The New Romantic

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O Valentine’s Day release about a lothario who falls for a virgin might seem tailor-made for Freddie Prinze Jr. and Tara Reid, but in the hands of director David Gordon Green, the clichéd premise is transformed into a highly original work of personal storytelling. With All the Real Girls, the twenty-seven-year-old director tells the story of Paul (Paul Schneider), the resident stud of a small Southern town who falls passionately in love with his best friend’s little sister, Noel (Zooey Deschanel). Determined to put his womanizing ways behind him, Paul insists that he and Noel substitute old-fashioned courtship for sex. But Noel, eager for experience, makes an impulsive decision that gives Paul the kind of heartbreak every good country song is made of.

Unabashedly emotional, the film has the same lyrical, idiosyncratic tone of 2000’s George Washington, Green’s critically lauded but little-seen first feature. Since that unexpected success (it was selected for both the Berlin and New York film festivals, despite being rejected by Sundance), Green has finished All the Real Girls, started pre-production on a new film which his idol, Terrence Malick, will help produce, and signed on to adapt John Kennedy O’Toole’s cult novel A Confederacy of Dunces for Miramax. Nerve spoke with the director about his ’70s influences and making a date movie for the broken-hearted. — Matthew Ross

You’ve spoken about being influenced by American films from the ’70s. What about those films inspires you?
I have a weird kind of intellectual perspective — or pseudo-intellectual perspective — on films like Billy Jack and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. I’m not sure if this is the right way to describe them, but they’re kind of non-intellectual. The characters are all people like us who are dealing with issues we have to deal with in a style that’s economical. The films are about something we can touch.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a perfect example of that kind of movie. It has a perspective that sets it apart from all other Westerns of the time. It has naturalistic performances and overlapping dialogue. It doesn’t feel like the actors’ perspective is taken from other movies or is inspired by the pitch-perfect monologue. It sounds like they’re influenced by real behavior and real gestures. That happened a lot in the 70’s.

In All the Real Girls, we tried to deconstruct the monologues and find the frogs in the throat and the natural inflections, the stutters, the drifting lines, and overlapping lines to make it seem improvisational and natural.

How did you use that technique to construct your stories?
I’d rather take characters and let them be who they are. Their actions will dictate what the story — or lack of story — might be, instead of the story dictating what the characters need to do and what the outcome needs to be.

That’s the same in my writing. I start with a group of characters and see how they interact, and I let them lead me through the writing process. That makes it tremendously easy and fun for me, because I’m at their mercy. Instead of trying to construct a perfect vehicle for the story, I’d rather not know when I start page one what’s going to happen on page 100.


Most screenwriters don’t work like that.
Yeah, that’s true. They must get their little notecards out and put them all over the floor, which is helpful for structuring. But take a movie like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which was maybe the greatest influence on me. You’re just along with these characters for the ride, and, out of the blue, a guy might have bunny rabbits in his trunk and start blasting them. That may have nothing to do with anything. But it’s just a great little episode. Thunderbolt is a perfect example of a movie where these little windows tell you what’s going on with the characters.

You used an interesting blend of non-professional actors, unknown actors and well-known indie performers like Zooey Deschanel and Patricia Clarkson. Why mix things up?
Some days it works really well. The nonactors bring the authenticity, the accent, the mannerisms, the keeping-you-on-your feet dialogue, because they’re still comfortable just being who they are. They keep the naturalism alive. The professional actor keeps things focused and feeds from the naturalism of the nonactor.

I really enjoy the dynamic of the non-professional and the professional. I think it’s important to have those people who are authentic, especially when you’re dealing with a culture that is clichéd as often as the South. If you have people who have that voice and those tones and actions, you can be a lot more convincing.

Was it your idea to open the film on Valentine’s Day?

So it’s kind of a date movie for the broken-hearted.
Ideally, this is what should happen: a guy and a girl would go see it as a date movie. The guy would take the girl home, and he’d say it was pretty good. Then he’d go back and see it again by himself. So we’d get three tickets out of it. I’d like people to go together and then go back individually, because the film is about relationships and asking yourself questions about who you’re with and why. But it also says a lot about being by yourself and what you want to do with your life. Hopefully it’ll inspire you to take a few more walks during the day and stay off the computer.

I know you’ve described All the Real Girls as a chick flick for guys.
Yeah. You know, I said that, and then this morning I’m flipping through Time Out New York and it has an ad for another movie, and they called that “a chick flick for guys,” and I was like, “That’s my line, you dick!” I thought I had said a clever thing, but I guess they beat me to it a week ahead of time.

Is that what you set out to make?
I like the idea of making a movie that can emotionally connect with young people and old people and not be a nostalgic piece. The greatest moment I had at Sundance was after this 11:30 p.m. screening, which was way too late to show a movie this slow. I mean, I’m trying not to fall asleep. But after that screening, two people come up to me after the Q&A. One was an eighteen-year-old girl who said, “You made a movie about me and my friends. We come from this place. It’s not in the mountains; it’s in the Midwest, but we talk the same. This is how we are, this is how we treat our boyfriends, this is how they treat us, this is the miscommunication and the communication, and thank you for making this movie.” And then a fifty-five-year-old guy came up to me and said, “That’s the story of my life, and I don’t mean my life when I was that age. I mean my life now. That shit happened to me two months ago.” And that was great, because we wanted to make this movie feel timeless yet emotionally immediate and contemporary.

The films that you’ve made are very personal, yet at the same time your name keeps popping up in connection to bigger industry projects.
My only reason for making movies is my enthusiasm for movies, which I’ve had since I was a little kid. I grew up with Back to the Future and Goonies, but I also grew up with Never Cry Wolf and The Black Stallion. I’ll watch everything. I can’t wait to see Kangaroo Jack. I need to see that movie, and I’m not saying that tongue-in-cheek.

I read a Hollywood script yesterday. It was by-the-numbers but a good execution of the Hollywood sensibility. And I was reading it, thinking, “What if someone gave me this three-act Hollywood screenplay and told me to make a movie of it? What would I do differently?” I’d want to bring a natural sense of performance, to get the right, complicated, eccentric cast to bring a challenging level to these characters. I’d like to make this three-act structure evolve into something that could appeal to people who don’t need the plot, the foundations or the extra exposition. I’d reduce the obvious music swells and the clichéd editorial techniques. I’d give everybody a little bit more. I can’t think of any movies in the last ten years or so that really do that.

All the Real Girls opens in New York and L.A. on February 14.

Visit the film’s website here.  

  Matthew Ross is a filmmaker and the managing editor of Filmmaker magazine.