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Q&A: HBO’s Danny McBride and David Gordon Green talk “Vice Principals” and partnership

Actor Danny McBride is known for his outrageous HBO series “Eastbound and Down,” which ended its three-season run in 2013. Currently, McBride stars in HBO adult comedy “Vice Principals,” which follows the lives of two low-level high school administrators who both seek the coveted principal position.

McBride, along with his frequent collaborator, David Gordon Green, who directs and produces the series, spoke with The Lantern and reporters from DePaul University and Syracuse University to discuss their working relationship, the final season of “Vice Principals” and what we can expect next from the comedic duo.

HBO’s Danny McBride currently stars in HBO’s adult comedy “Vice Principals.” | Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Q: What are some key differences in how you approached the second season compared to the first?

Green: Well, I think I was present on set and on location when Jody [Hill, co-creator and director of “Vice Principals”] was doing the first season, and I think it was just kind of a great way to take a few steps back and watch a great cast be assembled and characters being found. I had followed the script that –– Danny and Jody had written a screenplay that it was based on years before, so I was a big fan of the story and characters. Then, it was watching kinda how Jody unleashed everybody and put the characters’ dynamic together, which did two things. One is kind of establish who they were, where they come from. And, it also gave us license in the second season to kind of challenge some of that, and put those character expectations to task a little bit.

Q: Most stories and characters have some personal experience or some story from your past which inspires it. In terms of “Vice Principals,” did you guys have any stories that inspired the characters or even the plot of the show?

McBride: You know, there wasn’t really anything from our personal lives that really inspired it. You know, I guess I have always kind of been fascinated with stories at school. I was a substitute teacher for a little bit, and I just always thought it was so fascinating how there was one world going on with the students, and then there was a completely different world going on with the teachers and administrators, and that rarely did those two sides get a full understanding of what was happening with the other one. I don’t know. That just seemed like a cool place to set a story and jockeying for the head of that world just felt like it was drawing all sorts of parallels to some sort of classic like, “quest for the crown” stories. I don’t know. We kind of love to just put high, epic expectations on very mundane, everyday goals. And also, that’s why it just seemed right for the depiction, I guess.

Q: How did the characters [of “Vice Principals”] change after they were cast, especially with Walton Goggins (Lee Russell)? What did he bring to the character that wasn’t on the page?

McBride: When we wrote the original screenplay, that was the original reason why we wanted to make a TV show was for that character. We just loved Lee Russell. He jumped off the page instantly and we read a lot of different people and a lot of them were people that purely had a comedic background and nobody just had the bite. We just created this character and we hadn’t really found anyone that we thought executed in the way we had imagined. When we first started coming up with Walton Goggins, all of us across the board, were like, “he’s exactly the person.” He has enough goofiness mixed with malice that it will just be a fun, delicious thing to watch and he didn’t disappoint. The first time I talked to him after I sent him the script he called me up as “Lee Russell” without any direction, without anyone telling him how to do it, and it was 100 percent what you see on TV and what we had imagined so he just got it. He connected with it instantly and I think he just took him into such a cool, awesome space. I can’t wait for you to see what he’s up to the rest of the season.

Q: The two seasons were shot back to back. Did that have any implication because it was supposed to be a feature at the beginning, or how did that help the production process?

McBride: You know, I think it just kept everybody in the zone and everyone focused. It was just something we wanted to try. We just kind of liked the idea of having something that was one and done. With so much TV, I know I get sometimes intimidated by catching up with shows that have multiple seasons if I am that far behind, so we feel like the design of our projects, we like them to be consumed in one hungover afternoon. So, that sort of makes it complete. If someone can be hungover and spend the day getting over their hangover and watching the story.

Q: We saw Bill Murray as a guest star in the first season, who can we expect in the second season? Any interesting names you guys have lined up, or are willing to bring on the show?

McBride: You know, we kind of stayed away from special guest star this season. We loved doing it on “Eastbound, but it felt like in order for this story to work, this world really needed to feel grounded and it needed to feel like it was inhabited by people who were exclusive to this world.  We loved the idea of getting someone like Bill to kick the series off, but we really kind of shied away from having a bunch of cameos. It seemed it would keep our world a little bit more unique.

Q: I see a lot of 80’s inspiration, especially in the music.  Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration?

McBride: I grew up with all of those films and it was such a specific time period for that kind of comedy, like teen angst. I don’t know, it kind of influenced high school. I think as you get older, I look back on my high school and I don’t remember that I didn’t go to Shermer High School (Director John Hughes fictional high school). You start to blur that with what your real high school experience was. So, I don’t know, I think the idea of doing it in high school and having adults face these things that they would have faced when they were in high school and even scoring it that same way just seemed like it kind of worked thematically. These guys are in charge of the discipline at this school and ultimately the students have more wherewithal than they do and so this sort of just replicated that.

Q: There’s a fine line of dark comedy in the show, but also a bit of emotion with Neal’s relationship with his family and with other teachers.  How do you guys find that balance with getting the laugh but also getting that light hearted emotion that comes off?

McBride:  You know, I guess that’s just sorta what we worked hardest on with the writing.  You know, for me, I’d get bored when I watch comedies and somewhere around the second act, into the third act, I would just get bored and start looking at my watch because once I was tired of the jokes I wasn’t interested enough in the characters so I wouldn’t really care what happened to them.  I would just think about what I was going to do next, so I think for us, we’re just, it seems like it’s easy to get laughs and it feels like it’s hard to get people interested in the character and get laughs so that’s just what we’re always trying to do.  Trying to make these people feel like they’re real for better or worse.

David:  I think there’s fun layers, like one of my favorite character dynamics in the show is between Neal and Ray, his ex-wife’s new husband, and I just think there’s such a — everything says so much about these two guys.  Ray is this harmless nice guy who is always reaching a hand out to befriend Gamby, and Gamby just takes every opportunity of Ray’s pleasant nature to just shoot him down. That, and there’s a really funny way to show the levels of insecurity in the dramatic dynamic of those two characters.

Q: What’s the key to creating characters who can behave so terribly and yet we still root for them?

McBride: You know, I’m not sure. I feel like it has to do a lot with being able to understand them.  But understanding them I don’t think it means to make excuses for them. I think that you can understand that someone is a terrible person and still not be endorsing them. I feel like that’s how it is with life and people anyway. It’s very easy to write people off or kind of be defined by their worst attributes, but sometimes just even knowing what happened to that person before coming to work that day just gives you insight to them that people just don’t have. In the first season we definitely explored that with even Gamby’s take on Belinda, you know, that he thinks she’s just someone who came in and stole his job and sees her as a villain, and as he kind of goes through the story sees that he has more in common with her than he thinks. I think that just puts into perspective the things that he wants or the things that he thinks he deserves when he starts looking at things through other people’s point of view.

Green: And I love just the way that the writers have constructed it where I feel like every character is their own hero, and every hero is on their own journey and it’s the audience’s perspective of who they either relate to or they don’t relate to or how the characters interact.  But each character, I feel like, from the dignity of a writer, has like a motivation rather than just being an archetype.

Q: What’s the process like for transitioning from being a director on some drama series or a film to a comedy? And how is it working with your dynamic with Danny; how does it make it different?
Green: Again just to the collaboration, Danny is just a great voice and support and if I’m making a dramatic film I can get his opinion on that as much as our collaborations have been primarily comedic, but he is a great, knowledgable force of what makes good movies and TV series. In terms of the shift between one or the other, for me, comedy is kind of therapy because I go pretty deep in the dramatic work sometimes and it’s work I’m proud of, but it’s not a headspace I want to be in all day, every day. I do like to lighten up and laugh and dig into the absurdity. The world is such a strange and evolving, often off-putting place that if I was just to live in the melancholy side of my interest it wouldn’t be healthy, so I’m always trying to find that balance. Danny and I are just now working on a horror film, trying to step in yet a new direction, and I think it’s just important to always be exercising and growing and trying something new.

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