It was two years ago that Danny McBride's Rough House Pictures began filming its HBO series, Vice Principals, in Charleston. Starring McBride and Walton Goggins as two raging assholes competing for the principal position at North Jackson High, the series was equal parts funny and squirm-inducing — season two got a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a win for McBride and his Rough House partners Jody Hill and David Gordon Green. But the bigger get is for Charleston. McBride is now a Holy City resident and he's moved Rough House's HQ here, too. Even better? We finally got the celeb to talk to us.
CP: Is Vice Principals truly a done deal or is this a case of never say never?
DM: You know I think we really set out to kind of tell a contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. Yeah, I think the story is done. I loved working with all those people. I loved getting to know Walton and work with him. I had the time of my life on that shoot. I liked it so much. We obviously shot it here in Charleston, but I moved here after we finished shooting it because I had such a good time here and making that show here. I won't say never because who knows. We could come up with an idea for something in a while that makes sense and puts those people back together, but for now I think that's the story of Neal Gamby and Lee Russell.
CP: Usually he's part of an ensemble so, as a fan, it was great seeing Walton Goggins in a lead role. How'd that come about?
DM: I had always been a fan of Walton's work. I've always thought he's one of the most interesting actors out there. There's just a charm to him and a danger to him that I just think is super potent. We searched high and low trying to rack our brains for who we could get to play Lee Russell. When we were talking to HBO originally about it, everybody was kind of pushing to more traditional comedians but that just didn't sit right for us. We really felt it needed to be somebody that was just capable of giving us some real depth, some real gravity, and I think David Green had come up with idea of "what about Walton Goggins?" We had seen him at a party a few weeks earlier. It just clicked. All of us. Everyone across the board. All the writers. We were all just like, "Yes, let's beg him to do this." I sent him the first few scripts and he called me back that afternoon and was reading me the scenes in the voice of Lee Russell. It was exactly what we imagined without any direction. He knew exactly what we were going for. I think he was born to play that role. He really was. He elevated that show in such an incredible way. I'll always be in debt to him for coming on board and taking that journey with us.
CP: What's your personal interpretation of the characters you've created?
DM: For me it's just, I don't really look like that type of leading man. I really don't think I'm going to go off and be in some romantic comedies. I really don't think I'm going to go off and be in some romantic comedies. So I have to write roles that I feel like I can pull off — the asshole douchebag. I feel like I have the market cornered on that but I also feel that we like starting stories with unlikely protagonists. I cannot just do themes/scenes positioned as heroes of stories. I just think it's interesting. Frank Simmons in Foot Fist Way running a tae kwon do studio — it's a great character that you don't see portrayed in movies. Maybe for good reasons. Maybe on the outside, they're not very interesting, but for us it's kind of fun to make them interesting.
CP: Is it safe to say you like to make an audience squirm?
DM: I think that we definitely like uncomfortable comedy. We like that cringe factor. I think it's the same thing why people like roller-coasters. Some people go on roller-coasters because they like to have the shit scared out of them. For some weird reason, I will gravitate towards comedy that you don't feel like you should laugh at. It's that same feeling of laughing at a funeral when you know you're not supposed to and then something happens and you're just trying everything you can just to hold it in. I think that's what we're trying to mine with our comedy I guess.
CP: How long have you lived in Charleston now?
DM: I moved here in July. My family is here. My kids are here. We sold our house in Los Angeles so we're here for the long haul. We really fell in love with this city when we were shooting Vice Principals. There's a great crew base here for film. David Gordon Green, my other partner in the company Rough House Pictures that we had out in L.A., he has young boys that are the same age as mine. I think both of us were just ready for a change and ready for something new. We went to school in North Carolina, I grew up in Virginia and was born in Georgia. So I've always had a connection to the South and I've always wanted to get back here. I think we see the potential in Charleston to try to really do something with the film community here. It just seemed like a good way to spend our energy.
CP: Are there good tax incentives here?
DM: There are tax incentives here. They're not quite as competitive as some of the other states, but I think that hopefully the more work (productions) we can bring down here maybe those incentives will be explored more. I just know so many people who go and shoot their movie down in Atlanta and they're always bummed out about having to go down there. I just can't imagine somebody scouting Atlanta and not coming up here and wanting to shoot here instead. From the people to the restaurants to the nature. I mean, everything about it is just a place you want to spend time.
CP: Now that you've been here for a while, are you getting to know the folklore?
DM: Oh yeah. I love that. That was one of the first things that I dug into was the history here. I grew up in this town in Virginia, Fredericksburg, which is loaded with history as well. I've always been fascinated by that. So it's awesome to come to a place like this that has so much history. It's been awesome to read about all the crazy ghost stories and all the wild folktales and things that are based in this area.
CP: So I take it you've heard of the Lizard Man?
DM: I have heard of the Lizard Man. You know where I can find him?
CP: (Laughs) Is there anything you can reveal about the new Halloween film?
DM: I'm being a little bit tight lipped at the moment. As is David, too. I was a really big fan of that series of Michael Myers. We sat down for a few weeks, tried to come up with a take that made sense, and felt like it was being true to the original. Then actually had to go in and pitch to John Carpenter and see if it got his seal of approval. He liked it. He liked what we were doing and wanted us to go for it. It's hugely inspiring. He's been one of my personal favorite directors ever since I was a kid. The chance to meet him and the chance to try to expand upon what he created and to have his blessing, it's just unreal.
CP: Are y'all going to go for the same tone as the original?
DM: Yes, exactly! We're trying to. The original is all about tension. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) doesn't even know that Michael Myers exists until the last minutes of the movie. So much of it you're in anticipation of what's going to happen and the dread that Carpenter spins so effortlessly in that film, I think we were really trying to get it back to that. We're trying to mine that dread. Mine that tension and not just go for gore and ultra-violence that you see some horror movies lean on. To us, it was all about bringing back the creep factor and trying to find the horror in your own backyard, in our own homes.
CP: What was it like meeting Carpenter?
DM: It was awesome. He's an imposing dude. He's a big dude. He's just been one of my heroes. It was pretty mind-bending. I know that he's also a pretty honest guy as well, so I knew when we went in to meet him that if he didn't like the idea, I could tell he would definitely tell us. He was very kind and responded to it positively.
CP: Is it safe to say you're a horror buff?
DM: I am. Honestly, it's probably the genre that I watched the most. When I was a kid, it was definitely all that I would devour. My sister and I, when we were probably way too young to be watching those movies, we would go to the video store and we would just zip right past all the new releases and go right to the horror stuff. We were always looking for the most effed up scary box that we could see. We would always try to sneak that in with the (other) rentals with our parents. I've always loved horror movies. I think that horror movies and comedies, they're engineered the same way. They're definitely made to watch with others. You have to engineer in a way to like know how to pace out. Like with comedy, you can't just fill things full of jokes. You have to pace jokes and know how to hold off on the laugh at one place so that you could score a bigger laugh in another area. Horror works the same way. It's really about that tension and that pacing and being able to just know how to manipulate the audience to feel exactly what you want them to feel. That kind of engineering, as a writer, is just fun. It's challenging. There's a reward when you succeed in that because you get to take people on a roller-coaster ride.
CP: Do you have any personal favorites?
DM: The Shining and Halloween were always my favorites growing up. We didn't have HBO or Cinemax when I was a kid, but I would record movies still. They were just like scrambled signals. I remember one night somehow I had recorded this horror movie called Chopping Mall. All of like six years of me growing up we had this film and it was all scrambled. In some areas the scrambling wasn't too bad, so I would just watch that over and over again. I just loved it. It was just fun.
CP: I can't believe you mentioned Chopping Mall.
DM: (laughs) We need to reboot that.
CP: As someone who grew up in the South, do you feel a responsibility to make sure that Southerners are portrayed well?
DM: I lived in the South. I know what the South is all about. I really don't see a lot of writers in Los Angeles presenting the South in a way that's relatable to what I know. I think it's more interesting to show people a more nuanced South you know? I mean like the South that has tanning salons next to a tae kwon do studio in a shopping center. That's sort of the South that I grew up in. That's not the South I feel like I see a lot of the times in movies and TV. I just feel like it's very outdated and stereotypical. I feel like there's a lot more going on in the South. The South is much more than the stereotype Hollywood would like to paint it.
CP: Your first role was as Bust Ass in All The Real Girls. How'd that come about?
DM: I met David Green in my freshman year at film school. He was my next door neighbor. We were both going there to be directors. We became quick friends. Always helped each other out on our projects and gave each other notes on our scripts. We shared the same sensibility and liked the same type of films. He got the money to make All The Real Girls, at the time I was a camera operator in Los Angeles. I was working on things like "Behind The Music" and History Channel shows. He calls me and says my actor just bailed on me and we start shooting the script in two days and I don't have enough time to cast it and I know you know the script. I had acted a little bit in our student films. I didn't have any training. We would act in our films because we didn't know any actors. I guess he just believed in me enough on what he had seen there to see if I wanted to help him out so I went to Asheville, North Carolina. We shot and showed up. That was the first movie I was ever in. I was just nervous the whole time that I was going to ruin his big opportunity and not really thinking that movie would lead to me doing anything more of that. It's funny how things turned out.
CP: Do you ever find yourself still getting starstruck?
DM: I like to keep things a little bit more low-key. Every once in a while you'll show up at one of those parties you know for the Golden Globes or the Emmys or whatever and me and my wife would always just trip out at the people we'd see. It's just kind of funny. It's like bird watching. 'Oh we just saw a Leonardo DiCaprio sighting!' "Hello, there's George Clooney." It's wild just to be in this career and on every movie you get to meet people that you admire or you've watched their work from afar. You know that's how it was with Bill Murray. I've been a humongous fan of his and then met him on the set of Aloha. That's what's awesome about this job is getting the chance to meet your heroes and work with them.
CP: It's great that Rough House Pictures has set up shop here.
DM: I think this city is really right for it. The city obviously has a good appreciation for the arts. I just think that there's something that's really cool that could happen here. We'd love to write our new HBO show here, so we'd love an opportunity to give locals a chance to get on board with stuff like that and see what it's like to make a show from beginning to end. To see it in the early processes through production through post production. I mean, we really want to make a concerted effort to base all of our operations out of here. Hopefully it will run smoothly.