‘Bad Grandpa’ sneaks its playful mayhem into Sacramento

It’s a cinematic ending that’s warm, fuzzy – and demented.

Octogenarian widower Irving Zisman, with his 8-year-old grandson Billy at his side, drops the sheet-clad body of his wife, Ellie, off the Discovery Park bridge and into the American River. The two then grab their fishing poles for a little post-disposal angling.

The body, of course, isn’t real, and Zisman is actually notorious prankster Johnny Knoxville, 42, covered in layers of latex and make-up that effectively age him about 40 years.

The film, “Bad Grandpa,” which has grossed more than $60 million since its release Oct. 25, follows Zisman and Billy (Jackson Nicoll) on a cross-country road trip full of outlandish behavior and poor grandparenting that culminates with the at-river burial of Zisman’s recently deceased wife. The R-rated movie combines scripted scenes with Knoxville’s classic “Jackass” antics filmed with hidden cameras. Ellie’s dead body, and people’s discomfort with it, is a running gag in the movie.

The closing sequence was originally slated to be filmed in North Carolina, but after arriving in Charlotte, location manager and field producer Craig Van Gundy discovered that the local bridges weren’t working with the scene the way he wanted. He recalled a photo he had seen of a bridge with iron trusswork, surrounded by greenery with both land and water running beneath it. After searching the California Film Commission’s website, he found the bridge from his mind’s eye – Sacramento’s Discovery Park bridge.

“It was the bonding, dramatic shot at the end of the movie,” he said. “We wanted a spectacular bridge to give Ellie a great send-off and honor her wishes. It’s a really beautiful bridge and ended up being perfect for what we wanted.”

To ensure the trip was worthwhile, Van Gundy opted to shoot other “Grandpa” shenanigans around Sacramento. One included the explosion of an air bag in Zisman’s face while he and Billy sat parked in their Cadillac at a gas pump outside midtown’s Bonfare Market.

Anil Nayyar, owner of the market, said he signed a nondisclosure agreement before welcoming the covert crew onto his property in February.

“I couldn’t even tell my staff members, because (the film crew) wanted human reaction,” Nayyar said. “That’s what the movie is based on – human reaction.”

Unsuspecting bystanders aren’t always easy to come by these days. When filming in L.A., the production struggled to fool Hollywood-savvy passers-by with the staged pranks.

“Yeah, that’s the problem with shooting in Los Angeles,” Knoxville told The New York Times.

Nayyar said that Sacramento didn’t pose such a problem. He watched the antics from a parking lot across the street, and though his staff eventually caught on, the customers did not.

“People were shocked and concerned,” he said. “We had several people rush into the store and ask for help.”

Van Gundy worked with Sacramento Film Commissioner Lucy Steffens and the Sacramento Police Department to ensure the safety and privacy of unsuspecting participants. Those caught on film were asked to sign a release form. Those who didn’t wish to sign were either cut from the film or had their faces blurred.

In addition to the Discovery Park bridge and Bonfare Market, the crew shot scenes in Davis and West Sacramento hotels, as well as landscape shots. According to Steffens, Sacramento’s diverse architecture and landscape make it ideal for filming.

“We’re very fortunate in that we have so many different looks,” she said. “We have the metro area in downtown and midtown with a lot of different architecture, the Western look in Old Sacramento, and the Sacramento Delta looks very much like the Mississippi Delta.”

While a hit at the box office, “Bad Grandpa” has received mixed reviews. In his appraisal of the movie, McClatchy critic Roger Moore wrote: “Strip the danger out of ‘Borat’ and the injuries out of ‘Jackass’ and you’ve got a bead on ‘Bad Grandpa,’ a fitfully funny, semi-scripted ‘Jackass’ outing built around elaborately staged pranks played on the unsuspecting.”