The Righteous Gemstones: Inside the ’80s Flashback Interlude

Righteous Gemstones director David Gordon Green reveals how the show's transformative trip to the past came to be.

When HBO first ordered a full series for Danny McBride’s next comedy effort, The Righteous Gemstones, they set the episode order at eight. That was before, however, McBride and the writing staff had some downtime from filming to think about including maybe just one more.

“We had just finished writing (episode) four and we were like a day ahead of schedule in our writing commitments,” McBride told reporters at the 2019 TCA summer press tour. “So Jeff Fradley and John Carcieri, two of the other executive producers on the show, we just were like, ‘Hey, what should we do? We got an extra day’ and then, we just started kind of brainstorming about this idea if we did a flashback episode what would that entail?”

What that would entail is the episode that viewers were just entreated to on Sunday night. The fifth episode of the now-nine episode season, “Interlude,” is an unexpected flashback to the ’80s and a simpler, yet still fraught time for the Gemstone family. Matriarch Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles) is pregnant with third Gemstone child, Kelvin (Adam Devine), and many in the increasingly spoiled and out-of-touch Gemstone family orbit are none too happy about it, least of all Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) who wants to set out on a grand tour with his sister.

The episode is a surprising tonal shift for the comedy series, operating on a dramatic level to tell a sort of origin story for many of the Gemstones’ flaws in present day, and to explain why the absence of Aimee-Leigh looms so large in their lives.

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“Interlude” is destined to become a favorite to many, and those ranks already include the episode’s director, Gemstones producer and longtime McBride collaborator David Gordon Green. Green took some time off from prepping for the latest Halloween sequel to discuss what makes “Interlude” so special.

DEN OF GEEK: At the TCA summer press tour, Danny McBride said that he and the writers wrote this episode in four hours. How do you think the final product came out, and how did it become your favorite episode of the season? It’s almost like divine intervention.

DAVID GORDON GREEN: A lot of times stories, narratives, technique, characters get so overanalyzed, processed, considered and debated, particularly in the writers’ room. The beauty of that is there are so many different personalities and perspectives. But this was one that Danny, Jeff (Fradley), and John (Carcieri) just talked about for a couple of hours right outside my office. And then they pitched me this wildcard idea. We were only going to do eight episodes, and then they said, “Hey, here’s this crazy idea if we could get HBO to go for a ninth. We were going to go circle it out and see if it makes sense.” I was like, “Yeah, that sounds like it will never happen.” Because that’s expensive and has characters in different time periods and budgets were already tight.

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I figured, worst-case scenario, we’ll get backstory that’s helpful in my direction to the actors for these characters. I love explorations like that. But then they came back the next morning and they’d written a thing, and it didn’t change at all ever. So, I guess my point is, some of the spontaneity, the intuitiveness, the fresh and ill-conceived and unpredictability of it all is what made it so exciting. The fact that we can keep it loose and just jump right in to make a show without having to necessarily put it through the creative and technical, logistical machine, that we so often get bogged down in.

What went behind the decision to put this at episode five? It comes right in the middle of a cliffhanger. Was there any consideration for putting it anywhere else or just why did that feel like the right thing to do?

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This is probably a Danny question, but to me it just felt right because you’re hooked in the ensemble of it all and the flow and the momentum of the narrative. You want to know what’s next. But before we touch in on that, let’s take it back. It felt organic and I never really questioned why. I’m not sure what the decisions were. It could, in some ways, have been a prologue to the entire season. I guess you could have put it anywhere, but it felt like, at this point, everyone had been established, and there were a lot of questions, in my mind anyway. So, it feels like a good time to start getting some answers.

How did you go about de-aging actors like Walton Goggins and John Goodman? This is a comedy, so you did have the option to do something more comedic with it, if you wanted.

It’s always a thing. You want it to be a funny show, you want it to have strong sense of characters you want to be on Earth, and then you’ve got to deal with a wig that’s getting caught in the wind. You wonder what’s better, performance or fixing a wig? I actually hate that. It’s really frustrating because, do you use the best take from the performance of vocalization and the emotion? Or do you use the one that the wig and makeup looks the most legit? I don’t know.

We’re learning too. We’re just movie geeks thinking, “Well, this would be cool. How do we figure it out on a budget?” So, it’s easy to sit in the editing room and think, “Oh, we should have done this. We should have done that.” We’ve learned a ton from it. In fact, we’re doing a little bit on this new Halloween movie, based on some of that education. It’s cool to be able to experience that, learn from it, and have it not get in the way. I also don’t want it to be an ’80s gimmick – cute, kitsch, thing where everybody’s got a Rubik’s cube and an Atari, and let’s talk about how fun it used to be in our lives. We wanted all that to be in the background and just play up the emotion.

further reading – The Righteous Gemstones: Jody Hill and David Gordon Green on New HBO Series

You’re never going to find an exact match of physicality and performance of Danny in the ’80s for these younger characters. But boy, we really stumbled on some talented kids that had a lot of gusto and captured that charisma in a lot of ways, and so, we were really fortunate with those guys. And then, it brought a whole new dynamic to Eli’s character I think, too, to see if kid’s equally as corrupt but with a little pressure. I think that was fun.

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Jennifer Nettles as Aimee-Leigh is excellent in this episode. In some ways now it feels like Aimee-Leigh is the lynchpin of the whole series, like whatever damage the characters carry around now is in relation to how they treated Aimee-Leigh. What did you make of Jennifer’s performance and Aimee-Leigh as a character?

Jennifer astounded me on her very first take, because she’s a musician that we’d admired, and I’d seen her in interviews. But to get her in costume and have her show up on set and walk in with a scene that Goodman. Wow. She’s destined for huge things. She was amazing. You can’t be better. Every take was something different, something alive, and something real. And it had the sense that she gave everybody a run for their money in a beautiful way. With that character, you really see that firecracker, and you see what the loss of that family is when they miss her. It’s just so fun. Part of me just wants to go run away and make a show like Hee Haw or something with Jennifer, and then have it be the 30 years ago version of the Gemstones saga. I think that would be a lot of fun, to see what she was up to in that time period. So, super cool.

It was very vibrant on set the day that Jennifer and Walton did their first Aimee-Leigh and Baby Billy dance sequence. We had hundreds of people in the crowd, and it felt real. You could see the energy of why personalities like these, messages like theirs, and voices like theirs appeal to people. It’s such a contagious, almost overwhelming, feeling. They pull you in, so that’s really fun.

Speaking of Aimee-Leigh and Baby Billy’s song, “Misbehavin’,” it’s amazing. How did that come about?

We always have a lot of song references. If anything, the writer’s room is run by YouTube and just finding strange clips and going into the wormholes and vortexes of things that are out there, in terms of country interest in music. We had a lot of fun going through references. And then Danny’s pitching the idea of what, lyrically, what the song would be like, and then he ends up just half writing it. Edi was chiming in, and they were like, “Oh yeah, and this and then…” talking about pickles and getting in trouble in the same verse – all this stuff. They gave it to Joey Stephens who does the score for the show, he’s our good friend from way back, and he turned that around real quick. We were all already in that headspace, so thinking in that vibe, and I think Danny, Edi, and Joey all wrote that together.

One of the big sets in this episode is Judy’s birthday party. What was it like to film that? I remember just seeing all the animals and children running around and thinking, “this really looks like it could have been a pain in the ass.”

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Oh, it was. And then, on top of that, it was the one day I invited my kids to come hang out, so they were running around. You have that chaos as well, but it was a ton of fun. It evolved a lot. I fell in love with the birthday clown that showed up. He was amazing. So, I started finding these strange little obsessions. And then we had M. Emmet Walsh, who is a legend to show up for a cameo. He’s someone I’ve loved since I first saw Straight Time and just thought he was incredible.

further reading – The Righteous Gemstones: Adam Devine and Edi Patterson on Earnest Comedy

On top of that, you’re finding the weather and the sun are constantly changing. So many angles, so many characters, and it’s a period piece. But our circus is, I wouldn’t say streamlined, but everybody knows the temperaments and the personalities and who you can lean on and who you roll your eyes at. You just go in there with a good attitude and not to expect precision. Once you got that many people running around, nobody’s going to do the same thing twice. Sometimes the barf gag works, and sometimes it gets clogged up. We got to take advantage of Nettles’ baton twirling talent that she had, so there was a lot we were trying to jam in there. Then we had this totally improvised drinking montage that we were inspired to film, so that took an hour and a half out of our day just to film Jesse run around getting fucked up. That was fun.

Are we going to see any more of Baby Billy’s silent son, Harmon? Did he grow up to be a young quiet man?

It became a very big talking point as to what happens to Harmon. What does he become? He could be science fiction. It could be otherworldly. I wouldn’t put anything past Harmon.

He should turn up in Halloween.

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Absolutely. You know what? I didn’t even know this when we were filming the movie, but then I see Scott Cooper just made a horror movie with that kid (Jeremy T. Thomas). I can’t remember what it was called (Ed Note: Antlers, to be released in 2020), but I just saw the trailer for it. I was like, “Whoa! There’s Harmon all over this thing.” I’m looking forward to that.

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