NEW ORLEANS, LA. It's nearly noon on the set of “22 Jump Street” and the star of the scene is laying flattened on the turf at Tad Gormley Stadium just outside of New Orleans, immobile. Dozens of extras, clad in football uniforms, look away.
A man in a Saints shirt hovers above the featured player, taking in the decapitation and the splattered insides with growing frustration.
“Is there any way of making it so that it doesn't fall apart?” he laments.
The man is a second [or possibly third] unit cinematographer and he's currently facing the difficult challenge of a thespian who clearly isn't ready for his close-up, in this case a roast beef sandwich that refuses to catch the light in the right way. Maybe it's the glare off the lettuce or maybe it's the lifeless meat, but effort is being put into capturing the fumbled sandwich just right. There's a stunt sandwich off to the side, currently in one piece but ready to take the dive if necessary. There's a Coke cup that keeps being used for lighting reference.
The disarrayed sandwich is a key part of the “22 Jump Street” scene a group of reporters is observing on this morning. Like many of the jokes in the franchise, it's a largely improvised conversation that takes a long journey to a very meta punchline that will make certain savvy viewers chuckle, but could very well get lost in a barrage of rapid-fire bits. But great care is being taken. See, Channing Tatum's Jenko and Wyatt Russell's Benji bump into each other at open football tryouts and if certain elements aren't visible in the insert, the laughs may get lost as well.
Over at video village, this produces its own sight gag. The first monitor features actual human stars Tatum and Russell warming up with a football. The second monitor features the aforementioned extras doing basic drills as an instructor talks them through their paces. And the third monitor features a tight close-up on a sandwich, bread splayed dangerously far from fillings.
Trust me, it's a funny juxtaposition.
In “22 Jump Street,” which takes Jenko and Jonah Hill's Schmidt to college for their latest undercover caper, Russell — You might know his parents Kurt and Goldie — plays the quarterback of MC State [Metropolitan State] football team, the Statesmen.
As we watch, Russell is dealing with the possibility that he may have chosen the wrong sport in his youth, at least for the task at hand.
“I was a hockey player,” he admits. “I played hockey forever, that was my life and my job until I got injured so I get sports and I get the sports atmosphere and the feeling around other athletes but I never played football, I can throw a football though. I played professional hockey in Europe, I played in the German 3rd League and the Dutch Elite League.”
Russell can throw a football, but the technical advisor isn't loving the look of his spiral. It doesn't help the comparison that Tatum played 10 years of football, including a year at Glenville State College. Russell keeps floating the ball to Tatum, who keeps returning a tight rope that yields an audible snap each time it lands in the receiver's hands.
Tatum laughs at the idea that he's been preparing for this return to action.
“Oddly enough, no,” he laughs. “I've kinda hurt both of my feet, so I haven't really done very much and we've been shooting. It's not gonna be like 'The Program' or anything like that. It's not gonna be like massive games or anything, but we're gonna have enough that you believe it and whatnot.”
The extras are local college and high school players and they all look ready to go and Tatum admits that he did a couple practices with them and was shocked by the reminder of how fast the game is.
One person who isn't putting in any extra preparation between shots is Hill, who's playing with his dog and shouting out one-liners. It's OK, because “22 Jump Street” isn't trying to make you feel like Jonah Hill could be a college football star.
“I did no preparation, because this is my only football scene,” Hill tells reporters. “I basically get murdered out there and I go a different direction.”
The conceit here is that Jenko was, as you'll surely believe, a star high school football player and Schmidt is hanging around just to be with his chum and partner.
“[A] lot of the stuff about college is figuring out who you are, your identity and yeah. A lot of the movie is about our relationship and kinda going to college with your hometown honey and then the world opening up to you once you get to this new place,” Hill explains.
Tatum adds, “We're still in like a girl-boy relationship in the movie. I don't know who's the girl.”
The goal, as you'd expect, is to pull off a rather challenging feat: Make a sequel that people like based on a movie that people were surprised to like knowing that audiences go into sequels with higher expectations anyway.
“I had a meeting with the studio probably half-way through shooting the first one where they came down here and said, 'Would you want to start writing a sequel,'” Hill recalls. “And I said… I'd never done a sequel before to any of the movies that I was in and that was because I thought it couldn't be as good or better, but I thought that the premise of the second one is going to college and there hasn't been a great college movie of our generation yet. There have been like, you know, 'Animal House' and all these great college movies, but there hasn't been a really memorable one from around now, you know? I thought when you take all the rules of high school away from these guys and put them in college, that seems a lot more comedically fertile. So I was like, “OK. That could actually be funnier, or as funny as the first one.” But of course that's why we call ourselves out, because you feel like you're gonna disappoint everyone inevitably.”
Tatum agrees, “Because people kinda want it, but then they want it how they envision it and how they remember it and you want to give them something different, so you kinda have to take some risks and whatnot and hope they like it.”
Then, of course, there was the question of how fast they'd be able to turn in a sequel, because delaying opportunities to capitalize on a sleeper hit isn't one of the things studios do best.
“You should have heard the studio's date that they wanted to shoot it. As soon as the first one did well at the box office they were like, we had a meeting, they're like, 'So, you think we can have it by two months? A month?' We're like, 'You guys are smoking crack,'” Tatum jokes.
Ultimately, sanity reigned, though the set visit takes place only seven months from the eventual June 13 release date.
“Luckily, they weren't like, 'This is your date,'” Hill insists. “This is like, 'Here's when we feel ready to make a good movie' and then they chose a date that was reachable from that point. Neither of us were gonna come back and just make a second movie. Everyone — all the writers, the directors, all of us — we all put the time in to make sure that it was gonna be something special before we even agreed to go forward.”
The bromance-to-romance subtext is just one of many unspoken aspects of the genre that “22 Jump Street” hopes to bring to the surface and poke fun of, including the enhanced expectations of doing a sequel to a movie that was expected to be a box office afterthought, but instead took in nearly $140 million domestic.
“When we were writing this one, the biggest thing to keep in mind, like we did in the first one, was we called ourselves out for the lameness of recycling an idea for a TV show into a film and I think that worked to our benefit, Hill says. “And we call ourselves out right out of the gate in this one that sequels are bigger and crappier than the first ones. So that's kinda the approach we're taking with this, is to have a very aware attack at ourselves for making a sequel in the first place.”
Of course, just because “22 Jump Street” is mocking the idea of sequels having to be bigger than the original doesn't mean that the intention isn't to make the sequel much bigger than the original.
“The basic idea is from 'Bad Boys I' to 'Bad Boys II,'” Hill says.
“But more ridiculous,” Tatum adds.
Hill explains, “The initial thought when I first was starting to write the first movie was 'Bad Boys' meets a John Hughes movie and then the only way to make fun of ourselves in this movie properly is that sequels are more expensive and s***ier than the first ones and the idea is that, and what I think the guys have really been pulling off — Phil & Chris — is that it really does feel like a big, giant movie, but with really stupid jokes in it. You know? Which is kinda great, which is super-entertaining, hopefully.”
With a big smile, Tatum recalls, “I straight-up got to ride on a semi at like 90 miles-per-hour on top of it. It was crazy.”
The winking and nudging isn't reserved only for positive changes.
“We deal a lot in this movie that we look older, you know, like older than a couple years ago when we made the first movie,” Hill says.
“That was actually the first thing that he said to me after we did the first take,” Tatum adds. “We went back and looked at the take and we were like, 'Goddamn, we've gotten old in three years.'”
Hill confesses, “It sucks to watch, because I'd watched the first movie the night before and then we started with the same set that we did on the first film, the second film the same set and actors, and I watched the first take and I was like, “Chan, we look a lot older than we did in the first movie.” So we had to kinda incorporate that into the film.”
So Hill and Tatum may be older and wiser on “22 Jump Street,” but being elder statesmen fits with their additional roles as producers on the film. They set a tone while welcoming the new project's fresh faces.
“They are the nicest guys in the world,” Russell gushes. “The minute you meet them they put you at ease right away just because they're such nice people. I think they understand when new people come into a situation like this, they did it before. I'm coming in thinking, 'I want to be good for these guys' they hired you for a job, I don't want to disappoint them.”
The Tatum and Hill influence — as well as the influence of returning directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller — is evident in every varying take of the scene we're watching. The only actor unwilling or unable to go off-script is the sandwich, but all three stars are mixing with the dynamic on every take. And just to keep the mood light between takes, Hill is swearing up a storm, talking to either nobody in particular or, in one particularly profane instance, to Siri on his phone.
“Everything is absolutely off the cuff,” Russell explains. “You have to be based in what the scene is about, you have to know your character because if you fly off the rails it could be bad. Before I came in, I've never done any improv training or anything like that but the things I was able to do leading up this have been all sorts of improvisational stuff. When I was young with my brothers we'd make movies all the time and that was never scripted. The way that they do it is really simple. Anybody can do it in a way, you come up with something your character is going to say and if it's in line with what your character says and who he is, it's going to be right.”
Everybody seems to be having a good time, so good that Hill is even having fun talking to the press.
“It's so nice to make a movie that you think people might actually go see before they even know anything about it,” Hill says. “It takes a lot of the pressure off.”
Tatum agrees, “I think a lot of you guys asked the, 'Are you guys gonna do a second one?'before the first one came out and we were like like, 'Ah. We just want the first one to do all right.' And now it's like, 'Alright. That happened.'”
So should we already be prepping for “23 Jump Street”?
“Well, everyone will REALLY expect the third one to suck, so we can only do better than the expectations,” Hill says, returning to the football field.
“22 Jump Street” premieres on June 13.
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