North Carolina native Jody Hill finds himself at home among the crowds of tourists and freaks walking around Hollywood Boulevard. Chewing on a grilled cheese sandwich and looking over his surroundings with squinted eyes, Hill points out a stranger whose face is covered with tattoos. “Wow, look at that guy,” Hill shouts out with his noticeable Southern drawl. “Oh, my God! There's another one,” he says with a big grin moments later. “I love what you find on this street.”
The boulevard somewhat resembles Hill's brand of comedy. Both have a penchant to draw in outcasts and derelicts; both give off an odor of stale beer and urine.
The writer-director of dark, disturbing comedies like The Foot Fist Way and Observe and Report and co-creator of the HBO series Eastbound & Down, Hill has, in just four short years, created a unique comedy calling card filled with weird blue-collar social outcasts blinded by delusions of grandeur. This style is loved by those who get Hill's demented sense of humor, and utterly baffling to those who don't.
Hill wouldn't want it any other way. On the fringe of Hollywood notoriety — and planning to stay there — he has built a loyal cult following by challenging audiences' preconceived notions of what a Hollywood comedy is supposed to be while exploring issues that bring out many of the awkward traits deep inside all of us. Hill calls it “lowbrow high art.”
This twisted look at life goes back to his youth in Concord, North Carolina. Hill, 33, says he's long been interested in awkward interactions and studying how people deal with one another. “I know a lot of filmmakers who are concept-driven or plot-driven,” he says. “I think my comedy is working good when the characters reveal little insights into who they are.”
Often those little insights are dark and ominous. Fred Simmons (Danny McBride), the brash taekwondo instructor in Hill's debut feature, The Foot Fist Way, deals with the revelation of his wife's infidelity by locking himself in the bathroom during a class and screaming until he's red in the face. Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), the deranged mall security guard in Observe and Report, shows his feelings for the coffee-shop girl he likes (played by Hill's wife, Collette Wolfe) by threatening to kill her boss who's been teasing her.
But no character of Hill's better exemplifies his twisted brand of humor than the protagonist of Eastbound & Down, Kenny Powers (played with mullet-rocking ferocity by McBride). Premiering on HBO last year to surprising critical success, it follows the ex–Major League Baseball star who, after snorting and womanizing his way out of the game, is relegated to coaching gym class at his old middle school. In the first episode of season two (premiering Sept. 26 on HBO), Powers is at an even lower point: After his hopes to return to the majors at the end of season one go unfulfilled (a defeat he never admits to his family or girlfriend), he's living in Mexico, sporting cornrows and betting on cockfights. However, in the delusional world of Kenny Powers, Mexico is just another step closer to his dream of returning to his former (as he would say, “Christ-figure”) glory.
“Kenny sees himself as a star of his own movie, and in all the movies, when outlaws run from the law or go to die, they always go to Mexico,” says Hill about the setting of season two (actually shot in Puerto Rico). But in reality, Powers is running away from the responsibility of telling those who love him that he has failed again.
Hill's not interested in making his lead characters even somewhat likable, which can take a while for some to warm to. It was a big concern for HBO executives when they began seeing episodes from season one of Eastbound. “I definitely think HBO wasn't sure of what they were watching,” Hill admits. “Everybody thought Kenny was too mean. But when we pitched it we said we didn't want it to be that every episode, Kenny is redeemed and is a better person. When [the show] connected with audiences, we got a lot more freedom with season two.”
“I think it's fun to be able to push comedy to areas that you don't think you should be able to push it,” actor McBride says. “And I think that's what Jody does, and it's exciting for people because it feels fresh. Though for others it turns them off, regardless, it's doing something different.”
Eastbound & Down is the brainchild of Hill, McBride and Ben Best, who all met at the North Carolina School of the Arts and were part of its film program's third graduating class in 1999. Although it doesn't have the pedigree of film schools in New York or California, the alumni are an impressive bunch, including talented directors Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound), Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather). But perhaps the director most NCSA film students strive to emulate is David Gordon Green, who graduated the year before Hill and quickly went on to indie film stardom with movies such as George Washington and All the Real Girls, followed by more mainstream success with The Pineapple Express.
“In a lot of ways he's been the guiding light for me,” Hill says of Green, whom he would call for advice when he was depressed while working on reality-TV shows in L.A. after film school.
For those familiar with Green's work, it might be hard to believe he has the same cinematic sensibilities as Hill and his posse. Green laughs at this assumption. “We all lived on the same floor of the dorms together,” he says. “The first day [Hill] moved in, we became good buddies. We just really have a common sense of humor, and just laugh at things that aren't jokes.”
In fact, when Hill's responsibilities to finish Observe and Report became too overwhelming for him to direct episodes of Eastbound last season, it was Green who stepped up and took his place. The process was invigorating for Green.
“They want to make crazy shit,” Green says, “and if someone is going to write a check to let them do it, great; if not, they'll figure out another way to get it done. There's a risk in that, but that's the adrenaline. If you're just doing paint-by-numbers Hollywood moviemaking, why deal with the pain in the ass of making a movie?”
Now Hill, McBride and Green will take that crazy-shit mantra into their new production company, Rough House Pictures (they have a first-look deal with Mandate Pictures). Season two of Eastbound will be under their banner, and they're in development on a number of projects, including one for Hill to direct titled L.A.P.I., a dark comedy noir starring McBride as a private detective.
As Hill puts it, how he works — his loyalty to his friends and the freedom to develop bizarre stories — is all part of a plan that has been in place for years. “After The Foot Fist Way came out it was like, 'Oh, this is the new comedy guy,' and that was never my goal,” he says. “So then I went and made Observe and Report, kind of to play with people's perceptions. I'm just trying to create a bubble so everything that I do is like Eastbound, where it's just me and my friends and not having to deal with the extra level of people. Just keep everyone out and keep doing solid work.”
“Jody has a great punk-rock attitude about authority, about tradition, about the system,” Green says. “He does things his way.”