Jody Hill, alone with his frequent collaborators Danny McBride, Ben Best, and David Gordon Green, has spent the last few years building a body of work that represents a very particular world view. His sense of humor is a deadly weapon, and he wields it like a drunken samurai.
I love both "The Foot Fist Way" and "Observe and Report," but my favorite thing he's been part of so far is the HBO series, "East Bound and Down." The story of Kenny Powers, a former Major League pitcher who returned home in shame, "EB&D" is a raucous, demented ode to the way our culture gives celebrities permission to indulge their own worst natures.
HBO sent over the first two episodes of season two of the show and then set a time for a quick conversation with Hill about this season's episodes. I told him my first thought watching the episodes was a simple These guys are deranged.
Hill laughed as he said, "I'd be disappointed if you said anything less."
The first episode of the season is a totally unhinged detour for the show featuring a guest turn by Deep Roy that has to be seen to be believed. "It's almost like the first one is a pilot again where we've just like, 'Okay, here are none of the characters that you know and love. Just when you thought that this was an easy show to swallow, here's something that's totally going to make you change the channel.'" He laughed again as he pictured people's reactions to the episode's excesses. "I just hope people dig the new setting. We waned to try something that hasn't been done in TV, so we figured changing everything completely is the way to go."
Because Kenny Powers fled to Mexico after the end of season one, an outrageous mix of triumph and tragedy, there are some new unsavory behaviors on display this time out, including some startlingly realistic looking cockfights. Asked about the shooting of those scenes, Hill said, "Those things had to have this little invisible twine on them, and we had this animal lady around. She was on set for the first fight, and these things were, like, really going at each other. Apparently you don't have to train these cocks to fight. They just kind of do it on their own. And they were kind of fighting, so we had to pull them apart. So it kind of freaked her out a little bit, so the next cock fight, they were barely touching. I don't even think they touched at all, so we had to kind of compile together that second fight with footage from the first one."
Asked if it took similar measures to deal with veteran character actor Deep Roy, Hill laughed. "Yeah, we actually had a piece of string on Deep Roy, also. We would just pull it when he got too crazy. You know, he would talk about how Tim Burton doesn't even know he cusses and he's never gotten to do anything like this in a movie before, so I think he just went crazy. Like that part when he pours that beer on that guy? We didn't even tell him to do that. He just did that. It was wild, man. Deep Roy is a madman."
One of the things that distinguished the show's first season was the way it worked as a three-hour mini-movie, each episode picking up mere seconds after the previous one left off. The way the season ended could easily have been the end of the show. "I don't want to give anything away about where the series goes, but… when it starts, you find Kenny hanging out in Mexico hanging out with people you haven't seen before, and then as the show goes along you'll see there's a plan in place for Kenny that goes not only for this season but also for what we'd like to think is one more final season after this. Hopefully it's not all going to be revealed to you right away."
As Hill continued, it was obvious that the entire "EB&D" team is determined to make the return of Kenny Powers something special. "We really do want to break free of what you would expect from a TV show. It's not just about this guy who was a baseball player who takes a job teaching PE. at the local middle school. That would become a regular sitcom if you just follow that format. This is a character piece, and we just happen to follow this character wherever he goes. At the end of the last season, he was running away, and we figured that Kenny sees himself as kind of a man in a cowboy movie. And in those movies, those dudes are always hiding out in Mexico and that's where outlaws go to die. We figured that would be the most natural place for Kenny to go."
Kenny Powers is a terrible person, which makes him a challenging lead for a series, but that's what Hill's work is all about, these people who shouldn't be remotely tolerable, but who become oddly sympathetic. "It's a unique gift," Hill said. "It's something Danny does very, very well. He can let Kenny be as big and as obnoxious and as clueless about his behavior towards other people as possible, and yet within that reveal genuine vulnerability and something that makes Kenny tolerable even at his worst moments."
When you know you're writing for an actor with an innate likability like McBride, someone who can make even the worst things palatable, it seems like it gives a filmmaker license to push things even further than he already planned. "People ask me that. 'Why do people like Kenny Powers when he's such an asshole?' So much of that has to do with Danny McBride. Danny is able to put some type of humanity to this guy. He plays him as a real person. It's not just a guy who's all hot air. There are complex emotions involved with him. And there's a charm that Danny has that… I think if it wasn't for him, it wouldn't work. If you insert another actor into the role, it's not going to work."
At the premiere for "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," Danny McBride told me how excited he was about the second season, which they had just finished shooting in Puerto Rico. "I have a feeling that when this airs, Jody and I will never be allowed in Mexico ever again."
When I told Jody about McBride's prediction, it was his biggest laugh of the day. "Well, it is Kenny Powers in Mexico, so we wanted to stay true to that. Kenny is so offensive to everyone, but he really does seem to see himself as a man of the people. And look for a technology theme this year, too, like where he talks about how much he hates computers."
The first major character from season one to re-enter Kenny's life is Stevie Janowski, played by Steve Little. "Well, you know, Stevie's his right-hand man. he's a crowd favorite and a personal favorite. And if there's anybody that would come to Mexico realistically, it would be him. I don't think the other characters would follow this man on his mission."
A new cast member this year that seems to offer huge potential opportunities is Michael Pena as the owner of a Mexican baseball team. Pena's work in "Observe and Report" was positively revelatory. "When it was like, 'We are gig to Mexico," the first thing we said was, 'Who's our favorite Mexican actor?'" Hill seems thrilled to see other directors finally taking advantage of Pena's chops as a comic performer. "Adam McKay watched that first scene between Kenny and Michael together and all he could say while he was laughing was 'Two idiots.'"
Hill's still early in his career, but this is the first time he's returned to characters from an earlier project. He said this has been a tough process for him as a writer, and I asked if it was a problem finding the voices again or if it was a plotting issue. "Kenny's voice was pretty easy. We were more worried about not repeating ourselves. We want to push him forward. I don't want him to just be a character where it's like, 'Oh, Kenny said a new shocking thing.' It's hard to with that type of character. It took a lot of time to be creative with those kind of rules, and we did it… I think. It just took a while."
"Eastbound and Down" premieres tonight on HBO.
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