want to bring an authenticity to those jobs and things like that, whether it’s a mundane job like painting yellow lines on a highway or something that feels almost strangely symbolic and sinister like poisoning trees or duplicating keys. All these things that I find, there is an artistry to it. Everybody’s got their tools or their instruments, and it’s fun to see how people expose themselves to their profession or their profession becomes who they are.
CAGE: My father used to say to me, “It doesn’t matter what the profession is, but if they’re the best in their field, it will always be fascinating to watch.” And I said, “Really, dad? Even like someone who makes pencils?” “Even someone who makes pencils, it will be fascinating to watch.”
GREEN: I have a good friend who’s a backhoe driver. He drives a backhoe at construction sites and I’ve seen him where I went to help him. He was preparing for a hurricane for some of his neighbors. He was digging holes and piling up dirt and stuff. This dude was a ballet dancer of the backhoe. There are no Olympics for him. There’s no Oscar for backhoe drivers. He’ll never get that pedestal. He’ll never have that acceptance speech. And so, I’m fascinated by what goes on in his head and the voices that motivate him to be the best that he can be. I love that. He’s not going for the gold. He’s just going to do a great job and roll up his sleeves and work hard.
Q: Nic, I’m excited to see your take on “Left Behind,” and I would imagine whether you’re religious or not, you might appreciate the mythology of Christianity. Is that the appeal of doing “Left Behind”?
CAGE: Well the appeal of doing “Left Behind” for me was first and foremost my character is left behind. So, that answers a lot of questions. (Laughs) But also, I’d never been in a situation in a movie like that before. I’m a pilot of a transatlantic jumbo jet and my passengers start disappearing on the plane and I don’t know where they are. To me, that was a challenge that was just too exciting to resist.
Q: Your wife is Korean. What have you discovered about Asian culture through your wife?
CAGE: Well, first of all, I don’t generalize, but I will say that my wife is very family oriented. I don’t think that’s because she’s Asian. That’s just because she’s family oriented. I will say that I love all Asian food. It stimulates my imagination. I’m a big enthusiast of Korean food. When I get the kimchi and I get the kalbi and I put the garlic on and I take the leaf and I mix it with the paste and my wife puts it together and she feeds me and then I have a glass of red wine, I suddenly get a great idea about what I want to do in my next movie. (Laughter)
Q: David, both “Joe” and your last film, “Prince Avalanche” take place predominantly out in the woods. What are some of the challenges of filming that way?
GREEN: I love the uncertainty of nature. I love the uncertainty of working with animals and kids. I like to bring on the elements I guess I’ll say, so I don’t even know that there are challenges. Sometimes it’s overcast and then you’re trying to shoot the coverage, and then the sun comes out and you have little frustrations and you roll your eyes, and you have to shoot a little bit tighter and light it a little differently than you’d like. But those are all inconsequential. I love the idea of just being out in the woods with my buddies working hard making movies and having the creative opportunities that have beautiful backdrops. I look forward to climbing to the top of a mountain and filming more.
Q: Could there be an outdoor woods trilogy in you, a third film?
GREEN: Oh absolutely. I’d love to keep it coming. I love to travel so it’s just really… Again, it’s the passport to the world this job that I have and it’s fun to be able to explore in that way. If there’s anything that depresses me, it’s when I find out that I’m going to be shooting on a sound stage on a constructed set that’s been idealized by all the department heads. I like to think, “Well we’re going to show up before the sun rises. We’re going to be putting everything together in the dark. As soon as there’s enough light in the sky, we’re going to get blazing and we’re going to shoot until the sun goes down.”
Q: I found this to be such a great mix of the broader action films you’ve made and the smaller, more character-driven ones. I know you two developed the character together and the book is a blueprint, but how much does it change when you get on set and you see just how much an actor can bring to a role like that? How much is it changing as you’re filming?
GREEN: It changes all the time. That’s one of the cool things about working with Nic. He was literally on the location scouts in the van going with all of us, not the tech scout where you know where you’re going to shoot. We were all wandering around together thinking where we should shoot. It was like, “Hell no” or “Hell yeah.” And so, it was fun. I remember one time when we were out in the woods and there was this bridge location and we hadn’t done any rehearsals even at this point. All of a sudden, Nic just started saying the script in character and we were seeing a very organic way that these characters could be born. And then from the days of those initial creative canvases through the editing process, every day was a new discovery. “Okay, we think we know Joe, but would he do this?” or “Is that within his character?” We’d look at each other and scratch our heads and think, “Does this make sense of not?” or “Fuck it, let’s try it and see if it works. And if it doesn’t, let’s edit it out.”
CAGE: I wanted to get there early and spend a month in advance with David and get into his process. I really wanted to soak up Boston and take it in and meet the other actors and non-actors, so that by the time we got to action, there was a flow to it, like we’d all been working together for a long time. Last night, we had a screening of the movie. It went very well. I was really happy with the response. And then, David and I had a Q & A. I grew up with a professor. That’s how I grew up. My father was a professor. As a result of my relationship with him, sometimes I talk around in circles, and sometimes I say things that either land or don’t land, and sometimes I say something really succinct. Last night, they were asking me about was there anything in the book that I put back into the script. I thought about my answer and I thought no, I don’t think anyone’s going to track that with me. That sounds like something my father might have told me. And then, I didn’t answer it. This morning, I said to David, “I was going to answer. I was going to explain. My answer was going to be all about Haagen-Dazs and Bruce Lee. I don’t know if they were going to understand it.” David said, “Well I really want to hear that.” So, here I go.
In the book, Larry Brown has this very beautifully described scene where Joe is pulling buckshot out of his shoulder because Joe gets shot in the shoulder. The way it’s described in this scene is he’s holding this bottle of alcohol pressed against his shoulder and the blood from the wound is going up and into the alcohol, and it’s beautifully described. It’s like this pink foaming thing as he’s pulling it out. I said, “I think we should put that scene back in the script. It wasn’t in the script, but I think it speaks volumes about the character.”
Here we go to Haagen-Dazs and Bruce Lee. My father once came home with a brand new carton of Haagen-Dazs. It was the first time it came out. And he said, “Nicholas, Mark, Christopher, I’ve got this Haagen-Dazs. Everyone says it’s the best ice cream in the world and it’s Vanilla. I got Vanilla because I want you to know without the complexity of other flavors if they achieved the simplest flavor. You can compare it to other ice creams that are also Vanilla, and you can know whether or not this is the best ice cream in the world. We tried the Vanilla and I was like, “Wow! That is the best Vanilla I’ve ever had.” Then my father took me to see “Return of the Dragon” with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. It was the last fight scene in the movie in the Colosseum, and Bruce Lee broke Chuck Norris’ arm. Chuck Norris was in extraordinary pain. Pain is something we all see, we’ve all experienced, and we know when you’re faking it or lying, and we know if you’re really feeling it. So pain, of all the emotions to portray, is the Vanilla. Chuck was in pain and my father looked at me and he said, “You really feel the pain in his performance.” And I took it and I went, “Yeah, I do.” So I said, “Let’s put in Joe pulling the buckshot out so I can portray the pain, the Vanilla, in such a way so that people will know that I’m totally committed and that I’m really feeling it.” And that’s why I put it back in. So there’s my Haagen-Dazs, Vanilla ice cream, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Larry Brown, Joe, David Gordon Green.