You might recognize Michael Bacall’s face from the big screen, but it’s his words that you’re getting really familiar with.
As an actor, Bacall’s had roles in film and TV projects for two decades, appearing in such films as “Free Willie,” “This Boy’s Life,” “Grindhouse” and “Inglorious Basterds.” But lately “screenwriter” is the title that’s been most closely associated with Bacall, having had a hand in the scripts and stories for “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World,” “Project X” and his most recent project “21 Jump Street.” Bacall takes PopcornBiz inside his transitional career from working actor to hot Hollywood screenwriter.
How did your screenwriting career catch so much fire so quickly?
I have an insane work ethic and I take on a lot of different jobs. I think after a few years of doing this I was just fortunate enough to work with some really talented people and finally get in to a couple of situations where the scripts that I was working on had a legitimate chance of not just getting made, but of getting made with really good filmmakers. 'Scott Pilgrim' was the first produced studio movie that I was involved in as a writer and Edgar Wright is a terrific filmmaker. I had a spec script that Todd Phillips had optioned before I did the 'Scott Pilgrim' job and I think his involvement in that – even though the film did not eventually get made – was very helpful in that regard. I just try to throw myself into whatever I'm working on with reckless abandon and hope that it works out. I'm sure there's an element of luck involved there.
With 'Jump Street,' where did you start with what you thought would be a good big-screen take on it? And did it stay consistent to what we see in the end or were there a lot of twists and turns to get to the final version?
It stayed pretty consistent. Jonah Hill came to me with the idea. We both sat down and started developing the story and talking about who the characters were. We really wanted to tell a story about two guys who had issues from high school – as we all probably do at some level, subconsciously or otherwise – and were forced to confront those issues when they go back to high school as undercover cops. That was the core idea. It really stayed there throughout multiple versions of the script – It stayed on point to that core concept.
How would you describe the writing dynamic between you and Jonah? Did one of you take a lead on a certain aspect of the story or how did it workout?
We would just sit down and shotgun ideas back and forth. Some of them would be plot ideas, some of them would be gag ideas. We knew really early on that we wanted to do a crazy car chase that felt like you were in 'Grand Theft Auto,' like jumping from vehicle to vehicle. So at first it has a very kind of loose feel to it, and then we kind of started to nail down what the overall structure would be and we kind of came up with this story, with this treatment. Once everyone seemed to be happy with that, then I go kind of scurry off into my cave and start banging away on writing the drafts. From that point forward every time I finished a draft we'd all kind of get into the room and go over it and figure out what the next version should be and continually try to make it better, try to make it funnier, try to make the action smart and really push it forward it in every way that we could until we're in production.
What were the first things from the source material that stood out as something you desperately wanted to make fun of, and then how did you incorporate the nods to the original series?
I really liked watching the show when I was a kid. At the time it was really edgy and it made you feel cool to be watching that show. There are some elements that I think could come across as unintentionally funny. We picked up on a couple of those, but we didn't want to focus the movie on that. We wanted it to feel like it could stand on its own, because I think a lot of younger people who watch this probably have never seen the show before. So we really wanted to have a couple of winks and nods to the source material without feeling confined to it and we didn't want to make an exercise in nostalgia where we were parodying the styles of the early '90's. So hopefully we struck that balance right.
I'm sure there was a lot of improvisation that happened during production of both this film and 'Project X.' Do you get a kick out of watching actors and directors take a funny scene to another level?
I love it. It's a different process. It really just depends on the filmmaker that you're working with. If you're working with someone like Edgar Wright, you're going to have a laser-sharp, very specific draft that you're working off of and there's not going to be a lot of room for improvisation. Really, the differences in performances are more inflection that you may not have expected, and there's still a lot of room to play around within that. But the lines are going to be the lines, much like the way that I think Quentin [Tarantino] approaches his own material – you're probably not going to be showing up and doing a lot of riffing and improvising as an actor. But when you're working with really great improvisational actors like Jonah it's really enjoyable to have really good jokes setup, good setups and payoffs in the script and know that you've got a very solid foundation to work off. Then you get to see what happens and what pops off in the moment. The hope is that you can never tell the difference between when it was scripted and when it was improvised.
Do you feel like you'll stay in the comedy realm – because there's more than just comedy going on in your recent films – or do you have different stories that you want to tell as well?
I've always tried to take on different genres. I started writing really darker material when I began and comedy was more of a fluke for me. I never really set out to be a comedy writer. I really enjoy it and I want to keep doing it, but there are other things that I like to explore. I'm kind of attracted to the darker side of things. I adapted a detective novel recently called 'Little Girl Lost' and that's an incredibly dark, really great story with lots of twists and turns. It's a thriller, so that was a fun moment of kind of dipping my toe into something a little darker again. I'm also working on something that's just incredibly hopeful and inspirational. I'm obsessed with it. I'm adapting a book called 'The New Cool' that was written by Neal Bascomb and it's a non-fictional story that takes place in the world of a high school robotics league. It's called ‘The First Robotics League’ and it's a competition that's kind of structured like a high school sport. There are regional competitions and a world championship that takes place in a football stadium. I did two hundred hours of research, following this team around. It's got a lot of heart, and humor to it as well. There's a bit of a 'Bad News Bears' aspect to it with a team of underdogs building this robot to go compete with it. That's something that I'm really excited about right now. It doesn't necessarily land in that rated R comedy world. It's something that I would love the whole family to be able to go see and be inspired by.
Are you still working on the Len Grossman 'Tropic Thunder' spin-off for Tom Cruise?
I turned in a draft of that to Paramount and I think that project is going to be largely dependent on Tom Cruise's schedule, so I'm not exactly sure where that's at, but I did have a blast working on that. Tom has some really amazing storytelling instincts, as well as Ben Stiller. Those guys are really smart. They've been in the business for so long and they really gave me a lot of amazing stuff to work with while I was writing that.
Is there still room for on-camera work in your schedule at this point?
I think so. I'm not actively pursuing it, but I'm fortunate enough to have friends who will toss me in front of the camera here and there because they know that I'm comfortable with that situation. I did a little role for my friend Ruben Fleischer, who just directed 'Gangster Squad' and that was really fun. It's was really exciting to kind of dress up in a period piece. I did a day on 'Django Unchained' recently. It's just a dream being on a set in any capacity, but it's extra exciting when you know that you're going to be in front of the camera even for a moment. There's a real buzz to that that you just don't get from anything else.
Did acting make you a better screenwriter?
Absolutely. Years of reading scripts, some good, some bad. I think that without even knowing it I just absorbed a lot of lessons from that.