With just three projects, 32-year-old writer-director-producer Jody Hill has established himself as a unique voice in television and film. After toiling in the trenches of reality television for years, Hill teamed up with college buddies Danny McBride and Ben Best to co-write and co-star in the quirky, super-low-budget film The Foot Fist Way. Hill directed their story of a deluded, arrogant strip-mall tae kwon do instructor (McBride), which played Sundance and picked up a pair of high-profile fans in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who persuaded Paramount Vantage to pick up the film for a limited theatrical release.
Hill, McBride, and Best re-teamed to co-create and write the cult HBO comedy Eastbound & Down, an uproariously funny, proudly profane character study about a John Rocker-like pitcher (McBride) who returns to his hometown to teach gym after his major-league career ends in disaster. McBride and Best also appear in Hill’s second directorial effort, Observe And Report, a pitch-black comedy/psychodrama that casts Seth Rogen as a bipolar mall cop obsessed with wreaking vengeance on a flasher afflicting his workplace. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Hill about Eastbound & Down’s recent renewal, going too far with Observe And Report,and stumbling onto the perfect comedy penis. (Warning: voluminous Observe And Report spoilers ahead.)
The A.V. Club: When we talked to Danny McBride in February, he said he had an idea for where Eastbound & Down could go in the second season. Can you talk about that?
Jody Hill: I wish I could. I think you would be excited about hearing it, but I can tell you it’s going to be unexpected, and I don’t think people are going to see it coming.
AVC: The first season worked well as a long, self-contained story, but it was also open-ended.
JH: Yeah, Danny and me were always debating that. We tried to tell a complete story in the first season, but also leave it where we could do a second season. I was very happy how it came out, so I was like, “Oh well, should we even do it?” [Laughs.] I think we want to, it’s just our greed of wanting to play around with the show some more. I’m sure Danny said the same thing, but we’re not going to make a bunch of seasons and try and get syndication and all that stuff. We’re going to keep it pretty small, so hopefully we won’t try and sell out or anything. We are going to try and write all the episodes and stuff like that.
AVC: Speaking of selling out, have you thought of selling merchandise for Eastbound & Down? It seems like there are a lot of natural possibilities there.
JH: [Laughs.] Yeah, we’ve some good promo stuff. I mean, we got those middle-finger foam hands, like the #1 thing. We got a bunch of those. We got a beer cozy with Danny’s picture on it. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re credited as a co-writer for pretty much every episode of Eastbound & Down, along with Danny McBride and Ben Best. What’s your writing process like?
JH: It was great, man. Shawn Harwell was another guy we went to school with who was a writer as well, and those guys were super-generous. Basically, I finished shooting [Observe And Report], and I was just getting into post-production when it was time to write the episodes, and [McBride and Best] were so cool. Those guys would come on over to the office where I was editing Observe And Report, and I was literally editing and writing the episodes at the same time. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if those guys hadn’t come over to my office to help out like that. It was kind of a crazy time, I’ve got to admit. I’ve almost wanted to cry these last six months, because it’s been so hard on me. I love my job and all that stuff, and it’s really a dream come true, but it was just hard, the long hours and stuff.
It also carried over to post, because it took a while for us to edit this movie, so I wasn’t able to go down to North Carolina for most of the production. So Danny really carried a lot of the producing weight on the show. I would watch cuts and give notes, and obviously I wrote all of them with Danny. I finally begged Warner Bros. for permission to go down to the show, and Warner Bros. finally let me go down for the last week so I could direct the finale. I really owe a lot of the nuts and bolts of the production to those guys; they stepped up and helped out. When we were editing, I would divide my time and go edit the movie during the day, then work until midnight over on the TV show. Danny was there all during the day, so he really helped me out in terms of watching and overseeing the whole production.
AVC: At what point did you sleep?
JH: I’ve been catching up these last couple of weeks. I feel really, really blessed and lucky, so I hate to say all that stuff. It was definitely a marathon. You know, you aren’t sure if you are going to make it to the end, you just got to keep going.
AVC: You’d been working toward this your whole career, so to see it all happen at once had to be crazy-making and exhilarating at the same time.
JH: It was frustrating, it was. It was really almost heartbreaking when I found out that I couldn’t go down to Wilmington for most of the production. Even though I was super-excited about the movie, it was so disappointing not to be able to spend more time on the show. I love both projects, and they’re so different from each other.
AVC: Foot Fist Way, Eastbound & Down,and Observe And Report all have protagonists with a very strong, very delusional belief in their abilities. Why are you attracted to that kind of characters?
JH: You know, I have always liked kind of outsider characters. A lot of that is in response to what’s going on in movies. In the movies I grew up liking, you had more complicated characters. I don’t mean that in a way that makes us better or anything. I just seem to like characters who don’t really fit into, “Oh, we have to be able to root for them,” You always hear that from the studio: “You have to be able to root for them, they have to be likeable, and the audience has to be able to see themselves in the characters.” I feel that’s not necessarily true. As long as the character has some type of goal or outlook on the world, or perspective, you can follow that story. There’s not a lot of that going on right now. When I watch Goodfellas, I think that’s funny. I tried to think about when I was in middle school and watched Goodfellas, and it made me laugh. I would watch it with my buddies and go “Oh God, he just said that!” [Laughs.]
AVC: With Goodfellas and movies like Observe And Report and Bully,it seems like a lot of the humor comes from characters who don’t really have a moral compass. There’s a lot of humor in characters who do horrible things and don’t understand why they’re wrong.
JH: I really like Larry Clark’s films, as weird as that is. I like Richard Kern films. His short films are just the most fucked-up films out there. It’s almost like they’re trying to make each other laugh about how fucked-up they are.
AVC: In a recent New York Times profile, they described you as having a predilection toward characters who are offbeat, even unlikeable. Do you see your characters that way?
JH: [Pause.] I don’t. I hate to give kind of the standard answer, but I really just think of them as characters. With Observe And Report, I really just tried to make a strict character piece. I have always responded to things like outsiders and angry characters. I was attracted to Taxi Driver and Catcher In The Rye,with isolated, jaded people who are mad as hell. I don’t set out to make a character likeable. I like to see the dirt in the character as well as the shine.
AVC: Did you get a lot of studio notes on Observe And Report?
JH: Sure. It’s like anything. There’s discussion involved. That was a big difference between The Foot Fist Way, where if Danny and me and our friends were laughing, it stayed in the movie. With the studio, you have to explain it to them. There was a lot of times—like the sex scene. [Rogen has sex with an apparently passed-out Anna Faris, who belligerently moans for him to continue at the very end.] I put it in there, and they were like, “Well, this is too far.” And I said, “You know what? It’ll just be one shot. Let’s just shoot it and see what happens. Then if you don’t like it, we won’t put it in the movie.” Then we put it in the movie, and they were like, “That goes too far.” And I was like, “Well, let’s just put it in front of the audience and see if they like it.” You know what I mean? You just gotta talk to people. I feel like you can argue passionately—as long as you don’t insult anybody, it’s okay. I think that goes a long way.
AVC: In the Times piece, they describe the scene you’re talking about as Seth Rogen’s character forcing himself on Anna Faris. Is that how you perceived that scene?
JH: [Pause.] I dunno. I’ve always kind of liked scenes that you talk about how fucked-up they are. I would have been happy without any dialogue in that scene. I wanted to show them just having sex and her passed out, and I thought that would have been funnier. But I think I have a darker sense of humor than most people. So at the end, [Faris’ character] is okay with it. [Laughs.] And that was like, “I’ll shoot it both ways.” So I actually shot it both ways. I just kept the camera rolling. There’s like a line that’s “We’re okay laughing, and you’re pushing the envelope.” But you’re not really pushing the envelope until you cross that line where a lot of people don’t go along with you. I tried to do it in a few scenes in this movie, where a lot of people aren’t going to go along with the film or with what we’re trying to do. Hopefully that means we’re actually pushing the envelope. [Laughs.] You know what I mean by that? I think if you’re really pushing the envelope, you have to not include everybody, if that makes sense. Or else it’s not really pushing the envelope.
AVC: It seems like you go too far, then the studio reins you back in. Were you surprised at what you were able to get away with?
JH: I was, you know? I gotta say, Seth Rogen was a large part of this. No matter what you think about Seth, it’s like any actor in any film, there’s people who like him and people who don’t. But the guy is—personally I love Seth, and he really is a fighter for what he believes in. You take any actor who’s had his kind of success, it’s almost heartbreaking—and I’m not going to name anyone—when you see guys who started in indie movies and came up in a cool way and then they start taking these sort of bullshit romantic-comedy roles.
Here you have Seth, who could totally cash in, make a ton of money, become a household name—and when I say household name, I mean, like, my parents knowing who he is—and yet he’s taken his clout and made a film with me. I’ve only made an indie film, you know? I just respect that. And whenever we went into the studio, before we went into production, before he agreed to do it, he laid it all out. He was like, “We’re going to do things that you guys aren’t going to like. We’re gonna shoot nudity. Violence. Whatever it is. We’re gonna change the script as we’re working, and you guys have to be okay with it.” And I really respected him for doing that. It was cool to see a guy so young with his kind of—I don’t know if “morals” is the right word, but he just knew exactly what he’s about, and I really respected that. And I’ve got to give Warner Bros. credit. They stood by their word and they really supported us and let this weird movie be made. People have horror stories with the studios, but I’ve got to say, I don’t really have one. It was kinda nice.
AVC: Observe And Report sparked a lot of conversation around the office. Rogen’s character is bipolar and obviously has a very active imagination. It almost seems like the film exists on two planes, one realistic and the other extreme and far-out. What, if any, part of the film takes place in Seth Rogen’s imagination?
JH: I’m really glad that’s the argument going on around your people, man, because that’s kind of how I hoped people would see it. Where everything is played ultra-real, but then because of that, there’s a couple of times that you go outside of that. If you continue to play it real, it gives you that sort of weird, almost surreal edge. It’s not surreal, it’s just weird stuff. It becomes real, but when you do kind of out-there stuff, then it becomes that.
I guess my big thing is—to answer your question—the ending. I took a page out of King Of Comedy, which I really admired, and Taxi Driver. Those are some of my favorite movies. Just the way those movies are structured at the end. You have these dark tales, and more King Of Comedy I would say than Taxi Driver, where he does this kind of crazy thing. Rupert kidnaps Jerry Langford, and then at the end, he’s given everything he’s ever wanted and praised as a champion. On the surface of that movie, they’re praising him, and everybody claps, and you leave the theater. But then, after you watch that movie a few more times, it’s almost like, “Is that really happening? Is it not?” And I wanted the film to end that way, where the audience—at least the mainstream audience, you guys are probably a little more intuitive about watching films—but hopefully the mainstream audience will watch that and cheer and get their rocks off, that kind of stuff. But then on the car ride home, be like, “Wait, so we were supposed to praise a murder?” You know?
So I’m glad to hear that’s the argument going on around your place. I never thought everybody would like this movie. Of course, now that it’s coming out, I hope everybody does, but when I was making it, I knew not everybody was going to like it. I knew I would get shit and stuff like that. I think the fact that there are people who don’t like it because of that, and there are people who do like it because of that, is pretty much what we were trying to do.
AVC: In terms of the blurring of reality and fantasy, I’m thinking specifically of the scene where Rogen beats up a bunch of police officers, and there don’t seem to be any negative consequences. There’s a certain disconnect from reality.
JH: It’s crazy, that part you’re talking about, him going to jail. We actually have that shot of him sitting in a jail cell. We shot a scene afterward where they explain to him that it’s kind of a Rodney King scenario, where—I don’t know, don’t quote me on the facts of the Rodney King case—but basically, it was a bad mark on the cops, because they essentially beat the shit out of this guy at the mall, so they were going to drop the charges if he agreed never to go back to the mall. And I took that scene out, one, because it slowed things down, and two, because I was hoping that it would have that quality you’re talking about. Maybe people could assume he got out on bail or something like that. The court case may be coming at the end of the movie once it’s all said and done, you know what I mean?
AVC: It’s definitely filmed like a Rodney King thing, with Ray Liotta walking away, and cops piling on with nightsticks.
JH: Right, and there was that scene that explains it, but I thought it was kind of a lame scene. I figured, “Whatever.” Maybe he’s coming out on bail? I dunno. Maybe we should have put it in. [Laughs.]
AVC: At what point in the making of Observe And Report did you become cognizant of Paul Blart: Mall Cop?
JH: I was going back and forth from L.A. and New York, I think two weeks before we were going into production, or before our start date, I heard about it.
AVC: What was your reaction?
JH: Obviously I was disappointed. My reaction is exactly what happened, that they would compare the two movies. You know what I mean? I think every filmmaker wants… I don’t know about every filmmaker. I certainly want my films to just exist. I want them to be judged for what they are and analyzed, accepted, criticized, whatever you want to call it, on their own terms, not as part of some mall-cop genre. So I was just disappointed in that. But I also felt one of the things I was trying to do with this movie—maybe some people will say I didn’t—is not really have it exist in a genre. I think almost if you look at this movie as a drama, it’s easier to like it, because then the funny parts seem funny, but it doesn’t rely on jokes and things like that. So I tried to put myself in a bubble and just make the movie I wanted to make. You know how it is. Nobody wants to hear that kind of talk.
AVC: You must have looked at a lot of small, flaccid penises while you were casting the flasher role in Observe And Report. What was that like?
JH: [Laughs.] The pervert is my friend Randy Gambill, who is a guy I went to college with. You saw Foot Fist Way? This is a pretty small detail, but before the “Truck” demo, where he comes out and breaks all the boards and stuff, and kind of when they meet Chuck “The Truck” at this thing, Randy is the guy who’s standing there and throws the one-punch knockout. He was also the production designer on Foot Fist Way, and he told me that he wanted to be the flasher. I actually had a lot of people tell me they wanted to be the flasher. They were like, “Oh, I want to be the pervert!” And I told them all that they had to go full frontal, and all of them said “No.” Randy thought about it for about a week, then called me and said he wanted to do it. Actually, I’d never seen Randy’s penis until we were there on the set, so I just took a gamble and it paid off, you know?
AVC: It seemed perfect.
JH: [Long laughter.] Seth is a lot bolder than I am about commenting on Randy’s penis in terms of its size. [Laughs.] Seth says it’s the perfect penis for comedy. I, uhh… I’ll just say I was pleased with the results. [Laughs.]
AVC: That will be on his tombstone. “The world’s perfect comedy penis.”
JH: [Laughs.] I dunno. I can’t say that. Don’t you hate when you go to see a movie and it’s like, John Holmes is the guy showing his penis? You’re like “Of course you’re doing this in a movie. There’s nothing to risk for you.” Where’s the real people? That’s interesting to see onscreen. Of course a guy with a 12-inch dick is going to be happy to wave it around onscreen. Randy’s one of my best friends in the whole world. I think he takes it with a grain of salt.
AVC: You made his penis a star.
JH: Exactly. Exactly. But you know what? Some of the biggest laughs were actually at his facial expression, so I was pretty proud of him for trying to turn it into a character.
AVC: You acted in Foot Fist Way. How did that end up happening?
JH: I grew up doing martial arts, and it’s one of these things where I always kind of liked acting, but I was never real serious about it. I did little theater things growing up. When we wrote the movie, I figured I could do it. Making Foot Fist Way, we cast basically people who were our friends or around. I put the film on my credit cards, so it wasn’t like we could have hired anybody. So I figured I knew how to be like a Dungeons & Dragons kid who grew up, only he wasn’t into D&D, he was into martial arts. [Laughs.] I just figured I’d give that a shot. Also, I knew something about martial arts just having done it growing up. It just kind of worked out that way. I’m not really trying to be too much of an actor or anything.
AVC: Danny McBride and Ben Best both have sizable roles in Eastbound & Down, but it seems like you’re less interested in acting.
JH: Yeah. I think one day I might do it for fun. I think it’s cool when Scorsese will pop up in a movie or something like that. I never want to make a career out of that or anything. I like directing. That’s my favorite thing.
AVC: So, when you came to Los Angeles, you were a story editor on The Mole?
JH: Yeah, among other crappy reality shows.
AVC: What exactly does that job entail?
JH: Oh my God. You would get all the footage that they shoot. Basically you shoot all this footage, and there’s usually some kind of event or contest or something that each week is structured around. I would have to watch all the footage and somehow make scenes out of this footage and put them together so there’s an A story, a B story, and all this stuff that leads up usually to this big thing.
But what’s weird is, you’ll take things from later in the season, like if there’s a big fistfight and you don’t really have anything going on. Like, say you have a girl and a guy hooking up, okay? And you don’t have any footage from that week of them hooking up, and yet at the contest that week, the guy helps the girl complete the mission or something. We would take something that was shot at the end and put it in that episode so it builds like there’s a storyline, basically. So I would have to watch, you know, hundreds of hours of footage and use different things to make it. I’ll say this, though, I think watching all that footage, as lame as those shows were and as miserable as I was—I was really depressed during that time. I just hated it, you know? It’s just horrible. I think just watching people—they might be phony folks, but they’re not actors—just watching all that footage kind of helped me a little bit, because I saw what people were just like in front of the camera, just doing their own thing, and I think that influenced the performance style I try to get out of characters and things.
AVC: Sort of a more naturalistic, kind of low-key thing?
JH: Yeah. Exactly. Usually I use the script as just a blueprint. And then try to find… It’s like when I was at film school, I was always trying to get the actors to say it like I heard it in my head, and I think my films in film school weren’t very good because of that. Since then, I’ve really studied a lot of film, just alone. I’ll rent Netflix of all the [Robert] Altman films or [Roman] Polanski or somebody, and just see what I liked in terms of shooting style and performance style, just naturalistic with a hodgepodge of super-lowbrow reality TV. [Laughs.]
AVC: So your aesthetic is essentially Altman meets The Mole.
JH: [Laughs.] I tend to like lowbrow high art, if that makes sense. I’ve been a fan of rock ’n’ roll art, and I told you about Richard Kern and some of that shit. Scorsese does that a lot of times. He’s got a lowbrow character but does it in this almost Frenchy way, you know what I’m saying?
AVC: According to an article in Variety, you had an office job as an assistant water-carrier that you quit once you found out Foot Fist Way got into Sundance.
JH: Yeah. I shopped Fist Foot Way, and I was about a hundred grand in debt. I had to take a job, you know, immediately after. I had about two weeks after we submitted it to Sundance, and I had to take a job. And it was like this teenage equestrian show, I can’t remember the name of it. It was really shitty. And I didn’t expect to get into Sundance at all. I didn’t know anybody. I just blindly submitted, you know? Put it in a dropbox. And I got a phone call from [Sundance programmer] Trevor Groth. He said we were in, and I quit the next day. That was pretty great. That was probably the best day in my whole life, I think, the day I got into Sundance.
AVC: You didn’t have to carry water anymore.
JH: It was nice. It was really nice, yeah. [Laughs.] I was probably a jerk when I quit. I took it out on people who probably didn’t deserve it. They’re all trying to work their jobs.