Exclusive: Jody Hill Wants You to Feel Bad About Laughing

In the fourth of four interviews with the stars and director of Observe and Report, Jody Hill talks about freedom within the studio system, his inspirations behind filmmaking, and considers seeking anger management.
By  · Published on April 9th, 2009

Director Jody Hill is living a creative dream right now in a way. His first film, The Foot Fist Way, hit Sundance with enough force to break a board in half and led directly to him meeting Seth Rogen which in turn led to his second film, Observe and Report, somehow slipping through the cracks and getting green lit at a major studio.

When Hill describes his movie as a comedy, it’s clear that he’s uneasy about the moniker – a new reality to deal with while working with a major studio. It’s much easier for a marketing team to tell the public at large that something is a comedy or a drama, something that fits neatly into those two boxes, than to make a trailer that tries to capture the true nature of a movie that should (if it succeeds) make you laugh during the dramatic parts and give you pause during the funnier sections.

When the film played at SxSW – the crowd was ideal for the screening. It was a huge audience all revved up and ready to laugh. Of course, it also helped that Seth Rogen’s hearty, boisterous laugh filled the room along with everyone else. It’s a funny movie – but even Hill doesn’t think that it will have the same hilarious effect in the general release.

“I don’t know if the movie is going to play quite as funny to people who are watching it at home. I tend to think it’s kind of a sad movie,” he says.

At the screening, Hill thanked Warner Bros. for having faith and putting up the kind of money needed for such a “weird fucking movie.” It’s a move that may leave some observant movie fans wondering how something like this could be rolled through the studio machine and come out on the other side not white-washed, with Seth Rogen riding off into the sunset. Hill likens the environment, and his own creative freedom, to the studio system of the 1970s.

“I think Warner Bros. – this isn’t just lip service – I think that Warner Bros. is the one studio that just goes for it sometimes. Like Watchmen or DepartedThe Dark Knight. Where they will trust a filmmaker for some weird reason and just let him go to town. To do whatever they want. Which is cool because it’s the closest thing we have to a 70s style system. It’s once in a blue moon…There’s independent film – with Foot Fist Way, I was making it on credit cards, and there was no one to tell me what to do. Here, you have the budget to really do something big – and I love big movies, but I like them with an artsy side to them. So kudos to Warner Bros. for letting me go to town.”

Beyond Warners being brave, Seth Rogen had a major impact on getting the film made their way. According to Hill, Rogen took an interest in the project and approached the studio, claiming that he really wanted to do the film without any meddling, without binding their hands against how far they could take it creatively, especially when it came to improvisation and the tone of the movie.

Based on Hill’s own aspirations, it seems like he’s in an ideal spot.

“I don’t want to be safe,” he says, flicking the ash from his cigarette out against the hot Texas sun. “I kind of think films should be dangerous. There’s TV if you want to be safe.”

An interesting statement coming from a man who has also successfully created a television show – East Bound and Down – although I suppose HBO isn’t exactly what he meant by safe.

“I think at least it needs a kick in the pants to be dangerous. Especially after the 90s – there’s so much safe bullshit out there.”

Observe and Report is not what anyone would call safe. In fact, it’s difficult to get a cohesive statement on what exactly the film is. However, there has been a strong sentiment among a few reviewers to liken the movie to Taxi Driver. I personally disagree with the comparison, but I can understand what people mean by it. So does Hill.

“The inspiration when I was making the movie, I was watching Taxi Driver a lot and also King of Comedy. Other movies too, like Shampoo and these things that I grew up on and were big influences on me. I wanted to make a comedy that dealt with similar themes because I feel like we’re living in similar times. Post-war, there’s a war going on now. Just a guy, an ineffectual guy who wants to make a difference who experiences isolation and loss and loneliness and these kinds of things – so I think there’s a lot of similarities there.”

With Foot Fist, East Bound, and now Observe and Report, Hill has created a theme of hyper-masculine, dominant men who have nowhere to put their extra testosterone. When I bring this up, he deflects a bit. Then tacitly admits it.

“It’s just the opposite of me. I’m not masculine – I don’t watch sports. I’m not a tough guy or anything like that,” he says, starting to laugh and then: “Maybe I do have anger issues. I don’t know. You can ask my wife.”

I offer free therapy sessions which prompts him to joke that it started when he was younger because he was inadequate as a child. I have no idea how a child can be inadequate, but if anyone knows what it’s like to create adult characters that feel inadequate, it’s Hill. It’s interesting that his career has taken this turn, but as I said before, it’s probably an ideal spot to be in – being able to harness creative freedom with the financial backing and brand-recognition of a major studio. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some growing pains when freedom meets mass-marketing.

There’s a moment in the film where the main character Ronnie is getting some news from the detective played by Ray Liotta. During the scene, another detective comes out from where he was hiding in the closet and sadly exclaims, “I thought this was going to be funny – but it’s actually kind of sad.”

That is the most succinct way of characterizing the film, and if Hill had his way, it might have been the tagline for the national campaign. Unfortunately, a big studio just can’t roll with that.

Hopefully, audiences will be able to roll with it. It’ll be interesting to see what numbers turn out on opening weekend and what kind of response it gets. Whether it’s big or not, Hill makes a strong point about the dichotomy of drama and comedy in our current film culture:

“I don’t think humor and sadness are exclusive…I think comedies in general kind of suck. They aren’t taken seriously because when things are ‘sad,’ they have to be ‘funny sad’ or when they get ‘violent,’ it’s gotta be ‘funny violent.’ Why can’t you make something that is funny also, but when times get tough for the character – it’s legitimately sad or it’s legitimately scary? Why not take that seriously?”

For right now, Hill is living a creative dream – or at least a creative scenario that most directors would kill for – but time is going to have to tell whether or not he can translate that freedom into the kind of commercial success that is inevitably demanded by studios. Whether he succeeds or fails – it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch him try.

For my interview with Michael Pena…go here.

For my interview with Anna Faris…go here.

For my interview with Seth Rogen…go here.

For my interview with Jody Hill…scroll back up.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.