SXSW 2012: Michael Bacall on Going From 'Scott Pilgrim' to 'Project X' to '21 Jump Street'

3:03 AM PST 03/13/2012 by Todd Gilchrist
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The actor added screenwriting to his repertoire in 2001, but he's making his behind-the-scenes breakthrough a decade later with scripts that add smarts to sophomoric hijinks.

Michael Bacall has survived in Hollywood for several years as an actor, but he’s currently making his big breakthrough behind the scenes as a screenwriter.

After adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with director Edgar Wright, Bacall sculpted the story for Project X into a blockbuster comedy, and hopes to strike gold yet again with his big-screen update of 21 Jump Street, directed by Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord. On the eve of Jump Street’s premiere Monday night in Austin at the 2012 South by Southwest film festival, THR spoke with Bacall about his recent success to deconstruct the screenwriter’s approach to creating these charmingly unique projects, and to talk about the process of shifting his career focus from acting to screenwriting.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you first came up with the idea for Project X, how close was it in concept or even style to what sort of ends up on the screen?

Michael Bacall:
I got involved when I was in Serrano -- we were in production on Scott Pilgrim, I got a phone call from two of the producers, Todd Phillips and Scott Budnick. They asked if I'd be interested in writing a found-footage, first-person POV high school party movie, and they said 'we only want to do this if we can just push the boundaries of how out of control the party gets'. That's what was really appealing to me, just to take a party from being possibly unsuccessful, to being massively successful, to becoming extremely dangerous, and I think that that's in there, and I'm really excited about how far they actually went with it. We really didn't have to dial back on the destruction (laughs).

THR: Todd’s great at making audience like characters that are kind of jerks. Was there any concern or consideration about creating characters the audience would sympathize with?

Bacall:
In being familiar with some of Todd's earlier work, I believe even back when he was at NYU, he did the documentary on G.G. Allin and I think to most people that's about as unlikable a guy as you're ever gonna meet. I love how much Todd embraced that aspect of the guy, even in a documentary setting. So I think that's kind of a part of his creative DNA, and normally you're being pushed to make characters more sympathetic, kind of have these moments that redeem them. And often those moments can feel very maudlin and overblown, but that's one of the refreshing things about working with Todd, is not feeling like you're wedged into doing that.

THR: How actively do you tailor the material you're working on to the people who are making it? Do you bend it to suit their sensibility?

Bacall:
You want to write something that everyone involved, from director to actor, can knock out of the park, and I don't think it's a good idea to try to go against that, especially when you're working with extremely talented people. I love Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Jonah is a hilarious actor, Channing [Tatum] is amazing in this movie -- as if we wrote the part for him, even though we didn't know he'd be playing it when we first came up with it. When Phil and Chris and I first sat down I think there were already two drafts of the script that had been written and I think those drafts may have been a lot more violent and a little bit darker than where we wound up, but I am beyond excited about where we wound up, because those guys have a great sense of making characters likable in a non-obnoxious way. You can feel it when someone's trying to make a character likable, but those guys are great storytellers in their own right. I love Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, so when we sat down and started collaborating, it was great to finally know at that point who would be directing the movie, because it does make a big difference for tone, and yeah, they killed it.

THR: How do you think structurally about creating characters, interjecting them into a story and getting the audience to react the way you want them to?

Bacall:
Well fortunately with Scott Pilgrim we had amazing strongly written characters that already existed because of Bryan Lee O'Malley's brilliant comics. In that situation it was more of a process of, there were so many great moments, it was more a process of finding the best one to bring the audience as quickly as possible. In the first comic we used a lot of that in the beginning of the movie to get to know who they characters were and what they're relationships were in a quick way. For something original I just tried to be interested in it myself and hope that that translates, because it's hard to write a character when all you're thinking about is manipulating an audience. I like to try to get to the point where I feel some kind of genuine emotion, you know, for this imaginary guy or girl kind of running around in my brain and once I get to that point it's just a lot easier.

THR: In all three of these films, 21 Jump Street, Project X and Scott Pilgrim, how do you balance allowing the characters to be their own people and still acknowledge the conventions the movie is yielding to?

Bacall:
[In 21 Jump Street,] I knew the character relationship came first, from early on when Jonah [Hill] and I first sat down to talk about it. The most basic concept was, you still have the issues from the first time in high school that are unresolved. The [main characters] don't think they do, but of course as soon as they get there all those issues come racing to the surface. And once we had that essential concept, it just started to lend itself to little pieces of that pop-culture reflection you're talking about. When they're walking into the parking lot for the first day, that kind of thing, I think the focus always, and it's the same with Phil and Chris, we always want to make the focus on what the character relationship is, and where they're at emotionally during any different part of the story. Then in terms of the police investigation, then those opportunities come up to have those references in there without letting that dominate the movie.

THR: Did you get into screenwriting concurrently while you were acting, or has that always been a separate passion?

Bacall:
I graduated UCLA and started writing a screenplay with a friend immediately, and that came out of a frustration with the types of roles that we were auditioning for, so we wrote something low budget with the intention of acting in it. That became Manic, which was an incredible experience because it was the first thing I had ever written. And even though it took a couple of years, actually having your first script produced, I don't even think I realized at the time what a blessing that was. From there I became increasingly obsessed with the writing side of things, and I would get an audition here and there but I had more time to write. I wouldn't say I made a full transition into writing, but it's obviously the predominant part of my career. I still miss acting a lot, because there's something very visceral about that that I will always love. But I really enjoy the process of writing; it can be equally frenzied at times and it kind of builds up to a perfect storm. A couple of years ago we were in production on Scott Pilgrim I was writing a second draft of 21 Jump Street and also coming up with the story and the treatment for Project X, so it gets a little hectic. But I kind of feed off of that, that mania.

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