INTERVIEW: Jeff Tremaine Brings the Band Back Together for Jackass Forever

Johnny Knoxville in jackass forever from Paramount Pictures and MTV Entertainment Studios.

In 2000, a show called “Jackass” premiered on MTV—and American culture was never quite the same. Created by Jeff Tremaine, Spike Jonze, and Johnny Knoxville, the short-lived show featured Knoxville and a band of daredevil ne’er-do-wells (or, as Tremaine calls them, “idiots”) performing stunts and pranks that were typically either highly dangerous, highly disgusting, or both.

The show itself lasted only three seasons, during which time it drew intense public ire—much of it spurred on by then-Senator Joe Lieberman, who called for it to be canceled due to its supposed outsize impact on the country’s youth. Tremaine, Jonze, Knoxville, and company decided to make a Jackass movie on their way out the door—and, when that movie grossed nearly $80 million worldwide on a $5 million budget, a franchise was born.

Twenty years later, on February 4, the fourth film in the Jackass series—fifth, if you count spin-off Bad Grandpa—hits the big screen. In addition to the safety requirements of a normal Jackass movie, director Tremaine had to deal with Covid, which split production in two and caused the film to be delayed from its original October 2021 release date—though, for Tremaine, Jackass Forever skipping the big screen was never an option. To quote Steve-O: “You don’t want to ride a roller coaster alone.”

When did you start working on this film? By which I mean: Where did production fall on the dreaded Covid timeline?

It was in spring, maybe early summer, of 2019. [Johnny] Knoxville came to me and said, “Hey, man. I’ve got that itch. I’m thinking I want to do another Jackass movie.” And I was shocked, because every other movie came from me going to him and saying, “Hey, man, I think it’s time to do another one.” This was him coming to me. The other movies were always like four years apart. This one is 10 [years after Jackass 3D]—not counting [spin-off] Bad Grandpa. And he had been writing. He not only came to me with the idea that he wanted to do it—he had a 100-page document of all the shit he’d been writing over the last 10 years.

I was like, “All right, let’s get the guys together and see what they think.” And everyone was instantly, “Hell yeah, let’s do it! Let’s do it!” But I had a little trepidation—and Spike [Jonze] definitely did—about, “Man, but what’s it going to look like? We’re all entering our middle-ages. Even the youngest of the original guys are in their 40s. Is it still funny? Is the spirit still there?”

And so, we decided: We’re going to get all the originals and then bring in some new blood. And before we committed to doing this, we came to Paramount and said, “Hey listen, we want to do a two-day shoot to see what it feels like before we decide to move forward. Two days is going to tell us whether it’s a good idea or not.” We got all the old guys together, got them to also embrace the idea of shooting with the new guys. And five minutes into this two-day test shoot, it was obvious. The magic was clearly there. The middle-agedness actually worked in its favor more than it was a hindrance. The dynamics were all there, still. It’s like a funny old family reunion, with all the baggage and everything that comes with it. I think even our fans are aware of a lot of that. It was so fun, right away. After those two days, it was clear, and we hit Paramount up to say, “All right, we’ll do it.”

That happened in December of 2019. We got the green light right after that, so we went into production on January 3 to start shooting in March. The beginning of March, we got five days into it, and the pandemic hit. We were screaming out of the gate, too. The momentum couldn’t have been higher. The rug got pulled out from underneath us. It was like, “Holy shit.” At the time, like all of the world, we didn’t know if this a two-week shutdown, if it was a two-month shutdown …

During the lockdown, we just kept writing and meeting through Zoom. We got used to that. And then it was seven months later, and we were probably one of the first movies back to shooting, at least in L.A. We were sort of guinea pigs as far as, what are the safety protocols? Jackass is so funny, because it’s like, let’s be safe so we can shoot dangerous shit.

The stunts they do look so unsafe, but you know they’re professionals so they’re taking precautions that you might not necessarily see as a viewer. And then you add Covid into that—how do you make the set of a Jackass movie Covid-safe?

Everything we do is real, too! There’s not a road map on how to shoot this, but we do as much safety as we can. As far as the crew and everyone else goes, we wanted to make sure that this was safe. Everybody took the safety protocols seriously. Top to bottom. One fuckup from the crew, it’d fuck the whole thing up. We had a couple of little hiccups, but nothing that really shut it down. Knock on wood, because it could have easily happened even with everybody taking it seriously.

Thinking back to the earlier Jackass movies, you have bodily fluids flying around—

Right. With Jackass, we shoot 360. That it made it a little harder, because I didn’t want to see a bunch of masks. Everybody—the cameraman, all the people that you would normally see their faces reacting to shit—had masks on. But we just learned to embrace it. And we actually took advantage of the fact that, well, now there’s these new safety protocols, we put all the guys through a fake Covid safety meeting. We had them under a tent. This was the first day back to shooting. We had a stuntman [who was] posed as the safety officer on the set. We have them all around a table under this pop-up tent. The meeting starts going. They didn’t realize: We had an inflatable bounce house under the middle of the table that was packed super tight. We had a hyper-inflator, and we dug the hose underground to this truck, so we could blow the thing up instantly, almost like those airplane safety rafts. And so they’re sitting there, and all of a sudden everything just explodes on them. We just made it work. Everyone got used to it quickly. There were little hoops you had to jump through to get the day started, but once you got it started, the magic was back.

Since the pandemic has started, studios—including Paramount—have had to rethink their release strategies for some films, with certain titles going day-and-date and others bypassing theatrical entirely. Did you have any discussions about how Jackass Forever would be released?

The main thing for us is that this thing is theatrical. It’s so important that people experience—like, to me, Jackass is a theatrical experience. I think it was Steve-O that said, “You don’t want to ride a roller coaster alone.” We had an October release date, but that was right when Delta was hitting. And we all collectively, sadly, uprooted it and put it here in February. And we’re watching carefully as things unfold. For us, it was never a discussion of just going full digital with it, full streaming. I think it’s so fun to watch this movie in a theater.

Jackass’s whole thing is hanging out with your friends and having a good time.

I think that’s the magic of it—you get to hang out with this group of idiots, but you feel like you’re part of it. And it’s a collective thing. Every time I’ve peeped in on the audiences watching these movies on opening weekend, it’s a visceral audience! They’re jumping out of their seats. They’re closing their eyes. It’s a roller-coaster ride.

Is there one of those times, watching the audience, that sticks out for you at all?

There’ve been a few times where people have thrown up.

Those poor theater employees!

We have some very expressive fans. We’ve filmed [audiences] with night vision. I’m telling you—their hands go up, their hands over their eyes, they hug the person next to them, they throw their popcorn. It’s a very interactive movie!

Is this supposed to be the last one?

I mean, hey, we’ve made every one of these as, “This is the last one.” The first movie was supposed to be the last movie. The second movie, the third movie. And this one definitely felt like the last one. But if you told me a year from now that it’s time to make another one—hey, maybe it is!

I ask because maybe in Jackass 5 you can have that immersive seating element, where the seats move, and stuff gets sprayed in your space. Though, what would be sprayed in your face, actually, for a Jackass movie? That might be disgusting.

Everyone needs to be careful what they wish for.

Have you screened this one for an audience yet?

Yeah, we were able to do that. The hard thing about this one was, never to a maskless audience, never to a full audience. So it was tricky to gauge. You can still see them move, but you can’t see their faces reacting. We film the audience—we’ve done it every time. We do a test screening to see what works. It’s really important for me to watch that, because I get to see what works. Jackass is so modular, I can just shuffle bits around. There’s no collective, long narrative.

How much shifting around comes from those screenings where you’re watching the audience? Will it be a completely different cut afterward?

It’s a completely different cut. I learn so much from watching people watching. I need to [tone it down], usually. Which sounds strange—the movie would be so extreme if it was just me doing it.

People need a chance to breathe and reset their brains for something truly filthy.

Sometimes I cut things too tight. When you open them up—it’s actually funnier to let it breathe. I’ve learned that you really need to show it to people and let them feel it. Little things are more important than I realized.

What sort of movies do you like to see in a theater that give you that communal rush?

A great comedy, when it’s really working. I remember going, opening weekend, to The Hangover. It was raucous in there. I was falling out of my chair. It was so fun to be part of that. And a good horror movie, too. When the horror movie’s working, everybody’s on the edge of their seat. And then there’s other movies that you have to see just for their beauty and their filmmaking. Both types: one, the interactive audience, and two, “This movie is just too big and awesome not to see in the theater.”

Have you been able to go to the theater much since L.A. reopened?

I haven’t really been much, no. Most of my theatergoing now is with my kids, and, until recently, my kids were unvaccinated and in school. It’s so easy to fuck up, and I don’t want to shut their grade down. Now that we’re all vaccinated, I feel a lot safer about taking them. I want to get back to it so bad. I’ve gone to a few screenings to see things—I didn’t realize how badly I’d missed it.

How old are your kids?

I’ve got a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old.

Have they seen any Jackass?

They’ve seen very little of it. The big thing around our family is, “Daddy, when are you going to make something that we can watch?” They know I make naughty stuff.

We were editing a lot during the lockdown. Even when we were back up and shooting, we weren’t back in the office to do editing. We finally, towards the end, got to go back, keeping it small. My kids were at home on their Zooms doing the remote learning. I was in my office, right next to where my daughter was doing her schooling. So she overheard a lot of inappropriate stuff. I didn’t think she was paying attention. “You don’t know what’s happening!” She’s like, “Daddy. Here’s what happened.” And she lays the whole thing out. I’m like, “Oh, my God.”

The trailer, where it starts with footage of the older movies overlaid with “We’ll meet again” and a message about hanging out with old friends—not going to lie, it hits emotionally after the last few years.

For us, it’s a family reunion. When we started shooting, it felt like we hadn’t been apart for a day. Everyone is back, all the old baggage is back, all the old relationships are still—the dynamics of the group are still there. It was so fun to bring it all back. I missed it until we started shooting again. We shot it against all odds, and to me it’s as good as anything we’ve ever done. And we’re very careful with what we put the brand name on. I think this one lives right next to all the others and is as good as any of them.