Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have been doing press for 21 Jump Street, the R-rated action comedy inspired by the '80s TV series, in their police officer uniforms from the film. Why? Probably because they can. But costumes aside, the unlikely comedy duo star as two inept rookie cops who, after screwing up a drug bust, are transferred to the Jump Street unit. Their assignment: go undercover in high school to find out who's behind the newest popular drug among teenagers: HFS (which stands for holy f**king sh*t).
Although Tatum's only 31 and Hill's 28, the two admit to feeling like old men when they talk about how high school's changed since they graduated in 1998 and 2002, respectively. "A ton has changed. I don’t think I would even understand these kids anymore. I sound like 50," said Tatum, laughing.
"I was here five years ago when I started working on this movie, when I got the phone call to ask me to adapt the movie was at this hotel at South by Southwest promoting Knocked Up. So in the five years since I started writing it, my sister was 13 to 18, so I got to really understand the disconnect between where I was at even in the few years out of high school between myself and high school students now," offered Hill at the 2012 SXSW press day for the Columbia Pictures release. "That’s where a lot of humor comes from is us being out of touch, even in just a few years."
"Even a few years out of school you immediately lose touch with what they’re going through. It’s mostly technology, I would say. They live their lives on the computer and Facebook and everything. I just missed Facebook and all that stuff."
Tatum interjects, "I’m still missing it."
Let's face it, feature films based on TV shows don't usually work (Land of the Lost, Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, etc.), and when Hill and Michael Bacall were working on the script, they made sure to make fun of the fact it's lazy to remake or adapt existing films or TV shows. "To me, it was like the idea of an adaptation of a TV show was just so lame, but I loved this story," explained Hill. "I wanted to make Bad Boys meets a John Hughes movie. I wanted to have a Back to the Future element of reliving the most important part of your youth thinking you have the almanac but all the answers are wrong once you get there. That’s what I cared about. That’s what seemed like a fascinating story. I wasn’t like calling people about adapting things or anything. I was just like, 'Let’s just make a great movie.'"
"The studio feels more comfortable when there’s a title and a built in audience," said Tatum. "I think you could put Narcs as the title of this and it would be the same. It wouldn’t change the movie whatsoever."
"We pay a lot of homages to the actual show, so it’s fun if you love the actual show but we wanted it to be its own piece. Stephen Cannell, who created the show and unfortunately passed away, was super supportive of us seeing it become something different, seeing someone else’s interpretation of the show," revealed Hill.
"I really saw it as just trying to make a good movie," added Hill. "I think the best thing this movie has is the low expectations of an adaptation from a TV show because you go in with basement expectations and you come in and the movie kicks ass and you leave going, 'Wow, I was not expecting it to be good and it’s pretty good.'"
And although Hill was aiming for a Bad Boys meets John Hughes vibe, the idea to do a hilariously crazy car chase with flammable tankers was actually directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord. "I did not think that that was going to be funny. I’ve got to be honest," said Tatum, to which Hill agrees.
"But, for example, the driver’s ed car, doing a chase. My idea in the original script was to do a car chase with traffic," explained Hill. "I thought that was really funny that on the highway it would be like stop and go and there would be traffic. I hadn’t seen that. The highway’s always moving at incredible scenes in movies and I thought it was funny because in real life there’s lots of traffic that if you got on a highway speed chase and you had to keep stopping and get out of the car and running around on the freeway, dressed as morons, obviously... Phil and Chris had the idea where you keep thinking things are going to blow up and they don’t."
Speaking of unexpectedly funny scenes, audiences are going to be pleasantly surprised at just how funny Tatum is. We've come to expect this sort of R-rated comedy from Hill, but Tatum's not known for straight-up comedy roles.
"In this movie I think the great surprise of the movie is how great Chan is as a comedic actor," said Hill. "I think that’s the thing you go into this movie not knowing much about. I like going into movies not knowing about certain elements and being doubtful of certain elements, and then you get to see this guy crush it for an hour and a half and you’re like, 'Wow, I didn’t expect that to happen.'"
Hill and Bacall's script was a jumping off point, with Hill saying they would go by the script for a few takes and then throw it away and see what else they could come up. However, Tatum was quick with his praise for Hill and Bacall's script. "I don’t want people thinking that all the funny stuff came from going crazy and improv’ing, because these guys really did write a great script. Jonah and Mike Bacall and some others, Jonah’s just a beast as far as it took, what, five years to get the script right?"
"Yeah, they wanted it to not take five years," replied Hill. "Trust me, the studio would’ve rather it taken one year, and every year I just kept saying, 'It’s not ready yet. It’s not ready yet. It’s not ready yet.' I’m glad we waited because I think the best version of the movie came out of it. I’m proud of it."
Looking into the future, Tatum's got Magic Mike and G.I. Joe: Retaliation hitting also hitting theaters this year, and he'll be reuniting with director Steven Soderbergh (Haywire, Magic Mike) for The Bitter Pill starting production shortly. Asked how he prepares for everything he's got going on right now, Tatum answered, "I don't think you can get ready for it. I think you just take it one day at a time. Truly, these big press things, I actually don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow. I stopped trying to look into the future and be like, 'All right, I’ve got this, that and the other thing.' Before I go to bed I figure out what I’m doing tomorrow and I’m like, 'All right,' and literally just take it one day at a time. I’m so lucky. It’s crazy, an embarrassment of riches for sure."
* * * * * *
21 Jump Street hits theaters on March 16, 2012.