What’s it like to go from directing non-professional actors to the craft’s living legends? David Gordon Green’s career began with 2000’s George Washington, and in the decade and a half since, he’s had the chance to work with actors ranging from Sam Rockwell to Paul Rudd, recently adding Nicolas Cage to his list of collaborators with 2014’s Joe and Al Pacino in his latest effort, Manglehorn. Pacino takes center stage with the film, both behind the scenes—Green and screenwriter Paul Logan architected the film specifically for him—and in front of the camera. There’s hardly a frame in which the iconic thespian doesn’t appear.
The results represent modern-day mythmaking, capitalizing on Pacino’s screen persona and prestige alike to tell a tone poem about loss and moving on. Manglehorn feels like a personal project for Pacino, and for Green it’s an opportunity to come together with one of the greats and coax out a softer, more melancholic side—especially at a time when Pacino happens to be popping up in a surprising number of movies that each makes a lot of hay out of his status and iconography.
We caught up with Green to get his take on Pacino, on the magic of fairy tales and on the very definition of what it means for a film to be truly independent.
So, let’s talk a little bit about Manglehorn. I heard some rumblings online to the effect that you kind of made this movie with Al Pacino in mind. Am I making that up or is that more or less accurate?
David Gordon Green: No, I totally made it with him in mind. I met him and then designed the role for him. I never thought he’d do it, but I was excited that he accepted it!
: I know Paul Logan wrote the screenplay, but did you guys collaborate on that or is that something he kind of did on his own?
Green: No, we worked on it very closely. I gave him the seed. I said, “I want you to write a movie called Manglehorn, about Al Pacino as a locksmith that is brokenhearted, and I want to see the smaller, gentler, subtle, funny side of Al.” And probably a week later he had a first draft, and then we talked about it for a few weeks, did various drafts, and I showed it to Al and we got him involved. We started workshopping it, and spent about eight months developing it, and then filmed it.
: I was wondering while watching the film whether this character, Manglehorn, was kind of cut out of whole cloth, but I’m getting the sense that bits and pieces of Pacino himself were used to shape the character. Is that accurate?
Green: Yeah, I mean there are certainly bits of Al himself, but then also bits of his movies and characters. There are a lot of little subtle homages in anywhere from the art direction to various lines. There’s a line from Scarface in the movie that could sneak by you if you weren’t paying attention; there’s art direction from the bank in Dog Day Afternoon in the bank when [Manglehorn] goes into it; the yellow flowers are kind of a symbolic thing in Sea of Love; there’s a handbag from Serpico; we’ve got some voiceover from Carlito’s Way. So there are a lot of things, and I think the main crux of the character is inspired by his role in Scarecrow… I kind of wanted to see what that character was doing 40 years later.
: [laughs] I like that a lot. I’m struck by the fact that in this year, he has a trio of movies out— The Humbling, Danny Collins and now Manglehorn—that to me all capitalize on his talents as an actor, but also his reputation. I don’t know if you had any thoughts on that.
Green: I haven’t seen the other ones so it’s hard to say exactly. I know he did Danny Collins, and then The Humbling, then Manglehorn, in that order. So I’m not really sure what was going on in his mind at that point, but I’m glad he’s doing some stuff that he’s passionate about. He brings a lot to the table, not only in a tremendous résumé but in a day-to-day work ethic.
: This one, of the three, feels like it’s the most intentionally “about” him, which you already touched on, but how did you find the experience of working with him? I’m sure you’ve gotten questions like this already, but it feels significant to me: Was he collaborative, or did just he content himself with taking direction?
Green: Oh, he was amazing. He may be the greatest actor at taking direction. He can get the subtle nuances and the strange little technical things and still make it feel very natural. He’s just amazing, and he brought a lot of ideas. I think he just found it a refreshing environment, because me, the DP, the writers, we would just get excited to talk to him and hear his ideas, and then sometimes we would challenge him and say, “We don’t want your character to look cool in this scene, we want you to wear the purple pants…”
Green: He’d question me sometimes, but at the end of the day he was always very trusting of our process.
: Is that more useful to you than somebody who just says, “Okay, I’m gonna listen to whatever you say and that’s all I’m going to do.”
Green: Yeah, there are a lot of skilled robots out of there that can just do that, but I wanted to really get in the ring with Pacino. You know, if you’re gonna do it, make a meal out of it.
Paste: It’s also interesting to me, you know, because he’s such a big iconic actor and he’s not the first you’ve based one of your recent films around, either. You kind of worked similarly with Nicolas Cage on Joe just last year as well.
Green: Yeah! That’s one of the things that I like to do, take great actors and take them to unexpected places. It was really fun to do a movie with Paul Rudd where I could do a little bit more dramatic work with him in Prince Avalanche, and with Nicolas Cage, who is certainly one of the greater actors of my childhood that I really always dreamed of working with, and being able to do something that he hadn’t really done before with Joe, and then Pacino… I’m really fortunate to be able to have great relationships with actors. I just finished up a movie with Sandra Bullock that’s quite a change of pace for her. I want to be the go-to guy for when movie stars want to get a little weird.