HBO’s new comedy series “Vice Principals” is a strange beast. Created by the “Eastbound and Down” team of director Jody Hill and star Danny McBride, the 18-episode series explores the uncomfortable alliance between two rival vice principals (McBride and “Justified” veteran Walton Goggins) as they team up to take down the school’s new principal (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).
The cabler launches the first batch of nine episodes on July 17, following the second season premiere of Dwayne Johnson’s “Ballers,” and we’ll presumably see the next nine in 2017. And then that’s it. End of story. It’s a model more common to limited series, or certain British shows (“The Office” comes to mind), and all but unheard of in U.S. television.
Variety spoke with McBride about the unusual format of the show, his standout co-stars (including a Bill Murray cameo in the premiere episode), and making his directorial debut.
I understand you originally conceived “Vice Principals” as a feature, but where did the idea come from?
It was floating around my head — the idea of these administrators at a high school battling for power seemed like a funny scenario for a power struggle. It was that kernel of an idea; I told Jody about it and he came to Virginia. We holed up for a week and pounded out the feature-length version of it. We really liked it, we liked the characters, but there was something about it unfolding in 90 minutes that didn’t feel original enough, you could see some of the punches coming. We didn’t really know how to correct that and we put it away.
After we finished “Eastbound” and thought about what was next, we really loved working with HBO and loved the idea of telling a longer story… We couldn’t get a nine hour movie greenlit, so this was a way to tell a nine hour story. Once we started to expand the feature into an 18 episode arc it started to really come alive. The show could take unexpected turns and follow detours for different characters, and see a story in a way you couldn’t have done with a feature.
“Vice Principals” was officially ordered by HBO over two years ago. Was it a long process to make?
We ended “Eastbound” in 2013 and we spent all of 2014 writing [“Vice Principals”]. We had a writers room open for a year and we wrote all 18 episodes before we shot. And then we spent all of last year shooting it all. We actually delivered the last episode of the whole series to HBO last week. For the first time I’m not thinking about vice principals fighting for a principal job anymore.
Did you pitch it as an 18-episode project? How did HBO react?
I thought it would be a hard sell for them because obviously if the show worked you would think they’d want it to keep going. But they liked the approach of, “let’s give people a story that has a confident beginning, middle and end.” We’re not trying to drag out plot points and story points in the hope we can drag this out for season after season. This is one school year. The first nine [episodes] are fall term and the back nine are spring term. It gave an immediacy to the storytelling, you could set things up and pay things off without having to drag out the narrative.
Was the plan always to split it into two seasons?
We followed the idea of a semester in a school. You’ve got two semesters and that seemed like a cool way to tell the story. It’ll make a little more sense once you’ve seen the whole thing but it is like two acts of the full story.
You’ve got Bill Murray in the premiere, did that take any convincing?
I’d met Bill, I’ve done two movies with him and became buds with him. When we scouted Charleston, South Carolina for shooting, Jody and I were on the plane flying back to Los Angeles and when I sat down someone said our names. I turned around and it was Bill. For the whole flight he talked us into shooting in Charleston, telling us how great the restaurants are, how awesome the city is. So when we decided to shoot there, we said, “He talked us into coming here, the least we can do is talk him into showing up on the show.” I sent him an email asking if he’d be interested in checking out [the script], and he wrote back in a very Bill Murray fashion, “I would be very interested in checking this out. Please deliver a hard copy to the [Charleston] RiverDogs baseball game tomorrow night. I will leave six tickets at the box office for you.” So we went to the game and brought the script. He took it off our hands and the next day he sent an email saying he “would be honored to play Principal What’s-His-Name.” [Laughs.]
Two things that were very cool — the script we sent him was watermarked with his name and he went through the whole script and made these little notes and stuff. They weren’t story notes, it was more like “in the delivery of this line I would move the name to here.” It was a cool insight into how his delivery works, and how he words things. I still look at it and think, “That’s interesting how he moved the verb there and that line lands in a different way.” It was really cool. His only note that he had about his character was he wanted the dying wife to be with him on stage at the assembly. That was his idea. [Laughs.]
Did you have Walton Goggins in mind for his role? It doesn’t feel like anyone else could play it.
We didn’t. When we wrote this, I really feel like Lee Russell is one of the best characters we’ve written. Where this character goes over the course of the series — there’s lots of ups and downs and unexpected turns. He was a very complicated character to cast for, because it couldn’t just be a comedian, it wouldn’t be dangerous enough. It had to be somebody with some dramatic gravity, but at the same time they had to have comedic chops. That’s just a hard ticket to fill. There’s not a lot of guys who can do both. We were stuck for awhile.
David Green and I were brainstorming one day, thinking “Who are our favorite actors? Who are the dangerous guys out there?” We stumbled upon Walton Goggins’ name, and thought he would be awesome if we could get him. He was shooting “Django” when I was doing “This Is the End” so I had hung out with him. We called him up and at that point we had almost the whole first season finished. We sent him all the scripts and he called me back the next day. When I answered the phone he instantly started talking to me like Lee Russell. He got the material and got the character without even speaking to us. We spent the next 30 minutes laughing our asses off and he agreed to do it.
He’s honestly one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked with. I think he’s such a kind person and so funny, he makes me laugh. I’ve been in movies with heavy hitter comedians and it was easier to not laugh in front of them than it is with Walton. He always cracks me up.
He makes Lee a completely unique character — how much did he bring to it and how much was on the page?
It was in the script, but when people would audition they would push that character too far where he was a cartoon character. Walton and I talked about a certain type of mannered man in the South who is very delicate and very specific with how they speak and present themselves. Walton had grown up with guys like that, as did I. These proper Southern gentlemen who wear bow-ties. That seemed like the type of character to hide a diabolical bastard. He got that.
Kimberly Hebert Gregory is a real discovery. How did you find her?
She’s amazing. She was literally the last person who auditioned on the last day casting was open on the show. That role was very difficult, once again it’s another main element of the storyline and it had to be someone who felt real, had gravity, but had comedic swing. She’s incredible and so amazing to work with. We had seen so many people and we weren’t sold on anybody. When she came in we were already burnt out on hearing the scenes read again, but she came in and started delivering her first scene and we all looked up like, “It’s her. We found her.”
In comedy it’s easy for characters to stay relatively static, but these characters are very dynamic. We keep finding out more and more about them with each episode. How much of that comes from originally writing this as a feature but then expanding it for television?
That’s 100% the fact that it’s television, and the fact that you’re given a canvas that’s larger than a hour and half. To me it feels like we’re writing a novel or something, and with each chapter you have a chance to expose more, suddenly switch points of view and all of a sudden you’re following another character you hadn’t seen a deeper side to or had only seen from another character’s point of view. I think it makes the storytelling more fun and as a viewer it keeps you on your toes. You’re not really sure who you’re rooting for or what you want to have happen.
You directed episode three and that’s the first time you’ve directed, right?
I did. There’s one episode in Season 1 and one in Season 2. I went to film school for directing [at University of North Carolina School of the Arts], that’s how I met Jody and David. That was where I always saw my career going, so the fact that I became an actor ended up derailing any of those dreams. [Laughs.] It’s nice to be able to step into that. I was going to direct episodes on “Eastbound,” but to be honest it was just such a collaboration with Jody and David and if I have to be on the set that long, I want one of those f—ers to be on the set with me. It’s lonely when you’re directing yourself.
How was the experience?
I loved it. I had a blast doing it. We move at a breakneck speed. The hardest part is you don’t really have the time to go watch playback and make sure you got it, you have to start trusting the people around you and use your own judgment to know when you got it and when to move on.
You’ve got some really great visuals in that episode too. What was one of your favorite scenes to shoot?
When we went to Charlestown Landing, it was a lot of fun. We had this group of 16 kids and it felt like we really were on a field trip. We had these stations set up and the kids were bonding, it really felt like we set up an atmosphere where these people were on a field trip and we’d just capture what they were doing. It was a fun way to shoot all that stuff.
And the hogs were really having sex?
The hogs were definitely having sex. [Laughs.] Pork penetration.
The adults are front and center but the high school students are also a crucial part of the show — what’s it like working with so many younger actors as extras?
That was part of why we really wanted to tell the story and set the story in the South. When you’re so far removed from the industry, you have a chance to find kids who are just being themselves and they’re not necessarily vying for acting jobs. That adds a level of realism to the school, so it doesn’t feel like it’s Bayside High or something like that. The more realistic that world was, the funnier the comedy plays. It was great. We shot the show for almost seven months, and we had to have a lot of extras. These kids would come back every day. When it was over it was like these 100 kids have been here almost every single day on the movie. It was cool, I hope they had a good time. They add a big layer to the world and the reality of it.
“Vice Principals” was such a major part of your career for the past few years, did anyone say, “Danny, you can’t spend that much time on one project”?
I don’t think when we set it up I realized how long it was going to take. Once you start doing it, it’s like — we wrote the equivalent of six screenplays in one year. But I love it so much. The writing aspect is probably my favorite part of the whole thing and I just had a kid. My wife was happy I was going to a writers room every day and I was home. I got to work with my buddies every day, so that was great. I tried to squeeze in what I could, but it doesn’t hurt to have focused on this for so long, wrap it up, and go do “Alien.” [Laughs.] If I had to go do another movie, that was the one to do.