Bring It On Home
The Southern Boys Behind Eastbound & Down Send Kenny Powers's Ass to Mexico
The Southern Boys Behind Eastbound & Down Send Kenny Powers’s Ass to Mexico
BY HUNTER STEPHENSON PHOTOS BY RICHARD KERN
Danny McBride as Kenny Powers.
The morning after Richard Kern and I arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the call came in from the publicist at HBO. “We’ll need to leave soon. Let’s meet at the La Concha Hotel. It’s roughly an hour’s drive to the set. The guys are shooting scenes with Kenny at the mansion.” Further details were not provided, yet the vague specificity of “the mansion” brought about as many thoughts as the hills around us, stacked up and against a skyline like exotic greenery in a Ziploc bag. Before the trek, there was a breakfast of dry cornflakes and grapes in a dirty bowl and a quick ocean swim that allowed me the time to imagine what was in store. Up till then, the whereabouts of America’s very own Kenny Powers, last seen driving a black Denali on a North Carolina interstate on the verge of tears, had been restricted to tantalizing details released online. The gist was that he’d spend the second season of Eastbound & Down in Mexico. (For budgetary reasons, and possibly concerns involving Mexico’s preoccupation with murder, Puerto Rico was chosen as a substitute shooting location.) The personal confirmation that Kenny Powers was indeed roaming this foreign land, sweating balls, boozing and drugging, a big white fish on a hard foreign street, was like a finger of dip against my mind’s bottom lip. Soon enough, we departed the city. The day was growing noticeably hotter. As we headed south in our caravan, the highway took us past sandblast-beige condos and houses of bleached tropic color layered into the hillside like power boxes, a giant hornet’s nest in a tree next to the road, and a conjoined baseball academy and high school. I tried to fight off unbidden mental images of Kenny, inflated with gringo entitlement and stretched out in a palatial mansion, sunburned dink in hand, stroking it to Bang Bros on an affluent stranger’s dime. As we came around a bend and into the coastal city of Humacao, I saw the first of three flimsy production signs, pops of bright yellow against the foliage, that read “EBD —->.” Our van was soon stopped by a security guard in sunglasses, who cleared us through, and we ventured on, deeper into Palmas del Mar—one of the largest upscale beach resorts in the Caribbean, with its own school, golf course, and equestrian club. We finally parked on a private road, midway up a steep hill capped with white production tents and dotted with equipment and crew members who were scarfing breakfast tacos. Directly before us was the mansion. A formidable job the color of mustard, it conjured the vaguely complicit oceanside men’s shelters in Weekend at Bernie’s and Blow. An assistant to one of the producers later shared with me the info that it was on the market for $5.5 million. “Not that they’ll get that,” she added, “the economy being so fucked.”
When I last met up with K-fucking-P two years ago, I simply parked next to a house in a suburb of Wilmington, North Carolina, and walked around to a “b-b-q” in the backyard. Since then, a lot of people around the world have started to give a shit about no one giving shit about Kenny Powers. Kern and I entered the manse super-quietly by way of a staircase that led from the garage to a grand foyer filled with lighting gear and the pregnant silence of filming in session. Sunlight poured in from windows overlooking an outdoor terrace and an unobstructed, almost cleansing view of an infinity pool, and then the sea, and then the white line of the horizon. At that moment, two men on the terrace were engaged in a samurai-sword fight. It’s the freaking last thing I expected to see. Crew members in headsets and shorts, both outside and inches away from me, observed the combat with a professional intentness. I began to wonder whether the previous world of Eastbound & Down, informed by and set in the American South, hadn’t come untethered and floated into an 80s action VHS, or into Michael Bay’s wakeup exercise regimen. Across the foyer, next to a bar and pool table, I spotted Danny McBride. KP himself. He was surveying the action, goatee pulled to a no-nonsense angle, one arm on a production chair, and dressed in his “casual outing” Kenny get-up. These appeared to be the same faded blue jeans, dry-sweat athletic gear and busted white sneakers from last season. (He would later confirm this: “I’m wearing the same tennis shoes I was wearing two years ago! We want that authenticity.”)The curly mullet was shining just so. Kenny Powers’s style had not acclimated to his new environment.
One of the swordsmen outside grunted, and I recognized him as actor Michael Peña, who previously costarred as a corrupt mall pig with a pimp lisp in Jody Hill’s sophomore feature, Observe and Report. Peña was dueling shirtless. His brown, well-fed belly and soul patch amusingly countered the determination of his game face. Not unlike his character in Observe and Report, Peña was blinking rapidly in a way that suggested his eyelids were able to turn his brain on and off. Peña’s adversary was a well-kempt Korean man dressed in a traditional black sensei robe. After a few takes, a man in dark shades smoking a cigarette walked over from a far corner of the terrace and yelled, “OK. Let’s keep the energy going!” It was Jody Hill, the 33-year-old cocreator/writer/director of Eastbound. Hill, who is more than six feet tall and a third-degree black belt, later informed me that the Korean man was none other than actor and tae kwon do master Simon Rhee. He was appearing today in a bit part. Or, in Hill’s words, “Dude, the guy from Best of the Best! With the eye patch!” Hill’s eyes, an aggressive glacial blue, popped wide with adolescent sincerity as he shared this. Stoked. Therein was a proud warpath, from an adolescence spent in the glow of quality junk franchises like Best of the Best and American Ninja to this breezy nod, this reality, being consecrated here.
Many of the scenes scheduled that day covered the formal introduction of Kenny Powers to a pivotal character in season 2, a young and incredibly rich man named Sebastian Cisneros (played by Peña), who is the owner of both the manse and a Mexican ball club called the Charros. After interrupting Sebastian’s bout of swordfighting with his instructor (“I fly him in from Tokyo, man. Straight from the tap!” Sebastian brags), he and Kenny have an impromptu business meeting on the patio table next to the pool. The table sat adjacent to a dizzying 60-foot drop, and one could faintly hear the ocean crashing on the jagged rocks below. I walked nearer to the table, where McBride and Peña, now clad in a silky blue robe decorated with Asiatic gold dragons, were seated. Hill joined them for a brief run-through of the scene, planting himself on the patio tile in front of the table, legs stretching out from dark gray cargo shorts. Hill remained on the ground to direct once the camera was rolling. The three guys were in their own triangular world for the reading, but when “Action!” was called, it didn’t take long for McBride to instigate bursts of improv. Peña, though shaky and snagged in a stutter at first, was up to the challenge.
Michael Peña as Sabastian Cisneros
For example, when Kenny expressed his approval of the digs, saying, “I’m rich also,” Sebastian nodded his head with instinctive bite and quickly added, “In spirit.” The Spanish lisp Peña uses often caused “Kenny” to come out like “Candy.” For certain lines, however, Hill was vocal about what he wanted. After Kenny patronizingly jokes, “How much does a Mexican ball team cost anyway, $10 and a burrito?” Peña barely got out an answer before Hill advised him to say the next line slowly, emphasizing each word: “That’s racism! I love racism, bro!” On a subsequent take, Hill laconically broke down another line: “I want fame. Because I want everybody to know me and accept me.” During these takes on the patio, Sebastian and Kenny become aware that they share a bond: a fatherless existence. “I’m an orphan, too,” Kenny confides to Sebastian. “All [my dad] left was a batch of hepatitis on the toilet seat.” Struggles with his past are rumored to be a major theme for Kenny this season. Later I asked Peña about his character’s orphanhood, which explains the source of his wealth. “Sebastian’s not soft,” Peña told me. “He’s just a spoiled rich dude who inherited a baseball team. And he wants to be famous and doesn’t want to work to get it. Both of his parents died in a plane crash. Well, his mom...I mean, after three days, that’s just a lot of time, you know? He had to pull the plug. Seventy-two hours, man! I don’t know if he feels good about it now or not, but whatevers. I wouldn’t say he’s evil though. The thing about Jody’s characters, they are totally right in their perspective.”
Shooting ceased twice on the patio, partially due to the heat. On both occasions, a crew member quickly switched out the melting umbrella cocktails in front of Kenny and Sebastian with frostier replicas. Makeup artists swooped in to retouch McBride’s brow and Peña’s chest, where the actor sports a tattoo from his days as a drummer in the band Nico Vega (“I love Vice! You did a story on my band!” Peña shouted, half in character, after we were introduced). By and by, I reached the conclusion that it was hot as fucking shit. I was wearing black jeans. Beneath my sunglasses, sweat flooded down into my beard. McBride walked over from the table to greet Kern and me, seemingly getting a tidy kick out of our pathetic appearances. “Welcome to the PR, brothers,” he said, offering a sturdy handshake. Hill, following Danny inside, stopped to chat. “This season is a lot more ambitious than the last season,” he told me, “with the weather and all the locations. But [those shots] looked funny.” Touches of gray expanded in the sky, and talk of approaching rain was spreading among the crew, many of whom sported black t-shirts from recent Hollywood productions like The Losers and The Rum Diary. Fickle weather explained the noticeably accelerated pace onset. I hung around on the patio next to a local ESL crew guy who looked like a roadie for Cypress Hill circa Temples of Boom. As I soaked up the view, he asked me if I was here when they shot the scene where “that guy got shot. Kenny poured liquor all over his fucking leg in the bathtub! There were beer bottles everywhere!” Nope, I said, can’t say I was. Though it certainly set me to wondering. His broad-set pal, an electrician, laughed big and asked, “What about the fucking donkey Kenny bought and painted like a zebra?” No, missed that too. He offered to email me pictures, and then B-Real’s roadie randomly butted in with, “You better learn Spanish in the years to come, my friend. Or they throw you off this cliff, feed you to the dogs.” He looked at me, then added, “This house is owned by capitalism. You know?”
Miles away from their LA production office (and hometowns in North Carolina and Virginia, respectively) Jody Hill and Danny McBride nevertheless managed to surround themselves here in Puerto Rico with a roundtable of coworkers, ranging from sound guys to the editor and production designer, all of whom were pals and fellow alumni from the North Carolina School of the Arts. Also present were the two other core members of what has been loosely referred to online as the North Carolina Posse: head writer Shawn “The Machine” Harwell and Eastbound’s codirector/producer David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express). To understand this seemingly sui generis collective of scrappy southern outsiders-turned-industry players and what is fast becoming the most exciting, raucous talent pool since the Miramax backed auteurs of the 90s, we need to look back a decade, to Green’s tobacco-country indie dramas George Washington (2000) and, especially, All the Real Girls (2003). Girls marked the first credited acting performance of McBride, who was in a class below Green at NCSA. The comedic potential in unleashing McBride’s id loose in Mexico for Eastbound 2 can be first gleaned minutes into Girls, when his character, a disarming, perceptive third wheel named Bust-Ass chats with a table of down-on-luck Carolina buddies at a local diner. “I’m not Spanish,” says Bust-Ass, “I’ve been to school, that’s about it, dude. I’m not supposed to know all the words in the dictionary from it. I know that albóndiga is meatball soup.” Written out, the line’s goofy stubbornness and small-minded complacency is amusing enough, a southern stereotype to attract if not invite a Yankee critic’s eyeroll. On screen, the natural charm and afterthought masculinity in McBride’s cadence combined with his economy of words really gets your attention. There’s a wit and profundity skimmed off Bust-Ass’s mug of poor grammar. Laughed with or laughed at, like McBride’s homegrown characters, the South will still be standing.
I asked Harwell to describe his college days with McBride and various members of the ambitious collective: “I think I met Danny at a really lame orientation thing on the first day [at NCSA], where we were put in a small group. An older, very openly gay dance student made us spell our names in the air by making the shapes of the letters with our asses. If that makes sense. It was like, ‘Welcome to art school!’—you know? There were a lot of older students in the film program, but Jody, Danny, myself, and a handful of others were all straight out of high school, and I think that added a sort of unspoken comfort level among us. It did for me at least. Within our film class there was definitely an aura around Danny, but it was as a director and writer instead of as an actor. David Green had the same vibe around him. Ben Best and Craig Zobel, too. You just knew at the end of the year, when we all watched each other’s student films, that those four guys were going to have made the best. But I had no clue Danny could act until I saw All the Real Girls. And Jody, too—he wasn’t even a directing major when he graduated. He was a good writer; and in particular I remember Jody being the one who was really good at pitching ideas, making people excited about them. The Foot Fist Way blew me away when I saw it.”
Steve Little as Stevie Janowski
Released two years after its 2006 premiere at Sundance by a then-fledgling and now-defunct Paramount Vantage, The Foot Fist Way grossed under $40,000 domestically on its opening weekend (less than its micro $79,000 budget.The film was partially funded by Hill’s savings from commercial work in LA, with added help from his family). However, by then Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, whose company Gary Sanchez Productions secured the film’s marketing and distribution, were claiming to anyone who would listen to them to have seen it no less than dozens of times each. To them, it was a revelation; black-comedy gold seeping from an untapped frontier worthy of Daniel Planview. Hill’s homegrown R-rated indie arrived just as Ferrell’s exploration of his Carolina roots (both of his parents are natives) and red-state-lunacy were hitting top gear with 2006’s Talladega Nights, his tale of an entitled Nascar driver from NC (partly shot in Charlotte, only miles from locations used in Hill’s film). Looking back, if one could ignore the creative isolation and frustration that fueled Foot Fist and the film’s anticlimatic release, the timing seemed serendipitous, of the zeitgeist. As a pudgy instructor at a strip-mall tae kwon do academy, McBride (still a total unknown) displayed a full range of comedy chops that playfully ebbed method and matched any male comedy star, of that year or today. On the surface, McBride’s character of Fred Simmons belonged to the “man-children” who populated comedy movies in the aughts; the difference was that Simmons’s arrested development wasn’t voluntary or a badge of privilege. His entire life was dedicated to separating himself from the boys by surrounding himself with them, spouting a martial-arts dogma free of Eastern philosophy and full of Americanized bullshit. What should have felt like a one-note character sketch on SNL was instead, thanks to the writing (by McBride, Hill, and Ben Best) and Hill’s eye, at moments bizarre and touching. By the end, it had mastered and dismissed Hollywood’s man-child trend.
When I caught up with McBride later on set, he emphasized the importance of maintaining and expanding the NCSA ethos and team. “I think we all push each other to fucking be rebellious,” he told me. “I think if we were all on our own, well, we’d each try to do what we could. But we’re in this together and it definitely feeds the fire for us to say, ‘Fuck the man.’ To just push things. We’re not interested in a lot of the movies that are out there, so we’re making them ourselves.” McBride, Hill, and Green all view the first season of Eastbound & Down as a three-hour movie, and Hill says this can be applied more so with season 2, given the scope, the locations, and the fact that they shot on 35 mm. On set, they frequently referred to it in casual conversation as “the movie.” McBride rattled off a clip of sequels they looked to for inspiration, including Lethal Weapon 2 (character growth, heavier action) and The Empire Strikes Back (darker, unfamiliar terrain, daddy issues). And then there’s the absolute antithesis of what they were hoping to accomplish: Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise. Really, I asked, refusing to mask a fondness for it? “Yep, I’m shitting on it,” said McBride. “Everyone loved the burping contest with Booger in the first one, right? So now there’s a goddamn Asian who can burp a full minute. We wanted to avoid that type of shit. We wanted to invent a new world with new characters.” For most of our visit, Harwell is said to be cooped up in a trailer polishing the script for the top-secret finale. This may or may not explain his hyperbole-free choice of reference when discussing what the production had been like. “This season is completely night and day from Wilmington,” he said. “I kind of feel like we [are on] Apocalypse Now. Everything just seems more difficult. Only having five days to shoot 30 pages is a lot more doable when there aren’t animals and baseball teams and a stadium full of extras who don’t speak English as their primary language.” Adding to the pressure, McBride said the budget for this season was almost exactly the same as the first, even though it’s one “chapter,” or episode, longer, making for seven total. When I asked why it was originally announced that there would be eight episodes, he sighed and said that was the plan, but the budget wasn’t there. They had to go back to rework the scripts, only to learn shortly after arriving in Puerto Rico that HBO had agreed to pony up for an eighth. “We said fuck it, and went with seven,” said McBride. “It’s fun, but we are running and gunning like this is an independent film. Last year, our locations were a school, a bar, and a few houses. But every single day we’re here, we’re in mansions, or the barrio, or a baseball field. Plus we’re getting pissed on with rain every single day. It makes you feel like you’re in the fucking trenches. You gotta hustle.”
For the first part of our visit, Green was nowhere to be found. I finally ran into him as he was descending a staircase from the mansion’s second floor. Judging by his hair, he had just finished a nap upstairs. “The temptation for me this season was to rough it up,” he explained. “But honestly, it’s just been insane. Last time we’d go jump in the ocean boogie-boarding at sunset, and now, literally before we’ve hit the bars, we’re falling asleep in the elevator. We’re lugging equipment up massive hills that you can’t bring trucks up. I think it’s important for the local crew to see our work ethic, to see that we’re creating from a real and soulful place. That helps them go the extra mile.” On the Wilmington set in 2008, I was surprised to encounter Green on the set and not Hill, who had hit an unfortunate overlap doing postproduction on Observe and Report for Warner Bros. This time, Green is again directing three chapters while Hill has four, including the premiere and the finale. “It’s crazy for the crew, because they have Jody and me coming at them with full energy 15 hours a day,” Green said. “There are plenty of guys out there who direct and who want to be the sole creator and the artiste, and that’s fine. A lot of my idols are like that. But to me, this is perfect. It’s almost the opposite of last season, where Jody was finishing Observe. Now I’m here while special-effects work is being finished on Your Highness.” The film Green is referring to, due for release in April, is financially the riskiest of his career, and easily the weirdest and grossest: a hard-R $50 million fantasy-comedy shot in Northern Ireland, Your Highness is inspired by sword-and-stoner epics like Krull and Yor: The Hunter From the Future. Continuing his graduation to lead roles, McBride stars as a wizard/weed-toking prince who is joined by a skeleton crew that includes Natalie Portman, James Franco, and based on what I saw during a set visit last year, a cracked-out animatronic bird. Compared with my time on his other productions, in Puerto Rico Green seemed especially at ease behind the camera and not, open to talking and joking about a range of topics. He was aware of a vocal following online that wishes/demands to see him return to his roots in drama. He said, without any concern, that he plans to, and then we moved on to his gestating remake of Suspiria that he hoped would be shot in Europe shortly and “just take the original’s concept, using real ballet dancers, and make visual fireworks.” The next evening, his shift complete, Green spryly walked into the mansion’s main room and announced to no one in particular, “I’m ready to get fucked up!” He wandered over and surveyed an elegant liquor cabinet belonging to the mansion’s absent owner (an oily doppelganger for Panama Jack) and considered raiding it. Instead, he settled on having his assistant fetch a case of prop Dos Equis. (The assistant was tasked with keeping up with every bottle cap. The empties, it was said, would be refilled with water and used the next day.)
McBride’s work on that given evening was far from over, but he seconded the emotion. “When you pound that cold beer at the end of the day here,” he said, “you feel like you’ve earned it, for sure. When I first got to Puerto Rico, though, I had to shave off a few pounds. I packed them on filming [Your Highness] in Belfast. Eating all those meats and potatoes and drinking all that Guinness. I was sweating my face off,” he said. “But I’m still maintaining my comedy fat.”
Jody Hill asked, “Mind if I smoke?” as he took a Bic decorated with an American flag to a Marlboro Light. We were sitting outside at a dining table with a blurry glass top. Afternoon drizzle gleeted the surface of the infinity pool and added a weak shine to everything. Clad in a black t-shirt (the New York Times would better elaborate on the brand and cotton blend) and with a wing of dirty-blond bangs pushed back over his ear, Hill had the build and reserved angst of a pro skater in the 90s. That is to say, he didn’t look like the funniest guy in the room. Last winter, when Quentin Tarantino unexpectedly endorsed Observe and Report as one of his favorite films of 2009, he explained in one interview, “That’s a real movie,” and said of Seth Rogen’s bipolar Ronnie Barnhardt, “That’s fucking Travis Bickle.” Now, Hill isn’t anywhere near the first or hundredth independent-minded director to evoke Martin Scorsese’s and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver. He is, however, representative of a new wave of filmmaker from the South, and his comedies give off a punk energy authentic to the region, down to the settings and language, not unlike early Scorsese and his northeastern Italians. What makes Hill’s comedies unique is how he indulges his male characters their convoluted dreams and goals so affected by movie-arc structures they are measured in heroic climaxes and resilient comebacks. Consistently as a writer/director, he laughs at and bullies his characters with the tough love of a mean-ass dad, and then arguably sides with their loner-bred dedication and self-reliance all the same. The Hollywood comedies of the last decade tended to avoid making light of or even acknowledging working-class anxieties and depression in favor of horny postgrad aimlessness and blog-friendly pop-culture references. And then there’s SNL’s neverending fixation on stuffy, awkward dinner parties. Hill’s three works target the mundanity of reality and the darkest spectrum of the modern male experience. His two characters played by McBride and one by Rogen—a former pro-athlete, an instructor, a mall cop—are seen at their most vulnerable, teetering on nervous breakdowns and fits of sadness, the shittiest sadness imaginable, on beds, albeit ones befitting a child or a dumb, slutty wife. Ask Hill if he’s seen a funny movie lately, and I’ve found he’ll find a way to say, “Not really,” and tend to switch the conversation to music. During our interview for this article, he said he was surprised to learn that Jack White was a big fan of Eastbound. Directing a White Stripes video has long been a dream of his, he said, because their music speaks to the raw power and fun he aspires to achieve on film. Hill reverently speaks of rock ’n’ roll (“Anything that gets my juices going, I love it.”) in a way that suggests to me that it rivals his passion for film. Whether it’s the Dwarves, Patto, or the Black Keys, rock informs Hill’s comedy, from the tasteful selections on his soundtracks to the escapist use of drugs by his characters. The deliberate, impatient style in which his works are cut is often accompanied by a wild charge of music. A chapter of Eastbound is free of fat like a great rock album. There is no room for dragging dialogue, exposition, elaborate set dressing, or distractions in the frame. Each scene is in tune with the power of McBride’s facial expressions, which can be memorable, almost quotable like the stupid-smart lines uttered by Kenny.
“Where Eastbound is different is that it’s a comedy but it has dramatic gravity,” Green told me. “I personally don’t look at it as a broader social analysis, but subversive parallels can probably be made with Kenny to the state of the country. He’s identifiable, that’s why people want to watch him. He’s the guy down the street, but he can also be the creep looking back at you in the mirror.”
“I’ve never been to improv school,” said Hill. “I don’t go to improv nights. It’s not my thing. And I feel like that influence is everywhere now in comedy. And many of the improv programs, they like to place the joke first, rather than the character. That’s why I like working with a [here he made half-assed air quotes] serious actor like Michael Peña. He’s able to have full conversations as his character, he inhabits that character, and he can react on the spot to any situation that happens. I pay a lot of attention to casting. Another example of what I’m looking for is John Hawkes [who plays Kenny’s brother Dustin]. Now, Dustin is based on a friend’s older brother who used to beat on us when I was younger.” Hill laughed. “He was the guy who always had the eight ball of coke. So Danny and I made up a backstory for Kenny’s brother, where he had the nickname ‘D-Ball’ in high school and he liked to party. Danny and I like to provide a hard fact for each supporting character. Something that shines light. So Dustin has a pot tattoo on his shoulder. You may not see much of it, but it’s there, and all of us know it’s there.”
“There are times in my life where I’ve felt like I’m about to go crazy,” continued Hill. “I find myself seeping into a hole and looking for a way out. And it’s never like a movie. Eventually, you get over it, or something happens and changes your direction. Now, The Foot Fist Way and Observe and Report were about guys who basically go crazy, and there’s an element of that in season 1 of Eastbound & Down. Before [The Foot Fist Way], Danny and I had similar life experiences. He came back home [from LA] to teach school, I came back from LA hating the fucking place, and I ended up living at my parents’ house in Concord, North Carolina, and writing a screenplay. I drew from some of those moments for Kenny. But now, I’m past the weird breakups and the struggling to find work. In a way, season 2 is about Kenny’s quest for enlightenment. Maybe that’s where my head is at now. Last season we saw Kenny coping with being out of the spotlight, but this one’s about filling a hole in his life. There’s a shift from him living in the past to being forced to live in the present with responsibilities. And the way we like to teach Kenny lessons is to have him think he’s learned the lesson that he’s still learning. [Hill laughs here.] But the main thing...” Hill paused. “You won’t really see it until the last episode. That’s our big thing, that’s where the true lesson is learned this season.” Hill let out a sly grin that had me convinced that Kenny Powers is a dead man. Then I remembered that Hill had previously mentioned that a desired ending to season 3 is mapped out. I reconfirmed, just in case. “In terms of structure, we know where it all ends and where the next season would be set. Danny is the biggest fan of all of those old epics. The whole idea is that Kenny’s a fallen hero and that his trajectory remains loosely based on the Odyssey.”
Hill said that the first episode of season dos was the hardest thing he and McBride have written, including screenplays for feature films. McBride attributes the difficulty to the time that passed between seasons and to, yeah, the high expectations of fans. Joined by Harwell, the trio decamped to Big Bear Mountain in California last November, renting a “shitty cottage that we stocked with beer and whiskey. We’d write, then bullshit and talk music at night, and when we got bored we rented out a pontoon boat to go fishing.” During the preceding months, they had agreed not to think about possible story lines and new characters. On the first night of the retreat, McBride said, they cracked the entire season, only to spend the remainder of their time tearing the blueprint apart. When they finally put the first episode’s script to bed, the fucker had consumed three months—out of the total five they allotted to writing—and ten drafts. “The original idea for the season was always Mexico,” said Hill. “But we said it with a smile. And then over those months spent writing, the setting changed a handful of times. Ultimately, we decided to do what TV shows never do. We followed our main character rather than have him stay put and do situational comedy.” A ballsy move even by the standards of creative freedom permitted at HBO, they chose to forge ahead without the established characters of the first season, and minus the chemistry and comic timing brought by those cast members, actors (Hawkes, Katy Mixon, Andy Daly) whose profiles had risen in the many months between. In forcing themselves to largely leave behind April and Principal Cutler, McBride equated the drastic change to Kenny’s estrangement from the characters at season’s start. “I’m sure some people will think it was a mistake to do that,” added Harwell. “And others may think the season is one big joke at Mexico’s expense. It’s a lot dirtier. But Kenny saying Mexico sucks is not the same as us saying it does. In the end, hopefully people appreciate us doing something different.”
Tonally, Hill wants the new season to play like a mix between the original Bad News Bears and Amores Perros. “At the same time, Kenny basically sees himself as Pale Rider,” said Hill. “We discussed how he’s watched all of the Clint Eastwood movies.” Hill laughs. “And that’s also, um, how we’re covering up for Mexico shit we don’t know much about.” While Hill promised that Kenny will be packing a gun and that cocaine will remain his drug of choice, he says they purposely chose not to address the macabre cartel violence that has swept Juarez and wafted up and over the border. “Who knows how that shit is going to play out?” said Hill. Kenny will, however, branch out into the sport of cock fighting. And what about the subject of illegal immigration? McBride told me, “You know, back at home, Kenny probably agreed with putting a wall up around the entire country. But I think he comes to find that Mexico is pretty similar to the South.” Hill was quick to mention another equally pertinent transformation: “He also goes from being a tit man with April in season 1, to an ass man in season 2. That’s a big crisis for him.” Cushioning the ass revelation is a new love interest named Vida, played by Ana de la Reguera, who is an A-list actress in her native Mexico and who, judging by YouTube, is not afraid of nudity and sex scenes. “She padded her ass out and everything,” said Hill, shaking his head. “She’s got this thing called a Booty Pop. A lot of American actresses wouldn’t be on board with [so much focus on their asses]. She’s been awesome. Another reason why Kenny falls for her is that she’s in a band called Mas o Menos [More or Less] that does covers of Bob Seger. That shit goes straight to his heart, especially the song ‘Still the Same.’” Reprising his duties as music coordinator is Wayne Kramer, best known as the front man of the MC5. Hill said that Kramer went the extra mile and personally contacted Seger about reworking a few of his songs into Spanish.
Hill, McBride and Harwell only speak high-school-level Spanish. Hill told me that his time spent in Mexico was limited to a brief visit earlier this year, when he was married in Cabo San Lucas to the actress Collette Wolfe. Wolfe, who has appeared in both of Hill’s films and played a horny future MILF in Hot Tub Time Machine, had recently flown back to the states when Vice was on the set. And during my visit, friends and family were all around. One night, I mistook McBride’s cute, petite fiancée for a production assistant. She was wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard, and politely corrected me. At another point, Hill was glued to live monitors that showed Green directing upstairs, his legs dangled over the side of an arm chair, when a guy in a ballcap wandered over and whispered, kind of loudly in a thick Carolina accent, “Jody? I’m leavin’ now. Going to pick Mom and Dad up at the airport. Love you.” Turning his head slightly, Hill said, “OK, love you,” and then a moment later, said, “That’s my brother.” It was pretty funny at the time, like an exchange that might have played out when they were teens in NC. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to meet Hill’s mom or his dad, who played a thick-skinned man in a silky button-up decorated with liquor bottles in The Foot Fist Way. In just a few minutes onscreen, Hill’s dad expertly bottled up a certain type of hard-living sonuvabitch native to Cakalaka. The character’s bank account, wife, and life be damned, he’s goin’ to buy himself a used ’rrari.
Amid the communal vibes, I couldn’t not notice a conspicuous absence in Puerto Rico, that of Ben Best, a creator of Eastbound, who cowrote the first season and who plays Clegg, Kenny’s drug-rug-wearing hometown buddy and head bartender at Shh-boom Shh-boom’s. Clegg is a fan favorite, a character who is the blitzed antithesis of the type-A egomaniac that is Will Ferrell’s Ashley Schaeffer. Similar to his character Chuck “The Truck” Wallace in The Foot Fist Way, Clegg feels lived-in and could probably hold his own as a standalone character. On the set of Eastbound in 2008, Best was the first person to offer to show me around the home of Principal Cutler. He spent a good half hour pontificating on the crew’s dreams of a takeover. After all, Kenny Powers was conceived by McBride, Hill, and Best a few years ago in his backyard in Charlotte, one of several ideas hatched as they soaked in a kiddie pool nursing a case of beer. When I broached the subject of Best’s whereabouts with Hill, he hesitated. Ben’s still in Charlotte working on music, he told me, and then made a polite cutting motion with his hand and requested we move on. At a separate juncture, I asked McBride the same question, mentioning that I was surprised not to see Best in Ireland, since he has a screenwriting credit on Your Highness. The question didn’t catch him off-guard. “It’s probably best to talk to Ben about Ben,” he said. “I can tell you he will be coming back this season. You’ll see Clegg. Yeah, Ben and I are on good terms for sure.” Attempts to contact Best for the piece were unsuccessful. A rep kept a phone inquiry short and said that he wouldn’t be doing any interviews for at least a few months. Whatever the end of the season holds, I’m happy to report that when we screened the season 2 premiere, Clegg got some big laughs in a flashback-like cameo.
David Gordon Green
I was scheduled to meet Steve Little in the lobby of the Conrad Hotel in San Juan, but I was unsure if I would find him at the hotel bar or at the lobby’s shark aquarium. Finally, an elevator opened and there he was. Without thinking, I called out, “Stevie! Over here, Stevie,” and then immediately regretted not calling him Steve. And then I started to wonder how often Steve is greeted by strangers as Stevie, or by the full name of his character: “Hey! Stevie Janowski!” How much might that irk him? It has to irk him. “Yeah, that happens a lot,” he said as we sat outside on the hotel’s patio overlooking the ocean. “People are so nice. The thing about Eastbound fans, I can tell they really love the show. But it’s really the internet... I don’t know if I should go on there anymore and read about Stevie, because the comments are not, like, ‘Who is that actor?’ They’re like, ‘What is wrong with that dude?’” I laughed and said, well, it’s a convincing performance. But the comments seem to genuinely bother Steve. “I dunno, do I seem crazy?” he asked, and then admitted that he hasn’t done many interviews. What’s there to do around here for fun, I asked him. “It’s weird, I’m just getting used to being here. I was freaked out the first week, but the same thing happened in North Carolina. Some days I don’t have any scenes, so it feels like my friends are shooting [an hour away] but I’m not. Yesterday, I sat in my hotel room, but I’ve gone out drinking and I did some snorkeling. I’m working, but you look out here [points to swimmers] and everyone’s in short pants.” Suddenly, playing a sidekick seemed like a mindfuck, but Little gradually started to relax. “This season is really about Stevie getting to live,” Little told me. “He toughens up and becomes a man. Stevie’s been working at a Starbucks since Kenny left Shelby. We actually filmed at the Starbucks here. It’s just a little scene. This walk-the-line-type Starbucks girl, she had to train me to make a fuckin’ mocha or whatever. You know? I did a take where I’m like [obnoxious, slippery Stevie drawl], ‘Double mocha!’ And afterward, she comes up to us and says, ‘It’s not right, he’s not making eye contact with the customer.’ And then the next take, I slam it down and yell, ‘Here’s your fuckin’ coffee!’ [laughs] I don’t think she liked that. Stevie’s like this lost soul since Kenny left.” I asked Steve how Stevie comes to find Kenny in Mexico, his character being the only one besides KP from the first season who will appear regularly. “He thinks Kenny has left him a trail of bread crumbs,” he told me, “and then he gets down there and thinks he’ll be protected from the shit because of Kenny.” He grinned and asked if I’d like to see a few photos. He handed me his cell phone. The photo showed Stevie standing next to a dark-skinned midget in a wifebeater. They were both giving the camera the bird. “That’s me and Deep Roy,” said Little. “He’s great. He plays a character named Aaron.” As far as sidekicks go, Deep Roy is something of a legend in Hollywood: Best known for his collaborations with Tim Burton, he also plays Princess Aura’s flamboyantly dressed pet in 1980’s Flash Gordon, Hill’s favorite movie. Bread crumbs of influence. “This season is going to be deranged,” said Little. “Danny was saying, like, ‘How many characters are there on TV where everything that comes out of their mouth is a lie?’ [laughs] It’s true. I think that part of the appeal of the show, though, is that this is how people talk and joke with each other… Oh, and I have a pretty sweet scene with a donkey this season,” he said. “Bob the Donkey, who is really gentle.”
“What did he tell you?” asked McBride with a smirk, when I returned to set from interviewing Little. After I waited a beat, McBride added, “God knows.” We were having a pep talk outside with the HBO publicist and Gary Sanchez’s Chris Henchy, who cowrote Ferrell’s The Other Guys and Land of the Lost but was on set supervising as an executive producer. The crew was setting up the next scene. Feet away from us, crookedly parked in front of the mansion, was a fire-red Lamborghini—actually a kit for a Lambo atop a Pontiac Fiero—its interior littered with cheese doodles. Soon, I found myself in the usual preemptive chat to make sure spoilers and certain scenes wouldn’t be included in this piece. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to fuck up the show,” I kidded, after declining Henchy’s request for preapproval on the article. “I work for Vice, not Nikki Finke.” The mention of Finke’s name caused McBride to lift an eyebrow and Henchy to mutter something to the heavens. It was several days after the fact, and they still didn’t know how her industry tyrant of a website, Deadline Hollywood, obtained and posted a spoiler about season 2 (regarding the appearance this season of a figure from KP’s past). “Somebody in that meeting must have talked,” said McBride, still outfitted as Kenny, his hands on hips, a hint of industry muscle behind the words. “And it wasn’t us. Either that, or the room was tapped.” McBride can seem strangely intimidating when he’s dressed in character, makeup adding an odd peach complexion and debauched, self-hating rings under his eyes. He appears slightly older and fatter, and his nose is somehow bigger. We decided during that chat to post the first photo of Kenny on the set from my Twitter account, and back inside as I readied the post, I asked McBride if he wanted to type anything as Kenny. Over my shoulder, he glanced at my netbook monitor and said, “Yep, looks like a tweet. Nah, you go ahead and write it, I trust your judgment.” And then he asked me what was up with the “fag on Twitter” who’s pretending to be Kenny Powers (@KfuckingP). No one on the set knew or cared who it is, but there was concern. A growing number of fans seemed to think the account was official and approved by HBO. Kenny Powers was in front of me as I tweeted about him telling me he wouldn’t join Twitter, how that shit’s for girls and not his style. Twenty-first-century schizoid, man. McBride, who won’t be joining anytime soon from the sound of it, proceeded to ask what I think of the iPad and told me he enjoys reading scripts on it. (This was funny to me, since Kenny may or may not use a MacBook Pro in a Luddite-appropriate act of self-defense this season.)
It got late and the countdown to my early-morning flight to New York began. Without warning, the lights inside the mansion had dimmed and it was eerily quiet. Turned out, Hill had to direct a sex scene. It was so loud it seemed to inspire the island’s coquis to ribbit their eyeballs out for hours afterward. Exhausted, I could hear the fuckers from indoors while I scribbled notes and sipped a beer. And then the words “What’s up, muthafuckkkkka?” were fired into my left ear. It was genuinely startling. It was the maniacal whisper of the crackhead gangbanger McBride played in Observe and Report up close. He crept away, smiling. It felt similar to the season 1 scene where Kenny fails to dunk his lunch tray into the cafeteria trash can. McBride continued over to say hello to a few dudes who had flown in from LA. They worked for Rough House Pictures, the production company McBride founded last year with Hill, Green, and Matt Reilly, one of said visitors, who left his position as the veep of production at Warner Bros. to posse up and, in his words, “blow the fucking doors off the industry.” McBride circled back and said, “Alright. Let’s do this shit.” He was sporting a crisp button-down and dark gray knee-length shorts. Dressy, by surf-shop standards. Freshly showered, the mullet and the makeup cake was gone. At times like this, I switched from speaking to McBride the actor to speaking with McBride the 33-year-old writer-producer. We got on the subject of NC, and I asked him whether, on Kenny’s drive of shame, we’ll see him pass South of the Border, the famed truck stop-cum-tourist trap in Dillon, South Carolina (where, coincidentally, Ben Bernanke, current chairman of the Federal Reserve, once worked as a waiter). McBride nodded. Perhaps it was a habit he picked up recording Kenny’s audio books (note: He works on a new one this season about depression), but McBride sometimes cocked his head slightly to speak into the recorder. “We got chickenshit about Mexico for a hot minute,” he said. “And at one point, we considered opening on a shot of the big sombrero at South of the Border, so you think Kenny’s in Mexico. And then he would have said [voice-over tone], ‘I went down to the butthole of the Carolinas.’ [laughs] We actually thought about setting the entire season in Myrtle Beach instead of in Mexico.” No shit, really? “I gotta say, the Myrtle Beach idea was pretty brilliant. It would have really been something. Maybe he ends up there next season. [beat] Who knows? South of the Border is still incredible to me. I remember being a kid and my family would drive down to Georgia to see my relatives. The signs would start around Richmond. ‘Chili Today! Hot Tamale! 290 Miles Ahead!’ I love that place. I would buy whips, pocket switchblades to comb my hair. I feel like that place has crept into my subconscious and stayed there.”
Ana de la Reguera as Vida
McBride is as down-to-earth as one could expect. Late at night and ready to get a hang in with his buddies, there are flashes in our conversation of a real competitive streak. He’s played his cards quietly and deftly. When the worldwide box-office take is tallied for the films he has carefully appeared in since 2007 the figure hovers above $600 million, and surges to $900 million with the inclusion of the animated film Despicable Me. While the receipts can’t be attributed to his singular star power, these days Hollywood is obsessed with an actor’s global numbers over anything else. It’s a reality that can be observed simply by counting the number of leading men today whose abs are marketed over interchangeable, exfoliated faces and personalities. McBride has satiated the system thus far with supporting roles in mildly subversive R-rated blockbusters like Tropic Thunder, while keeping his shirt on, and gradually closed the gap using Eastbound’s unusual format as the bridge to the edgier, signature fare that will define his new company. There’s even a film that can be interpreted, at least by me, as a surreal illustration of McBride’s arrival, possibly as the more stable John Belushi of a generation. In last fall’s Up in the Air, the actor who embodied the politics and renaissance-man luxury of the aughts (George Clooney) spends the film toting a cardboard cutout of McBride’s grounded character around the globe and back. When Clooney’s character returns to the States, he finds himself envious of McBride’s, attempts to remedy his shallowness, only to end up the casualty of a different era and shit out of luck. The movie is practically Clooney saying, “America is so fucked. By the way, welcome to the club.” McBride, for one, ain’t buyin’ it. “Would I categorize myself as [the new Belushi]? No way. I don’t have an ego that big. Belushi was amazing. I have a hard time seeing myself as other people see me. I see through my tricks. And I’m still getting my head around people letting me do this show our way, and with my friends. You know, the first season ended on a really ominous note, and HBO’s been great this season, they didn’t give any script notes. But the finale to the first season really freaked them out. That and the scene where Kenny does ecstasy. In the end, we got the show that we wanted on the air. In college, we all helped out on each other’s projects, we got along. We really want to maintain the feeling we had on David’s films, like George Washington, where buddies came out of the woodwork to help. Back then, you know, we quit our jobs, we ponied up, and it started to feel natural. It evolved into us getting paid. Films from the 70s are definitely romanticized, but we look to that era, we look to the people who were movie stars rather than to the ones now, to the stories being told. The spirit of that time inspires us. At the same time, I’d cum my pants when the goddamn HBO theme song came on before a movie when I was a kid. I lived for that shit. The birth of VHS, all of those 80s blockbusters. We want to meld those times together but still be different, be now. We want to put people on their ass. So, naturally, we all became blood brothers over a secret ceremony. [laughs]” “Oh yeah?” I asked. “No, not really.”
“But it was kind of like a blood pact.” I was on the phone with Matt Reilly, Rough House Pictures’ 31-year-old head of production, whom McBride referred to as the company’s secret weapon. “My first question to these guys was, ‘Do you want to kill? Do you want to take over the world?’” Having returned from Puerto Rico, Reilly was back on the grind at Rough House’s offices, which he described as a “two-story clubhouse we share with the Eastbound [postproduction] team in Old Hollywood.” The second season was the first of nearly a dozen projects on the company’s slate. “None of us really know shit about navigating studios and all that stuff,” McBride told me. “We wanted a guy who hasn’t been corrupted by the studio mind-set, by the bottom dollar. Matt is smart, he has a lot of fucking energy, but he knows how the system works. He isn’t jaded, he’s isn’t shooting down every weird idea that comes up. He pushes us forward.” Hill, who hungrily expressed that he wants to begin directing a film every one or two years, added, “Honestly, now we don’t have to deal with producers and Hollywood assholes. We literally have one person at Mandate Pictures [owned by Lionsgate] to answer to. Essentially, Mandate has the power of a studio with the freedom of a financier, so we’re not considered ‘indie.’” Tentatively scheduled for 2011, Hill’s first film for Rough House is a postnoir detective tale set in modern-day Los Angeles. It’s entitled LAPI and will star McBride as the titular character. Hill described it as a comedy with a serious labyrinthine bent. “The film will have a ‘plot’ in the vein of Chinatown or The Long Goodbye,” said Hill. “It’s cool because I’m technically not writing this one, and I know that directors like Altman, they created companies where they developed scripts so they could be more productive.”
“Look, here’s what happened,” said Nathan Kahane, the president of Mandate Pictures. “I came to them post-Pineapple and said, ‘This is your moment and I want to finance it.’ Hollywood is excited but slightly terrified of these guys because they don’t come from the usual places, they aren’t doing prebranded projects. A lot of industry people don’t get it, but to me Eastbound is like redneck Princeton. It’s early going, but we are looking at Jody’s LAPI as a franchise for Danny. The first draft of the script reminds me of Fletch, but it’s got a more classic, gritty feel. Mandate and Rough House are based on an old-school model, where thoughtful artists have total creative control. Look, I think in some aspects Hollywood has gotten lazy and relied too much on formulas and remakes, and we’re swinging back to original voices and provocative entertainment. And I’ve been talking to Danny about him directing something as well. Look, I got to say, I’m pretty excited.”
“I don’t think Hollywood underestimated us,” said Green. “It’s more like they never saw us coming. Our tastes are anchored in the emotionally challenging movies of the 70s, movies that expressed a unique point of view and broke down the acting styles informed by radio and TV of the time and used glossy camera techniques to get at the rawness of people.” In July, the real-life subject of Green’s first planned feature for Rough House made national headlines. Taking Flight will tell the story of Colton Harris Moore, a mischievous teen fugitive from a broken home in Washington State accused of hijacking a number of small planes, cars, and boats, and whose sizable Facebook following lends itself, Green feels, to a semi-tragic update of the mythic American outlaw. Moore was apprehended in July in the Bahamas, an event that was met instantly with typed sighs from hundreds of people on Twitter. “R-rated comedies will be our bread and butter,” said Reilly, “but something like Taking Flight, that’s a dramatic thriller. We also have some horror in development, action films, another thriller, comic books, and we’ve set up a deal for a series at Comedy Central. HBO wants to do something else, too. We want to make movies that will scare the shit out of you, blow you away, and have you laughing at the same time. We are a home for renegades by renegades. We are about creative anarchy. I feel like when I walk into the movies now, I already know where the story is headed two minutes in. It’s not respectful to audience members, who are smart and have so many choices now. Movies need to deliver.” So far, Rough House has had friendly talks with horror writer-director Ti West (The House of the Devil), and Hill said they hope to finance a low-budget feature from Bobby Hacker, whose short film Cars, a mock commercial for a used-car dealership infused with devil worshipping, became an internet sensation. I asked Green which actor, besides McBride, embodies the company, and he offered up pal Michael Shannon (Shotgun Stories, Boardwalk Empire).
“I don’t take any of this for granted,” said McBride. “We’re given one chance and if it doesn’t work, hopefully we’ll survive. I didn’t plan to have an acting career and don’t plan on acting forever. Let’s just say I don’t have all my eggs in one basket.” Immediately following Eastbound, McBride will head to Michigan for a villainous role, as will Peña, in 30 Minutes or Less, from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer. “I remember when I first read the script,” says McBride, “I was like goddamn, didn’t this shit really happen? That’s kind of fucked up. [laughs] But it’s not based on the actual events or anything.” The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as a pizza-delivery duder given an ultimatum to rob a bank by a pair of sick thugs (enter McBride). It all bears a twisted resemblance to the case of Brian Douglas Wells, a pizza-delivery guy who died in 2003 when a bomb exploded on his person during a bank heist. Wells was later said to be in on the scheme. Comedian Aziz Ansari, who costars in the film as Eisenberg’s bewildered best friend, recently sold a pitch to Rough House, that will pair him onscreen with McBride. The title is Olympic-Size Asshole. “I’ll run into McBride occasionally at these fancy Hollywood-party things,” Ansari told me, “and Danny will usually come over to me, bored, and ask if I want to go back to his car and get a handjob. I’ll laugh it off. Inevitably, a few minutes later, he’ll look me dead in the eyes and go, ‘For real, if you want a handjob, I’m down.’ At this point, I usually leave or talk to someone else. But as far as humor based in the South, The Foot Fist Way was the first time I’d seen the place where I grew up [South Carolina] depicted in a film. The comedy they do is interesting because it’s real.”
“When we started Rough House, it was like I was ten years old again, building a fort with neighborhood kids,” said Reilly. “We’re having a lot of fun, but I told these guys, at some point I think each of you can win an Academy Award, whether it’s together or individually.” For now, McBride doesn’t share the enthusiasm in little gold men. As he said to me in Puerto Rico, “I’d rather be on a couch passing a joint at a friend’s house, making fun of everyone’s acceptance speeches.”