Interview: "21 Jump Street" Writer Michael Bacall Talks Writing With Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum's Comedic Genius

Interview: "21 Jump Street" Writer Michael Bacall Talks Writing With Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum's Comedic Genius
Was the drug already angle in the script before you visited the school and saw how casually kids talk about drugs today?
I think we knew that we wanted it to be a drug story, because that’s always a hot-button, key issue, but it developed more specifically once we did the research. Jonah and I also sat down with a former undercover cop who, I think, ran the undercover program at the high school I went to, and he may have even been undercover there while I was there. [Laughs.] So that was a trip, sitting down with him and getting the inside story on how the function, and what the rules are to not blow your cover and not be outed as a narc. Yeah, this was a really fun research job. [Laughs.]

Speaking of the movie’s drug angle, one of the coolest things about 21 Jump Streetis its quirky, cartoonish visual style, which is on full blast during the hilarious “tripping ballsack” sequence. How did the script and approach change, from a visual standpoint, once Chris Miller and Phil Lord signed on?
Those cues were there already, but when those guys signed on, I got incredibly excited because I’m a huge fan of theirs. An interesting anecdote: They did Clone High, the animated show for MTV, which was a genius show, and it turns out that Clone High had a huge influence on Bryan Lee O’Malley when he was writing the Scott Pilgrim comics. And, of course, I ended up adapting that with Edgar [Wright], and Phil and Chris were fans of Scott Pilgrim, so there was this really weird full-circle thing going on, where everyone was feeding everyone creatively.

Beyond Clone High, though, I’m a massive fan of Phil and Chris’ Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which is one of those rare kid movies that has massive appeal to adults, or it did to me, at least. They’ve got a lot of great sight gags, they do physical comedy really well, and they’re great writers, so when things like the drug trip sequence came up, those elements were already in the story, but as soon as we started working with those guys, it elevated it instantly. We knew that they’d just knock that stuff out of the park, and they absolutely did.

During that sequence, I might write in something like the Walt (played by Rob Riggle) turning into some kind of animal, but then they do this absolutely insane, lo-fi kind of cat head on it and it makes it even scarier and trippier. [Laughs.] That is absolutely their unique sensibility coming through in that sequence, and really making it work. You can write the best drug trip in the world, but if you don’t have a couple of geniuses bringing it to life, it’s totally worthless.

That drug trip sequence exemplifies just how different 21 Jump Streetis from other mainstream comedies, and how it goes against conventions that people might expect. And another thing that will shock people, I think, is how hilarious Channing Tatum is in the movie.
He kills, man! And Jonah is really funny, too, of course. [Laughs.]

Definitely, but with Jonah we expect him to be that funny; Channing Tatum, on the other hand, is a total comedic revelation.
That role was conceived years before he was cast in it, and that was always the big question: Who is going to play the other buddy in this buddy cop scenario? We always knew that Jonah was going to play the Schmidt character. Channing is amazingin the role; he fully inhabits the role. I consider it to be a really fearless performance, because he’s not afraid to embrace how dumb the Jenko character appears at times, and he also brings a sensitivity to it where you really feel like this guy has those leftover issues from high school.

You really feel for him, even though he’s such a jerky jock in the beginning. It’s the fact that he’s a great friend, and that he is ultimately willing to learn; comedically, he’s just a killer. The guys just had an amazing chemistry together, and that’s everything in a buddy cop movie. [Laughs.] You gotta have that, and they just both annihilated it.

Was it a long process finding the right actor to play Jenko?
I don’t think the process even truly began until we were at a much later phase in the writing; we were waiting for Jonah’s schedule to open up before we could set a production date, and once that happened the search began in earnest. It all happened pretty quickly from that point, finding Channing for that role.

Was he someone you guys had ever even considered before you had the first meeting?
Well, early on, we knew that we wanted it to be a good-looking guy, and somebody who physically was a good foil to play against Jonah’s physicality and the characteristics that we were building into the Schmidt character. So we had an idea, in terms of the type of actors: somebody who’s physically fit and who’s really a traditionally good-looking guy. But in terms of having a specific actor in mind, we were flying blind in that regard until it actually came time to make the movie. Fortunately, it worked out as well as we could’ve possibly hoped for—it’s as if we knew it was going to be him the whole time and wrote it for me. He just inhabits it so fully.

Did he stick to the script the whole time, or did he surprise you guys by improvising some of the comedic lines?
I think there’s both. A lot of the movie is scripted, and then when you’re working with great improvisational actors like Jonah, you’re gonna get these flashes of absolute brilliance with improvisation. The hope is that you won’t be able to tell when it’s scripted and when it’s improvised. You want to have a really a good structure, have some really good payoffs and tons of really good jokes all in line, but if, in the moment, something amazing happens, you have to run with that. I think a lot of something-amazings happened between Jonah and Channing. [Laughs.]

I love when Schmidt is on the phone and Channing’s character is just harassing him relentlessly, trying to mess up his phone conversation—it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, and it’s not something that I scripted. It’s the two of them going off in the moment. For guys especially, we’ve all had a similar moment like that. That made me really happy.

Tags: 21-jump-street, michael-bacall, jonah-hill, channing-tatum, ice-cube, comedy, action-movies, edgar-wright, dave-franco
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