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Exclusive: John Stalberg Talks High School, Weed, Single Eyebrows

In broad-strokes genre pieces, most of the best movie concepts can be delineated in concise fashion, and bring an instant, head-slapping (“Of course, why didn’t I think of that!”) sense of identification and intrigue. Such is certainly the case in director John Stahlberg’s “High School,” in which soon-to-be valedictorian Henry (Matt Bush) takes a healthy hit of weed from his estranged stoner friend, Breaux (Sean Marquette), the day before his deranged principal (Michael Chiklis) institutes a sweeping anti-drug policy that jeopardizes the academic goodwill and standing for which Henry has labored so long. Faced with being unable to pass the next day’s mandatory drug test for students, Henry and Breaux steal some particularly potent ganja from an epically eccentric dealer, Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody), in an aim to spike the offerings of their school’s bake sale, get everyone blazed and thus invalidate the tests. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Stahlberg one-on-one recently, about his movie, Stahlberg’s own, ahem, altered experiences, and what cornrows and a single eyebrow signify to him. The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: This project has a somewhat unique path to the big screen, doesn’t it?

John Stahlberg: Well, the idea was going to originally be just a short film based on a real event where I (met a Psycho Ed-type character and) got way too high in college, and [was] forced to play an intramural basketball game against a faculty team. It was completely insane, and I thought it would make a funny little short film. And then I said, “Well, it’s a funny idea to mash these two things together, and set it in high school.” I developed the screenplay originally with this one writer, Eric (Linthorst); we developed it with two girls (as the leads), and it wasn’t quite coming together. And so I started working on it with my producing partner, Stephen Susco, who wrote “The Grudge” and has worked on a lot of thriller and horror stuff. And I said, “I want this to be a really tense stoner movie. I don’t want it to be guys laughing with the munchies, I want it to be a plot-driven story that you can follow. So what if we take ‘Up in Smoke’ and mash it up with a plot-driven genre movie?” He was down with it, and so we re-wrote it.

ShockYa: It really is such a great hook — the idea that these guys, since they can’t beat the drug test, are going to beat the system by instead getting everyone high. Was that always at the core of the movie? How early did that idea pop up?

JS: That idea was very early. That was something that Eric and I had talked about a long time ago. When we talked about that I threw out the title “High School,” and we laughed about that. And that was the kernel of the movie that never changed. I said, “We can make a movie about this — it’s a funny high concept,” no pun intended.

ShockYa: So what mischief or hijinks with marijuana rank among your own best, worst or most memorable, from presumably younger days?

JS: It wasn’t so much hijinks for me. I grew up watching and loving movies, just obsessed with them and always wanting to be a director, and making movies with my dad’s video cameras. I had this weird renaissance with movies with my friends and I from college. We were from Boulder so we had kind of shitty movie theaters, and we’d get high and go see movies when we were 18 or 19. But then we’d start seeking out all these new towns that were popping up between Boulder and Denver, right? In these kind of farm communities the first thing that pops up are these AMC Mega-plex 24 theaters, with stadium seating and digital projection. So we’d go farther and farther to go to the movies, and smoke herb the entire car ride — like a 45-minute drive to Farmington Hills or whatever. And the car would be beyond hotboxed! It was dangerous, you couldn’t even see. We would go to the movies that we hadn’t even seen the trailers for. So we would just go and watch all these great movies like “The Edge” or “The Game.” And I was so gung-ho about making movies. So it’s funny that I’ve made a movie about weed, which kind of helped me fall further in love with movies.

ShockYa: Ahh, it comes full circle. You have a notable cast, but perhaps chief amongst them is Adrien Brody, who in my estimation delivers quite a memorable stoner character. He can now count himself among the company of Sean Penn from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and Brad Pitt from “True Romance.” Psycho Ed is such a big, juicy role — when did he come aboard, and what specific thoughts about the character did he have?

JS: Our goal, in terms of making a dent culturally, is that if we can get some college kid to dress up as Psycho Ed for Halloween then we’ll have succeeded. …Adrien had (ideas for) so many different layers of things that aren’t in the movie, that were intended to make the audience watch it over and over. You’ll discover stuff for like the next 15 years. There are so many Easter eggs about who he is as a guy. We wanted [Psycho Ed] to represent the dark side of marijuana, almost like a mythological character. All these movies about weed show it as hunky dory, where you just laugh. And I’ve had some times as a kid, or known some friends of mine that smoked, where it wasn’t such a good time — they were paranoid, or thought they were having a heart attack and were really anxious. We wanted Psycho Ed to be this weed demon, and represent all that stuff, which we really hadn’t seen before. And then it was just about coming up with all these textures — about why he’s in this house and why he wears these clothes. So we came up with this idea that he’d bought this house in a nice suburban area to hide his operation, in a fire sale from this old woman’s family who sold it to him after she’d died. So they just kind of flew into town for the weekend, cleared out the furniture and sold it to him at a Denny’s. And so when he bought it there was still a closet full of her clothing. In the film you still see on the wall photos of an old couple from World War II… and the outfit that Ed wears when he goes to the school later is like an old woman’s negligee, from the 1930s or ’40s. So Ed’s just rocking leather pants in his house, but when he goes out to find his shit that these kids have stolen from him, he just throws on some dusty old negligee — that’s how much he doesn’t give a fuck. We kept saying, “How do we show how little of a fuck these characters give? Well, let’s give Psycho Ed cornrows, because it’s this outdated hairstyle that’s functional and he’s been a shut-in for so long.” And we had fun with his tattoos (as well); folks are going to be able to [pause the DVD] because there are so many jokes just in his tattoos. And Mykelti Williamson, who plays (sidekick) Paranoid, said, “Give me one eyebrow, because when you see a dude with one eyebrow you know he don’t give a fuck!” [laughs] I was like, “That’s so true! Because he obviously sees the one eyebrow, since he’s looking in the mirror and it’s right next to his fucking eyeballs.” So we took stuff like that, character details, and just ran with it and had so much fun.

ShockYa: Between this and “Piranha 3DD,” it’s a pretty wild Matt Bush two-fer this June. How did you settle on him in the lead role?

JS: The idea, which is just a function of how the movie business works in terms of independent financing, is that you have to cast a film to satisfy these foreign pre-sale prerequisites. So we needed two big names, and we had Adrien Brody and Michael Chiklis. Once we had them, then you don’t have to cast, I don’t know, Michael Cera or somebody — you can cast an unknown kid. I thought that would be helpful for me, because what I was trying to do was ground the central relationship of the movie and have these heightened, insane characters [around the edge], this triptych of antagonists. So at the center of it, I wanted these kids (Henry and Breaux) to be real. So I was trying to cast relatively unknown people. We went through a rigorous process and met a shit-ton of people, and I found Sean Marquette pretty quickly. I had a gut instinct and felt like he was the guy, but we had problems finding the Henry character because we needed him to be heroic and nerdy, but I also didn’t want him to be cliched. I love casting against type. I’d seen “Adventureland,” and (Matt’s) Figo character is this spazzy nut, and I thought, “What if I take this guy who has this energy and really polish him up like a new penny, and then we kind of let him find this kind of craziness throughout the movie?” That worked, thankfully. He had good chemistry with Sean and it worked in the end.

ShockYa: So what’s on tap next for you?

JS: I’m working on a bunch of stuff, but there’s one thing that I think I’m not even supposed to talk about but am about to start casting. I’m working on it with Richard Kelly, who wrote and directed “Donnie Darko.” It’s a really cool project. You know how it goes — something else could pop up, I’m developing a bunch of stuff, (including one project) at Paramount, and a weird little indie movie. I put as many irons in the fire as possible. I just shot a commercial last week and am shooting another one in a few weeks. But this one thing we’re about to start making offers for, and I have my fingers crossed. If we can get somebody and get lucky like we did with “High School,” I think it’s going to be a pretty cool movie.

Written by: Brent Simon

Adrien Brody in High School

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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