Given the anarchist ethos of the Jackass films, it’s tempting to assume them to be the spontaneous creations of Johnny Knoxville and his masochistic mates. But director Jeff Tremaine has been at the helm from the beginning, working quietly behind the scenes to ensure that every prank and stunt is imbued with a modicum of professionalism and craftsmanship. And to make sure that nobody dies.
Ask yourself: Would a sequence like Jackass 3D’s "Poo-cano," in which Dave England’s bowels do their best impression of Mount Pinatubo, be nearly as effective if Tremaine hadn’t taken care to have England’s buttocks painted green and surrounded with an elaborately crafted mountain village, complete with a working train set and miniature doomed villagers? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t ever want to know.
With Jackass 3D arriving this week to test the gag reflexes of moviegoers nationwide, Tremaine spoke with us about his latest assemblage of audacious, idiotic, and uproarious short subjects:
What I'd give to witness one of you guys getting pranked.
Oh, that's fun. We did a fun one here at the Roosevelt Hotel. We did the gorilla bit (in which Chris Pontius attacks the Margera parents while dressed in a gorilla suit) here. It's so fun not knowing if it's going to happen, if it’s gonna work. You have all this plotting, you know, and that was a particularly hard one because a fake gorilla is hard to pull off! But we darkened the room and just made sure there were enough distractions going on so they never got a great look. And the gorilla suit was really great and Chris was funny in it. I love when the impossible gets pulled off, like the giant hand. I didn't even want to shoot that bit. I didn't think it was going to work.
What I enjoy most is the reactions. I think that's where the real comedic skills come into play.
That's just pure, honest reactions. Like I said, your adrenaline is almost running hotter on a prank like that than it is on a big stunt. So much can go wrong. With that stunt, there's a foosball table that don't even see, and we slid the foosball table over just enough because we knew the guys' behaviors. Whenever they'd come to the production house, they'd congregate in the kitchen. So the hand had to go in the kitchen. And then I cheated it to where Wee Man would cheat their eye line a little bit so it gave us a little more time to come out and hit them. It's fun plotting the psychology of it, you know?
And these guys are veterans. They're used to getting pranked, so you have to be a lot more clever.
And when we're shooting the movie, they go on high alert. That bit, that probably happened somewhere in the early stages of the movie, but not too early. They'd already started to get got. They get paranoid, you know? (Laughs)
Are you one of the guys who got peed on during the penis-cam sequence?
Did you ever think to yourself, I wonder if Kubrick ever got peed on?
(Laughs) I always related a lot more to say, Jane Goodall, than I did to Francis Ford Coppola, as far as my job goes. It's definitely more about studying the chimpanzees.
And what have you learned in your years of studying the chimpanzees?
Just believe in the impossible. Don't doubt certain things, man. It's hard because a lot of times you're right to doubt certain things, but when you get an idea that seems so far-fetched and you pull it off, that's the best bit there is. It's like in the second movie when we got Ehren (McGhehey) with the pubes on his face and we dressed him up as a terrorist. That one went as far as we planned it. We knew we had a win once we got the dick hair on his face, so anything after that was gravy. And we got the whole thing! It was just shocking how it worked like that. The best ones are the farthest fetched to go after. A lot of times, I shut them down because I think it's too far fetched and it’s not gonna happen, but we should probably try more of them.
Is that part of your role as a director, to be the voice of reason?
I think so. Yeah, to a degree that's my role. Knoxville and I are the ones who ultimately decide what's going to get shot and what's not. He's the one who came up with the idea for the high-five, and he stayed on and was like "We're doing this. We gotta do it." I was like, “All right, let’s try.” And sure enough, boom, boom, boom, everyone got hit.
And then he doubted me on the Poo-cocktail Supreme. I wrote that idea. It was sort of an homage to the first thing we ever did with MTV's money, which was tip Knoxville over in a port-o-john into a trash truck. So that was sort of the idea, and he didn't like it because of that. He was like, "We've kind of already done it." And I go, "Yeah, but it's sort of on a big scale. It's now our ten-year anniversary, let's do a sort of tribute."
Then when we got to the set, we saw it. On paper, a 100-foot crane sounds big, but when you see it, you're like, f**k, man, this is a lot harrier. Now that you're actually seeing the cranes there with the whole setup and it was a windy day with stuff blowing around. You could just tell it was going to be epic. And it felt huge. And you could see the sh*t spraying. It was crazy from our perspective. But when we got him down and they cleaned it out and we got the cameras out from inside there, Steve-O told a funny story afterward. He heard us watching the point-of-view cameras and he said it sounded like the winning goal in the World Cup. We're so used to our half-ass production value of the POV cameras we use. We shoot with them all the time, and we almost never put them in the right spot. They get loose or the shoot the ground or they break off. That shot had three angles, perfectly placed, that got it. It's unbelievable what happened in there. And the fact that Steve-O had goggles on, a nose plug on, ear plugs in, but he didn't think to cover his mouth, and he screamed right at the wrong time.
And nobody bothered to suggest that he cover his mouth.
No, no. I certainly wasn’t about to say anything.
One of the things I like about Jackass is that there's a kind of sophistication to it. You have to have the proper setup and payoff to pull it off as effectively as you do.
Well, we've been doing it a long time. (Laughs) With Jackass, The best way to go about it is to not be too clever about it. You name the bit what it is, don't be cute about it, and then it's very straightforward. It does require a little bit of planning, but we have a lot of really creative people that have been with us forever. The camera men are creative. The props guy and the art team are phenomenal. Look at the Invisible Man bit or the Poo-cano set. It doesn't look perfect; it just looks perfect for Jackass. The coolest stuff we've ever done and it still has a Jackass aesthetic to it, you know? I love that. It's gotta have a handmade feel to it. They almost have dumb down their talents to fit Jackass, you know?
It has to be exhausting for you, though. Were you hesitant at all to make a third film?
No, I was psyched. We take four years each time, so you're ready by then. Like I'm shell shocked now. We couldn't make another Jackass next year. I was ready. But my nerves do get rattled. They were trying to get me all the time. And it’s real. Jackass is real. The stunts, the death-defying shit that's happening is real. You can’t make it safe, most of this sh*t. You can try, and we do our best to make things as safe as possible. But the guys often times don't want to wear any padding and so it's just a lot of rolling the dice and hoping it works out. And it's stressful for me. I don't want to be the guy that just killed my friends. (Laughs)
Luckily, none of the guys seem very litigious.
Yeah, luckily. They're much more happy to piss in my beer than see me in court.
Do you think this will keep going as long as Johnny's into it? I have to think he's the one essential piece.
He definitely was on this one. The second movie was my idea. I was the one who rallied that one. But this movie, he came around and brought it up. I think everyone was feeling ready and sort of hoping that Knoxville would come around, and Knoxville had switched over. He’d been wearing Nike high-tops for probably a year. And then, one day, he came into the office and he had his old Chuck Taylors on and I was like, hot damn, we're doing it.
So that was the sign?
That, and there was a stack of Tom and Jerry DVDs on his desk. So I was like, all right, something's happening here.
That's funny, because Jackass does definitely have a sort of Looney Tunes, Wile E. Coyote sensibility.
Yeah. It's a f**kin' cartoon. But we've made each of these as if it's the last. Right now, I think it's the end. But you know, see me in three years and I'll probably tell you were making another one.
Jackass 3D opens everywhere this Friday, October 15, 2010.