In June, BuzzFeed made the observation that in their new movie, Prince Avalanche, Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd look like the Super Mario Brothers, what with their red and green shirts, overalls, and facial hair.
Turns out that it was not a coincidence.
“Our costume designer, Jill Newell, that was her idea,” said the film’s director, David Gordon Green, about the movie’s costuming. “At the wrap party, we had Mario and Luigi piñatas, we had them customized. We had the soundtrack. We actually thought at one point we should get the license to the theme song so we could get Explosions in the Sky [who did the film’s score] to cover it.”
The movie is a small, personal story about two guys spending the summer in the employ of the state of Texas, painting yellow lines on a long, lonely road out in a fire-wrecked forest. Rudd plays Alvin, a distant and socially cold know-it-all who uses the countless hours on the job to dispense flawed wisdom to Lance, Emile Hirsch’s lunkhead who only got the menial job because Alvin is dating his older sister. They are both experiencing inner turmoil; the solitude of the road is both salve and sore.
Who dressed like Mario and who wore the Luigi colors, Gordon Green said, was left to the actors.
“They fought about it and dealt with it themselves, it was all an internal struggle,” the filmmaker said, adding that with only one actor allowed to wear whiskers, the decision was easy. “Paul has a little more masculinity about his mustache,” he laughed.
Despite its video game homage, Prince Avalanche is a decidedly low-key movie, an indie dramedy that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and has toured around to various festivals over the last seven months. Set in 1988, there are no cell phones or other distractions to the story, and the character study clocks in at just 88 minutes — it is an antidote to big summer movies in both its scale and run time.
“I think there should be a law against most filmmakers making movies over two hours long,” Gordon Green said. “Tarantino can do it really successfully, Paul Thomas Anderson does it, Robert Altman does it, but most filmmakers need to control themselves a little bit more. They write scripts that are over 120 pages and they don’t know how to control themselves and their passion for their own writing.”
The script for Prince Avalanche was a tidy 65 pages, which allowed for some improv and experimentation. For example, the movie includes an old woman who they met in the woods. The woman’s house had actually burned down, and the setting inspired an entirely new scene, using the ashes as a poignant setting. They gave her a cameo as well.
“She was beautiful and had a very fragile voice and vulnerable moment in her life,” he explained. “We were open, because we had a short script and a very flexible crew and a very small crew and nobody looking at us for blockbuster tentpole expectations, we can take those kind of risks. And if we filmed it and it wasn’t worthwhile, then we just wouldn’t use it. But if we filmed it and it was great, we could integrate her into the rest of the movie.”
The movie, Gordon Green admitted, was “very much dialogue that I have with myself.”
“As a guy who struggles — I’m 38 years old, I have 2½-year-old twin boys, so I’ve got the stress and responsibility of a guy trying to do the right thing, and also the novelty and naïveté and absurdity of a young kid who wants to run around and live the adventure of life and go to every party and stay up all night and hit on every girl,” he said. “And then I’ve got the man’s man side of me that thinks he’s just gonna go disappear from this crazy society and wander off into the woods and fish and hunt and live off the land.”
Alvin’s Rudd represented one side of the filmmaker; Hirsch’s Lance, the other.
The Arkansas native’s duality also applies to his career as a filmmaker. After earning big kudos for early independent movies like George Washington and All The Real Girls, he moved to studio pictures. He had massive success with Pineapple Express, but less so with the Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter and his medieval stoner epic with Danny McBride and James Franco Your Highness.
The latter earned the director plenty of venom from critics — “What the hell was he doing?” was a common refrain — but he just shrugged it off.
“I got to have fun and get paid and work with my friends and I staged car chases and blowups and had dragons come around. It was pretty amazing to be able to have those opportunities, and if you can balance both worlds, then both are equally satisfying, for very different reasons. You don’t make a movie like Prince Avalanche thinking you’re going to get paid.”
Given how well the film has sold around the world already, Gordon Green and his producers will actually end up making a good bit of coin from it — assuming they don’t have to pay royalties to Nintendo.