"What the #@!* is 'The Foot Fist Way'?" That's what the headline read inside Entertainment Weekly's annual summer preview issue last month. It's fitting, as many people (inside and outside the business) have been asking that same question since 2006. That year at Sundance Jody Hill and his group of North Carolina School of the Arts misfits came on the scene to premiere this no-name/low budget comedy which had momentarily taken Hill out of his boring day job and thrust into credit card debt. A mix of Judd Apatow comedies and "The Office," "The Foot Fist Way" wouldn't leave Park City with a distribution deal, but created a buzz as screeners passed around Hollywood, and before the year would end Hill and the film's lead, Danny McBride, would be rubbing elbows with the top comedians in Hollywood.
When I met Jody Hill last winter in New York City, the North Carolina-born writer-director was surrounded by friends after finishing a taping of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" to promote the film. First thing he says is that he usually doesn't look like this, commenting on his long bleached blonde hair. He explains that instead of doing the typical talk show gab of waxing poetic on surviving the rigors of indie filmmaking, he and McBride made up a bit where they would reprise their roles from "Foot Fist." This lead to McBride coming out and insulting everyone who shared the "Late Night" stage with him (including Will Ferrell).
"Man, that crowd hated him," says Hill in his southern twang of McBride, who plays "Foot Fist"'s protagonist, Fred Simmons, the egotistical strip mall Tae Kwon Do instructor who's the self-proclaimed "King of the Demo." "It's was Andy Kaufmanesque how he had that crowd going." (The bit, "My Conan Appearance," has close to 60,000 views on Funnyordie.com)
Hill, 31, is part of the recent wave of filmmakers from the south that have gained notice for their original storytelling. And it so happens many of them are learning the trade at North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking. Including himself and McBride, David Gordon Green, D.P. Tim Orr, Craig Zobel ("The Great World of Sound"), Jeff Nichols ("Shotgun Stories") and Aaron Katz ("Dance Party, USA") have all graduated from there. Being part of the third ever graduating class (1999), Hill says the maverick attitude there is what gave him the confidence to head to L.A. in hopes to integrate his bizarre brand of straight-faced comedy into the mainstream. But like many before him, the harsh reality of the business hit him when he got to the coast. "I tried to sell screenplays and nobody was buying," he explains. "Then I got jobs on reality television because that was the only pathway to film that I could get that wasn't union. I really hated doing those shows and felt so alone."
But he stayed in close contact with his friends from school, especially McBride, who also made the trek out to Hollywood after graduating. "I think it was Halloween and I told Danny about [the Tae Kwon Do idea] and he responded right away to it," Hill recalls. "I also talked to another friend named Ben Best, and I ran down the list of ideas and when I got to Danny being a Tae Kwon Do instructor he said, 'Sorry dude, I couldn't even pay attention to you, I was just thinking about Danny as a Tae Kwon Do instructor.' That's when I knew we had to do it."
A third-degree black belt himself, Hill was always fascinated by martial arts (the film's title is the literal translation of Tae Kwon Do), and though he didn't want to disrespect it, he thought the environment was ripe for comedy and began to flesh out the idea of a dim whitted instructor who thinks he's the baddest man on the planet until he catches his wife cheating on him.
Having saved money for six years, the plan was to move back to North Carolina to make the film, where many of his friends from film school were still around to help. McBride and Best, who would also star as the film's villain Chuck "The Truck" Wallace, teamed up with Hill to write the script. "We basically just tried to make each other laugh," says McBride about writing the script. "The plot is only there because it's the emotional arc that carries you from point A to point B," Hill continues. "I love comedies where there's not a whole lot going on except for what's going on internally with the characters. I prefer these character pieces over a device driven film."
And if "The Foot Fist Way" has anything it's internal strife. Fred Simmons is a comedic roller-coaster of emotion that can be compared to Will Ferrell characters Tom Burgundy or Ricky Bobby, but with a more demented twist. For instance, you'd never see either fight a kid, and in one scene Simmons does just that to let out his aggression during a class. Or curse out his child protege Julio for not breaking a board correctly during a demo.
Noting the British version of "The Office" as a major influence, Hill says what he strives to do is make his comedies around a setting that's awkwardly real. "We would take ourselves out of the movie world and see how it would look in real life," he says. "How can I shoot this in a way to capture real life? I think that's a good way of making something that is apart from your standard comedy." Shooting mostly handheld on 16mm gave a look of authenticity, but Hill also strived for reality out of his actors.
"It's not so much about the words the actors say, it's about where a scene starts and ends and within that, once you really grasp what the scene is about, then the characters can stumble over there words and it makes it more real," he says. "In editing I would take out jokes that we had written because they sounded like they were written and I would keep takes that were a little sloppier." And Hill had the ideal performer in McBride. Not a trained actor (he went to NCSA to write and direct), McBride's knack for improvisation makes scenes that could have possibly killed the film's momentum into gut-busting showcases of his talents - which Hollywood is beginning to notice as since finishing "Foot Fist" McBride has gotten scene stealing roles in studio comedies like "Hot Rod," "The Heartbreak Kid," "Drillbit Taylor," and the upcoming "Pineapple Express," "Tropic Thunder" and "Land of the Lost."
Hill maxed out five credit cards and shot "Foot Fist" in the summer of 2005 for 19 days which included a crew of mostly students or recent graduates from film school. "I think the process was a shitty redneck version of 'Apocalypse Now,'" says Hill thinking back on the shoot. "You don't have any money, you're over budget and yet you're trying to figure out the meaning of the movie as you're making it."
And if putting a cut together for Sundance in three weeks wasn't strenuous enough, Hill wasn't too confident of his chances to get into the festival when he went to hand it in before deadline. "I worked up to the last five minutes before deadline and I got to the Sundance office and it looked like the parking lot of a Phish concert. I'm behind some dude in this super long line who's like, 'Hey buddy, you made a film? Hey man, good luck, we're all in this together bro.' I hated this guy. I dropped the film off and walked out thinking, well, there goes my life, I'll be working in reality TV for the next ten years."
In fact, that's where Hill went back to while waiting on his film's fate. But then he got the call. "I went into the office, flipped everyone off and told them to kiss my ass, I just got into Sundance and quit my job. It was great."
The Sundance reaction gave Hill and company a lot of confidence that their hard work paid off, but no distribution deal came out of it. They then prepared for the Los Angeles Film Festival when Will Ferrell and "Talladega Nights" director Adam McKay came calling. The two had made a production deal with Paramount Vantage and wanted the film to be the first project for their banner. McKay recalls seeing the film for the first time on his computer after the urging from his manager. "He kept saying, 'You gotta see this, you gotta see this,' and right away I was like oh my God, this is for real and Will had the exact same experience when he saw it," McKay says. "You just got a sense right away that Jody knew what he was doing, he knew how to frame shots, he wasn't getting in his own way, he knew when to let the look of the film speak and he knew when to let the characters play, it was really impressive."
Though it's been over two years since its premiere at Sundance, "Foot Fist" is finally set for a May 30 release. And Hill is reaping the benefits of a strong debut before any box office numbers have been compiled. He's currently filming his first studio film, "Observe and Report," starring Seth Rogen as a jaded mall security guard. "I can't believe Warner Bros. is letting me make this movie to be honest with you," Hill admits with a laugh. "It's like 'Foot Fist' in a way - no plot, basically a character going crazy - I hope it works." He's also working on an HBO series with McBride and produced by Ferrell and McKay titled "East Bound and Down" about a washed up major league baseball player (played by McBride) who returns to his hometown to teach phys ed at his old middle school. Hill will direct episodes along with McKay and Judd Apatow is also in talks to direct.
Though Hill is primed for a big career, he is realistic and knows the journey to make his first feature was a once in a lifetime moment. "I don't think we'll ever have what we had with ['Foot Fist'] again," Hill says. "It really was a labor of love, and that's not said in one bit of jest. I just don't think we'll ever have as much freedom artistically and just doing it for the pure love where there's nobody there judging you, where it's just you and your buddies pushing each other."