‘Bad Grandpa’ director Jeff Tremaine on the pains of pranking people
Of the “Jackass” troupe, Jeff Tremaine is the director — the guy who refrains from stunts to capture them for posterity. He’s handled all three “Jackass” films, and now the spinoff “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” which finds Johnny Knoxville, 42, buried beneath three hours of makeup, pretending to be a terrible 87-year-old mucking about with his grandson (Jackson Niccol).
The “Jackass” movies only had a few bits where they pranked the public. Were you hesitant to do an entire film of pranks?
My hesitation wasn’t that it was all pranks. My hesitation was that we were doing a long-form story. This isn’t a bunch of vignettes all strung together. As we developed it further, the story became about him and his grandson. That created more problems, because we had an 8-year-old boy. Plus Knoxville has to go through three hours of makeup before we start shooting. Then we’re counting on reactions. It’s just a terrible idea from a production standpoint.
How quickly did you realize doing all pranks would work?
One of the early things we shot was a funeral for Irving’s wife, who dies right at the beginning of the movie. We had to create a funeral for a person who never existed, and we had to fill it with real people. We got a funeral home on board. Then my producer called around for gospel choirs, and told them this lady loved gospel music and asked if they would come and sing a song at her funeral. They got there and we said, “Sorry, all her friends are dead, she doesn’t have any family. Do you mind sitting at the service and singing at the end?” We used our drivers to fill up some seats. We needed some sweet old ladies, so we found a cat lovers society and told them she had loved cats. They sent some people — who skipped work to come to this funeral. We shot this early and it went spectacularly, beyond our expectations. Once we got it, we realized we couldn’t put a lot of story into these pranks.
What were some logistical issues?
It’s really hard because you’re counting on real reactions. Logistically it’s difficult for us to place the cameras in the right spots. It requires Knoxville to know where the cameras are, to help manipulate the scenes to happen. We built a wall in the funeral home and put the cameras behind these mirrors. We had to shoot a lot. You have to overshoot a movie like this. You never know what you’re going to get. We’re going to get some great scenes that we’re not able to use. The other logistical problem is after you get what you want you then have to get the people who you just pranked to be OK with it. Sometimes that’s hard.
Were there any cases where people didn’t want to sign off?
There were two ladies — Irving teaches a little boy how make a sandwich at a grocery store. So he’s basically shoplifting. A couple of the employees got so worked up, and of course Irving confronts them and stirs them up. The two employees quit their jobs before we could calm them down. [Laughs] Luckily the store owner was in on it, and he luckily wrangled them back in. We made peace with them and they wound up pretty psyched on the idea. But it took awhile.
What about the challenges of working with a kid, who doesn’t have the long history of doing this as Knoxville does?
Knoxville had done a movie called “Fun Size” with him. When he came back he said, “Man, I found the perfect kid, we’ve got to do a movie with him.” When started committing to the idea of “Bad Grandpa,” Knoxville brought him up again. We didn’t know for sure if Jackson could perform out in public, when things are out of control. We went through this before, where we had a kid for a movie, but the kid froze up in public. We gave Jackson a little screen test, where he was supposed to go out and act like he peed himself in front of people. Right when he started I realized this kid was brave as hell. He likes to get crazy. Most of my job was getting him to rein it in a little bit. [Laughs]
The makeup seems to be in part a comment on how Knoxville’s still doing this at 42.
Knoxville had so much fun pranking the public, but he can’t do that as Johnny Knoxville anymore. People recognize him. We have to come up with these elaborate disguises.
The makeup is pretty convincing.
Yeah, it requires a little less makeup these days when we first started. The makeup has gotten so good that people will be right up next to him and have no idea. I mean, an inch away from his face, and still no idea.
And Knoxville is still into destroying his body for his art?
I think he has lost 0.0 percent of the desire to keep doing it. He loves it.