Audiences may not realize it, but Rough House Pictures has been a pivotal force in American filmmaking over the past decade.
People know Danny McBride as the snarky, self-aggrandizing star of HBO’s “Eastbound and Down” and “Vice Principals,” shows he created with fellow North Carolina School of the Arts alumni Jody Hill and David Gordon Green. But while McBride’s is the most public face, all three men have become influential figures in the film industry.
Green and McBride are writing the Blumhouse reboot of “Halloween,” while Hill is finishing his third film, a comedy starring Josh Brolin. Green has oscillated from the quiet, Southern gothic tales of “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” to boisterous comedies like “Pineapple Express.” Hill’s debut, “Foot Fist Way,” got the attention of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who launched Hill’s TV career and gave him the momentum to direct his first studio film, “Observe and Report.” Many of their films have become cult hits, if not big commercial successes, but the Rough Team isn’t aiming for surefire bets.
“I don’t want to see movies with just the same people,” McBride said. “We’ve always been of the mindset to find people who are unique and don’t have exposure. The stories we tell reflect that. We don’t want to give people what they’re getting elsewhere.”
But the Rough House oeuvre goes beyond Hill, McBride, and Green. Over the last few years, the company has thrown its weight behind a number of offbeat, independently produced films like “The Catechism Cataclysm” and “The Comedy.” This year, they’ve put resources into Dean Fleisher-Camp’s quasi-documentary “Fraud,” a questionably real depiction of a family conning its way to success, and “Donald Cried,” the cringe-comedy that marks the directorial debut of Kris Avedisian that opens this weekend.
In “Donald Cried,” Avedisian stars as an obnoxious Rhode Island resident who still lives with his family and annoys the hell out of buttoned-up old high school buddy (Jesse Wakeman). Using crude humor to mask his insecurities, Donald isn’t far removed from McBride’s arrogant and emotionally fragile characters, and the movie’s unorthodox blend of humor and melancholy is very much in the Rough House style. Other recent Rough House projects include “Dayveon,” an opening-night selection at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and the Independent Spirit Award nominee “Hunter Gatherer.”
You wouldn’t guess all this productivity from visiting their Hollywood offices, a cozy set of rooms in a creaky house that looks more like a college fraternity. Aided by president of production and development Brandon James, the founders use their space to develop all of their projects, and even maintain an editing studio in a facility next door.
The relaxed vibe speaks to the autonomy they enjoy while playing in studio and network sandboxes. When I visited them last week, we settled onto a couch in McBride’s office, where the actor-writer kicked his feet up on a coffee table and leaned back in his chair. Hill strummed a few chords on an electric guitar. Green, adorned in a hoodie and loose-fitting jeans, squeezed the meeting into his schedule before darting off to scout for a new television pilot.
We discussed their unlikely journey to the center of the commercial industry on their own terms.
A Consistent Team
DAVID GORDON GREEN: Honestly, I can’t say our dynamic evolved that much since we were in college. We’ve been doing this shit together ever since then. Over the experiences on productions that we’ve had and the people we’ve collaborated with, we have such a network of people now. Amman Abbasi, who directed “Dayveon,” was my assistant for two years. Josh Locy, who directed “Hunter Gatherer,” was my assistant on “Pineapple Express.” So you start to see how people who are creatively valuable to us have been empowered. You see how everybody works together in that social way. It’s not often that you see that in the competitive landscape of a Hollywood industry.
DANNY MCBRIDE: In film school, we weren’t in an exciting town like Los Angeles or New York. We were in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and there wasn’t a ton to do. So during those four years we just ate, breathed, and lived movies. Our relationships started with that. In a way, the company was a way for us to keep that discussion going, so we still had the ability to sit around and share a cool movie we saw or a script we read. I don’t think we ever said that it had to be hugely successful. It was just about getting an office, where we could edit and write our shit so it could be a clubhouse where we can keep this lo-fi approach under one umbrella.
We’re guys who started to get breaks earlier than some of our friends, but if you were to go onto one of the sets, that dynamic of all the people we started to hang with have just gone into different departments, whether it’s Richard Wright, the production designer we went to school with, or our editor Jeff Seibenick or our cinematographer Tim Orr. Everyone branched out so we could always work together. Going to film school in North Carolina did sort of push everyone together to encourage and help. There was a camaraderie in that group endeavor that we’ve always wanted to maintain. On this one you might be acting, but on the next one, you might be pulling fucking cables. It was the idea of just working as a unit.
DGG: We put together a modest lifestyle. Jody and I do commercials on the side. I’m doing a network TV pilot now. We keep it lo-fi. That’s what keeps our ambition honest so we can do what we want and not overspend to make it happen.
Getting Support to Make Weird Stuff
JODY HILL: Nobody really messes with us at HBO. It’s not that I had a bad studio experience with “Observe and Report,” but I think it’s just taken a while for people to catch on to what we do. We couldn’t just start out and say, “Hey, we’re this broad comedy group.” Those films had to get out for people to pay attention. Now it’s cool because I don’t think anyone else is making stuff that’s both weird and fun like us.
DGG: If you’re our agents, it’s probably kind of tricky. As much as we like the name Rough House and our community to mean something, our taste is pretty diverse. You can’t say what’s the same about “Eastbound and Down” and “Dayveon.” There’s a world where people with similar tastes can appreciate both of those things, but it’s not like Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison stamp that says, “This type of comedy is what you’ll get.” It’s more that the pieces that seem random start to make sense. There’s a commonality that people can subtly start to see.
Passing the Baton
DGG: As we expand our network with things like “Donald Cried,” you see that outsider mentality start to bond with guys making their first films that fit into our vocabulary. The “Donald Cried” guys are from Rhode Island and not in a traditional industry structure. Their personalities and voices work with ours. It does become a much larger universe. It’s a quieter universe, but it’s a really fulfilling one. We all came onboard “Donald Cried” after it was finished because we all fucking loved it. It has repeat-viewing value. It’s just a matter of getting people in an arthouse to check it out.
DM: Sometimes the support we offer is just financial, like we’ll put money in out of our own pocket to help get these things made. We might be offering someone to come here and edit for free. We just want to be a tool for young filmmakers or anybody’s just trying to get their voice out there even if it’s not an easy sell. Ultimately, that’s our careers. We search for other voices who might’ve had that struggle to get them through the hoops.
DGG: We’re covering the distribution costs for “Hunter Gatherer” theatrically. It’s a difficult climate. It’s just a movie that needs it. In my opinion, Andre Royo’s performance and Josh’s direction deserve it. Why not share that it in a theatrical context regardless of its commercial prospects? It’s so easy to find alternative ways for films to be distributed. We think that movie needs to be in a theater.
JH: We try to help them in ways we wanted to be helped. We’ve seen what a success looks like. It’s just getting something made.