The director chats about fables, gospel choirs, casting Harmony Korine and Al Pacino’s preparation process.

David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn stars Al Pacino as a Texas locksmith who pushes people away while pining for a woman who left him decades before. Holly Hunter, Chris Messina and Harmony Korine co-star. The film premiered last night in Venice Competition and has its Toronto screening starting Saturday in Special Presentations. WestEnd Films handles international sales with Cinetic/CAA repping North America.

How did you know you could get the subtle performance from Al Pacino that this film needs?

We wrote it for him…a few years ago, I met him to talk about a commercial. We had a three hour meeting about this advertisement, and he decided not to do it. But in that meeting between highs and lows there was this place where I’d meet Al and he and I would look at each other and just start laughing. There were these funny little places….I said, ‘I know it’s not going to work out for this commercial but I’d love to come back in a year and make a movie with you. I’m going to write a script for you.’ And he said, ‘I love it!’

I got on a plane and started thinking about a couple of things. I had been reading fables to my kids, thinking about Aesop’s fables and these little morality tales. I started thinking a funny fable about a Geppetto. What would be an interesting Pacino vehicle that would get to this funny little place I was getting glimpses of, it’s not the bravado, it’s not the grand eloquence that the Academy knows he’s capable of. I loved what he did in films like Scarecrow and Panic in Needle Park and he made me laugh a lot in his earlier work, even The Godfather has funny little things he did in it.

[Screenwriter] Paul Logan, the lighting designer for the band Explosions in the Sky, is my neighbor in Austin. He was a Pacino fan so I told him about this meeting and we started coming up with ideas of a movie that could combine the morality tales of childhood with the special place of Al.

And I’d had a drunken conversation with an gentleman at the Nantucket Film Festival one time telling me about the regrets of the one that got away.  So I had these three ideas.

And I had a title. I’d always wanted to make a movie called Manglehorn. I had evacuated from a hurricane in North Carolina when we were making Eastbound & Down one time, and I got lost on a road and I found an old sign that said ‘Mangle Horn.’ I went to the gas station to ask about the name of the road, and they said Mangle Horn was an old man who had lived there. This is the collage of where the movie comes from.

I wanted the movie to be just a true performance piece regardless of narrative, you just track this character.

I’m sure Pacino has ways he likes to work and prepare, and you’ve got your own ways of working and preparing, so how you fit together?

I sent him the script and I got a call immediately. He said, ‘Come to my house,’ and I told him about what I wanted to do. And what he was describing as his process is actually my ideal process. He said, ‘I want you to come to my house every month until we make the movie, and we’ll gather our friends and read the script out loud and we’ll hear it and I’ll find my voice.’ It really became that, talking to Al in character, and coming up with who the other actors would be. Talking about who Holly Hunter and Chris Messina would be, talking with Al about who would be great energy for him.

How did you cast Harmony Korine as Gary?

I told Al that I wanted some traditional technical support from professional actors but I also wanted to be a little weird and cast some non-actors and some less experienced actors. Let’s make it feel like a real breathing world, to do our naturalistic fable. I was struggling with who Gary was, and then I was at SXSW when Harmony was showing Spring Breakers…and at the introduction and Q&A he steals the show, he’s just hilarious and says crazy shit. I thought, ‘That’s Gary.’ So I emailed him the next day and said, ‘Would you be in a movie with Al Pacino?’ and he replied, ‘Sounds dope.’ It was so much fun working with him, it was like standup comedy all day.

One of the classic David Gordon Green moments in this film is the guy who comes into the bank singing. Was that in the script?

In the script it was a homeless person comes in with an accordion. But a friend of mine invited me to this gospel church, and I saw this couple sing this song, and it felt very pure…I asked those two people from the choir to come do that. It was a thin line between where reality ends and magic begins. Why can’t two people love each other sing a song in a bank one day? It happens in musicals all the time, why can’t it happen in real life?

In the cat’s surgery scene, why did you want to show that so graphically?

There were a couple of reasons. In a weird graphic way, I wanted show love. Rather than having a sex scene in the movie, or a traditional way to show love, I wanted to show something very technical — as these people are awkwardly putting together the pieces of their relationship and struggling to recognise each other and what they want from each other. So I also wanted to show something that was the absolute other side of what love is, and something that is repulsive to watch. It’s intercut with these two people in a bank flirting in a wonderful way, and here is something equally miraculous happening, someone can go into the body of an animal and remove the obstruction…It’s the challenge of watching the two people connect because it keeps being interrupted by something you don’t want to watch.