With breakout performances in three of the funniest movies this summer, including the new 'The Foot Fist Way,' Danny McBride announces himself with a shot to comedy's solar plexus
by alex pappademas
first things first: The Foot Fist Way, in which Danny McBride plays a dim, irascible Tae Kwon Do instructor named Fred Simmons, is really funny. It may be the funniest martial-arts movie about a dim, irascible white guy since Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground. (Here is a quote: “The funniest martial-arts movie since On Deadly Ground!”—GQ.) It’s Napoleon Dynamite with kicking and filthy language. It’s The King of Kong without real people. And it will make McBride, previously best known for his excellent dim-irascible-white-guy performances in less-than-excellent movies like Hot Rod and the Farrelly Brothers’ version of The Heartbreak Kid, into a comedy star.
McBride and his film-school buddy Jody Hill made Foot Fist two years ago, in seventeen days, for less than a hundred grand, with ambitions as modest as their budget. But after the film screened at Sundance, it became the most passed-around Hollywood cult-object since the first South Park short. Judd Apatow became a fan, as did Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen; Patton Oswalt called it “a sui generis work on par with The Big Lebowski”; and Will Ferrell and his Funnyordie.com partner Adam McKay agreed to release Foot Fist through their production company, Gary Sanchez Productions.
Next up for McBride: Total ubiquity. He’s playing an explosives expert in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder and a weed dealer in the Seth Rogen action comedy Pineapple Express, directed by another old college buddy, David Gordon Green, who cast him in All the Real Girls back in 2003. The scene in Pineapple where McBride and Rogen cruise through Los Angeles while heavily armed and bumping Public Enemy—in a Daewoo!—is an instant classic. And he’s calling in today from the set of the big-screen version of Land of the Lost, which also stars Ferrell. The budget reportedly exceeds Foot Fist’s by a factor of one thousand.
How much martial-arts training did The Foot Fist Way require?
There was about a week of martial-arts training involved. I had taken karate when I was a kid, at the Parks & Rec, so I knew the basic principles. But Jody was definitely the one who had the most martial-arts experience. I tried to come in and take classes at the school [where we shot], but I was just a little too lazy, so I was like, “Fuck it—I’m just gonna make Simmons lazy, and have him never actually do any of the moves.” [laughs] But watching the instructors—a lot of times, they wouldn’t even get in there. It was just them running these kids through exercises, y'know? Plus I had a good body double.
You took karate as a kid?
Yeah—I took it for three years, starting in fourth grade. I started making honor roll as soon as I started taking it, so my parents kept me in it, until I got to sixth grade and moved up to the advanced class. Then they started putting me up against these sixteen-year-old kids, who were just monsters. I used to get my ass handed to me. So I quit. That was the end of my karate adventure.
Did you base the Simmons character on any of the guys who’d taught you karate?
I did indeed. I remember the way a lot of these guys held court, and I kinda pulled on that. And in general, on different adult figures I remembered from being a kid in the South—these guys who knew absolutely nothing, and would give these long monologues where they’re teaching you about life, and even as a kid you’re looking at ‘em going, ‘What do you know about any of this?’” [laughs]
“You’re teaching karate at the Park & Rec. Something has gone wrong.”
Everybody’s had a dude like that as a coach, at some point.
Or someone who’s supposed to be a mentor and give you guidance, y'know, and it looks like they could probably use the most mentoring or guidance of everyone in the room.
So you had a body double? Were there injuries sustained on set?
There wasn’t really any blood spilled. The funniest thing was that my body double, Seth Jeremy, was an incredible martial artist. He’s amazing. He was also an instructor at the school. And Ben Best’s body double—I cannot remember what his name is right now—he was a student there. And so during the scene where me and Ben had to fight each other out in the yard, we did a lot of it, then they came in, just so there could be some wider shots with actual real kicks that would get above the waist—we weren’t capable of that. But it was so funny, because my body double was so tough that he would not take the fall. He was just kickin’ the shit out of Ben’s body double. We were like, All right, all right—you gotta lose. But he wouldn’t give it up. He was like, No, fuck that. There’s nothing like the sound of flesh hitting flesh—it sounds so disgusting. We just watched, like, Damn, these guys are really going for it.
You wrote this movie with Jody Hill—you guys went to film school together, right?
Yeah, yeah. We met back in ’95. North Carolina School of the Arts. We lived in the same hall. Jody was my one neighbor, on the one side, and David Gordon Green, the director, was on the other. We used to raise hell. Light the hall on fire and make movies all the time and get drunk. It was an incredible way for my parents to spend money.
Was it a good film school?
Man—and not just because I went there—I think it was an incredible school. It was a conservatory, so you started in film, and from your very first year you were immersed in everything. You learned editing, producing, cinematography, everything, in an environment that I think kinda prepared us for what we were gonna be gettin' in the indie world. Like, “This is what you got, these are the people you got to do it with, you gotta pull it off.” The best thing about it was it’s a state school, so tuition wasn’t an arm and a leg to go there, and then after your second year, you go into like a concentration. And if you get into directing, the school pays for everything you do. You’re actually not allowed to put your own money in. It kinda put all the filmmakers on an even playing field—it’s not like just the rich kids have the best movies. Everyone has the same sort of money and the same sort of equipment and supplies and talent pool, and you just gotta make it work.
Did David Gordon Green make his first movie, George Washington, out of that program?
No. David graduated a year before me and Jody. I used to write with David in school—we’ve been buddies for a long time. He moved up to L.A. right when he got out of school, and basically just wrote George Washington, and came back right when we were getting ready to finish school, and then we shot George Washington in two weeks, right after we graduated. That was pretty incredible, to come out of school and see David just doing it, doing it grass-roots, and actually seeing something happen with it. I think it really jumpstarted everybody else to keep at it. I think it gave a lot of us inspiration as far as making something independent and going for it. It seemed like there could be light at the end of that tunnel, like there could actually be a career after this, maybe.
What made you want to go to film school? Did you always want to direct?
Yeah. I always wanted to write and direct. I took drama in high school, only because it was the closest thing to movies. And of course—like all kids growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, me and my friends had a video camera, and we would blow shit up and film it, on the weekends. We were always running around making films—and we’d just be in ‘em, because obviously at sixteen we didn’t know any real actors. It was the same thing at the film school. I think things have changed there, but at the time, the film school at the School of the Arts was so new—I think we were only like the third class to graduate from the film program—and at that time, the drama students there weren’t encouraged to work with the film students. I think they were afraid that these young directors would kinda ruin what the professors were trying to teach the kids—y'know, with their bad direction. So we just kinda all just showed up in our own student projects, ‘cause we didn’t have anyone to pull from. So I acted more in film school, just acting for buddies, doing whatever. But there was never really any goal to start a career in acting. It was just to get the job done.
So you didn’t really have a comedy background.
All the films I’d done at school, and all the stuff I’d done when I was younger, was all comedy. But the stuff I would write would be anywhere from, like, horror to action. I was just a fan of movies in general, so I was always trying to write the next summer blockbuster or whatever.
When you’re sixteen, you’re always Steven Spielberg in your mind.
So All The Real Girls, which David Gordon Green directed, was your first real movie.
That was the first real movie, yeah. Because the actor they had playing Bust-Ass, his show got picked up, and so he had to drop out of the movie just days before they had to start using him. So David was kind of in a pinch. I was out here in Los Angeles, shooting motion-control stuff for, like, the History Channel and Behind the Music. I’d gotten a 9-to-5 job after waitin’ tables and P.A.’ing for a while. I’d finally got to where I was getting steady paychecks, and then David called and asked if I could come down there. And I was like, “Shit, I can’t leave my buddy hangin’, but this 9-to-5 job with benefits seems so appealing.” But I quit that shit and just went down there and made the movie. I was just kinda surprised he’d asked me to do it, and I was really hoping I wasn’t gonna be the weak link and blow his big shot at making a movie with a decent budget. It was like, “Huh, okay—this could really end the friendship if it doesn’t go too good.”
Was a lot of your stuff in that movie improvised?
Well, y'know—I guess people will realize after they see Pineapple Express, but all of David’s films in college were fuckin’ hilarious. He really set the bar for comedy at our school. He was just doing shit that was real and funny and completely from left field. And so with that character, he had some pretty weird quirks and things written in there already, and I just kinda played with some of it. So about half of it was improv, and half of it was the weird things David already had in his head about where he wanted this character to go.
There’s that whole conversation about how Bust-Ass plays lap steel…
That was written, the lap steel! The stuff about pancakes was improv, but the lap steel—but it’s the little details, y'know? I just pulled ‘em out of my ass.
Was Foot Fist Way supposed to be a calling-card movie for you and Jody?
No, it really wasn’t. It really turned out that way, which is incredible, and I’m surprised that we weren’t smart enough to think about that from the beginning. I had just sold a screenplay, so I had a little bit of walking-around money, and was able to quit my job. So I was basically just spending all my money and being dumb. And Jody was kind of sick of the job he’d been working at. So he said, y'know, “Let’s go make a movie in North Carolina.” And it was one of those things where I really had nothing better to do, and I wanted to be there for him and help him out. And once again, it was that situation like, “Shit, he wants me to be the lead, this is all of his and his parents’ money, I could fuckin’ ruin this.” But we went down there, and literally, like—I don’t know if we had been really nice to people for years before, and had some karma built up, but everything just went so smooth, it was insane. For a movie that had no money. We shot the whole thing in like seventeen days, and really just ran into no problems. We had an amazing crew that was all kids from School of the Arts, kinda fulfilling their internship credit, and some old classmates, and the cast were all locals, and everything just fell right into place. We just had a really good time making it. It was nice. It was a really cool experience.
What was the job that Jody had been doing?
Jody is, like, embarrassed of this for some reason, so he’ll probably get mad if I tell you, but I think he should be outed, because I’ve always thought this was cool. He was a story editor for Real World/Road Rules Challenge. And in spite of what he thinks about the show, or what he did, I can completely see how it helped sculpt him. Because he’s not afraid of tons of footage, tons of improv. His eyes and ears are trained to pick out the bites that work and the jokes that work. We would improv so much on Foot Fist—every single take was completely different—and Jody just had this knack for retaining everything we were doing, and knowing what to go to in the editing room, and sifting through all of these hours and hours of footage…
A lot of which is probably pretty boring…
Not unlike the stuff we were giving him! [laughs]
How much did the movie actually cost to make?
We got it in the can for under a hundred thousand, I think. We didn’t have enough money to have dailies or any of that kind of stuff, so we didn’t see any of the footage until we got back to Los Angeles when we were done shooting. And then we didn’t have any money to pay people to make this a priority, so our cinematographer, Brian Mandle, was syncing dailies, and then two of our buddies, Zene Baker and Jeff Seibenick, were also editors on it, and some other guys we went to school with were kind of coming in whenever they could, and trying to put it together. We had about three weeks before the Sundance deadline. Our goal was always to shoot the film and try to get it into Sundance. And by the end of the three weeks, we had a really shitty cut of the movie. It was over two hours long, and there was no sound mix, and no score. It was one of those things that we had just pushed through to get it done, and when it was done, we were like, “Well, this isn’t really that good, but we’ll just turn it in, because we said we were going to.” And everyone was kind of burnt out on it, too, because no one had really been working other jobs, and the bills were piling up, and it was time to kind of go back into real life. So we turned the movie in, and kinda went our own way. We were planning on getting back to it the next year. And then, like a month later, we got a phone call from Sundance that it had been accepted into Sundance Midnight Screenings. And we were like, “Shit—how long do we have to get this thing finished now?” Because we had stopped working on it. But everyone really kinda ponied up and came together, and we worked on the movie around the clock for the next three-and-a-half weeks, and Ben Best and his band Pyramid scored the whole movie-- they put that score together in a week. It was just crazy. We pulled in all of our talented friends to come in and help us out.
Was Sundance where the buzz started, for lack of a less-lame term?
Y'know—I guess so. We just knew that there were more people who wanted to take meetings with us. People were popping up everywhere who’d seen the movie, which was weird. I guess copies of it were floatin’ around. And CAA, they were interested in the film and really liked it a lot, and so we signed up with those guys, and they were instrumental in getting it out to people. And before we knew it—I lived in Virginia at the time, and I would come out here to Los Angeles, and it was just crazy. Two or three weeks after Sundance, I came out here, and CAA had all these meetings set up for me. Like, Judd Apatow? All these people. Like, What? And then we’d go to the meetings, and everyone had seen the movie and dug it. We were just surprised. We really couldn’t believe that people we’d respected and looked up to all this time had 1, seen our movie, and 2, actually liked it. It just blew us away.
It sounds almost like how South Park first happened, when that short they made as a Christmas card became this cult thing that got passed around.
Exactly. And that was crazy, because—it’ll be cool for this movie to have a release and be out, but when we were shooting it, we really were like, “Y'know, worst-case scenario, this is just something that some stoned college kids will pull out every now and again and watch in their dorm rooms. That’d be okay with us.” ‘Cause we had our movies like that, when we were in college, that we did the same thing with. We just wanted to put our hat in that arena. So the fact that it got passed around and had this kind of cult appeal to it, for us, was super-fulfilling. And now the fact that it’s actually gonna see a release—we’re just over the moon about it.
What were some of the movies you used to pull out?
God—we lived with such a cross-section of people at the film school and everyone would kinda bring their own thing. Like, one of my guys, one of my buddies, would bring out Stalker, that Tarkovsky film. That was his let’s-get-lit-and-watch-this movie. And everything from Dumb and Dumber to, of course, the classics—like Animal House, Caddyshack, Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman. All that kind of stuff. The old John Hughes comedies. That stuff was all just devoured on a daily basis there.
I imagine when you’re in film school and you spend your whole day thinking seriously about filmmaking, you don’t necessarily want to unwind with Bergman movies at the end of the day.
Exactly. That was what was really awesome about our group of guys. There was never any weird competition or anything like that. There was just this group that we rolled with, and no one was looked down upon, and I think that kinda helped create the atmosphere for us to be able to look at these sort of comedies, and figure out a way to develop our in those areas. No one was being pretentious and looking down on you for watching Spinal Tap instead of watching Citizen Kane for the 20th time.
Do you think that had something to do with being where you were, in North Carolina, as opposed to a place like USC, where the industry is basically just a few freeway exits away?
Yeah. You’re at a state school, in North Carolina, so you had a big cross-section of people. Housewives who wanted to finally finish school. There were only a few guys, like me and Jody, that were right out of high school and had never been to college before this. A lot of people had kinda transferred in. But the deal with the school was it was a four year program. Once you came in, even if you’d been to college before, you had to go for four years to graduate. And they just basically put a bunch of different people all in the same room. Plus the film school was so new—even the faculty didn’t have the curriculum down pat yet. We had a lot of freedom. We could be like, “Yeah, we need the grip truck, and the dolly, and these Ari 16 cameras for the weekend, to do a project.” And then we’d just end up filming ourselves partying at our house the whole time.
In a way, Foot Fist kind of led to David Gordon Green directing you and Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express, right?
Well, y'know, we hit it off with Judd’s crew. The first time I met all those guys—they had invited me to come to the set of Knocked Up, and I was geeking out pretty hardcore, because I was a huge fan of Freaks & Geeks, and I loved Undeclared. I had been following Judd’s career since, like, The Cable Guy. I’d been into his sort of comedy, and what he was aiming for. So that was pretty amazing, to be able to go hang out on the set there. And then I met Seth and all those guys, and they all loved the film. I couldn’t believe that. We just got along, we gelled. They were just like any of my other buddies. So we were all just kinda swapping ideas and bullshittin’, and we were tellin’ em about David, how his stuff at school was so funny, and I think it just started to kinda open their eyes to him. And once you meet David, you can definitely see why that guy is a natural-born comedian. They just trusted him. It’s like what they did with Superbad, when they got Greg Mottola, who’s just an incredible director. I think they wanted to do something similar, and take a chance, and give an opportunity to somebody that, most of the time, probably wouldn’t be trusted with as much. I think it speaks for the movie—that movie couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It’s just insane to have that sort of protection that Judd offered David, and I think it really created a pretty memorable, unique, amazing movie.
Is the Apatow crew’s way of working, which seems to involve a lot of improvisation, similar to David’s approach?
Judd’s been in the trenches. He’s been there for defeats and victories. When you’re dealing with comedy, and you’re sitting in a room, and the script you wrote is being developed by committee, it’s so hard to get anything funny through, and I think Judd completely gets why that’s a problem with comedies. So that was the thing that was incredible about Pineapple. Judd’s smart enough to hire funny people who he really believes in and then give them room to do their dance, to do what they do. And I think that’s how you get these unique comedies, that’s how you get these comedies that have this voice that you’re not used to seeing-- because the people that are making the films are actually able to make the film they want to make, and not the film that a committee of 16 development execs thinks should be made.
You get to die like four times Pineapple Express.
Which is great. I never had died before. That was awesome.
Did it make you less afraid of actually dying?
I’m ready for it. I know what kind of face to put on, and how I want to double over. I got it.
So you’re doing the Land of the Lost movie with Will Ferrell right now.
Right now. Literally, right before I got on the phone with you, I was just being chased by an army of Sleestaks. They’re just as scary as you remember ‘em.
Yeah-- I was going to ask what they’re like to work with.
Y'know, there’s something about the image of a Sleestak that just triggers this infant fear in the back of your mind. Just, like, “Oh, God—I remember being scared shitless of these things. And now here I am, standing next to one.”
That show was creepy as hell, even with the cheesy special effects.
It’s still scary. I’ve been devouring the episodes, just to consume this Land of the Lost world, and it freaks me out, it does. It’s pretty scary still. [laughs]
Have you doubled the effects budget to like, $80?
We have, we have. They were working with $42, and they’ve gone up to $67, which is cool. Which is almost double.
In a big, complicated movie like this, do you still get the latitude to pop off and say something funny?
That’s the thing that interested me the most about trying this project out. That was one of the initial things Brad Silberling, the director, said he wanted to do with this—he wanted to do a huge, big-budget special-effects bonanza without the restraints that a movie like that usually has. Since it’s a comedy, he wanted to give the people that he’s hired a chance to kinda go off script and do stuff. I was like, “Wow, I can’t really think of a movie that has that sort of improv feel along with huge special effects.” It just seemed like something cool to be a part of. There’s definitely different constrictions. You can’t just do typical coverage, like, “Oh, we can just put together the best bits of whatever,” because there’s actual, like, T-Rexes in shots. And those guys are so fucking moody! So we stay on script a lot, but there’s definitely been a lot of room to play around. Which has been cool. Will’s a blast to do that with. And Anna Friel, the actress from Pushing Daisies, she’s the girl in it, and she’s fucking great. So it’s just been a good time so far.
Will’s production company is releasing Foot Fist Way, right?
Yeah. Adam McKay and Will, they started Gary Sanchez Productions, and they got ahold of the film, and I guess it kinda fit into what they wanted to do. They wanted to use Gary Sanchez for their projects, but also to kinda break new talent, or put projects out there that normally wouldn’t get that Will-and-Adam sort of exposure. We were just luckier than shit. They saw the movie and dug it, and we’re huge fans of theirs, so it just worked out that we would be one of the first films on their slate.
It seems like the kind of thing Ferrell would be into—Fred has a lot of qualities in common with the characters he likes to play. That ridiculous strutting manliness...
…combined with no self-awareness.
And you’ve got an HBO show on deck, too, right?
Yeah. After we met with Adam and Will and kinda got the ball rolling with Foot Fist, they were curious about what other stuff we were interested in doing. One of the big influences on us is British comedy—we’re big fans of British comedy, everything from The Office to Spaced to Alan Partridge. We thought it would be awesome to do something like that, where you don’t have this humongous order of episodes, and you can just come in and just kill it each episode and then be done with the season, and maybe you just do it for one or two seasons, and that’s it. And we had this idea about this baseball pitcher that kinda falls on hard times. And they liked the idea, and we pitched it to HBO, and HBO dug it, and they were into the idea of doing a small number of episodes, so that it wouldn’t become a formula and we could kinda keep it fresh. We shot the pilot last summer, and then right we started writing, the writers’ strike happened, and we had to put out pencils down, so everything kinda got pushed, and then Land of the Lost came so it got pushed even more, but we’re back on track for writing this summer, and we’re gonna go back down to Wilmington, North Carolina, and we’re gonna shoot it this fall.
The character’s sort of in the same vein as a lot of the guys you’ve played in movies recently—he’s a Southerner who’s not a particularly great guy.
Exactly. That’s one of the things that really interests us now— just kinda playing with the idea of these heroes you’re supposed to follow, and those kinds of stories. I think the archetype has always been that the hero’s this guy who’s essentially good and doesn’t have a lot of flaws, and everyone can get behind him, he doesn’t offend anyone. And we just instinctually try to push that aside. It’s like, “How fucked up can we make this guy and still keep people on board?” You can present a character that people normally would have nothing to do with, and you figure out a way to make them empathize with him and kinda go on a journey with him. I don’t know—it just seems interesting to try to help people see the truth, even in an asshole.
How’s your haircut gonna be in Land of the Lost?
Y'know, it’s crazy—this is the first time I’ve been able to have my normal haircut. I always have buzz cuts, or mullets, or lines shaved in my head, something really disgusting. My fiancée just hates it, because every time I come back from my first day on a movie, she just looks at me like, “Oh, Jesus Christ, I have to sleep in a bed with this guy.”
You’re finding these weird regional variations on the mullet.
I’m just there with my fingers crossed, like, “Please, don’t say I need a mullet for this. Please don’t say I need a mullet for this.” And they’re like, “Well, you don’t need a mullet. But what if…”