Spoiler alert! If you tell Danny McBride that you thought Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) really had been shot dead by Ms. Abbott (Edi Patterson) in the series finale of HBO’s Vice Principals, you’ll make him very happy.
“I just love hearing that you really bought it, ’cause that’s sort of what our goal was with this whole show,” he says of himself and fellow exec producers-directors Jody Hill and David Gordon Green. “We all felt like we were bored of just watching something and knowing where it’s going to go. We felt like, if we can just make something that people don’t see the end coming a mile away, we’ll have done what we were supposed to do here. … We’d adjust back and forth between super-dark-weird drama and dumb comedy — it just makes the audience kind of sit back on their heels. You never really know what’s going to come. So I think it’s kind of funny to think that when you get into that, you really do think, Wow, they can kill Lee Russell ’cause they don’t give a f***.’ We did give a s***, but we’re just pretending that we don’t.”
Lee had figured out that it was jilted Ms. Abbott who’d shot McBride’s Neal Gamby in the Season 1 finale and then, jealous of Gamby’s relationship with Russell, tried to frame Lee for the attempted murder by planting evidence in his car in Season 2’s Spring Break episode.
“Lee’s flaw is that he’s a compulsive liar. It made more sense to us that that would be ultimately what would come to damage him. That his reputation is so severe, being accused of this and no one believing him [when he insists he didn’t shoot Gamby] — that’d almost be a greater way to have him have to explore himself,” McBride says. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, these guys have done so much bad stuff, but I think that’s the way it is in life: justice isn’t always served for our greatest wrongs. Sometimes it’s the small slights that we don’t even think of as a wrong that come back to bite us in the ass.”
The producers had decided Abbott was the killer before they began filming the series, though they didn’t tell Patterson and the rest of the cast until they got to Season 2. “We didn’t want everybody tipping off what was going to happen in the first season,” McBride says.
He admits it was a bit of a gamble. “What was interesting with this show was we never shot a pilot. We wrote the whole series and we just started shooting, so we never had that time to just see, is everybody going to work? Are all these actors going to pan out? Which I think is what most people use the pilot for — to test-drive the concept of the show,” he says. “But with Edi Patterson, I mean she was just so funny from the very first day that she showed up on set. She just made us so excited to see where her character was going to go. So we didn’t sway from her being the culprit. I think she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met before. I had just the absolute best time working with her. And honestly, when the show was over, I just kind of looked at her and was like, ‘Me and you have to do something else together again.’ So we locked up, Edi and myself and wrote this script together that’s a vehicle for her that I want to direct. So hopefully after this performance of hers, someone will finance that and make that movie.”
He would also love to work again with Goggins, who became a good friend. They had so many memorable scenes together, but he points to the one in the finale after the tiger that Lee had ordered for graduation attacks him. “The one that really got me the most was when he’s, like, dying for the second time because of the tiger wounds,” McBride says. “I remember him and I both were like, ‘This is what the whole entire series is about. It’s about this scene. If we can just make people take this ride for this scene, then we will have done what we needed to do with the show.’ So much so that we were actually supposed to shoot that scene one night. Then the night had kind of gone wrong, and Walt and I were both like, ‘Let’s not do it tonight. We’re not in the mind-set. Let’s push it down the road a little bit.’ So we both just kind of knew that we needed to be in the right head space for that scene, and those two guys basically just acknowledging that they helped each other move past this f***ed up part in their life.”
Lee told Gamby that this last year was his favorite year of his whole life, and that he loves him. Then, he badgered Gamby into saying that he loves him too. “That was all pretty much in the script. We probably improv’d the least amount of any [project] we’ve done on this. I think that’s because there were so many spinning plates,” McBride says.
Yes, when Russell changed the school’s mascot to the tigers at the beginning of Season 2, it was so they could have that ending. “We started with [the idea that] these guys are out of date. Their views are out of date, the way they see the world is out of date, and it’s unfair. So the idea that the symbol that represents them in the beginning is the Native American warrior — something that is obviously insulting to so many people, something that really was out of place and out of context, it sort of makes sense. And then the idea that Lee’s ambition turns their warrior into the tiger — that’s how ambition sort of ends up eating him at the end. That was always in the DNA of [the show].”
Plus, we got to see the brilliant moment when Gamby, the ultimate disciplinarian, stopped the tiger from attacking again with the sheer force of his anger and a “f*** you.”
“He has so much rage and anger and displaced anger, this was a place for him to finally harness it, and try to use it to protect himself,” McBride says with a laugh.
The finale ended with a flash-forward to three months later. Gamby’s still with Ms. Snodgrass (Georgia King), who’s now a published author, but he’s now the principal of a middle school. Lee, meanwhile, is the regional manager of a boutique in the mall. Gamby and Russell see each other in the food court and smile. But when Gamby looks again, Russell is gone. Does that mean they know their friendship is too toxic for them to spend time together? “I think that both of these guys [know] the importance that each of them played in their lives in this particular moment,” McBride says, “but I also think that both of them have grown enough to know that it’s probably better for the world if they don’t join forces.”
They never questioned where Lee would end up, he adds. “What’s really so funny is, ironically, when you write something like this where you explore these characters so deeply, by the end of it, your last episodes sort of end up writing themselves. You’ve set all this stuff up, and the characters sort of tell you where they need to go,” he says. “For some reason we just thought that he would take that lust of power and move into retail. He always cared about what he wore. He always had a sense for style. And it made sense that would be how he would build his empire again.”
And what’s the takeaway from Gamby laying down the law for his new vice principal (Steve Little)? “Well, I think that Gamby learned a lot from Welles [Bill Murray]. I think he learned a lot more from Dr. Brown [Kimberly Hebert Gregory],” McBride says. “He is sort of using a little bit of her tactics of being open, but at the end of the day, letting people know that she shouldn’t be f***ed with.”
It’s a bittersweet fate for Gamby, for sure. “Weirdly, it’s one of the things that I find the most heartbreaking, when Gamby pulls up to that principal sign at a different school, because at the end of the day you know that North Jackson, and being there when his daughter was going to be there, is kind of all he ever wanted,” McBride says. “So I really look at that ending like he’s an exiled king that got booted out of his homeland. But the idea that Steve Little, who played Stevie Janowski on Eastbound, is there — [we’re] literally leaving the audience thinking that maybe all of the fun isn’t over just yet for him.”
Still, striking the right tone in the finale had to be tricky: we all know the criminal acts Russell and Gamby committed, and yet, we’ve grown to root for them. “We really set out to tell the story of the villain. In doing so, we didn’t even really want to totally redeem them, because I think true villains don’t just change overnight or become different people. So I think that there was a balance between how much justice do these guys deserve, and how much of it is just really like we’re showing this character piece?” McBride says. “Like with Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, you don’t necessarily have to see him get arrested or get killed for that to be a complete story. I think that’s sort of what we’re doing here. Do I think that being the principal of the middle school is a punishment enough for burning someone’s house down? Definitely not. But I think that in this world, it’s like we don’t really even know if this is all that’s going to happen to these guys. This is definitely a show about vice principals fighting for a job. When both of those guys are out of the running for that job, the story is sort of over, and the audience is kind of left to fill in the blanks of what happens next.”
The show was conceived as a limited series, but especially now that we’ve gotten to know the teachers so well in Season 2, maybe we could at least get a reunion special on the DVD? “I had probably the best time of my career working on the show and meeting these friends, and I love them — every one of them from Kimberly to Walton to Edi, Georgia, they’re all just incredible. I would love to work with all these guys again, and if it was in this world, if it was the right idea, I’d do it again,” McBride says. “But I think that part of what makes the story work is the idea that it isn’t designed to go on forever. We were really able to show character growth and flip the story on its ass because we didn’t have the restraints of having to make sure we maintained a formula that would be workable year after year after year. I think that’s what ultimately made the show interesting.”
As a viewer, it was satisfying to see how Gamby’s moments with the “workers” (DeShawn!), “bad kids” (yay, Robin Shandrell!), and “gold-star teachers” all built to them joining forces in the penultimate episode after Gamby and Russell’s epic brawl through the school. (McBride directed that fight in less than a day, by the way: “I just had to get creative and figure out how to shoot this in a way where I didn’t need to get in there and cover every single punch and kick,” he says. “So I was just walking around the set and came up with an idea for that tracking shot, and I just started to devise the whole fight that way — seeing these guys with the background, with the school, which is the other character of the show.”)
What was the most satisfying part for McBride in the end? “We took a year to write the whole series, and I swear to God I never had an anxiety attack ever in my life until about a week before we went down to shoot. I just woke up in the middle of the night, panicked in a straight-up anxiety attack, just because of the sheer amount of time we spent writing on this, then knowing we were about to go shoot it,” he says. “This whole thing was an adventure, and to be able to put that much energy into something, then to at the end of the day come up with something that you’re proud of, and that you’re happy with, and that you made new friends with — I think it’s the ultimate sort of payoff because the whole thing was ultimately rewarding. It was such a fun way to make a living.”
Since he doubts we’ll get the trademark group commentary on the Season 2 Blu-ray (he hears it’s being rush-packaged for Christmas: “Maybe one day down the road Criterion will decide to release a TV show and they’ll have us do a commentary,” he jokes), can he at least answer one burning question: What did Lee do to get kicked out of gymnastics?!
“The world will never know,” McBride says with another laugh. “I know what he did, but I will never tell anyone. I will keep Lee Russell’s secret to the grave.”
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