PH: From what I understand, when you made your previous film Prince Avalanche, it was quite a therapeutic experience with a lot of freedom. Was Joe a kind of continuation of that?
DGG: Prince Avalanche was like the minimal movie: “Let me go grab my 15 friends and collaborators I work with regularly and make a movie for as close to nothing but still shoot it efficiently and effectively, make it in about 15 days, really strip down the process with no one talking to us. We really liked it, so we started wondering: “what if we had just a little bit more money to add some other elements to the narrative, but still had the same kind of protective shell.” We did it again recently; we recently finished a new movie with Al Pacino (Manglehorn). In my head this is a weird three-movie chapter of my career with films made very cheaply and very quickly, very economically. Nobody asking my why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s been a refreshing series of movies, but it also kind of makes me want to go back and shoot a bigger movie! I have a whimsical headspace, I can wake up with any kind of harebrained scheme about what to get into next.
I’m glad to say that the process of making Joe, having a very agreeable and fearless actor on board like Nicholas Cage, and an ensemble of a lot of unlikely secondary characters, was a real pleasure. It was great making that movie, even though it dealt with some pretty difficult subject matter.
PH: There’s quite an interesting and quite tragic story behind the actor who played the role of “G-Dawg” (AKA Wade, played by Gary Poulter).
DGG: The actor’s name was Gary Poulter. The “G-Dawg” thing came about as we already had an actor and screenwriter working on the film both called Gary. He wanted me to call him Ozzy, but I ended up getting him the “G-Dawg” jacket made instead. He was a gentleman that my casting director found at a bus stop in downtown Austin where we shot the film. A lot of the time when casting I talk to people who are in the kind of real-life situation that I am interested in. So in this case I was looking for a drifter family, and there’s quite a significant homeless population in Austin: soup kitchens and other forms of support for this community. So I had sent my casting director out looking for people willing to talk to me, so I could get into the headspace of the where and why, to try to bring some authenticity to the movie. So at this bus stop, while my director was interviewing this other family he found, G-Dawg started asking him what he was doing, wanting to know about the movie and being in it. My casting director got him on tape for a few minutes answering a few questions, played it back to me later to see if I thought he was interesting, and I told him to bring him in.
I had him read for the part of the guy who cuts up the deer. I also said to him there was a two day part playing the guy who runs the convenience store, and asked him to read for that. Then we just started talking after the end of the auditions for the day, I was getting his life story, talking to him about what he was into, the difficulties he had had and was trying now to work his way out of. And I found myself saying: “hey this is crazy, but do you want to come back next week and read for the third lead in this movie?” He just came in and blew us away. At the time I was trying to get Tim Blake Nelson to do it!
PH: I read that he and Nicholas Cage got along quite well as their were both massive fans of heavy metal.
DGG: Yeah, they could both quote this Vincent Price monologue “Welcome to my Nightmare” from Alice Cooper. They’d do it all the time: recite the long monologue. So when they met and realised this, it was love at first sight. And they’d lip sync to each other’s dramatic voices. We actually shot a scene with him speaking the monologue, played against a slow tracking shot that moves towards him and the actor who plays his wife sitting on the floor of their house, the camera slowing moving towards his face as he combs his wife’s hair. Couldn’t figure out where to put it in the movie. He’s also a good skateboarder too, which is interesting, so I have a lot of footage of him skateboarding. But this isn’t really the kind of movie where you can put a gag reel on the DVD.
PH: He died shortly after the film was completed, didn’t he?
DGG: Yeah, a couple of months after we wrapped, before he could see the movie. I’m really sad about that in one way, but when we wrapped he was kind of reluctant to see the final thing. He said something along the lines of: “if we’ve done our jobs well I don’t really want to see the result.”
PH: This movie is based on a book I understand?
DGG: Well, my first job out of school was as a production assistant on a story about Larry Brown: who was the author of Joe. One of my film professors, Gary Hawkins, was making this documentary about him as part of a series: “The Rough South”. So I got to know Larry and got to reading his books. This was a very biographical book for him, about his youth. I kept up with him for a while. He died a few years ago, and Gary Hawkins, came to me saying that he had written an adaptation of the book for the screen and that: we should make a film out of it.
I would say it is a very respectful adaption of what Larry’s book was. For me also, having just come off three comedy films in a row and a TV series (East Bound and Down), I was really looking to do something different, so when I read this great character piece, this great Southern regional piece, that I also could film in my own backyard, it just really appealed to me. Plus I’d just had kids and wanted to stick closer to home. So this script just spoke to me on just about every personal and professional level. I just had to find the right guy to be in it.
PH: Was it always going to be Cage?
DGG: Whenever I read a book I’m always thinking about a movie version of it. When I was reading the book for the first time I was actually picturing Robert Mitchum. Of course he was too old at the time, and then died. So I found myself wondering, who had the qualities: the physicality of an action hero, the dramatic capability and range of an Oscar-winning actor, and the wit and humanity that I felt needed to be injected into what is a pretty grim tale. I couldn't think of anybody else who leads in those arenas as successfully as Nicholas Cage. Cage is an unpredictable force, and this was not like any movie he had done before. And this is his first beard I think.
So I wrote him a letter, at a time when he hadn't worked in a year. If someone like that doesn’t work for a year you know something is up. So I called his agent and was told he was taking time off. “Time off” means soul-searching. So I wrote the letter asking him if he would talk to me about maybe reading this script. By whatever backdoor method, he ended up reading the script and the book and called me, without ever responding to the letter. I still have the voicemail that he left. Then he flew over literally the next day, out to Austin to join us in the van during the Prince Avalanche shoot.