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Interview with Jody Hill, director of "Observe and Report"

Having worked a few years as a security guard myself (and given the state of print journalism, might someday again; I can always put it on my resume), I can attest to the authenticity of Jody Hill's black comedy about the profession, "Observe and Report." So we already had a lot in common when we started our conversation (which was conducted before the Anna Faris date-rape scene became a media firestorm, although I did ask him about it). And, as it turned out, we also had a mutual acquaintance.

PK: I just interviewed Ramin Bahrani. He says hi.

JH: Oh, great. I love Ramin. I know him from the School as well. He used to work there. He's a great filmmaker.

PK: He said the same about you. Your films are a lot different. Actually, they're not different. They're both about lower class and socially marginalized people.

JH: We do them in different ways but I think that a lot of people who come from the North Carolina School of the Arts have a thing for character. I don't know why. Maybe it's the movies we all watched and talked about together. I consider Craig Zobel and David Green and myself as just making character pieces.

PK: As a former security guard I must say you captured that personality with frightening accuracy. Have you ever worked as one? What kind of research did you do?

JH: A little bit. Not too much. My dad used to work at a franchise... they were a coffee store basically. And he would always get into arguments with security guards. He would park his car in the loading dock to make deliveries and of course most of the time they'd have 18 wheelers park there to make deliveries. He was always getting warning tickets so I saw him lose it a few times at the security guards.

PK: But he didn't get tasered.

JH: No, I made that part up.

PK: Why four films about security guards this year?

JH: I don't know why that happened. I don't think, I don't consider myself part of any, like, mall cop genre. I hate malls personally and I thought, it's also like a microcosm, a world inside of a world. And a world that drives me crazy. So I thought maybe it could be like one of those snow shakers. That's Ronnie's world. And a metaphor for the world outside.

PK: Were you a fan of "Dawn of the Dead?


JH: A huge fan of "Dawn of the Dead." The Romero movie is my favorite horror movie of all time.

PK: Are you also a fan of Scorsese? People, including yourself, have compared your film to "Taxi Driver."

JH:  I'm a fan of all his work. That was kind of  the joke, that we wanted to make a comedy version of "Taxi Driver..."

PK: I thought "Taxi Driver" was a comedy.

JH: You know what's weird. Me and my buddy .. I discovered Martin Scorsese when I was in middle school and I realized, okay, there are actually directors behind movies. We would kind of laugh at "'Taxi Driver.' Like, oh my God, he takes her to a porn movie? We weren't really getting the full meaning at the time when we were 13 years old. Whenever I make movies I try to remember when I was 13 years old and just kind of discovering movies. And maybe there was that kind of juvenile aspect of 70s cinema to ["Observe and Report"]. ‘Straw Dogs' and all that. On a serious note, we also had in mind a lot of themes they dealt with in the 70s, isolation, alienation, the kinds of things that Peckinpah was dealing with like codes and bands of outsiders. I always responded to that. I think there are similar kinds of themes in this movie. At least I tried to.

PK: There's also the theme of delusive behavior as in your previous film, "Foot Fist Way."

JH: Uh-huh.

PK: Actually it reminded me also of "King of Comedy" in its queasy balancing of tone from comedy to creepiness.

JH: "King of Comedy" is one of my favorite films of all time. I love how it rides that tone, how it's not... on the outside it's easy to make the "Taxi Driver" comparison to this movie but I think tonally it is closer to like a ‘King of Comedy.' I don't think ‘King of Comedy' is a comedy and I don't think necessarily... I'll let people call it whatever they want to call it but I think if you view this movie thinking it's kind of a drama and I say drama meaning any serious movie then the laughs will be funny but you won't... I think comedy with comedy you get set up for a lot of preconceived notions most of which are horrible but you get set up for jokes per minute and that kind of thing but I don't think this movie is really based on that. I think it's based on characters.

PK: I thought this scene sums up the effect of the movie, when they guy says, "I thought this was going to be funny. But it's actually kind of sad."

JH: My friend David Gordon Green, who's another filmmaker, said that he thought that should be the tagline for this movie. I wish people knew that going into the movie. Rather than coming out of the movie because they might like it a little bit more.

PK: There's a scene with Anna Faris that people might laugh at at first and then say, hey,  wasn't that date rape? Is that how they should respond?

JH: Right. That's kind of what we try to do. That's why I think "King of Comedy" did so well, and even "Taxi Driver,"  because at the end of the movie you have these guys who are like, psychopaths. Yet at the end they're praised. They play it as real, but there's that kind of dreamlike quality to it. I was inspired by those films in terms of, will the audience walk out and feel happy? Sure, but when they get in their cars and ride home they are going to question it.

PK: Do you think this kind of ambiguity will cut into the box office.?

JH: I certainly hope not. But, maybe. I don't know. When I was making this movie, I'll tell you this, it was the type of thing where I thought, there's going to be a lot people who don't like the movie and I don't care. And now that it's coming out I'm scared and thinking, I hope everybody likes it!

PK: Does the style of the film -- blackouts, a disjointed continuity -- reflect the state of mind of Seth Rogen's character? Or am I reading too much into it?

JH: You're exactly right. I'm glad you noticed that. Some people are just going to be annoyed. I hope it ends up working. I tried... he's a manic depressive. So if you look at the way the film is structured he's on the edge, then things start going good, so he goes off his medication, so he can feel the full effect of all the good things that are happening in his life. Then, when things start going bad, and since he's off his meds, he goes off into a dark hole. Everything I've read, I'm no expert, but everything I've read says that. Certainly the hard cuts that we use and the ... in a sense it's 84 minutes but it's a slower paced movie. Some of the scenes are slow, actually. The running time is low so people aren't going to get bored and stuff. Certainly there will be times when we hit the music hard and it comes out of nowhere and that's to get that juxtaposition of opposite ends.

PK: Thanks for getting the Yardbirds in there. I don't think they've been on a soundtrack since "Blow Up."

JH: Thanks, man. I loved ‘Blow up.' That's a huge compliment.

PK: Because Seth Rogen was in the cast did that give you the clout to make this edgier than otherwise?

JH: What's great about Seth is that, in addition to being funny, he's also a really good dramatic performer. I certainly spoke to Seth about this. He's probably had the chance to do whatever romantic comedies he wants and make a lot of money. But it's so rare because he's taken this kind of clout in Hollywood that he has and is looking to push the envelope. Seth is so strong, without Seth this movie would not be as wild as it was. It would be more cookie cutter. Seth from day one would talk to the studio and say, you've got to let us do it the way we want to do it. That's the only way I'm going to do this movie if it's wild and there's got to be nakedness. He always waged fights for that cause. He knows a lot of his fans are probably going to be freaked out by this movie and he welcomes it. He's not interested in repeating anything he's done before. It's pretty inspiring. It kind of gives me hope, because you hear all these horror stories about Hollywood and to meet someone like Seth and become friends with him, it's really an honor. I owe a lot of...I'm proud of this film and a lot of what I'm proud about it I owe to Seth Rogen.

PK: I assume there was a lot of improvisation going on.

JH: A lot of the stuff would be alternate takes where I'd say, describe this dream, use the most poetic language you can and use, say,  "nature." Use nature as a metaphor. It doesn't have to make sense; just talk and use it somehow. Seth is so versatile he would just do this. I don't know if he's done it before quite the same but he's such a good performer and is always right in the pocket so he's able to take whatever you throw at him and make poetry out of it. Maybe lowbrow poetry.

PK: The martial arts action is also impressive. Don't you have a degree in Tae Kwon Do?

JH: I grew up doing Tae Kwon Do. That's where I got the idea for "Foot Fist Way." I love action. I wanted to make the fighting realistic and make it hurt. A lot of time I feel like comedy is disposable. Where things that are sad are funny-sad and things that are action or violent are funny-action. I didn't want to do  that at all. I wanted to make a real movie that was funny.

PK: By the way, is Michael Peña doing Mike Tyson?

JH: He says that he had a buddy that kind of talked like that and he also says that in  "American Pimp" they talk like that because they have the gold ronts on their teeth and that would cause a lispy thing. He just came in an auditioned and I had written this kind of part and it was a lot smaller than it was. It was that kind of druggy montage. Michael came in and I saw him in "Babel" and he did this lispy, effeminate voice and it kind of blew my mind and I chased him down after the audition and told him he had to be in this movie that I'd write more stuff for you. I felt I was staring at a really brilliant actor.

PK: A spin-off movie?

JH: We joked about that. Like we'd find him and he'd be wearing all white in a big house.

PK: A prequel to "Foot Fist Way?"

JH: I jokingly thought of that a long time ago but it's not in the works or anything like that. Certainly not for my next film.

PK: Do you have a next film?

JH: I don't have a next film right now. Wish I did. Trying to think of one.

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