The movie that’s expected to win the war at the box office this weekend has an unlikely star: Charlotte.
Careful viewers will be able to spot a few landmarks. The Wells Fargo Atrium on Tryon Street. The Penguin Drive-In in Plaza Midwood. The Value Village thrift store on Central Avenue. Backgrounds are dotted with city of Charlotte crown logos. There’s a CATS bus bound for Nevins Road. The list goes on.
But be warned: The film also features a beer-swilling 8-year-old boy, a flatulence contest, prosthetic genitals, and – let’s just say that list goes on, too.
“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” stars Johnny Knoxville as the title character, charged with escorting his grandson from Lincoln, Neb., to Raleigh following the death of his wife and the incarceration of his daughter.
The movie is a descendant of the three hugely popular “Jackass” reality films, in which gluttons for punishment (led by Knoxville) perform stunts that often involve variations on massively painful kicks to the groin. Inspired by an MTV reality series of the same name, they made a combined $335 million for Paramount Pictures.
Analysts are forecasting this new film could make $30 million and knock Sandra Bullock’s “Gravity” from its three-weekend perch atop the box office.
The cinema verité conceit of “Bad Grandpa” is this: Knoxville, 42, spent at least three hours in makeup every day to become 86-year-old Irving Zisman; and the majority of the “actors” were merely reacting to the character’s bizarre behavior while being filmed by hidden cameras.
“But they aren’t just a series of pranks strung together with a loose narrative. It’s a real story,” said Jeff Tremaine, the director of “Bad Grandpa” as well as all three “Jackass” movies. “It feels almost like a normal, scripted movie – except for 90 percent of the actors are real people that don’t know they’re starring in a movie.”
It begins with Irving celebrating the death of his wife by seeking out the nearest strip club. It turns out to be Leather & Lace in South End, which is closed, to his dismay.
Yes, if Showtime’s “Homeland” – a bastion of classy primetime television – is a peacock’s feather in the Queen City’s cap when it comes to film and TV projects shot locally, “Bad Grandpa” is something more like a rooster’s.
Following a series of events too ridiculous to explain, Grandpa and grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll, then 8) hit the road. They make stops in Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, Knoxville, Tenn., and Charlotte, among other cities, although parts of Charlotte (and Raleigh and Cleveland, Ohio) stand in for all of them.
Tremaine said the production was attracted to North Carolina because of the state’s tax credit – projects can get a 25 percent rebate on spending up to $20 million. (“Bad Grandpa” reportedly cost $15 million to make.) The incentive is the main reason “Homeland” is here and has attracted a number of feature films, including “The Hunger Games.”
On top of that, “Charlotte just has a lot of looks,” Tremaine said. “We were looking for more Midwest to southern East Coast, and it matched everything we needed.
“We weren’t so much concerned with it being the South. Our movie isn’t about singling out and making fun of people. It’s about doing ridiculous stuff in front of normal people.”
The cast and crew spent two weeks shooting here in late 2012, then returned for two weeks early this year. Though the production wasn’t shrouded in the same secrecy as “The Hunger Games,” which had famously tight security on set, Tremaine said they did try to keep their presence quiet.
“We were a little nervous about coming back because word travels,” Tremaine said. “But we weren’t gonna shoot it in front of a bunch of college kids that we predict are ‘Jackass’ fans. We were selective.”
For the climactic scene where Irving is to hand off Billy to the boy’s clearly unfit father, they picked Freeman’s Pub in downtown Gastonia. Knowing full well the irony, filmmakers contacted a leader of the Guardians of the Children biker organization – which crusades against child abuse – and colluded to get members to the bar under the ruse of a group Christmas party, staged last December.
Three Guardians of the Children were in on the joke. The rest made things very uncomfortable for Greg Harris, the actor playing Billy’s deadbeat dad, after he rained verbal abuse on the boy and his phony grandfather.
“The guy was being a real jerk,” said Tim McGinnis, president of the organization’s Gastonia chapter, who was among those aware of the prank but contractually forbidden from spoiling it. “We teach our guys, don’t carry it any further than you have to. But it was very close. We had some guys that were really ready to get physical.”
And for the big closing scene – a girls’ beauty pageant at which Billy does a striptease in drag, as unwitting parents and their young daughters look on in authentic horror – filmmakers chose Asbury Park Grove, a banquet hall tucked away off Old Statesville Road in north Charlotte.
They hired legitimate pageant-coordinating company Carolina Cutie Pies to stage a real pageant, then approached Asbury Park Grove proprietor Domenic Polzella Jr. with a vague pitch about using his space for a movie. Only after getting him to sign a nondisclosure agreement did they reveal they wanted to rent the hall for an epic prank.
“We have a very private, secluded setting out here,” Polzella said, “so they could really hide their trucks and accomplish what they set out to accomplish, which was basically bamboozle people.”
Late in the pageant, the 8-year-old actor ripped off his dress to reveal lingerie and did a racy dance, still in drag. The audience’s shock was compounded when his wig was knocked off, revealing that the “girl” was actually a boy.
“My jaw was at my shoes. I saw them rehearse, but when you put people in there who don’t know what’s going on, it’s a whole different feeling,” Polzella said. “Everyone was very upset. But afterwards, once they realized that they were getting compensated, and then they got their SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, they were all OK with it. Although, there was this one dad ...”
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