This past April saw the release of writer/director Jody Hill‘s first official Hollywood feature entitled Observe & Report. The film is an uncompromised portrait of a young mall-cop riding the peaks and valleys of bi-polar disorder like a vigilante daydream set to Queen‘s Flash Gordon theme. In the lead, Seth Rogen gave his most memorable and invested performance since a scathing-eyes debut on Freaks and Geeks.
On top of that, Observe‘s production design was deliberately unglamorous; its depictions of a troubled, goofy main character and firearms bordered, at times, on misanthropic endorsement. Hill’s script and direction managed to flesh out an endlessly talented supporting cast (Anna Faris, Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt, Ben Best, Danny McBride, Ray Liotta, Michael Peña, Collette Wolfe) in a decidedly untypical comedy. Many critics and viewers didn’t know what to make of it. Far too many critics said, “I liked it, but it’s not for everyone.” Movies as Joe Viewer trough? Moreover, gallons of digital ink were wasted on a bullshit, hit-fueled “rape controversy,” in yet another growing-pain display of male movie writers as over-sensitive guardians of today’s PC-gates.
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Pulling into the suburbanish neighborhood of Marsh Oaks in Wilmington, North Carolina, one would not expect this quiet enclave to be ground zero for an American Comedy Valhalla, but surprise, surprise. On the sunny backyard patio of an upscale home, a camera is rolling as Pineapple Express director, David Gordon Green, casually pitches one-liners to Danny McBride. His suggestions are incredibly vile.
“Okay Danny, now say ‘she’s my cum dumpster,’” says Green, with a focused smirk, his moderately tired eyes hidden beneath a pair of Ray Bans. “She’s my cum dumpster,” delivers McBride with deadpan redneck aplomb, referring to his date, the local floozie who’s standing nearby and currently flirting with a large, black male. “I put a lot of shit into her.” I’m standing a few feet away, hearing this ribald improv through a headset, surrounded by the cast and crew of Eastbound and Down. Nobody is laughing—professionalism aside—because everyone knows these lines are funny as shit, the funniest shit you can imagine. Airing in February on HBO, this new original series from the all-star creative team behind The Foot Fist Way, which also includes Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, looks to do for Southern stereotypes what Larry David did for rich neurotics burdened with follically-challenged cul-de-sacs.
“This is not some Blue Collar Comedy Tour shit,” laughs McBride, during a break. “I like being in the South, I was born here. We’re having a fucking blast and if we could, I would seriously make every movie in Wilmington. This is where we want to be. When we started shooting, we didn’t want a bunch of kids from Burbank putting on fucking Southern accents.
“The way the South is portrayed in Hollywood, they shoot it in Van Nuys, and everyone yuks it up. And in places like New York, that’s just what the South is. But to us, that’s just insulting. It’s like they’re scraping the tip of the ice berg of what the region is all about. It’s too easy.”
The coastal city of Wilmington remains off the map to the casual moviegoer, but in the film industry it’s oft-referred to as “Hollywood East.” In the early ‘80s, mega-producer, Dino De Laurentis, brought the Drew Barrymore cult flick, precociously entitled Firestarter, to the region, and ended up permanently setting up shop. If you resided here in the ‘90s, you might have heard things like, “I saw Katie Holmes getting a haircut,” “Brandon Lee got shot!”, “Steve Buscemi got stabbed…at a bar,” and “Vince Vaughn got banned. Good.” Tourists still partake in a local Blue Velvet tour. Today, the city’s major studio, EUE Screen Gems, is in the midst of constructing the largest soundstage east of California, in addition to a massive $175 million water tank for blockbuster features. The buzz is back, making Eastbound even more of a celebration.
For those of you who haven’t illegally downloaded the show’s leaked pilot—McBride’s lines like “You mean, Jew York?” and “You’re Fucking Out!” were drunkenly quoted to me by local film students during my barhopping seshes in “Wilmywood”—in the series McBride plays Kenny Powers, a former champion Major League Baseball pitcher with a major league penchant for cocaine and soundblasts. And banging prostitutes wearing the Scream mask. WTF? Reduced to a simmering Kid Icarus in denial, Powers moves back home to North Carolina with his older brother and his family.
With America’s economy in the proverbial shitter in real life, Powers’s rude awakening in the series will likely pack an extra punch. All he has left is a storied ego and one last piece of materialistic excess in the form of a customized cheetah-accented jetski—referred to on set as the “Panty Dropper”—leaving him to reluctantly take a gig as a P.E. teacher. A solid ensemble cast fills out the school’s faculty including Katy Mixon, Steve Little, and comedian Andrew Daly (UCB, Mad TV). But curb the sighs in regards to a redemptive and predictable “smartass students teach the smartass teacher” arc…
“Fuck formula. That’s what we’re all about. There is no formula. You don’t have to like the main character,” says David Gordon Green, dissing The Writer’s Journey, inside his humid-as-fuck trailer. “Look at most of the great movies and comedies, they follow their own beat. This show has a lot of traditional narrative devices that do not necessarily play out in traditional narrative ways. We’re alluding to all of those points of the hero’s journey…and then we’re decapitating them. We fucked the textbook over on this one.”
“We’re dealing with fame,” continues Green, “and it seems that so many people think they’re going to live forever…You know, these people who are on the cover of every magazine and can’t get through airport security, and then one day, nobody recognizes them anymore; and they’re back in the line with everyone else. That bitterness becomes a seething wound and this show is a comedic exploration of how Kenny—everyone Kenny touches he puts back to their place in his childhood. And by dealing with him, they revert into that dynamic, be it his brother, his ex-girlfriend: By the end of episode three, this infantile Hollywood-like behavior has spread throughout this 4×4 culture. [laughs] This is the South at its funniest and this is what we know.”
When I arrived on set, I expected to interview Jody Hill, who directed, co-wrote and co-starred with McBride and co-star/writer/producer, Ben Best, in the gang’s first ode to the contemporary, marginalized anti-hero, The Foot Fist Way. Completed in 2006, just a few hours away in Charlotte, Hill’s indie didn’t see release until this summer; by the time it quietly reached theaters, the flick had already solidified McBride as one of the most original lead actors and writers working in comedy today.
However, it turns out that Green is now directing the majority of the show’s six episodes, while Hill is wrapping up Observe and Report (pegged by me as the darkhorse classic comedy of spring ’09). Hill was scheduled to arrive shortly thereafter to helm the finale ep, and McKay (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) also directed an episode. Originally, Will Ferrell was slated to contribute his first-ever gig behind the camera, but he got sidetracked rehearsing his 2009 George W. Bush stage show. He had just flown out to do SNL while I was there. In Eastbound, Ferrell appears as an “alphamale owner of a local BMW dealership” named Ashley Schaeffer who sizes up dicks with Powers (probably not literally).
Green is candid. Everyone on this set is. Half of my interviews contain party stories and crazy shit that was sworn off the record. While riding back from craft services, Green semi-dismissed a well known ensemble actress unrelated to the show as “…or whatever her name is.” Funny. When I ask if East Bound’s half-hour episodes and UK-inspired six-episode season will leave viewers frustrated for real depth a la Entourage (RIP), he grins and quickly says, “No. It’s not like that.” And then, as if he’s cutting a taut line, “And I’ve never watched Entourage.” What about the divisive Southern accents on HBO’s vamp-hit, True Blood, which is set in Green’s home of New Orleans? “I can’t watch that show.”
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