Jody Hill on ‘The Foot Fist Way,’ Tae Kwon Do, and Paying Off Your Credit-Card Debt

Jody Hill (right) on the set. Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Vantage

With an uproarious midnight debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way seemed like a prime candidate to be snapped up by a major distributor, with the ensuing massive nationwide release to follow. Despite its shoestring budget and limited resources, this hilarious flick about a small town Tae Kwon Do instructor (the co-writer and comedy star of tomorrow Danny McBride) whose delusions of grandeur collide with his pathetic personal life is an unholy cross between Bottle Rocket, Napoleon Dynamite, and Talladega Nights — only, like, funnier. Yet, amazingly, it took some time for distributors to wise up to the film’s awesomeness. Luckily, it eventually found its way to the eyeballs of kindred spirits Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who snatched it up and are now releasing it (today!) through Paramount Vantage. Vulture spoke to director Jody Hill via phone in New Mexico, where he is busy shooting his next film.

How did you make the film? It seems like you basically maxed out all your credit cards.
Right after graduation, I moved to Los Angeles for like five, six years. I worked in a bunch of shitty jobs in reality television. And I just saved everything I could for five years, knowing I wanted to make a movie. And then I went back to my hometown of Concord, North Carolina, and applied for as many credit cards as I could get. But when we were shooting the movie, even that wasn’t enough, and my brother kicked in about $11,000 more, just so we could finish production. It was all basically between me and my brother.

And you’re still paying it back.
Luckily, I sold a screenplay. I’m in Albuquerque right now — that’s why you hear me running out of breath, from the elevation — and I’m shooting a movie called Observe and Report, starring Seth Rogen and Ray Liotta. When I sold that screenplay, I was able to pay off the movie. But just barely: I’ve still got this shitty one bedroom and that kind of stuff.

Were you yourself a Tae Kwon Do student?
I grew up doing Tae Kwon Do. When I was in high school in North Carolina, I started a Tae Kwon Do club. That’s where the idea for the movie came from. And we shot the movie in this big school that an instructor there, Sean Baxter, had built up, and we used all his kids in the movie. So they’re like real Tae Kwon Do kids. There are no real actors in it. Danny McBride was the only one of us who had any acting experience — he’d been in All the Real Girls, directed by David Gordon Green. I met [co-writers and co-stars] Ben Best and Danny in college, and when we shot the movie, I had them come and train for three weeks.

So it was like boot camp?
Yeah. Well, not really. I said three weeks, but they probably went about three times. They didn’t like it too much.

Is any of this film based on your real-life experiences in Tae Kwon Do?
I remember when I first started Tae Kwon Do, I thought my instructor was, like, the coolest guy in the world. And as I got older, I realized he was just a regular guy. It never occurs to you that this is someone who’s got the same problems everybody else does. It’s weird: When you go to martial-arts schools, a lot of the students — regardless of whether they’re kids or guys who are older than the instructor himself — will bow, and call their instructor “Sir” and “Mister So-and-So.” It could definitely go to somebody’s head. When you’re around that more than you’re around your wife or your kids, you can see how that’ll lead to someone being out of touch with reality. That’s where a lot of his bravado comes from.

How does it feel seeing Foot Fist Way now, after all these years?
This movie I’m making now is a big-budget movie. I mean, it’s not The Terminator, but it’s a studio movie. You have all these resources — we have cranes and all these other crazy things. And this product will look really professional. You know, all the color is going to be perfect, that sort of thing. But when I look at Foot Fist Way, I don’t know if I’ll ever be more proud of a movie. When we shot it, we didn’t have any money at all. There was no way we could compete with a studio film. We didn’t even want to try. What we were going for is basically like when you hear a punk bank’s first album that they recorded in a basement somewhere — with pops and hisses, and talking in the background and stuff. Instead of having that be our handicap, we tried to turn that into something that would make it stand out. I’m proud, really, that we were smart enough to realize that, at least. Also, the movie still makes me laugh. If it makes me laugh three years later, that’s cool. —Bilge Ebiri