Interview : Jeff Tremaine


The “Jackass 2” interview that Knoxville didn’t turn up for

Johnny Knoxville is AWOL. It can’t be determined whether the legendarily large-livin’ ways of the “Jackass: Number Two” star have caught up with him during the early stages of his Australian publicity tour (his previous visit Down Under to hype “The Dukes of Hazzard” was accompanied by rumours that Knoxville partied for 36 hours straight) or whether attempts by well-meaning journalists to link the self-destructive antics of the Jackass crew with the infamous home videos shot by those fuckwitted ‘kings of Werribee’ prompted him to pull the pin on his PR commitments, but the fact remains: Knoxville is a no-show.

Shame, that. The last time I talked with the ringmaster of the Jackass crew, he struck me as a candid, entertaining kind of cat – a little worse for wear after enjoying the local nightlife, perhaps, but friendly and willing to discuss just about anything. It would have been nice to get his take on the second big-screen offering from himself and his like-minded chums, folks like Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Chris Pontius, the short-of-stature Wee Man and the up-for-anything Steve-O – guys who are more than willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of an entertaining piece of film footage. And “Jackass: Number Two” (which is often just as scatological as its title suggests) sees the team putting themselves into all manner of perilous and painful predicaments in their never-ending quest for a reaction that falls somewhere between a laugh, a groan and an “Ewww” sound.

Luckily, the film’s director Jeff Tremaine is available to pick up the slack. A “Jackass” veteran, he’s overseen the thrills and spills of Knoxville and Co since before their show became a hit on MTV back in the early ’00s. His relationship with the crew began when he was working alongside the likes of Pontius, Jackass cast member Dave England and “Being John Malkovich” director Spike Jonze (who makes a latex-disguised appearance in “Jackass: Number Two” as an old lady who can’t seem to refrain from exposing her breasts in public) at a skateboard magazine called “Big Brother” (“No relation to the show,” Tremaine hastens to add).

Tremaine was already shooting skateboarding videos featuring the likes of Margera, Wee Man and Steve-O when he met a guy from Tennessee calling himself Johnny Knoxville. As one of the first stories he planned to write for “Big Brother”, Knoxville planned to test the various self-defence items available on the market on himself, subjecting himself to squirts of pepper spray and a shot from a stun gun. Oh, and he was also planning on shooting himself in the chest with a pistol to test the stopping power of the most expensive bullet-proof vest he could afford (“which was the bottom of the line”, laughs Tremaine). “The camerawork was really amateurish,” he says, “but Johnny was just so compelling on camera that I called Spike Jonze and said ‘I’m gonna make a TV show out of this’. Because I finally had a guy who could talk on camera! I mean, Pontius is hilarious but he couldn’t say a word; Steve-O would do any kind of circus trick but he couldn’t talk. But now I finally had a guy who could talk.”

“Jackass” became a cult hit when it aired on MTV, and spawned “Jackass: The Movie” soon afterwards. The low-budget film did extremely well at the box office but pretty much everyone involved was adamant that it was a one-shot deal. It wasn’t until Knoxville accompanied Tremaine and the crew of the Jackass-esque TV series “Wildboyz” to Russia to film some pranks and stunts (“We weren’t even paying him!” marvels Tremaine) that the idea of “Jackass: Number Two” was formulated. “He was red-hot to shoot, hot to the point where I had to cool him off,” says Tremaine. “With some of the ideas, I had to say ’We’re not gonna do that stuff for cable TV. If you wanna do something that’s so risky, let’s make another movie’. And from there ideas just started flowing, so much so that I had to calm the guys down at times. I said we didn’t have to outdo the first movie, we just had to make a funny movie.”

It must be said that the “Jackass” guys show a great degree of ingenuity and invention at times – the vignettes that make up “Jackass: Number Two” range from the magnificently elaborate (a rocket-powered bicycle straight out of a Road Runner cartoon) to the gleefully stupid (a dude dressing his penis as a mouse and offering it to a hungry snake). Then there’s the downright deranged stuff, like what happens when the boys visit a stud farm where the seed of a well-endowed stallion is being manually extracted – “Jackass: Number Two’s” only moment of self-censorship comes at the end of this segment, and viewers will probably be grateful for that. “The rest of the movie is chock full of atrocities, and that was the one compromise we had to make,” laughs Tremaine.

Tremaine had plenty of material to work with, however, given that the success rate of the team’s stunts was higher than usual this time around. “I think it was our highest success rate, so we’ve either gotten good at it or we were blessed on this one and cursed on the other one,” he says. In fact, there was material that didn’t make the final cut because there wasn’t enough room in the picture for all the good stuff they’d filmed. But Tremaine still regrets that he couldn’t get one particular gag up and running: “There was one thing we wanted to shoot, one that we’d lined up in India,” he says. “We had a plastic surgeon who was going to perform a procedure on one of our guys but he got nervous. We still wanna shoot this bit if we can ever find the right plastic surgeon.” I am ashamed to admit that I was too chicken to ask what this procedure might involve.

Tremaine steers clear of performing any “Jackass”-style stunts himself (“I don’t have it in me,” he admits), but is an integral part of the process behind the scenes. “I’m pretty involved from top to bottom, from the ideas stage all the way through,” he says. “Not an edit gets made without me. Making “Jackass” is sort of traditional in a way – we are shoot it in a certain style; it’s not just mayhem. Although it sometimes goes that way. And I wrote a lot of the stunts but I also punch up a lot of them. A classic example would be Steve-O, who was over at my house when we were all trying to come up with a few ideas. He said ‘Dude, I had this big ‘70s bush and I just shaved it off and saved it. I don’t know if you wanna use it for anything…’ And from there the ideas started ticking along. ‘Well, how can we make someone either ingest this or…’ Basically, it was all about what we could do with pubic hair.” And as viewers of “Jackass: Number Two” will discover, they came up with an innovative way of making use of this particular prop. Now that you mention it, there’s actually a fair bit of pube action in “Jackass: Number Two”. Also a fair few exposed wangs and a lot of bare buttock. All of which begs the question, Jeff: what’s with all the nude work? Is there a bit of latent homoeroticism brewing between the lads of “Jackass”? “There is something sort of gay about it but everything really just seems funnier if they’re naked,” Tremaine admits with a laugh. “It’s fundamental. It gets down to this: it’s funnier if they’re naked.”

Jackass: Number Two opens in cinemas on Thursday November 9.