For Eastbound & Down fans, February 19 is a bittersweet occasion—the date the third season of the show premieres on HBO. But Eastbound creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill have also said that the third season will be the last—an arc that was intended from the start of the project. Since the show debuted in 2009, McBride has gone on to star in and write an array of feature projects including Up In The Air and Your Highness. He’s also cofounded his own production company, Rough House Pictures, in partnership with longtime collaborators Hill and David Gordon Green and provided the voice for portly sex ed teacher Ms. Teets in Green’s animated series Good Vibes.
And then there was that less expected project—he starred, as Kenny Powers, in an ad campaign for K-Swiss shoes. The ads, created by agency 72AndSunny, presented Powers, in all his unedited, anti-aspirational glory as, first, K-Swiss spokesman and later, in the second round of the campaign, the company’s CEO. The third installment of the campaign will air in March.
As McBride heads into season three of Eastbound, he’s heading into a whole new personal and professional phase, developing a raft of new projects out of Rough House, including the feature Bullies, based on an idea he wrote, and taking on the role of new father, IRL and in Eastbound. Here, McBride talks about his ad career, season three of Eastbound and his creative collaboration with Hill, which dates back to their days as film students (with Green) at University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts.
Co.Create: Let’s talk about the K-Swiss campaign. After the first round of the campaign, was it clear that the next installment would have Kenny Powers as CEO?
McBride: I’m not sure when they came up with that concept. Jody and I had never done anything in that world, dealing with an ad campaign. We had never done anything with that character outside of the show before so we were really not sure what we were getting into when we signed up for it. But the material was really funny; we thought it was an innovative way to sell a product—hiring a spokesman who doesn’t really know anything about the product and doesn’t communicate how most spokesmen would communicate. So we had a good time with the first one but we weren’t sure if we were ever going to do a second batch of them or not. When they came back to us and said they wanted to do more, we just thought, we trusted their taste and what they had come up with so we just sat back and waited to see what the next take on it would be. And when it came time to do the commercials again they wanted to make Kenny Powers the CEO and we thought it was a funny way to continue the story of what we’d set up originally.
How does the process work in terms of doing the K-Swiss spots? The agency writes the scripts and you guys improvise?
It’s the same way we sort of work on the show. We’ll work hard on the scripts and make sure that everything is there on the page. We’ll do a few takes of what’s on the page and then we’ll kind of throw the script out and just sort of run with it. We do that on the show and we let (K-Swiss) know that it was important for us to be able to do that in these ads. And I think a lot of the funniest jokes come from that sort of riffing. There are things in the script where I’m giving the explanation of why the shoe is good; like why the shoe is good for an athlete and what kind of support it provides, etc. When we’d get into the improv I couldn’t’ really remember what any of those specifics were. So you’d end up with me saying, like, "The shoe is good in the upper mesh part where the lace parts go." Sort of a rambling, nonsensical way of explaining why the shoe is good. That kind of stuff worked really well and that was stuff we found on the day.
It’s a risky thing to do. What was it about the project or the team’s approach that made you feel it was okay to do this—what let you know it was probably going to work?
We didn’t have any idea how it would turn out because we couldn’t think of any other examples of people who had done this before where there was a fictional character in an ongoing TV show who was suddenly selling in ads. And for us we’re still creating the show so we didn’t want to look like we were selling out this character or doing anything that would tarnish what we were trying to work so hard for in the TV series. K-Swiss basically told us we could have creative control over these ads. We could approve everything that went in and we could have final cut on the ads to kind of give us that level of comfort to know that our baby, Eastbound, wouldn’t get tarnished by exploring and branching out and doing this. I think that’s what gave us the confidence to get behind this because we were like, well if we can have the same sort of freedom we have on the TV show there’s not really any reason why we can’t make these commercials. And that was our leap of faith. So we kind of just went for it and we had a blast shooting the commercials. You kind of can tell when you’re on the set and you’re having a good time and it genuinely feels funny when you get those first cuts. To us it felt like we were doing something a bit different and off kilter and it just seemed like it was a sort of a fit.
So is season three actually the last season of Eastbound?
Yeah. When Jody and I created the show we just basically wanted to make a really long mini-series, to figure out a way to tell a long comedic story. We knew we’d never get anyone to approve doing a comedic trilogy in theaters so we said, let’s make this a TV show and each season can be a sort of long movie. So, in our heads we had always imagined it being a three-season arc and it’s something with each season we never knew if we’d have the opportunity to complete what the original goal was. We didn’t know after the first season if we’d be able to complete the other two acts. After we did the first season they greenlit us for a second season and then the idea was, this is crazy we might actually be able to achieve what we’re trying to do. So going into the third season, yes, we definitely approached it as trying to fulfill what our initial vision for Eastbound was which was to complete Kenny Powers’ story in three acts.
You knew how the story was going to play out over those three acts, but did that story evolve at all during the process of writing and shooting each season?
What evolved were the arcs of some of the secondary characters. But Kenny Powers’ arc we’re completing exactly the way we had always imagined it. Some of the details along the way and the supporting characters—some of those roles have become richer and we kind of found we dipped and dived here and there and found things we didn’t anticipate. For Steve Little’s character we didn’t really know how that would play out—we almost thought that he’d just be a character in the first act in the first season in Kenny’s school. We had such a good time working with Steve Little and we found an organic way to incorporate him into the rest of the series. That was an unexpected story arc that we didn’t know would carry through the whole way but it’s one of my favorite story arcs of the whole show.
I’m guessing you’re not going to tell me what can we expect in season three…
Well, this season picks up where we left off last season—Kenny Powers is in Myrtle Beach and he has one more shot at actually getting back to the majors. And really this season is about him balancing his hunt for his ultimate goal and also this new responsibility of being a father. And in typical Kenny Powers fashion, he handles both of them terribly.
Timing wise, it didn’t work out in terms of your bringing your wisdom as a brand-new father to Kenny’s role as a father?
No. And now that I am a dad—my son just turned three months—I’m really glad we wrote this show before I had a kid because I don’t think my conscience would have allowed me to do as much fucked-up stuff as we’ve done with this kid (laughs uproariously).
It seems as though we hear that Kenny Powers voice in so many places now—it has seeped into culture. Do you hear it?
I hear it sometimes but I think to an extent we were just channeling what we were already hearing, how we were hearing people talk off the cuff. And that’s kind of what we were doing with Kenny to begin with—we were creating this character and making him sound like how a lot of the people at my local bar sound when I overhear their conversations. It’s sort of this way of speaking; not putting sentences together properly, throwing all these uneducated statements out and then acting like you’re an expert on everything, and to us it was like it was sort of an attitude of what we felt was out there in America right now and we were channeling that. I do think that voice has definitely spread but I don’t think we were the ones responsible for it; I think we were putting a magnifying glass on what we were kind of seeing out there anyway.
You’ve said before that you wanted to be sure and keep the team small on Eastbound so you could be involved in every facet of the story. Is it still the same small team?
It is. We expanded some this year—we had two writers last season who helped us out and this year we expanded to three writers. But Jody and I, we write every single script and we break up the different writers and they work with us on the scripts as well. But for the piece to feel like it’s whole and for every episode to feel like it’s telling the story it was important for me and Jody to write each episode so it doesn’t play out like something that’s episodic but every single episode pushes the story along and it’s continuing the story. I think if you separate that work out to different writers I feel like it could get lost a little bit and the threads could be a little thinner. And this way we’re really able to continue the story and push it because we write this as if it is one long script. So this season was basically like writing a 250-page screenplay and we kind of find where the act breaks are and where we want to separate those episodes up.
How do you and Jody work together? You’ve worked together so long—is it a complete-each-others-sentences scenario or do you come at things differently?
We don’t come at things differently but I think when Jody and I write together we definitely write something different than what each of us writes on our own. And I think because we’ve collaborated so much we kind of know what that tone is that we get when we’re together. So I think as the years go on it’s not so much we complete each other’s sentences but we both have a strong image of what we’re aiming for and both of us are on the same page in terms of what we want to ultimately do with this story and with the tone. We never get into big creative arguments or anything because you know arguing over jokes is kind of pointless because we shoot so many variations on jokes that it’s really as long as everyone is on the same page about what the story arc should be and what the character should be and what the tone should be those are the biggest things. And then every different head is there to throw out different options and you sort out the different pieces once you get to editing.
So the idea for the film Bullies was yours. Where did that come from and what’s it about?
It was an idea that I had that just came from seeing all these things in the headlines about bullies and how bullying has become such a thing where it’s in the forefront and you see the kind of trouble that it causes. It was just an idea where it would be interesting to see what happens to these people who make a young kid’s life miserable in high school. Like what happens when you catch up with those guys 15 years later—are they still doing that to people; have they learned their lesson? That was where the initial idea sprang from was just looking at these assholes in high school who pick on the gay kid or pick on the fat kid and what happens to not the gay kid but to the asshole who’s been picking on them. Where does that mentality land someone?
And what happens? Do they stay villains?
I think it’s a lot of the type of stuff we do with Eastbound as well where we enjoy playing in that gray area where you take someone who is detestable and who you don’t agree with and you try to find some sort of universal understanding even if you don’t agree with what they do then at least maybe you can understand where they come from. So many of the characters we deal with, whether it’s Kenny Powers or the characters in Bullies, everything comes down to these are just people who want to find their place in the world, they want to be seen the way they feel they should be seen and they want to find acceptance and love in people but they find all the wrong ways in which to gain that. And that’s kind of the idea we think is interesting.
Why were you interested in doing an animated series—Good Vibes. What do you feel you could do there that you were interested in doing?
That was David Green’s project; it was something he was doing and he came to me and said we have this role we’d love for you to play on the show and I hadn’t read any of the scripts or anything at that point. And he showed me a still of Ms. Teets. And you know, I don’t think in the real world I’d be able to play a 500-pound lesbian sex ed teacher. That’s what animation allows you to do—you can break out of any physical or sexual limitations you may have and lend your voice to bring another character to life
Will you develop more animated projects via your own company?
We are definitely trying to develop a few more. We have a few things we’re trying to get moving now and we’ll see how it all shakes out. It’s definitely a realm I think is interesting. In TV one of the things we run up against with Eastbound and we try to move as much as we can is bringing a scope and bringing a scale and being able to let your imagination run free on a limited budget. And that’s one thing that’s cool about animation is you can let your imagination run free because you don’t have to physically shoot this stuff, and that’s appealing. It’s fun as a writer to be able to write in that capacity where you don’t have to be beaten down so much by budgetary constraints.
I’m sure you get a strong reaction from people to Kenny Powers just in general. But did people react to the commercials that Kenny did, specifically?
Weirdly enough, I think the commercials exposed a lot of people to Kenny Powers who didn’t know who he was. I would start getting things from people I went to high school with who were like, "Oh, I saw the commercials you did for K-Swiss" and they had no clue what Eastbound & Down was. So it ended up being a cool way to get that character out there for people who maybe hadn’t heard about the show or don’t have HBO. If even one or two people watch those ads and it makes them get into the TV show then the ads are doing kind of exactly what Jody and I hoped they would do.