Shooting ‘Vice Principals’: Michael Simmonds on Working with Danny McBride and More
July 22, 2016
by Ken Switzer
Michael Simmonds (BFA 2000 Film and Video) has worked as a cinematographer on everything from the critically acclaimed documentary Project Nim to the much-buzzed indie drama White Girl, which opens in theaters next month. His latest credit is for the comedy series Vice Principals, starring Danny McBride and Walter Goggins, which recently premiered on HBO. We recently caught up with Simmonds, who shot season two, to get an inside scoop on what it was like working on the show.
What was the most challenging part of shooting Vice Principals? The most fun?
The most challenging part of shooting the show is the fact that I have never shot a TV show before. I usually shoot movies and TV works at a different pace. With a film you have one script and on a TV show you get a new script every couple weeks, and you are often shooting different episodes in the same day. It can get very confusing. I would only be given one or two episodes at a time, so I never knew what was going to happen too far in the future. That aspect also made it fun and exciting. And when you're working with Danny McBride and David Gordon Green, every day is a blast. We worked extremely hard but even when were tired we still laughed a lot.
How did working on Vice Principals compare to other work you've done?
Season one and two were shot back to back with only a couple of weeks between them. The only crew changing over was a handful of people including me and the director, so I was walking onto a project that had already been up and running for many months. I had to learn their pace and routine and we all had to adjust a little. Just learning 50-plus crew member’s names is a daunting task.
I very rarely work on the same type of project twice in a row. Last year I shot Nerve (watch a trailer below), a studio teen thriller; White Girl, a gritty indie film; and Vice Principals, an HBO 30-minute comedy show. They are all totally different in size of production unit and different pacing in production schedule. That is what I enjoy most about my job—mixing up the projects and keeping myself on my toes.
How does season two of Vice Principals compare to season one? Can you give us any hints about where things are going or what to expect?
Unlike most TV shows that are created with the intent to continue on forever or until people stop watching, Vice Principals is an 18-episode movie. There is a coherent plot with developed character arcs and things come to a dramatic climax. Season two, which I shot, will continue the story and take it to really strange and emotional places while keeping the humor of season one. Jody Hill directed season one and David Gordon Green did season two. They are very different directors and focus on different things in a scene, so you will notice some changes. Keep an eye out for the “prom” episode in season two, which Danny McBride directed. I was very impressed with his directing. I am sure he will direct a movie in the future, he certainly has the skills.
Any memorable/funny behind the scenes moments you can share?
Watching Walton Goggins act blew my mind everyday. To watch him perform is like watching any master perform their craft. He would never try to change the script. Instead, he would take what’s on the paper, perhaps a seemingly functional line of dialogue, and effortlessly turn it into the funniest thing you’ve ever heard.