Having a strong desire to recapture your life’s most meaningful ambitions and emotions, but not knowing how to successfully translate those aspirations into your current life and relationships, can be a daunting process for many people. But as they continuously learn from their past mistakes, and fully grasp how they can positively infuse their long-standing goals into their current relationships, their lives can dramatically improve. That powerful and all-important message is the captivating driving force in director-producer David Gordon Green’s new independent drama, ‘Manglehorn,’ which is set to be released on Friday in select theaters and on VOD. The film compellingly follows the title character as he begins to reclaim the passion in his relationships and work, after he intensely begins to examine how his long-standing dreams have at times negatively impacted his life.
‘Manglehorn’ follows the title locksmith, A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino), a reclusive man who seemingly appreciates the solitary life he has created for himself. He spends his days maintaining his shop by himself, only to then go home to care for his only roommate, his sick cat who refuses to eat. One of the few people from his past who he’s even somewhat still connected to is his bitter son Jacob (Chris Messina), whom he only speaks to when one of them needs something from the other. But the locksmith does take joy in building a relationship with his young granddaughter, but the two only sees each other occasionally. The most stable relationship A.J. has is his casual flirtation with Dawn (Holly Hunter), the teller at his local bank who he sees every Friday when he deposits money from the store into his account.
While A.J. tries to move on with his life, notably by asking Dawn to socially meet outside of the bank, he’s still unable to move on from his long lost love, Clara (Natalie Wilemon). He still writes her love letters, even though they met 40 years ago, before he married and divorced Jacob’s mother, who he claims he never loved.
The locksmith also remains stuck in the past as one of Jacob’s former classmates, Gary (Harmony Korine), who A.J. coached when the two boys were in school, still treats him like his ultimate hero. A.J. and Gary still hope to recapture the glory they once had together when the locksmith was still coaching the team. But after taking some time to reflect on his life, including his past decisions, A.J. realizes that his faults are at times negatively impacting his future. So he decides that he has to finally distance himself from the relationships that are holding him back, so that he can happily move forward with his life and current positive connections.
Green generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview in New York City to talk about directing and producing ‘Manglehorn.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he became involved in helming and producing the independent drama after he met with Pacino for an unrelated project, and was so determined to find a movie they could later work on together, that he solicited scribe Paul Logan to pen the script; how he and the Academy Award-winning actor then developed the character of A.J. and the film’s story together by workshopping and discussing the screenplay at the performer’s house; and how he likes to work with shorter screenplays, particularly on independent movies like ‘Manglehorn,’ so that he and the actors can take the time to naturally and fully develop the characters and story on the set as they’re shooting, and so his editors can have the option to use the best take while they’re putting the film together.
ShockYa (SY): You helmed the new independent drama, ‘Manglehorn,’ which was written by Paul Logan. How did you get together with him to make the film, and what was it about his script that convinced you to take on the directorial duties?
David Gordon Green (DGG): Well, I had a meeting with Al Pacino about an unrelated project. I got really excited about that meeting, as well as who he was, and what he was like in the room. When we left that meeting, I said, “I’m going to come back in a year, and we’re going to make a movie together.”
So I got on the plane and started thinking about a character who would be amazing for Al to play. Then when I came up with the idea for the film, I spoke to Paul, who’s my neighbor in Austin, Texas, where I live. I said, “I know you write screenplays. Will you work on this idea I have about Al as a locksmith? Make it a modern-day fable about this lovesick locksmith.” Then he wrote the script, and I fell in love with it. I crafted and sculpted it, because I wanted to make something that I was excited to go back to Al with and say, “Are you ready to read it?” I got excited about the heart, magic and melancholy of the story.
SY: With A.J. being more comfortable in his solitude, and maintaining intermittent relationships with Dawn and Jacob, what was the process of building the title character, and his at-times strained relationships, with Al?
DGG: Al’s a actor who gets very deep into his characters. As you can imagine from the diversity of roles he has played, he takes acting very seriously. So I would go to his house, and we’d sit in his backyard and talk through scenes. We’d also grab 10 friends and read the script out loud. We’d workshop and evolve it that way. That gave us a real confidence in the character in this strangely non-straightforward narrative. It gave us confidence in the avenues that we could travel on and explore. We also did a lot of improvisation on the set, and tried to bring the story to life in a very naturalistic way. We wanted to maintain a heightened sense of reality.
SY: With ‘Manglehorn’ being a character-driven film, how did you decide to cast its supporting actors, including Holly Hunter, Chris Messina and Harmony Korine?
DGG: I remember calling Chris and saying, “I have a role I would love for you to play.” He knew Al from the theater world, which helped him come on board the film. Casting Holly was actually an idea that Al had. He said, “Why don’t we call Holly and see what she’s doing?” So I called her and asked if she wanted the role.
It’s fun to be at a point in my career that I can call such iconic actors as Al and Holly, as well as hunt down someone as unique as Harmony. He’s not known as an actor; he’s known for being a director, so it was fun to bring him on as the Gary character. Also, to bring in new actors as the young lady who play’s Al’s granddaughter, who haven’t been in front of a camera before, and let them be discovered, was gratifying. My job is to be the ringmaster, and bring in a group of talented people and let them do their thing.
SY: For the majority of the film, A.J. compares his friendship with Dawn to his previous romantic relationships with Clara, and his father-son relationship with Jacob to his bond with Gary. Why do you feel it was important to emphasize the positive change in the title character’s personality as he started to truly connect with Dawn and Jacob? Do you think he ultimately finds happiness at the end?
DGG: Absolutely-in some ways, it’s not a traditional narrative. In other ways, there’s a great character arc in the film, which gives us an intimated journey to follow. From the beginning of the film to the end, he’s opening his eyes to the world around him.
SY: You like to work with shorter scripts, so that you have time to allow the actors to improvise, like you mentioned earlier, and film the scenes several different ways. Why do you feel it’s beneficial to have the freedom to film the scenes differently, for both the actors and the editors?
DGG: Yes, I like to try different tones in the scenes. I don’t come in with a story-boarded shot-list and visionary concept of what the movie’s going to look like after the final edit. There are a lot of scenes that we shot that didn’t make it into the movie. There are also a lot of scenes in the film that weren’t in the script. I really like to open up a playful environment on the set.
The strange reality of the movie business right now is that people don’t budget a script; they only give enough money for a specific package. So whether the script’s 80 or 120 pages, you get the same amount of money for it. So why not have a fun and fluctuating, but shorter, narrative, so that you can film more takes overall? We shot this film in about 25 days, and the script was about 75-80 pages. That way, we were able to breathe with each scene.
I also don’t like movies that are over two hours long, unless they’re really triumphant, or need to have that long exploration. So I like to make reasonably-length films-my attention span has designed me to be that way.
SY: How does filming several different versions of each scene influence the way you collaborate with the editors on your films?
DGG: I never give the editors rules. I just say, “Keep what rocks, and cut what sucks.” We try to ignore the traditional rules of film editing; we’re not worried about the eye line or action access. There’s a scene where Al’s talking to a vet, but we never see the vet’s face. That’s not necessarily anything radical, but it’s not traditional to have a conversation for that long without seeing the opposing voice.
Colin Patton is the editor who I’ve worked with on my last few films. It’s great to work with people like him, who are willing to take chances. It’s also great to be able to say, “This scene doesn’t work the way it was written. So let’s try cutting it in half, and putting it in this area of the story instead.”
Also, if the dialogue for a scene doesn’t work while we’re shooting, we can cut it out, and have the actors walk through the space. That way they can breathe in the silence of their physicality and body language. The actors’ body language can show everything that the words in the screenplay can’t say. So I like to be open tot those situations.
SY: How did making the film independently, and having the short shooting schedule, influence the way you approached your directorial duties-did it help or hinder the creative process of collaborating with the cast, and developing the story?
DGG: Well, a studio wouldn’t have an interest in making a story like this. If you want to make strange, quirky Al Pacino character pieces, the way to have the creative freedom is to find an alternative form of financing it. You also need a distributor who’s going to be nurturing with it. You’re not going to find a traditional path for such a film in today’s box office and distribution.
But I’ve been lucky to also have had great experiences on studio films. I just finished directing a movie (‘Our Brand Is Crisis’) for Warner Bros. Realizing the freedoms and liberties of having decent budgets and executives have been great. The development process has been really rewarding. Is it also challenging? Yes, but it also allowed me to go into great depth of making a beautiful film. With a movie like ‘Manglehorn,’ you find people who are supportive of that package. You make some wild choices as you experiment and explore, and the result of that is before you.
SY: Besides helming ‘Manglehorn,’ you also served as one of the film’s producers. Was it always your intention to produce and helm the drama? How did your directorial and producing responsibilities influence each other while you were making the movie?
DGG: Yes, I like having a hand in that element, so then I can know everything about the budget and schedule, and how everything’s breaking down in that way. I like to have my hand in producing or executive producing a lot of projects; I’m producing two TV series this summer. It’s fun to be able to wear different hats. On some episodes, I’ll also show up as a director, while on others, I’ll show up strictly as a producer.
Sometimes it’s fun to facilitate how a challenging project can find financing, or introduce a director to a great actor. It’s also fun at times to have a more hands-on involvement in the creative process. I’ve done everything from writing to directing and producing. But I haven’t tried acting, because it hasn’t appealed to me yet.
SY: What was the process of filming the drama on location-do you feel that process is beneficial for independent movies like this one?
DGG: Yes, I do. I actually filmed the entire movie in my neighborhood. It was great that I could walk to set everyday. We didn’t even art direct the locksmith shop-it was the actual locksmith shop down the street from my house. They actually changed the locks when I first bought my house. The park that’s in the movie is where my kids play. So many places in the film are real, like where they had the pancake jamboree. It’s nice to be able to film in places where you have intimate knowledge. It’s also nice to have a project where, from the design of the screenplay, you can choose to film in locations that you do have that intimate knowledge about.
SY: ‘Manglehorn’ is being released in theaters and on VOD on Friday. Are you a fan of watching films On Demand, and why do you think the platform is beneficial to indies like this one overall?
DGG: I think it depends on the movie. If the idea is to get as man people as possible to see it, then it’s great. It makes films accessible, which is exciting for some projects. But with other movies, you want to be very careful, and make sure you fully explore the theatrical and communal release.
The beauty of a project like this is that we were able to premiere it in Venice (at the Venice International Film Festival) in August last year. We were able to build a nice festival life and word-of-mouth hype. It’s been very rewarding to travel around with the film, from Venice to Toronto to Phoenix to Sarasota and New Jersey. It’s fun to go around the world to watch your movies. I have a particularly personal fondness of that experience.
SY: Speaking of bringing the drama on the festival circuit, what was the experience like for you overall? Do you think the festivals are also beneficial to spread awareness about independent films like this one?
DGG: Again, it depends on the benefit. Does it put a lot of money in your pocket? No, but it helps you navigate the world, and develop great friendships and professional relationships. I also love to travel, and see the audience watch my movies. When you get a lot of people in a theater and turn the lights off, something cool happens. So I’m a big fan of traveling on the festival circuit.
SY: Speaking of the fact that you have experience directing, producing and writing episodes of television, which you mentioned earlier, are you interested in working on more television series in the future?
DGG: Yes-the world of television has really evolved over the past few years. It’s a place you take material that would have made up our indie films 15 or 20 years ago, and turn it into a long-form television narrative. TV shows now allow you more creative freedom, including who you can cast, and raising decent budgets. So I’m doing a lot of TV now as a result, and I’m really enjoying the process. It’s giving me a place to explore and expand, and also develop stranger ideas.
SY: You have worked with actor-writer-producer Danny McBride on several projects, including directing and executive producing several episodes of his television series, ‘Eastbound & Down,’ and he executive produced ‘Manglehorn.’ How did ou become involved in working together on each other’s projects, and what is your collaboration process like together?
DGG: He lived next door to me in the dorms in college, so we grew up together in our filmmaking lives. We’ve had voices in most of each other’s projects. We started a company with Jody Hill, who’s another director we worked with on ‘Eastbound & Down.’ We’re also working on another HBO series together, which is called ‘Vice Principals.’ We’re also continuing to make films that the studios aren’t eager to make, and what audiences aren’t jumping at the chance to see. But we know if we have like-minded friendships, and the support of financiers, we can try to push our film ideas into existence.
Writren by: Karen Benardello