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- Joe Hill on his new novel, Locke & Key’s end, and why ideas are just glue
Danny McBride went from virtually unknown to seemingly ubiquitous in the space of a season. In summer 2007, he had a supporting role in Hot Rod and a lineless cameo in Superbad. The following summer, his 2006 feature The Foot Fist Way received a belated release and won a cult following, and he showed up in Drillbit Taylor and took scene-stealing roles in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express. Then, a few months later, he found his star-making vehicle in HBO’s hilariously profane Eastbound & Down, which found him again working with longtime creative partners Jody Hill, David Gordon Green, and Ben Best. (McBride also stars in Green’s forthcoming feature Your Highness, which he co-wrote with Best.) Any number of descriptors apply to his character, former professional baseball player Kenny Powers: washed-up, homophobic, racist, drug-addled, steroid-abusing—and highly quotable. McBride’s interactions with a small town full of surprisingly patient straight men made Eastbound’s six-episode first season essential watching. Season two lasts seven episodes, but drastically changes the story: Powers has exiled himself in Mexico, where he works as a cockfighter until his vanity pushes him back to baseball. The new setting puts him in the middle of mostly new characters, though familiar faces show up as well. Before the first episode of season two aired, McBride talked to The A.V. Club about changing things up and the importance of sleeves.
The A.V. Club: Are you following the British-TV formula again this season for your episode count?
Danny McBride: Yeah, we follow the same formula. We liked how many episodes there were of The Office, Spaced, Alan Partridge, a lot of the British shows that we found we like. As fans, we like to watch multiple episodes, week after week, but as the creators… It’s really just written by Jody [Hill, co-creator], myself, and another writer, Shawn Harwell. We chose seven this year. That was about how many we felt like we needed to get our story across this year, and how many we felt like we could comfortably write without having to start to farm the work out to other people. It was important for us to have our hands on every part of the script.
AVC: Are you still planning to go no more than three seasons?
DM: The story that we’d like to tell would wrap up at the third season, if we get that opportunity. We kind of approached this season the same way we approached the first season, where we had no idea when we made the first season whether anyone would watch it, whether we would have the opportunity to do it again. So we tried to make a story that stands alone, but we had an idea of where it would go from there. That’s how we’ve approached the second season, too. If people hate it, and if we don’t get a chance to do anything else with it, for us, it could be a fun ending. We have an idea where to go if we’re able to go further.
AVC: Were you surprised how it caught on?
DM: I definitely was. I mean, we always thought it was funny and got it, because we spent all that time writing it and working on it. [Laughs.] If you went through the development process with HBO, I think a lot of people were really kind of nervous about where we were taking the main character and the tone of the show. It was dancing back and forth between this weird, dark shit and kind of slapstick stuff at the same time. I think people weren’t sure—especially with the main character, who’s an asshole—if people were going to actually want to sit down and watch this guy each week.
That was what Jody and I were trying to do with the first season. We just want to tell the story, but from the bad guy’s point of view. We just had to figure out a way for the audience to get behind him. We had hoped that people would respond to that, but the development process was definitely mixed at HBO. We were fortunate enough that they didn’t try to make us change anything. They let us stick with the show that we pitched, and it was kind of like, “Let’s just wait and see what happens.” So, I was definitely surprised we got so many fans. The thing I always thought was interesting was, we have fans from all across [the spectrum]. I’ve had older people talk to me about how they’ve seen it, to like a nice little kid, to my redneck buddy who shingles houses.
AVC: Have you interacted with any major leaguers since the show started? What do they think?
DM: I haven’t interacted with any pro ball players, really. I mean, I’ve heard through the grapevine of people who are into it through the league, but I haven’t had the opportunity to party down with the big ballers.
AVC: You mentioned you tell it from a sort of anti-hero point of view. Do you think it’s even possible for Kenny to succeed? Or is that something people would even want?
DM: As much as we’re interested in telling a story that doesn’t take your regular character and make him your hero, we’re not interested in wrapping up a story in a way you would expect, either. When you choose to start with a character that’s different than what you’d typically see in a regular story, it allows you to find success and failure in areas you really wouldn’t think of for other characters. I think the definition of what success ends up being for Kenny is probably not what would be for the typical character, anyway.
AVC: Two girls at once, probably.
DM: Exactly, yeah. That’s a lifetime’s worth of work. It’s all good—roll over and die. [Laughs.]
AVC: At the same time, you’ve given him redeeming sorts of qualities. He does have a talent as a pitcher, and apparently he has skills in the sack. How much humanity do you think you have to inject into the character to make him likeable?
DM: A lot. The angle we kind of took with things, if you could get behind what the guy was trying to do, somewhere down the line that probably turns into some sort of acceptance of him. That’s just kind of what we stuck with. “Let’s just take the difficult story of this guy who’s down on his luck, just trying to get back onto his feet again.” That’s a simple enough tale that people seem to get behind that. You could put enough things in front of them to hope that happens for the character. It’s just, the character is his own worst enemy. So I think there’s something—you can find a little bit of humanity in that. Someone who wants to change their life and change how they see things, but just fucks it up every step of the way.
AVC: This season has to feel risky making such a drastic change, especially when people become invested in characters like April, or when you have really great people like Andy Daly in the cast. Did you feel like there was no other way to proceed?
DM: When we sold this, we never had any interest in making a traditional television show. Not because we didn’t like traditional TV shows, but locking ourselves into repeating the same old story with the same characters just wasn’t something we wanted to spend all our time doing. I think the idea that we changed locations, it’s not really a way to reinvent the story. Honestly, it was just the only way we would have continued the story, because this story, at the end of the day, is about Kenny’s fall from fame. We just thought that if we only stuck to the situation and forgot about his tale, the comedy and everything would start to become recycled, and we would find ourselves in situations we were in before. That was the last thing we really wanted to do. We just really wanted to strap the saddle on Kenny and see where he would take this even further. But all the people who were involved in Kenny’s life, they all still hold weight. The characters aren’t just forgotten about. It’s all part of an ongoing story. It’s not like this is a spin-off show or something like that. It’s still working with things that were building last year, and just taking it into a new area.
AVC: Why do you think it was important to have Stevie Janowski back?
DM: He was one of our main characters that we’ve always had envisioned would end up down there. You know, it was tough to separate ourselves with other characters. I mean, it took us three months to write the pilot, the first episode of the season, which is a super-long time. It went through 13 different drafts.
At the end of the day, we ended up with the first draft that we wrote. I think it was a matter of, like, we knew what we wanted to do, but then we kept kind of adding to it. It was that fear of letting go of those other characters a little bit. “Don’t we want to write for Cutler more?” Then we realized that we just needed to do it and then get the fuck out of town, start brand new. Once we got rid of all those fears and stuff, and embraced Mexico, and the characters we were creating down there, we started taking it to a place where we were just having a lot of fun with it, and it felt very fresh.
AVC: In those earlier drafts, were you bringing in more of the other characters?
DM: It was everything. We went through every way that Kenny could’ve gone. “Does Kenny turn around and pick her up?” We went through all these things, and nothing felt truer than he’s just fucking trucking and ends up in Mexico.
AVC: When we spoke last year, you said you had kind of an idea of where he would go if there were a second season. Did you just re-evaluate that?
DM: Our idea always was to take Kenny down to Mexico. We had this plan of what we would do. When we first got together and started writing, it just became a matter of second-guessing ourselves. We kind of had to explore some of those other patterns just to make sure that what we had initially chosen was right for us. That was kind of where it went to, but at the end, we came back to our original idea. The second-guessing stuff proved to just be a waste of time. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you at the same position now? Even though it’s early in the game, do you have an idea of where you would go if there were a third season?
DM: Yeah, exactly. We have an idea of what we’d like to do. We just like to keep things a little loose so that we don’t lock ourselves into anything. We like to give ourselves the opportunity to second-guess ourselves for three months. Right now, we have a loose idea. We’ve got about three weeks left in editing on Eastbound. We’re totally finished. So it’s a long process. We started writing last November, I guess, and went into production in April, and then shot. It just ended up being about a 210-page script all together. We shoot the whole thing as one, just like a film. We don’t shoot independent episodes. It’s been a long haul, and we’re almost done. So I think none of us are thinking too hard about season three.
AVC: You shot in Puerto Rico, right?
DM: Yeah, the whole thing is shot there, and then we did some pick-up stuff in North Carolina. It feels like the lowest-budget things I’ve ever—anything from Foot Fist to George Washington, like these films I’ve made with Jody and David before. It very much has the same sort of vibe, because we’re shooting it in 37 days, basically the equivalent of two movies when it comes down to material. It’s a mad dash. We shoot about 10 pages a day. I think we kind of like working in that area—it just reminds us of our background a little bit, and it keeps things fun. Everyone’s always totally exhausted, but we have a good time with it.
AVC: Do you still feel like you’re getting away with something with those guys?
DM: For sure. [Laughs.] We just locked Your Highness. David and I watched that and looked at each other and said, “I can’t believe people are letting us do some of the stuff we’re doing.” [Laughs.] I don’t know if I would.
AVC: Had you always planned to shoot in Puerto Rico? Is Mexico too dicey these days?
DM: We wanted to shoot in Mexico, but it was just a little too dicey. We would have needed to be there for such a long period of time that I think they thought we were asking for trouble. That was too bad—we would have loved to been able to shoot there. Puerto Rico was great. We found amazing locations there, and worked with a great crew. So we had a really good time there, for sure.
AVC: Making Eastbound is a grueling process, even with a short season, but network TV would seemingly be even more so. Your name came up this year as a potential replacement for Steve Carell on The Office. Would that interest you?
DM: I never was approached formally by anyone from that, but I’m obviously a big fan of the British Office, and think it’s a miracle that they were able to translate for American audiences and have it be so successful and still very funny, with an amazing cast. I’m flattered if my name is being thrown around as someone to step into somebody’s shoes like Steve, who is so amazing and funny. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to work on Eastbound more, so that’s obviously what I would rather do, is keep that up. But just my name being mentioned in regards to that show is very flattering.
AVC: It seems like Eastbound’s production schedule is more complementary to your other projects. There are a lot more episodes of a network show, though the support staff would be a lot bigger too.
DM: Yeah, you know, with the show, it’s totally time-consuming. Jody and I are putting the finishing touches on the last episode of the season right now, and we’re looking at in about two weeks, we don’t have to think about this show anymore, which is just a crazy idea. We started brainstorming on it last Thanksgiving, and then starting in January, we were just working basically seven days a week, writing all these episodes. It’s so time-consuming. We wrote five of the seven episodes by April before we went down to Puerto Rico, and then we still had two more to write while we were in pre-production and while we were shooting, so it’s been nuts. It’s been a crazy, crazy schedule. I’m in almost every scene of the show, so it’s exhausting. It’s crazy now to see the light at the end of the tunnel where it’s like, “Holy shit, what are we going to think about when we don’t have to think about this?” [Laughs.] It’ll be nice.
AVC: When you wrote season one, you said you put in a bunch of over-the-top jokes that you thought HBO would cut, but in most cases, they didn’t. Did you feel the need to top yourselves in season two in terms of outrageousness?
DM: When we try to top ourselves, it’s more on a story level, like “How can we keep this more compelling than last year?” I think when you focus on that, inherently they’ll just come up with some outrageous shit organically. So I think we just tried to figure out story-wise how we could top ourselves last year, and then let all the rest fall into place.
AVC: Are there any kinds of jokes that didn’t make it through this time around? I think last time, you said HBO wasn’t so into the AIDS jokes.
DM: There’s more AIDS jokes this year. Gotta keep ’em on their toes! [Laughs.] One of the deals this year is that Kenny’s constantly called a racist, and he’s constantly telling people that he’s not a racist, that he just calls things how he sees it. So I think we’re always playing around with that kind of stuff anyway, just with pushing the level of decency when it comes to respect for other cultures and races. Sometimes it goes from being funny to not being funny, and just being weird, and people looking at you strange. I think a lot of those kinds of jokes don’t end up making it in. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it possible to go too far with a character like this?
DM: It definitely is. I’ve been there in the middle of takes when it happens, and you just feel everyone turn against you. [Laughs.] It’s mainly when you’re just trying, and it falls on its face, and you’re like, “Ah, cut! Jody, just get me out of this scene with this old crazy woman right here, and I’m telling her to suck my dick. Please, don’t make me do this, man.” [Laughs.]
AVC: To switch gears a bit, you have an upcoming role in the Todd Phillips movie The Chadster, and one website described it as “What if Kenny Powers was in Wedding Crashers?” Are you getting more of these Danny McBride-type characters, now that you’ve gotten more famous?
DM: Definitely. It’s definitely, like, starting to get all these scripts, and it’s just like the most outrageous character in the script, that’s what they’re offering. I have a good time playing Kenny Powers, but that’s not just what I want to do. Like any actor, you don’t want to be pigeonholed into showing that you only have one angle or whatever. Some of the films… I’ve dug working with the people, or I was a fan of the person involved. You go on and try to toss it up as much as you can. You know, the roles are what they are, and you try to hopefully not repeat yourself. I think you’ve definitely got to be wary of that, even with the stuff that I’m doing. I just get the bigger hard-on by writing the stuff that I’m doing. To me, it’s so much more gratifying to create the story, and people get behind the story, and if you could have a role in that, to help bring that to life, that’s what I really dig. Things like Eastbound & Down and Your Highness, where I’ve written it and stuff, that’s a way where I think I could make myself be fresh, just not trying to write the same thing over and over.
AVC: Up In The Air was a nice departure for you in that regard, too, because it was more of a restrained character.
DM: Exactly. I wasn’t trying to blow anything up. I had sleeves on. [Laughs.] If I get another script where I blow something up and I don’t have sleeves, I’ll kill somebody. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your Highness sounds like a pretty big step away from anything else you’ve done.
DM: Yeah, Your Highness is a period fantasy, and everyone in it speaks in—I’ll call it British accents, but we’ll see—including myself, so it is a different role. I think it’s important to make sure I don’t get pigeonholed as this guy who plays Kenny Powers-esque roles. As an actor, you don’t want to be typecast, because Hollywood is so quick to put you in things that you’ve succeeded in before. That make sense to them, so I think it’s up to me to make sure I write things that take me outside the comfort zone and kind of push me to do different things. That’s what I’m doing with Your Highness and even with Hench now.
AVC: What’s Hench about?
DM: Hench is a graphic novel, and it’s just based on the nameless, faceless henchmen. It doesn’t really follow the superhero’s tale; it’s just a guy who’s a gun for hire for supervillains. It’s kind of an interesting look at the superhero drama: It’s the guys working behind the scenes, and they don’t get any of the glory or payoff for all these things. They just get the bruises and the black eyes.
AVC: Land Of The Lost was the first film you had a big supporting role in that didn’t do as well as people had hoped. What did you take away from that experience?
DM: That’s one thing I think I like about television, especially with HBO: We have the total freedom to do whatever we want. We’re able to shoot on 35[mm], and there’s not that pressure that if everyone doesn’t go see your movie in the first two days it’s out, then it’s a failure. After being involved with that, it is pretty crazy. There are so many steps along the way where a good movie can turn into something not good—if it happens in the development process of the script, if it’s cast the proper way, once the movie is shot, if there’s terrible notes that come in to take out things that are cool, or to skew the movie to a different audience. If you manage to get through all those hoops, then can you get released on the right weekend? Can you get the right poster? Can you get the right trailer cut? I mean, there’s just so many things that you really don’t have control over that it’s a crapshoot. It also kind of feels like there’s no correlation between a movie being good and it making a lot of money. It’s awesome to see something like Inception, which is just mind-blowing and amazing, and it actually resonates with the audiences. I feel like that’s rare. A lot of time when you see what’s No. 1, it doesn’t have anything to do with what was the best movie that came out that weekend. I guess that’s the main thing I learned: You can have a great time on the set, you can feel like you’re doing good work, but at the end of the day, it’s all up in the air what actually is going to end up connecting with an audience.
AVC: There’s that old line that it’s a miracle any movie ever gets made, considering how many people and factors can affect it.
DM: It’s true. Any time I see something in a theater that is awesome and feels edgy and feels like it’s pushing things, it’s always just a miracle. And you know there were tons of arguments behind the scenes, and tons of nights of lost sleep to get it there intact. It’s a big battle to bring quality stuff into theaters across America, for sure.
AVC: Now that Eastbound is wrapping up, what’s your plan for the rest of the year?
DM: I’m getting married in the middle of October, and I think after that, I might just go on a long honeymoon and take it easy for the rest of the year, and just relax. I really wanted to get behind the camera and direct something, so I think I’m going to use the rest of the year to focus on that, and figure out what I’d like to direct.