/Film Interview: ’21 Jump Street’ Writer Michael Bacall Talks Rebooting The Franchise, A Famous Cameo, Tarantino And More
Posted on Tuesday, March 13th, 2012 by Germain Lussier
Incredibly, the rumors are true. 21 Jump Street is one of the funniest comedies of the last few years. Which is more than shocking considering it came out of an idea the world initially rolled its eyes at: rebooting a Nineties TV show best known for launching the career of Johnny Depp. The success can be placed on the shoulders of several people. To name a few: directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller; producer and star Jonah Hill, his co-star Channing Tatum, and the man who wrote the script, Michael Bacall.
Bacall also wrote Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the recent Project X and combined his wit and humor with Hill’s to create this over the top, hilarious, action-packed romp. I recently spoke with Bacall about that collaboration, some of the script’s more surprising decisions, writing in the framework of pop culture, that not-so-secret cameo, what he’s learned from Quentin Tarantino and more. If you’re a fan of the film, there’s a ton of great behind the scenes info after the jump.
There are some minor spoilers below, which will be marked, but nothing that will hurt your enjoyment of the film.
/Film: Can you sort of fill me in to how you got involved with both 21 Jump Street and Project X?
Michael Bacall: Yeah. Well let’s see, which happened first? JUMP STREET started first. Jonah [Hill] I had met while I was developing an original comedy I wrote that Todd Phillips was actually producing called PSYCHO FUNKY CHIMP about this kid who is an obsessive Pez collector and Jonah was attached and the project didn’t end up happening. We got along really well and he called me a couple of years later and said, “What do you think about doing a hard R buddy cop film? And we use 21 JUMP STREET as a vehicle for that?” I said, “Oh man, I’m a fan of the show. That would be awesome.” So he… He’s a great producer on this film. He got it set up really fast and then we were just off and running and taking a couple meetings… It was always really casual, we would just go grab lunch or kind of hang out and start talking about the story and we wrote a treatment together and from the first day we knew we wanted it to be about guys who have these unresolved issues from high school and thought that they were over it, and then as soon as they get back all of the old wounds get ripped open. The drafts went through a lot of changes, but that was kind of the heart of it the whole way through.
So we’ll stick with JUMP STREET and get over to PROJECT X in a little bit [Note: You can read that here.] So story-wise you guys sort of broke it down, but then you went on your own, wrote the script, and sent him pages or something like that? Is that correct?
Yeah, well I would… We got the treatment in and then I went to work on the drafts. When I would finish a draft I would send it to Jonah and [producer] Neal Moritz and then we would all sit in a room and do notes and change things, come up with new things… I’d run off and write another draft and then eventually Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] came onboard. So it would be the five of us kind of developing it and I would just keep cranking out these drafts and we finally, I think probably on our third draft, the studio greenlit the movie and…yeah that was the process. It was a good collaboration with some very smart people who are terrific writers in their own right and it just kind of got better and better as it went along.
It sounds like you didn’t have any trepidations about doing a remake or reboot of JUMP STREET. I know when I first heard about it, you’re like “Jonah Hill is doing 21 JUMP STREET?” I rolled my eyes. Did you guys talk about that or did you sort of… Because you said you were also a fan of the series, so…
I don’t think we ever talked about that specifically, but for me at least I can say there’s something kind of fun about coming onto a project that you know people are going to be skeptical about and then just trying to blow it out of the water and do something amazing. It’s a really good challenge and I kind of thrive on that a little bit. (Laughs) So I definitely thought about it. I don’t remember ever discussing it specifically with anyone, but it makes it kind of fun when those are the expectations.
Obviously you pull it off. You’ve heard the buzz and I’ve seen the movie and it’s so good. I literally cried laughing, but when that happened I was thinking, and specifically with the bathroom stall scene and stuff… Something like that obviously is funny on the screen, but how do you know it’s funny on the page? A lot of the movie is sight gags and physical stuff that I’m sure on the page isn’t a set-up, punch line joke. How do you know it’s going to work?
That’s funny. I actually just talked to Jonah about that gag in particular. I think we came up with that the first day we sat down in 2008 or 2009 and part of that is just knowing… everyone in the process, studio, producers, writers knowing who Jonah is, what kind of comedy he’s capable of, what he can pull off, and when you’re talking about a gag like that with him you just know it’s going to work and I think that helps a lot when you’re reading something and you know who at least one of those guys is going to be and it’s Jonah, you’ve got that image already in your mind and it probably becomes funnier on the page than if it didn’t have a name attached to it.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
Sure. I think also one of the funniest things about the script, or smartest things, I didn’t see it coming, within ten minutes their roles flip. Was that something that developed… How early in the process was that? It seems like the easy way to do it would just be “He’s the jock. He’s the nerd,” so when you flip it, that sort of gives the movie this edge.
We knew we needed them to wind up with that role reversal in high school from very early on. We had different devices in kind of getting it there. I think Phil and Chris, pretty late in the game actually, came up with that specific turn in the principal’s office, which was brilliant, because that was something we struggled with for a minute, just that kind of launching off point and that was definitely the best way to get them into those flipped roles. (Laughs) Because in the moment it kind of explains itself where it is the stupidity of Jenko’s character that actually leads to that happening.
That’s true. That’s a good point.
But that gag was there from the beginning where he gets his name wrong. It was just Phil and Chris’s genius idea to kind of have that be the thing that put them in the wrong roles.
And the movie gores pretty far out there. You think it’s just a buddy cop movie, but then there’s this whole Peter Pan thing and this huge BAD BOYS II almost chase scene. Did you guys write to a budget or did you just go nuts with those first couple of treatments before you were greenlit and then cut back?
That’s one of the fun things about being a writer. At least in the earlier drafts, I mean, you just go nuts and I wrote a pretty action packed first couple of drafts. I think as we moved closer to production a little bit of that had to be shaved off, as was expected, but the action that’s in there were the important sequences and they really just focused on those and they really nailed them. That freeway chase was also a very early idea. Jonah and I had discussed this kind of… I think we were both playing a lot of GRAND THEFT AUTO at the time. (Laughs) [MINOR SPOILER] We had this idea that you’d get stuck in traffic and kind of have to run from car to car and I just cannot believe the production value that Phil and Chris achieved in that sequence. It looks really great and yeah, I was always worried that sequence would get cut, but they really pulled it off. [END SPOILER]
Both this and SCOTT PILGRIM, and I guess PROJECT X to an extent, are full of pop culture references. Does that sort of flow naturally in your writing? Do you have to dial it back generally? How does that work for you?
I usually… I think it kind of just happens. I think a lot of the pop cultural references in JUMP STREET probably happened on the day. With PILGRIM they were inherent in the books, in the comic books. It’s tricky, because you want a film to be of its time, but you also don’t want to date it in the wrong way, so if it feels right for the character in the moment, I think it can be kind of fun. I think it just pops out here and there. You don’t want it to dominate a script or a story though.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
Sure. So with this film, did you write the cameos in the script knowing there was a chance it wouldn’t happen? Or is that sort of shoehorned in later? Obviously there’s one that is integral to the plot almost, you know?
Yeah. We wrote cameos in early and where they were and what they were changed when we found out that our biggest cameo was interested. (Laughs) What you see in there was in large part his idea, which is amazing and it was such a good idea that we just raced to the laptop and started to come up with the most insane version of that that we could.
So that happened in the script stage? That’s when you knew he was interested?
Yeah, later in the game probably on a later draft, a third draft, we got that amazing news that he was interested and just kind of went to town on it. (Laughs)
You were one of the Inglorious Basterds. Now, when you were making that movie did you talk to Quentin Tarantino about screenwriting or learn anything from him?
I did, yeah. I’ve known him for a few years now and he is an amazing teacher. His knowledge of film history obviously is vast and I learn something every time I’ve hung out with the guy. I just like to sit back and listen mostly. Just to be on his sets is a massive privilege and to kind of absorb that… Yeah, I remember the day he handed out the script for INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, going up to his house and talking to him a little bit about how he had kind of had the idea and just being really inspired, just speaking to him for a moment writer to writer. He’s been really good to me and I definitely consider him to be the master, the only auteur out there who can make things that are incredibly controversial and shoot it as long as he wants to and have it mass distributed and get a huge audience for it and have it be a brilliant film.
Film is obviously considered a director’s medium, but you’re a screenwriter and you obviously had your voice on both of these films pretty heavily. What kind of ownership do you feel towards them?
I think when you’re working on a studio project the reality is your don’t own it, the studio owns it and they are paying you for your services and it is an amazing job to have. It’s a really privileged job to have. You have to feel emotional ownership at some point, I think, or you’re going to turn in garbage. I have to get excited and connected to whatever I’m working on, so there are always moments where when you have that connection to something and you have to change something that you care about that there will be painful moments, but I like to always take any notes, any changes, at least while I’m involved, as just a challenge to really listen and kind of hear how the work is coming across and figure out what the issues are if there are any and always make the next draft better than the previous one. No matter what the notes are, no matter how I initially react to it, it’s my job to take a step back and reassess and just try to continually improve.
21 Jump Street opens Friday, March 16. See it. And to read what Bacall had to say about Project X, head here.