Raising Cage: Acclaimed filmmaker David Gordon Green talks Joe

In April, the RiverRun International Film Festival presented a special screening of Joe, the latest feature from award-winning filmmaker and UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate David Gordon Green. The screening was one of the festival’s hottest tickets, and sold out so quickly that even local film critics (like this one) didn’t get to see it.

Joe, which premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, was well received both at RiverRun and by most critics, but that screening proved its only theatrical exposure in the region. The film seemed to disappear almost immediately, and according to Wikipedia grossed less than $400,000 in release.

Now, however, audiences have a second chance to catch up with this drama, which is now available from LionsGate Home Entertainment (see review, Page 41).

Adapted from Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, the story depicts the unlikely relationship that develops between the titular ex-con (Nicolas Cage) and a local teenager (Tye Sheridan). Green has made several comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, Prince Avalanche), but Joe marks a return to subtle, character-driven drama that takes place in its own milieu, off the beaten track (in this case, Austin, Texas).

The film has no relation to the 1970 film Joe, which launched the careers of Peter Boyle and director John G. Avildsen. Although Green considers that a great film, and some people mused whether audiences would confuse the two, Joe was never going to be called by another name.

“It’s very personal to Larry,” Green explains. “That’s why I couldn’t change the title, because I respect him first as a writer and as a human being.”

Green then worked with screenwriter and former teacher Gary Hawkins on adapting the novel for the screen. “I was blown away by how he captured it and condensed it,” Green says.

The film is also considered a return to form for Cage, in a contemplative turn as man with tenderness in his heart but a penchant for trouble.

Cage, according to Green, “brings awesome baggage and major credits. He’s made hit comedies, he won an Oscar for drama (1995’s Leaving Las Vegas), he’s kicked ass as an action hero. He delivers a frightening energy, he’s a fearless actor, and he’s there for the work. He wanted to make a movie he’d never made before.”

Green was familiar with young co-star Sheridan’s in Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life (2011) and opposite Matthew McConaughey and Reese McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in last year’s Mud, directed by his friend, former UNCSA classmate and sometime collaborator Jeff Nichols.

“Tye is awesome and a great discovery,” Green praises. “He’s got fresh eyes. To him, it’s still pretend – and it is.”

Of his leading men, “it was a real pleasure and a real education working with them,” says Green.

At this year’s RiverRun festival, Sheridan was presented with a Spark award, recognizing him as an up-and-coming talent. In 2010, Green himself was presented with the Emerging Master award.

Throughout his career, Green has frequently worked with friends from UNCSA, and Joe is no exception, with the production team including such fellow graduates as cinematographer Tim Orr and executive producers Jody Hill and Danny McBride, and former faculty members Hawkins (screenwriter) and Lisa Muskat (producer). He has maintained close ties to both the festival and the School of Filmmaking despite his often-hectic schedule.

“We’ve been incredibly fortunate to count David Gordon Green as a close friend of the festival for many years,” says River- Run executive director Andrews Rodgers. “He’s always been incredibly generous with his time and assistance, and has been immeasurably helpful to us. We’ve also been really pleased to welcome him to RiverRun from time to time. He’s received our Emerging Master award, we were able to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his debut feature George Washington at River- Run, and today he sits on our advisory board, helping us to expand the reach and impact of the festival. We’re always eager to see new work from David, and look forward to again showcasing his films for our audiences.”

Rodgers saw Joe at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. “For me, (it’s) a fantastic Southern gothic tale, with compelling characters and a well-crafted narrative,” he says. “I truly think it’s a remarkable film and really love it.”

It was an easy decision to recognize Sheridan with a Spark award, he says. “Tye is an impressive young actor. As a young man, he’s already made a tremendous name for himself. We’re genuinely excited to see where his career takes him next … (and) we were so incredibly fortunate to get to know him a little bit at RiverRun this year.”

Green is currently in post-production on his latest drama, Manglehorn, which stars Oscar winners Al Pacino and Holly Hunter.!