“Last August, a film was slipped to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay … ” So began the legend of Danny McBride, as set forth in the trailer of the 2006 movie The Foot Fist Way. Made for $80,000 and directed by his friend Jody Hill—the Harold Ramis to McBride’s Bill Murray—the film led to a series for HBO, Eastbound & Down, which in turn begat Vice Principals. Their third HBO series, The Righteous Gemstones, which premieres on August 18, stars John Goodman as Eli Gemstone, the imperious patriarch of a family mega-church, McBride as his hard-partying son, Jesse, and Adam Devine as his younger son, Kelvin. We asked Hill about Gemstones, how he and McBride first met, and whether time has mellowed their famously twisted sense of humor. (Spoiler alert: It hasn’t.)
Danny has referred to this new show as part three of your “misunderstood-angry-man trilogy.” How did you create this show? Did the premise come first, or the character?
It’s a combination. It’s really Danny’s baby, this show, and it comes out of him thinking about what he would have fun playing. But also what would be a challenge. This world of mega-churches, it’s a bigger platform than anything we’ve done. This is an ensemble piece. It’s a family that we’re dealing with, so there is sort of a Godfather-y thing where you can follow characters, whereas Eastbound & Down had a singular focus.
What was your history with religion?
I was raised Catholic—I don’t practice anymore—but I grew up in the South, and [the mega-church] First Assembly was down the street. I had friends that would go, and it was very different from my church. They’re talking about saving people, and everybody has their hands up. It definitely had more of a rock ’n’ roll element to it.
Even though the show is about a family of mega-church preachers, we wanted to make fun of the people without making fun of the religious aspects of it. That was something we were very careful about.
How did you and Danny meet?
We went to college at the North Carolina School of the Arts and lived in the same dorm. We both smoked weed. Growing up I felt like an outsider, and I think that Danny did, too. We both have pretty dark and fucked-up senses of humor. When you’re younger, you’re competing to try to say the most fucked-up thing, but also, coming from the South, we’d gone through similar experiences. We were obsessed with movies and music.
What sort of things were you drawn to?
Fucked-up characters. People who aren’t everything they think they are. We always thought it was cool to see an Alexander Payne movie about people in Nebraska, versus the kind of people you would see in every movie. Five Easy Pieces was the thing we were obsessed with in college.
Danny’s always been the funniest guy in the room. He’s always had a certain panache that people really gravitate to. Over the years he’s refined it and become, I think, a great actor. But he already had that thing where he’s able to make you feel and at the same time can get away with murder with the kind of shit he says.
I imagine that coming to Hollywood through the U.N.C. School of the Arts, you also probably felt like outsiders.
We had no clue how to get a career going or anything, but we stuck together. At a certain point, it just became clear that we have to pay for a film ourselves, we have to make it, and hopefully somebody will take a look at it, because that’s the only way. Nobody is going to read our scripts or give us money.
You guys are fans of 70s movies, which are dark, idiosyncratic, and character-driven. Today, movies seem to be judged through a narrow moral and political lens, with some critics conflating the actions of the characters with the values of the filmmaker. What do you think they’re getting wrong, and what was it about those older movies that you’re trying to recapture?
Watching Scorsese and Robert De Niro in middle school just blew my mind. The characters weren’t black-and-white. There was definitely a shift in my attitudes towards movies there. I started watching everything I could that might even be like that. I don’t understand why, if you make art, it has to have some kind of lesson or represent these noble things.
Film right now is weird because movies get a score. We all look on Rotten Tomatoes to determine if a movie is good or not. Everybody is so reliant on the scores that you don’t get a chance to make any tough choices. I think you’re seeing more of that risk-taking in television, to be honest. In Hollywood, it’s virtually nonexistent.
David Chase said his mentor, Stephen J. Cannell [creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team], taught him that “your hero can do a lot of bad things, he can make all kinds of mistakes, can be lazy and look like a fool, as long as he’s the smartest guy in the room and he’s good at his job. That’s what we ask of our heroes.” Your work does not seem to operate according to that principle.
I know what he’s saying, and there is probably a lot of truth to that. But if a character has some sort of dream or goal, messed up though it may be, it’s enough of a mirror that anybody can understand that. I don’t think that we need to be able to see ourselves in a character, but I do think there has to be some sort of thing that we can latch on to just in order to take a journey with a person.
Do you find that as you’re getting older that the little voice in your head that wants to make your characters do “fucked-up things” has mellowed?
Not really. I think if I was to tell the same story over and over again until I died, that would be kind of sad. I hope that things change and grow. But in terms of censoring myself or trying to play it safe, I hope that doesn’t change.
Ash Carter is the Articles Editor for Air Mail