David Gordon Green talks history of ‘George Washington,’ 20 years later

Twenty years ago, while Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott asked, “Dude, where’s my car?” and Tom Hanks formed a relationship with a ball in Cast Away, another film quietly floated from festival to festival, making its presence felt across the country. 

David Gordon Green’s George Washington follows kids in an impoverished small town filled with abandoned factories and rail yards as they pass the time during their endless summer days with intermittent narration by one of the kids, Nasia (Candace Evanofski). In time, a tragic accident becomes a secret that affects them in different ways.  

What sets the film apart is not it’s plot but it’s interest in the characters and the locations. The performances have a naturalism that recalled the work of John Cassavettes and a visual flair that reminded me of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven

I was enthralled by George Washington. Many years later, Charleston resident Green set up Rough House Pictures, the production company he heads with Danny McBride (George Washington’s second unit director), Jody Hill and Brandon James to create dark comedies like The Righteous Gemstones. In between announcements of a Smokey And the Bandit TV series and continuing production on the Halloween trilogy, Green took some time to field fan/obsessive nerd questions and reflect on the film that started it all.

City Paper: So, it’s been 20 years…

David Gordon Green: Isn’t that crazy? Seems like yesterday. Yeah, yeah. We shot it all, like, Winston-Salem. And then there’s a little town called Spencer, like halfway to Charlotte that we shot at, and that was cool. Um, a little bit in High Point. So, yeah, we were all around.

CP: It’s an oddly tranquil film. The setting is all this kind of decay but then there’s a lot of greenery out there too.

DGG: Yeah, that was kind of the idea is to make this kind of rustic throw-away landscape that we drive by and don’t ever think about. But is there a way to turn a lens on it and put life and situations in front of it that makes it so attractive, if not appealing?

CP: Where did the title come from?

DGG: It’s a roundabout philosophical question to some degree. I was looking for an aspirational title … a kid with ambition that may or may not be within his reach and George Washington had such a simplicity to it. There was such an almost generic quality to it, just thinking about the ambition and patriotism in being the first president. How a young mind might think that’s the American dream. It’s really kind of an interior cerebral title, considering the narrative of the movie.

CP: How did the production itself come about?

DGG: I made Physical Pinball [his second short film] when I was a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts as a senior thesis project. And then when I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles for eight months and got as many jobs as I could. And this is in 1998. And I got a lot of jobs, like seven jobs at once…If there was a paycheck at the end of the week, I did it. I earned the money upfront and then did a call for contributions, and then made the movie with the money that was in the bank. And so, we shot it in 19 days straight, in and around Winston-Salem, N.C. where our film school was. And, we wrote it so that it was as cheap as it could possibly be and still be a feature-length film. So anything that we had … a relationship that was valuable or resources that were within reach, from film equipment, to locations, to wardrobe, to donated lunches from the local barbecue restaurants. We just called upon every favor, and I would offer to sweep the floors and do what it took to get people to not just donate to me but believe in me. And so, that was the real community collaboration and the spirit of the production.

CP: The performances in the movie are very natural.

DGG: Even though I’d gone to film school, I didn’t really have experience working with actors, and I didn’t know the grammar. And so, my assumption at that time, which was naive, but now is an incredible asset and attribute of my career, is that I just ask actors questions and let them make choices and try to engineer something that way, rather than say, “Here’s the script. Here’s how you say it. Here’s your intention,” which is more of a textbook model.

CP: What did you learn when you took it out on the festival circuit?

DGG: I mean, that’s the real film school. It was like I traveled to 30 different countries with that movie over two years. You learn about yourself, you learn about the world, you learn about how something that you take for granted, your own backyard in this case, is an exotic location for so many places, you know. When I was in South Korea and I’m looking at something that’s so near and dear and familiar to me, but I’m presenting it in an environment where it is as foreign a movie as this audience has seen. I just love being able to interpret where I come from and answering many questions that you’re asking here. It was like, “Where does the story come from, and how does it relate to you?” And, I think that’s really fun to be able to explore other cultures while you’re sharing some of your own.  

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