When David Gordon Green introduced Paul Rudd to Emile Hirsch, the two actors didn't click. It was an awkward seafood dinner. "Emile just started talking about something — girls, maybe — and I was doing a piss-poor job of trying to follow along," recalls Rudd. "And when Emile got up and went to the bathroom, David turned to me and said, 'I love it already.'"
"They have nothing in common, and it made me very happy," adds Green. "It was just immediate anti-casting: These guys will never be in a movie together unless I make it happen." So he did.
The resulting film, Prince Avalanche, pits Rudd against Hirsch in a slow, subversively funny dramedy about two workers painting endless yellow lines on a road that seems to have no beginning or end. It's 1988, the year after a fire made bones of 43,000 acres of trees and 1,600 homes, and alpha male Alvin (Rudd, almost unrecognizable behind his manly mustache) sees this charred Texas forest as his own Walden Pond. His partner Lance (Hirsch) is a twerp in tube socks. Lance can't even gut a fish, which to Alvin means he's probably learning-disabled.
The fire was real, but a lot more recent. Two years ago, the $325 million Bastrop blaze was the worst conflagration in the Lone Star state's history. "It was pretty brutal," sighs Green, who grew up three and a half hours north in a Dallas suburb. "It took out a lot of Richard Linklater's land." When Green drove through the remains — thin black pines twisted in pain, piles of ash where houses once stood — he knew it was the right spot to shoot a film. The actual plot came later, when a friend convinced him he should remake Either Way, an Icelandic film neither of them had even seen.
Green was ready to take a risk. His last three films — the stoner shoot-'em-up Pineapple Express, the stoner slice-'em-up Your Highness, and the '80s-style Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter — had raised his profile while raising concerns that the former critical darling had lost his path pursuing cash. His first four films, which include George Washington and All the Real Girls, had won awards at Toronto and Sundance (and, oddly, launched the film career of Danny McBride) while earning a mere $1.34 million combined, or slightly more than the Russian box office haul of Your Highness, Green's biggest public flop.
Though Your Highness and The Sitter are currently mouldering on Rotten Tomatoes at 27 percent and 22 percent fresh, respectively (wrote Roger Ebert on Green's career in 2011, "I hope this is a temporary aberration"), the director himself shrugged off the criticism as being no worse than the time he asked the homecoming queen to prom.
"That rejection gave me the confidence that has carried me through the rest of my life, knowing that it didn't hurt and that I was going to be okay," says Green. "Ever since then, I've been addicted to that vulnerability — I've never not gone for it." Still, Prince Avalanche would be a step back toward his past: a no-budget lark shot with such a small crew that the few campers who wandered by wrote them off as land surveyors. For one roadkill scene, Green even refused to shell out $3,000 for a trained coyote. Instead, he rented a skunk for $45.
"This was going to be a totally artistic endeavor — who even knew if it'd ever see the light of day?" admits Rudd. "I was on board regardless." So after their delightfully disastrous dinner, Green, Rudd, and Hirsch trucked out to Bastrop to shoot a film in a place Samuel Beckett would have loved. (His setting for Waiting for Godot is simply: "A country road. A tree.")
Prince Avalanche is kind of like a redneck Godot, if Beckett had squeezed in gags about masturbation, mustard bottles, and Mario and Luigi — Rudd and Hirsch's costumes, overalls with red and green shirts, are totally deliberate. "I thought it would be funny," jokes Green, "but then they started fighting over who was who."
It's also — gasp — almost an arthouse adaptation of Your Highness, a woodland quest with an overachiever, a slacker, an offscreen princess, and a variety of convenient weapons. Fittingly, Rudd needed no training ("He's got a place upstate, so he knows how to wield an ax," compliments Green), while they both had to teach Hirsch to throw a sledgehammer.
And like Your Highness, there's also a bit of magic. One rainy afternoon, producer Craig Zobel was wandering through the rubble when he stumbled across an elderly woman named Joyce sifting through the wreckage of her house in search of her old pilot's license. Green hustled over, and Joyce turned calmly to his camera and said, "Sometimes I feel like I'm digging in my own ashes." Her off-the-cuff monologue made it in the film.
"This is a woman who'd had an amazing life, all these adventures and travels, and when it went up it was almost like she didn't know who she was anymore," says Rudd. "There was no proof of it." At least for him, Hirsch, and Green, their adventures will live on onscreen, even if odd couple Hirsch and Rudd won't be sharing future adventures together.
Would they ever team up again? Rudd stops and thinks. "For The Avengers," he says. Guess which one will be wielding Thor's Hammer.