David Gordon Green very clearly loves SXSW, which makes the festival premiere of HBO’s “Vice Principals” all the more sweet for the veteran indie director. Starring Danny McBride (Green’s longtime friend and collaborator) and Walton Goggins as two bad behaving school administrators who team up for what (in their eyes) is the greater good — at least for themselves — the upcoming comedy should please any “Eastbound and Down” fans in search of more.
While Green’s early films were arthouse darlings, in recent years he’s moved to a more mainstream audience. But when he explains what led him to his current project, it’s clear that his motivation has nothing to do with selling out. Instead, he’s just out to have a good time.
Below, the man behind films as disparate as “All the Real Girls” and “Pineapple Express” digs into the fun of working with McBride and co-creator Jody Hill, and why he’s glad to have shot two full seasons of “Vice Principals” before anyone has had a chance to see it. An edited transcript follows.
So, this is by far not your first time at SXSW, correct?
No, this will be, I think, my fourth year in a row with a project here.
Is it different when you’re there with a TV project versus a film project?
I don’t know. I just got here, so we’ll see, but… you know, for me it’s just always an opportunity to have a great audience watching some weird shit that you whip up, and this is certainly that. I always come here, just even as a fan, just because the crowds are great and the selections are great, so it’s cool just to get an audience that feels alive, you know? And, I go to a lot of film festivals where it’s a little bit more pretentious or precious or elegant in their whatever, but this is where it feels down to Earth — where me and my friends get to watch movies — and so that’s exactly what happens. You know, we make something and then a bunch of my pals roll into town and other like-minded knuckleheads show up in the theater and we all have a good time.
Talk to me about how “Vice Principals” came together for you.
So, you know, Danny McBride and Jody Hill and I, we all lived on the same floor in college in the dorms so we were always just coming up with weird ideas for movies to make and shows to make. And then we got out of school and started making indie films and then studio movies and then “Eastbound and Down.” We’ve always been very supportive, if not directly involved, in what each other are doing, and we always have something that the three of us are, you know, collaborating on.
“Eastbound and Down,” we played with that for four seasons and had a great time working together and, you know, switching hats at who’s directing and that kind of thing. But this one was just an idea that Danny and Jody actually had right after they were at Sundance, with “The Foot Fist Way.” They had this idea for a movie they wanted to make and so when we were thinking about something to follow up “Eastbound” with, they said, you know, we always wanted to expand the idea of that screenplay into a series that has a lot more epic scope than just, you know, a film.
And, so that got us back together and put us together and we cut it up into two seasons; two nine-episode parts where Jody and Danny rotated directing hats on the first season and then Danny and I did the second season. It was just fun to be able to be involved and watch a series evolve and then, you know, take the reigns myself and make some stylistic changes and put my own fingerprint on it and take it in a little different direction; but keep it, you know, honest within the series they established.
So you’ve shot both seasons, then?
Yeah, we’re done with both of them. We just did them at the same time, so it was kind of an unusual experience, but, you know, we had a concept and HBO is just really supportive. We took one of our wild ideas and they went for it. We filmed them all last summer in Charlestown, South Carolina.
Wow. So, that’s two seasons of television in like three months?
We filmed for like… I guess we were filming from May to through October.
Oh, that feels slightly more possible.
I mean, it was a massive endeavor, and it kept expanding because all the scripts weren’t written when production began. We had a good idea where it was going but then it just kind of evolved. Some of the cast really started rising to the occasion and showing up with some amazing talent. Much like when Steve Little showed up in “Eastbound and Down” and we just, you know, thought we had a gem. We had to evolve him somewhat and expand his character. There were a lot of opportunities like that that we wanted to take advantage of with an awesome cast.
I love that you use the word “evolve” because it’s a word I love using when talking about television. Is there something you do in the process of making the show that you feel enables that sort of process?
You know, in television… I love it because typically it’s not so awkwardly cross-boarded as a movie production, you know? Like, with a movie you’re shooting so out of order and out of whack to be convenient for the shoot, but typically in television, for the most part it’s like here’s Episode 1, 2, 3. You shoot in order, so if you have a great idea in Episode 3 that affects Episode 7, you’re not screwed, you know? I do love that about it. It is a chance for not only a story to live and breathe but the characters to expand. You cater to the strengths of the show and are able to challenge the audience a little bit more and not adhere necessarily to the concept or the narrative that we’d established. I think that’s a really fun, valuable opportunity with intel that you can’t really do on a limited movie.
I want to ask about Walton Goggins. Is this the first time you’ve worked with him?
It is. I’ve known him for a long time and we’ve been talking about working together and so this is just, you know, fun because these characters have been around in our heads in various capacities. And we were thinking like maybe Danny would play one, maybe Danny would play the other, but we didn’t have the idea, necessarily, who was going to play Lee Russell. And then I was always a big Walt fan and loved everything he’s done and, you know, I knew he and Danny in a show would be electric. So, it was just kind of a great opportunity when his name came up and he was available and enthusiastic about it and we sat down with him. He showed up after having, you know, one episode of the script. We just wanted to have a meeting, but he was full on already quoting it to us and just living and breathing the character. Walt works in a different manner than Danny, which I think is a fun way that the two actors can really engineer something unique, you know? It’s just two very different types of characters at each others’ throats for the majority of the series, and then how they unite becomes part of the beauty of it.
What’s really fascinating about it is how specific so many of the choices about him are. Like, I love his wardrobe.
Oh, yeah. I mean, and Sarah Trost is our costume designer, and a lot of it is Walt’s idea of, you know, where he’s coming from and again differentiating it from Lee Russell, who’s a little more lackadaisical and haphazard… Neil Gamby is a little bit more of a mess than Lee, who’s not really stylish, questionable in his attire. But that’s kind of what makes him fun.
How deep does the world of the school end up feeling for you by the end of like the first season?
Well, it’s a backdrop. It’s a backdrop to establish an ensemble of characters, and you know, there’s students that show up and become significant characters in episodes. It does get in deep with a little bit of the bureaucracy and politics of school, but, for the most part, it’s relatively an absurdist take on that. But, you know, we wanted to make something that felt aggressive and interesting. It was an environment that we can all relate to from, you know, growing up in any American high school. The kind of beauty in the bullshit of all of it.
Aggressive is such a great word to use to describe this show because it does have that energy.
Yeah, it is. You know, and even reading the scripts by myself it’s fearless writing. It’s the kind of writing that you kind of whisper, “Wouldn’t this be a funny idea?” and you know, hopefully don’t say it out loud. We made a show like that. It’s just so cool, collaborating with a group of genuinely good-hearted, honest, fun, good sense of humor people who actually know what they’re talking about. Danny always surprises me because you’ll be so comfortable with how funny he is and then all of a sudden it will strike you how truly intelligent he is. It’s a beautiful thing you don’t necessarily know from turning on an episode and watching it for a few minutes, but, with the fulfillment of an entire season and how it adds up, there is something very meaningful about it, on top of the audacity and absurdity of it.
After all, there is the idea of teaching as an honorable and noble profession.
Yeah, well, we pretty much… We tear that notion apart.
Did you find that you had to pull back on anything, or did you push forward, push harder?
Yeah, we pushed forward. The most shocking ideas in the writers room were the ones that were the only ones left standing. The ones that really challenged the writers to engineer a narrative that was compelling but, as we said, was aggressive; finding insight in this type of a half-hour comedy, making sure it says something at the end of the day.
Talking about adolescence, that’s an age group you’ve depicted multiple times in the past. What is it about that that intrigues you?
I don’t think I ever make a movie that’s not about adolescence, you know? This series, I think, is the perfect example. These two grown men act like 11-year-olds, you know? I have a hard time relating to “adults” so it’s just something where I find a juvenile mentality in a lot of the characters that I play with, and I know that’s something that Danny and Jody enjoy as well. I always look at everything I do as a strange coming-of-age story. You know, the awkward puberty of adulthood, as much as it is adolescence.
That being said, “Vice Principals” seems built on the idea that these guys won’t ever grow up.
Yeah, no, they won’t. They definitely will not.
I’m wondering if that’s contradictory to the idea of a coming-of-age story. Can you have a coming-of-age story where you don’t actually come of age?
You know, I think it’s the exhalation and the awkwardness of that time in their lives, and you hope there’s some sort of insider growth that results from that. At least that you know, in the case of Neil Gamby and Lee Russell I think the acne just gets a lot worse. The pimples of their puberty endure.
So having both seasons in the can right now, is it, you know, how does it feel going in and actually finally letting people watch it?
Well, you just hope people like it. But, you know, it is a show that for me and coming to SXSW is fun because you get to see a series with an audience which is one of the drawbacks of television is the lack of romance of that, you know. With a film, you go to the film festival and you premiere your movie and that’s the release, you know, and it’s cathartic. Here, to be able to have that opportunity, it’s the same thing and so, you know, it is I think by– It is engineered in the show that it’s not for all of your friends and family but the ones that latch onto it will love it, that kind of a thing, you know? I think it’s something that people will talk about and that’s an amazing opportunity to be able to experience with a crowd so that’s something we’re all looking forward to, and, of course, we hope the reaction is positive.
Would you ever want to do a TV show where you’re in production after the show begins airing?
I would be afraid. If I haven’t done the last episode while people are watching the first one, I would feel like probably criticism might get into my brain a little bit. I might not be able to give an honest finish, you know? Like, I don’t mind people hating something, that certainly doesn’t slow me down but I think it might… I wouldn’t want it to affect that creative process, you know? So, it’s one thing to take the hiatus in a season, but one of the reasons we wanted to do both seasons at once is to be able to get it all out in one creative outburst, rather than have to methodically follow the navigation of the enthusiasm of the audience, you know?
Of course. Are you the type of person who does read reviews and all that?
No, no, I don’t. But, you know, you do get a sense… I mean, it’s inevitable. When a project is well-received, everyone in the world that you haven’t heard from in years comes out of the woodwork and you have all these best friends. And then the world gets a lot quieter when, you know, when people aren’t responding as enthusiastically because they’re not looking for jobs as much. So, it is funny, you can tell. I really don’t dig into reviews and find much entertainment in all that. I think it makes me too self-critical. I start to second guess what my process is and I think that could get my guts tied in knots. But, you can sense things for sure.
Just like a vibe in the air?
Just like, you know, in the inbox of your emails, you know?
Of course. So, you know, you’ve got two seasons done. Is there a third season in your head?
I don’t know, I’ll leave that up to Danny. It is something that we can see having a few seasons but it’s a group of characters that I was so excited to work with that if someone has got an idea for a Season 3, I’ll be the first to sign up.
I mean, it doesn’t seem like any television can ever really die anymore.
Yeah, you can always figure a way, you know, but that’s in a way kind of sad. I like something that has kind of a mortality to it. But people always get creative, especially if there is money involved and they know they can make bank again. Then, you know, people show back up.
I mean, “Eastbound and Down” did have a real ending to it.
Oh, man, that has the best ending. I actually hid from the ending of that because I didn’t want to… I didn’t read the script because that was a Jody episode and I just really… I wanted to be an audience [member]. I just wanted to be a fan in that moment and I watched the rough cut of it on my laptop at five in the morning in my dining room and just cried all over my dining room table. Like, that was something that was a big deal for me, just to be able to watch something end, truly end.