Thursday, June 24, 2010

Interview: John Stalberg & HIGH School


I met with director John Stalberg at Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss his film HIGH School. Starring Adrien Brody, Michael Chiklis, and Colin Hanks, HIGH School is a comedy in which top-of-the-class Henry (Matt Bush) reconnects with his burn-out friend Travis (Sean Marquette) and do what Travis does best – get high. Soon after, the principal of their school announces that he is mandating a drug test of the entire student body.

The only logical conclusion? Everybody must get stoned.

Adrien Brody gives an outlandish performance as Psycho Ed, their drug dealer. The chaos that ensues is hilarious, with plenty of laughs peppered throughout. With a straight-laced Michael Chiklis as the school Principle and Colin Hanks getting loose as the cool vice-dean, it’s The Girl Next Door with drugs instead of porn.

How did you go about researching the film?
Oh, years and years of research… I did what most people do to research the topic of marijuana, I just went to college. I went to Boulder, Colorado, and I’m from L.A., so I’m kind of from the two weed capitals of the world. I met a bunch of characters along the way that were involved with growing, selling, smoking marijuana.

Your teens are quite realistic – how did you make them as real as possible and accurate for this time period?
I have a lot of friends who are in the skating world, and friends who own this shoe company [he points to his skate shoes]. So I just spent a lot of time with them and listened to the way that they talked. We’d go to barbecues and hang out, listen to the way they spoke. There’s one line where Travis says, “I can’t wait to have an ex-wife, man, I can’t wait for that s***!” That was just taken from this skater. He said that out of nowhere one night, it was a total non-sequitur. It struck a chord with me, like this urge to be an adult – to have adult problems. It was something that seemed very true of teenage kids, especially a kid like Travis who is constantly s*** on by authority figures. All I wanted as a kid was to become an adult so that authority figures had no control over me, so that’s kind of Travis’ dream. That was one thing. The same guy also said one night, at like 3 in the morning – he said “I’m going to go home, get changed, and then it begins.” So I put that line in the same scene.

So I just kind of pick things from people. You have to have a good ear. I’m constantly sniping people’s names and little bits of dialogue.

You mentioned authority figures. Did that play into how you wrote Colin Hanks’ character? He’s kind of an authority figure who doesn’t want to be.
Yeah. It’s interesting, I pitched him all this back story that doesn’t exist in the script. I said, “You’re the kid who did well in high school – was on the track team, had a good-looking girlfriend, really had it together. You went to college, you started smoking weed, took some harder drugs, and your life started falling apart. You had to go to rehab to get it together. You had this bright future and kind of messed it up. So you gravitated back towards the high school where things felt right, but now you’re in this lesser position and you have to take crap from the principal.”

He’s the guy who’s relatable with the kids, and is kind of the barometer for how stoned the school gets. In a weird way, he regresses back to his college years. There’s something a little bit kind of sad about his regression, and about him, period. He’s stuck in this banal, horrible job, listening to the meanderings of some idiot.

Adrien Brody is also a big presence in the film. Did you give him a lot of direction or did you just let him go all out?
We talked about it and figured it out. We have a very similar approach to filmmaking – he prepares, he gets it ready. When he shows up on set he’s ready to go. He knows exactly what he’s going to do, we’ve discussed it, and we try to get it to be as good as we can. Sometimes we would improvise a scene, and we’d riff. I’d almost be in the scene, working on things in the moment. I think there was only one idea that he had that I didn’t love – that’s how great he is at making the scenes better. Everything he suggested was great, and it makes me look good. That’s what makes him such a great actor – he’s not only good at what you give him to do. He was honestly like a dream come true. He’s so good, he’s so funny, he’s so collaborative.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?
I guess it was the scenes in the grow room, when the kids are trying to steal the stuff. There was one really quick moment where Psycho Ed (Brody) discovers that his keef is missing from the freezer. There’s a whole scene that takes place there that I cut out of the movie and used as a teaser trailer online. It’s like this whole There Will Be Blood style monologue that he does about karma, standing there surrounded by his weed.

I noticed there were elements of The Girl Next Door – the kid who gets dragged into temptation and has someone to repay, etc. Were there any films that you tried to emulate in some way?

Films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business. You know there’s the scene in Ferris Bueller where he’s racing home, and the girls are out sunbathing, and he stops to introduce himself? That’s kind of the opposite of Henry. He’d love to be able to say hi to this cute girl next door, but he’s not equipped with that at the beginning of the story. Those are the kinds of movies I tried to emulate – anything with a little bit of seriousness or paranoia or pressure about school – something that’s real about being a teenager. I drew on a lot of my own experiences.

In terms of high school movies, you managed to create some realistic characters.

I tried to make the two main characters realistic then have these three kind of bad guys who are kind of crazy – Dr Gordon, Psycho Ed, and Sebastian – who orbit around them. When the kids start to go downhill, these three start colliding with one another. I thought that if the kids weren’t realistic, I’d lose the audience.

HIGH School had its international premiere here at EIFF, and is currently seeking UK distribution.

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