The Motion/Captured Interview: Jody Hill
The first time I met Jody Hill, he was hanging out on the set of "Superbad," just... ummm... observing, I suppose. And since I was there to report on the set, I guess there's some kismet in the idea that our first full-length interview would be for this film. This was my last interview of the morning, just after the Austin SXSW premiere, and everyone was buzzing on the energy of the screening the night before, so what was set to be a 15 minute interview stretched a liiiiiiiiitle long, as you'll see below in a free-wheeling conversation about Fantastic Fest, David Gordon Green, the North Carolina posse, "East Bound and Down," working with his cast, and more.
Motion/Captured: Hey, Jody. How are you, man?
Jody Hill: Good. I feel like we've seen each other, but we haven't really had a chance to talk at this festival.
M/C: Yeah. I'm sorry you guys have to bail right after this and you don't get to enjoy any Austin.
JH: I know, man. It's kind of a crazy schedule. I've gotta come back here, though, man. This town's sick.
M/C: Come for Fantastic Fest.
JH: Yeah? Is that good?
M/C: It's at the end of September and, title for title, best festival I've ever been to.
[much, much more after the jump]
JH: Somebody else told me I should come back for that. I think I will. Is that a good way for you to keep up with what's going on?
M/C: It's great. Foreign stuff, exploitation from around the world...
JH: 'Cause your knowledge of film far exceeds mine. I always read you guys to try and keep up with what the hell's going on.
M/C: Well, here at SXSW, they're doing Fantastic Fest at Midnight, so there's an entire late night program they put together.
[From elsewhere on the patio, the unmistakable sound of Seth Rogen laughing can be heard.]
JH: Okay, then. Yeah. I'm there. Let's party. [laughs]
M/C: Now you've shown the movie. This is your first big moment with the public. So tell me... how was last night?
JH: Last night was... amazing. I think it was one of the most amazing days of my life, to be honest with you. The fact that... like... first, I'm in Austin and hanging out with all of you dudes, and there's a real feeling down here that film is cool. Do you know what I mean? Like... nobody's worried about the sales, like at Sundance, and nobody's out to trash movies here. It's like you're all here to... celebrate movies. Like that crowd last night...
M/C: They really wanted to see your movie.
JH: Yeah. Just watch movies. Right.
M/C: Yeah, the LA film scene wears on me. I can't talk about grosses and box-office with people. I don't care. I hate that stuff.
JH: I hate it, too. People keep asking me, "Oh, how do you think this movie will do?" I guess I shouldn't say this because of Warner Bros., but... I don't give a fuck. I hope people like it and I hope it's good for history, you know?
M/C: Just wait ten years till some kid walks up to you and says, "Hey, man, I'm making movies now because I saw 'Observe and Report' and it fucked my world up."
JH: Yeah, either that or "Hey, dude, I shot somebody because of 'Observe and Report.'" [laughs]
M/C: You never know what the ripple effect is going to be, and honestly, that's the only thing that matters.... what endures, what lasts, what it does to an audience.
JH: Exactly. I wasn't around when "Taxi Driver" came out. I don't know if it was a hit, but I've seen it a million times.
M/C: Oh, man, that new documentary about Steven Prince, the gun dealer from "Taxi Driver" is playing here. It's so good.
JH: I've heard about this.
M/C: He tells so many great stories about the Laurel Canyon house where it was him, Scorsese, and Robbie Robertson just doing pounds of coke and partying...
[One of the publicists walks out and tries to tempt us with giant Four Seasons chocolate-chip cookies, but to no avail.]
M/C: I have to behave. I put on weight just thinking about Austin. So... much... good food here.
JH: Yeah. My plan is to diet after this weekend is over.
M/C: See, a film like "American Prince." I can really only imagine seeing here. You've got to love '70s movies and storytelling, and... that's not for the casual.
JH: Yeah, an industry crowd would see it for Scorsese, but they're not going to love it. It's pretty amazing.
M/C: So there's a North Carolina posse now.
M/C: You guys have really stormed the beaches these last few years. And David [Gordon Green] made the first few... you know, like "George Washington" and "All The Real Girls"... but now Craig Zobel's making films and you guys... it feels like a genuine little movement.
JH: Craig Zobel. Yeah. And this other guys, Jeff Nichols... he made "Shotgun Stories." He's part of that, too. It's kind of weird, man. To be honest with you, David... when he was making "George Washington" and like, the success he had with that... he got into the Berlin Film Festival, which is... maybe in Hollywood, that's not, like, that awesome or anything, but to us...
M/C: It's the Berlin Film Festival. Yes. That's awesome.
JH: And to us, these kids in North Carolina, who... we didn't grow up like... the kids who go to UCLA and all this shit know more about the industry, but...
M/C: Well, they're taught the business side as much as the actual filmmaking side.
JH: Well, we weren't taught any of that stuff, but we did watch more movies, and when David was going through that... it blew my world apart. I was like "He's doing it. He's really making movies." And he was traveling with it, showing it to audiences all around the worlds, and it was... it was so uninspiring. I went to Sundance the year of "All The Real Girls," and... I remember Francis Ford Coppola came to one of the parties and I saw David meet him and then talk to him about his movie. So inspiring. David was always super supportive along the way. I would write him e-mails. "How did you do this?"
M/C: That's great to hear.
JH: He's an amazing guy. Do you know him? Have you gotten to meet him?
M/C: I've met him a few times casually, like at last night's thing, and on the "Pineapple" set.
JH: Right. And he's a great guy. Free with help. He's not just out for himself.
M/C: Well, that seems to be part of what really defines this comedy moment. Everyone seems to be open to real collaboration. It makes the films more fun. But right now, it seems like it's more about the work and not about, you know, who can be the biggest movie star.
JH: Yeah, a lot of those older guys had those meteoric rises and then those really hard falls.
M/C: It think comedy's best when it's not all about one person.
JH: Yeah, it sounds like a cliche, but it really does have to be about the film. You have to be willing to do what's right for each particular movie.
M/C: I love Danny's role in this. He kills.
JH: He was doing "Tropic Thunder" at the time and he couldn' t do our film, but he really wanted to do something and be in this movie because we're friends.
M/C: That's great.
JH: Yeah, I owe him a lot. He came down for one day and shot that scene and... [laughs]... it freaking kills. You're right. It's amazing. No ego about it at all.
M/C: Well, you guys write deep. All of the characters in this film... you give everybody something to do. Like... Collette... or Aziz...
M/C: You don't have to write that many good roles in one comedy. Most people don't.
JH: I don't consider myself a joke writer. A lot of fuckin' comedies are joke-centric, where for me, jokes are an afterthought.
M/C: It's character humor. I laugh because of context or because I recognize someone.
JH: Thank you, man. Thank you. That's a really big compliment. That pretty much nails exactly what me and my buddies are trying to do, where it's like... it's funny, and we're trying to be funny, certainly, but you don't want to just do "set-up, punchline," you know? That's what most comedy does, and... I don't know, man. You make a character, and they're true to themselves, and you try to think of them as real people...
M/C: Anna in this is crazy. I love that you gave her a role where you're not supposed to like her or sympathize with her at all.
JH: [laughs] Nobody's really like that in this movie. And Anna's so bad-ass, 'cause she's like... she really doesn't give a fuck. Like, she's not out to... her idea in the dinner scene... her "date" with Seth... was she wanted a shrimp cocktail. Cause I asked, "Do you guys want props?" And she kept asking for a shrimp cocktail so she could try a take where she's talking and... [laughs]... there's just a shrimp tail hanging out of her mouth. And you're not gonna find an actress who's willing to do that, much less one who comes up with it. And she did that vomit thing... she came up with that on the set. She never questioned if it made her look good or bad. She's just down for being fucked up.
M/C: Okay, so Anna's young enough that she's hip and gets it, and Seth is obviously down... but Celia Weston? Oh my god...
JH: I've been a fan of hers forever.
M/C: How can you not be? But I've never seen her do anything like this before.
JH: And what's funny is that it's still very much a Celia Weston performance, and she never breaks... like, if you look at that scene where she's giving Ronnie... where she tells him she's switching to beer? She has tears in her eyes. It's as real as...
M/C: Within the reality of your world, that's the clearest expression of motherly love...
M/C: And I love that... yeah... that's a tender moment for these two.
JH: What I like about that scene... I feel like that scene is representative of the whole film, and there's one emotion that it's giving off that's tender, and, and they finally connect, and she tells him she's switching to beer, and Ronnie thinks that is the greatest... "You did this for me, mom?" And they hug. And then... that's just a thing alcoholics do all the time. They switch from brown liquors to clear liquors, and they think that's the answer. And of course it's not. And you leave this movie and it's a tragedy, but we play like sweet victory. [laughs]
M/C: I love that she attacks it with the same gusto as everybody else. She really seems to be on the same wavelength as everybody else.
JH: She just such a nice...
[Again, the booming sound of Seth's laugh from three tables away, so loud that Jody stops and laughs in response.]
JH: ... the one rule I have, my one made-up rule, is that I want to work with nice people and not assholes, people throwing tantrums on-set. You always hear stories about actors, and there was nobody like that on this set, and Celia was just one of the gang, y'know? It's really cool to hang out with her and the Yuen twins and Anna and Aziz...
M/C: I was watching people line up last night to take pictures with the Yuens, and you could see them immediately becoming cult figures. "I've gotta get a picture with the twins!"
JH: Harry knows them somehow.
JH: Yeah. I guess they used to live in Austin.
M/C: That's nuts. I loved their obsession with zombies at the Q&A last night.
JH: Oh, they're ready. [laughs] I used to work with those guys, and they, um, they collect guns and they're expert marksmen, so when, uh... we wanted Seth to have a gun obsession in the movie, and it was like, "Well, let's just write these guys into the movie, and we can let the camera roll, and they can just rattle on about guns and stuff."
M/C: Oh, really?
JH: [laughs] Yeah. That's how that came about. I used to hang out with them because... they're good guys, right? But they're also great decoration. Rolling into somewhere with them... [laughs]
M/C: Have you started writing your next thing?
JH: I haven't, man.
M/C: Gonna take some time first?
JH: Yeah. I finished ["East Bound and Down"] on a Thursday and finished this on a Friday, and this is like...
M/C: Cause you guys really have been going simultaneously on both.
JH: Yeah. I'm exhausted. But I may... I may start writing on something this week. I've been kinda picturing a Southern "Godfather," but done in a weirder... like a big ensemble three-hour thing, but still have it be as weird as this movie. If that makes sense.
M/C: Well, you did just pull off a three-hour movie, only it was on HBO...
JH: Yeah, and that's kinda... that's kinda what I'm trying to do. Have you been digging the show?
M/C: I love the show. I watch it and... it's weird. It's the first comedy that's ever given me an anxiety attack.
JH: Really? [laughs]
M/C: It was the second episode, when Kenny shows up at the dance. I had to shut it off and go outside.
JH: Oh, and it just goes on. [laughs harder] And the music....
M/C: That's what did it. When the music starts to really fuck up and you realize he's losing it. 'Cause there's a moment where it's all going okay, and then...
JH: [laughs] It was the eggrolls, not the ecstasy.
M/C: And you're still hoping to do the second run of episodes.
JH: Just waiting for the official word.
M/C: 'Cause when we first talked about it, you were thinking that two seasons of six is all you'd want to do.
JH: Yeah. We've got another story to... plus it's nice to say you weren't just canceled after one. [laughs] There would be no more than that, though. We're not looking at syndication or anything like that.
M/C: I don't really want to see Kenny redeemed or see him as a superstar again.
M/C: What I find interesting are the micro-triumphs and the micro-failures.
JH: Will you call me after next week?
[This interview was held six days before the season finale of "East Bound And Down" aired.]
M/C: I will. I'm waiting on this week's, because I want to see the last two together.
JH: You know what? That's great. That's... I won't give anything away, but five without six, like America just saw it... it's a little weird. It's what you might think is a tone shift. But if you watch five and six together, you're perfect.
M/C: It worked out, then, 'cause I'm on the road, and my buddy's got it on Tivo, but I was like, "You know what? I'm right in the middle of a festival, and the last one's just a week away..."
JH: I think that's probably the best way to do it.
M/C: Well, Seth was saying you guys screened all six in a theater, back-to-back.
JH: We watched all six, yeah.
M/C: I'm looking forward to the DVDs. I do love the way all the episodes synch up.
JH: That was the idea. It's like "Lord of the Rings." You can just put it on and watch it all straight through.
M/C: And theatrically, who's ever going to fund a three hour comedy about Kenny Fucking Powers?
JH: [laughs] Yeah.
M/C: Is it weird for you to hear dialogue that you and Ben and Danny wrote... now that it's entering the geek lexicon and people are quoting the films?
JH: Are they?
M/C: Yep. I was in line for a movie here at the festival, and there's a kid in line in front of me, holding a spot. And his girlfriend arrives just before they're going to let in, and he looks over and says, "Baby, I love you, but your clothes make you look like a dickhead." And she fell apart laughing.
JH: [laughs] Oh, good...
M/C: And I'm laughing at how quickly it's seeped into that quote bank that geeks all carry around.
JH: Yeah, that's kind of crazy. I... I guess I like it. It's just... it's great that they're watching. As kind of unhip as it is to say this... like part of me thinks, "I don't give a fuck if people like these as long as we make what we wanted." You make the choices and you hope that people are going to respond. It's nice to know that people are really paying attention. I take that as a gift. It's a blessing. As long as that lets us keep making stuff, it's cool.
M/C: I like that "East Bound" feels like a grass roots fandom. It certainly wasn't oversold, like America had it forced on them. Same thing with "Foot Fist." People get really passionate about comedy when they feel like it's their discovery.
JH: I think it was a real surprise to HBO, too. I mean, kudos to HBO for letting us do it, but... I don't think they thought it was going to be a hit. I don't think they thought the critics would like it.
M/C: You had a great spot. That and "Conchords" together...
[Once again, the Rogen laugh rolls over the interview like fog over San Francisco.]
M/C: ... they're both very particular. Comedy with a unique voice.
JH: Exactly. We're very lucky that we're on HBO, you know? That...
[This time, it's a machine-gun burst of Seth's laughter, which sets Jody off again.]
JH: I love that all y'all's interviews are going to have that laugh in the background.
M/C: It's certainly unmistakable.
JH: What's weird is that's Anna Faris.
M/C: [laughs] God, man... I'm so eager to... David [Gordon Green] told me that "Your Highness" got the greenlight on Friday.
JH: Man, that movie is going to... [pounds table] It's a giant movie, man.
M/C: I'm going to Ireland. I'll fly myself. Fuck that... I'll swim.
JH: [laughs] You should. And David... trust me, he wants you there. It's going to be so stupid and so big. It'll be amazing. I'll be first in line.
M/C: I can't even describe it to people without laughing. And it was Danny's quote when I asked him about it on the "Land Of The Lost" set that did it for me. He said, "Imagine you live in a world where 'Krull' made $400 million."
M/C: Okay, first... if you're using "Krull" as a creative touchstone, you're insane. I'm in. And I love the idea of a world where that was a monster hit. "Oh, we've just got to make more films just like that."
JH: Yeah, and David is not, like, a computer guy at all. He'll use it some on this, but if you love cheap-ass '80s fantasy, you're going to love the style of this.
M/C: I love low-tech, especially in fantasy. It's important to make it feel sort of hand-crafted.
JH: Things aren't quite as awesome these days.
M/C: Not when you can use a computer to do it, no. So, okay... so back to "Observe"...
JH: [laughs] Right.
M/C: The great thing about that crowd last night... y'know, I feel this way about both comedies and horror films... safety is death.
JH: Yeah. I feel like that's why comedies always suck during the second half. I hate when the storyline kicks in and you have to do all that...
M/C: Right. When you've got to get both people to the airport so they can kiss.
JH: [laughs] Right. You gotta have that big chase scene or whatever. And... I mean... like, I loved that Raimi film ["Drag Me To Hell"] the other night. I thought that was so much fun. And that didn't feel... did you enjoy that?
M/C: Oh my god... so much fun. And that audience... there's a great example of the involuntary reaction.
JH: Yeah. It's so gross. I didn't expect it to be that gross since I heard it was PG-13.
M/C: I think Sam walked that line very carefully. Worms in the mouth? Not an R. Filthy? Sure.
JH: Yes. Filthy. It was amazing. And nothing safe about it.
M/C: My favorite moment last night was during the chase, as Ronnie's running after the pervert. You'd already shown me that scene, so I turned around in the theater, and I watched everyone. I'm in, like, the fourth row. And first it was like... [shocked gasp]
M/C: And then when the laugh comes, it's almost like it got yanked out of them.
JH: It's not until we show the blood on the ground and that the perv's alive that, you know...
M/C: You give them permission to start laughing.
JH: It's really... that was like... that always gets a reaction, but this audience... that was my proudest moment ever. Like "We fucked you up." [laughs] "You guys just watched a story about a crazy guy who shoots people. Surprise!"
M/C: That involuntary laugh can be very revealing for an audience, and it can make them mad sometimes. That scene with Anna... the "love scene"...
JH: Oh, yeah.
M/C: People freak.
JH: Yeah, that's a wild one. It's all just... it's fun... all these sick little pleasures...
M/C: It feels like you guys just gave Michael Pena a different career. Like you just helped open a door for him.
JH: He, uh... honestly, I knew his work, but he was always... his work was stellar, but he's the guy from "World Trade Center." That's what he does.
M/C: He's probably the most iconic image and moment in "Crash."
JH: Exactly. But nobody really knows who Michael Pena is. Nobody outside of, like, you and me, right? I think... [laughs] It's going to be really funny when he's done all the Oscar movies and yet the thing that some people know him for is this lispy, effeminate, heroin-using...
M/C: [laughs] I love where he got the voice, too. I think I even know which guy in "American Pimp" he's doing.
JH: Oh, that movie's great.
M/C: What a great source of material for an actor, using documentaries...
JH: He's an amazing actor, and I really want to work with him a lot because I just feel like there's nothing he can't do. When he came in, I was like, "Okay, it's that guy. Oh, look, he's done all these big fancy movies. Fine. Great." And then... he just went into that voice. And it was like... I just... I wanted to just grab him and sayd, "You... are great." And that role originally... he didn't speak at all until that whole drug thing. In the earlier script, he was just kind of... you always saw him there, but then he finally speaks, and that's when you notice the guy for the first time. But once I saw Michael's audition, it was, "Okay, I'm rewriting that part completely."
M/C: As a comedy filmmaker, you're... that's a skill set... watching your actors and really reacting to what they do.
JH: Yeah, exactly. I mean... that's what "Foot Fist Way" taught me, 'cause I knew Danny, and writing that, I was writing for Danny. "Okay, now we've got to have Danny talk to a little kid about, uh... peeing his pants." That's pretty easy to write for. It's always easier to write when you know someone and you have a specific voice in your head. I did a draft right before we started shooting where I tried to do that with every character. That was kind of the goal. Michael Pena, though... he's easy to write for. He's great at improv, too, which you might not think.
M/C: Michael said he didn't have those skills when he auditioned for "Undeclared," so obviously, he's been honing them...
JH: Well, the style of improv we do is very different from those guys. They're more joke improv oriented, and, uhm.... I'm kind of more of a classic performance kind of guy. It's more like how Altman liked to use improv. "Just say what you're thinking right here. It doesn't have to..." There's no pressure to be funny with it. Now, Michael's just a funny guy, so it came together. He just stayed in the moment. He really responded to that. Wait until you see these outtakes. I'd tell him to describe, in the most poetic way possible, him and Ronnie's relationship.
JH: And so he's talking to Charles, like, "See, me and Ronnie, we're like two little worms, just digging around and eating minerals, and then a bird comes down and eats us, and then we become two birds, and we're flying side-by-side." [laughs] It is so fucking funny. It took us fourteen takes to get him to tell that story in one take. And there are no real jokes in that. "Boy, you and Ronnie... you got something special."
M/C: [laughs] Did you guys ever find [co-writer] Ben [Best] last night?
JH: No, man. Did you hear about this?
M/C: Someone said... I think it was David... said he just took off. Got a look in his eyes and just... you guys lost him. Has Ben been recovered?
JH: No. I have not seen Ben. [laughs]
JH: But this is not uncommon with Ben. Somebody said they saw him walk out of the screening, look around twice, and then he just full-on started running down the street.
JH: Danny and me have talked about putting a tracking device on him so we can just watch him for a week and see what kind of shit he gets into.
M/C: Well, he picked a great town to get completely lost in.
JH: That guy's amazing. He had a limo and everything to take him to the party, and he just... [laughs]
M/C: He was great on "East Bound," too. "What were you doing, blowing Robocop?"
JH: Oh, the huffing...
M/C: I like how if you don't know what it is, you won't have any idea what's on his face.
JH: The style for his character... we were talking about it for him... it's like that college hippie, where you've got some hippie elements going on, but you're really just into drugs. He pretty much nailed that.
M/C: Was that a good experience, you and David and Adam McKay all collaborating on the show?
JH: It was, man. It was.
M/C: I love Adam. What a big weirdo.
JH: Yeah, he's a freak, right? He's far more absurd than we are with his comedy.
M/C: To me, the defining moment in any Adam McKay comedy is the dinner table scene in "Talladega," where they argue about which Jesus to pray to. That's Adam.
JH: The Baby Jesus scene. Oh, that's cool, man. I'll tell him you're a fan. I think when you see the fifth episode, he directed that one, and it's a little zanier, and it plays into... it was the perfect episode for him to direct. He got to do his thing, and it's intentionally a little goofier than the other episodes.
M/C: Did you sit down and write all six together?
JH: We did.
M/C: So how did you decide who was going to direct which piece?
JH: I was going to do three out of the six, but that was during post on this, and Warner Bros. wouldn't let me. They let me go to do the finale, but that's it. The rest... David was only going to do one, and Will was going to direct one, but then Will pulled out and David just sort of stepped up. We were like, "David, will you please do a few more episodes?" So he ended up directed two through four.
M/C: It's got a real signature. Visually, the show's got its own thing going on.
JH: Yeah. A lot of '70s zooms and a slower cutting rhythm.
M/C: And where the title appears each week...
JH: [laughs] We worked on that.
M/C: Third episode? Perfect.
[The publicist walked up and apologized, but said that she'd let the interview go too long, and Jody needed to leave to get his luggage.]
M/C: Thanks so much, sir.
JH: We'll hang out in LA, brother.
And if you want just a wee bit more of Jody Hill along with his cohort Danny McBride, check out this Sundance 2007 video they made about skateboarding. Good stuff.
Thanks to Warner for putting together all the "Observe and Report" press for us while we were in Austin for SXSW this year, and to the cast and to Jody for sitting down and talking to us about a film that has already become one of the most hotly debated of the year.
And it ain't date rape, folks. Deal with it.
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