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How Danny McBride Crafts the Perfect Opening Scene

Danny McBride. Photo: Vulture and HBO

Few make sense of dopes and douchebags like Danny McBride. The writer-director-performer has spent much of his career depicting overconfident white dudes who smash through their staid surroundings with egos that outweigh their abilities. While subject matter varies — from martial arts in The Foot Fist Way to baseball in Eastbound & Down and secondary school administration in Vice PrincipalsMcBride and his frequent collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green can’t resist projects that look for sympathy in unsympathetic characters.

McBride’s new HBO project The Righteous Gemstones follows suit in that it deals with the bad behavior of its Evangelist protagonists; it breaks with tradition in that it’s an ensemble comedy that co-stars John Goodman, Adam Devine, Edi Patterson, and others. In this episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, we ask McBride to unpack his approach to opening scenes from The Foot Fist Way to The Righteous Gemstones. The opening has long been considered the most important of a movie, but how have McBride and his collaborators taken that philsophy to TV? Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen below. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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The Foot Fist Way: We see the students of Fred Simmons (Danny McBride) pitching parents on why they should sign them up for tae kwon do lessons. Fred then does a demonstration, where he attempts to break several bricks with his elbows. He doesn’t break all of them. 

Comedically, the entire movie is summed up in that opening scene. You get the cringe factor that’s very prevalent in that film and just a complete peek into this guy’s ego of what he thinks he’s doing compared to what he’s actually doing. We felt like that was a good way to sort of kick the audience into this world.

Eastbound & Down: Kenny Powers (McBride) narrates over footage of his ascent and decline. He then finds himself signing up to become a substitute teacher. When someone recognizes him, he punches him in the face.

That also is the whole entire show wrapped up into the opening. We sold that show as a pilot, so we had no idea ever if we would be given the opportunity to make that series, so we just put everything we had on the table of just trying to explain to the audience who this guy is, where he’s coming from, what he’s done. That’s why it makes sense to start that with sort of this montage, basically, of the quickest flameout in history — of a guy who has these natural abilities and blew it all by just being an asshole.

Vice Principals: Principal Welles (Bill Murray) raises the American flag up the flagpole for the last time before having to leave the school to care for his dying wife. He is joined by his vice-principals: Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins). It’s Lee who asks who will be taking over as principal, which Gamby finds insensitive. Principal Welles says he doesn’t care and asks them to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Lee and Gamby fight like children behind his back.

The TV show was based on a screenplay that Jody Hill and I wrote, and we pounded out that first scene. It’s exactly the same as it was in the screenplay when we considered it as a feature, and we felt it was everything that the show was about there. That show is about leadership, and different styles of leadership, and what it takes to be a leader, so having these two guys with these two entirely different points of view be bickering and fighting as the flag’s being hoisted … it seemed like it had a lot to say about the story and a lot to say about our country in general.

The Righteous Gemstones: Eli (John Goodman), Jesse (McBride), and Kelvin (Adam Devine) Gemstone are performing a 24-hour baptism marathon in a wave pool in Chengdu, China. Jesse and Kelvin fight over each other’s baptizing style. Eli stops a man from taking photos. Then, all of the sudden, the waves turn on. All hell breaks loose.

I wanted to drop into a heightened situation with these characters to see the scope of what they do. I saw a mass baptism in China in a wave pool on YouTube. I was like, This seems like a plot that the Gemstones would have. These people go around the world doing all this crazy stuff.

This was a send-off for mom, who always wanted to do this. When Kelvin, Jesse, and Eli approach this, they imagine this would be nice to do in mom’s honor, and instead it’s a total shitshow. That’s where the Gemstones are when the story begins: Someone powerful and strong at the center of this family is now gone, and there’s nobody around that’s righteous enough to take her place. They’re trying, and it’s obvious that it’s not working.

Originally this scene was in the middle of the day. We shot this whole show in Charleston, South Carolina — it’s far away from China, but they did have a waterpark, so we went through the legalities to get permission to shoot there. I’m not sure if they saw the content or if they saw the health risk in having a full film crew there while kids are going down water slides, but a week before the shoot they told us that we couldn’t do that scene. They were like, “We can’t do it while the park is open.” I was like, “Well, damn. Well, when’s the park not open?” They were like, “We close every day from six to nine in the morning.” I sat on that for a while, and thought, What if this thing happened at nighttime? So I just made it a 24-hour baptism, and this is hour 17.

Was any of this improvised? Foot Fist Way and Eastbound & Down used a lot of improv, but it seems like you have moved away from it.
It turned for me. I saw an interview with Greta Gerwig talking about Frances Ha. I loved the style of that movie. I thought for sure they improved that whole movie. Their performances in it were awesome. I remember seeing that interview and being blown away that it was all planned out. I was like, That’s what I want to do. What I liked about improv was it felt rough and loose and real. I was like, Yeah, I want to see if I can plan for it to be that way. Weirdly, yeah, Frances Ha is an influence on what I’m doing.

How Danny McBride Crafts the Perfect Opening Scene