Being enterprising young filmmakers, and being the kind of responsible guys that got good grades to please our teachers and got alcohol for any peer-pressuring cheerleader who asked for a favor that would ultimately never be repaid, we had resolved to go to the prom.
It was exclusively research for our new movie, 21 Jump Street, which is based on a television program that no one now in high school knows existed, along with Mr. T cereal and Michael Dukakis. Much of the film takes place in a high school, and the movie has its climax at a prom. We vehemently deny that our decision to go a prom had anything to do with secretly wanting to see if we had gotten any cooler since our own proms. It certainly had nothing to do with the fact that we both had miserable proms the first time, and wanted to wash away the taste of one of our dates hooking up with another dude on a pool table at the post-prom. Nothing to do with that at all.
We had spent a day on campus a few months earlier at Santa Monica High School ("Samohi" in cool guy lingo) and learned a lot:
And yet we felt there was still more to learn. That's when we turned to the lovely young woman who was showing us around the school, and asked nervously, that classic refrain: "Will You Go To The Prom...
... Committee And Ask If Two Movie Directors Can Go To Prom With One Another?"
We suited up, tux-style. We had worn these very same tuxes a few months before, in the very same ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, only it was to attend the Golden Globes, and we lost. We were the nerds that night. Skinny betuxed losers.
But tonight, we would be cool.
We could tell it was going to be a great night, because for some reason, Jon Voight was in the lobby of the hotel, wandering around in his bathrobe talking to strangers. (Ah, Los Angeles... ) It's possible he had been there since the Golden Globes, but either way, it seemed like the beginnings of a great night. Never mind that the people we were about to try to fit in with knew Jon Voight only as the estranged grandpa of a half-dozen famous adopted kids.
We walked past the Hummer limos and double-decker party buses, into the lobby of the Beverly Hilton, to the check-in, and we saw a sign that said "BREATHALIZER-->". Uh-oh. Probably shouldn't have had that pre-prom cocktail to get in the mood. The woman at the check-in said the sign was just there to scare the kids. Cool. Cool.
The first thing we noticed when we walked into the ballroom was the surprisingly large number of alternative tuxedos -- white, turquoise, kilt-bottoms, matching with the date's coral dress, and hats, oh so many hats. It is a rare person who can pull off a hat in a formal setting. And an even rarer white person who is not living in the 1960s. We were shy. Too shy to talk to the kids. Over to the food area. Fancy sterno trays with lovely placards in a fancy font: "Assorted Pizzas." "Garlic Bread." "Tacos."
This shindig was all class.
All right. Maybe we'll start with the chaperones, build up our confidence, then work our way to the kids. We went up on stage where the DJ was spinning the beats, liberally augmenting each song with an annoying sample of her own name, amidst a legion of chaperones watching the sea of kids. We figured they were looking out for furtive sips from flasks of Jagermeister or Mike's Hard Lemonade. Nope. They were there to look out for excessive loin-on-loin grinding.
Out on the dance floor, the kids were thrusting and rubbing and shaking so hard we had to look away. The rule was: you can grind, but no pushing against something for resistance. The chaperones were constantly breaking up couples where the girl was bent over, pushing against a wall or a chair and the guy was dry-humping her from behind to the beat. In our parents' day they had to put a balloon between the couples on slow dances. My high school had a six inches apart rule, and both hands above the waist. Those days are long, long, looong gone. If we had been wearing pearls, we would have been clutching them for dear life. Thankfully, we left our pearls at home. Too grown-up looking. Also, we are not women.
We needed to meet some real people, get the skinny, the lowdown, the 411, the buzz -- like how nobody uses those words anymore. We wandered to the snack table and struck up a conversation with some young-ish looking teachers. "Ha, we're not teachers." No, they were a director and producer, doing research for a different movie. (Ah, Los Angeles.) They bragged about how they had talked to all sorts of kids already. The other director looked us up and down. "Scrubs." He didn't say that. But his eyes did. We were flailing. Intimidated. Shamed. We needed to find some real kids, stat. Over to the bar for some liquid courage. "I'll have a -- oh wait. This is a high school event. " So we slipped out of the ballroom, across the lobby, shuffled past Jon Voight ("lookdownlookdownnoeyecontact"), hit the hotel bar, a quick libation, and returned with gusto.
We were immediately approached by two actual teenagers! Turns out they were juniors who worked for the school paper and were doing a story about prom. Of course. "What's your deal? Why are you here?" So much for us blending in.
We're 36 (we were 35 at the time) but we look really young. On set or in the office, everyone refers to us as "the boys." So somewhere in the back of our heads we thought, "We'll put on our tuxes and fit right in." Unfortunately, the front of our heads soon learned that this was false.
Us: "How old do you think we are?"
Teen 1: "Old."
Teen 2: "Super old."
Us: "How old is 'super old'?"
Teen 1: "I don't know, like, 26???"
Twenty-six was as old as someone could be in their eyes. A full ten years younger than we are. When we produced our drivers' licenses and showed we were in our mid-thirties, there were audible gasps. Then they began to talk to us like we were their nana in the nursing home on oxygen.
We tried to turn their interview with us into an interview with them. How do kids party these days? What do you do when you hang out alone and/or with friends? Do a lot of kids drink alcohol or do drugs, and if so what kinds? What is the social structure like? Is there a hierarchy? What's cool, and what is lame? What do people think about prom?
They all said that the social hierarchy isn't like it's depicted in movies anymore: it's not like the quarterback is the most popular guy and the head cheerleader is the prom queen. The prom queen, in fact, was a charming, pretty young woman who could have been played by a young Octavia Spencer. Everyone agreed she was "super nice." The coolest kids were the ones who were socially conscious and could hang with all sorts of different cliques. Socially conscious? That was a recipe for outcast status in our day. The times, they are a-becoming different. Was Facebook and Twitter making for a more egalitarian age of socializing? No, there were still cliques, but a lot less hierarchy. Less a social ladder, and more of a social beehive. But bigger and less gooey.
But if we wanted to see how kids really socialize, we had to check out an afterparty. What you and I know as a party wasn't usually called a party. It's called a "kickback." This afterparty, we were told, was not a kickback afterparty, it was a party afterparty.
-"What's the difference between a kickback and a party?"
-"A kickback is just chill. At a party, you can get arrested."
It was agreed that the best afterparty was going to be one this kid Jason was throwing downtown. We were given the address and the name of a hookup. So after it wrapped up, we drove downtown and knocked on the door to the warehouse at the address we were given.
-"Who the hell are you?"
-"We know Sara -- "
-"Get the fuck out of here, narcs."
-"No, we're not narcs, see, it's funny, we're filmmakers doing research for -- "
-"Oh hell no. Go away, narcs before I bust your fucking head in."
-"Okay, have a great time. Sorry for the trouble, sir."
And so it was at the end of the night when we felt the most transported back to our own high school experiences, left out of the cool kids party, sharing a street dog with a close friend, sober, and not a cheerleader in sight.