Inside ‘Vice Principals’ with Jody Hill

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After breaking out with the low-budget hit The Foot Fist Way in 2006, Jody Hill has worked on some of the best comedies of the last decade, co-heading projects with Danny McBride and often working with director David Gordon Green (George WashingtonPineapple Express). Most recently Hill concluded the beloved HBO hit, Eastbound and Down and is now focusing on his current collaboration with McBride, HBO’s Vice Principals. The show takes a darkly comedic look at two high school vice principals (played by McBride and Walton Goggins) who desperately want the newly vacant principal position and commit several felonies to have the dream come to fruition. I spoke with Hill about his writing process, getting burnt out, and being his own harshest critic.

You tell heavily character-based stories. When you’re writing a TV show or movie do you take inspiration from real people and situations?  

Sometimes it can work either way. Most things can come from characters and relationships. Sometimes they can come from a job or a subject that we’re interested in. Like Foot Fist Way, with the Taekwondo world, that was a world that I knew. Just because I had grown up doing martial arts I was like “Oh, this is a world that I’ve seen before.”

I don’t know where the initial inspiration comes from. But you’re right in that we do try to focus on character. Sometimes we follow our characters down different roads. I think most people stay focused on the plot. Whereas in the past the plot gives us room to play, Vice Principals is actually a little bit different than some of the stuff we’ve done in the past. I think it has a little bit more of a plot. There’s a clear goal. I also like it when things don’t always end perfectly.

Vice Principals is highly unpredictable and takes some dark turns. I remember Observe and Report having the same trajectory. Was there ever an issue worrying about how the audience and studio would react to these choices?  

Honestly, with Observe and Report, I was a little nervous about making a studio movie. I was nervous, in terms of the movie doing well and reviews, but more than anything I was nervous I was going to make something kind of timid. Warner Brothers were awesome partners. They were into the movie and supported it.

But it’s a struggle to get something like that made. It’s a weird thing. What’s it like when you think a movie is going to piss off a bunch of people and then it comes out and it actually does? It feels a little weird when that happens. I’m really proud of that movie. I don’t think it’s a perfect film, and I’m probably the harshest critic of my own work. I never think anything I do is any good. But I do like it that people are excited about that movie and still talk about it.

In Observe and Report you used songs from The Band and The Pixies. In Vice Principals you use music ranging from Donovan to Run The Jewels. Are these your choices?

We’re just all big music fans. We also have a buddy who over the years sends us so many songs. We always try to talk to him and find out about that stuff. We’re just fans of music I guess. Now we’re old dudes trying to keep up with it.

You directed most of the episodes in season one of Vice Principals and in season two David Gordon Green directed most of them.

He directs all of them except for one. Same as mine in the first season.

And the entire second season is finished at this point?

That’s right.

Do you find each season has a different tone based on how either of you direct?

There probably are differences between the first season and second season. I think that would have been there whether David directed all of it or I directed all of it. I can’t explain too much or I’d have to get to the plot, but I do think the fact that there’s a tone shift is wanted to some degree. But I don’t think if you’ve seen the first season you’re going to find the second season unrecognizable. Then again David and me, we definitely have different styles, but the styles aren’t at war. They don’t contradict each other in a way an action movie and a romantic comedy might.

David is like the first guy I knew to successfully launch a film and get one made and get it seen by critics in film festivals. David is just a huge inspiration for me. He’s my favorite filmmaker. I think he’s amazing. He’s also one of my good buddies. I’m always impressed by what he does. He’s always trying something. He’s fearless.

You went to college together. Did you notice his talent then?

Yes. David was one of the standouts in film school. David and Danny both were. They made this great student film together. That film was just inspiring. Still to this day it’s awesome. It’s an amazing little film. David’s just one of the ones people talk about it. And Danny was the same way. He was just always on top of his game back in film school. Danny was also always the funniest guy in the room.

When you write with Danny are you actually sitting together typing or going to separate rooms and coming together to edit?  Do you have a writer’s room? 

As Eastbound and Down went on we had more and more writers because what would happen is, when Danny and me, when we would do it all ourselves, we would just get so burnt out because then by the time the season would come to shoot we’d be so tired. The second season we did in Puerto Rico which was so hard because all we did was work. We were so burnt I can’t believe we finished that thing. So we have writers in the writer’s room now.

I’ve written all kinds of ways with Danny. We’ll literally sit there and work on the same typewriter, pass it back and forth. That’s how we did Foot Fist Way. Then I’ve worked on things where we each just take an episode or a scene or whatever. We just do all kinds of combinations. Honestly, it’s whatever works at the time.

Season 1 of Vice Principals is now downloadable on Digital HD via iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.

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