“We like to design our projects to be able to be consumed in one hungover afternoon.”
This is the opinion of Danny McBride, the creator and star of HBO’s “Vice Principals.” Now in its second and final season, the black comedy continues the saga of Neal Gamby (McBride), a man determined to become the Principal of North Jackson High School by whatever means necessary. He competes mercilessly with his rivals — namely, his more popular Co-Vice Principal Lee Russell. At the end of season one, Gamby is shot by a faceless villain in a mysterious mask.
Season two picks up the pieces, and then tears them apart. It’s uncomfortable, outrageous and very funny.
The Michigan Daily spoke with McBride and David Gordon Green, a frequent director on the show and an executive producer. McBride and Gordon Green shared insight into the process, the current season and how they got where they are today.
This isn’t their first collaboration. The pair also worked on “Eastbound & Down,” a comedy about a failed pro-baseball player turned substitute gym teacher. Clearly, something about small-town high school administrators and teachers inspires both McBride and Gordon Green.
“I was a substitute teacher for a little bit,” McBride said. “I always thought it was so fascinating how there’s one world going on with the students and then there’s a completely different world going on with the teachers and administrators … rarely did those two sides get a full understanding of the other one.”
The duality of these worlds is very prevalent in “Vice Principals.” Choosing to set a story in a setting as specific as North Jackson High School and to center the plot line on two men “jockeying for the head of that world” is a tried and true storytelling device. McBride himself admits that it’s a “classic quest for the crown story.” For Neal Gamby and Lee Russell, the fight for Principal of North Jackson is akin to Macbeth’s bloodthirsty quest to be King.
These characters, though ambitious in their own rights, are incredibly flawed protagonists. Neal Gamby, for example, is ill-tempered, short-sighted and dictatorial in nearly all aspects of his life. Yet somehow a successful two-season, 18-episode story has been created around Gamby and his cohorts. How? McBride feels like “it has to do a lot with being able to understand them. And understand them doesn’t mean making excuses for them, I think it means you can understand that someone is a terrible person and still not be endorsing them.”
Grounding his fictional character in reality is easy, he explains, because, “that’s how people are in life anyways. It’s very easy to write people off or have people be defined by their worst attributes.”
Creating a balance between a flawed and sympathetic protagonist is what they worked hardest on in the writing. Citing both Gamby and Russell, McBride notes, “we’re always trying to do is make these characters feel like they’re real, for better or for worse.” And with a show like “Vice Principals,” where for worse is taken hyper-literally, this is incredibly important.
The ability to successfully pull off a character like Gamby is a sign of good writing and great collaboration. Evident in the interview is the healthy balance in McBride and Gordon Green’s working relationship — as collaborators, peers, friends. The pair, plus Jody Hill, who co-created both “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals,” have been working together since first meeting in the dorms of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
McBride reminisced on what inspired the partnership.
“I saw David’s short film. He was a year ahead of me, and it was a first-year student film,” McBride said. “It was called, ‘Will You Lather Up My Roughhouse’ and it ended with two men … taking a bath together and singing. I saw it and I said, I want to make stuff with this guy.”
They’ve made quite a few things together — usually comedies. Recently, however, Gordon Green and McBride have forayed into a new genre: horror.
“The world is such a strange and evolving — often off-putting — place that I think if I was just trying to live in the melancholy side of my interests, it wouldn’t be healthy,” Gordon Green said. He counters, however, adding that he and Danny are “working on a horror film [“Halloween”] trying to step in a new direction. It’s important to always be evolving and trying something new.”
The opportunity to experiment and try new genres is facilitated by a strong team of creative partners. What makes “Vice Principals” unique and likeable is the unified vision for the piece, and the cohesive understanding of each uniquely flawed character. The strength of the show comes through in the direction and execution of darkly funny plotlines. At the end of the day, however, it works because it’s created by a group of friends doing what inspires them, and working to inspire each other.
Gordon Green emphasizes how special it is to work with close friends.
“It’s cool to think of these relationships as family, as we’ve grown and learned and tried to challenge each other in lot of ways,” he said. “You always know with this group of collaborators that you could walk out on a limb … the world could reject you but your friends will always be there pushing you to be creative, and pushing you to enjoy what you do for a living.”
Vice Principals currently airs on HBO. The series finale is November 12th, 2017.