Hanging out on a movie set can be a surreal experience. They're sometimes bizarre alien landscapes, comic book worlds brought to life, or times and places in history that no one still alive has ever touched.
But then again, there's something incomparably weird about being back in high school.
The place is Riverdale High in Jefferson, Louisiana, doubling for 21 Jump Street's fictional Metropolitan City and, last summer, ComingSoon.net had the privilege to spend a day watching the production and speaking with the cast and crew.
Outside, the student extras leave the front door and climb on school buses, flooding the sidewalk with backpacks and mimed conversations. In the center of it all are Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in the roles of Officers Schmidt and Jenko, in turn playing the parts of regular high school kids Doug and Brad in an attempt to stop the spread of a new drug nicknamed HFS (Holy F--ing S--t).
"Everything we are doing has a tinge of comedy to it," explains Producer Neal Moritz. "It's not like they're selling cocaine. It's a designer drug and the reason the drug is so addictive is because they add a little bit of Doritos flavoring in it… So there's a little fun with all of it."
HFS also has five very distinct stages for the user, which are shown off on multiple occasions in the film.
"Stage One is 'The Gigs,'" says Phil Lord, co-directing with his creative parner, Chris Miller. "Laughing, giggling."
"Stage Two is 'Tripping Major Ballsack,'" continues Miller. "Stage Three is 'Over-Falsity of Confidence.' Stage Four is 'F--k Yeah, Motherf--er.'"
"Stage Five is you pass out," finishes Lord.
"Yeah, you pass out in a fountain," laughs Miller, recalling the day that particular scene was shot. "Then you throw Phil into it afterward for no good reason. But it's cool. He can roll with that."
Lord and Miller have worked together for some time, having created "Clone High" and co-directing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. "Jump Street" marks their first live-action feature and, if the back and forth on set is any indication, they're not leaving the cartoon world far behind.
"A lot of it comes from Mike Bacall," says Miller, "who wrote the script. As you guys know, he did 'Scott Pilgrim.' That has a very animated sensibility to it, too. So it does creep in there, but it's obviously a much more grounded looking movie than the one we did before. Which had flying cheeseburgers."
Comedy is in full force both behind and in front of the camera, but the plan to bring the television series of the late '80s and early '90s to the big screen didn't start that way. For years, the idea of a "21 Jump Street" movie was a passion project for the series' creator and producer, Stephen Cannell, a close friend of Moritz who tragically passed away while working on this version in 2010.
"Originally were developing this as the straight version of the show," Moritz explains, "When Jonah came to me with this idea, I was like, 'You know what? That's probably the way to go.' And then when we got a first draft of the screenplay, I was really, really, like, 'Okay, we're going to make this movie!'"
"We tried to take the very interesting idea of undercover cops in high school and try to build a neat character story around it," Miller explains, "But essentially, it is a lot of the same things. They were trying to make high school seem a little more grown up. It felt like they succeeded in making it not a kiddie show and not a tweener show. It had an edge to it."
"I never thought of myself as someone who was going to remake a TV show," Hill says, "or anything like that. Especially when I wasn't particularly a massive fan of [the show]. But I've talked about this before in interviews: I thought it was really cool to relive high school. Thinking you would get it right this time, and having all the answers, but immediately reverting back to the insecurities you had the first time around. That, to me, is the one nugget that has remained true over these past five years. That is the story I wanted to be involved in."
For fans of the original television show, however, the film promises quite a few references and inside jokes, including playing off some of the series' campier, dated elements.
"There's a lot of stuff that plays odd now within the actual show," explains Hill, "But we're not spoofing it. We have a respect for the show. The idea of what that show was is what we all loved."
"There was an episode where Johnny [Depp] wore a turban," laughs Tatum. "I don't remember what he was doing or who he was trying to be like. But he actually had a turban, with a jewel in the middle."
"It never gets better than the pilot for me," says Miller "...Gangbangers from the 'Beat It' video crash through a white person's kitchen and hold them up by gunpoint. Happens to people all the time."
"The guy's scary because he's dressed like Michael Jackson!" laughs Lord. "...And Johnny Depp has a sax solo while thinking about his dead father."
"He's really good at the saxophone," quips Miller. "That's what cool people play. That was the political reality of 1987: Saxophones made you cool. That's real! That really happened in our society! It's tremendous. Go back. Learn about history!"
Moving inside, the crew prepares for the next scene, which has Hill and Tatum having accidentally sampled the HFS. They run to the school's bathroom and try to force themselves to throw up, but can't manage it. Trying everything, the pair decide that the best solution will be to stick their fingers down each others' throats to stimulate a gag reflex. You can check out this new clip below!
"You guys are familiar with my career," Hill shoots back when asked if this is the grossest thing he's ever had to do for a role. "This is like a normal Tuesday for me."
One of the trickier elements in the casting was finding the perfect partner for Hill's character and Tatum's name quickly came up as the ideal match.
"Channing was our number one choice of who we wanted to pair," Moritz explains, "I really wanted a very distinct, different coupling. And I'm a huge fan of Channing's. I've been a fan of him since before he did 'Step Up.' I met him, and I've offered him many movies. I've tried to get in business with him many times. And we went to him, and we offered it to him... Channing likes to say he's not so great at comedy, but he's really good at comedy. He was really good. And he was able to go toe to toe with Jonah in the improv."
"We had heard the rumor that he was funny," says Lord, "Then we sat down for dinner with him to see if he would do the movie. After the dinner, we're like, 'This guy's awesome! He's so hilarious! If we could just translate our conversation at dinner onto the screen, we'll be set.' People are gonna be really surprised by him."
Tatum also served as a producer on the project, giving him the opportunity to explore a new side of filmmaking.
"Generally, I haven't gotten to be on the ground level," says the actor. "As of two years ago, in ‘Dear John,' I got to really be on the ground floor. I wasn't a producer, but I felt like I put the work in, and I did have a lot of sway on what got fixed, reshoots, so on and so forth. It felt really good. I felt like I had a more personal relationship to the film. I made that decision that I wanted to take control, and grow, and get better, and not just sign up for a part and show up on day one. You can always go deeper and put more of yourself and more effort in. The audience deserves it."
In the world of the film, Hill and Tatum's characters went to the same high school, but were never friends. Hill didn't manage to fit in and Tatum was really popular but, after graduation, both turned out to be more or less losers and wound up working together as less-than-successful police officers. When they get the chance to re-live their high school experience, they find that the tables have turned: kids who were once the outcasts are now considered the in-crowd and vice versa.
"All my research for this movie came from a very honest place," Hill recalls, "I was a twenty-three year-old playing a seventeen year-old in 'Superbad.' I had just done all this research about being someone in their twenties going back and pretending to be in high school. I moved back in with my parents, into my childhood room. Basically, that's how I got most of the set pieces… Basically, we're people in our twenties pretending to be teenagers. I had literally just been a 23 year old pretending to be a 17 year old!"
"It's just us going back," says Tatum. "I'll be honest, I didn't read that well in high school. So we put that in the movie. I love it, because it's all the insecurities that you had and, even if you didn't have them, now it's just flipped."
"The '80s bully would be like Billy Zabka from 'The Karate Kid,'" Hill continues, "or just the super-handsome tough dudes and the nerds of 'Saved by the Bell' with suspenders and glasses. I feel like every generation feels out of touch with the generation after them. When I was in high school, I remember my parents saying, 'The kids are different now,' and I was like, 'That's crazy! That'll never happen to me.' And now, when I meet people who are sixteen, I'm like, 'Man, it was so different when I was in high school to the way it is now.'"
Leading the film's "popular clique" is Dave Franco's Eric, a friendly, outgoing drug dealer who's really into helping the environment and who eschews sports and bullying.
"It's been fun just because, [Eric is] a very atypical cool kid," the actor explains. "Because rather than being the jock or the big man on campus, he's kind of like this eco-friendly hipster. Everything he does is very environmental-conscious, but at the same time he's selling the least organic drug of all time, and so it's kind of this weird dynamic going on."
Eric also has a relationship going on with Molly, played by Brie Larson and, when Hill's Schmidt starts to fall for her, he learns that modern high school relationships aren't as simple as he remembers and that Eric and Molly are proponents of polyamory.
"This whole school is, as times are changing," Larson explains, "much more modern and progressive. Molly is in an open relationship with Eric, the Dave Franco character. They seem to be into each other and also very okay not being together. They're free to do whatever they want."
"There's a lot of hilarious debate on our part," says Hill, "…on how far the relationship is allowed to go. But it's very sweet, and we do kind of grow feelings for one another. It's kind of a high school puppy love type of thing. But it's very much forbidden because I'm lying and pretending to be 18 or 17, and am actually an adult police officer."
"It's 'To Catch a Predator' type s--t," laughs Tatum.
Another key member of the supporting cast is Ice Cube as Police Captain Dickson. Operating from the series' trademark abandoned church at the film's titular address, he's the man who sets down every single rule that Schmidt and Jenko inevitably break.
"When Mike Bacall and I sat down the first time we met about the movie," says Hill, "we talked about the stereotype of the angry black captain in every '80's cop movie and why we found that funny, and how we were going to make it different. We talked about someone being aware of that stereotype. That would be funny if the person who was our captain was African American and was aware of that stereotype and couldn't shake it, but didn't care. We were both like, 'Ice Cube is the only person who can play this part.' …We thought it would be great having the guy who wrote 'F--k the Police' play a police captain."
Rounding out the cast are comedic actors like DeRay Davis, Ellie Kemper, Nick Offerman and Rob Riggle, along with quite a few surprises. And while the 21 Jump Street that hits theaters in March may look a bit different from the television series that you may remember, part of the point in it all is that everything changes with time.
"I think that actually underlying the whole thing is the sense of being yourself and not conforming," Larson puts it, "There's a lot of different types of people within this film. The movie itself is a weird contradiction. Jonah brings this comedic element. Neal brings this much different action side of it. Then Phil and Chris are kind of the heart of the whole thing with what's technically an animation background. Then you've got Channing who brings this amazing movie-star - he can do anything, really. Then you've got me and Dave and Riggle and a few other great people who come in and fill those holes… It's those moments when it does feel a little awkward and it does feel like we're trying to dance but are mis-stepping that make the relationship seem so realistic and beautiful and wonderful and exactly like what we all went through in high school."
"To us," says Miller, "it was like a nice jumping off point to do something we've always wanted to do: a crazy action comedy. A lot of people are doing these kinds of things - taking existing properties and trying to make something new out of them. It's nice to have the confidence that a known property gives everybody. It gives you [the ability] to be creative in a weird way. All the people investing money in it breathe a big sigh of relief. 'Okay, we know how to sell this! This is comfortable! We're not freaking out.' You can go and sneak away and make something original."
21 Jump Street hits theaters on March 16th. Don't miss the new clip below!