The Righteous Gemstones: Jody Hill and David Gordon Green on New HBO Series
The filmmakers and frequent Danny McBride collaborators spill the beans about their new series, megachurches, and 10 years on HBO.
Danny McBride may have a sole creator credit on his new HBO series The Righteous Gemstones, but his old film school buddies and frequently collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green of course weren’t too far away.
Hill has been working with McBride since their breakout feature debut The Foot Fist Way and both have played substantial, even co-creator roles, in his past HBO series Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. On Gemstones, Hill and Gordon Green serve as executive producers, with Hill directing and both men heavily involved in the creative process. For anyone that dreams of making movies or TV shows with their friends, McBride, Hill, and Gordon Green’s journeys in Hollywood are aspirational and inspiring.
We sat down with both Hill and Gordon Green to discuss the inspiration for The Righteous Gemstones, how it differs from their past HBO collaborations with McBride, and the possible longevity of the new series.
DEN OF GEEK: Where did the inspiration for this come?
JODY HILL: It’s really Danny’s baby. I think just growing up around and seeing these things in our communities and stuff like that. That’s one thing we all have in common is we all grew up in different parts of the South. I certainly have friends that were involved in churches like this. I grew up Catholic, but having friends like this, I certainly related to what this world was.
DAVID GORDON GREEN: Danny’s been talking about doing a religious background of a show for a while. Because we all grew up going to church in the South and it’s a comedic minefield. I grew up as a Presbyterian and I remember going to a mega church for the first time as a kid, and the preacher comes out on a camel and gives cinnamon rolls to the crowd, and people start speaking in tongues. And I’m… hypnotized. I’m totally entertained by what’s happening here and what the message of religion is being conveyed upon.
So, when he was throwing around ideas; concepts for what this would be, I just kept really nudging, “Please, please, please, let’s play with this; let’s have some fun.” The genetics of it is always let’s make a show that’s a comedic movie that’s not poking fun at people’s beliefs, but poking fun at this mechanism – the extravagance, the wealth, the greed, the ego… when the message, from my sense, gets lost. That’s when comedy takes over.
It’s almost like a weirdly, under-served thing. It feels like we should have dozens of these.
DGG: People are scared of it. People don’t want to mess with it, and I think that’s why, strategically, let’s not make fun of people, let’s make fun of the people that have jets. If anybody’s going to be offended, it’s a guy with a personal jet that will get over it real quick.
After you settled on the topic, did you do any beyond just your childhood experiences? Any researches into the Jim Bakkers, the televangelists of the world?
JH: Yeah, all that stuff. The show definitely isn’t like, “Oh, it’s supposed to be this person.” But there’s so many, like you said, there’s so many examples of things to pull from that we sort of looked at everybody. From some that are just like sort of egregious examples, to some that are not so bad.
DGG: If you Google religious scandals, all of a sudden there’s so many provocative, strange, bizarre expressions of human identity that you could either look at it in the vulgar atrocity that it is, or you can make fun of it, and make light of it, and make a conversation out of it. I think that’s so much more fun. There was research done on hundreds of these types of institutions, and also the franchise of the lot of them internationally, which I think has become pretty prevalent. And the writers were selected for their diversity of perspective and religious experience from an ex-Mormon, to one who grew up in Jerry Falwell’s church, and his father was his right-hand man. So, there’s insight into some of these operations, and mindsets, and behaviors that I think were very valuable, as well as just our own curiosity which…is high.
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One thing that took me by surprise, and maybe it shouldn’t have because we’re dealing with a narrative art form, is how plot and story-oriented the six episodes that I’ve seen… the central kind of conspiracy plot with the blackmailing… How did that come about and how did it help keep the season moving along to explore this world?
JH: Danny, just speaking to him a lot during that time, was kind of contemplating focusing on a few different things, and this was always something that he really gravitated towards was this, the whole blackmail thing you’re talking about. It very easily could have been about the church expanding, or one of these kind of things. I wasn’t sure about the blackmail thing at first, but Danny was really drawn to it and I remember debating this kind of thing.
I really think he made the right choice because, just for me personally, the chance to break away from this genre thing where it’s not just antics in a church, that sort of plot line to me, there’s a different tone, and a chance to bend the genre a little bit that comes along with that. I think you still get the whole “commenting on these megachurches” kind of thing, that’s all in there, but then there’s also plot that lets you tell a mystery story and have action, and dark turns, and betrayals, and those sorts of things, which I think is what makes this show have such a cool identity.
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DGG: It’s bringing a lot of different genre to it, but I always looked at it as somewhere between The Godfather and Dallas, the TV series. It’s slightly over-the-top, but you got to keep these, in some ways, sophisticated, elegant themes, and otherwise, trashy soap-opera themes, and then put action, and there’s gore, there’s dramatic sequences, there’s nostalgia and musical numbers – we’re trying to jam a lot into it. It’s definitely not your typical half-hour comedy.
The first episode’s an hour.
I was shocked to see that, because I assumed comedy we’ve somehow decided has to be a half-hour. What was it like crafting the first episode as a drama-length hour of television?
DGGn: It wasn’t the intention. I think it was a forty-page script, and most of the shows we’ve done in the past were thirty to forty pages in there somewhere, and then you cut a thirty-minute show. But as this was being built in the editing room, Danny went up to HBO and said, “What about this version?” Everybody was supportive of it because there was enough narrative, and the ensemble’s big enough that it needs that canvas to be introduced significantly. Or we could just break it into another episode, but it felt like it was such a fun ride that we wanted to take it to the end and then that’s the launch of the show.
JH: As a film-maker who’s done this before, to me, they’re good and bad with situations. So, thirty minutes are required to have everything tight, so hopefully, everything that’s in that thirty minutes is just jam-packed with awesomeness. But it’s also painful sometimes when you’re trying to tell a certain tone and you don’t want to just be limited to chopping all your shots up, and you want to have something cool that is visually impressive, and also you can go further with the characters. It doesn’t just have to be greatest hits of what’s popping. I love this show, and the fact that we got the chance to actually do that this time with each of our episodes is awesome. It’s a chance to really grow and try something different.
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At one point, I think it’s in the first episode, it’s revealed that there’s a Gemstone museum. What are some of the cooler items you have in the Gemstone museum?
DGG: It’s all in there. We ended up adding a bunch of stuff with Aimee-Leigh when we got into the Aimee-Leigh episode and cast Jennifer Nettles and we did a bunch of new stuff.
JH: One of favorite parts of the show is just how big it is, and this is in a much later episode I won’t even reveal, but it’s…it’s not even a joke, it’s nothing most people would even notice. One of characters goes, “Oh, I thought you were here with the TV show,” and we’ve never seen them shoot a TV show or anything like that. You just can get that, “Oh yeah, they probably have a TV show.” How large their world is, that was really fun to play with. There was nothing off-limits in terms of, “Oh yeah, they have a hovercraft or whatever it is.”
So this is your third go-around on television with this team intact. It’s easy from the outside looking in to see it almost as like an American trilogy – that’s Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, and The Righteous Gemstones. Do you guys see it that way? Or is this just…work together as often as you can?
DGG: They all felt contained. Eastbound was going to be a three seasons or four; Vice Principals was let’s do two seasons at once and tell the whole story. This is the first one that we’ve looked at, at least from my conversations with Danny, let’s keep going. This is not built like in that contained model, at least to this point. It’s fun to think about where it could go and what could happen with it. I think it’s kind of awesome to watch Danny’s growth as an actor, now as a director, and certainly as a writer and story-teller getting more and more complicated and more and more ambitious, and deserving and receiving bigger budgets. It’s really cool to be a part of that movement, and then on top of that, this crew has been a really loyal crew. A lot of these departments that have just been a part of this now over ten years, right? About ten years ago when we started Eastbound?
JH: Yeah. There’s just a pride and comradery, and growth to think, “We make a living doing this?” I think we’re still geeks. Pretty freaked out about the opportunities we have, and then to be with each other taking those steps. Being more and more confident, having more and more fun bringing our company to Charleston and doing something a little different than your typical Hollywood production company, and making stories in the South is something fun and unique. Hope to just keeping doing it.
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Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad