For me, it’s just as much about casting parents as it is about casting kids. There are a lot of horror stories about stage parents. So it’s about finding parents who encourage a happy life and intellect from their kids, so they're smart enough to deal with the content that we’re dealing with; we’re not trying to cast cereal-box-cute kids.
We go to some challenging places—there are drugs in the movie, there’s violence in the movie, and there’s drama in the movie. At the same time, everything has to be fun and the kids need to have a great sense of humor. The kids are gonna cuss, and there are a lot of things that could be considered unethical if you’re a certain type of parent, but if you have a level head and your kid can handle it, then you’re all set. That’s what makes the movie distinctive in a beautiful way and not a cynical way.
So, basically, you have to avoid those Toddlers & Tiaras-type of parents.
Yeah, that’s horrible. [Laughs.] Wait a minute, I shouldn’t say that’s horrible—I’m sure that works for some people. In the movie, we have this character played by Landry Bender, and she’s this nine-year-old girl; she’s our way of kind of making fun of those shows. We use her character as this strange, almost JonBenét Ramsey little girl who wants to grow up too quick and put on make-up. We’re using that strange culture as a starting point for a very comedic character.
And she farts in one scene, too, so that’s a win.
[Laughs.] Yeah, she was great. That was an example of when you have something on the page that’s one thing, and then you cast it with a girl who has ideas that most nine-year-old girls wouldn’t have. She’s a lot more in touch with how nine-year-old girls talk and what they think is funny than I am, so we let her loose and allowed her to improvise her way through the movie, and that was a real blessing. That’s much better than relying on writers in the mid-20s and a director who’s in his mid-30s to capture a nine-year-old girl’s voice. We need kids who could act and remember their lines, but also kids who had that raw, natural instinct to be themselves.
What attracts you to such edgy comedy?
What I’m trying to hit with The Sitter, and what I try to hit with a lot of performances is funny, yes, but also something that has an edge of darkness to it. When comedians can truly have a strange threatening side to them within the context of comedy, it becomes really interesting. None of the comedies I’ve done have any real jokes in them, if you look back at them; I’m not really into that kind of wit, where there’s a set-up and then a pay-off joke, or, “Here’s witty one-liner.” I don’t really have those in my movies.
I’m more interested in developing a character who, when placed in the real world, becomes funny. A lot of what I think is funny tends to be much darker than broad, mainstream American hits. It’s great when you can hit those notes when what I like and laugh at is also what the world likes and laughs at, because that’s when you hit the jackpot. It’s about finding that line of what an industry is going to support and what an audience is gonna root for, and making sure the character feels real, no matter how broad they go.
Do you think that the success of Eastbound & Down, which has an extremely dark edge to it, has helped the industry to embrace darker comedies more than in the past?
Absolutely, and it’s just great to have those reference points. Eastbound’s a show that, although it follows a very far-out character, it’s a very realistic character, and people know about that kind of person. To be able to take it from an obnoxious state to a dramatic state, where people think Kenny Powers is just a comedic character but then all of the sudden they start feeling for a guy who they used to hate—it’s challenging the audience to a degree, which I’m really an advocate of. A lot of producers and studios just want to hand an audience what they think they want, but I like to show the audience what they don’t think they want, but then they end up finding within themselves an enthusiasm for it.
I think Eastbound is a great example of a show that has evolved from where people first turned it on and thought, “Whoa, this is just an asshole, and I don’t want to watch an asshole talk shit,” to then sticking with the show and realizing there’s a heart and humanity behind it. They start to sympathize with a guy they once hated. It’s all about peeling back the onion and finding layers to characters and storytelling.
What you, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride are all doing is really interesting, in how you’re all weaving in this darkly subversive spirit into a genre that’s been very upbeat in recent years. Jody Hill’s film Observe & Report (starring Seth Rogen) is the ultimate example of that, though that movie was misunderstood.
It’s a fine line between handing a movie studio a movie poster with some comedic faces on it and a comedic concept, but then when the audience goes in thinking they’re gonna get broad, obvious hilarity, and yet they’re given something with a little bit more texture and gravity, it can confuse people. Jody is a perfect example of a filmmaker that has such a strong voice, and it takes audiences off guard. I think that’s a positive thing.
It’s an incredible thing to push an audience to places they haven’t gone before, but that’s something that people in the industry get a little scared of. A filmmaker who can take his or her dramatic and horrific influences and pull comedy from those things is someone who should be applauded; sometimes, it just takes its time to find its groove and audience. Observe & Report is a movie that people watch now and think is amazing, but when it came out they were confused; they’d just seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop and they thought Jody’s movie was a sequel to it. [Laughs.]
Going back to Pineapple Express, when you got that job, were you looking to get into the Hollywood big-studio system?
Yeah, I was looking to do something different. It was weird, I was at a point where I had made four movies that nobody saw, so nobody wanted me to make another drama—no financial entity was ready to invest in me as a dramatic director. I wasn’t turning in any cash; I never made a movie that made over a half-a-million dollars until I made Pineapple.
In fact, Pineapple’s midnight screening, the night before it officially opened, it made four times what all of my previous movies combined had made. [Laughs.] But I really did have an interest to do something comedic, because I do feel strongly about the downside of doing the same thing over and over again.
It’s like working out—if you only work out the same muscle, then you’re only going to have that one strength, but if you stop doing your curls and start doing some leg-presses for a little bit, you can always go back to the arms.
Do you plan on going back to the arms, so to speak—the dramatic stuff?
Yeah, I definitely have the itch to.... Some of the stuff that I’m responding to right now, whether I’m writing it or reading it, is more dramatic, or horror or thriller or an animation. Stuff that I haven’t done. I don’t like getting into a rut—I like breaking down a door, playing in that room, and then going off to play somewhere else.
Looking back at Your Highness, how do you feel about the film’s reception?
Well, the experience of making Your Highness itself was incredible; it was like a dream come true. To be allowed to make your childhood dream project is such a gift within an industry that can be so difficult. Certainly people up above were wondering why we were doing some of the things we were doing. [Laughs.]
But Universal was really cool and let us make the movie that we wanted to make. They marketed it differently than I ever would have marketed it, because I never really looked at it as a comedy; I looked at it as a vulgar adventure movie. And I think the advertising campaign leaned more to showing it as some kind of comedic spoof, which was a little confusing to me, and, ultimately, it was confusing to the audience.
That wasn’t the kind of movie that you engineer for critical acclaim and prestige, anyway; literally, you’re just having a great time and filming what makes you laugh. What makes me laugh is different than what makes most other people laugh. I think I have a pretty twisted sense of humor. I’ll watch big, successful, $100-million-making comedies and I sometimes don’t find them funny at all. I’ll be confused as to why people are laughing at them, but numbers don’t lie. People really do enjoy certain things and don’t get or enjoy certain other things.