When David Gordon Green directed 2008’s Pineapple Express, critics like Roger Ebert were perplexed—even a tad alarmed. Ebert was an early, ardent champion of the Richardson-raised filmmaker. He’d praised the quiet lyricism of Green’s first four movies, all of them emotionally intimate indie dramas, and hailed him as one of cinema’s all-time greats before Green had even turned thirty. Watching “that poet of the cinema” apply his talents to a Judd Apatow–produced stoner comedy, Ebert worried aloud about Green’s future. “He does such a good job,” Ebert wrote, “there’s a danger he’ll become in demand by mainstream Hollywood and tempted away from the greatness he showed in George Washington and Undertow.”
Roger Ebert died in April 2013. The last of Green’s films he reviewed were 2011’s Your Highness and The Sitter, both raunchy comedies that Ebert regarded with palpable, growing dismay. “David Gordon Green has made great films,” he lamented in writing about Your Highness. “He should remind himself of that.” Ebert never got to review 2013’s Joe or Prince Avalanche, smaller-scale human dramas that found Green returning to Texas and, in the estimation of most critics, to the promise of his early years. Still, you could say Ebert’s 2008 warning proved prophetic. Green didn’t just become in demand in mainstream Hollywood. He is now one of the filmmakers who most defines it.
That was confirmed again recently, when Universal announced that Green will write and direct three new sequels to its horror classic The Exorcist, a “megadeal” that the New York Times prices at upward of $400 million. It’s a move that’s both bold and incredibly safe. At a particularly perilous time for movie theaters, amid an ever-deepening well of streaming content, most studios are betting big on nostalgic reboots and name recognition.
Ever since rebooting Halloween for Universal in 2018, Green has become a go-to for this kind of franchise-minded recycling. In addition to two upcoming Halloween sequels, slated for 2021 and 2022, Green’s name has been attached to updates of fellow horror institutions Suspiria and Hellraiser. He’s pursuing a TV adaptation of Smokey and the Bandit, and he came awfully close to directing a new film version of Friday Night Lights. Over the past decade, Green has been working on remakes for everything from the 1968 Rock Hudson thriller Ice Station Zebra to the Kenny Rogers race-car comedy Six Pack to Little House on the Prairie. If Green’s early movies marked him as a soulful poet, boasting a distinctive and immediately recognizable voice, he’s lately rebranded himself as more of a cabaret singer, doing impassioned, if slightly impersonal, covers of other people’s material.
As Ebert observed of Pineapple Express, that’s not to say he isn’t really good at it. Green’s Halloween successfully reinvigorated that series after decades of dismal, trend-chasing sequels and remakes, and he did it by more or less removing himself from the equation, tying the film as closely as possible to John Carpenter’s original. Green looks to do the same with The Exorcist. His update will be a direct sequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 film, bringing back original star Ellen Burstyn and ignoring (although not completely disowning) the many Exorcist sequels, prequels, and TV adaptations that have been made since. Green’s reverence for the material—and his unwillingness to impose his own stamp on it—is why his name has become a salve for anyone exhausted by Hollywood’s relentless self-cannibalization, offering some small reassurance that if we must have yet another remake, at least it’s in good hands. Green approaches these things with caution and care, mindful of both fans and the original filmmakers. On Halloween, he didn’t make a single big decision without Carpenter’s blessing. And while Friedkin has said he wants nothing to do with any new Exorcist projects, you can bet that he’ll never be far from Green’s mind.
Green has continued to take big swings on television, where he’s produced and directed several shows aimed unapologetically at niche audiences—like AppleTV’s Dickinson and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, and especially the three misanthropic HBO comedies he developed with longtime writing partner Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, The Righteous Gemstones). But when it comes to his films, watching Green subjugate himself to the demands of big studios and their shopworn intellectual property has proved a bit baffling, especially to those who hailed him as a maverick early on.
Green’s 2003 debut, George Washington, and his three indie dramas that immediately followed (All the Real Girls, Undertow, Snow Angels) boasted an uncommon sensitivity and a sublime command of their modest, often rural environments that felt assured and distinctive. More than one critic suggested that Green was the heir apparent to his fellow Texan Terrence Malick, a comparison that Green embraced; even Malick himself came on board to executive produce Undertow.
Green hasn’t completely abandoned working in this mode. In addition to Prince Avalanche and Joe, he also made 2014’s Manglehorn with Al Pacino, which he filmed in his sometimes home city of Austin, as well as 2016’s Goat with Dallas-born star Nick Jonas. All four were intimate character studies that felt spiritually connected to those earlier films. But Green also balanced these with films like 2015’s acrid political satire Our Brand Is Crisis, starring his fellow Austin transplant Sandra Bullock, and the 2017 Boston Marathon bombing drama Stronger. Green’s unpredictable lurch from genre to genre, and the varying quality of his films, became his most identifiable trait. More than one critic has started a review by asking, “What happened to David Gordon Green?”
If you listen to Green himself, however, it’s clear that he’s never thought of himself as a specific kind of filmmaker. He’s “a character actor in a director’s body,” as he once put it, a chameleon who disappears into whatever the work requires. Green has consistently rejected the notion that he’s an auteur, even mocking the idea of ever putting his name above a movie title. “I mean, if you’re Alfred Hitchcock, your name is valuable because if you’re presenting a film, it means you are going to be delivered a certain kind of thing, the same with M. Night Shyamalan and David Fincher,” he told The Independent in 2016. “With me it’s confusing. My name should be on the end credits with the sound mixer.”
He’s also never been shy about his desire to work in lots of different genres—“dabbling,” as he told Vulture. Over the years, Green has talked about making a Western, a documentary, even a Bollywood musical. “As a moviegoer, I love seeing all types of movies,” he’s said. “So why wouldn’t I want to get my hands dirty and try all different kinds of genres, different approaches, different techniques?”
In many ways, Green is a spiritual kin to Steven Soderbergh, another director who made his bones with artsy indie films before graduating to sleek blockbusters like Magic Mike and the Ocean’s Eleven series. Green made the comparison himself, saying, “We [both] have this schizophrenic career and obsessions with creating things, because we don’t want to be the guys who burn out or just tell the same story over and over.”
That said, Soderbergh usually brings a recognizable visual identity to even his mainstream work. To find a true analog for Green, look back to someone like Robert Wise, another workaholic who had a similar zeal for “dabbling.” Wise enjoyed commercial and critical success across nearly every genre, directing such widely divergent movies as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, and The Sound of Music. He wasn’t averse to franchises either, even taking over as director of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His willingness to disappear means that Wise is perhaps not as famous as contemporaries such as Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford. But Wise’s films remain beloved and immortal, a legacy that Green no doubt wants for himself.
Wise would fit right in today, in a media landscape that values the franchise above all else and rewards consistency over idiosyncrasy, and where you can’t make a “great film” without someone immediately trying to pair you up with a superhero. (Just ask Ava DuVernay, Marc Webb, and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.) That David Gordon Green has been assimilated by this machine should perhaps be seen less as an abandonment of his early promise than as an increasingly savvy understanding of how to apply it. He’s found a rare autonomy within those increasingly narrow opportunities. He’s earned the clout to choose the franchises that most interest him, and their success affords him the freedom to work on lots of different things with his friends. Rather than being “tempted away from greatness,” as Ebert once feared, perhaps Green has simply found new ways to define it.