Were you and Jonah able to sit together in the same room and write the script, or did your schedules force you to send ideas back and forth and do it less in-person?
Well, when we started developing the story, we wrote the treatment together. We started grabbing lunch together here and there, and hanging out at one of our houses and shooting the shit. That’s how we came up with who the characters were, and what the central crime would be that they were investigating. And once we got that treatment done, I went off into my cave and started working on the draft.
Two, three, or four drafts later, [Laughs.], Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] came onboard, and then it was the four of us working together to just really get it into the shape that it is today, into the shooting draft. It was really good to work wit guys who are really funny, really talented, great joke-tellers and great writers.
Being that you wrote Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World for director Edgar Wright, did you guys take any cues or influences from Wright’s hilarious, hard-R, action buddy cop comedy Hot Fuzz?
Oh, yeah. I’m a huge fan of Edgar’s, obviously, and both Jonah and I love that movie; I know Phil and Chris do, as well. We had to be very careful not to rip it off. [Laughs.] Because it is so good, and there’s such a good emotional through-line in that film. That’s one way I think Hot Fuzz was very influential, in terms of all of us wanting to have a really emotional story between our two characters.
We wanted you to really care about the guys by the end of the movie. It’s all well and good to have great action scenes and a bunch of funny dick jokes, but if at the end of the movie you don’t care about the characters, it’s a lost cause, ultimately. That’s certainly we all learned from watching Edgar’s take on the buddy comedy: Let’s try to care about these characters when all’s said and done.
When you signed on to do 21 Jump Street, you must have went back and watched the old show again to familiarize yourself, right?
Oh, yeah! [Laughs.]
I haven’t seen the show in years, probably over a decade. How does the show hold up today? Has it aged well, or is really dated?
It’s both, actually. In terms of the styles and the music and the wardrobe, it’s incredibly dated, but in terms of the issues they were trying to tackle, and the tenion of being undercover cops and the camaraderie of being police officers in a high stress situation, that stuff was all great, and that’s something we wanted to keep. We didn’t want to make an exercise in nostalgia, though; we didn’t want to be making fun of it.
I remember when I was a kid and that show was on, it was really cool and really edgy. It was cutting-edge with its style and music, and we were all wowed by it, but those are the kinds of things that tend to date themselves very quickly. Those were the things we wanted to leave behind. It was a trip going through the old episodes, because when I was looking at them as a kid, it was with awe, and looking at them now, even though the concept of the show is so strong, and Stephen Cannell [the original show’s co-creator] was just an amazing and prolific storyteller, there were elements that, as with anything that’s trying to be of the moment, quickly became comedic. [Laughs.]
Are there any specific scenes from the show that stand out in your mind as being particularly hilarious today?
Yeah, and I think we may have even referenced it in the script. If you look at the pilot, you’ll get some really wonderful moments. There’s a moment where Johnny Depp’s character is playing this really mournful saxophone solo, and it’s this really ’80s smooth jazz music cue, and you’re think you’re just listening to the score of the show, and then it reveals that Johnny Depp actually is playing the saxophone in the shot. [Laughs.] He’s just wailing on that thing—it’s a wonderful moment!
And I’m sure they thought it was a profound, poignant scene when they shot it.
Yeah, a real emotional moment. [Laughs.] It’s pretty amazing.
What makes the movie so effective, I think, is how, aside from the original series’ stars’ cameos and a few wink-wink jokes here and there, it works really well as a standalone movie. If it had a different title, it’d still work just as well as an action-comedy.
Yeah, that’s what we wanted. I think there’s gonna be a lot of current teenagers and young adults who might not have a clue about what 21 Jump Street is, because it was on years ago. It’s been a while since the show has been on television, so we wanted this story to be one that can stand on its own, even though we did want to show respect to the show with a couple winks, nods, and cameos here and there.
The high school aspect of the movie is key, particularly how well you and Jonah have captured the class systems and insecurities. Was it difficult for you to get back into the mentality of a teenager for 21 Jump Street?
It was a blast. Right away, I went back to my old school; I grew up in a suburb outside of Los Angeles. I went back to my old high school and talked to some teachers, and the dean of discipline and the school nurse, to try and find out what’s going on with kids these days. Like, what are they getting in trouble for? And then I was hanging out during lunch and listening in to see how kids are interacting, and find out who the popular kids are these days. I also got to sit in on a couple of classes, and I went to a prom for a different high school in Hollywood. [Laughs.]
I just plunged right back in there, and it was great because it did give me some flashbacks and insecurities that I had when I was in high school. That really helped out in creating these characters. I love the research aspect of any project, but this one was especially personal because, for a moment there, I got to go back to school like these guys do in the movie.
What was the biggest revelation about the high school experience today that you took from all of that in-the-field research? Well, one of the things that was kind of wild is… When I was in school, people were really underground about drugs; it was not on the surface at all. Nowadays, marijuana, at least, has gotten to a point where the smarter kids have a special awareness that there are a lot of incredibly successful people who, shockingly, smoke marijuana. [Laughs.] Some of the most brilliant minds to ever walk the planet smoked marijuana, guys like Carl Sagan; we actually named the high school in Jump Street after Carl Sagan. [Laughs.]
I was a little bit surprised at how casually—I mean, without even asking them about it—a couple of students talked about drugs, and these were the higher-ranking, more popular kids in the school. When I was in school, it was a very underground kind of thing.
That explains the motivation behind Dave Franco’s character, then.
Exactly, yeah. He’s a reflection of that kind of popular kid I saw during my research.