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An Oral History of 'Jackass: The Movie'

Marianne Eloise

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the most legendary stunt film of all time, we spoke to everyone involved.

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If you're of a certain age, and of a certain personality type, there is probably no sentence more evocative of youth than: "Hi, I'm Johnny Knoxville. Welcome to Jackass!"

The show was wildly successful, inspiring kids around the world to cycle directly into walls and set their farts on fire. However, following a couple of copycat incidents that ended in serious injury, a campaigning senator decided to wage war against Jackass, leading to MTV imposing restrictive safety regulations on the show. As a result, the cast stopped being able to do what they wanted to do, and ultimately decided to quit.

A feature film – where lawyers weren't so much of an issue – was the answer.

The 2002 movie, like the show, was unbelievably successful, making almost $75 million to its $5 million budget, and spawning two sequels in 2006 and 2010, as well as the 2003 Chris Pontius and Steve-O show Wildboyz. From its inception Jackass inspired a number of similar shows and, later, prank YouTube channels. However, none of the imitators – despite going as hard (if not harder) on the gross-out or pain factor – quite managed to capture the charm that had made it so popular. Jackass, born out of 90s and 2000s skate culture, was for the most part authentic, kind of sweet and self-deprecating. It's natural for a prank show to lean towards punching down and acting tough, but Jackass never did. It wasn't about looking hard or hurting others; it was about fun and friendship, and it wasn't afraid to show the failures or weaknesses of its cast. The imitators lost that and went for the gut punch, which is perhaps why they don't have the longevity or impact that Jackass managed to have.

Following the tragic death of Ryan Dunn in 2011, nostalgia over Jackass has taken on a slightly different slant; the films and shows capture a time that won't and can't happen again. A time before the internet took over, when we had to go outside and cause trouble to have fun.

So seeing as it's now been 15 years since the release of Jackass: The Movie, we wanted to commemorate the team's contribution to popular culture and all of our childhoods by speaking to Jeff Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Bam Margera, Wee Man, Dave England, Ehren McGhehey and Bam's mum, April Margera, about how exactly the film came together.

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

CANCELLING THE SHOW

SPIKE JONZE: When the show came out, nobody expected it to last more than the first eight episodes that MTV had paid us to do. We just thought we were getting away with murder, getting somebody to give us money to put whatever we wanted on TV for half an hour, on national television.
WEE MAN: I seriously thought maybe one or two episodes would air, and then the network would cut it off. Next thing you know it was fucking huge, man. We couldn't even put them out as fast as people wanted them. When it first came out we showed it every Sunday night, and it was to a point where people were like, " Jackass is destroying America, one Sunday at a time!"
STEVE-O: It was wildly popular, and kids started showing up in hospitals. There were a lot of copycat incidents. It was crazy. There weren't particularly lawsuits at that time, but there was certainly a great deal of fear in the corporate world of MTV, and legal, that the liability was a problem.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: It was an election year, and Joseph Lieberman – the senator – decided to be tough on Hollywood as part of his campaign platform. He singled the show and MTV out, and after that the screws came down on us. We had a safety guy assigned to our show – we couldn't jump off anything higher than four feet – and it just became ridiculous to the point where it was no longer possible to do the show the way we wanted to.
CHRIS PONTIUS: If we were filming and we had to step off the sidewalk and you couldn't see the street was blocked off, they wouldn't let us use the shot. It just looked like we'd gotten soft.
DAVE ENGLAND: I'm not going to exaggerate: after every single episode we'd get a list of at least 12 to 15 notes from the lawyers saying, "You no longer can do this, this, this, or this."
BAM MARGERA: I love how, with MTV's restrictions, there were so many things we couldn't show and do, but one thing that we got away with was that I broke my tailbone on this wheelbarrow stunt and they got an x-ray and you can totally see the outline of my dick. There it is, right on the TV. They don't let anything past, but they let my fucking x-ray dick go through on national television.
JEFF TREMAINE: It basically killed the TV show – the spirit of it, at least, and the fun of it – so we quit doing it at its peak, after we finished filming the third season.
SPIKE JONZE: MTV was really surprised. We had this situation where we'd set it up so we could cancel it whenever we wanted, and I don't think they remembered that a year later when we were like, "We're gonna cancel the show." They were like, "What?" I don't think most TV shows have that, where the producers can cancel the show – but we did.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: It just became ridiculous to the point where it was no longer possible to do the show the way we wanted to. Jackass meant too much to me and the guys to water it down and make a silly, kiddy version of it, so I quit.

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

WHAT NEXT?

JEFF TREMAINE: At that moment, Spike said, "What about turning it into a movie?" and we were like, "You know what? We feel like it's going away prematurely." We wanted to send it off with a proper goodbye, and doing the movie gave us more freedom, because one: it was going to be R-rated for a mature audience, so we could do more without little kids being influenced by it. Also: a bigger budget to do crazier shit.
STEVE-O: Looking back on it, it makes sense; there was certainly precedent with the Beavis and Butthead Movie, and I think they had already made the South Park movie. Not that it makes sense to compare us to animation, but in a sense it does – to take something irreverent, and a half-hour basic cable thing, and make it into a movie... that seems counter-intuitive. There was a precedent, but I never thought of it beyond being in skateboard videos.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: We're all still learning to play our instruments, and now we got a movie to do, and X amount of dollars to make a film! Well, thank god for Spike, because he could give us tips. I mean, thank god for Spike, period. [Before we started the TV show] we made this ten minute pitch tape of footage from the Big Brother video and CKY, and it really was different from anything else that was out there. It was probably a little crazy to people, but with Spike Jonze attached to it, it's like, "These guys know something!" But we didn't know that much.
STEVE-O: Even though the ideas were fresh and great, we had no fucking idea what we were doing. Few of us even knew what a release form was, you know? Once we started filming the movie, that's kind of where we started figuring it out. We had slates, a sound guy for the first time, but we were still so novice. I was really awkward talking to the camera.
SPIKE JONZE: I think the first movie was when we really honed in on the main guys. On the show – especially in the first season – it was more like a pickup basketball game. Whoever was around, we would shoot. We'd write bits with certain people in mind, but we had to actually decide on who the actual cast was, and that came out of who really showed up and delivered in the show. Also, who everybody wanted to hang out with and travel with. It's like a skate team, in a way.
STEVE-O: All Jackass really was for us was a grand battle for screen time. There was never any one guy having a preferred position or status. They would list us in a certain order, but beyond that, the one determining factor for screen time was just great footage. It's that simple. To the credit of Spike Jonze and Knoxville and Tremaine, there was never any ego. They never featured one guy more. The only criteria was just the quality of the footage. By quality, I mean like, how gnarly is it?
JEFF TREMAINE: When we made our deal with Paramount and MTV Films to do the movie, at the time this woman named Sherry Lansing was running Paramount. We were just about to go out and shoot, we meet with her, and she pulls me aside and says, "Just make sure it's bigger and crazier than anything you guys did on TV." It was so awesome to get that endorsement from the head of the studio, who just got it.

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

MAKING THE FILM

STEVE-O: I was so ready to go for anything, it didn't matter what it was. I remember the first conversation that we had with Tremaine. I believe it was in the movie office, probably on my first day there, and he said, "This is not a TV show any more. This is a movie and it's rated R, so everything needs to be bigger and crazier. Don't submit any half-assed ideas!" I was indignant. I was offended at the suggestion that I would ever submit a half-assed idea. I said, "Oh yeah, how about if I get myself tattooed on myself bigger than myself?" That was my first idea.
JEFF TREMAINE: The very first trip, we went up to Portland. There was a different energy. It was electric. The guys were competitive with each other.
DAVE ENGLAND: It felt like it was a newfound freedom, because we had been so confined by the lawyers on the TV show, being told we're not allowed to do certain things, that suddenly those doors were all open again. It was back to anything goes, which is when we do our best. When we have no restraints.
EHREN MCGHEHEY: Going from filming the TV show – which was basically just us running around with small cameras and no medic on set – to the movie, it was like we were just taken care of all of a sudden. We were first class, and it was rad. With that first class comes a lot more responsibility, so we had to step up our game and do some gnarlier stuff.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: You kinda wanna be there with us, I guess. Which, trust me, you don't! It's a very nerve-racking set. It starts off with everyone having energy, but by the last month or two people are crying and falling apart mentally and emotionally. You can tap someone on the shoulder with your finger and they'll jump. It's a pretty combative set.
EHREN MCGHEHEY: My mind is definitely in a PTSD state and has been for a very long time, because every time I go around a corner I'm not sure if there's going to be a giant hand that slaps me in the face. We're like a platoon. I'd be at home in Portland and we'd come back for like two weeks, but that whole time I was home I had anxiety thinking about the two weeks from now I was going to have to leave again and do some stuff that literally might kill me.

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

THE STUNTS

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I love little things, like when Bam's mom finally said "fuck". Sometimes the small ones are funniest.
APRIL MARGERA: Oh my gosh. That was the craziest thing, because I knew that they were filming in Pennsylvania, so I called my husband on the way home from work and said, "Is anybody around? Can I just go to bed?" and he said nobody was around. So I came in the house and every single light was on, and I see this alligator laying there, and the first thing I thought was, 'Oh my god, they're finally doing a movie with Paramount, they have a big budget, and this is what they bought? Some kind of fake alligator? How much was this thing! Did this cost a fortune? Am I supposed to be scared by this?' And I just remember shouting, "Is this real?" Jeff told me I must have said it about 56 times. I was going to touch it, but I locked myself in the laundry room and I just wanted them to tell me whether it was real or not, and when they told me it was I just remember being so freaked out by it.
SPIKE JONZE: Bam's parents were just so cool. Every time we would go up and film they didn't shut it down. I guess they were used to it because Bam's been doing that shit since he was a little kid. But every time we went out there April would have us all over to the house and make food, and we'd hang out and film in the backyard, and hang out in the living room and watch TV. She was definitely the mom of that whole thing.
APRIL MARGERA: I think I kind of always did that, even with my sons' friends. Bam would call and say, "I'm coming home, what's for dinner?" and I'd take what I had and stretch it out and try to make it bigger to feed his friends. I always did that, so when the Jackass guys came to town I kind of did the same thing. I didn't think it was that big a deal.
WEE MAN: I went into a bar the other night and they had the movie on the TV, and it was the funniest thing. They didn't know we were coming, but for me to walk in and see it on the TV still trips me out. One of my favourite things is when Dunn just gets his ass kicked by this kickboxing girl. He puts on the gloves and everything, and she just kicks his ass. He even knows... he's like, "Dude, I'm about to get my ass kicked by a girl." I don't even think she warmed up. He was a little practice bag to her.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: Ryan Dunn's car X-ray [in which Dunn got a toy car lodged in his rectum] is my favourite from that film.
JEFF TREMAINE: It might even be my all-time fave. That idea lurked around from the TV show. I think Spike had the idea to shove a cellphone, but they were too big back then. It wasn't Ryan we were talking about; I think we were always thinking it was Steve-O's bit, but when Ryan decided to do it, it all just fell into place and everything about it was magical.

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

SPIKE JONZE: The fun thing is that, as the footage comes in, you start assembling it and thinking about what the opener is and what the closer is, just like a skate video. When Jeff came back from Florida with the piece with Ryan and the toy car, he was like: "We got the closer." We sat down watching assembly, and everyone was like: "Yes! This is it!" It was kind of a relief. To this day it's a piece that I can go back and watch, just because Ryan is so good in it. It really does capture how sweet he is. He was so effortlessly funny and dry and great. Quietly very wry and very funny and self-deprecating. All he had to do was make a dejected look over at the camera and it was the best thing. It was so funny because I think we initially thought that the ender had to be this huge thing, and we actually even shot an ender that was really big, but it just didn't really work that well. It wasn't that funny. We realised the ender just means the best piece, and that was Ryan with the toy car up his butt.
JEFF TREMAINE: I remember we were driving around, and back in the first movie I was driving the production van. We would usually have a production assistant or a driver, but then it was me driving. A cameraman is filming Ryan and he's trying to sit there, but he's got the toy car shoved up his ass, so he's totally uncomfortable, and Bam is laughing at him and we get lost trying to find the doctor to S-ray him. That happened in Miami, and I was just driving around looking for this address. This was before GPS and shit. Ryan is just looking at me, and he's like, "Really? This is really happening right now?" It was so high pressure for me to get it while we had this doctor to do it. Any second the guy could back out. The doctor had no idea what we were coming in for.
SPIKE JONZE: Every moment of that is vivid. Bam is there helping him put the car up his butt with the gloves on, then Manny comes in and he's like this wild man, this alligator wrestler wild nature man, and he's just, like, freaked out. The medic is there. We just let the whole thing slow down and just hang with everyone as it went down with Ryan. Steve-O's line is one of my favourite lines from anything we ever shot, which is when he told his dad about putting a car up his butt and he said, "I don't mind when my dad is mad at me, but when he's disappointed, that's what hurts." That was, like, the perfect line to capture the guys at their best. Lance Bangs shot all that. They were all just together. There's something very real about it. What they do is crazy, but the fact that that is what their job was is even more ridiculous. I love that.

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

DRAWING THE LINE

STEVE-O: I wouldn't do anything that I perceived to put my spinal cord or my life in jeopardy. Those are my two rules. Paralysis and death are not on the table.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: My thing is I don't like cold weather or cold water. If there's a stunt that comes up around that, I'm like, "Somebody's got that, right?" I just don't like it! I'm also not the Speedo guy; I'm too self-conscious. Pontius and Steve-O got that locked down, and they do it beautifully. Those are two handsome men right there. I don't do too much gross stuff. I like more of the things that deal with gravity and blunt force trauma.
BAM MARGERA: In the beginning I never did any get-naked type things. I just felt weird about that. I always tried to stay away from bulls, just because I like to do stunts that I'm in control of, such as dropping in on a skateboard into a brick wall. You can figure out how to fall right and make it look rad. But a bull stomping his hoof on your face, you can't control. I think, by movie number two, Tremaine talked me into dealing with a few bulls in the opening.
CHRIS PONTIUS: I don't cower out of anything. Sometimes I think we have certain people who do things because it suits them better or they give a better reaction, but I just don't like doing stuff that – I think that all the guys would say the same thing.... Jackass is about us being the butt of the joke in the end. I don't ever want to do anything mean. It's supposed to just be mean to us. That's really the only rule. There have been some other shows that are similar, and some of them are funny too, but I think what is different with Jackass – which wasn't planned – was that it's not just about the stunts and the pranks.

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

RECEPTION

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I remember our first screening at Paramount with family, friends and executives. When we showed it to the executives it was long. We were really trying jokes out and it was still raw. One of the executives, who will remain unnamed, stood up and said, "Paramount will never release this picture." We had to fight that battle, but I think that was an emotional reaction from the person just because they had never seen anything like that before and it was really raw.
SPIKE JONZE: To the credit of Sherry Lansing, it was her boss that came in and said that, but Sherry, who was like an older, famous, successful woman – well, I don't exactly know how it happened, but they released the movie.
CHRIS PONTIUS: Before the official release they let an audience watch it, and they let us go into the movie theatre and basically be in the back room watching everyone react to it so we could see what people thought was funny and so on. But it was crazy watching some people, like, see something and start to get sick to their stomach and puke in the movie theatre. Some would be Jackass fans and some would just be people that wanted to see a movie for free, so you watch some people get pissed and stomp out of the theatre.
STEVE-O: I just remember getting a call from Knoxville when it opened, and he said, "Dude, we're number one. We did it." That was the experience every time.
SPIKE JONZE: The premiere was really fun. We had it at the Cinerama Dome, this place where they've had the premieres of famous movies like 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I remember being on the red carpet and seeing Steve-O and Preston and Bam and Wee Man, and looking at them, and they were just the same dudes but on the red carpet.
JEFF TREMAINE: I remember I was getting calls the night it opened. Paramount rented me this little shuttle bus, so we had a lot of the guys and our parents, and we were driving from theatre to theatre. We started at the 5 o'clock matinee showing on a Friday and we snuck into the back after the movie started, and I was standing right next to my dad, and we looked around and there was only, like, five people in the first theatre. I was like, 'Oh, fuck, man,' and my dad looked at me and he went, "Well, looks like we got a lemon." But then, as the night progressed, we were getting calls from Paramount because we were on the West Coast and we heard how well it was doing on the East, and we kept driving around, and each of the movie theatres was adding showings, so it was doubling and tripling. It was amazing. I remember just getting so nervous because it was doing so well; I was freaking out. Paramount kept calling me like, "It's going to do this, it's going to do that!' They kept upping the number from opening at 10 million to 15 million to 20 million. I was like, 'I don't know what that means!'
WEE MAN: The craziest first-time feeling of it coming out is that I went on a skate tour with a bunch of other guys, and we went to Japan. Jackass: The Movie had only been out three months in the States, and it had just hit Japan, and people were running out of stores, like, yelling my name. My skate buddies were like, "Oh, dude, it's over for you now, bro. Everyone knows who you are."

All photos by Sean Cliver and Benzo

FINAL THOUGHTS

SPIKE JONZE: During the first movie it was all just starting and we didn't know what it was, but by the last movie we'd gone through life together. On the first one there's this sort of total innocence and naivety to it. At least, when I see it that's what it feels like.
CHRIS PONTIUS: When Jackass started it was kind of like everyone in our big circle of people in the skateboard world and beyond. It was not a set cast, but an open thing for whoever had a good idea and wanted to film. The cast just kind of became the people that were up for filming the most.
JEFF TREMAINE: People think it just happened overnight. It's not like there was a casting call that went out and we pulled these guys together who didn't know each other. It's a long history going into it, so there's a family feeling among the crew and cast, and you're not able to manufacture that. That's authentic. By the time we got down to the guys who made it into the Jackass family, these are guys who have proven over time to be exceptional idiots.
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: We are authentic friends, and other people who try to do what we do think it's all about being gnarly and trying to prove they're tough, but not one of our cast members is under any illusion that we're tough. It's not about that; it's a special group of guys. We do some pretty offbeat things and sometimes it's a little naughty, but there's still a sweetness and innocence to it, and that's born out of the friendship, but it's also born out of the guys' natures. That can't be duplicated.
DAVE ENGLAND: There's something about the dynamic that we had with these people – it was just the perfect amount of different personalities that were all friends. That's what it took to make it really fun to watch.
WEE MAN: It's like a real good band. You know when you hear a band come together? The music industry can't put a good band together. Nobody can just go and pick dudes, but you see a friendship and you make that music together and that's pretty much the same thing that we did. We figured out how to put everything together and make it like a band.
CHRIS PONTIUS: People don't realise that part of it, you know? I think when people watch it, it reminds them of them hanging out with their friends. A lot of people watching it don't necessarily care about stunts, so I think that's what makes it special.
DAVE ENGLAND: You know people that go to war together, and then they remain friends and they're war buddies because nobody else quite understands them? Nobody has been through the weird shit that they've been through. I'm not saying we went to war. We went to a fun war, I guess. But nobody else understands what we went through together.

@marianne_eloise

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