Jody Hill, Observe And Report
In terms of the sheer number of great filmmakers it has produced recently, the North Carolina School of the Arts is pretty much untouchable, and its latest alum in the spotlight is writer-director Jody Hill. Hill, a native of North Carolina, attended the university along with a prodigious group of classmates including directors David Gordon Green, Craig Zobel and Jeff Nichols, as well as writer-actors Danny McBride and Paul Schneider, D.P. Tim Orr and soundman-turned-writer Chris Gebert. After graduation, Hill briefly worked in television in Los Angeles, then moved back to North Carolina to make The Foot Fist Way, a comedy which featured a virtuoso performance by McBride as bullying Tae Kwon Do instructor Fred Simmons. The team of Hill, McBride and fellow NCSA alum Ben Best all wrote and acted in the film, which premiered at Sundance in 2006 and – despite not getting released until more than two years later – became a cult hit within the Hollywood comedy community. Hill, Best and McBride also recently created and wrote Eastbound and Down, a six-part series for HBO about McBride’s washed up baseball pitcher Kenny Powers, for which Hill also directed two episodes.
While Hill’s big screen debut was a zero-budget indie, his sophomore feature, Observe and Report is a big studio movie. Its plot centers on mall security chief Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), the self-important, socially maladjusted hero of the piece, who sees an opportunity to make a name for himself – and win the affections of mall bimbo Brandi (Anna Faris) – when a flasher starts exposing himself on Ronnie’s turf. Though he commands a group of adoring underlings, Ronnie’s quest to catch the pervert is complicated when his jurisdiction is infringed upon by an actual policeman, Detective Harrison (a self-parodying Ray Liotta). Despite being promoted as a goofy, gross-out comedy, Observe and Report is, in fact, a significantly darker and more interesting film in which Hill offsets more traditional comic elements with an unflinching portrait of his severely damaged protagonist. Allusions to Taxi Driver are not unfounded, and it is greatly to Hill’s credit as writer-director – and Rogen’s as the film’s star – that the contrasting elements coalesce so well as the film builds to its surprisingly intense conclusion.
Filmmaker spoke to Hill about the Scorsese influence, his preoccupation with psychologically damaged protagonists, and making a Peckinpah-esque remake of Armageddon.
Filmmaker: With The Foot Fist Way, there was a period of over two years between it premiering at Sundance in 2006 and finally being released. Was that time very difficult for you?
Hill: [laughs] I’ll tell you this: it’s probably for the best that the film didn’t explode like Napoleon Dynamite. Everybody wants their film to explode and wants as many people to see it as possible, but that being said hopefully there will be some kind of longevity in it. [laughs] The film was always made to be like a punk band’s first album – we figured we didn’t have the money to make it look great, so we made it fuzzy, and there’s hisses all over it and none of the edits are soft, they’re all hard and choppy with the music. I think probably what happened was for the best, but it was kinda surreal: we got there, we sold the U.K. rights, everybody in the crowd seemed to really enjoy the film, the word of mouth grew after each screening, but after it was over it kinda died down and we walked away without a deal. Then it got passed around in Hollywood and we got invited to the set of Knocked Up which is where I met Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, and then we got a call from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and they said they wanted to put it out through Paramount Vantage, and again we were like, “Wow, the film’s going to get out there.” And then, for some reason, the film sat on the shelf for two years.
Filmmaker: That must have been tough for you.
Hill: I’m not going to lie, that was disappointing. We missed any chance of getting nominated for any kind of independent award because of that. We couldn’t go to any festivals because the film was in the studio’s court. I have no clue why they decided to [do that] – maybe because, on the outside, it looks like a more mainstream movie [they thought] that this could be Juno or something, but it’s really about a dark protagonist and the story’s not a happy story, so I think they started to get scared once they had the film. It was kind of a buzz kill when it’s sitting around for two years, and it’s pretty lame when they’re like, “Oh yeah, summer’s not a good time to release a movie… Spring’s not a good time to release a movie…” You find yourself believing it at first, and then you’re like, “So, there’s just never a good time to release a movie?!” [laughs]
Filmmaker: Warners think that spring is a pretty good time to release Observe and Report, so let’s move on to that. Tell me about how you originally conceived the film. Did you have Seth Rogen in mind for the film when you wrote it?
Hill: I sold this project in February or March 2006, pretty early after [The Foot Fist Way played] Sundance, and I had just met Seth and talked to him about this project. I was a big fan of his from Freaks and Geeks and he really liked Foot Fist Way so it was kind of dream to work with him. It just so happened that he wanted to do it! [laughs] I had told him about it when I had just sold the pitch so I talked to him right from the get-go.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked about Scorsese’s influence, and it’s very apparent in Observe and Report, particularly Taxi Driver.
Hill: In all this, I feel like I talk about Scorsese too much [laughs], but it’s pretty obvious. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are the films that I was watching most when I was making the film. Scorsese has a huge influence on the style and a lot of the tone but I think a lot of the films from Peckinpah [were an influence] as well in terms of thematics. I think it has something to do with the post-war climate of the 70s where you were dealing with a lot of these characters who were trying to make their way in the world and coming up with a code on the screen. I’ve always been drawn to that, a group of outsiders who try to make their own way in the world and make their own rules. If you look at some of the themes that are running through this movie, I always felt drawn to a lot of the films of the 70s like that. And then when you look at how we handle comedy, it’s less like the comedies you would have seen in the 90s; it’s more like Shampoo, like some of the Hal Ashby films where the comedy is played exactly like a drama. We’re trying to be funny but I personally like to draw the dramatic storyline first and I really try to never wink at the camera or sacrifice a character for jokes. Alexander Payne does that as well, and I really admire the way he does comedy, if you want to call them that.
Filmmaker: Was there a conscious decision to go darker than Foot Fist Way?
Hill: Um, yeah. You know, with Foot Fist Way I kind of enjoy exploring a normal guy that goes insane – suburban insanity – and I wanted to take that further with this movie and just have it be a little dangerous and just see how far I could go with that. I think I went about as far as you could go. [laughs] I tried to. The reason I came up with the whole mall thing is that I hate malls and so I can’t be in the for very long. You always have to go buy a pair of jeans and it always ends in disaster where I yell at my wife [laughs], so a mall seemed like a good place. Plus, I wanted to choose a symbol, kind of like a world inside of a world, like the taxi in Taxi Driver.
Filmmaker: Coming out of the movie, I was so strongly reminded of the 70s and I felt like you’d got one over the studio by getting this movie made. Did you have a lot of conflict with producers and executives?
Hill: Thanks for saying that because, honestly, my favorite movies are from that era and it’s because of exactly what you said. There is independent film now where you can make whatever you want to make – there’s no rules – but what I like about the 70s is that you’re getting these movies that have what we would now consider an independent mindset but yet you have the budget to make something that’s really big also. It’s everybody’s dream to make a personal film on a large scale. I think just coming from independent film just gave me a mindset going into the studio, a bit of a “take it or leave it” attitude, because I figured I could maybe just go raise the money at home or something. [laughs] I mean, there were certainly arm wrestling matches that went along with this: they wanted to make the character more likeable. And that was a big thing, that he wasn’t likeable enough. And then they were talking about “Does it go too far? Can the audience recover?” and there were a lot of arm wrestling matches. But I’ve got to give Warner Bros. credit because they really did take a risk and really embraced what was going on in the long run. Of course we were going to have discussions and arguments about it, but I’ve got to say that the finished product is something I really feel I can stand behind.
Filmmaker: I think the film is a lot darker than the trailers have led people to expect. Do you feel like you had to market the film as more a traditional comedy just to get people into the theaters?
Hill: I think that the trailer should be dark as hell. [laughs] I would like to see all the advertising more character-driven, because that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see if I was sitting at home, but of course [the studio is] going to market it and try to get the biggest audience they can. I hope it works. I just hope that people give it a chance. There was a mall cop movie that came out [earlier this year], and I’m happy that that movie did really well and I certainly can’t fault anybody for having a hit, I just hope that people are willing to give this movie a chance because I do feel like there’s something going on with the movie that’s a little bit more than just a premise.
Filmmaker: Contrary to what I’d thought before, I think of not as a comedy director but a drama director who happens to do comedy.
Hill: I’m really, really excited you said that. I don’t hear it that often, but I feel like you nailed it because if you look at Foot Fist Way or Observe and Report as a drama – that has jokes in it [laughs] – I think you’re going to enjoy it more and understand it more than if you look at it as a comedy. If you’re thinking of it in those terms, you’re going to be disappointed because there are parts of it where it’s sad, and it’s legitimately sad. It’s not funny sad, it’s just sad. And it’s scary, and we try to make it legitimately scary. And sometimes it lonely and downright depressing, and we try to make the action as real as possible. I think [Eastbound and Down] helped sell that style, but a lot of that comes in a reaction to a lot of comedies. I don’t really watch comedies, I don’t really like them but I do watch Paul Thomas Anderson. [laughs] I feel like that’s why comedies in this world are disposable, because there’s no real stakes involved. Most comedies that I watch, I watch for the first hour and I might laugh and then when it gets to the end and you need something more in the movie… It’s like it’s great to eat candy for a while, but then you need something that sticks to your ribs. I’m glad you said that, because that to me is the key to both films.
Filmmaker: It seems like you have a fascination with difficult, abrasive, mentally scarred, possibly psychotic characters, which is where the comic and the dramatic converge. Where does that fascination come from?
Hill: I think a couple of places. First, it’s the films I grew up liking. It’s weird because you mentioned drama and comedy, because I laugh more at Goodfellas than I do at most comedies. It just seems funny to me when they’re yelling at each other. Whenever I see something that really follows through good and bad, it’s something that I remember. Secondly, it’s just a reaction to the stuff that I don’t like in movies. Everything’s so fucking safe these days and I enjoy a movie where it’s rated R and you go sit down and you feel like anything could happen. I don’t feel a lot of danger out there anymore and it’s almost like TV’s more dangerous than movies, and I feel like it should be the opposite.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Hill: Oh, wow! Let’s see… I would cast Warren Oates, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro. [laughs] And it’s like a mission to save the earth where they have to go into space and blow up and asteroid.
Filmmaker: So you’re basically remaking Armageddon.
Hill: Yeah, except that it would be like a Peckinpah movie and they’d all be struggling to live by a code, [laughs] and it would be really long, natural takes. They’re all talking about how they don’t deserve this and stuff and they’re not right for it.
Filmmaker: What were you at school: the smart kid, the class clown or the dunce?
Hill: Probably the dunce. I wasn’t the best filmmaker in college, so I was probably the dunce. In high school, I was kind of the weird guy. I had a small number of friends. [laughs] I probably should have said the jock or something, which is totally a lie. [laughs] I should rewrite my bio.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Hill: Probably during the test screenings. [laughs] Warner Brothers won’t be happy about that one. [laughs]
Filmmaker: How much did the movie change during testing?
Hill: It kinda went on a cycle. I turned in my director’s cut and then because of test screenings I lost a few battles and the score ended up going down, so I went back to my director’s cut and work on that. And then the score went back up. I would say I sacrificed absolutely nothing, and the final product is exactly what I wanted, so I think going around your ass to get to your elbow ended up being a good thing for us.