Not that I’m complaining, but you never quite know what you’re going to get when you visit a movie set. Sometimes you watch stunt men beat each other senseless. Other times, you share a coffee with a star you typically couldn’t get within 500 feet of. But standing in darkness on the edge of a fake bathroom constructed on the set of 21 Jump Street, the new film by Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, I saw a sight I never expected I’d have the pleasure – or horror – of ever seeing: Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum trying to "finger" each other’s mouths in an effort to induce vomiting.
The explanation our small group of attendees got after the scene was finished actually made a lot more sense than you’d think: as their characters in the film, a pair of young cops who go undercover in a local high school to uncover a drug ring, Hill and Tatum are frantically trying to throw up the drug that a teenage dealer forced them to take in order to prove that they aren’t “narcs.” The fact that they were describing the process as “fingering each other” was only incidentally inappropriate, since neither character was capable of making himself vomit. You can watch that video down below.
Q: Channing and Jonah, how quickly did it take for you guys to fall into a rhythm of doing banter back and forth? Especially since Channing hasn’t done as much improvisation.
Tatum: Zero. It’s not like you can improv dramas all that well. But Jonah really brought me onto this. He called me up. I’ve been a huge fan of his forever. I just wanted to come and play in his playground for a while, and follow him. I’m holding onto the coattails.
Hill: Riding it straight to the fire, unfortunately.
Q: Did you have any particular affection for the show that you wanted to incorporate?
Hill: Yeah. I got to spend time with Steven Cannell, who was a great guy, and will be missed dearly, may he rest in peace. I respect him a crazy amount - he’s such an impressive, nice man. I really did like the show, and I’ve seen every episode a hundred times at this point. But there wasn’t pressure to make it feel like the show, I just loved the idea, and that’s what gravitated me towards telling the story. The story is getting to relive a really important time of your life, and trying to resurrect those mistakes, and having the same feelings even years later. That’s all I really care about. And we did throw in a lot of winks to the show in the movie. Certain cameos or locations, things like that. Other than that, the only thing I feel a responsibility to do is tell a great story.
Q: What sort of research, if any, did you have to do? Are these updated iterations of characters that were on the show?
Hill: All my research for this movie came from a very honest place. I was a 23-year-old playing a 17-year-old in Superbad, so 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, or things Mike Bacall and I were talking about from what I did for Superbad. Basically, we’re people in our twenties pretending to be teenagers. We took the big set pieces from that. Once the directors came on and Chan came on, we just personalized it to all of our high school experiences.
Tatum: I can’t say that we studied how to be police in depth or anything. I think you’ll see the movie and see that it doesn’t really matter (laughs). 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. One of my favorite lines is, "God, if I was just born five years later, I would have been so cool!" It was a really funny development in my mind. I had an all right high school [experience], even though I hated school. I wasn’t massively popular, but I was okay. But I wouldn’t want to do it again. Jenko’s character is like, "We’ll breeze right through this. We’ve got the almanac. We already know what this is going to be like."
Hill: And I finally got a Back to the Future II reference in a movie. I was so happy about that - he talks about how we have the almanac in this situation.
Q: Neal, what immediately sold you on the idea of Jonah doing an update of this property?
Neal Moritz: I really liked the idea of kids who had a bad high school experience getting to relive it - I really liked that idea. I thought that was relatable. I think that everybody, even if they had the best high school experience, there was something about high school, whether you dropped a pass, or whether you flunked the test, or you didn't go to the prom, I think there was always something that everybody wishes they could relive in high school. And I really like coming from a character point of view versus a plot point of view of young-looking cops going into high school. I liked it that there was a backstory of their high school experience that they wanted to improve. I thought that was good. And I liked the action-comedy version that he pitched.
Q: Phil and Chris, what sort of pressure was there to live up to the success of the original TV show?
Miller: They’re going to last for more seasons than us, that’s for sure.
Lord: Anytime you’re basing something off an old property, you have to tread very carefully. Last time, making Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, we didn’t want to piss off fans of the original. We ended up watching all the seasons and all the episodes beforehand.
Miller: And afterwards, to see where we screwed up. But you have to make it its own experience. We tried to take the very interesting idea of undercover cops in high school and try to build a neat character story around it. 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 kiddy show, not a tweener show. It had edge to it. And there’s a lot of great high school movies, but we didn’t want it to look like something that felt like High School Musical. We wanted it to feel like it was safe to take your girlfriend to it.
Lord: The original was not an R-rated action-comedy, so it differs in that regard.
Miller: Also, the show didn’t take itself that seriously. There were a lot of comedic beats in that thing, and it was about the relationships at Jump Street, and how going to high school strained them. To us, it was a nice jumping off point to do something we’ve always wanted to do: a crazy action-comedy. It gives you [the ability] to be creative in a weird way – all of 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." Then you can go and sneak away and make something original.
Q: What can you tell us about the film’s continuity with the show?
Lord: It exists in the same universe.
Miller: In 1987, there were cops that worked at Jump Street and went undercover in high school.
Lord: There’s a line in the movie that says something like, “We’re re-commissioning an old program from the ‘80s that was shut down.”
Q: How did you decide on Channing as one of your stars, since he’d never done comedy before?
Lord: He’s amazing. We had heard that he was really funny. He had done a couple of random, weird little shorts we had seen on the Internet. 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 going to be really surprised by him.
Q: Jonah, as an actor, you have to play a cop, playing a high school student, playing Peter Pan. With all those layers of performance, did you ever get lost?
Hill: I lose myself - I was like Daniel Day-Lewis. I actually became Peter Pan for three years leading up to this movie. I went and lived in Neverland and had a pretty horrible enemy in Captain Hook. He is what you imagine him to be. He’s a god-awful man. With the Peter Pan thing, I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s one of the first set pieces we thought of: that my character should be in a play, and in the middle of the play, while in some ridiculous costume, [there’s] an action sequence. I’d have to be in what would normally be a cool-looking action sequence, but I’m dressed as Peter Pan and I look ridiculous. Again, this is a comedy. It has a lot of cool action, but it’s a comedy. Things like that are just crazy fun.
Q: The cool kids in this movie are kind of atypical. What prompted this sort of choice as opposed to maybe making this a more conventional high school movie?
Hill: Because you just used the term "conventional high school movie." The ‘80s bully would be like Billy Zabka from The Karate Kid, or just the super-handsome tough dudes. 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 16, I’m like, "Man, it was so different when I was in high school to the way it is now." I think we just wanted it to be the opposite of the way it was when we went to school. In doing research, we found out that it is really cool to be into the environment, and to be more thoughtful. It was also really important in casting a guy like Chan, and myself together, that we want to play on your expectations. The expectation was that Chan would go back and be the coolest guy in school, and I’d be more of an outcast. We wanted to flip it and do the exact opposite. I think that’s one of the best decisions we’ve made on this movie.
Q: Neal, how much effort did you guys put into finding the right balance of making these guys look like they're old enough to be at a school, and then also could fit in?
Moritz: We put effort into that, and what we realized is when we started casting extras for the movie, some high school kids look really young, and some look older - there's a wide range. In these scenes that we've been shooting, our guys never stick out as guys who are older than the regular... I mean, maybe a little bit. But we actually have fun with that, too. We decided that Channing has flunked three years of high school. So we always have a way to deal with that.
Q: Phil and Chris, did you have a favorite episode of the show, or one that you thought would be particularly applicable to your approach to the movie?
Miller: It never gets better than the pilot for me. 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.
Lord: The guy’s scary because he’s dressed like Michael Jackson.
Miller: It’s definitely shocking.
Lord: And Johnny Depp has a sax solo while thinking about his dead father.
Miller: He’s really good at the saxophone. And 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 out about history.