Dialogue: Michael Bacall on Writing 'Project X,' '21 Jump Street,' and 'The New Cool,' and Growing Up an '80s Child Actor

Dialogue: Michael Bacall on Writing 'Project X,' '21 Jump Street,' and 'The New Cool,' and Growing Up an '80s Child Actor

Mar 15, 2012

You may not already know screenwriter Michael Bacall, but you know his films (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, Project X), and some of you even grew up with him. Bacall has been working in Hollywood for decades; first as a child actor in the '80s, where he appeared on such shows as The A-Team, The Wonder Years, Mr. Belvedere, Doogie Howser and Punky Brewster. As he got older and graduated college, he transitioned to screenwriting, partly out of necessity because quality roles were drying up, and also because he wanted to have a hand in creating new, exciting roles for younger actors like himself.

Since then the former child actor has, essentially, blown up. Not only is he currently experiencing the weird rush of having two films in theaters in the same month, but both of those films have just announced sequels. He's also working on a new film for Oscar-friendly producer Scott Rudin, and in his spare time he's still doing bit parts as an actor in the films of friends like Quentin Tarantino.

We caught up with Bacall not long after sequels for 21 Jump Street and Project X were announced, so there's a little talk of those in here. But as children of the '80s, we also had to grill the writer-actor on those early experiences and find out just what lead him to a part in a Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch video game.


Movies.com: Not only do you have two films out in one month (Project X and 21 Jump Street), but they also just announced sequels for both. How involved are you in each one?

Michael Bacall: Well I was just writing the  21 Jump Street sequel last night ...

Movies.com: How do you approach each sequel, especially when it comes to a film like Project X? Do you take the criticisms lobbed at the first film in consideration when writing the follow-up? Is that something writers do?

MB: My job is to execute a story and a structure -- especially in regards to what I've been hired to do on this Project X sequel, which is what I was hired for on the first one, to write the treatment. I need to come up with something that Todd (Phillips) is happy with and the studio is happy with, and something that's fun for me as well. So those are the primary considerations.

Movies.com: So here's an important question: Do you feel any responsibility as a screenwriter for the influence both of these films may have on dumb teenagers?

MB: [laughs] Oh man, don't paint me into a natural selection conversation! I think, ultimately, the parents and the kids are responsible for their own behavior. I do understand people are bound to have reactions, especially to Project X in that regard.

Movies.com: With any kind of '80s TV adaptation, the first thing people usually do is groan. So where do you begin with a script like 21 Jump Street?

MB: That's kind of the fun part, of having those expectations that there was no way to make something entertaining with a remake of a television show, so I think I kind of reveled in that challenge. And really it was a very fortunate situation for me to have Jonah [Hill] call up and be like, 'What do you think about this -- let's take a crack at it.' We're fans of the buddy-cop genre, and we had been talking about trying to find something to write for him in that genre for some time. So when the opportunity came up to do 21 Jump Street at Sony, he gave me a call, and I was just real excited to work with him on it and do a hard-R version that wasn't totally grounded in parody.

Movies.com: One of the great things about the film is the balance between it being its own thing, as well as a nod to the original show ...

MB:  Yeah, I think early on we knew we wanted it to leave and breathe on its own, without ignoring the show. We wanted to have some clever winks and nods to it, but we didn't want it to feel completely confined by any specific character relationship or plot device found in the show itself.

Movies.com: As someone who's obviously not in high school, I'm curious about what you have to do to get inside the minds of high school kids these days in order to write these scripts. Do you hang out with teenagers, or do you just sort of go off of what you see on TV and in other movies?

MB: I think it's a little bit dangerous to go off what you see on television or in the movies because that becomes a sort of thought-perpetuating loop. Both of these movies that I was involved in have a heightened reality to them, but I like to ground it in some kind of research. With 21 Jump Street, I did what the guys did -- without going undercover -- I went back to my high school, and was fortunate enough to talk to some teachers, some of whom taught me when I was there. I talked to the Dean of Discipline, the school nurse, and got to walk around during lunchtime, listen to the kids, that sort of thing. So while nothing specific came out of that, it really was just a vibe I picked up from kids in different social scenarios during that research. I also got to go to a high school prom that took place at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, and that was certainly an eye-opening experience. That's one of the most enjoyable parts of the process for me is getting to be a reporter in the research phase.

Movies.com: Sometimes what's on the page translates differently to what's on screen. What's your favorite scene from the movie, and is it also your favorite scene in the script?

MB:  I was really proud of the car chase. That was an early idea that Jonah and I had -- to do something that almost made it feel like you were in a Grand Theft Auto game, but with some nice running gags in there. And I've wanted to write a good car chase since the first time I saw one, and it was a really exciting opportunity to do that with this script. I love the way it came out, too, with the running gag throughout that car chase sequence.

Movies.com: Okay, now we're going to go there. You were a child actor in the 1980s before you started writing scripts. How much of that experience influences your writing, if at all?

MB: I think it's had to have some kind of influence on me, just in the volume of scripts I would read for television shows and commercials. A lot of them good, a lot of them really bad. After awhile you sort of naturally begin to pick up story structure, and you start to get a knack when you have to read it out loud for what makes good dialogue, and what makes it godawful. I'm sure it had a very unofficial affect.

Movies.com: I'm sorry to have to put you through this but the '80s child in me is geeking out a bit. You appeared on Mr. Belvedere, Doogie Howser, The Wonder Years, The A-Team, and Punky Brewster, among others. I need to know which bit part was your favorite.

MB: Wow, definitely The A-Team. It was my second official job, and I worshipped Mr. T. I was so unbelievably excited to have a bit part in one of the episodes. I played an orphan and the A-Team was saving our orphanage over the course of the episode. At the beginning of the day, the 1st AD brought Mr. T over to all the kids who were gonna be in the episode, and Mr. T gave us a speech about how if we did our school hours on set and treated the teacher with respect, and studied really hard and knew our lines, that at the end of the day he would give us autographs. And it worked! We were the best set of students in the history of on-set schooling that day.

Movies.com: You played Jimmy in the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch "Make My Video" video game ...

MB: [laughs] Nice research!

Movies.com: I have to know what the hell that is, and how you became involved in it.

MB: There was a moment where the Sega Genesis videogame console had a DVD-rom peripheral that you could plug in -- I actually think it was CD-based, and they were trying to do this interactive game. To my best recollection, I think it was something where you could choose clips out of the ... [laughs] ... Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch "Good Vibrations" video. There may have been a karaoke component involved. I don't remember specifically; I did a couple of really weird, enjoyable industrial-type things. I also did a week in Seattle on the Microsoft campus to shoot a sort of futuristic infomercial that Bill Gates included in one of his earlier biographies ... [laughs]. That was also a mindblowing experience because Gates showed up in his helicopter, waked onto the set, looked around for a minute or two, walked back to his helicopter and flew away. [laughs] I've had some weird experiences man.

Movies.com: So then at what point did you decide to take the screenwriting a lot more seriously?

MB: I went to UCLA, and right around the time I was graduating I was getting very frustrated with the roles that were out there for younger actors. So when I got to the point where I wasn't really worried about writing several essays a week and school was out, I started writing immediately with a friend of mine to try and create interesting roles for younger actors, and to try to write roles for ourselves to act in. And that became Manic, which was my first produced movie. I just got hooked from day one of production, watching Don Cheadle and Joseph Gordon-Levitt reading some of the dialogue I had been working on, for years at that point. It just got me really high, and it was off to the races from there. I wanted to take it a lot more seriously after that experience. And it was a years-long process to break into the studio system, but it was absolutely worth it.

Movies.com: Talk about your relationship with Quentin Tarantino. You've appeared in his last two films. Are you friends?

MB: Yeah, in the same way you just kind of rattled off those iconic '80s television shows, I met him through a mutual friend, and he had found out that I did some roles in shows like that. Like us, he was an '80s kid who was obsessed with television, and we started talking about some of those experiences, which was right around the time that he was directing that episode of CSI, and he threw me a role in that. It was beyond exciting because Quentin is one of the most rebellious and subversive American filmmakers out there right now, and I have so much respect for what he's done. Getting to be on set with the guy was just an incredible experience, and I was very fortunate he brought me back on Death Proof. Then I got to be one of the Inglourious Basterds, and hung around set for a couple weeks in Berlin. And then I just got to do a day on Django Unchained. Kind of hard to describe, but that's a dream scenario to get to be on those sets.

Movies.com: How is Django Unchained looking, from what you got to see of it?

MB: I think it's going to be incredible. Quentin is inspirational as a director. I was always a massive fan because of his writing, and like every script of his that I've read, when I got to the end of Django all I could say was ... 'motherf*cker.' He did it again!

Movies.com: Talk about 21 Jump Street 2. How are you approaching the sequel? Are they going to another high school for another mission, or are you taking it in a different direction?

MB: Well I can't really talk about it, but let's just say there's a hint in the first one to where it's gonna go.

Movies.com: And for Project X 2 ... is it now the college party?

MB: Again, I can't talk about that too much, but I'll say it's gonna be a challenge to outdo that party, but I think we're up to it. We may have to burn down the entire world in the next one. [laughs] We'll see where it goes. Should be fun.

Movies.com: Is there anything you're working on right now that's not a sequel to a film that came out in March?

MB: I'm adapting a book called The New Cool, which is based on the non-fiction book by Neil Bascomb and Scott Rudin is producing it, who I am extremely honored and excited to be working with. This is a look at teenage life that is the polar opposite of what you see in Project X. I think the kids in Project X might be the ones responsible for the extinction of the human race, and the kids in The New Cool will be responsible for saving it. It's this truly amazing world of a high school robotics competition, and it's called The First Robotics League, founded by a brilliant inventor named Dean Kamen. It's a high school league structured like any other sports league in high school. Over 3,000 teams participate across the country and around the world. Basically these kids have six weeks to build a robot specifically for this competition, and then they compete for a couple of months, trying to make it past the regional rounds to the nationals.

The regional rounds are held in sports arenas and college basketball stadiums, and the nationals are held in NFL stadiums. It's a huge organization that hasn't really broken through to pop culture yet, and the kids are unbelievably brilliant and inspiring, and it's this great story that Neil discovered in the team that the book follows. I've done about 200 hours of research -- going to a lot of these competitions and following that same team -- and it's been a great way for me to kind of explore that hopeful side of myself.

21 Jump Street hits theaters this Friday, March 16th, and Project X is in theaters now.




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