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.
Now that that’s over, more people will hopefully see the film for what it is. What’s great about Observe is that it doesn’t pander to indie or mainstream audiences or give a damn about setting the two up on a lame date. The filmmaking on display is not of the empty “young blood out-to-shock” variety or a forced film school homage to down and dirty pictures of decades past. It’s a movie that hovers above the label ghetto, occupied like hyper thoughts over a yellowed text book; a work that is fresh, and more than a little dangerous for having the instilled capability of real imbalance. Hill embedded so many scenes with the urgency and attitude of punk rock vibrations, but made sure that as a whole, his work would have the permanency of a fabulous art stain.
In the second part of my interview, Jody Hill discusses the influences and intentions of Observe & Report, why the online controversy was dumb and moot, and the healthy role that music plays in his life, his movies (The Foot Fist Way), and his TV series Eastbound & Down. He says herein that his favorite song of all time might be the Mc5‘s “Kick Out the Jams (Motherfucker!)” and I think that classic song’s title is a fitting description for Hill’s arrival in pop culture. I also tried to pry details about an epic project on the horizon, and other projects that might be outside the comedy genre altogether. If there is one notion that people take away from this chat it should be that anyone expecting Jody Hill and the “North Carolina posse” to cash-in on their artistic integrity is on the crack on the reg. Kunye!
Hunter Stephenson: If we can go into Observe & Report. [Jody says “Sure.”] I wrote a review of the film, and I saw it as almost like…the definitive anti-mall movie. But a lot people seemed to think that observation was way off base. But the film starts with this mall montage, with racks of shitty Ecko shirts and there’s a monotony there, as far as mall-culture, that instantly felt really seething to me. I mean, maybe that’s in my head? [laughs]
Jody Hill: I really hate malls. I hate to even go in them. Umm, if I even go into them I start to freak out…
Yeah. I mean, honestly, if I go into a mall now, I need a Xanax.
Jody Hill: Yeah! [laughs] I used to have to wake-up early and I would be like, “Yeah, I’m going to wake-up early and go buy some clothes today,” but that’s why I ended up wearing the same shit from high school. There’s just something about malls that is really weird. Everybody is in close proximity, and kind of like…I mean, my dad used to own stores in malls—coffee stores—and I worked in the booth one time. And you see people come in, and it’s just kind of sick. You can just watch over the whole mall and see them pile in, in groups. To me, I remember watching them, and it felt like Children of the Damned or something…
Yeah, it’s a pack-mentality, like sheeples…
Jody Hill: Yeah. And honestly, I wanted to take this character and make him go crazy, and it seemed like a really good setting. You know? It’s like, if a mall is this guy’s entire world, how fucked up is that?
Yeah, it’s weird. If I go into a mall, the one thought going through my head—it’s from Bad Santa—is “do you people really need all of this shit?” Who the fuck buys all of this shit? It’s like give me a pair of black jeans, some V-necks, and some beer, set for life.
Jody Hill: [laughs] Yeah, I know right. It’s scary. Some people think the movie was too harsh, I guess. But that’s pretty much how I see it. [laughs]
One of the scenes that I thought supported my review was the scene with Dennis (Michael Peña’s mall cop) shattering the mall’s doors in the “raffle car.” That is social commentary right? That’s a statement?
Jody Hill: [laughs] Well, yeah. I mean, I definitely wanted to rip down the walls of that mall. [laughs] I just wanted to fuck up a mall. It’s like, when else do I get a chance to do that?
Right. And one of my favorite shots in Eastbound is in episode two, when Kenny is giving advice to his nephew, Dustin Jr. This is right before we see the gorilla spinning the sign outside the dealership. [laughs] And Kenny’s telling Dustin Jr. how to be a man. And there’s this huge Wal-Mart in the background, and the scene plays it ominously, like, that’s your future kid.[Jody laughs] And on set, Ben Best was like, the South has just become “very homogenized” with Wal-Marts and the same restaurants. Can you talk about that?
Jody Hill: That’s something we definitely talk about a lot. That’s definitely what we wanted to capture, because there’s this old South, like you see in the movies and we talked about, with this Spanish moss. [laughs] But that’s not the South that I see. It’s become a weird mixture of these small towns, farms, and that type of shit, meets a fucking Chili’s. You know? [laughs] You know, you don’t really see that up on the screen too much, so that was our vision: it’s the old South versus the new corporate South.
Exactly. And even, Adam McKay, with Talladegga Nights, with the TGI Fridays or Applebees in North Carolina, or whatever the fuck, the characters eat there constantly, same table…it’s pretty dark. One of the things I mentioned in my review was that the music selections and edits—like McLusky and the Dwarves—they felt like a skate video to me. [Jody says “Yeah.” laughs] And in my review, a lot of people went fucking nuts, like “you pulled some comparison to skate videos out of your ass.” But, to me, the work you have done with [cinematographer] Tim Orr, your films have a skate video energy and, the cutting even. And Ben talks about skate graphics on the [Eastbound] DVD, and all of your films feature skateboarding…and there’s your short film that was submitted to Sundance, Danny Learns to Skate. And a lot of the Foot Fist crew was wearing skate gear back then. I mean, what’s the connection? Sorry. [laughs] I had to get that all out…
Jody Hill: No, no, no. [laughs] I mean, whenever I was a kid, in middle school and stuff, I was into skateboarding. I’ve always been into music—I’m not so much into punk anymore, I don’t know—but I was definitely listening to the Sex Pistols and stuff back then. And, I don’t know, everything that I’ve done so far, I wanted it to have a sort of druggy punk rock energy to it? And I’ve wanted it to have an unprofessional vibe to it, too. Which is why there are a lot of hard cuts with the music and stuff.
That is great to hear. Because when I saw the scene in Observe where the guy is shoplifting from the shoe store to McLusky’s “[Lightsabre] Cocksucker Blues”—I mean, that’s straight out of a skate video. But even my editor, later he was like, what are you talking about? And then, I spoke to a friend and some other guys who are film students at NYU and Columbia and they were like, “the movie is so badly edited.” They said that it was so “unprofessional.” And I was…I mean, that’s the fucking point! It’s supposed to be raw…
Jody Hill: Yeah! I’m glad you see it like that. I mean, when you look at a film like Mean Streets, the edits don’t always work and things like that, but there’s an energetic vibe to that movie. It feels like it might even fall apart, you know? But somehow it holds together. I’m trying to actively do a certain thing, where it feels like it’s going to fall apart, and it’s abrasive, but it keeps you on your toes. You want to see what happens next. It doesn’t feel like this flawless thing. You’re almost kind of conscious that you’re watching a film or a show. I don’t know, does that make sense?
Yeah, I mean, it’s weird, because the film students that I’ve talked to don’t get it, but they’re trying to advance as well. [Jody says “Yeah. Definitely.”] I mean, a lot of them seem to love Observe but a lot don’t. The film feels really dirty playing in a theater and unpolished. But to me, that’s the point. It’s a very dirty way to make a movie…it’s kind of a big fuck-you…
Jody Hill: Yeah, see, it definitely comes from a very fuck-you kind of place. That kind of style is not for everybody, but if you look at the movies that are out there…your buddies in film school are right. At the same time, I stopped paying attention [to tradition]. If you watch films, I dunno, if you watch films from the ‘70s, they’re stylish in a way where they’re using these zooms and things, so you’re more aware that it’s mechanical. You’re always aware that there are different voices making these films. And I always liked that style, and I tried to incorporate that; who knows what’s next in the future? I like a rougher feel.
Yeah. With The Foot Fist Way, that was a film with a really low budget, but I really loved the look of it. I felt like it should have looked like that even if it had big studio money behind it. But Observe & Report was the real clincher, in terms of your style, I think, because a lot of the scenes seemed deliberately clipped at odd points. And watching it, I was like thank god somebody made this movie, because it makes a connection. Culturally, I just feel it’s time for filmmaking to make as much of a statement as the actual film…
Jody Hill: Yeah. And I think some people aren’t sure on the editing [of scenes and “weird energy”]. And I wanted to take some liberties with that, because the story is told through Ronnie’s fucked up eyes, so like, with the camera, it’s not impersonal. Now, the editing is impersonal but the camera is not, and that creates something…[pause]. I don’t know what to say. We could go more extreme. We’ll see how it does on DVD I guess. [laughs]
Now, I think Randy Gambill was on the set of Eastbound when I was there, but I had no idea that he’d be playing the naked perv in Observe. I mean, did he win or lose a bet to get that role? His last name, this is super-corny, but it almost suits him, because he really bet it all on black. Is he married? And how is the notoriety of the famous scene working out for him?
Jody Hill: No, Randy‘s single. [laughs] I need to ask him about that, I haven’t talked with him in a while. He asked me if he could be the pervert [laughs] and I told him that it would be full-frontal. And he had to think about it for about a week. And then he called me and said he would do it. [laughs] Now, Randy was in a student film of mine, and in Foot Fist, he’s the guy who does the sort of one-punch knockout [at the Chuck the Truck demo as “The Gentle Warrior”]. [laughs] So, I always want to put Randy in anything I’m doing. I’m so proud of him. I love watching his facial expressions in that scene.
[laughs] You’ve mentioned that making and watching films is almost catharsis, that, almost like the American South, the screen is where we can get a lot of the darkness out and laugh at it. And there is a lot of rage in your work; it’s a theme. [laughs] [laughs] Can you elaborate on why the creative process is cathartic on a personal level?
Jody Hill: You know, people talk about that, the rage, and I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer. I think there are certainly things that I feel, that I am hesitant to directly put out there, and to say. Film as catharsis. Yeah. Whenever I started writing, I guess this was back in high school, it definitely felt like…What I like about writing is that it doesn’t matter if someone is smarter than you, more educated than you, there are no rules to it. There’s not a certain skill, you don’t have to use the biggest words. You just have to find a unique way to put something down. And, basically, when I was in high school, it would be like, I’d have this passing thought and I’d think, “What if I did something bigger with that?” [laughs] The darker, the weirder, or just the more original thoughts, I would write them down. And from those weird thoughts, you can make something that stands out, and those thoughts become a source of inspiration really. I feel like the thoughts and ideas that we never speak are the ones that, hopefully, ring the truest.
There are two really awesome lines that Michael Peña has in Observe & Report that seem to be catching on a bit, like a cult thing. Dennis says both of these: “My bad, my blunder,” and the best is, “Drink from the volcano.” Where does the volcano line originate, because it’s become a great mantra for summer?
Jody Hill:Wow. Thanks. We would run tapes—and this is different from how a lot of guys get improv—but we would runs tapes where we would try to get this “average man poetry.” [laughs] We would say the lines out loud and then try to come up with metaphors. And we would always try to have everything go back to birds and rats and stuff like that. [laughs] Everything “relates to nature”…
You guys are also really big on a terrible metaphor about “kingdoms.” Like Danny actually said, “He’s got the keys to the kingdom,” in my interview. And with Your Highness, I’m sure that will come up a lot. [laughs]
Jody Hill: Yeah. [laughs] We’re always talking about kingdoms and knights and shit. [laughs] Man, Your Highness is go to be fucking amazing. I plan on going out there [to Ireland] in August.
Yeah, everything I’ve heard sounds insane. Was Seth’s epic speech about battling a cloud of pus and cancer in Observe inspired by the video to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”? You guys have a line about their song, “Spoonman,” in Eastbound, and that speech conjured that video for some reason…it’s like terrible Chris Cornell poetry. [laughs]
Jody Hill: [laughs] I don’t think so. But man, that’s pretty interesting. [laughs] A lot of those things are just discovered on set, but you know…Yeah, some of that is probably my high school years coming back. [laughs]
I remember that Ben and Danny both emphasized that “We’re not sports guys. We’re movie guys and we’re music guys.” How did you get Wayne Kramer from the Mc5 to be Eastbound’s music coordinator?
Jody Hill: Yeah, Wayne is awesome. What happened is that Wayne did a couple of songs for Talladegga Nights, but he was coming by for a meeting at Gary Sanchez [Productions] and I was over there talking to [Nights‘ director] Adam McKay. So, Adam is like Wayne Kramer is coming by. And I’m a huge Mc5 fan; I think “Kick Out the Jams” is the single greatest rock ‘n’ roll song ever written. And then, when the show came up, he said he was interested in doing the music. So, it was an easy decision.
One of the bands played a lot in Eastbound and in Foot Fist is the Dynamite Brothers. They’re based in Chapel Hill and they’re part of a music scene that’s coming back there. I’m seeing them in a few weeks. I’m wondering, what is it about the Dynamite Brothers’ music that you like and goes so well your stuff?
Jody Hill: Yeah, the Dynamite Brothers are one of my favorite bands. They take a bluesy Southern thing and make it artsy and more complicated. Now, Scott Nurkin is friends with Ben Best and Joey Stevens, and Joey is in Pyramid too [Ben Best’s band], and he was the composer on Observe & Report, so it’s all tied together. I’ve known Nurkin, the drummer, for 10 years now, and they’ve stayed on my couch before. [laughs] It makes sense, it’s that Southern style. And we want to stay away from music that’s been done a bunch. There’s no way to do that completely, but we want original sounding music.
Yeah. [When I was on the way to the Eastbound set] I was listening to King Khan & the Shrinesand talked to Ben about them, and it was cool that their music ended up being played in the show. And then you have Spank Rock in there, and his girl Amanda Blank is played in Observe. And I don’t know if this was intentional but there’s a scene where Drug Rug is playing…
Jody Hill: Right. I’m a fan of Drug Rug, I loved their first album, so I brought that in…
…But during the same episode, Clegg (Ben Best) is shown wearing his drug rug for the first time [soon after Drug Rug plays]. Was that intentional? [laughs]
Jody Hill: Wow. Man. [laughs] See, I don’t know if that’s intentional or not. I might have to ask. That’s really good. [laughs] You might be the only person in the world who got that. [laughs]
You’re probably over it per talking about this. But were you surprised that the online media really snowballed [pauses at bad innuendo] with this “rape” thing regarding Observe & Report?
Jody Hill: [takes a second, sighs] Was I surprised? Yes. Was I shocked? No. Something from this movie was going to cause trouble, and that was the one thing from the trailer that people could wag their finger at. It’s funny. I feel like most of the complaints were coming from people who didn’t even see the movie. So, you know. And we even had a line where Brandi [Anna Faris’s character] would say after the sex scene, “Sometimes I get drunk and I have sex with people. It’s no big deal.” You know. As she’s “breaking up” with Ronnie. But we cut that scene out. We didn’t feel like we needed it, and I never thought twice about it, to be honest with you.
Yeah, and it’s disappointing. I mean, I’m in that media cloud and I feel like there are certain “controversy” stories that have nothing to do with the movies that “committed” them. They’re created for hits. I mean, Observe & Report didn’t open huge, and neither did Drag Me To Hell or Land of the Lost, which I thought was pretty funny. It seems like all of these movies—they were pretty original and good or great—but way more people talked about them before they came out and then about what “they meant” after, than actually went to go see them…but they show up for Transformers 2 and Terminator Salvation, these garbage movies…I would like to see that power harnessed and redirected at real films again. I mean There Will Be Blood, that movie should have grossed $100 million no problem.
Jody Hill: Yeah. I feel like there’s a lot of that bullshit out there. Now a guy can write a long tirade, and instantly people are paying more attention to this fucking thing than the movie, you know? Its bullshit. [laughs] And if they didn’t see the movie, I don’t care what they think to be honest. [laughs] Go see the movie first. And I thought Drag Me to Hell was awesome. It’s the same thing with Watchmen. [laughs] I mean, people sit there and complain about Hollywood not doing anything original. And I didn’t read the Watchmen comic book or anything, but I loved that movie. And I loved that movie because it was this huge art movie that fucked up everything you ever thought about superheroes. Just the fact that it got made is awesome. It doesn’t even matter if you went to see it and didn’t like or dig it: it’s awesome that it got made. But yeah, people complain about all of the bullshit that’s in Hollywood movies, and then they don’t go to see the ones that do something different. I just don’t understand it. You look at the movies that are doing really well right now, and you’re like, what the fuck kind of world are we living in? It’s weird. And I like a lot of the online sites. I go to them and I like knowing what’s going on. And I guess things move in waves. Who knows? I want to mix up all of the genres. You know, in the ‘90s, independent cinema was big. Something is gonna happen. People are just going to get sick of the same old shit.
I hope so. Let’s talk about your parents. Because, both of them appear in Foot Fist, and your dad’s character, that is my favorite character in the film… (the character buys Fred Simmons’s Ferrari, categorically ignoring his wife’s, his bank’s, and fate’s wishes)
Jody Hill: [laughs loud. Drops the phone?] Man. I’m going to tell him you said that! Man, he’ll love that. [laughs]
He so captured that guy. I know that dude! And I know that you didn’t like the shirt he wore [a polyester button-down with the all-over print of a fully-stocked liquor bar], but that shirt, that is like the full-on fucking Myrtle Beach nuttiness. [laughs]
Jody Hill: [laughs] That shirt! Yeah, he picked that out, Danny and my dad, they just picked that shirt out and loved it. I thought it was too much…
Yeah, I could see that shirt being caricature. But he lives that shirt…[laughs]
Jody Hill: [laughs] He pulls it off. My dad, he’s going to love it, he’s always making jokes about that role. I just told him what to do and he just went out there and said it.
I want to ask you, though, your parents, I mean how supportive are they of you, now and then, because your sense of humor, it’s out there. It’s awesome, but…
Jody Hill: They’re really supportive, man. I mean, we make all of this fucked up stuff, but they’re supportive. Both of my parents were on the set of Observe & Report for a few weeks; they were there every day when we were shooting Foot Fist Way. And even during the TV show, they came down for a couple weeks. I mean, it might sound really weird; but you know, Danny’s parents are the same way. I don’t know what it is [laughs] but we’re always like, “What are our parents going to think?” But Eastbound & Down, I’m sure you saw it, it was a really weird family atmosphere [on the set]. A lot of people will find that hard to believe, but… I mean, my parents love Eastbound & Down, they love the movies. Probably a lot of that has to do with me being their son. [laughs] You know how parents are, everything you do is just the best, so it’s pretty cool. Like during Foot Fist, I’m sure you know about this, but my dad hooked us up with this apartment complex, my dad owned this little six-room apartment complex and he let the whole crew stay there…
Yeah, it almost became like a commune or something…[laughs]
Jody Hill:Yeah. Haha. It was like summer camp, but with a lot of beer. [laughs]
That’s funny. I wanted to show my parents Eastbound, but you know, HBO had this thing, where Kenny Powers would call a person’s number that you entered and say their first name? [Jody says “Yeah.” laughs] So I did it, and then my mom called me, like, “A crazy man called here saying you owed him beer money! What the fuck are you into now?” You know? [Jody laughs] My mom was about to call the cops. So, after that, I was like, there’s no way…
Jody Hill: Holy shit. Your mom thought that shit was real?
Yeah! And I was like, “He fucking says the show’s name at the end.” She was like, “I hung up on him Hunter! We didn’t get that far. It was scary. It was just awful.” So, yeah…
Jody Hill: [laughs] That’s awesome! That’s really funny. I mean, yeah, my wife was home recently, she’s from Virginia. And she met one of her friend’s parents there who was like, “How would you feel if you had kids who were watching [Eastbound]?” So, there really is that vibe out there, but nobody says anything to me about it. [laughs]
Can you talk about what you’re doing next: it’s an epic three-hour Southern Godfather?
Jody Hill: Oh! [loud laughs] Uhhh, no comment right now. [laughs] I’m just writing right now. That’s something I have definitely thought about for a while. I’m not sure if, for the next movie, that’s going to be the one or not. I’m writing another feature right now. And I’m working on some stuff now that’s pretty different and [not comedy]. Whoever gives me the money. [laughs] Whether it’s a studio or…I think they know after Observe & Report that I don’t…I don’t know. [laughs] It’s kind of like, I’ll write it, and whoever wants to make it will let me make it my way, that’s who I’m going with. I’m not too precious about stuff like [who finances it]. Warner Bros. was really great with me on Observe & Report, so I actually had a good studio experience. So they are definitely a possibility.
That’s nice to hear. After Observe & Report, I was wondering. I feel like the movie after a first studio feature, that’s a make it-or-break it point for a director; whether to compromise. It sounds like that is something you’re not into. Especially when you’re young, I feel like that’s what makes a real artist, that’s what made Tarantino Tarantino. It takes guts.
Jody Hill: Thanks man. I think so, too. I don’t know. I just couldn’t see myself being attached to some script without making it the way I want to. I hope people pay attention and watch the films I make. And like them. But once you start thinking only about stuff like that and worrying about it? It seems like you’re instantly done.
For the first part of Hunter’s interview with Jody Hill, regarding Eastbound & Down, and race, drugs, and religion in the American South, click here. Eastbound & Down: The Complete First Season DVD was released nationwide this month 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. You can follow Kenny Powers on Twitter. A special thanks to Diego, /Peter, Jessica, Jaws, Mira, Adam, CLH, WL, Clay, and Noodles.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and on Twitter. Update: His dad now owns the Eastbound DVD and reports: “It’s pretty funny. I can’t believe Schaeffer let Will Ferrell get away with all that inside his dealership.” His mom repeats, “It was awful, just awful.”