With only two feature films and one TV show to his name, writer/director Jody Hill, is now synonymous with ignoring the boundaries and “genre rules” of modern comedy and creating anti-heroes that laughably burble with nihilistic rage, scary faux pas and hot-air egos. But there is also an internal depth to these macho doofuses played by Hill’s longtime pal and writing partner, Danny McBride, and comedy star Seth Rogen, to surpass the high art of a perfectly-timed and pronounced “fuck.”
Hill’s work on Observe & Report, The Foot Fist Way, and his cultural breakthrough, HBO‘s Eastbound & Down, contains more glass-darkly social commentary and life-lived expression than the work of any hotshot young novelist in recent memory. Rather than document the cold realities and indulgent pleasantries of another big city with bright lights, Hill is set on exploring the very place that so many creative-types vacate upon the arrival of their first Visa card or college acceptance letter: the American South. Moreover, as many middle-class and broke white American males face sobering, if inevitable, realizations and disillusions about the future, laughing at Hill’s moronic, unhinged versions as they champion outdated movie/sports star heroics atop small-town kingdoms is like homemade medicine. When it comes to countering the monotony of the average day-to-day? Eastbound is harder to beat still. The sight of Kenny Powers “dancing” in a middle school gym under the influence of eggrolls and ecstasy or ejecting a topless broad from his Jet Ski is priceless. Like cheetah-spotted gold or “a bulletproof tiger, dude.”
A native of North Carolina, Hill is the latest progeny of the North Carolina School of the Arts, alongside McBride and creative partner Ben Best, fellow EB&D director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), and EB&D cinematographer Tim Orr. In the first part of my interview, we discuss the show in-depth, including some of the surprising and vile admissions and special features on the Season One DVD. We also talk about what it’s like to be a young director coming from, and staying in, the South, why so many comedians today are from there, and why the region was overdue for a proper comedic depiction.
Hunter Stephenson: Hey Jody, how are you?
Jody Hill: Hey Hunter. Good, good, good. Hey man, I wanted to say that I was sorry I wasn’t there when you visited down in Wilmington [Eastbound & Down set, 2008]. I remember the piece you wrote, and it sounded like a really good time. [laughs] Sucks I couldn’t there, man; I was editing my film (Observe & Report), and Warner Bros. wouldn’t let me go. When you have to do a director’s cut, they want to lock you up for 10 weeks. [laughs] Everybody said they had a blast…and I was editing.
Yeah. I expected to interview you there. And I didn’t know about the change, that David Green was now directing the majority of the episodes while you were in L.A. But it all worked out, he killed it. My first question: Legend has it that when you, Danny [McBride], and Ben [Best] first conceived of Kenny Powers you were sitting in a kiddie pool in North Carolina drinking beers. [laughs] Is that accurate?
Jody Hill: [laughs] Yeah, this was before we made Foot Fist Way or anything. We were trying to come up with ideas for shows. I was between jobs; I had been working this really shit reality show job, doing motion-control for Behind the Music and shit like that. [laughs] It was pretty lame. And so, yeah, we were in Charlotte, in the backyard of Ben Best’s house. And yeah, we were literally sitting in a kiddie pool with a case of beer. And Kenny was one of the ideas that, uh, we came up with. [laughs]
Watching your movies and the show, there are certain names that are repeated, almost like an inside joke. The name “Stevie” comes up a lot, and there is a mysterious character in the deleted scenes of Foot Fist—we never see him, it’s over the phone—whose last name is “Powers.” What’s up with that?
Jody Hill: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. What the hell was his first name? [The “Powers” character] was [Fred Simmons‘s] instructor. I remember that. I don’t know where that came from. I think that’s just subconscious recycled stuff. You might want to ask Danny, because he’s the one who suggested the name “Powers” for the TV show…
Cool. In the show, we come to find out that Kenny Powers’s father is dead. But knowing Kenny’s genes, I was like, his dad probably bailed or faked his own death. [laughs] [laughs] Have you guys discussed Kenny’s mom, because it seems like she would still be located in Shelby (Kenny’s hometown) with the rest of his family?
Jody Hill: You know, we have, but I can’t give you any answers on that one, sorry, because some of that stuff might be coming up. I mean, I can say this: Kenny has a mother.
So, season two then? (scheduled to shoot this year; no details are publicly known)
Jody Hill: Ummmm. No comment. [laughs]
You guys recently “admitted” that Kenny’s hair—his mullet—actually evolves with his storyline. That is…
Jody Hill: [laughs] See, we always had the idea that he would rock the mullet, it’s his trademark. But the top of the hair is definitely where we take the most liberties. To us, Kenny has the “I just woke up,” and he has the “I’m in school,” where his mullet is a little more in control, and then he has the “I’m going out,” where it’s slicked back. So, it’s kind of like his clothes, he has the slicked-back look, it’s like a uniform, and the uniform says “I’m in my prime.” [laughs] I gotta admit, it’s Danny. He’ll come out on the set with the right amount of hair gel and shit like that. It’s so weird, because that’s become Danny’s little pet project: the hair. Even on The Foot Fist Way, he was really concerned about the wardrobe and the hair a lot. And it’s really funny—because now we have this clip-on mullet for him—but in the [Eastbound] pilot Danny had to get these extensions. [laughs] I remember going into Danny’s room one morning and he was just waking up, and he had his shirt off and this mullet was just hanging down. [laughs] And then we would go ride boogie boards in the ocean in Wilmington, and you could look out and Danny would be catching a wave with this mullet hanging down. It was pretty amazing.
Ha. Like Bo Derek, sex hair icon. Obviously, when you first came up with the show you guys couldn’t gauge the cultural impact Kenny would have, if any. But, I mean, now there are writers from The New Yorker attempting to explain why they dig the show, and you have these drunken plebes running around getting arrested in Kenny Powers T-shirts at baseball games. A lot of different types of people have connected with this character and the show…
Jody Hill: Yeah, that photo with the butt-crack is amazing. (linked above) [laughs] It’s crazy that this show has taken off. I certainly didn’t expect it. I mean, The Foot Fist Way, people didn’t exactly flock to the theater to go see it. And even Observe & Report, it did well, but it didn’t become this huge blockbuster. So, [Eastbound] is our first thing that has taken off, and right now, that’s a good feeling, it’s good to have that. I’ll admit. [laughs] It runs the full-spectrum. One thing I hear a lot, especially from writers, is that they didn’t expect the show to be emotional. And I think that’s the thing that keeps people coming back to it. We designed the show to have these redneck jokes that are the gateway, you know—big side-splitting laughs—but we take our time building any change with the character. We didn’t want it to be a quick change, like [My Name is] Earl or something. [laughs] We are a lot more subtle. We wanted it to feel like a three-hour movie, so we structured it like a movie arch—it’s about one bigger thing—rather than in each episode this guy becomes a “new man.” [laughs] But, you’ve seen it, and that’s one of the things we thought was really funny: Kenny is always talking about how he’s mastered these lessons, but he never learns the lessons. Instead, he just allows the lessons to make him feel however he wants to. [laughs]
Definitely. Recently you were asked about what recent comedies you like. And I find this pretty hilarious because you admit that you don’t really like any of them. [laughs] It’s rare to hear a director be that candid to the press today, and even so with a lot of writers. It often seems like people feel that they are almost required to like a movie because a certain person is behind it or a certain actor stars in it. Do you feel you can be more outspoken because you, Danny, David, and Ben are coming out of left field, from the NC School of the Arts and away from the system? Is it easier to think outside the box?
Jody Hill: You know, yeah. It’s interesting, because when I was a kid I liked Star Wars and Flash Gordon (note: Observe & Report’s theme song) and Escape From New York. And those movies are almost a subconscious thing. But, at least for me, when I started to learn about directors I started to respond to different things. I think that whenever we put a label on a film, like “comedy” or “action,” instantly that film is limited to certain rules. I get a really weird feeling when people say, “Oh, you make comedies.” And I feel like, maybe, a lot of directors right now are defined by those rules. I feel like we don’t see enough directors thinking outside of that. There are directors like Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, these guys mix things up. But when people ask me about the world of comedy right now, I’m just not impressed. I feel like I know what’s going to happen in these movies, I always know the rules they’re playing by…
Yeah. I remember when I interviewed Ben down on the set, and we were talking about Paramount Vantage botching the release of Foot Fist. And we started talking about [Paramount Vantage’s] There Will Be Blood and Paul Thomas Anderson, and our conversation kept getting louder and louder. We were discussing scenes and freaking out. And so finally, a sound guy came over and was like, “Shhhhh!” But yeah, you and PTA are my favorite directors. PTA has that motto about “rebelling against powers and principalities, always I will.” I see that M.O. in your work, but you’re coming from the opposite coast…
Jody Hill: Fuck man. That’s really nice of you to…I mean, that’s humbling. Because Paul Thomas Anderson is fucking like…he’s like my favorite, man. [laughs] But yeah, Ben and I, we had some, uh, experiences with Paramount Vantage, but you know, no more. [laughs] When we saw Boogie Nights in college, I remember thinking, you know, “This is a movie about the porn industry,” which immediately, I was there. [laughs] But after we watched it, you know, that film is so much more: I really think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.
One thing that we’re seeing right now, and maybe a lot of people don’t realize this. The media hasn’t touched on it. But we’re seeing a lot of major and subversive comedians and talent come out of the Carolinas and the South: obviously, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, and the Sedaris family, to name just a few. And Zach Galifianakis. And you know, Galifianakis, I feel like so much of his humor and anger is fueled by coming from the South. If you’ve spent a lot of time there, you can almost sense it. And Galifianakis talks about how frustrated he was going to N.C. State—he didn’t fit in there—and so he ditched school and moved to New York City. What I like about you and Ben, you guys did the opposite. You guys fucking nailed a tent down and wanted to show where you came from full-on, the really bad and the good. When you were growing up, what was your feeling about growing up in the South? Did you feel like it was social Alcatraz?
Jody Hill: Yeah, I mean, when I was growing up, I was never one of these kids with “Southern Pride.” [laughs] Oh god, you know. I certainly…it’s weird because there was a lot of things I didn’t like about living in a small town there, I wanted to leave. I didn’t like going to school. It was a social thing dealing with the South. But since I’ve gotten older, I really like those aspects that I didn’t like then. When I got to L.A., you know, everyone is in the same industry, everyone thinks they know all of the cool bands. There’s nothing to be excited about. But there is something about the South, and the way it’s portrayed in most movies and stuff sucks. [laughs] It’s these over-the-top redneck characters. But I do think there’s an element to that, and it makes it more interesting than living in a big city. At least for me. In the South, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that guy over there is fucked up.” There is racism. There is this stuff that’s bad; but it makes things right for the picking, it makes me interested in the South and interested in making these characters. Those kind of characters aren’t portrayed in Hollywood. And this might not be a mass audience type-of-thing; but I don’t know, a lot of people have responded to Kenny Powers. They know a guy like this, maybe? But yeah, it’s hard coming from the South, to turn on a movie or TV and recognize things; it’s always, like, cops in L.A. or New York or some shit. [laughs]
Right. See, I think Kenny represents, like, a timely vessel. Because, you know, Kenny finally gets out of the South, he travels, he tastes national success. Hardly anyone is famous in the South, [laughs] so when he falls back there, and he has to move back in with a family that never left. That’s a living hell for him. And Kenny’s anger and this ridiculous confidence, that’s probably what got him the fuck out of there, but that’s also what put him back there, too. [laughs]
Jody Hill: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] We had this whole back-story planned too, but we ended up not playing it out. And, you know, as soon as Kenny got out [of the South], when we show him doing interviews [to the media]? He was also going to say: “Look at me as the victory story, the champion, the one guy who got out of this shithole town!” And…[laughs]…you know, he’s like insulting his whole fucking town and calling them rednecks and shit. And we do a lot of Southern stereotypes, but we’re doing the real world version, the version we see, and then making fun of it. We wanted to do the real story but with a guy like Kenny.
When you guys originally filmed the pilot, before the strike, the election hadn’t happened. And then you came back a year or so later to film five more episodes. And not to put a political bent on it, but I’m wondering how receptive do you think audiences would have been to Kenny and these Southern stereotypes if the election had gone the other way? Because, when the show finally premiered, Obama had already won, North Carolina was a blue state for the first time in a long time. Did you think about that?
Jody Hill: Yeah. I mean, that’s really cool. I try to leave politics out of whatever we’re doing. I have a weird view on that. You’re limiting it, and you can’t strive for timelessness. But you know, when we showed 9/11 (Kenny’s comeback tape), we were totally making fun of that shit. Kenny doesn’t understand any of that: he says, “Let’s keep the troops in Iraq.” [laughs] We laughed at that shit for so long. Nobody wants to keep the troops there. It’s kind of hard to find anyone who would embrace Kenny’s politics. [laughs]
There was some racial humor cut out of the show. In the pilot, [a black teacher] originally called Kenny a “racist ass,” and then Kenny was going to say, “I don’t hate blacks, I hate the dumb ones.” And then on the DVD outtakes, the guy who comes into Ashley Schaeffer‘s dealership wearing a gorilla suit is black, Kenny calls him a “banana man.” Was that something HBO didn’t want you to touch on as much, race and racism?
Jody Hill: No, not at all. Honestly, sometimes in the South, somebody will say a comment where it’s like, “Whoa, somebody just said that.” And we were trying to capture that with some of those jokes. But really, those jokes ended up not coming out very funny, so we cut them. It certainly wasn’t HBO, they were cool with letting us keep the messed up stuff. It wasn’t that it was too provocative or anything like that. It was our decision.
Another thing that the first season didn’t confront was religion in the South. I can’t believe how religious the South still is, but I think that was a good decision for the show. However, the premise you guys originally had for the fifth episode—and HBO didn’t go for it—involved Kenny going to church and Satanists. [laughs] Can you talk about that?
Jody Hill: [laughs] Yeah, well, we always had Casey, Dustin’s wife, as this religious character. And we had this entire religious episode where Clegg was kidnapped by devil worshipers, and Kenny had to go and get him back. [laughs] And the episode was going to be almost like an action movie, where Kenny and Clegg wake up and there’s all of this [séance] white chalk in their faces. [laughs] But we wanted the kind of devil worshipers in the South who wear baggy black raver clothes and are into Star Wars and stuff…[laughs]
Kind of like those kids who love Metallica in Paradise Lost. [laughs] (Yes, those documentaries and the trials are depressing.)
Jody Hill: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] It would have been crazy. And we wanted to play the religious angle, but you know, it seems like such a cheap shot to make fun of Southern religious people. There are so many documentaries and shows now that you can turn on and just watch the Jesus freaks. That joke’s been done before. So, we play it like Casey is religious, but it’s more subtle and true, rather than a big joke about it…
It’s there, sort of like the album cover for your character in The Foot Fist Way, where you have the chains around your neck…
Jody Hill: [laughs] Yeah, the chains, doing the Christ pose. [laughs]
Your films and the show all feature drug use. And I love on the new DVD, where Ben says, “There’s just something funny about doing cocaine in the South. It’s like, where do you go?” [Jody laughs] What makes drug use so funny and intriguing for you to show with these characters who are down but it’s arguable whether they’re out?
Jody Hill: [laughs] Well, guys we know in the South, especially guys like Clegg, that’s just what these guys do: they work in bars, they drink liquor, and they do blow. And there’s always this vibe of, “We’re living for the night!” I don’t know, there’s something about doing drugs. I don’t know what to say here. [laughs] Drugs are a part of it, at least, for people I know. And then, you know, how many movies do you watch where nobody is doing drugs? It’s crazy. It’s like, “C’mon man, people are out there doing drugs.” To me, it seems weird not to show [that].
When you first heard the voice that Steve Little uses for Stevie Janowski, what in the hell did you think? [laughs] Obviously, that voice wasn’t written, he created it…I mean, what is that voice? It’s part thug, but is he borderline fucking retarded? [laughs] Wait. He can’t be retarded because…he’s a wiz at computers and pirating software…
Jody Hill: [huge laugh] Oh man, that is literally, like, Steve opens his mouth and that’s what comes out. I don’t know, we never intended to make him retarded. [laughs] That’s just how he comes off. Steve seemed to instantly get it, when he looks at Kenny with those loving eyes. He came in to audition, and a lot of other people had come in and tried to be funny with the lines. And Steve just gave this performance that was very earnest, and that’s what sold us on him. The fact that he didn’t oversell jokes, do these big punchlines. We never want to do that. He was playing a character rather a funny man.
On the set, I remember Ben was talking about the online rumors that Observe & Report was surprisingly dark. And he said, “Dude, you have no idea how dark we can go. People think that’s dark? They have no idea.” So on the Eastbound DVD, there is a special feature called “Stevie’s Dark Secret,” which is like, a 30-minute story about him raping old women in nursing homes. [laughs] Was that going to end up in the show at one point?
Jody Hill: [laughs] That was an improv session. Man, I wish I could tell you about season two, but you’re going to really like it because it’s going to be darker. [laughs] There are going to be some big surprises. Unfortunately, we are sworn to secrecy. [laughs] We have a pact of secrecy. As far as Eastbound, I feel like we go as dark as we need to go. But that shit just makes us laugh. Warner Bros. was really cool to let me go there on Observe. But we want to push it further sometimes. Whenever there’s an opportunity…
So, I contacted [Eastbound & Down writer] Shawn [Harwell], and I asked him to give me some dirt on you for the interview. And he said to ask you about the tits in episode six, the finale. So, I mean, on the sixth episode, which you directed, is that you on the DVD Janet-Jacksoning April’s tits? Because that is all over the DVD, these hands fondling these perfect tits…that was you? [laughs]
Jody Hill: [laughs] No way! That was totally fucking Danny McBride’s hands. Do not believe that shit! The “thumbs-up” and all that stuff? That’s Danny! So, let me explain. Here’s the thing, you know how in every episode we freeze-frame before the title comes up? Well, we were thinking, like, what if in the last episode, it freeze-frames, the title comes up, and then it goes back and it’s just Danny’s hands doing something to these tits. [laughs] I don’t even know how much of that is on the DVD…
Whoa. Yeah, the fondling got to the point on the DVD where I wondered if they were the best looking fake tits I had ever seen. [they’re real] Like, if they were fake, they were surpassing the Uncanny Valley. It was like a sex robot out of Japan…
Jody Hill: [laughs] We had this girl who was going to do it, the porn star, Amy Reid, and then she didn’t show up. She totally flaked and didn’t get on her airplane. So, we’re on the set and we have to do that scene. And we don’t have a boob-double. So, um, Ben is like, “I can handle this,” and he whips out his phone and dials this number. So, some random dude shows up on the set with this, uh, girl who says, [country accent] “I’ll do it.” [laughs hard] It was literally 30 minutes after we had the problem. Ben gets the stunt-boobs to show up.
What? [laughs] This was a girl from Wilmington? What is she doing these days?
Jody Hill: I don’t know. I didn’t even get her name. [laughs] It’s like, leave it to Ben Best to find the boobs. [laughs]
The second part of Hunter’s interview with Jody Hill, regarding Observe & Report, The Foot Fist Way, and Hill’s views on Hollywood, will be posted on /Film shortly. The Eastbound & Down: Season One DVD was released nationwide this week by HBO. For Hunter’s exclusive set visit report for EB&D, click here. For his review and essay on Observe & Report, click here. For the /Filmcast’s review of Observe & Report, click here. Header photo credit: Peter Sorel; show photos credit: Fred Norris. You can follow Kenny Powers on Twitter.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and on Twitter.