Ben Best makes good

by Keith Barber

The story of Ben Best’s rise to Hollywood fame and fortune is one that should be told over a cold beer. One, because it’s hilarious and two, because that’s where it all began — just two friends hanging out on a hot summer day drinking cold beers and dreaming a bit. Ben Best, a High Point native and UNC School of the Arts graduate, admits he was floundering and flat broke in the summer of 2004. After an unsuccessful stint in Los Angeles, Best and UNC School of the Arts classmate Danny McBride wound up back in North Carolina. Resources were scarce due to their admitted inabilities to hold down paying jobs.

“There was no work for us because we’re shitty PAs,” Best acknowledges.

The two good friends shared a house for a very brief time, and money was getting low. That’s when inspiration struck.

“We pooled all our money, got a case a beer and bought a baby pool — not one of those cheap baby pools but one of those nice, inflatable ones,” Best recalls. “We literally sat in that, it was the middle of summer, and drank beer all day.”

Inspired by the success of UNC School of the Arts classmate David Gordon Green, director of The Pineapple Express and All the Real Girls, Best and McBride began knocking around movie ideas. The first idea had to do with McBride playing a character that works with kids. That was the genesis of the 2006 film The Foot Fist Way, a comedy about a small-town Tae Kwon Do instructor. The other movie idea centered on a grizzled former major league baseball player who comes home to teach PE at his old middle school.

Two years later, Best, McBride and UNCSA classmate Jody Hill, director of The Foot Fist Way, were premiering their film at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. At the film’s world premiere in Salt Lake City, Best said a dozen movie executives got up and left the theater 10 minutes into the movie. He took it personally at first but then learned of a bidding war that had begun that evening over a world documentary entitled Into Great Silence. Best later learned that executives routinely walk out of screenings at Sundance, and took it in stride.

“Then we met with Will and Adam and we got drunk,” Best said.

Never one for telling a linear story, Best proceeded to fill in the blanks. The Foot Fist Way caught the eye of Will Ferrell and his producing partner, Adam McKay, who called Best, McBride and Hill to set up a meeting at Ferrell’s house earlier this year. McKay had just directed Ferrell in the film Stepbrothers, which grossed more than $100 million at the box office. After a few Jell-O shots, Ferrell and McKay got down to business.

“They asked if we had any ideas and we really didn’t,” Best said, laughing. “Then we remembered, ‘Oh yeah.’”

Best and McBride pitched the idea for Eastbound and Down, the story about the down-and-out former major leaguer, to Ferrell and McKay.

“Those guys jumped on it because they’re big sports guys. So five to ten minutes into talking about it, they said, ‘The idea sounds great, but you guys don’t know anything about sports, do you?’” Best said, laughing. Best admits that when it comes to picking a team for a pick-up basketball game, he’s the last guy you’d want to pick.

Then Best paused for a moment and proclaimed, “This is where it gets surreal.”

Chris Henchy, writer and producer of HBO’s “Entourage,” came on board as executive producer. Ferrell and McKay attached themselves to the project as producers. Next thing you know, Best, McBride and Hill are cruising around LA in a stretch Hummer limo, taking meetings with executives at one studio and network after the other.

“It was ridiculous. I think we could’ve pitched anything,” Best said. “We’re going into these meetings and Will Ferrell is warming up these executives for us. Jody, Danny and I sat on a big leather couch and Will stood there with his back to us, crouched down in attack mode. He told us if any of the executives looked away like they were bored, he would pounce on them.”

It turned out that all the meetings were merely prologue to the sit-down with the HBO executives.

“HBO was pretty much the goal. We left the meeting, and they called as we’re driving out of their parking deck,” Best said. “We went crazy, and we stopped at a Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank to get hamburgers. So we’re standing in the parking lot drinking milkshakes, cheering and we forget we’re supposed to be at NBC. Will calls us and says, ‘The meeting started 15 minutes ago.’”

To underscore the surreal nature of Best’s Hollywood adventure, one week prior to his pitch sessions for Eastbound and Down, he was working as a production assistant on a NASCAR commercial at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It reminded Best of yet another humbling experience during his time in show business. After Foot Fist Way was released in theaters, Best found jobs in the film industry hard to come by. He recalls getting one day of work as a craft service person on Talladega Nights and an encounter with three beautiful young ladies who had been featured extras on Foot Fist Way.

“I’m literally in a garbage can and I hear ‘Ben,’ it’s three of the models who had appeared in Foot Fist Way. It was such a humiliating lesson — it completely beat me in the ass, all credibility blown,” Best said, laughing. But once again, we digress.

Filming Eastbound and Down in North Carolina had always been a top priority for Best, McBride and Hill. After some negotiating, the trio dispelled a few Southern myths and convinced HBO to produce the series in Wilmington.  

“There is this perception outside the South, that we’re all malformed, incestuous children playing banjos,” Best said. “These last five episodes, it was the best experience I’ve had, and I can speak for a good percentage of the crew because almost 50 percent were guys I’ve graduated from college with. We all gelled so well because most of us are Southern boys. It worked like a dream.”

Best said shooting Eastbound and Down has turned out to be a School of the Arts reunion to some degree, which has made for the best vibe on a set he’s ever experienced. David Gordon Green has directed an episode, and Green’s cinematographer, Tim Orr — another School of the Arts alum — is an integral part of Best, McBride and Hill’s extended family.

“The best film school is watching a guy like that at the height of his power, the prowess of this man right now,” Best said, referring to Green. “He’s at the height of his power and to come into TV, which is something that is alien to us, to come in with an army of not just classmates but friends, that’s how a set would be if everyone can have come common ground. When it ceases to become a job, that’s the way it should be.”

The conservatory nature of the School of the Arts instilled an ethic of supporting one’s classmates rather than viewing them as competition, said Best. It is this collaborative creative philosophy, which has made the filming of Eastbound and Down the best professional experience of Best’s life, and the perfect ending to an unlikely tale.

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