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You might know Johnny Knoxville best as the ringleader on MTV's Jackass or from films like John Waters' A Dirty Shame, but the actor is more than just the prankster you've seen getting hit by a car on purpose. He's also a producer on countless projects along with longtime friend and collaborator Jeff Tremaine, including the Tribeca Film release The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and the Tribeca Film Festival doc The Birth of Big Air, also part of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival and being shown at the Tribeca Drive-In. (Big Air is busy! It's also a Tribeca Film release, and both films will be available on demand starting April 21, with support from our Founding Partner American Express®.)
Big Air, which was directed by Tremaine and exec produced by Tremaine, Knoxville, and Spike Jonze, follows the career of legendary BMX biker Mat Hoffman, aka The Condor. Filled with breathtaking footage of Hoffman's BMX tricks and interviews with friends like professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, Jonze, and Knoxville, this is a unique sports documentary that will appeal even to those who aren't familiar with world of extreme sports. Undeterred by physical limitations, Hoffman pursues his love of BMX biking with a Zen spirit that will impress everyone who sees the film.
Johnny Knoxville: We met on a video Spike Jonze was directing, and I remember when we met because it was the day of the Oklahoma City bombings... We met that day and went out drinking that night and, you know, he was editor of Big Brother skateboarding mag at the time, and I was just writing for mags at the time and waiting tables or whatever I could do to make money. I remember at the bar, it was completely empty and after one drink—it was just me and him—after one drink, he just starts screaming and spitting when he talks, and I thought something was a little wrong with him, you know? [laughing] I'm like, why is he screaming and spitting on me? And we got kicked out of the bar shortly after, but he really makes a helluva first impression, that guy, and I just didn't realize at the time that's just how he is. He's like a boisterous gorilla.
And then I started writing for Big Brother a couple years after that, and we were doing Big Brother skateboard magazine and skateboard videos, and that kind of eventually turned into Jackass once we contacted Spike Jonze. But let me tell you—Jeff Tremaine, a real peach.... If you see him at the Festival, just walk away, because he'll be drinking and he'll be loud and you'll want to choke him.
TribecaFilm.com: When did you meet Mat?
JK: Oddly enough, I was shooting commercials for ESPN's X-Games back in '97, going across the country to different cities, meeting the different X-Games athletes, and I didn't grow up in BMX, you know? I grew up playing baseball and very much in that world, and I remember... at the first of the trip, they were showing me the athletes we're meeting and they talked in hushed tones about this guy Mat Hoffman who was the BMX rider of that time and any time. And how big he went, and how he got towed behind a motorcycle off this huge ramp and no one had even thought about doing that then or since... They were showing all his footage and all his slams and how he flatlined and [had] been in a coma and he still keeps going, and how many surgeries he's had. Then I go to meet him in Oklahoma City and I don't know what to expect, and you meet him, and he's just this soft-spoken, super-sweet guy. You would never know he does anything gnarly at all, except for when you see him on a bike. It's very tough to match what the man has done with the man's personal self when you meet him, because you expect some wild man, and he's just so sweet.
TribecaFilm.com: What do you think attracts people, especially someone like Mat Hoffman, to extreme sports? Like you said, he's flatlined. Watching the movie, some of the wipeouts he takes made me cringe. What do you think drives him?
JK: I honestly don't know. He just looks at life in a whole different way. He looks at everything in a whole different way. I mean, to have had the amount of surgeries he's had, to have spent so much time in a coma, and flatlined, and all the injuries he suffered from riding BMX... For 10 years, it was just Mat Hoffman winning everything and inventing most of the tricks everyone's doing... Tony Hawk was talking in the documentary about how when they're going bigger [with the BMX ramps], everyone's like, "Hey, let's put the ramp up a foot here or a foot there," and then Mat comes out and is like, "How about let's just double the size." And it's no natural progression, it's just more of an explosion with Mat, and he's done that so many times with so many different things.
You know, his nickname is the Condor, and I think he's honestly under the impression that he's going to grow wings one day and fly... There's a lot of infernos blazing in him that no injuries or nay-sayers can extinguish.
TribecaFilm.com: I can't wait to see him perform at the Drive-In event we're hosting here.
JK: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, it will be an honor for everyone to see Mat doing what he's doing, but I just [pause], I don't know. Like, he's really held together by pins and bolts in his right shoulder. When he comes out and shoots with us on Jackass 3, he wants to do all these stunts and we just shut him down, ‘cause it's like, "You've done enough, buddy." None of us can bear Mat getting hurt any more because I don't know how much more his body can bear. It's really frustrating for Mat when he comes to shoot Jackass 3 because he's like, "Hey, I've got this great idea where I'm gonna do something that's just insane," and we're like, "God, sorry, Mat."
TribecaFilm.com: Yeah, I can imagine. If you look at anyone in a sport, like boxing or whatever, it totally screws up your body.
JK: They repaired his shoulder so many times that now when he shakes someone's hand he has to put his left hand on his right forearm so they don't jerk it out of the socket, pretty much jerk it off when they shake his hand. I mean, and then he's gonna ride? [laughs] But he won't stop. Like, he won't stop, and I love him, and I've had this conversation with him. "I love you, and I just don't want to see you get hurt any more," but I know that he's going to do exactly what he wants to do, and so all you can say is, "I love you," because you're not gonna talk him out of anything! [laughs]
TribecaFilm.com: Speaking of Jackass, is it true that you're using the Avatar technology?
JK: [laughs] Well, we are shooting in 3D just like they did in Avatar. Actually, we don't know too much about the technology, and we're going to prove that October 15. [laughs] It's like you give some 3D cameras to a bunch of adolescent chimpanzees and see what they come back with... I guarantee you we'll be doing things in Jackass 3D that James Cameron just did not think of doing.
TribecaFilm.com: So you have a bunch of other projects lined up too...
JK: Well, we are doing another documentary with Tribeca Film, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. That comes out on VOD on April 21, and it premieres in theaters in New York and LA in May and June, and it comes on DVD on June, so we're happy to work with Tribeca Film on another project.
TribecaFilm.com: It almost goes without saying that something crazy must have happened while you were filming The Birth of Big Air.
JK: I think I lost my sense of crazy years ago, honestly.... But even like with that said, just going through the footage of all of Mat's accomplishments and all Mat's slams and... to hear Evel Knievel speak with reverence about Mat and all the BMX riders. and how much love Tony Hawk has for him, and Spike Jonze... I was really blown away making this. Mat's spirit took over the whole crew and editors, and [there's] just so much good feeling and positivity around it. I mean, I've seen it so many times and we had a screening the other night, and I was teared up from the moment it started till the moment it ended. My 14-year-old daughter was sitting beside me, you know, making fun of me, but she was blown away too; she was making fun of me but then she'd be like, "Whoah!" [laughs] We feel very fortunate and honored to do this documentary on Mat.
TribecaFilm.com: Did you learn anything out of the ordinary when making the film as opposed to the other stuff you worked on? Do you have any advice for people who want to get into filmmaking and production?
JK: I think the best thing you can do if you wanna get into something is just do it. Get a camera and go do it. If it's something you love and something you're interested in, go film, you know? And see what comes of it. Because a lot of people just spend time saying, "This is what I want to do," [but] when you see the people that are getting things done—like, 80% of that is just f*ckin' doing it.
TribecaFilm.com: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker, alive or dead, who would it be?
JK: Man, I think I've already had that dinner, and I'm lucky enough to [have] had it a few times with John Waters. Such a brilliant guy, and that's another person who just looks at life a whole other way. [laughs] But he's such a sweet man and so intelligent and interesting, and I really value any time spent with John Waters.
TribecaFilm.com: What kind of media—book, film, TV show, whatever—have you been recommending to people lately?
JK: I've been recommending a Ken Carter documentary, The Devil At Your Heels, about that Canadian stuntman who said he's gonna build a rocket car and jump a mile gap. That's a pretty great documentary. And Willie Nelson's album Spirit... it's a great album that not enough people talk about. And of course, the children's book The Day My Butt Went Psycho is a constant.
TribecaFilm.com: What would your biopic be called?
JK: [laughs] Guess Who's Coming On Dinner?
JK: We were lucky enough to get to come to the Festival last year and then Tribeca Film picked up The Wild and Wonderful Whites, and we're working with them on the Mat Hoffman documentary. To have a blue-chip company like that, with Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal and they liked our work enough to get behind it, that means a helluva lot to us. We are very thankful and appreciative to be working with a company like this.
TribecaFilm.com: What makes both of your films a must-see for people at the Festival, at home or otherwise?
JK: The Birth of Big Air—just to see how Mat Hoffman has lived his life and done the things he's done with the spirit he has, and that he keeps doing these things, and it's just, you know, the body may betray you but with all the injuries he's had... the spirit and his drive and determination that enabled him to do all those things and unfortunately have all those injuries, that's still completely intact. That his body is broke is of really no concern to Mat. [laughs] He's unbelievable.
And The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, that's... whew! That's a whole gear shift. [laughs] It's like an Erskine Caldwell novel come to life, but [an] even more insane version... They're such a charismatic bunch of West Virginia mountain people and, man, they really go for it. [laughs] They're outta control. It's just like, I don't know, the Old West. Their everyday life and all the troubles they get in with the law and each other, and you have Jesco White as like the patriarch of the family, and when that guy is kind of running things, you know you're gonna get some footage. [laughs]
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