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He's Giving Children an Intelligent Voice

In his first feature, David Gordon Green wanted to reveal kids for the smart people they are.

November 24, 2000|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The adolescent characters in the poignant independent film "George Washington" are quite unlike the figures who populate most dramatic films about young people.

Growing up in an economically depressed, multiracial town in rural North Carolina, the mostly black kids in David Gordon Green's low-budget film are a remarkably self-aware group. They dream, wonder, love and despair with a rare and genuine depth of expression and feeling.

"The film is kind of my reaction to a lot of the ways kids are presented in films. They are usually just knuckleheads," says the 25-year-old Green, who grew up near Dallas but spent many summers as a youngster in a similarly languid town in East Texas.

"When I was 10 years old I remember asking my friend if he believed in God. That was a pretty big issue, particularly in the South, where you go to church every Sunday. When I was 8 years old I already had some philosophies on life. My friends were the same way. So I never understood why people don't give kids the credit for asking the questions they ask."

There's a strong meditative spirit surrounding "George Washington," which screens at the Nuart Theater today through Thursday. Green and cinematographer Tim Orr eschew quick edits in favor of lengthy camera shots that capture the languorous mood and landscape of this rural Southern region. The handsome look of the film, which was shot in 35-millimeter CinemaScope, has helped elicit comparisons to Terrence Malick's visually striking 1978 film "Days of Heaven."

Short on plot, "George Washington" is often rich in quirky characterization and humor. The film's most memorable figure is George (Donald Holden), a sensitive kid who wears a football helmet to protect a soft skull. Consumed by guilt over an accidental tragedy, he dons a linen cape and dedicates his existence to helping others.

Other characters include Nasia (Candace Evanofski), an attractive 12-year-old girl who narrates the film; the sweet-natured Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), who is in love with Nasia; the slightly built, self-loathing Sonya (Rachael Handy); and Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), a big kid who pairs with Sonya to steal a car.

Green, who studied filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, cast predominately nonprofessional actors for this, his first feature film. He found his young actors at churches, teen centers, barbecues and on the street. Green says he prefers untrained actors to marginally talented professionals who may possess narrow--and perhaps melodramatic--notions about how to play a role. The actors in "George Washington" generally deliver very natural and understated performances.

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Green also rewrote parts of the script in the actors' own words. However, in working out the dialogue with his young cast members, he refused to allow them to use profanity.

"When we did improv during rehearsals, there was a natural tendency to cuss all the time," notes Green. "But when I gave them boundaries where that wasn't permitted, they had these bizarre, very rich things to say. They started speaking these very lyrical sentences. It was far more profound than [using a swear word] every other word. I guess [swearing] has a more realistic element to it, but since I was playing God I wanted them to say something cooler."

To help establish an intimate and communicative atmosphere around the making of the film, the project's crew and young actors lived communally in a large house. Green said he tried to create a summer camp spirit, replete with chores and curfews for its participants.

"George Washington" may be set in a multiracial Southern town, but there's nary a hint of racial tension between the film's white and black characters. Green says he set out to create a "utopian" world where blacks and whites, kids and grown-ups all managed to coexist in a harmonious way.

"I'm not into politics at all, but by not mentioning race in this film, that in itself made a statement of some sort," he says. "I would rather create an atmosphere where people can deal with each other on a human level. It could be a 24-year-old white guy and an 11-year-old black kid just talking about their relationships with girls [which is a scene that occurs in the film]. There's an element of absurdity to that, but I was just trying to capture some sort of humanity."

"George Washington" has won acclaim at film festivals in Berlin; Newport, R.I.; Toronto; and New York. It has also garnered numerous supportive, if not rapturous press reviews.

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Now that he's proven he can deliver a quality, nontraditional art film, Green says he's ready to tackle a more conventionally structured three-act movie. He is currently shopping around three of his scripts: a love story, a science-fiction film and an outlandish comedy-western he says is about "three guys trying to kill a horse."

"I want to take a significant step in terms of making a project that's more commercial, but I also want to do it on a realistic level where I can retain the creative choices," says Green. "All of that is going to have to do with getting some substantial actors to take a risk and do a film for a low cost."

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