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SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers from “Interlude III,” the fifth episode of “The Righteous Gemstones” Season 3, now streaming on Max.
HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones” follows a boisterous family of televangelists based in Charleston, S.C., who anticipate their patriarch’s, Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), imminent departure. Throughout the three seasons, outside figures work to take down the Gemstone family, as the adult children, Jesse (Danny McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson) and Kelvin (Adam DeVine), fight and attempt to prove their worth to their father and community.
The third season picks up once the Gemstones have retained complete financial control over the Christian-themed beachside resort, Zion’s Landing, all while the three Gemstone children compete to replace their father. But in the season’s fifth episode, “Interlude III,” the series flashes back to 2000, right after Y2K, and provides another look at the Gemstones’ tension with the Montgomery family.
The earlier time frame showcases the pivotal moments that contributed to the demise of Eli’s fraught relationship with his younger sister May-May Montgomery (née Gemstone), played by Kristen Johnston. As the episode begins, the audience quickly learn that the Gemstones attempted to “save” congregants from the impending Y2K emergency — and as a result, turned a profit from selling “Y2K Survival Buckets.” As Eli and his wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles) reap the benefits, Eli’s brother-in-law, Peter (Steve Zahn), faces the consequences of buying $25,000 worth of buckets without his wife May-May’s knowledge. Once the episode concludes, Peter is shown taking extreme measures to remedy his disastrous investment.
Speaking with Variety, director David Gordon Green, costume designer Christina Flannery, VFX supervisor Bruce Branit and casting directors Sherry Thomas and Lisa Mae Fincannon broke down how they collaborated on the episide to transport audiences to the year 2000, in creator and star Danny McBride’s comedy series.
David Gordon Green, director and executive producer
David Green Gordon returned to direct the series’ third flashback episode, and once again brought the audience back in time, as the Gemstones entered the new millennium. While the episode is set in 2000, Gordon Green explained how he and McBride try to reference film and television of the 1980s and 1990s.
As the show’s director and one of its executive producers, Gordon Green said he leans into melding genres, and called out this episode’s pop-culture references — allusions to Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” Olivia Newton-John in “Grease” and the “Halloween” franchise, both the original John Carpenter movies and his revival of them.
“We’re not shooting it like a comedy,” said Gordon Green. “I think part of what gives it a little bit of scope, and an unlikely interest, is because it’s not just putting the camera in the comedy place and telling the joke.
“It lets something be unexpectedly exciting or unexpectedly dramatic, and not fall into the tropes of the genre,” he continued. “And then be able to be inspired by all genres and bring it into this, [rather than] make a show that could be formulaic and could be technically, traditionally executed.”
Gordon Green’s latest revision of typical tropes occurs in the episode’s final scene, when Peter attempts to rob a bank. Rather than following him into the bank, Gordon Green positioned the camera in the diner booth where Peter had sat moments before. With a protected barrier, the audience watches Peter unsuccessfully, and almost fatally, try to rob the bank to gain the funds he had poorly invested. Gordon Green explained how that final sequence involved Zahn, a stuntman and personal friend, to ensure the “Texas switch” went off without a hitch.
“We’re just trying to up the ante, and do something different,” Gordon Green said. “It was something you had to map out and choreograph and do safely, so nobody got run over. Then you hope that the lighting stays the same so you can do it all in one take.”
He added, “It was cool to end it [that way]. We always try to build it so that there’s a bit of a launch and a leap at the end of an episode, so that it has a bit of an opera to it.”
Christina Flannery, costume design
Costume designer Christina Flannery wanted to pay homage to her Southern upbringing, as well as the fashions of her adolescence at the turn of the century. “If I’m going to do something that’s a period [piece] it has to be period.” Flannery said. “You have to really really deep dive a lot of research, even as far as the waistline. So every single thing for the most part is authentically vintage.”
Flannery sifted through costume warehouses, Army surplus stores, country home catalogs and Urban Outfitters’ limited collections — as well as searching through thrift stores for Southpole, FUBU and JNKOs to find pieces that would invoke 2000s nostalgia.
As she looked through physical stores, online and print catalogs, Flannery had sources of pop-culture inspirations for each character: She modeled Jesse after Justin Timberlake, Judy after Britney Spears and Gemstone matriarch, Aimee-Leigh, after Tammy Faye Bakker.
Creating a pre-teen girl who strived to be just like Britney allowed Flannery to create custom pieces, including young Judy’s opening scene ensemble. While Flannery needed to find multiples of Judy’s turquoise metallic pants, she custom-made the character’s bandana top and created small details that paid homage to “that era,” she said: “There’s the tacky bra straps that went with it. You would match your bra strap with your flip-flops and your belt.”
While Judy and the Gemstone family were based on recognizable figures — and stand as the focal point of each flashback episode — Flannery was insistent that those in the Gemstones’ orbit would maintain the integrity of their characters, their class level and the time period. When exploring Amber’s (Keely Marshall) past, Flannery said, “She comes from a poverty background. But the great thing about Amber’s character is that she has this old country home upbringing — but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t still have that special oomph.”
Bruce Branit, visual effects
Turning back the clock 23 years meant that Eli Gemstone would need to appear like a father to two teenagers. Since the show’s inception, and consistent use of flashbacks, VFX supervisor Bruce Branit has worked with Gordon Green to de-age John Goodman in order to transport the audience back in time.
A seasoned VFX specialist, but a first-time contributor to comedy, Branit noted how “de-aging is almost more important to a comedy than a sci-fi show — because if it gets in the way, it breaks the show.”
Branit explained creating that “subtle and realistic” effect typically takes eight to 12 weeks, and said the VFX team requests to shoot the flashback episodes first in preparation for the tedious process. “Luckily, we have a team that understands why we’re asking these things. Because it gets better the more time you can put into it.”
In addition to the lengthy process, Branit said, “You’ve got John Goodman on camera, a national treasure, and the last thing you want to do is change his performance in any way.”
Branit cited one pivotal close-up shot of Goodman, in which Peter asks Eli if he lied to him. “It’s so close, and Goodman’s performance is just so perfectly nuanced. He wouldn’t lie. He’s this preacher, and he’s completely trustworthy — but he doesn’t answer the question. He doesn’t give anything away. He’s got this little sparkle in his eye.”
Branit continued, “I knew that was going to be really tricky, but it’s one of the best staging shots I think I’ve ever seen. It’s not just because [the team’s] work is great: They hold every pore in his face and his skin gets tighter and his eyes sparkle. It’s because we didn’t change his performance at all — just made him look a little younger.”
Sherry Thomas and Lisa Mae Fincannon, casting
The pilot of “The Righteous Gemstones” had McBride and Goodman attached ahead of its series order, and Sherry Thomas and Lisa Mae Fincannon were the leaders of the casting team that landed the core four Gemstones. But once they realized younger versions would be needed, Thomas and Fincannon were tasked to scour the southwest and southeast to find the characters’ younger counterparts.
With Thomas based in California and Fincannon in North Carolina, they worked with McBride, Gordon Green and executive producer Jody Hill to delegate which characters they would be searching and casting for, including the young Jesse, Judy, Kelvin and Amber.
Thomas explained how casting children differs from casting adults. “Obviously you want to resemblance, but it’s more of the nuance and the spirit of who the character is,” she said.
“The fun thing about casting kids, especially with Danny and Jody and David, is that it’s really not as much about the performance as it is about the essence of the kid,” added Fincannon, who found young Jesse (J. Gaven Wilde) and young Amber (Marshall).
She continued, “The minute Gaven walked in, I screamed when I saw him. I literally screamed because he had [Danny’s] same curly hair. But it was also the essence of him when he was doing his interview and the way he would talk, with his hands. I was like, does he know Danny?”
Thomas explained due to the adult-themed nature of “The Righteous Gemstones,” the team has conversations with the agents and managers to ensure there’s a transparent conversation with the actors’ parents. Thomas said the team confirms the childrens’s understanding of what participating in a Danny McBride production entails.
And while casting the children involves a longer process, “Danny doesn’t care,” said Thomas. “He just wants the best actor for the part.”
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