A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to visit Riverdale High School in Jefferson, Louisiana. At the time, Sony happened to be shooting a movie there, a remake of the 1980s television staple 21 Jump Street. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as two twentysomething cops who look young enough to join “Jump Street,” a unit that goes undercover at a local high school. The cast, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), also features Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Brie Larsen, and Rob Riggle.
While on set, several other online colleagues and I spoke to Hill, Tatum, Larsen, Franco, producer Neal Moritz, and Lord and Miller. The full interviews will come at a later date, but today the studio is allowing me to run a preview piece. Hit the jump for a glimpse into the set visit, plus the first official image from the movie.
When I was at Riverdale, it was not Riverdale, but rather Sagan High School. Driving up to the set, we were greeted by a 20-foot painted sign of the Sagan mascot, the Bullshark, with blood dripping from his mouth. I think that’s about the best representation of the intentions for 21 Jump Street: a very R-rated high school action-comedy. Let’s break that description down into sections.
I am very much part of the target demographic for this film, but I wasn’t particularly alive when the show premiered in 1987. For those like myself, the premise is described in detail in the official synopsis:
In the action-comedy 21 Jump Street, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are more than ready to leave their adolescent problems behind. Joining the police force and the secret Jump Street unit, they use their youthful appearances to go undercover in a local high school. As they trade in their guns and badges for backpacks, Schmidt and Jenko risk their lives to investigate a violent and dangerous drug ring. But they find that high school is nothing like they left it just a few years earlier and neither expects that they will have to confront the terror and anxiety of being a teenager again and all the issues they thought they had left behind.
21 Jump Street must fight the cynicism that faces any remake. Hill confronted this directly in our interview, admitting he too was initially skeptical. But he eventually found the potential of the property in the idea of a second chance at high school:
“[Sony] had a list of properties. I think they were just trying to keep me in the family [after Superbad]. My agent told me about the ones. She’s like, “What about 21 Jump Street?” And I was like, “I don’t know. That sounds kinda stupid.” I never thought of myself as someone who’s going to remake a TV show… I thought it was really cool to get to relive high school. Thinking you would get it right this time and having all the answers, and then immediately reverting back to the insecurities you had the first time around. And that, to me, was the one nugget that remained true over these past five years or whatever. That is the story I wanted to be involved in. I think that’s what we did.”
Throughout the day, there was much talk about how everyone involved wants to present the modern high school experience, distinct from Schmidt and Jenko’s experience a few years prior. For instance, Franco plays Eric, the main “cool kid” in the movie, though Franco is not your typical jock. Instead, Eric earns cool points by espousing eco-friendly ideology. Likewise, Schmidt is surprised to learn his romantic interest (Larsen) is in an open, casual relationship with Eric. “Hooking up,” the kids call it.
Action vs. Comedy
Early in the day, Moritz and still photographer Scott Garfield gathered us around a monitor to see a slideshow of stills from the film to demonstrate the scope of the film. For me, this was best seen in the various outfits the costume department dressed up Jonah Hill in: a skintight spandex track suit, rentacop shorts, a Peter Pan costume for the school play. And, as you can see in the image below, Hill and Tatum look very dapper in their matching prom tuxes.
More to the point, the stills showed they aren’t skimping on the action in this action-comedy: one set piece necessitated a freeway shutdown. That kind of scale is new to Hill, and must have been intimidating to Lord and Miller in their live-action directorial debut. But Moritz was born for the action beat. Just looking at Moritz’s 2011: The Green Hornet, Battle Los Angeles, Fast Five — all very slick action movies. The comedians are in good hands.
At the same time, both Tatum and Larsen — primarily dramatic actors — discussed the improvisational learning curve on set. They positioned themselves as eager students, learning from masters of comedic timing like Hill and Riggle. Later, Lord and Miller cited 48 Hours and the 1986 Running Scared as inspirations in how to blend action and comedy with a certain aesthetic. Each member of the cast and crew brings something different to the table, and I am very curious to see how all the influences converge up on the screen.
The R Rating
I was surprised to learn that the 21 Jump Street movie will be rated R. To strive for the R risks losing an important demographic for high school comedies: high schoolers. But drugs are very present, right there in the official synopsis. The kids at Sagan take drugs and sell drugs — Lord and Miller described how it would be a major hassle to depict all that with a PG-13 hanging over their heads.
Once the R was secure, the name of the drug officially became “HFS,” which stands for “Holy Fucking Shit.” The effects of HFS are broken into five stages:
1) The gigs
2) Tripping major ballsack
3) Overfalsity of confidence
4) Fuck yeah, motherfucker!
5) Pass out
To be clear, 21 Jump Street should not be obnoxiously R. Lord pointed out, “We do have an f-bomb problem on this film… I feel like once you cross a hundred, you should slow down.” The R has a purpose beyond the license to print profanity.
There is plenty more to come when the embargo lifts on the full set visit coverage, but I hope this gives you a taste of the production. I am very curious to see how this movie will turn out — I liked what I saw and heard during my time on the set. I am excited to share more with you in the coming months.
21 Jump Street opens on March 16, 2012. Click on the image below to see the boys in absurdly high resolution.