If you’re an American director, remaking a critically acclaimed foreign film is always a tricky business. From “Swept Away” to “Let Me In” to “Three Men and a Baby,” American remakes are generally more toothless than their overseas predecessors, eschewing depth and nuance in favor of catering to American tastes.
“Prince Avalanche,” a loose adaptation of Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson’s 2011 Icelandic comedy “Either Way,” successfully avoids this trap. Directed by David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express,” “East Bound & Down,” “All the Real Girls”), the film, which tells the story of two highway road workers hired to repaint lines after a 1988 forest fire, is unconcerned with catering to the tastes of mainstream audiences: The dialogue is minimal, the plot threadbare, and the setting austere (the film takes place in rural Bastrop County, Texas, which was ravaged by forest fires a few months before shooting). The fact that the two main characters are played by Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, two actors better known for, respectively, gritty studio dramas and big-budget comedies, further defies audience expectations.
As Alvin and Lance, two road workers with radically different personalities, Rudd and Hirsch have a blast playing against type. And although “Prince Avalanche” is, in many respects, a conventional odd-couple comedy, it’s also a quirky, subtly moving one, admirably subverting the pitfalls of most Americanized remakes. Salon caught up with the director and stars of the film to chat about bromances, Hollywood dove handlers, why the ’80s were magical, and the symbolic significance of Paul Rudd’s facial hair (spoiler alert: There isn’t any).
Well, Alvin and Lance’s relationship is —it’s a close relationship between two men, so that’s ostensibly a bromance.
DGG: I think it’s just — when I was making “Pineapple Express,” that was before that term had any sort of relevance in culture, but I remember looking at that movie like a love story. I remember looking at it with the same obstacles and affections that you would have in a traditional male and female love story, homosexual love story, whatever it was. I wanted to have those kinds of character arcs and put them in an absurd stoner comedy between this guy and this drug dealer, but finding the same things where you find a real connection with someone that you don’t necessarily get along with in the beginning, and engineering something beyond the clichés of a romance, but finding those applicable in a situation between two dissimilar male characters. So if that’s kind of come to a little more of a cultural commonplace, I think it’s a great way to explore relationships. You could do the same thing between two old women and it could be a bromance.
Emile Hirsch: A grandmance.
EH: A bromance with grandmothers.
DGG: But I do think, even if we’re going to accept that term, I think that applies more to this film, because there’s a romantic notion to the movie of the relationship of these guys to the women they left behind. I think there’s a connection; they can utilize each other in their misunderstandings and their desperate grasp at connecting to women. So they do utilize each other in a great strength of friendship, although it’s incredibly awkward, and I think that’s where a lot of the humor comes from.
Both of you guys are sort of playing against type here. Is that something you were considering when you were looking at the script at all? Like for you, Paul, I would say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen you play a remotely unlikable character, and Alvin is not — he’s not unlikable per se, but he’s not super easy to get along with.
PR: Right. I kind of feel bad for him. There are those moments where hopefully he’s an empathetic guy. That’s the thing: Any character, you want him to be, like, empathetic or – I do, anyway. Somebody who’s trying. And I liked the idea, and I was really excited about the idea, of playing somebody that – it’s not like he’s just an asshole, but he’s a little more buttoned-up and annoying compared to the other one. But I never — I was, there was really no script when I kind of signed on. We knew we were going to be doing this movie either way, and then David sent me the script, and I was just down with it anyway, because it looked like it would be a fun experience.
DGG: Alvin is not an unlikable character, he’s just a complicated character. I think once you get to know both of these guys, they’re not what you thought when you first judged them, and I like those characters that are a little bit more than just black and white, good guy, bad guy, handsome leading man, goofy best friend. This is a tough one to put in a box, I think, for me. I was watching it last night with a crowd in Brooklyn, and the humor was really jumping out at me. I dunno, I was just standing in the back of the crowd watching it, and I got the giggles watching certain things, and I’ve seen the movie dozens and dozens of times with all types of crowds, but for myself I was really trying to target the emotional elements of the movie, and that was something I was really trying to exercise. To know that it plays occasionally really funny to me, I think it says a lot more about me than the movie.
In terms of the humor, how much of it was improvised? Because I remember, especially the scene in the woods where you guys just get bombed and start singing a song, it seemed like that was pretty free-wheeling.
PR: Yeah, that song was made up on the spot. We knew it was going to be called “Bad Connection,” but we didn’t know what we were going to sing about.
DGG: Or do. I remember saying, “Hey, let’s do something with paint now. What can we do with paint?” While you guys were drunk and running around. Or, “Let’s play soccer somewhere. Wouldn’t it be weird if we were playing soccer on a hill with tree stumps?” Not the worst idea. (laughs)
PR: Yeah, that was fun to just keep coming up with ideas and be like, “Why not? Let’s just shoot that.” It was really kind of one of the great luxuries of shooting a movie like this, when we were in that same spot for most of it all – for all of it, really. And we can take little moments and not worry about how they might play, but seemed interesting to us and we thought we might like. So we’d just be like, why not? Let’s go try it.
DGG: I was just thinking in terms of the script – like, a lot of it was scripted. But I don’t think what was in the script – after the drunk montage, you guys were sitting there in the car listening to language tapes, I think we rolled for 15 minutes – there was a static camera looking in the window, of these two guys recovering from the epic foolishness of the preceding scene, and there’s a language tape playing, and they just kind of go along with it for a few minutes at one point. And then we hit on – in a different version, when Emile gets out of the car and goes and does something, we just kind of left it rolling and wanted to see what happened for 15 minutes, and then just took part of that. I thought there was a nice, curious look in Paul’s eyes — he wipes the fog and looks out at something we don’t see. But there were plenty of other little shenanigans in that run –
PR: Things even, midway through – somebody might have an idea, or David would have an idea, and it was like, “Let’s try that,” and we’d do it. What comes in my mind is birds being in our car.
That wasn’t in the script?
DGG: It was going to be fireworks in the script, but then the park wouldn’t let us use fireworks.
PR: And then we just kind of had our next thought, which was like, “We should just see if we can get some birds.” And then the next day, you’re kind of looking in the Yellow Pages to see if there are any animal wranglers out there.
EH: That dove expert.
A dove expert? That’s a thing?
PR: Yeah, she releases doves for weddings. That’s her business. But it wasn’t her first movie. She also had the dove in the funeral scene in “Bernie.”
DGG: We saw her the other night. She was at the screening at Austin.
EH: And I guess one of the doves escaped and we saw her the other night at the screening in Austin, and she was like ,“I got ‘em back.” Like, literally as if we’d never stopped talking about it. She’s like, “By the way, I got ‘em back.”
In terms of the setting, rural Texas sort of assumes its own character in the movie. It’s so bleak and dismal … it seems like it must’ve been a completely different experience than shooting in L.A. somewhere, or on a soundstage.
DGG: There wasn’t that much time in between takes. We’re making movies for the whole 16 days. But it was cool, because right outside of Austin you have Bastrop, right? And we’d have evenings where – we’re far enough away from civilization, where we don’t go back to our normal lives, and the burdens of duty that call us. We’re all staying in motels and cabins around the area, and going out and bullshitting at night. And it was really a wonderful vibe to actually be able to connect with your cast and crew in a way, and sometimes you don’t really have that luxury.
PR: And it was so much smaller than most, so you know everyone that’s around.
Was there any significance behind placing the film in the ’80s? Because in some ways — in terms of the costumes and Paul, in terms of your mustache — it seems very much of the period, but it’s also the kind of story that seems like it could be set pretty much whenever.
DGG: I really wanted to have that handwritten breakup letter. That was just something that romantically was important to me, to see a world where people still did that. And I liked the isolation of — not being in a world where people have technological devices. Because if it was set now, Lance’s character would have no problem texting or playing video games on his hand-held device or whatever he’s got. It was best to be able to isolate them technically.
PR: To have to go into the city to make a phone call.
DGG: To have the isolation in place was important, I think. Otherwise, they could avoid each other if they had distractions.
EH: Plus, there’s something kind of magical about the ’80s.
DGG: There’s a lot that’s magical about the ’80s.
Can you say more about that? I wasn’t really there, so I don’t know a lot about it.
EH: You were born in the ’90s?
No, I was born in ’89, so I missed the bulk of it.
EH: I was born in ’85, so I wasn’t exactly either … it’s just, like, all the ’80s movies, you know? Like the John Hughes movies, that weird style. It was just the time that … whether it was dorky clothes or VHS tapes. I dunno, something magical about that. Maybe because I associate that with, like, a magical time in my childhood or something, but to me, there’s something very – it’s the era that I remember first, as a little kid running around, so all those clothes, all those things, it just feels like home, because it’s the first thing I remember.
It’s interesting — your character is so id-driven. He’s like this id-driven, gluttonous manchild. He’s kind of the ultimate embodiment of the ’80s ethos, in a way.
PR: The Me Decade.
EH: Yeah, he’s a goofy guy who’s kind of trying to mask a lot of his insecurities with this kind of bravado. And maybe some of the bravado’s real, but he’s definitely a frightened character – he’s definitely frightened of the adult world that lies ahead of him. But I think he’s ultimately a goodhearted character who isn’t a bad person, and I think he learns a lot from Alvin, and maybe even a little bit vice versa, even if Alvin learns from Lance somewhat unintentionally.
What do you think happens to that odd-couple dynamic between Alvin and Lance, post-credits rolling? Do you think it’s possible to sustain that kind of connection outside of isolation?
PR: It’s a bad connection. (laughter)
EH: I dunno. Maybe we should make a sequel about what, like – where they go.
PR: How great would it be if, like end credits, and then the car’s engine breaks down and they get out and all of a sudden they get attacked by a pack of wild dogs?
DGG: No, dude, brilliant idea, I just got it: The sequel opens, like, where it left off – the guys are cruising to this beauty pageant. They get fucking rammed and killed, and the whole movie takes place at the scene of the accident, and it’s about the paramedics who come to the rescue.
EH: And the paramedics are a total odd couple too.
PR: And we’ve died over there, but they can’t see us.
DGG: Yeah, you’re like their spiritual guides.
PR: Or maybe we’re not dead. Maybe the trucks hit us so hard that we switched bodies. Through some magical twist, I’ve inhabited Lance’s body and – (laughter)
EH: Yeah, let’s have “Freaky Friday” – no, “Parental Trap” [sic], no —
DGG: All of that shit.
PR: “Like Father, Like Son.” “Vice Versa.” “Eighteen Again.”
EH: What’s the movie? [We should call it] “The Swippity Swap.” That would be so funny – if you had to play Lance and I had to play Alvin. And Lance would immediately start growing out Alvin’s mustache.
PR: This is creative impulse. You have to talk about this kind of stuff. You can’t just sit on it.
Speaking of your mustache, it’s quite excellent. You also have a pretty epic mustache in”Anchorman” and “Anchorman 2,” and there’s actually an Esquire slideshow devoted to your facial hair in various incarnations. Is there a symbolic significance to this that America is unaware of? Are you particularly drawn to — do you feel more comfortable inhabiting mustachioed roles?
PR: No, I never thought – I’d never had a mustache. I was never a mustache guy. I liked beards. My dad had a beard. I’ve always grown beards. But I think maybe the first mustache I ever had was on”Anchorman” and I did get kind of attached to this one, I gotta say. I don’t think I’m a mustache guy, but I know that when it ended, it was hard to shave …
EH: Well, you rock an exceptional mustache. Not everyone can do that.
DGG: I think it kind of helped the Mario-Luigi dynamic.
EH: I think if you wanted to, you could rock the mustache full-time Tom Selleck-style. Like, you have that potential. You look that good with a mustache.
PR: Oh, that’s nice of you to say. I don’t think that’s true. That’s a category that only Sam Elliott exists in.
Sort of going back to the Mario and Luigi thing, because that’s something people have pointed out from the posters for the film — Emile, your character is obsessed with comic books, and at the end, you guys talk about how there should be a superhero movie made about you guys. Do you see, like, a superhero aspect to these characters, or to this film?
DGG: Absolutely. They’re fantastic. They’re very heroic. They don’t have magical powers that they’ve learned how to access yet, but they’re in the puberty of adulthood, know what I mean?
EH: I would love to see a superhero-action movie with Alvin and Lance.
PR: Well, you’ll see it in “The Swippity Swap.” “Flippity Flop.”