David Gordon Green On the Spot

At just 28, Green has written and directed two critically lauded films: last year’s All the Real Girls and George Washington (2000). He made his commercial-directing debut last month via Chelsea Pictures in New York with three spots for the American Legacy Foundation’s “Connect Truth” campaign. The ads, shot on New York streets in Super 8, make explicit the link between cigarette marketing and tobacco-related deaths. Green, who was raised in Little Rock, Ark., and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, has set his next film in Georgia. Undertow, due this summer, was co-produced by Terrence Malick, a director to whom Green is often compared.

Q. Why did you choose the American Legacy campaign as your first commercial project?

A. It was a project I could wrap my head around ethically as well as creatively, which helps make the transition from film and the passion projects I’ve been involved with to stuff in the commercial world.

How did the shoot go? Did anything

unexpected happen?

The beauty of this type of project for me is that the unexpected is what you’re looking for. It’s almost like your fallback is what you’ve prepared. When people pass by and have something to say or have an interesting glance even, we’re basically loaded down with PAs getting signatures. So every action you see is totally authentic, and every line that’s spoken is true and from the heart. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily always go gracefully—a lot of times somebody doesn’t want to be on camera. My favorite moment, unfortunately, we don’t have a signature for.

What was the most difficult part of the process?

Just the sheer scope of what you’re trying to do when you’re involving so many random elements of the community. You’ve got a lot of faces, a lot of people passing by. Trying to capture that and legally be able to put it together with the right signatures—it’s a difficult thing to execute. But nothing technically—it was a welcoming, warm experience, especially for me who was fairly unfamiliar with the commercial-production process.

Would you do more commercials?

Yes. If the right project comes around. I think a well-placed advertisement is not a bad thing.

Do you have any favorite recent ads?

Honestly, I can’t think of any. And that’s why I’m here. My roommates have been watching college basketball and the playoffs, and I’m watching commercials every three minutes, it seems. But how many of them are distinctive? How many of them ring a bell? And how many step outside their own immediate creativity? Very few, I think. I don’t mean to sound negative, but it would be nice if there were a little more of a twist. There was one when I was a kid that I still sing the song to. It was a Pine-Sol commercial with singing sponges. I don’t know why that has stuck in my head since I was 4 years old, but it means something is working subconsciously in disturbing manners.

If you weren’t a director, what would you do?

I’d like to be a high school cross-country track coach. I like track, and I like teaching. I still keep in touch with my high school track coach. I also lately have been thinking about becoming a locksmith. I just want to have my own van and a little shop and a 24-hour hotline people can call if somebody locks their keys in the car. I need a craft, a hands-on project to really be satisfied at the end of the day. I need to see an accomplishment, be it a well-carved key or a cat out of a tree.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

To work for the project and not for the paycheck. I don’t know if that’s one decision, but that’s a moral compass I have.

Why do you think that’s important?

Then you might get sucked into a real job. I don’t think I’d be good at doing something I didn’t like. I’ve tried real jobs, and I’ve failed.

And what’s the dumbest decision?

I needed money really bad, so I became a janitor at a mental institution. And it wasn’t worth the $8.50 an hour. [Four years ago], I went out to L.A. and was getting beat up by the town, and all the industry jobs I had were surrounding me with annoying people. I wanted to get a different perspective, and I thought it would be a cool idea.

What advice would you give someone starting out as a director?

Find the core group of people you trust and you creatively respond to, and work at it, and keep those relationships, and make sure every process is a fun way to spend the day. You have sweeter dreams at night that way.

How do you get past a creative block?

Going away to my buddy’s cabin in Colorado and hanging out with, like, lumberjacks gives me a chance to look back on what I’m approaching and distance myself from what I’m working on. This community of people I hang out with in Colorado, they all look like badass lumberjacks. Blue-collar people that could give a shit about cell phones or the Internet. A couple of steps to the side of what I’m exposed to daily.

What are your favorite TV shows?

Since they canceled my favorite Chris Elliott show, Get a Life, 10 years ago, it’s been hard for me to turn on a television.

Seen any good movies lately?

Greaser’s Palace, from 1972. It’s a dramatic western that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. I can’t really think of any others. People are just making average a lot. I’d rather have something be terrible than mediocre.