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Observe and Report wows the crowd at UNC School of the Arts

by Mark Burger

Students, faculty and friends of the UNC School of the Arts’ School of Filmmaking braved the rain last Friday night and packed the Main Theatre of the ACE Exhibition Complex to “observe and report” a special sneak preview of Observe and Report, the upcoming comedy which opens nationwide April 10 from Warner Bros. Seth Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the delusional (and possibly deranged) head of security at a suburban shopping mall. When he’s not wooing an air-headed, promiscuous perfume girl (Anna Faris) or trying to solve a rash of after-hours robberies and infuriating a local detective (Ray Liotta) in the process, Ronnie’s dream is to become a real cop. Not so much to protect or serve, but because cops get to carry guns and shoot people. And he’s the hero. Observe and Report was written and directed by School of Filmmaking alumnus Jody Hill (Class of ’99) and reunited him with editor Zene Baker (Class of ’98), both of whom were on hand to screen the film and to participate in an informal panel discussion afterward. Observe and Report boasts a large contingent of UNCSA alumni, including cinematographer Tim Orr and co-stars Celia Weston (also a graduate of Salem College in Winston-Salem), Ben Best and Danny McBride. Inclement weather notwithstanding, the assembled audience — including relatives of both Hill and Baker — was primed to revel in a film that revels in political, psychological and moral incorrectness, and revel they did. Big laughs and spontaneous applause were not uncommon throughout the screening. John Mauceri, the chancellor of the school, introduced the film and offered congratulations from the absent Jordan Kerner, the dean of the School of Filmmaking, who is still recovering from a staph infection. Current faculty member and former dean Dale Pollock, under whose tenure as dean Hill graduated, moderated the discussion. Pollock, who produced over a dozen feature films during his years in Hollywood (including Set It Off and A Midnight Clear), lauded the filmmakers for the film’s “great sense of honesty — a rightin-your-face honesty.” “Comedies have to have a sense of relief, but we never break,” said Hill. “We never let the audience have a sense of relief.” An unabashed admirer of director Martin Scorsese — counting Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy among his favorites — Hill wanted to do a character study with an edgy nature, but still make it funny.

“We tried to make this everything Hollywood comedies weren’t,” Hill said, and although he’s always happy to get accolades, “I also take a certain amount of pride in pissing people off.” Both Hill and Baker were in good spirits after the screening, and Hill noted with a laugh that it was the first time his parents had seen the film — which earns well its R rating (many times over, in fact) — in its entirety. The audience reaction was solid evidence that Observe and Report found favor with those in attendance, even mom and dad. These are heady days for Hill, whose feature debut The Foot Fist Way brought him to the attention of Will Ferrell and his production leader Adam McKay. They’re currently collaborating on the new HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” which also counts a number of School of Filmmaking graduates both in front of and behind the cameras. The series stars McBride as a boorish, boozy ex-baseball player trying to get his life back together, and is very much in the same absurdist vein as The Foot Fist Way and Observe and Report. Hill noted that many of his former classmates “are the same guys I still make movies with today.” That also includes Randy Gambill, who worked on The Foot Fist Way as a crewmember but plays the role of “the Pervert” in Observe and Report, a shameless flasher who terrorizes the mall. According to Hill, Gambill’s parents know that he’s in the movie but aren’t aware of the role he plays… or how much of their son’s anatomy is on display in the film. Having so many friends on the film “was a little bit like the lunatics running the asylum,” Hill said with a smile. Hill landed his leading man without a completed script. Seth Rogen had seen The Foot Fist Way, liked it, liked Hill, and committed. The budget was approximately $25 million, which Hill described as “a low-budget studio movie.” Hill and Baker admitted that the film’s original ending was a bit different than the one it has now, at the behest of the film’s producer, Donald DeLine, who felt the original ending might be too abrasive and infuriate audiences. “’Don’t piss off your audience,’” Hill recalled DeLine saying. “He was a good sport. We had some fun.” Nevertheless, Hill and Baker maintained, they’ve come to love the film’s ending. “What’s on the screen is what I wanted,” Hill said. Both Hill and Baker recalled their school days at the School of Filmmaking with laughter and nostalgia, and Pollock noted with pride how successful so many alumni have gone in the business yet have remained friends and collaborators. “I actually got Cs in editing when I went here,” quipped Baker, “so there’s hope.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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