Vice Principals, which wrapped up its second and final season tonight, is certainly similar to work Danny McBride has done before. Much like Eastbound & Down, it’s a madcap creative vision that asks us to be both entertained and repulsed by a troubling protagonist. In the case of Vice Principals, there are two of those protagonists, as Walton Goggins’ Lee Russell is every bit as skilled at spitting hurtful venom than McBride’s Neil Gamby. But, also like Eastbound & Down, there’s a more complicated core underneath a surface that’s made up of dick jokes and arson.
As McBride mentions below, Vice Principals is ultimately a show about human nature. It takes the basic premise of two narrow-minded, egotistical guys vying for the same job, and stretches it to surreal extremes. In that exaggeration, in that surrealism, is a show asking us to question the way we treat each other, and how we reckon with our own troubling behavior. It’s a look at toxic masculinity, the corrupting nature of power, and the way insecurity shapes us in ways we don’t even see. It’s a dark comedy for our dark times.
Ahead of the series finale, Danny McBride spoke to The A.V. Club about watching his show two years after wrapping, what it takes to bring a crazy creative vision to life, and whether or not Vice Principals can get us all to be just a little bit nicer to each other.
The A.V. Club: It’s Sunday, it’s the day the series finale of Vice Principals airs. How are you feeling about it?
Danny McBride: Well, this isn’t like when you’re finished with a movie and you have the ability to go into a movie theatre and see the thing, you kind of just have to guess that it’s going good. I remember for the finale of Eastbound & Down, it was like the most anticlimactic way for that to go down. I was in Hawaii working on Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece Aloha, and my wife fell asleep, my son fell asleep, we didn’t even have cable in the house we were staying in, so I was just by myself in a living room like, “well, it’s over, that’s it.” But tonight’s kind of cool, because HBO was kind enough to get a theatre down here in Charleston, South Carolina, so we have a bunch of people who worked on the show and stuff, and we’re all going to go out and drink heavily and watch the last episode.
AVC: That’s the way to do it! Certainly this could have been anticlimactic too, considering you wrote and filmed the whole show in, I believe, 2015 and 2016, so it’s been awhile since you were actually working on the show.
DM: It really has, man. We finished, honestly, about two years ago. So yeah, I’m stoked for it just to be complete, for people to finally be able to see what we were up to this whole time. So I think there’s a good feeling about it all finally being out there. It’s nice to revisit it. I had such a great time making this, and working with all those people, that it’s been cool to go back and watch them again after all that time.
AVC: I have to say, I watched the finale earlier this week, and I’ve been having nightmares about Edi Patterson ever since.
DM: [Laughs.] She’s incredible isn’t she?
AVC: She’s unreal. Throughout the whole second season she just finds another level to go to, and it’s terrifying.
DM: Yeah, I honestly think that she’s one of the most gifted people I’ve ever worked with. She’s so funny, and she just has that spark where, anything I had to do with her I was always looking forward to it. It was the same feeling I had on Eastbound & Down with Steve Little. When I had to work with him I was just ready to laugh and have a good time, and that’s exactly what Edi brings. As soon as the shooting was over, as soon as we stopped filming, I was like, I gotta find something to do with Edi. So her and I wrote a feature together that’s like a vehicle for her to be in that I want to direct, so now we just need to find somebody crazy enough to finance it and let us go make it and show the world what Edi has to offer.
AVC: It feels like what you’re saying about Edi is probably a truth about Vice Principals in general, that you need performers who are willing to commit to the craziness of the role they’re playing.
DM: 100 percent. That’s why it was so difficult to figure out who would play Lee Russell, you know? The whole reason why we even came back to Vice Principals—originally we wrote it as a screenplay—and didn’t shelve it was because of Lee Russell. We loved that character so much, and loved what that character did. I think Jody and I wrote that feature right after The Foot Fist Way, so I think Gamby has shades of other things we’ve done, because he was sort of created in that same time. So for us it would have been a little easy to walk away from Neil Gamby because he had kind of lived on in other things, but with Russell we felt like we had created something that sort of needed to be seen, and when it came time to cast it was very, very difficult to figure out who could pull that off.
If it’s just a straight comedian, I don’t think he would resonate with people the way that he was going to need to. So the fact that Walton Goggins agreed to do this, and he responded to the material right off the bat, it was just one of those godsends. I think about if we would have put someone else in this role, I really don’t think me and you would be having this conversation right now. I think the show would have just gone quietly into the night. Lee Russell is such a muscle, and Walton Goggins’ performance just elevates the whole thing. We were so lucky to get him.
AVC: And how did you land on Walton? Was it specifically seeking someone to play against type, or you just met with him and it kind of clicked?
DM: David [Gordon Green] had met Walton several years ago at a film festival, and I had known him without actually meeting him. He actually auditioned in season three of Eastbound for Jason Sudeikis’ role, and when he came into audition for it, he was fucking wild! Funny as hell. It was so unexpected. [Laughs.] I had followed his work, The Shield and Justified, and I had no sort of idea that he wanted to do comedy.
But yeah, we always found him funny, and in David’s mind and my mind we always thought we had to find something else for him. He’s just one of those actors that I, personally, just love. He’s so real, and so intense, and so funny, and just dangerous too. There’s a danger to Walton Goggins that I just think is awesome. I just want to see what he does. We knew we needed that with Lee Russell. You couldn’t have somebody that was just funny and not capable of the, like, depth, and there’s not a lot of guys out there like that. He was made for it, and he responded to what we hoped he would respond to.
AVC: Going off that idea that you need the depth along with the laughs, Vice Principals is certainly a vulgar, often shocking show. How do you find that balance, where you create something that pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable when it comes to the vulgarity and nastiness, while also asking us to relate to Gamby and Russell? How do you avoid alienating your viewers?
DM: Man, if I could explain it I really would. I don’t really know. It’s almost like you have a stick and you’re mining through water and just moving a bit at a time and trying to find something. Once the characters feel like—once you know how they operate, you just kind of know when it feels right. With something like this, we’ll definitely film stuff that goes way over the line, or just really alienates the character, and we just have to look at it as a whole and see if we can pull back in one area, or maybe show something different about them in another scene.
Ultimately, I don’t think our goal is to, like, make these guys crazy sympathetic. We’re just kind of telling a character story, and I think that’s one of the things that’s horrifying about Vice Principals, is that despite all the terrible things these guys do, I do think that most people can see tiny slivers of themselves in each of these characters. I think that’s what the show is ultimately about. It’s a cautionary tale in a weird way; like, what power can do to people. In this instance we’re telling a story where these two inflated egos, and these two maniacal men…it’s an exaggerated version of that story, but I think in that exaggeration there is some truth. It’s a truth that people can take with them.
AVC: That reminds me of a great moment in the second-to-last episode. Snodgrass shows up at Gamby’s place after he’s been fired and says something along the lines of “you’ve done some very fucked-up things, but your heart’s in the right place and I think you’re a good person.” That seems to kind of clarify what the show’s trying to do, or its outlook. Like, we’re all capable of doing fucked-up stuff, but where your heart is in all of this matters.
DM: I think that’s just true of people. Things are never black and white. We would love our enemies to be everything we hate, but—basically, until you find somebody who’s not going to die, everybody is going up against that. “What can I accomplish? What can I get done? How can I take care of the people that matter to me before it’s all over?” The fact that we all share that, it’s a pretty hard thing to shake. I think despite people being horrible and doing fucked-up things, we are all still running against that, and it kind of makes us the same.
AVC: Well, and whether it’s on purpose or a happy accident based on when you wrote the show, Vice Principals exploring that idea kind of ties in with our current cultural and political moment. Tensions are high, it often feels like things are black and white. When Vice Principals started airing, did you think about how it might reflect the current political climate?
DM: Like I said before, we were really just following the characters and their story, but it was sort of interesting that what this show is was also what’s going on. But I don’t—it was really just about human nature. I don’t necessarily think the times we’re in right now are that far outside the box. People have always been fucked-up to each other, and people have always been cruel to each other when they want something, so I think we were just writing a story about basic human nature. It just so happens to line up with the fact that that part of human nature is kind of hard to escape right now.
AVC: Do you think that by the time we’ve arrived at the end of the series, that there’s a hopeful message there? Like, we may be kind of fucked-up to each other, but maybe we can find a way to shift our perspective and gain some empathy and a common connection.
DM: I think people can always change. I really do believe that. But even in our world, we didn’t want to make it where these guys, you know, suddenly everything’s great and living happily ever after, because that’s not how life is. One moment doesn’t change a person to their core. Hopefully that just happens over a lifetime. I do think there’s a hopeful message there, but at the end of the day we’re not really connecting all the dots. So who’s to say that Lee Russell’s not going to get himself into just as much trouble as he has before, or that Gamby won’t find himself giving in to his worst impulses. But I think in this particular point of time, these two men helped each other in an odd, strange, fucked-up way, and they acknowledge that they ended up finding a bit of solace from someone who initially seemed like an enemy.
AVC: That final scene really did remind me of the finale of Justified and the whole “we dug coal together” moment. Like, Gamby and Russell know they’ve been on opposite sides of things, but they also found a strange connection along the way and helped each other grow.
DM: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. I like that.
AVC: Let’s shift gears away from the existential angst of human nature before we get too depressed. I’m not sure TV audiences are as in-tune to direction the way someone watching a film might be, where they can name their favorite directors, but obviously the visuals are integral to this show. You tapped David Gordon Green to direct eight of the series’ final nine episodes. What does he bring to the table that makes him a good fit for Vice Principals?
DM: With David and Jody both, I’ve known these guys since I was 18 years old. I’ve watched these guys grow up. I’ve watched their taste mature, their skills mature, and it comes down to really believing in both these guys. I believe in their talent and what they have to say. So for me, I really have no idea what I’m going to get when I write the series and then Jody comes on to direct the first half and David to direct the next. I just have faith in them, that these guys, at the point they’re at in their careers, will be able to put something into this that it needs. It’s the same thing we do with actors, right? You bank on someone that you respect and see what happens when they mix their magic with yours.
AVC: You jumped in to direct two episodes in the series. There was “The Field Trip” in the first season, and “Venetian Nights” this season. What was your motivation for directing those episodes?
DM: This is so lame, but it mostly had to do with both directors’ schedules. Both guys couldn’t commit to being there the entire time, and they needed time to scout and prep their next episodes. We didn’t have any hiatuses on the show, it was just one week after the next. So we decided to do two episodes that take place outside of the school, and they can have a slightly different tone than the rest of them, and I’ll direct those and the other guys will do what they need to do to prep for the other episodes. So originally I was going to direct “The Field Trip” and “Spring Break,” but then something shifted in David’s schedule and I had to direct the eighth episode of this season, and it was like, this is the end of the whole fucking show! [Laughs.] But it ended up being a blast.
AVC: That is a wild episode.
DM: It was fun. You know, with television—and this is a thing that’s amazing about David and Jody—you just don’t have the time and money that you do with film. So, we’ll shoot a whole episode in five days; you know, 30 pages of material and something crazy like 20 location changes, it’s just an insane schedule. Both of those guys are just magicians with being able to not let that hinder their vision. They both still give it every bit of style that their films would have. That’s not something that I think everyone can do. I really appreciate that about them.
AVC: Is this all part of just working with a smaller creative team in general? You’re working with a lot of the same people, the episodes are shorter, the season order is limited to nine episodes each. Does having those limitations and contained schedule allow people to really go for it, maybe go a little more over-the-top knowing that you won’t have to sustain it for seasons on end?
DM: I think 100 percent. Sometimes you can feel it each season, where you’re no longer coming up with the best idea, you’re just trying to come up with an idea that you haven’t done before. That gets you into a very tricky place with writing. So that was part of the idea of doing two seasons. It’s like, let’s tell a story where we don’t have to worry about keeping everything together. It’s more that stuff happens, it has repercussions, and the show changes on a weekly basis, and it evolves. When you have that finality, I think it informs everybody. From the cast to the directors, everybody can see the end and you’re not just trying to maintain something.
AVC: And like you said, you’re not necessarily trying to work towards a specific lesson, but rather feeling out where the story organically ends for these two guys. Or rather, where this specific story, in the long story of their life, ends.
DM: Exactly. Ultimately, I think the type of comedy that we excel at is—we love the concepts to be very simple. If the concept is simple, all the rest of the real estate can be used for bucking expectations, fucking with people, and giving them something unexpected. But if your basic premise is something convoluted and all over the place, then it’s hard to be able to move away from that and give people something unorthodox because you’re spending all your time just trying to tell your convoluted story. For us, the idea that this is just a show about two guys who want the principal job—when that position is filled, and they’re out of the running, then you and the audience are left to fill in the blanks.
AVC: That’s something that I admire about the show. At no point are you really telling us how to feel about Gamby and Russell. You’re not making things black and white, or crafting moments that act as their definite shift to being a good or bad person. Like, by the end of the series I think Russell and Gamby have changed, but I’m not sure that they’re good people or not, and there’s something great about just sitting in that uncertainty.
DM: I totally agree. And I think there’s a limit on audiences these days. We’ve seen so many stories these days where the hero has to act a certain way, or we expect justice to be restored. Sometimes it’s about the audience being ahead of the characters. What I love about the first season is that the audience identifies that Dr. Brown is not the villain, that these guys are, and that you can even see that Dr. Brown has more in common with Gamby than he could ever imagine. Having that information, and then having to go through the agony of watching them make the bad mistakes—I think it just puts the viewer in a very complicated area, and I think that’s way more interesting than just serving up something that the average viewer could just write themselves.
AVC: If I could change one thing about the second season, it would be adding in more Dr. Brown. Kimberly Hebert Gregory is phenomenal in that role.
DM: She is a force. That’s the thing about us writing and shooting this all at once. If we had written this season by season, there’s no way we would have made the second season what it was. We had so much fun with Kimberly that I can guarantee you we would have come back and thought, let’s not get rid of her, we’ll bring her back for something. And I think we could have fallen into the trap we were trying to avoid, which was, let’s just really set ourselves off from creating a formula and just tell a story. I think that’s what film writing has over television. Films have endings and roads, and people have to die or get down and out, and it’s so easy in TV to keep the same faces there, but I think if you do that it removes some of the stakes of the storytelling.
AVC: So there were pretty minimal changes between what you had mapped out for the second season and what actually came to air?
DM: I’m lucky in the sense that I write this stuff and I perform in it, so I’m there every day on the set watching what these actors are bringing, and watching what’s instantly popping on set. So we would constantly adjust. We never even locked any of these scripts, really. We never just wrote an episode and then it was done. We’d have all of these episodes open the whole time, constantly tweaking and adjusting. It’s what makes it fun, but its also kind of what makes it completely insane, just hoping that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart. [Laughs.]
AVC: I know that in interviews I’ve done with other showrunners and writers, ones who’ve worked on shows that have run for a long time, what they like about working in TV is that you can adjust on the fly. You can see how people react to your show on a season-by-season basis and maybe adjust for things that aren’t quite connecting in the way you thought they would. Something like this, you’re just putting it into the world and hoping people connect, which seems terrifying.
DM: It totally is. You know, we really fought HBO hard. We were like, we don’t want to shoot a pilot, we just want to write the whole series and then go shoot it. They agreed to that, and then after we got what we wanted it was like, man, a pilot really would have been kind of useful. [Laughs.] I mean, I don’t even think we started shooting this with the first episode. Walton was finishing up The Hateful Eight, so we actually had to shoot the third episode first, because he was barely in that one. So, from the get-go we had to have utter faith in these actors and these choices we made, and try not to second guess ourselves and just charge forward.
AVC: It seems a bit like life imitating art, with Gamby and Russell getting what they want at North Jackson High, only to realize it comes with a lot more work and responsibility than they actually wanted.
DM: [Laughs.] Exactly! But there’s less arson involved. I mean, as an actor that was a pretty amazing thing. Like, you’re in a movie and your character has his arc—that’s an arc that you explore for three months and an hour-and-a-half of edited footage. It was crazy on this, to have these actors that like—we were shooting this show for eight months, and like nine hours of material, and the arc that some of these characters go on is so crazy, so it was fun to get lost in this weird world. It was definitely strange the day we wrapped and walked off of that high-school set for the first time. It was like, “Wow, okay, that’s done.” It’s surreal, just like it is now, two years removed from finishing it. It was an amazing experience with really cool people, and I can’t even put into words how much it meant to me.
AVC: So what’s next? What do you have going on for the next little while?
DM: Well, I’m directing the new Star Wars [Laughs.] No, we’re trying to bring the new Halloween to the screen, and I’m working on a new show for HBO that’s kind of in the same style as this. Same creative team, with Jody and David, and just continue whatever the hell you call these kinds of series that we do.