An Aggressive Bongload: John Stalberg Jr. on ‘High School’

The director of the new stoner comedy tells his craziest weed story and describes the rarely-filmed 'dark side' of marijuana.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


High School, out in theaters on June 1st, is a teen comedy about a valedictorian named Henry who unwittingly smokes some marijuana the day before his horrible principal (played memorably by Michael Chiklis) instates mandatory drug tests for the entire student body at his school. Rather than risk expulsion, Henry and his old friend Travis Breaux buy some ultra-powerful drugs from the local weed man Psycho Ed (an excellent Adrien Brody), and proceed to drug the entire school as to skew the test results in Henry’s favor. Hijinks ensure.

CraveOnline recently had a sit-down with John Stalberg Jr., the director and writer of High School to discuss his inspiration behind the project, his theory on weed comedies, the dark side of marijuana, and to tell us a few anecdotes along the way.


CraveOnline: Could you repeat, for the benefit of our readers, the basketball story?

John Stalberg Jr.: Oh wow. I didn’t get to read the press notes, but I think I know what you’re talking about. When I was in college we went to a barbecue. I was at a barbecue, and there was this guy name Ed there who I knew through some friends, and who was passing around a bong.


Was he the inspiration for Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody) in the movie?

He was sort of the inspiration for Psycho Ed. He was a friend of a friend. And, uh, he had this jar of “keef.” You know, and he was just sort of packing bongloads of just pure powder. It almost looked like cocaine, right? And he’s just handing it around to people as… it was almost an aggressive bongload. He was challenging you to see if you’d smoke it. So we did. It was pure THC crystals. And we were just absolutely insane. The next thing we remember, someone reminds us that there was an intramural basketball game.


That night?

Like in ten minutes. And we didn’t have the entire team with us, so we had to recruit this one kid from New York, who was like a lacrosse player. He’d never played basketball in his life. And he’s green. He looks nauseated. Like, he can’t even speak at this point. I had to put his shoes on for him. And tie them, ‘cause he couldn’t remember how to tie his shoes. And we get to the gym, and they say there “Yeah, this is the team you’re playing,” and it was a team of teachers at the school. The first image I see is this albino teacher bust a, y’know, really sick three-point shot. Full pump fake. Like pump-fakes out the other teachers, and drain the sickest three-pointer. Anyway we play, and we get our asses kicked by these guys. We don’t know how to play. We forget the rules.

Yeah. I didn’t know that was in the press notes, but that was the initial idea for a short film called Intramural, where these kids meet Psycho Ed, this sort of character, they get dosed on all this chronic and herb, and to play this insane basketball game against their teachers. And then we sort of said let’s set it in high school.


High School was sort of based on that experience.

Yes. Roughly.


So, the main character Henry. Is that you?

No. It’s sort of an amalgam of a lot of different people. I see myself in Henry. I see myself in Breaux. There was a little bit of a relationship I had as a kid with a good friend of mine named Mike. We were really close friends, and then when we went to high school we kind of grew apart. And we ended up kind of passing each other in the halls, and there was always this bitterness, but… you know how it is. And I had never really seen a film track that relationship of people that were really close childhood friends, but then went to high school and grew apart. But they’re still sharing classes together, and seeing each other in the hallway. It’s awkward, you know? And so there was a little bit of that. And there was a little bit of my relationship with some great friends growing up.

My friends have seen the movie, and they’re like “Oh my God, this is embarrassing to watch,” because there’s so much stuff in there from high school.


So Travis is based on a real person.

Travis Breaux is a real person. He’s a friend of mine who lives in San Diego. Mostly, though, I just took his name. I asked him permission. Although he is a surfer. From San Diego. Drives a big truck. Has a sort of horn on top.


So he’s not the wastoid he is in the movie.

No. Although he loves reggae. I don’t wanna blow up his spot, because he’s a father of three, but he definitely puffs dank, and he enjoys himself at reggae shows. He loves music. Mostly we just have a couple of beers. He’s a great guy. And that’s why I just sort of took a little bit of his essence, and said “what would he be like in high school?”


I always wonder this about certain stoner movies: Cheech and Chong were probably high on set all the time. Did you ever encourage your actors to get high for a take?

No. No.


Not to imply anything; I know you’re professionals.

Sort of. We’re pretending to be. But you know there’s that thing when, uh, if you’re playing drunk never get drunk as an actor. Because by take 15 of the seventh setup, halfway through the day, you haven’t eaten, you’re f*cking wasted, and you can’t shoot anymore. It’s the same thing here. I think we wanted to get the “sense memory,” to use an Uta Hagen term, as it relates to weed. So we smoked this fake weed on set.

You know in Psycho Ed’s house, where we had fake buds hangin’ around, and plants and a grow room, everyone was puffing away, puffing this fake weed. And between takes they were rolling joints for the next scene. And it kind of became… like it was late at night and we were all hanging out smoking weed. It was a little spooky. ‘Cause we were in this creepy house. Weird, sort of strange place. It was very quaint, but we made it creepy. We took all the furniture out, and hung some photographs of people from World War II, as if Psycho Ed had bought this house from the estate of an old woman, and just moved his stuff in. And he had never taken the photos off the walls. So it was sort of haunting and moody. But hanging out there, it just sort of reminded us… that we were just hanging out smokin’ weed. But we didn’t actually smoke any.


I figured not. Adrien Brody is fantastic in this movie. He’s really scary as Psycho Ed. What sort of direction did you give him?

Well he’s an amazing actor. He’s a great actor. What I told him was – well, of the less specific directions, just overall when we met before the movie had started – I want Psycho Ed to represent the dark side of marijuana. Because there is a dark side. And no movies ever addressed it. Have you ever smoked too much weed at a party and go “Why did I smoke that? I’m uncomfortable. I’m nervous. I’m paranoid. I have anxiety. My palms are sweaty. I gotta get outta here. I’m having a heart attack.” There’s all kinds of negative things that happen sometimes when you smoke too much weed, or smoke too powerful a strain of weed. And no one’s ever portrayed that in movies, to my knowledge.


Yeah, it’s usually just a party…

Yeah. It’s like “Hey! I smoke weed, and I’m really hungry! And I’m laughing a lot!” You do do that sometimes, but there’s a whole dark side, and that’s what Psycho Ed is. He’s a weed demon. He represents, metaphorically, that whole spectrum. That dark spectrum of weed. And so, therefore, he was kind of able to find the character.


There’s a scene in High School wherein Travis Breaux has to seduce an older woman who is using the school’s swimming pool, but it’s not addressed later in the film. What happened in that scene?

Right. Well, he was obviously unsuccessful in seducing her.


I would think she’d be calling the cops.

Right! Originally that scene took place off campus. It was a scene – and it’s an interesting note that you picked up on – that takes place in the principal’s house. And he goes to the house, does a whole thing. And it was too expensive. Like, they actually went to a pool store to get pool supplies, and he pretends to be the pool guy. It was a whole thing. And in pre-production were just like “This movie’s called ‘High School.’ We have this 75 million dollar school with gymnasiums and gigantic, Olympic-sized swimming pools. Let’s set it here. Let’s find a cool place at the high school, and, you know, set it at high school.

But to answer your question, nothing was cut. We just assumed he failed horribly and talked his way out of it.


Okay, I figured. It seemed kinda like a dangling thing to me.

That’s interesting. I never really thought of it like that.


Sorry. Gosh. I didn’t mean to point out errors or anything.

No! No no no. Sometimes dangling things are good. Because it kind of gives the movie a life of its own. You can fill that in. Your imagination’s kind of always more perverse than anything you can ever show.


The film had a very National Lampoon vibe. It had darkness like you said, but there was a lot of giggling. Did you ever feel there were any stoner comedies you were imitating?

No. I mean, I love films of “the stoner canon.” I love Up in Smoke. Well, I love the first 30 minutes of Up in Smoke. Once Tom Skerrit appears as Raspberry, it starts to fall apart. But the opening scene of Cheech and Chong in the car is one of the funniest. I mean, I have the dialogue from that scene totally memorized. [Cheech voice] “Does Howdy Doody have wooden balls?” But, uh, there’s a lot of movies that actually fall into the “stoner movie” category that don’t involve marijuana at all. I mean, to me the best stoner movie of all time is Evil Dead 2. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of movies like that… Hard Target with Jean-Claude Van Damme is a great stoner movie.

Our movie, we wanted to make a fun, entertaining movie. You can’t extract marijuana from the plot of this movie. It is literally the plot of the film. So we were forced to say, “this is going to be a stoner movie,” whether we like it or not. Therefore it has to be a stoner comedy, because you can’t… I was once quoted as saying “You can’t really make a stoner drama.” They’ve tried. There was this one movie, Homegrown, with Billy Bob Thornton and Ryan Phillippe. And it’s a pretty good movie.


Isn’t that what that show "Weeds" is?

"Weeds" is a comedy, but it’s got slightly dramatic moments and everything. But I think the goal was to make something fun and funny.


Let me ask about the school itself. I learned this was abandoned school.

Yeah. The Parker High School at Howell. They constructed it – and we talked a lot about it when we shot – they built the school for 75 million dollars. It was in 2004, 2005, 2006. That’s when all the legislation and construction went down. When Michigan was relatively flush, before 2008. We come along at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009, and they have no money. So they built this spectacular school in a relatively small town – and this is a town that doesn’t have YMCAs or things like that. And this school has, like, 15 gyms. It’s got batting cages that come down from the ceiling. It’s incredible. It’s very futuristic. It’s a green building; the sun was designed to heat the building. It’s incredible. They didn’t have the money to operate it, so it was sitting empty. I think now it’s a middle school.



It was tragic. ‘Cause we would go around scouting locations, and townspeople were pretty upset about it. We just said “Hey look, we’re at least renting it from the town and pumping some money into it. We were, in a weird way, using it for what it was designed to be used for [laugh]. But we moved all our crew in there, so it was literally a soundstage. It was a movie studio. We had the grip and lighting in the art studio. One of the gyms was a soundstage. The other gym housed a set. We were building sets there. It was a movie studio.


That sounds like a great way to shoot a movie.

It was great. Because we were just there. We were self-contained. We used their kitchens to have food. The cafeteria was where we ate.


You didn’t stay there, did you?

No. We stayed about 30 minutes away, which was really kind of weird and dangerous. We’d have to drive, commute 30 minutes on an icy freeway. Everyday. Almost the entire crew. We stayed at Farmington Hill, we shot in Howell.


You should have set up sleeping bags and had pizza a night. Had a proper lock-in sleepover.

We could have! Oh my God, we coulda had total school sleepover.


What is the first record you bought with your own money?

This is embarrassing to say, but it was Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. I put it on my dad’s record player, and I put on my dad’s big earphones, and played that one. What the one [hums the bass vocal to Livin’ on a Prayer] “Johnny gotta work on the docks!” What’s that one?


Livin’ on a Prayer.

Livin’ on a Prayer! I can’t believe I forgot it!