Believe the hype: 21 Jump Street is the funniest movie of the year so far. With incredible chemistry between stars Jonah Hill (Officer Schmidt) and Channing Tatum (Officer Jenko), and memorable supporting performances by Ice Cube, Dave Franco and Rob Riggle, it deserves a spot alongside such comedies as Bridesmaids and Superbad.
A very loose interpretation of the 1980s television series starring Johnny Depp -- you don’t have to know anything about the show, but if you do, you’ll discover fun nods hidden within -- the film, about a pair of “opposites attract”-style cops who go undercover as high school students, is blissfully self-aware. Filled with physical comedy and perfectly timed jokes, 21 Jump Street boasts an utterly surprising turn by Tatum, who isn’t known as a funny guy, and a well-paced story that binds it all together without feeling forced.
Hill, Tatum, Riggle, Ice Cube and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller recently gathered in New York City to talk about the improvisation involved in filming, Hill’s surprising on-set gun safety, other ‘80s shows they’d tackle, attending a real-life high school prom for research, and the surprising influence Hill’s mother had on production.
Hill and Tatum earned big laughs before they even picked up their microphones as they marched on stage in police uniforms alongside their modestly attired colleagues. At one point Hill noted, “I’m just so proud to be up here dressed as a moron.”
Both Hill and Tatum were adamant that they’d love to make a sequel. “It’s dependent on if a big audience shows up to see the film,” Hill said.
“I’d love to do a sequel. Please go see the movie!” Tatum laughed.
As 21 Jump Street focuses primarily on going back to high school, the cast was asked who from their earlier years they’d love to see again.
“I’m pretty close with all my friends from high school,” Hill said. “I grew up in L.A., and I live there, so I get to see them quite often – probably too often.”
“Probably my high school sweetheart,” Tatum replied.
“I don’t wanna see nobody from high school. I’m fine.” Ice Cube deadpanned, drawing laughter.
Hill, who co-wrote the script, went on to note he’s been with the material for five years. “Doing this press junket, I realize that most of my 20s have been spent thinking about this movie in some capacity and working on this movie,” he said. “I’m just really glad I got to work with all these talented people and that the movie’s good, because it would’ve been a really big waste of five years of my life. [laughs] We’re not scared of showing it, that’s the best feeling. Sometimes you have a movie and it sucks and you don’t want to show it to people and you’re trying to sneak it by.”
Tatum’s involvement began with a phone call from Hill, and after reading 50 pages of the script, he was hooked. “I was just sort of like, ‘All right, man, if you promise me that I’m gonna be funny then I’ll sign on,’” Tatum laughed. Of Hill’s support in bridging his foray into comedy, Tatum said, “He really helped me and held my hand all the way through it. They create a great stage for you to be safe to fail, and not feel bad if you don’t know your way into a joke. Everybody helped me out.”
Regarding his use of improvisation, Ice Cube added, “I only had to add a little salt and pepper, that’s all. We didn’t have to do too much heavy lifting at all. Just show up and have fun.”
Riggle agreed, saying, “Jonah, Chris and Phil – they did a great job of setting an environment where you felt like you could play. Because even when the cameras weren’t rolling, we were over by craft services messing with each other, we were playing, we were doing bits.”
Hill admitted he wasn’t always on board with the idea of adapting a TV series for the big screen. “I really did not want to make a TV show into a movie. I thought, like, as the joke said, it was really lazy and stupid and eye-rolling and unoriginal,” he said. “We all talked about the movie, understood and connected with the Back to the Future element of reliving your high school years. And then what if that was like a Bad Boys meets a John Hughes movie. That was what got the train moving. So whether it was called 21 Jump Street or it was called Narcs or it was called Two Cops Go Back to High School, I don’t really give a shit.”
Lord and Miller watched and re-watched the first four seasons of the TV series to prepare. “Because we’re dorks,” Lord laughed. However, Hill admitted he didn’t really care about the authenticity factor, “’Cause I had friends who had made re-makes of things and they spent so much time thinking about, ‘Oh, we gotta put that one little secret thing in from the show,’ and two people in the audience give a shit about it. I just wanted to make a good movie. And these guys [Lord and Miller] added so much fun stuff from the show that it actually got me excited again about the show.”
Tatum chimed in, saying, “Have you seen the show in a while? It’s pretty funny. I was a fan of the show – I watched it every single Friday. I don’t really think that you have to call this thing 21 Jump Street. But I’m happy that we do because I like the show.”
As for their work with firearms in the film, Tatum, a veteran of the action genre, chuckled, “Well I’m pretty comfortable with weapons. This person next to me [nods to Hill] has the worst gun safety that I’ve ever been around in my entire life.”
Hill defended himself, saying, “I had a problem because there’s a guy whose job it is to give you a gun, right? And it’s a real gun and it’s loaded with blanks. So this guy is responsible for giving you a gun. And so my thing was like …” Tatum interrupted to finish his sentence, “… ‘I’m going to point it at your junk and pull the trigger.”’
Hill laughed, “Yeah. I’d be like, ‘It better not be loaded because I don’t want to die, I don’t want him to die, I don’t want any of my actors or anyone around the set to die, and you’re the guy whose job it is to make sure no one dies.’ So every time he gave me a gun I pointed it at his genitalia and I pulled the trigger.”
Tatum didn’t just bring his action expertise to set when it came to firearms, he also used his substantial physicality. “Channing improvised a stunt in one shot,” Lord recalled. “He was like, ‘Guys, I think I could jump over this car if you want.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Can you just do that in the moment?’”
Chiming in, Tatum said, “Remember the one that didn’t work out? That one was really fun. My foot went through the window and one went on top of the car, so I literally just, like, bisected my junk.”
As the audience roared with laughter, Lord giggled, “It’s strong, though. You have steel junk.”
Miller and Lord took preparation for the movie seriously, not only looking back at the original series, but attending the Santa Monica High School prom, which resulted in something of a showdown when they ran into another director doing research for a separate film. “Joe Nussbaum was there for that movie Prom,” Lord said, “and we got into a weird competition between who could get more real stories from kids.”
Hill’s mom, whom he calls “unintentionally the funniest person ever in the entire world,” came to the set often, and even lent some family heirlooms to the design department. A running joke in the movie involves Hill’s on-screen parents displaying a shrine of ridiculous half-naked baby photos on their wall. “Those pictures in the movie where I’m, like, naked … those are real photographs from my house, and they’re not like hidden somewhere, they’re, like, right when you walk in,” Hill laughed.
“Doesn’t she not get why those pictures are funny?” Tatum asked.
“She came to set and was like, ‘Oh, you guys think you’re so funny with these pictures.’” Hill said, noting, “The woman who plays my mom is actually my mom’s friend in real life. And when she did the impression of my mom for Phil and Chris in the audition, it was too broad to be believable in a group!”
Of 1980s television series they’d consider adapting, Ice Cube said, “21 Jump Street part two!” Tatum answered, “If I had to pick one, probably Cheers.”
“I’m never remaking anything again. But I think if someone was going to remake something from the ‘80s, I would hope someone would remake Small Wonder,” Hill said. “It should be like Todd Solondz or something, because it’s so dark. It’s, like, this little girl who lives in a closet and the dad made her.”
21 Jump Street opens today nationwide.