A serious path to funny

Trio seizes on demand for levity

David Gordon Green calls his next movie, the genre-bending musical adventure “Your Highness,” “a filthy, R-rated ‘Princess Bride.’?” Coming off last year’s “Pineapple Express,” an R-rated, action-filled stoner comedy, you start to wonder if this is actually the same person who first became a critical darling with a string of very different leisurely arthouse pics, including “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls.”

“In film school, I got typecast among my friends as the guy who was always making ridiculous and absurd comedic stuff, so I think it was actually shocking for them when I started making dramatic indie movies,” says Green. “I look at my process as like a band of filmmakers.” In fact, Green and his cohorts — fellow North Carolina School of the Arts grads Danny McBride and Jody Hill — represent a new generation of comedy talent that’s younger (and considerably less expensive) than the Will Ferrells and Adam Sandlers in the field. The trio’s lives have been creatively intertwined ever since they lived in the same dorm, and now includes a two-year, first-look deal between their Rough House shingle and Mandate Pictures that was signed in December.

Among the Rough House projects Green is eyeing to direct are “The Sitter” (a Jonah Hill vehicle in which a straightforward babysitting assignment is complicated by drug deals and other outrageous interruptions), “Suspiria” (a remake of Dario Argento’s stylized Italian horror film) and “Taking Flight: The Hunt for a Young Outlaw” (about Washington state’s elusive juvenile criminal, dubbed “the Barefoot Burglar” in the press).

Still, Green doesn’t think of his films as traditional punchline-driven comedies, preferring to tackle projects that defy easy categorization.

“I always wanted to do comedic and popular movies, and after making four movies that nobody would go to the theater to see, it was hard to find financing for the strange and obscure little dramatic ideas that I have,” Green says. “Rough House represents a time in our lives when people pay us to do weird shit.

“I think what I can offer the comedy world right now is some gravity. The idea is to take a story and give it dramatic stakes, give it characters that you believe and have significant emotional journeys on top of making you laugh along the way,” he says.

Mandate prexy Nathan Kahane, who brokered a deal similar to the company’s partnership with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House horror shingle, liked the fact that the trio were all filmmakers first and had already started to develop a network of writers, actors and other creative collaborators. Green had produced Craig Zobel’s “Great World of Sound” and Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories,” and they had all been friends with helmer Ramin Bahrani since his days working as a lowly college equipment checkout clerk.

Kahane was also intrigued by the group’s Southern sensibility. “There’s something about the South that tends to be misrepresented in Hollywood,” he explains. “But these guys, they’re all liberal intellectuals who happen to be from the South, and there’s a wickedness to the way their intelligence melds with the fun of the redneck world.”

That twisted mix dates back to Green’s student work — including such eccentric projects as “A.I.: Artificial Insemination,” a tongue-in-cheek documentary about man’s role in modern cattle reproduction rites, and “A Biography of Barrels,” a comedy-Western about three guys who try to kill a horse but are instead captured by a Mexican family and turned into human pinatas — and carries over to Hill and McBride’s cult HBO series “Eastbound and Down.”

Hill and McBride say that comedy has always come naturally to the director. McBride says he recognized it the moment he saw Green’s student film, “Will You Lather Up My Rough House?” in which the inventor of soap tries to talk his skeptical roommate into taking a bath together so they can sample his sudsy new creation.

“Being at a film school in North Carolina, you were very far from Hollywood, so we graduated with a really tight group of people,” explains McBride, who had been out of school only two days when Green enlisted him to direct second unit on “George Washington.” That pic may have earned Green the chance to work with producer-director Terrence Malick (whose “Badlands” the director cites as a major influence on his aesthetic) — but he has his buddies to thank for opening the door to Judd Apatow.

McBride and Hill had gone off and made a little comedy called “The Foot Fist Way” about a karate teacher with anger-management issues. That film landed McBride a visit to the set of “Knocked Up,” where he and the director talked of upcoming projects. Apa-tow asked McBride to appear in “Pineapple Express,” and the actor (who’d studied directing at NCSA and only started performing out of necessity) recommended Green to direct.

With its genre-busting mix of ’80s-style action, off-the-wall comedy and sincere character moments, “Pineapple Express” was not only a return to form for Green but also just the change he needed after a dead-of-winter stint shooting the deadly serious “Snow Angels” in Nova Scotia.

“They don’t want to be conventional, they want to do stuff that’s ballsy and takes risks — that’s the one common denominator of all three,” explains Rough House partner Matt Reilly, a former Warner Bros. production exec who, as Green puts it, “came over to discipline our crazy asses.”

“Most comedies aren’t going to be around in 20 years, and we all try to have some type of timeless quality to our films,” explains Hill, who’s first at bat in the Mandate deal, with plans to direct McBride in action-comedy “L.A.P.I.” after they wrap the second season of “Eastbound and Down.”

“At the end of the day, they have a business model that demands studio fare,” Reilly explains. “It goes back to that fine line of marrying the renegade provocative nature of our sensibility with the elements that make up a studio movie, which is concept and movie stars and action.”

As McBride tells it, “Even when David and I went to shoot ‘Your Highness,’ we thought, ‘Who knows if this movie’s going to work, but it’s going to be a beautiful swan song if it doesn’t.’ Making the easy choice is just not very interesting to us right now.”

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