David Gordon Green has been a fan of Deep South author Larry Brown since he worked as a production assistant on a documentary about Brown as a student at North Carolina School of the Arts in the late 1990s. One of his professors at NCSA, Gary Hawkins, directed that documentary and adapted the script for the redemption drama Joe, then sent it to Green shortly after Brown’s death in 2004.
It offered the Austin filmmaker, who attended high school in Richardson, a chance to return to his roots in edgier, character-driven fare after a stretch of Hollywood comedies.
“It just felt like a great father-son story, and that was something that was really important to me, to find that mentor dynamic,” Green said during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. “It works on the dramatic level, but it also works as a contemporary Western, as a tale of alcohol and redemption. Those things really jumped out to me.”
The story is set in the rural South, where Cage plays the title character, whose company employs day laborers to help poison trees prior to their removal. As a boss, he seems tough but fair, and generally pleasant prior to meeting Gary (Tye Sheridan), a precocious teenager looking for work. What gets Joe riled up is Gary’s father, Wade (Gary Poulter), an alcoholic drifter who takes out his frustrations on his son. Although his instincts tell him to mind his own business, Joe becomes a mentor and protector to Gary, which unleashes a violent streak of his own that brings out some past demons.
Green, 39, shot the film last year near his hometown of Austin, where he filled out many of the supporting roles with non-professional actors in an attempt to bring authenticity to the material. One example is Poulter, a longtime street performer who encountered one of the casting directors at a bus stop. After meeting with Green, he was given the pivotal role of Gary’s father despite having no acting experience. Poulter died a couple of months after filming wrapped.
Even Green’s next-door neighbor played a sheriff as part of an ensemble that blurred lines between stars and newcomers and encouraged improvisation and collaboration.
“The idea is to make it a seamless process [between the actors and the non-actors],” Green said. “It was fun to play with for me, having this Oscar-winning actor and these eccentric characters that I know.”
Green intended to cast a non-professional in the role of Gary, but was impressed with Sheridan after seeing him in Mud, a film in which Green assisted in the editing room. The 17-year-old said he developed a rapport with both Cage and Poulter.
“I love working with non-actors because it keeps you on your toes. You never know what they’re going to say or do,” Sheridan said. “In this case, things would start coming out of [Poulter’s] mouth, and you had to roll with it. I think he was a little nervous at first, but once we got into it, he was an absolute pro.”
Cage said that after taking a year off, he was ready for a role that would challenge him as an actor, and found Joe to be a refreshing change of pace.
“Right away I knew I wanted to make the movie. It was a perfect choice for me,” Cage said. “I could take my life experiences and find a script where I didn’t have to act, and where I could just be, and deliver some truth within the dialogue.”
Green was fascinated by Cage’s approach to working on a low-budget project with few experienced actors and crew members.
“It was a fun collaborative place where we were trying to access something that was of the DNA of Nic,” Green said. “He engaged with the crew and knew them by name and was asking them questions. The curiosity of his performance also is the curiosity of Nic.”