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Taking his cue from the '70s

Oh, ye of little faith, take heart. There is life after rejection from the Sundance Film Festival. Let David Gordon Green show you the way.

"Sundance turned down 'George Washington,' though they won't admit to it anymore," the writer-director says of his 2000 film with his characteristic soft Texas drawl. "My life savings, everything I had was in that film. When you're an independent filmmaker trying to break in, you think Sundance is the gatekeeper."

Fortunately, the world of cinema is a mansion with many doors. "George Washington" was accepted and acclaimed at festivals in Berlin, Toronto, even New York. And not only is "All the Real Girls," Green's deeply moving love story, a highlight of this year's dramatic competition, the filmmaker himself is the designated director for one of the most sought-after projects, the long-delayed adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces."

Green's intention with "Real Girls," his story of the relationship between a small-town North Carolina Lothario ("George Washington" veteran Paul Schneider) and the virginal sister of his best friend (a breathtaking Zooey Deschanel), was a genuine film about being young and in love.

Looking boyish even for his 27 years, Green says he wanted "to make something that felt believable and real but wasn't about the dark side of life, that ultimately wasn't negative. I wanted to reflect my own personal turmoil of a guy who makes mistakes but whose heart is trying."

Green does this using his distinctive undemonstrative style, a contemplative and artful artlessness that manages to take this story of being at cross-purposes with those you love the most to a remarkably deep and powerful emotional place.

"Creating that kind of emotion with your actors is the most exciting, rewarding thing you can possibly do," says Green, who clearly relishes the process. Pressed for space while his crew was lighting a motel room for a key scene, for instance, Green commandeered the bathroom, put on some Icelandic music ("it sounds haunting, but you can't understand the words") and sat in the bathtub with Schneider and Deschanel, talking over the scene.

Green has been an omnivorous movie watcher since childhood, and in fact lays claim to being the first-ever Blockbuster member:

"The first store in Dallas was in my neighborhood, I saw the building go up and I was in line an hour and a half before it opened." But Green's deliberateness sets him apart from much of what's on screens today.

"There's such a mechanical, deliberate, preconceived process to what I see, so much so that if I like something in the first 20 minutes I fear they're setting me up for something later," he explains. "It makes me feel dumb."

What Green is attracted to, and enormously so, are the American films of the 1970s. "I feel like every sensibility I have, about performance, editing, narrative structure, music, comes from there," he says, lighting up with excitement. "These are the films I respond to emotionally 100%. They take human instinct into consideration."

With his slow, quiet style, Green is at the opposite pole from what he calls the "1980s MTV/Jerry Bruckheimer, get-it-going, keep-it-moving" style of filmmaking. "When I think of the movies I like, I think of a place, places where things happen. Rather than have a story dictate to and motivate characters, I prefer having characters motivate their actions and determine the story."

Both "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls" are redolent of a sense of place, in both cases rural North Carolina. "I value every place," says Green, who currently has chosen not to have a permanent home and whose growing-up experiences likely influenced his preferences and style.

"I spent summers in Mangum, Okla., population 9, one of those places where there was nothing to do and you could see tornados coming 100 miles away," he remembers.

"You'd do things like hang out in an abandoned rodeo pit that's been unused for 20 years. There was no TV, so I'd listen to stories from my 102-year-old aunt. You feel a place like that a little deeper."

Green learned filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and "George Washington," which cost all of $50,000, was made with the people he went to school with. He used largely the same group for "All the Real Girls," which he wrote with North Carolina classmate Schneider in mind, but the filmmaking experience was not exactly the same: "Real Girls" had a budget of roughly $1 million, partially pre-financed by distributor Sony Pictures Classics.

With "Dunces," a studio film brought to him by producers Steven Soderbergh, Drew Barrymore and Scott Kramer, in his future, Green knows that his life will be more complicated, but he is not afraid. " 'All the Real Girls' was my education," he says. "I feel I'm not naive. I feel I came through unscathed."

'Station Agent' is just the ticket

There are few things rarer in Sundance (or anywhere else, for that matter) than beautifully made comic dramas that mix unforced warmth, emotional sophistication and dead-on deadpan humor. "The Station Agent," is such a film.

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, an experienced actor making his debut on the other side of the camera, "Station Agent" centers around 4-foot-5 Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage), who chooses to live in an abandoned train depot in Newfoundland, N.J. A railroad fanatic and committed loner, Fin is surprised to find his removed life bouncing up against two other solitaries: Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), a woman in agony over the death of her young son, and the gregarious Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a compulsively friendly hot dog vendor forced to set up shop in unwanted isolation.

McCarthy had this trio of actors in mind when he wrote the script, and they all do magnificently, especially Dinklage, who gives a Keatonesque performance of equal parts dignity and delicacy while being the classic comic foil for the irrepressible Cannavale and the always unraveling Clarkson.

The relationship among these cockeyed Three Amigos (and a few other folks in town) develops with a welcome naturalness, as writer-director McCarthy, as at ease with sadness as he is with humor, never pushes either emotion.

"This film in a lot of ways is about community," he said in a post-screening question-and-answer session, and the Sundance community is more than grateful it's around.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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