Eastbound & Down Extras: Q&As With David Gordon Green, Ike Barinholtz, and Harris Wittels

David Livingston/Getty Images Ike Barinholtz

While putting together my piece on the end of Eastbound & Down, I had phone and e-mail exchanges with a bunch of smart, funny people. Most of the stuff ended up in the piece. Here’s some of it that didn’t.

David Gordon Green

Before David Gordon Green was a pensive indie auteur turned studio comedy technician turned “guy who does whatever the hell he wants” (next up: a movie with Nicolas Cage!), he was living on the same dorm floor as Danny McBride and Jody Hill. According to Hill, back at the North Carolina School of the Arts, “David Green, he could quote release dates of movies from like 1980 on. It freaked me out a little bit.”

You’ve directed a bunch of the episodes, but, in general, how closely are you involved in the process on Eastbound?

I feel like I have the best job in the world. I can walk into a show that’s fully formed, that’s got an incredible creative backbone, and give my two cents. I work with them on the broad strokes of casting and character locations, but I juggle my own projects alongside Eastbound. I like to do three episodes a season — that keeps it manageable. But it’s the dream work-for-hire job: Creativity is appreciated, your input is expected, and, at the end of the day, me and Jody can have stylistically distinctive approaches [to directing] that still feel whole cloth.

How do you and Jody’s approaches differ?

The pilot episode fully forms what the show is, but it’s a series that’s organic and can have an episode that feels distinctive from the series [as a whole] — the camera style and the look of one episode may play differently. In terms of Seasons 2, 3, and 4, which are only directed by Jody and myself, I think you can really get a sense of who’s directing. Mine tend to have overlapping dialogue, two cameras in a tracker, zooming in and out of action. Jody has a really brilliant precision, and an innovative shot selection when composing. He’s got a great technical architecture.

You guys are never shy to go big and cinematic, whether it’s slo-mo or whatever. Specifically, the “Sky Pilot” scene comes to mind.

There’s a dramatic balance to the abstract, absurd, sometimes infantile comedy. We want it to feel cinematic, we want movie moments. Kenny Powers is easy to laugh at, but the real beauty of the show is having the bravado to pull off that editing style. There’s a great aggressive quality to it. And certainly the music [is a big part].

Totally. Do you have a favorite musical moment?

I remember we were shooting this last season, and it was the wildest episode I’d ever read. It was the party at Ashley Schaeffer’s plantation. It felt like a Little Rascals episode. We were doing improv with this guy Joey Brinkley, he was a background extra but he ended up with his own death scene because we liked him so much and kept writing things for him. He had this one line [to Stevie], he said, “You a lucky man.” And I couldn’t get the song “O Lucky Man!,” the Alan Price song from O Lucky Man!, out of my head. For the rest of that episode, I was playing that song on set. I was like, “Man, I hope there’s a wonderful world where we can get the rights to this song.” It was a perfect climax, and it began with this very understated line: “You a lucky man.”

Steve Little mentioned it was your idea to have him actually using the toilet in the Mexican prison.

[Laughs.] Anytime you see a vulgar opportunity for Steve Little … you wanna see what he says no to. And he never does.

As someone who’s a little bit outside of the main brain trust on the show, what are you hoping for in the fourth season?

Why is he coming back? Aside from the fact that it’s my best friends, and a creative opportunity that will never be matched … I wanna justify why we’re spending our time doing this. Can we take him on a journey that the audience doesn’t expect but they accept? At the end of the series, everyone’s gonna have their favorite season, Season 1, or the dark strange journey of Season 2, or the certainly more comedically engineered Season 3 … to me, this takes all of that and puts it in a very rambunctious [mix].

Back at school, did you ever think you guys would end up all working together, in the pros, like this?

You know, I guess I always had that hope. When you’re sitting with guys like that, you’re stuck in your own youth, but you know you wanna evolve with them, and you know you’re gonna be mature and immature with them. There’s no reason to ever break up that band.

Harris Wittels

He writes for Parks and Recreation, he loves Phish, he invented the humblebrag. Harris Wittels, everybody.

How did you get involved with Eastbound?

I had written a movie for Danny and Aziz [Ansari] called Olympic Sized Asshole, which did not end up being made, but because of that I got a call asking if i was interested in maybe possibly coming to write on the show for Season 3. I was such a huge fan and said yes, of course. Then I think they asked for a sample Eastbound scene for the upcoming season to make sure I could write the voice of the show. I sent in some insane thing about Kenny boogie boarding and a shark eating one of his hands, and quitting baseball, and then former MLBer Jim Abbott comes to pump Kenny back up. Totally insane, but got me the job at least.

How is this show’s writers’ room different than the other ones you’ve worked in?

I always am scared to answer these [questions] and offend current or past writers’ rooms, so I will say I have loved every writers’ room I have ever been in. No, but it’s very small, for starters. I was there with two other guys (Josh Parkinson and John Carcieri) plus Jody and Danny. Also for me, it is great to have the person who plays the lead character in the room every day to kind of say the lines or riff on scenes as Kenny, which was always funny and led to good lines and whatnot. I had that on Sarah Silverman’s show, too, but it’s a rare thing. Really the show is Danny and Jody’s, so we would pitch rough ideas or jokes as a group and then those guys would go to their office and make the show what it is.

Was there something specific you learned from the show that you’ve tried to keep in mind going forward?

That show, each season, is really written like a movie, so it’s different from other shows I have been on in that way. The first two [episodes] were the first act, basically, and the last two [episodes] are Act 3. That was an interesting way to look at a season of TV that I thought was cool and fun to write.

You cowrote the Ashley Schaeffer dinner party scene, pretty much the nuttiest thing that’s ever been on the show. What do you remember the conversation was like, as you guys were discussing pushing it this far?

I think we went through a lot of drafts of that episode. So it was a lot of conversations. In one incarnation, Ashley kidnapped Kenny’s baby in that episode and he had to go to his plantation to rescue his kid. Then it landed on him rescuing Stevie from being sex-trafficked, essentially. It’s funny to me how big you have to go to make Kenny seem like the rational one in a scene — cannons, geisha Stevie, the Kia corporation, etc. I remember with the cannon and all that craziness, everyone laughing a whole lot and occasionally someone would go, “Can we do this?,” but ultimately it made us laugh, so it happened. I found that was often the case — whatever makes everyone laugh a lot usually builds enough steam to end up in the show.

What kind of hours did you guys generally keep? What snacks were present? Were there any specific modes of procrastination?

The hours weren’t bad and it was always fun to be there. It was only eight episodes, so it was just a few months of writing (where on network it’s many months) from like 10 a.m. to 6 or 7 everyday, but usually Danny and Jody would stay later to work on things. There was a Nintendo Wii with a bunch of games, and I loved the food there. They have similar tastes as me, which is delicious garbage junk, essentially. I’ve also never drunk as much Monster Energy drink as I did when I was there. They had a whole fridge of it. There were other modes of procrastination, too, yes …

Do you have a favorite line that you contributed?

One that I kept on trying to get in for some reason was Kenny telling a squirrel to “Back up, dawg.” I just liked a tough dude fronting on a little cute animal like that. It ended up in an episode where he is eating McDonald’s on top of Shane’s grave, I believe. Also, originally at one point, Ike [Barinholtz]’s Russian character nailed Shane’s head with a pitch intentionally, killed him, and then cockily said, “Don’t crowd the plate,” which we all liked saying in a Russian accent, but the way Shane died on the show is much better than that.

Ike Barinholtz

Before he was Nurse Morgan on The Mindy Project, Barinholtz — as heat-throwing Russian pitching export Ivan Dochenko (a.k.a. DJ Blu-ray) — faced off with Kenny Powers. He was, of course, ultimately quelled.

How’d you get the job?

I was a huge fan of the show for a long time, and I got a call that I was gonna go in and audition for a different part, for the part of Shane. And then, I think I was about to get in my car and go to the audition, and my reps called [and said Shane had been cast]. So basically, “They got a bigger name than you.” I was pretty crestfallen. Then they asked, “You can’t do a Russian accent, can you?” I was like, “I think I can. I’ve seen Rounders a lot?”

I read [the part] and right away thought, This is so fucking funny. Clearly Danny and Jody were watching Rocky IV and thought, We should do a take on that. So I started working on his point of view, instead of being like, really, Ivan Drago, who is a robot. I remember, like, right away, in the [casting] room, I got a laugh, [but I was sure] they’d go with someone closer in age and nationality to the part. A week later, “They want you to come in and read with Danny.” Went in, saw dudes that were straight up Russian fucking weightlifters. These guys looked so scary and intimidating. But I went in and read with Danny, and kind of, right from the start of the scene, started talking shit to him. [In Russian accent]: “You are not here. You should not be here. This is not your game. You are no longer what you once were.” I left, felt good about it, but was still thinking, They’re gonna cast Viggo Mortensen. And then two days later, my manager said “You booked it.” I was so excited.

What are you hoping happens with Kenny this season?

Well, you know, after spending that whole summer with them and becoming a little bit like a tertiary member of their world, they would, while writing this season, they would send me scripts. Me and my writing partner, David Stassen, we were writing a movie, and we’d take a couple of hours — “Here’s a funny area, here’s some weird jokes.” So I know a little bit of the season, and it’s so funny. If you’re a fan of the show, this might be your favorite season. And I purposefully didn’t read the last two scripts.

Is there anything from your Eastbound experience that carries over to working on Mindy?

It’s really funny — there is a definite similarity between, first, Danny and Mindy as writer/performers: They’re both great improvisers — a lot of people can improvise, but to improvise in character and on story? That’s quite difficult. But also both characters have a little megalomania, both have pretty big egos, both, under the surface, have some sadness to them. It’s really, in a way, a different version of the same thing.

Filed Under: TV, Eastbound & Down, HBO, Mindy Kaling, david gordon green, Grantland Q&A

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad

More from Amos Barshad

See all from Amos Barshad

More TV

See all TV

More Hollywood Prospectus

See all Hollywood Prospectus