Producer Neal H. Moritz Talks 22 JUMP STREET, Its Focus and Scale, Paying Homage to the Original Series and Film, Cameos, and Possible Future Sequels

     April 3, 2014


Perhaps best known for his work as a producer on The Fast and the Furious franchise, Neal H. Moritz was also instrumental in getting the surprisingly successful 21 Jump Street off the ground.  It comes as no surprise, however, that Moritz is also behind the sequel, 22 Jump Street.

While on set, our small group of reporters had a chance to talk to Moritz about the scale of the sequel, its focus, callbacks to the original television series and the first film, finding the heart of the story, cameos, and the challenges of marketing the movie and managing expectations.  Hit the jump for our Neal H. Moritz, and check out 22 Jump Street when it hits theaters June 13th.

22-jump-street-jonah-hill-channing-tatumQuestion: How would you compare the scale of this movie to the first one?

Neal H. Moritz: It’s much bigger. It’s a much bigger scale. What we’re trying to do is have fun with the fact that it’s a sequel, but also talk about the trappings of a sequel, which everybody always thinks needs to be bigger, louder, faster, bigger explosions, and whereas we have some of that, I don’t think that that’s what’s the core of the movie. I’ve learned a little bit from doing all the Fast & Furious [films] about what has to happen in sequels. I think one of the most important thing is, why people like the first one is they liked that relationship between Channing and Jonah, and so if there’s … at any time we’re thinking about explosions or bigger budget or bigger action sequence or overshadowing that, we’re really careful to make sure that we get our priorities straight as to what is the important thing on this movie. That really is the relationship between the two of them. We don’t want to just do the same thing with that relationship, we’re trying to grow the relationship from the first one.

One of the great things of the first movie, besides their relationship, is the subversion of, like Jonah was saying, the John Hughes films and high school comedies. Now that we’re in college, are there any specific movies they’re drawing from to subvert?

Moritz: I think the subversion is more the subversion of doing a sequel than necessarily a subversion of a college movie. We set out to do a great college movie, not to make fun of the college movies, but just to make a really good college movie that could stand on its own whether there was the first one or not. I think a lot of people end up making sequels to movies just because the first one did a lot of business, and I think what people have learned is that it doesn’t matter if the first one did a lot of business or that people want to go see another one just to see another one. You might have been able to fool people the first time, or something, but you really can’t make a successful sequel today unless people really, really liked the predecessor. With our exit polls and just being in so many theaters when we saw the movie play, and doing a lot of research, and just talking, what we have going for us so much on this one is the tremendous amount of good will towards the franchise, which was considered … when we first announced that we were going to do a 21 Jump Street movie, I don’t think there was any more cynical group of people about trying to make a movie of 21 Jump Street, probably myself included. When I really think about it, I was really, really nervous when we made the first one. When we decided to make the first one more of a comedy than just a straight-ahead remake of what the series was, I think that was the best decision that we made. I think the movie stood on its own whether it was based on the TV show or whether it was based on nothing. So this one, we’re trying to have fun with the fact that it is a sequel, but everything is not driving on that.

22-jump-street-channing-tatum-jonah-hillThe first movie obviously had nods to the original series. Does this still pay homage to the original series, or is this now its own 21 Jump Street?

Moritz: I think that we’ll always pay some homage. We have two nods to the first one, which I don’t want to give away, whereas the Johnny Depp thing was really unexpected and I think really came out of the blue for people. I wouldn’t say we’re trying to repeat that, but we’re trying to do other interesting things that are a nod to the original. I think the genius part about the Johnny Depp thing was that, not only, “What’s he doing showing up in our movie?” but the fact that we just riddle him with bullets was probably a pretty unexpected thing that anybody thought would happen. I think what Chris and Phil are really, really good about is giving the unexpected.

On that subject, Phil Lord and Chris Miller came from a world of animation before they made their live-action debut on the first film. What’s it been like working with them on this film?

Mortiz: Honestly, they’re just two of the kindest, nicest, hard-working guys. What makes the difference between them and so many other people I’ve worked with is that they really know how to instill heart and character into movies. Even like a silly comedy scene, they know how to get that heart into it. They really know how to track the relationships from beginning to end, to make sure that that’s the main thing we’re interested in in the movie, is that really staying forefront and center at all times. They’re really good at that. The first one, since I had never worked with them, I was kind of all over it trying to put as much of my imprint on the movie as possible. On this one, obviously though I’m involved, when there’s been any major creative decision that had to be made when maybe we had … I would say maybe even “disagreement” is too strong of a word, but we just had a different opinion, I just rolled with what their thoughts were on this one. They have my complete confidence.

Talk about the decision to shoot in in New Orleans. I know it’s not set here, and it sounds like none of the locations from the first one are being used for this one. Is it purely tax breaks?

22-jump-street-channing-tatumMoritz:  Well, we’re using kind of some things from the first one, like the police station and we’re not actually using 21 Jump Street, but we’re using the new building that’s across the street from 21 Jump Street. So there are definitely reasons that we came back here that made it easier for us, but I mean, everybody knows, unfortunately, today we’re making movies where we get these tax rebates. Now in saying that, shooting here is incredible. The community and local government and state government have been very, very helpful in getting us things that would have been very tough to get in L.A.  Like, the last few days we’ve shut down the port of New Orleans, which would have been very hard to do in L.A. The only shame about the whole thing is that a lot of people who live in L.A. have to move away from their families to go shoot a movie down here. Other than that, I couldn’t say anything more positive about … I mean, it’s been a glowing experience here. And I would come back here again. I’ll be coming back here on another movie in a few months, so. But between here, we’re shooting this, I’m shooting in Atlanta, I’m shooting Fast & Furious, and those are the places that we seem to be shooting today.

After the success of the first film, for your job, does that make it easier to grease the wheels and get things moving, or does the pressure and expectation impact it?

Moritz: I think it’s kind of a combination of the two. The studio really wanted the movie. The hardest part was with scheduling everybody. The budget’s gone up, but the budget has gone up not significantly more than you would think for a movie that was as successful as the first one. So, there’s pressure to deliver as good of a movie with a little bit more of a budget, and that to me … to me the hardest thing always is, I just want to deliver a good movie no matter what the budget is and no matter where we shoot it or any of those things, because at the end of the day when we’re sitting in the first test screening of this movie, that’s when we know whether we’ve succeeded or not. Honestly, I feel really good about what we’re doing, but after making 50 movies or so, I realize that when we really know how good the movie is, is the first time that we screen it. It’s not the first time we screen it for ourselves or for the studio, it’s the first time we screen it for the general public. But I’m feeling very confident about this. I’ve seen a teaser that we’ve cut for the movie, and I think that what we’re doing is giving people something that they’re accustomed to from the first one, but a twist upon that as well. I think that just the characters are people that the audience wants to follow.

I end up speaking at a lot of colleges and different groups and so on. It’s really … not only did the movie do really well in theaters, but the life after it has had such an incredible life through home entertainment and downloading and whatever. There’s a really high anticipation for this movie, whereas the first movie, there was really no expectation. I don’t think people expected it to be good. I think people are expecting this one to be good, so it’s a little harder bar to cross.

22-jump-street-jonah-hillJonah talked about how there was a much shorter window to write and get it to where it needed to go before rolling. As a producer, how do you manage knowing when to pull the trigger on something when you’re shooting for a release date?

Moritz: We had a couple drafts of the script early on that I don’t really think captured the essence of what the movie was, and then we were at a crucial moment in time where if we didn’t commit, probably Channing and Jonah weren’t going to be available and the directors weren’t going to be available, there was a writer by the name of Oren Uziel, who I worked with before, who in a very short time turned around a draft. As soon as we all read that draft, we knew we had a movie. Up until then, I can tell you we were very doubtful as to whether we had a movie that was worth making or not. But he found something that we all sparked to. Sure, we’ve continued to work on it every day up until the day we’re shooting each scene, but that was the turning point on this particular film.

What was the struggle?

Moritz: Coming up with some good idea for a movie to exist. You know? Why should this movie exist? The model we kept talking about but we couldn’t really realize was like The Seven Year Itch. Here are two guys who, in the first one, didn’t know each other and didn’t like each other, who come to be great friends and great partners, and now, through their relationship, have become complacent. What we’re trying to do is kind of follow, like, a marriage. I think that coming up with that central thematic idea was really the thing that turned it on its head.

So was that what Oren brought with his draft? Or was there a specific narrative thing?

Moritz: We had talked about that idea, but I don’t think we ever got it down on paper. He was able to get that, and the spine of that story was really good, and we knew that, in terms of making it funny or adding more action, we could do that. That’s the easy part. The hard part was finding that character relationship journey that made sense and that was emotional.

Can you talk about collaborating with Channing and Jonah?

Moritz: You know, they’ve been our partners from day one.  Jonah and I really basically came up with the idea for the first one about how to turn it into a comedy, so we worked on that all the way from the beginning.  All of us have worked very closely. On this one, from the day we saw the screening of the first movie, we were like, “Okay, this has great potential. We’re not going to say anything about a sequel because we’re not going to jinx ourselves,” but in all of our minds, we had a really good experience on the first one. We wanted to do a second one, so we started really early on like in post-production. As the movie was nearing release, we really started seriously thinking about the sequel. We were all involved.

22-jump-street-channing-tatum-jonah-hill-jimmy-tatroAn interesting difference between this film and the last one is, the last one was released early in the year, this one’s going to be a summer release. How does that change the film from a producer’s perspective?

Moritz: You know, there’s more competition in the summer, but I think we have such a good identity with this movie, and I think that we’ve earned our right. In the Fast & Furious franchise, we didn’t earn our way into the summer until down the line, and now I think with this one, because there’s such an anticipation for it, it doesn’t matter what the budget was, you know? We’ll be going against movies that have a budget maybe four times our size. But in the summer, I don’t think that that’s as important as, what is the anticipation for your movie? Can you get through the clutter of summer? And have you earned your way to be in that grouping? I just know now that … Honestly, we can release this movie any time of the year, right now, because there’s that much anticipation. But what we’re really looking forward to is having kids out of school being able to see the movie Monday through Friday, whereas off-summer, it’s harder for them.

Yeah. R-rated comedies are always a big summer thing.

Moritz: Yeah. And we kind of see ourselves as counter-programming.

What’s the long game on this? 27 Jump Street? [laughs]

Moritz: If anybody would have told me I’d be making number seven Fast & Furious, I would have said, “You’re crazy.” [laughs] So, I have no idea. Every time, I’m like, “No, that’s the last one.” And my wife says, “Don’t say that. You know it’s not the truth.” And then I’m like, “Okay.” So I don’t know. Honestly, as long as we have something that we think is funny and a relationship that we think that we can keep evolving, I think we’d all like to do them. We’re actually having fun. Sure, is it hard work? Yes. Is it long hours? Yes. Is it a pain in the ass? Yes, but as long as we feel like we’re having fun doing it, we’d like to keep doing them. Come June 13th, we’ll have a much better feeling of if the public feels the same way. I don’t want to go backwards, let me put it that way. I don’t want to now make a movie that people go, “Eh.” And then try and make another one. That’s no fun.

Channing and Jonah can probably narc in a retirement home. [laughs]

Moritz: We’ve discussed that. [laughs] It’s funny. We were very clear in the last one as to where the next one would go, and I think that the writers have come up with a good twist at the end of this one where we’re not so clear, so it allows for a lot of different possibilities if we’re lucky enough to do it.

22-jump-street-channing-tatum-wyatt-russellSo there is sort of a semi-tease like that, but it’s just more…

Moritz: It’s a much more ambiguous tease where you could also say how we’re saying to the audience, “Never again. We’ll never do it again.” So, it’s kind of a little twist on that moment. I think just seeing some early advertising materials, I think it’s going to be really intriguing for the audience. I don’t think you can do the same thing, okay? If you do the same thing, and I don’t’ mean you have to top yourself with bigger explosions, you just have to give the audience enough of what they came for the first time that they liked, and a little something different that says, “Wow, that’s cool. Let’s see that!” Obviously the group we’re going for, they’re a finicky group.

Coming from Fast & Furious where you’re amping up the action every single time, and it’s some of the biggest action movies out there … this movie and the first one had action, and Channing said something about being on top of a semi, how do you sort of balance like, “I don’t want to go Fast & Furious with this movie. I don’t want to outdo myself.”

Moritz: Because I don’t see this as an action-comedy. I see this as a comedy with action. I can’t tell you that I thought our action in the first one was like the greatest action ever, but it served the plot and it served the relationships. I don’t know if you guys remember, but in the first one, they’re being chased and the truck doesn’t blow … and it doesn’t blow … and then it blows. I have to be honest, when I read the script, I was like, “I don’t know if that’s going to work.” And it didn’t work because our action was so great; our action was okay. It worked because it was inventive, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to out-explosion the other six movies during the summer that will have probably one explosion that dwarfs the entire budget of this whole movie. We’re trying to do it well, but that’s not what we’re spending all of our energy and resources on. We’d rather have that comedic moment within that action piece be a great comedic moment. So we don’t have chase scenes where the people are driving and they’re chasing somebody and they don’t say anything; if there’s not a joke, or if there’s not some relationship in the thing, it doesn’t work in this movie.

Obviously Channing and Jonah are the focus, but I loved the supporting cast in the first one. I’d love to see Rob Riggle again.

Moritz: You will.

Oh, will we? Can you talk a little bit about the old and new faces?

22-jump-street-jonah-hill-ice-cube-channing-tatumMoritz: Oh, you’ll see a lot of faces from the last one. I think, possibly, the Rob Riggle-Dave Franco scene in this movie might be the funniest scene … ever. Seriously. [laughs] Ice Cube returning is great. We’ve got a lot of really great supporting characters. We’re not trying to announce them really, because we want them all to be surprises, but I think Wyatt Russell, who plays kind of Channing’s counterpart in the movie, is terrific; he’s a great new face we have found and were lucky enough to get because The Hunger Games really wanted him at the same time as us and luckily he chose to do ours. I think that Amber Stevens, who plays [spoiler] Maya and kind of Jonah’s love interest and Ice Cube’s daughter in the movie, is terrific. So what we’re trying to do is put a lot of new fresh faces in here and some surprises.

Now you mentioned the distinction between this movie being an action-comedy and a comedy that has action. Is that a distinction that is easy for studios to understand when they’re budgeting?

Moritz: I think in a certain way the studio says, “Well, that’s a comedy. You don’t need so much action,” but my feeling is that we don’t need so much action, but the action that we do needs to be good. And action takes a long time to shoot and it’s very difficult to shoot, to do it right. So it just requires more shooting time, which sometimes the studio’s like, “Well, it’s a comedy. It doesn’t need…,” and we have a little difference of opinion on that. I don’t mean just Sony, but studios in general. So that’s kind of an on-going battle that I’m always fighting.

[We have a pretty substantial second unit that’s been shooting action, too, which is unusual for a comedy, but it’s true to it.] We have one sequence that we’re shooting right now at the port that we’ve been shooting , it’s a much bigger action sequence than we had in the first one, but it’s really funny. We were at the port yesterday. We were shooting first unit at the port yesterday, and second unit at the port, and I think the second unit stuff looked really, really good. I was very happy with what we’re getting.

Does that make it difficult to market this movie?

Moritz: No. We did a lot of research and people loved the comedy, they loved the relationship, and they liked the action. It’s now, how do we bottle it in a way that we’re getting a little of each and hopefully make it better than the last time. The good thing is that in the first movie we had a lot of cynicism to overcome. This one, I don’t think we have the cynicism, which allows us to get into the movie a little quicker because you’re not having to establish characters. The characters have already been established, so some of that stuff we don’t have to do this time.

22-jump-street-channing-tatum-jonah-hill-chris-miller-phil-lordBut you’d rather have people have high expectations where they might be disappointed rather than low expectations where they might be cynical?

Moritz: No. Honestly, I hate high expectations because they’re hard to beat. [laughs] I think that when audiences find a movie that they don’t expect to like, it adds great word of mouth. I think that’s what happened in the first one, people were like, “Eh, I’ll see it,” but I don’t think they were expecting to like it, so it allowed them to go out and talk to their friends and say, “You’ve got to see this.” So it’s a double-edged sword.  In the marketing portion, sure, I’d love to have high expectations; in the viewing portion, I’d rather have low expectations. So hopefully we have somewhere in the middle, and we have something new and unique to show them. And I think we do, I really do. I’m pretty confident in that. 

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