Smells Like Teen Spirit: An Interview with Michael Bacall

The screenwriter of 21 Jump Street talks adapting the hit series and writing Project X and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


It sure is a good time to be Michael Bacall. His latest screenwriting credit Project X opened to a successful $20 million and 21 Jump Street owned the box office this weekend. Bacall wrote treatment with Jonah Hill, then wrote the draft and stayed on with directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord. We got an exclusive phone interview with Bacall to talk about the high school world his movie cops infiltrate. In the movie, teens are environmentally aware and socially sensitive. The undercover cops (Hill and Channing Tatum) get into some wildly irresponsible car chases and their chief (Nick Offerman) even addresses the elephant in the room about remaking old things.


CraveOnline: The big question on everyone’s mind is: When are you writing the Booker spin-off?

Michael Bacall: [Laughs] Those are working negotiations right now. [Laughs more]


Is the high school culture of 2012 really the sensitive, environmentally and culturally aware kids you portray in the movie?

I did some research on my old high school campus, Phil and Chris did some research and we definitely picked up on that. I can’t sit here and say this is how it is in every high school across the nation but in our small sampling we thought that’d be a funny angle and take on it.


That’s great news for this generation!

I hope so. I hope that there is a cultural shift that will erode the current one where we start to value things beyond athlete worship, that kind of stuff.


Or where slackers are no longer respected for not doing anything.

Yes. Absolutely.


And this has all shifted since 2005?

I think it really depends on the individual kid in any given class but on the whole, I’d say that yeah, there’s kind of a slow shift as I was saying. I don't think you’re going to see it at every school and in every social group, and obviously we’re teaching a broader take on it. If you were doing a hard hitting documentary on the subject of what’s popular in high school these days, one thing is certain, things do change that quickly. Even quicker actually. When I was in high school, which I think was when “21 Jump Street” was still on or just starting, there was still kind of the jocks run the school and it’s what you expect and are primed for in junior high and what you’ve seen in pop culture. Less than four years later when my sister went to high school, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had completely changed pop culture in America. One song really broke through and it was all punk rock, flannel, f*** the man and that was what was popular when she was at that same high school just a couple years later. So stuff changes really quickly and that’s kind of awesome.


Does Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” get any credit for that breakthrough?

I think it does. That was also at the same time. Nirvana had a breakthrough song and then Pearl Jam was really right on the heels with “10” coming out and that was massively popular. I was such a Pearl Jam nerd for so many years.


Was there ever a version of the script that explored the more Mean Girls type of high school culture that we might have expected?

I think there probably was. I think when Phil and Chris came on board and we started to really talk about what our different research experiences were, that came into sharper focus.


There are a lot of scenes with people yelling over each other. Did you script each character for those?

Well, a lot of it is scripted and then when you’re working with really talented improvisational actors, a lot is going to be improvised. The hope there is that you won’t be able to tell when it’s scripted and when it’s improvised, that there’ll be kind of a seamless flow between the two. I can’t even remember [which is which].


What would that look like on the page? All the characters’ dialogue but you say: These are all said simultaneously?

I write them in sequence but you can kind of describe it as shouting, overlapping, that kind of thing. On the day, they just go about it at once.


Did you write the cameos into the script before you knew if you’d get them?

We wrote versions of it but we did not come up with a final version of that until we were closer to production.


We won’t give away how they appear in the movie, but there was no Dustin Nguyen?

[Laughs] Maybe in the next one. I love Dustin Nguyen. He was one of the earlier major characters in a television show who was Asian and that was really refreshing for us as kids. That was one of the things that was great about that television show, the multi-cultural cast. It really promoted that aspect of it.


Did you come up with the running gag of the flammable tankers?

Oh yeah. I was really excited that that made it into the movie. Jonah and I had discussed early on doing that car chase that kind of felt like you were playing a really chaotic game of Grand Theft Auto where you smash into one car and you jump out and carjack another one. We thought it would be funny to put cops almost in that criminal position. That was really fun to play with and that sequence developed over time. That particular gag I think came in a later draft but I was really excited about that one.



Did your script have the subtle meta humor that addressed the issue of remakes and plot structure?

I don’t recall. I don't think we did. I think that that just kind of developed later on.


Was there any of that in your script?

Not really. I think we alluded to letting people know that we understood the burnout over remakes, reboots, rehashings, retellings without being too obnoxious about it. That particular line that Offerman says, I wish that was my line. That is one line I would love to lay claim to but I really can’t. It is a genius moment that really sets the tone in a great way.


So whose was it? Nick’s?

I don’t even know. [Laughs]


Were you a “21 Jump Street” fan?

Michael Bacall: Yeah, oh yeah. That was considered to be a very cool show when I was a kid, and really edgy. It was the early days of the Fox network and they were trying to stake a claim as the youth-oriented risk-taking network. That was one of their efforts in that regard. My friends and I were really into that show.


Have you seen it recently?

Oh yeah. [Laughs] I think there are elements of it that hold up. It plays very dated and I try to look at it in the context of what else was out there at the time. Looking at it in that context, yeah, it was attempting to talk about social issues that other TV shows didn’t go anywhere near. If you watch it now it does seem dated in that regard but it was kind of pioneering in that way. I think some of the relationships actually do hold up between the cops. I think it’s really fun, the Peter DeLuise/Johnny Depp relationship in the show is really fun. Some of the situations that they get into are really fun. Some things come across as very dated and unintentionally humorous now but that’s to be expected.


Did you know it was going to be Ice Cube when you wrote the angry black captain?

That was an early idea that Jonah had. I immediately wanted to write that role as a kind of comment on all the movies that I grew up watching, Beverly Hills Cop and stuff like that. So we knew what we wanted that character to be like pretty early on in the process. I just remember Jonah looking at me saying, “Oh my God, it’s got to be Ice Cube. We’ve got to have someone from NWA in this movie playing a police officer.” I completely flipped out and he totally made it happen.


How does it feel to have two movies out, this one the critics are loving and Project X is kind of taking a beating?

Yeah, for sure. Project X is essentially an exploitation movie and not everyone’s cup of tea. [Laughs] 21 Jump Street’s got a lot more heart to it. Project X is just total anarchy. Whatever my contribution was to that, it was an amazing opportunity to be able to explore the darker side of comedy. It’s kind of fun having them both out at the same time and watching the different reactions.


How much did Project X stick to the script?

What I contributed to that was really structuring the escalation of the party and coming up with a lot of the gags. I did a little bit of work on the script before they went into production. It’s hard for me to say exactly how closely they stuck to the script because my screenplay contribution was brief compared to coming up with the overall structure of them putting the party together and throwing it and how out of control it gets. I think as would be expected with a found footage thing that takes place in a comedy arena, I’m sure there was a lot of improv going on. Those characters, once they cast the actors, started to tail more towards who those people were, even down to naming the characters after the actors.


How did you transition from acting to screenwriting?

I always wanted to write, from my earliest memories. I really enjoyed telling stories. I acted for years before I even considered screenwriting. I was about to graduate college. I was getting frustrated at the kinds of roles that were out there for young people in particular and thought I could do better. So a friend of mine had an idea for a low budget movie set in a private mental institution, kind of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Jr. We started working on it with the goal of making something low budget and casting ourselves in a couple of the roles. That turned into Manic which was the first screenplay I worked on and my first produced movie. I remember my first day on that set, I wasn’t acting that day so I got to just show up as the writer and observe what’s going on. Hearing Don Cheadle and Joe Gordon-Levitt reading these lines that I’d been working on at that point for years was just an epiphanal experience and I knew I’d be writing for a long time.


Along the way you really got to be in some of the classic TV shows as an episodic actor.

Yeah, I did a lot of guest roles on hot shows. I think when I met Quentin [Tarantino], I think that’s why he threw me in that episode of “CSI” he was directing because we both grew up with those shows. I was really fortunate to grow up out here and have those opportunities. That was kind of my film school growing up, occasionally working on a TV show or being on a movie set. Those are great times. I got to work on a lot of Stephen Cannell shows. “The A-Team,” that was probably my second job as an actor and it was two scenes with Mr. T. At the time, and even now, that might be my biggest triumph. It was so fun and so exciting.


Imagine meeting these casts you watch and you’re in and out in a week.

Yeah, it was a very fortunate thing to be able to do that as a kid. My parents were champions for going through the torture of taking me to these auditions and sitting in waiting rooms packed with noisy obnoxious kids. I owe them everything for that. That’s definitely what got me into the business.


Was the Scott Pilgrim script very different than the final product with all the visuals, or could you incorporate that along the way?

The script, because Edgar [Wright] and I co-wrote the script, it was a really exciting collaboration because I was working with the director and working with the guy who was going to bring that document to life and having been such a fan of his from the time I saw a bootleg of his TV show “Spaced” and Shaun of the Dead had just been released right before I met Edgar to try and get that job. We wrote very specifically to what was going to be on screen. In terms of a lot of the action, I think Edgar just knew how he was going to approach it so we didn’t have to write every single beat, every single cut and camera move into the script. We wrote the action enough specifically enough that you could visualize it to a certain degree while you were reading it and then Edgar would storyboard and just come up with those amazing sequences. That was a treat for me not just as a writer but just as an observer on the set. When they were in production, there wasn’t much writing that needed to be done on a daily basis but I just got to be there as an extra set of eyes and help out where I could, read off-camera dialogue and that allowed me to fully immerse myself in the production process.


When people say, even if they like the movie, that they didn’t buy Scott and Ramona’s relationship, are they missing the point? Every romantic comedy is these arbitrary people we’re supposed to root for, but in Scott Pilgrim they actually become reasonable people by the end.

Yeah, they’re just taking the next step of the journey at the end of that movie. It can be considered a happy ending but this is just the beginning of the next chapter for them.


I saw it more as a riff on the romantic comedies where there’s an artificial connection, so if you feel there’s no connection between them, that’s exactly the comment the film is making.

[Laughs] Yeah, there probably is an element of that.