One of the funniest scenes in the pilot for “The Righteous Gemstones” includes acts of violence that might not, on paper, seem like material for hilarious comedy. Yet in director and series creator Danny McBride’s hands, the off-kilter staging and shooting of the parking lot showdown leads to a scene that is not only uproarious but tells you something about both the perpetrators and victims of the violence.
“Whenever anyone has a gun in our stuff they never really know how to use it,” said McBride, noting that the characters’ ideas of action largely come from movies they’ve seen – movies with a fake machismo that is brilliantly parodied on “Gemstones.” In the video above, McBride discusses his philosophy when it comes to shooting action and how he maximizes his resources on a television schedule and budget. “I like violence not landing in the action-packed way that you would imagine it. I like it missing the mark. I want to feel like I saw it for real.”
Watch McBride discuss his approach to the action above, or listen to the entire discussion below.
You can listen to the full discussion above, or via subscribing to the Toolkit podcast via Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or Overcast.
Casting for Reality
McBride: We look for actors that can be real more than we look for actors that can be funny. We try to play down the joke because it makes it funnier. Walton Goggins is an expert at that – he can create a character as crazy as Uncle Baby Billy and still make him feel fully three-dimensional and you’re concerned about him. You understand why he acts the way he does. I feel like that’s what we look for; we’ll start with a stereotype or a caricature, and then it’s about coming in and finding nuance and finding out how to flip the stereotype and make the character relatable or real.
So we look for actors who can do that, and then if you can do that and be funny, then you’re golden. Sometimes when people are just funny it’s troublesome, because you can get on there on the day and say ‘he’s making me laugh but I’m not feeling anything.’ That’s what you want to avoid.
Using the Camera with Intention
McBride: Sometimes comedy is synonymous with boring coverage or just letting things happen, but I think that comes from when people aren’t confident about the comedy and want to give themselves as many options as they can in post so that if a joke doesn’t work or the audience doesn’t like it, you have the ability to get in there with scissors and get rid of the stuff that drags. There’s value in that – there’s definitely value in being able to manipulate the pace and the jokes in that way. But I respond more to the end product when the visual style is fully realized. Sometimes when the camera’s just there and it’s this person and that person, I can see through the improv – I can sense that I’m on a set watching people just riff. I think when it’s a little more designed, those riffs play even funnier because you’re watching it all unfold and it’s not being manipulated and you’re letting every single pause between each character’s line play out, for better or for worse.
The Future of ‘Gemstones’
McBride: I have an end point in mind, but part of the idea in setting up an ensemble show like this was that if we did want to keep going, there’s more than enough material here to not tap the world out. We had a blast writing ‘Eastbound,’ but because it all centered around Kenny Powers and his small circle of allies, by the fourth season we found ourselves tapped out. I mean, the next season would have been sending him to outer space or something.
Seasons of TV are in essence sequels, and the ensemble is appealing because there’s just a lot more to play with. The canvas is so different and you can shift focus to one character in a season and give the show an entirely different flavor than it had last season. I like the promise of that, so we’ll see if the audience follows.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.