A Conversation With Jody Hill (OBSERVE AND REPORT)
It’s the story that every aspiring filmmaker dreams of, though it only ever happens to a very precious few: realizing that Hollywood isn’t going to save the day, a young writer/director saves up some money, returns to his hometown, takes the plunge with a group of friends, gets into Sundance, that tiny-movie-that-could is seen by the right people, and pretty soon he’s directing his next feature for Warner Bros. while developing an original series for HBO. For Jody Hill, that’s not a pipe dream. That’s his bio. Three years after premiering the raucous Tae Kwon Do comedy The Foot Fist Way, which helped launch his longtime friend Danny McBride into the Hollywood stratosphere, Hill finally delivered his follow-up this past spring, the outrageous and deceptively subversive action-comedy Observe and Report. At the same time, his next McBride vehicle, Eastbound and Down, made in collaboration with film school buddies Ben Best and David Gordon Green, found a devoted fan base on the small screen. On the eve of Observe and Report’s official home video release, I talked to Hill about his career trajectory, the differences between directing a studio film and an ultra-indie, and the “date rape” controversy surrounding his sophomore feature.
H2N: I wanted to start with The Foot Fist Way. Did you decide to make that with your own money, completely outside the system, out of necessity? Had you even tried to shop the script around and play the Hollywood game?
JH: It was totally out of necessity. When I came out to LA, I pictured myself as selling screenplays and taking meetings, but honestly none of that stuff happened. I didn’t know how to get my foot in the door. I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t even know how to get into a studio to walk around the lot or anything! (both laugh) It really just was one of those things where I was depressed for a lot of years thinking I was never gonna make a film. While I was going through that, I was saving money from working these crappy reality television jobs. With that money, it eventually got to a point where one job was ending and I knew I couldn’t take another one, so I just took whatever little money I saved and went back to North Carolina and made The Foot Fist Way. That’s how it came about. It was completely necessity! (JH laughs)
H2N: When we were making All the Real Girls, we were all convinced that it was going to turn Danny into a star. But it didn’t happen. Did you make The Foot Fist Way because you knew you were friends with this untapped comic jewel and wanted to exploit that? Not exploit it, I guess, but show the world how funny he was?
JH: I’m all about exploiting Danny! (both laugh) Honestly, you probably remember this, but when All the Real Girls was going on, I can’t remember what the guy’s name was but David (Gordon Green) had somebody to play that role, and I think Ben Best suggested that Danny should do it. I think David just gave him a shot. None of us even knew—I mean we had acted in each other’s student films—but to see what Danny did, it was almost like, I don’t even think Danny knew he could act. (H2N laughs hard) Or ever had any idea of that. David was definitely the first guy to really give him that chance. Danny and I have also been super tight for a long time. We lived together in college, so we were always kicking around script ideas and stuff. I don’t know. I grew up doing Tae Kwon Doe, I needed someone to play the role, I’d seen Danny in All the Real Girls, he’s funny, he’s my best friend, so it just happened naturally. I remember never having any doubt as to whether Danny could do it. If you see Bust-Ass, it’s pretty clear that the talent is there.
H2N: I remember the one that didn’t make the cut—not the classic deleted scene with him trying to make himself puke—but when he was hitting on his cousin. I could not believe what we were watching. Even the random townies were freaking out. (both laugh)
JH: What’s amazing too is that now Danny is just so much more comfortable than he was in All the Real Girls or The Foot Fist Way. In Foot Fist Way, whenever there would be a dramatic scene, Danny—who always delivered—even though there wasn’t any question in my eyes, I think Danny wasn’t sure if he would be able to deliver, so he would get a little nervous. But now, he’s become such a pro that in any type of scene, there’s no hemmin’ and hawin’, he’s just ready to step up and do it. It’s pretty cool to see. I think he still has some surprises in there for people who think he just plays the funny guy. It’s gonna be interesting to watch his career just as a fan.
H2N: I can’t wait to see the dramatic terminal cancer role that gets him an Oscar.
JH: Yeah! (laughs hard then pauses) I could’ve gotten myself in trouble there but I’m not gonna do it.
H2N: Next question! It’s kind of silly to ask what your expectations were for The Foot Fist Way, but looking back on it, you guys really hit the lottery in many ways. Were you just happy to making something after years of frustration? Or, better yet, at what point did you think that you might have hit on something special?
JH: It felt really good when we were making it. It was one of those things where everybody on the set was laughing. And I know they always say that in movies, but it really was hard to keep from ruining every take. And I had never had that experience before. So, some guys like Joey Stephens, who’s my buddy, would occasionally go, “I think you might be onto something here.” But the whole goal of it literally came out of that frustration I was feeling. I didn’t really feel like a filmmaker ‘cause I hadn’t made a film.
You know, David Green is just such an inspiration for me—when we were in film school and saw him take this leap and make a film and it got into festivals. Although his early films were critical successes they weren’t commercial successes, but it was just amazing to see him being able to live this life as a filmmaker and make his movies. That was what I was hoping for, that maybe it would get into some small festivals and I would be able to make another film and hopefully do this for a living. That was the goal all along: to be a filmmaker. And what happened with it was just… I mean, it didn’t become Napoleon Dynamite, but what it did for our careers was just so unexpected. The day it got into Sundance, I considered it—aside from the day I married my wife!—like the best day of my life. That was a life-changing moment. It felt really good when that happened.
H2N: So let’s jump from there to Observe and Report, which is just now coming out on home video this week so everyone can freeze-frame those magical moments. (JH laughs) We’re talking a major budgetary leap, and a major studio. Did it feel like that big of a transition or did you surround yourself with people who would make you feel comfortable in trying to get your vision across?
JH: It was different. It was better in some ways and not so good in other ways. But it’s weird. You know, there’s the studio to deal with and other stuff, but I actually had a really good experience with Warner Bros. I’m pretty impressed with them sometimes, in the movies they make. Like, they’re making The Invention of Lying, and they made Watchmen. I know a lot of people have problems with Watchmen, but personally, just seeing a really long movie that just twists every stereotype of a superhero on its ass? I was really impressed that they took these chances and are making these movies. So they were really good to me. I don’t know if I have my story yet where I had to fight too much, which is pretty surprising if you look at Observe and Report.
In terms of making the movie, I just surrounded myself with people I knew from film school. The DP Tim Orr. Obviously, I went to school with him and I knew he knew his way around a camera even though I’d never worked with him before. It was either him or some guy that I didn’t even know that the studio would approve, so of course the easy choice was Tim. And Chris Gebert came and did sound. In addition to all that, Randy Gamble, who’s the pervert, was the art director on The Foot Fist Way, he’s an old buddy of mine. I know I’m leaving out a bunch of people… Joey Stephens, who scored it; my wife (Collette Wolfe), who played Nell. But when you make a movie, it’s not that much different when you’re on set than when I made Foot Fist Way because, you know, you talk to your DP, you talk to your actors, you ask the sound guy if it sounds good and that’s about it! Then they go and talk to their people and they talk to everybody else. But there were definitely times when I would look around and see the lights up in the sky, waiting in the street, and that was kinda weird. (H2N laughs) But the day-to-day of it all wasn’t that much different. I was surprised.
H2N: Was the fact that you were restricted primarily to that mall a good or a bad thing? Like, was everybody getting cabin fever?
JH: Good and bad. The reason I chose this mall surrounding is because I really wanted to explore a character that loses it, that goes to the verge of sanity. And malls always drive me crazy. I remember, I was in one and thinking about this, and that’s where the idea came from. It didn’t come from a place of, “Oh, mall cop movie, that would be funny.” I was trying to choose a place that would work as a world—I hate using the word microcosm—but that would represent this character’s own little world, the world that he sees. So when we made it, I knew it would drive the character crazy but it definitely made me feel kind of like that too, you know what I mean? (both laugh) It was like, “We’re back here again. We’re back here again.” I think that added to some of the stuff you see on screen.
H2N: So you’re saying the studio was cool, but what about when you presented the first cut? Obviously, they’d read this thing and knew what they were getting into, but seeing it is a whole different ball game.
JH: Yeah, of course. I mean, when they read “Ronnie fights the police” in the script, and then when they see Ronnie fighting the police and it’s a really brutal kind of scene, I think that the dark parts of the script—that’s what’s cool about film—you don’t really know until you see it. I think it surprised them a little bit at how dark it was. It’s strange with Observe and Report ‘cause some people love it and some people hate it and most people fall into one of those two categories. There are very few “in the middle” people with it. (H2N laughs) But the one thing that movie does, every time it plays in a theater, there’s an audible reaction. And I think the studio heard that. The one thing I had to convince them of—I don’t know if it worked but it got the film I wanted made—was that even though the test scores weren’t in the 100s, the movie was working on the audience in some way. And they trusted me. We had to go through a few test screenings to prove that the cut I wanted was the best. I think the test screening and post process was the biggest struggle.
H2N: But that’s gonna happen with pretty much everyone.
JH: Right. We were in post for a while. We had to try out a lot of cuts, but what’s weird is the cut that I wanted the first time was actually the cut that got through. When you neuter a film like this, the thing is that people are always gonna love this film and people are gonna hate it, but when you neuter it it lands in that middle-ground where it’s just not that good.
H2N: I’m sure you don’t even want to revisit the ridiculous “date rape” furor that erupted before the movie had even come out.
JH (laughs): I’ll talk about it. You might be the first person who’s asked me about this since the movie’s come out. I kinda went into radio silence around the time of its release.
H2N: I’m sure it was impossible not to take that stuff personally, but it had to help lesson the blow when you realized that a lot of it was coming from people who hadn’t even seen the film yet.
JH: It honestly depends. I have kind of a weird outlook on it because… how do I explain it? This is not so much about that scene, but just in general. I set out to make this movie where I knew some people would love it and some people would hate it, but I didn’t want there to be any middle ground with it. And I think, for the most part, I achieved that. Then, when the movie came out, for some reason, I had it in mind that everybody was gonna love it! (JH laughs) Do you know what I mean by that?
H2N: Of course!
JH: It’s like, “It doesn’t matter that this is what I set out to do, for some reason I still want everyone to love it when it comes out!” This movie obviously came out in every theater, and it was one of those things where I just had to adjust and think about it when it was over. It definitely hit me for a shock, where I didn’t expect it to be on such a national level. It was more that I just needed time to think. But in terms of the response to specifically the date rape thing, now that it’s said and done, I’m actually happy that there was this debate about it. I think that for everybody who hates this movie, loves this movie, whatever it is, there was a debate going on about a scene in this movie, which I think is rare for something like that to happen on such a big scale. I think that’s cool. In terms of if it’s date rape or not? (both laugh) I feel like I should just let everybody else argue about that.
H2N: And to suggest just not reading that stuff is ridiculous. Everybody reads their own reviews. It’s inevitable. People can say they don’t but I haven’t met any filmmaker who hasn’t fessed up to it.
JH: I read ‘em. I shouldn’t, but I do!
H2N: Seriously, though, how many movies this year have caused that much of a debate? At the time I’m sure it hurt but you’re right, it is a very rare thing.
JH: The one thing that gets me mad is when I read reviews from critics that are esteemed and they talk about how this is a Hollywood problem, or they try to make this out to be a reflection of how Hollywood rules the world, and that’s weird to me, because I know what it took to get this movie on the screen. The things that people have a problem with are the things that I had to fight the hardest for. I would rather they got mad at me! But it’s like you said, a lot of that was coming from people who hadn’t seen the movie but were looking for a way to lash out against Hollywood. To me, it seemed like the most un-Hollywood movie in the world.
H2N (laughs): Who would sit through Observe and Report and say, “Oh, that’s just some straight Hollywood shit.” (both laugh)
JH: I know, but it’s crazy, the critics even write that kind of stuff. I feel bad for Seth Rogen because he’s a star and here I am writing the scene and they’d be like, “Seth Rogen is horrible!” (both laugh hard) “He advocates date rape!” And it’s like, no he doesn’t!
H2N: Yeah, what did he make of all that?
JH: His idea is just like, “Fuck ‘em.” Have you met Seth before?
JH: Oh, man, he’s so cool. He honestly is like a rock. What’s cool about Seth is that everything he’s done lately is either something that he’s generated or it’s a director that he’s liked or it’s one of his friends. For a guy who’s so successful and has gotten to do a lot in this business, he really doesn’t make choices that he doesn’t believe in. And that’s something I admire in him. So when all this came out, he basically had this “fuck it” attitude. I remember the box office came in and we were fourth, which, shit, it’s great, it’s a lot of money to me! But it’s obviously not number one. And he was just like, “I didn’t think this movie was gonna make that much money.” That’s what he said to me, and it made me feel so much better.
H2N: Let’s jump over to Eastbound and Down. At one point did you know it had really caught on? When I met up with you guys at SXSW, within five minutes we’d been bought two rounds of Irish Car Bombs and a crowd had formed on the sidewalk outside the bar. I hadn’t seen you guys in a while, but it certainly wasn’t like that the last time we hung out!
JH: You know what? Honestly, I think it was at South by Southwest. It’s so funny you say that. Danny is like, every once in a while someone will recognize him from Foot Fist Way. I would say more than that they would recognize him from Pineapple Express, but it still didn’t happen a lot. But then at South by Southwest, we couldn’t walk five feet. What’s crazy is that they wouldn’t even know his name, they’d just yell, “Kenny Powers!” (both laugh hard) I think everybody knows his name now but it was weird and cool to hear people yelling that at South by Southwest. We got up on stage after the Q&A for Observe and Report and somebody in the back row goes, “Kenny fuckin’ Powers!”
H2N: You guys were picked up for a second season. What’s your time frame looking like?
JH: We’re gonna start writing in November and hopefully start shooting in spring. This is the first level of general success we’ve had. The reviews were generally positive, somewhat mixed as all of our stuff has been in the past, but the fact that people are actually tuning in every week to watch what’s gonna happen, it’s really exciting. It’s cool because with the first season, we were wondering if people were gonna get on board with this character. But now we know that people are on board, so we can take things even further.
H2N: Lastly, what do they put in the water at North Carolina School of the Arts?
JH (laughs): I don’t know, man. I just did whatever David did, that’s what I was trying to do. (both laugh) Ask David what they put in the water in Texas.
— Michael Tully