Posted on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Germain Lussier
This March, Michael Bacall could have the best month ever. The screenwriter, probably best known for playing one of the Inglourious Basterds and co-writing Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, has not one but two massive comedies set for release mere weeks apart. He wrote Project X, which is in theaters this Friday, and co-wrote 21 Jump Street, which opens two weeks later. We spoke to Bacall about both of the films. Since Project X is up first, we’ll focus on that for now.
Directed by first time director Nima Nourizadeh, Project X is a found footage comedy about the high school party you’ve always dreamed of attending. Actually, scratch that. It’s about a party so insane only a mad man could have dreamed it up. Enter producer Todd Phillips (The Hangover), who with Bacall concocted one of the most visceral, hard-R rated experiences to hit theaters in a long time.
After the jump, find out how Project X came to the writer, how far he was willing to go with the story, the secrecy surrounding the film, possible controversy it might stir up and more.
Note: Though Project X will be released first, Bacall worked on 21 Jump Street before that so the first half of this interview discussed that. This is the second half of our conversation. I’ll post the rest closer to the release of that film and link the two.
/Film: Jumping over to PROJECT X, tell me how that happened. Putting that in the framework of JUMP STREET, were you still working on that as X was being developed?
Michael Bacall: I was working on a bunch of stuff at the same time. I was in Toronto. We were in production on SCOTT PILGRIM, so I would be on set for about twelve plus hours a day, come back, work on JUMP STREET… I think we were on a second draft of JUMP STREET at that point… I got a phone call from Todd Phillips and Scott Budnick, another one of the producers on the project, and they pitched me the concept. “How do you feel about found footage? A first person POV movie centering around the gnarliest high school party of all time…” And I flipped out over it. I didn’t have time to write a script at that point, but I really loved this idea of the chaos and the anarchy that could emerge from something like that, so I wrote them a treatment. It was a fairly extensive treatment. I kind of squeezed it in between everything else while I was in Toronto and it was really fun, because I was so exhausted at the time. I feel like I was kind of in a fevered dream you know. Way, way, way too much coffee and espresso, so all of this kind of madness just poured out. It was about a thirty or thirty-five page treatment, which is pretty long for a treatment… a lot of dialogue in it and all of those kind of major set pieces and gags actually wound up in the final movie, which was really kind of fun. I had to go back to JUMP STREET and some other stuff. Matt Drake wrote a great draft and then right before production I came on and did some work on it and then they went and shot a crazy movie. (Laughs)
Totally. A lot of the fun in the movie is that it just keeps escalating to heights that you don’t see coming. Do you think that that all came from just being so tired in Toronto? What was the limit of your imagination on this movie?
Well that’s the great thing about working with Todd. He’s fearless. He is not afraid to be controversial, not afraid to be subversive. Knowing that and knowing the success that he’s had in really just being true to himself and whatever the fuck he wants to do, I just kind of took that cue and went crazy. It was a really liberating and exciting way to approach something, especially when you’re kind of designing it from the ground up. So I didn’t really put the limits on myself I normally would and I’ve kind of been saying sometimes working with a producer you feel like even if they are telling you to make something edgy, you feel like you’re hitting the gas and they are kind of pumping the brake at the same time. Usually that’s for your own good. They are trying to protect you from getting annihilated by the studio, but with Todd it’s like he puts his foot on top of yours on the gas pedal and just stomps it down. It’s a really great way to work and so has a kind of punk rock sensibility to it that’s pretty fun.
Was that his thing to keep the movie shroud in this almost ultra-secrecy?
Absolutely and I think that was a brilliant idea on his part. PROJECT X was a working title for a while and I think at a certain point everyone involved was like… “It kind of lends it an air of secrecy in the movie, why not do that with the marketing and with the whole approach to the movie?” So that was kind of fun.
Sure. And you talked a little bit about Todd being controversial. I love the movie, but getting older and watching it I couldn’t help but think from a parental perspective. It’s a movie with a lot of morally reprehensible behavior. Are you worried about people seeing the movie as an advocation of this kind of behavior and maybe encouraging people to throw these kinds of parties?
I think kids are going to do what kids are going to do, because we live in a time where we don’t really have any real institutional or widely cultural rites of passage from teenagers, but that’s an instinct that teenagers all have and in a vacuum of having that provided in some way they are going to find their own rites of passage. They are going to test themselves in different ways and I think something like this may not be the most productive way for that to happen, but that’s what happens when teens are left to their own devices. I think maybe there’s something to that. I like to look at it as a multi-genre film depending on how old you are when you’re watching it. I think for kids it’s a comedy and a party film and for adults it’s probably a horror movie. (Laughs)
That’s a great way to put it. It’s your first found footage thing and I know you said that was sort of a concept that was placed on you. How did you feel working in the constraints of that?
Initially I was a little bit freaked out, but it would up being a great thing, because once you get in that mindset it provides a lot of opportunities for comedy, for scares, and then when Nima [Nourizadeh] came on, he had this great idea to have kids at the party who are attending the party, not just the kids who are throwing it, also recording with their phones, with their Flip cams, and it creates a more immersive experience and also allows for more comedy. It initially felt limiting, because we didn’t know who was going to be doing the shooting, how not to make that an obtrusive part that pulls your out of the story. I think the decision everyone came to to have a mostly silent kind of personal cinematographer for the guys was kind of a cool approach to it and that’s something that kind of developed later on. I think initially the guys were passing around the camera between each other, but it was a great call to have Dax just kind of be the silent guy behind the camera.
While you were developing these projects did it ever occur to you that they’d both be released so close to each other and that you could, potentially, cannibalize your own audience? And spinning off that, what IS it like to have two things you worked on be released in the same month?
I never could have planned for or expected two movies to be coming out this closely together. It never occurred to me during the development stage. I think that they’ll both be successful. I’m not worried about either one stealing any thunder from the other. If that did happen, it’d be a great problem to have.
Project X opens March 2. Check back later this week for our review. And check back soon to read about Bacall’s process on 21 Jump Street.