Neil Young's Greendale is the veteran rock man's
third ramble into the realm of film as director "Bernard Shakey," following
1979's fictionalized tour documentary Rust Never Sleeps and 1995's surreal comedy Human
Highway, written and co-directed by Dean Stockwell and featuring the guys from Devo.
The low-budget Greendale, shot and scored entirely by Young himself, tells the tale
of the tight-knit but unraveling Green family, who live in a small town
somewhere in rural America. (It was shot in and around Half Moon Bay, just
south of San Francisco.) The Greendale project has been presented in several forms: as
a live theatrical event; an audio disc recorded with his band, Crazy Horse,
and released with a DVD of Young performing the piece solo in Dublin; a
book; a DVD that includes a Green family tree and much background
information on the story's central characters; and now a film. Each facet
of the "mosaic," as Young calls it, contains elements not found in the
others, so if you really want to know what's going on in Greendale, you'll
need to experience it in more ways than one. But even then you might not get
the whole picture. That's because Young himself doesn't know what Greendale represents 行 he's making the
thing up as he goes along, and he's as curious as you are about how it's
going to end.
Young grew up in a Toronto. His father was a
writer. One day Young asked his father what he was going to write, and his
father said that he wouldn't know until he'd finished writing it. Young's
similar, intuitive approach to developing the Greendale story isn't all
that different from the way he's always developed his ideas, which is by
feeling his way into things; he uses his emotional reactions as his guide.
"That's the way I like to do it," he says. "It doesn't always work that
way, but most of the time."
JOHN PAYNE: Greendale is, in part, about corruption, a
corruption that's both micro and macro, back and forth, between small-town
life, family life, and the world at large 行 big business and government,
environmental disasters, religious wars. You seem to say that corruption
begins at home, but that the fish rots from the head down.
NEIL YOUNG: I think a lot of people feel that way. It's
pretty obvious that something's happening. The fact is that things happen
that seem to be covered up, but you can see right through it. People don't
trust the information they're getting because it looks like it came out of
Madison Avenue, or something selling the war, selling this and that.
Everything looks like a commercial 行 they get up there and talk about how
they're saving trees by taking some of the trees out so that the other ones
can be safe from fire, and when Joe Blow on the street reads it, he thinks,
"Oh great, they're saving the forests" or whatever. And then you go, "But I
know what's going on, I think I know what's going on, I think it's a payoff to the lumber
industry." You're being told that they're going to revitalize the economy
by selling out the wilderness. You know, whatever you're going to do has a
business-corporate kind of an angle to it, and it's being sold as something
else to Joe Blow on the street. On the other hand, there's all these other
people who are going, "Yeah, what a great idea, we're going to save the
we're gonna make money at the same time, we're gonna fix the economy, this
Was there a specific incident that triggered
the impulse to make this film? Did the war in Iraq enter into it, or
something of that nature?
No, we're talking mostly about human things,
about things that are more personal. My father-in-law passed away a couple
of years ago, and my son was married on the same day, and you know, I
really loved my father-in-law and, obviously, love my son, so there was
something happening there that just got some kind of thing going. And then
shortly after that, in August of 2002, I started recording Greendale. But I didn't know it was Greendale at the time. We had decided
we were going to get together and write some songs and record them, just
like we always do. So I wrote one song and recorded it, and then I finished
another one and we recorded that, and after the third one it was obvious
that there was a story and there were characters, which was different 行 I'd
had songs with stories and characters in them before, but I'd never had a
series of songs where they continue like chapters. And I could see that
But I didn't know where we were going. The first song I
wrote was "Devil's Sidewalk," which describes the town, and it's really
like a travelogue of Greendale. But I didn't know it was Greendale. Then I went
on with "Falling From Above," which is the first song on the record, and
then "Double E," which is the second song on the album. You know, I record
the songs as I write them, so one day I'd write a song and then we'd record
it, and then maybe that night or the next day we'd mix it, and then I come
in the next day, and I've written another song. So it kinda unfolded that
Do you see Greendale as a collective fantasy
that we all might have about small-town life? Or is it based more on your
It's based on a family, and it's just any town 行 this town happens to be a coastal town in the USA, probably in California.
And it has to do with just one family that doesn't even live in town. They
live outside of town, although one character, Sun Green, goes to school in
town. So it's the Greendale experience, basically, with all these
characters. All I did was fill in the characters as I thought they were,
you know, and I just went along. I wasn't trying to create anything
political. But these are my views, and these were things that I was seeing, and when
I get inside Grandpa's head, I'm like, you know, "This is screwed up," you
know, "Everything that I thought that America stood for is being dismantled
here." He's reading about all these things in the newspaper and seeing them
on TV and freaking out. So his life takes quite a twist.
Grandpa is the core of conscience in the
film. Obviously people are going to say he's in some sense you.
Yeah, and I have a character with Sun Green who
is completely idealistic, although she's realistic in some ways, and very
calculating in some ways. So I can take that on too, but that's Sun Green.
It doesn't have to be Neil Young. All of these characters give me a lot
more freedom to express all the different parts of things than my previous
records, which were very personal, one-on-one kinda records. Greendale is almost like I've
abandoned that completely and moved it into a bunch of people and made it
You portray the bucolic aspects of small-town
life, and this idealized family, then slowly reveal the dark underside of
such a life. As I watched this film, I thought of David Lynch, someone
who's way beyond irony 行 he believes in what he's expressing about a more
innocent way of life, but recognizes that it just can't be, and probably
never was. As your story unfolded, were you aware of this sort of viewpoint
Well, it's funny, when we took the film to
Europe in April last year, these people come in and they have all of these
questions about the politics, and the underlying sensibilities of all of these things, and
I realized, "What's going on here?" I was really happy that people are
asking me these questions, but it was almost like I was learning about the
film by the questions people were asking. The characters and their
development just kinda oozed out. The people in Europe, they're looking at
me like, "This is really what rural America is like? Are people in rural
America really that out of touch with reality?" And I'm going, "I don't
know. I'm not sure if they are or if they aren't."
You made the film with an old 8mm camera 行 and much of it's hand-held. It's interesting how the shakiness, or when
you've got some fuzz on the lens...you adjust after a while, it becomes a
Right. That's the medium 行 it's a funky view.
So about 10 minutes into it, "It is what it
I didn't make it to be a film, I made it to
develop a record, and it was just like, we just threw it together 'cause we
didn't want to spend a lot of money 行 it's not worth it. There was nothing
about the film that demanded we spend a lot of money on it. The cheaper it
was, and the faster it was and the dirtier it was, the better it was. That
was our theme.
Were you very hands-on in postproduction as
Pretty much, yeah. I worked with the editor. But
the structure was there already, so it was really just a matter of choosing
the angles that seemed to convey the feelings the best.
Were there any whole scenes that you
Well, we couldn't discard anything, because the
songs already existed, and we just built around them, and they were in a
certain order, so there was nothing to think about there. The music was
always playing while we were shooting.
You surprised people by supporting Reagan
back in the '80s, or by expressing sympathy with some of Reagan's policies.
And now you seem to be a very anti-Bush guy. And you seem to be largely 行 in fact, entirely 行 concerned with individual beliefs, personal freedoms.
But obviously, many expect you to toe some kind of party line.
happens to me is, whenever anybody gets elected to office, my first
inclination is to get behind them, because they're in a position to win, to
do something good. My natural thing is I'll get behind it, and I'm hoping
they'll do well. I hesitate to say anything, but I'm rootin' for 'em. So I'm
taking up things that are on a personal level, on a human level, you know.
Reagan said people in their communities have a responsibility to try to
handle things in a grassroots way 行 community organizations and working
together to ensure things that happen right in communities, and it has to
be happening there or government isn't going to work, nothing's gonna
change it if that's not there. So I agreed with some of those things that
I look for good things
in bad things, and I also look for bad things in good things. I don't see
that it's all good or all bad 行 it's all a measured balance of things. So
I've never backed off of what I was saying, what I was talking about. At
the very beginning, after 9/11, when we thought we needed the Patriot Act,
I was thinking, "Somebody's gotta do something to tighten this all up." I
mean, we can't just have people coming in and out all the time. And it's
still supposed to be a temporary measure that has to be re-voted on and
re-voted on 行 it's never gonna be permanent. Of course, now we know that if
this administration has its way, it'll be not only permanent, but it'll be
more and more and more rights being taken away. So they took advantage of
the situation and used it, which I think is 行 whoa, that's bad.