Chris Miller and Phil Lord met in college and, like many undergrads, made big plans for what they'd do as adults. The difference is: their ideas came true. Just years after graduation, Miller and Lord became two of the youngest show-runners in TV history when their quirky cartoon Clone High—a Sci-Fi about teen clones of Abe Lincoln, Cleopatra, JFK and Gandhi—was picked up by MTV. Clone High became a cult favorite, and then, like many cult favorites, was canceled after one season. But the two stuck to it—and stuck together—to make Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a critical and commercial success that turned the guys into the most sought-after young animators in town. So why did they about-face to shoot a riotous R-rated live-action '80s-inspired comedy? As Miller and Lord explain: they were the right role models to teach Channing Tatum how to be cool (and he taught them how to jump over a car).
I'm going to start off with the question I have to ask you guys: the film opens in 2005, but you set the tone by having Jonah Hill blast this Eminem song from 1999. Is he just that out of touch?
Chris: Yeah, that was kind of the idea-he was a little behind the times when he was in high school and we thought that was indicative of his personality as a nerdy kid.
Who also thinks he's tough.
Chris: It was Jonah's idea to actually do the shaved, blonde Eminem hair, because I think there was a phase when he was in high school when he actually did that himself.
I think we all had that phase.
Chris: Who didn't go through a phase of dressing like Eminem?
Phil, you grew up in Florida and Chris grew up in Washington. That's literally as far apart as you could've grown up from each other while living in the continental States. So when you guys started talking about 21 Jump Street, did you have similar high school experiences at all?
Phil: Chris wore a lot more flannel shirts and listened to a lot more grunge music than I did.
Chris: But we actually did have similar childhoods. We were both small and we both grew later. I ended up growing when I was about a senior in high school. When I was a sophomore, I was 5'2".
Phil: At the end of my freshman year I weighed 79 pounds.
Chris: We were both very tiny and then we both grew to be normal-sized humans.
Phil: I was so small, I literally had a growth spurt in college.
Did that make going back for your reunions awesome, like: "Check me out now!"
Phil: "Look at me! I'm 5'10"! Suck it!" It's fine. People were pretty nice about the whole thing. At least it made you stand out from the crowd.
Chris: It's hard for me to relate to being a nerd because I was to busy being popular and banging chicks the whole time. But somehow I imagined that part pretty well.
Phil: He read about it.
Chris: I've met people who were nerds.
And you had an excuse to learn by making films about nerds.
Phil: You phoned up the people that you used to beat up, Chris, and you asked them what they were like.
And then you just showed your old home movies to Channing Tatum and said, "Be that guy."
Chris: "Be like me—be awesome."
Phil: Channing patterned his character off of us.
Jonah Hill was saying when he first had the script done that he wanted Rob Zombie to direct. You guys couldn't be more different, especially having just come off Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
Phil: I like that he wanted Rob Zombie as a director—that's a great idea.
Chris: That would've been a very interesting version of the movie. We knew Jonah socially through comedy circles for years before we came on board this movie and it was pretty great knowing that he was already attached and had already worked on a script with [Michael] Bacall, and so we knew that it was going to be the kind of movie that was going to be really funny right from the beginning. It was a good match.
I'm sure at that time you guys were offered scores of animation films, but then you made the deliberate choice to go completely different.
Chris: That is true. We were offered a lot of animation and a lot of family stuff, but we made the conscious decision to do something that was almost the opposite of what we had done before because we wanted to challenge ourselves in that way. In a sense, we try to things that are funny and we try to make them smarter than they should be, and so there's a lot of things that we try to do with everything that we do—but we also don't like to just get stuck doing the same thing over and over again.
You've gotten to establish really quick that you want to do both. This year, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird finally switched to live action and everybody was at first kind of freaking out about it. You're just laying the groundwork really early on.
Phil: That's right. We don't want to set a precedent either way.
Chris: I saw Mission: Impossible, and I thought Brad Bird did a pretty awesome job, I have to say.
Animators almost think in terms of the impossible because you can do so much in animation—and you bring that ambition to live action.
Chris: That's true. Certainly for the action scenes, we would storyboard things and then the AD would say, "That's going to be very difficult to achieve that shot using existing equipment that has been invented already." So it was an interesting education for us doing the movie. But it was pretty neat what we were able to get done, to shut down a whole freeway.
What is the dynamic like when you're directing the actor who actually co-wrote the script?
Chris: We all worked on it together quite a bit. But there was a lot of improvisation, naturally. That's something that Jonah is especially gifted in, and so oftentimes we would bring a premise to Jonah and just sort of let him go and just riff on ideas. It was really building something in editing with having so much diverse, crazy stuff to work with.
Phil: It's truthfully not that different from working in animation where the members of the storyboard team are contributing story ideas and dialogue, and the editorial staff is doing the same and the voice actors are doing the same. It really is a team effort bringing everything together, and part of your job as a director is being open-minded enough to include the contributions of everybody on your team. You just wind up making a much better movie that way. And it was no different on Jump Street. Jonah's a great writer, Bacall's a great writer, we had other folks contributing jokes and script material—
Chris: And even Channing, who doesn't have a history of being an improv guy, was coming up with stuff in the scenes himself and bringing a lot of reality to the situation.
Phil: Yeah, and humor. In addition, Channing also—because of his background as an action star—would come up with physical things. He would pitch ideas for stunts. We would be like, "Alright, in this shot you need to run from here to get into that car." And he would be like, "Well, I could jump that car, then get in on the other side." And we were like, "Okay, yeah!" I never realized you could improvise a stunt before, but he did it.
He's like your live-action cartoon.
Chris: Exactly. I wouldn't have thought to say, "Oh, can you jump over this car?" I didn't know that was even possible.
Phil: I didn't know a person could do that. But that's the possibilities that happen when you cast somebody like that.
That teamwork you're talking about reminds me of what you did at the opening of Meatballs, where the screen says, "A film by a lot of people."
Phil: You know, we tried to do that on this one, too—the lawyers wouldn't let us do that. Because in animation, you're not governed by the DGA or the WGA, so you have a little more flexibility in the credits. I would say as much as that film, the possessory credit belongs to the whole team of filmmakers.
Chris: It's always a collaboration when you're making a big studio movie.
Phil: I respect the possessory credit. I know the value and what's good about it and I don't fault anybody for using it. I just don't relate to it very much. Because I feel like in our experience, you really do form a team, and the team makes the film with you.
You guys sound dangerously like Communists.
Chris: I am, in fact, a staunch anti-Communist. But I get really conflicted because I'm also an egalitarian. I guess that makes me a Democrat.
I was going to say a communi-galitarian, but I guess Democrat works.
Chris: The thing about Communism is that most of the time it requires Totalitarianism, and most Totalitarians would gladly take the possessory credit on a film.
Between you guys though, what your biggest disagreement while you made the film?
Chris: Oh, boy. I mean, there's daily disagreements.
Phil: I'm trying to think of a disagreement we had where I won and I was right. But I'm having a hard time.
Chris: I mean the good thing is that we have a very similar sense of humor and a similar aesthetic, so the disagreements that we have are rarely major enough to be that significant. They're only things that we probably would notice.
Phil: We do have a couple of little quirks. I often imagine action taking place from left to right on the screen, and Chris often imagines it proceeding from right to left. And so when we storyboard things out, we'd often be like, "What?!" And I don't know what it is about that—it's just sort of a weird intuition thing. We're both right-handed, so I don't think it's that.
Maybe one of you guys is reincarnated from a writer in Japan.
Chris: Maybe one of us just has a stronger Western reading bias or something, I don't know? But there were those twins in G.I. Joe, what were they called? They were like called Zardoz and Zactar. [Editor's note: Research indicates they were called Tomax and Xamot.] They were twins and one had a scar on his left cheek and one had a scar on his right cheek, and their names were one another's name backwards. I wish I could remember it. Anyways, they did everything the same except one was left to right and the other was right to left. So maybe we're like that.
Online, you were hounded about if Johnny Depp was going to have a cameo, and I kept wondering where was the love for Richard Grieco and Holly Robinson Peete?
Chris: There were a lot of people who have been very curious about Holly Robinson, and we can't really say who is in the movie and who isn't in the movie.
Phil: I can say that there's several appearances by original cast members and fans of the show will not be disappointed. Fans of the first season will not be disappointed. There was a certain amount of favoritism to original cast members.
Which makes sense, because in so many people's imaginations it's boiled down to just the three of them in a lot of ways.
Phil: Don't forget Dustin Nguyen or Peter DeLuise. But you have to leave something open for the six sequels, the Harry Potter-like franchise.
Well, that's obviously going to be Booker, right?
Phil: You never know: a Booker spin-off of the movie starring Grieco. One of the challenges was so much of it took place in high school and we had this idea that the movie was in continuity with the television series.
Chris: If we wanted original cast members, they should be playing themselves—they're not new characters.
Phil: So it was hard trying to find adult parts in our story for people who were still cops or had been cops 20 years ago. It was a challenge—there weren't that many parts.
Chris: It was mostly high school parts.
Speaking about that high school thing, you've got to have a romantic subplot in here, but it seems like now, people are even more creeped out about the idea of an older guy hitting on a younger girl than they would've been in the 80's.
Phil: I think that's true. You know, it's kind of a recent development that people don't cross over into adulthood until their mid-twenties. It used to be that you could have a 16-year-old bride and people wouldn't really think that much about it. But yeah, it's true. There's a romantic sub-plot between Jonah and Brie Larson's character, who plays a high school student—
Chris: Who is 18—
You do make a point of saying she's 18.
Chris: In Pineapple Express, he's dating a high school student, in Scott Pilgrim, he's dating a high school student—it's not unheard of in recent popular culture films.
Phil: But the audience in test screenings, they rejected it until we made it super-clear that she was 18.
Chris: It was interesting. They were like, "Yeah, if she's 18, it's no problem. If she's 17 and she's two days from being 18, then forget it." That's weird. In the end version, it plays very tastefully. There's not any gross libido—it's more of like a sweet friendship more than anything, and that seems like the right choice for that character. You didn't want it to be like a horndog who's trying to boink a high school student.
Phil: We sort imagined it like when they start the assignment, these are two guys who probably would do that, especially Jonah's character, but by the end of the movie, you want to think that he's matured enough to where he sees why that's lame and why he should be a more mature person.
It's true. But you're also torn because you know he's never had a shot with a girl like that before.
Phil: Exactly. I imagine that they keep in touch and in a few years, maybe they go on another date.
Pen pals or something. Maybe he'll be the guy that she dumps Thanksgiving weekend of her freshman year of college.
Chris: "You know, there's a whole world out there, I don't want to tie myself down to this guy from high school."
Phil: That's amazing. That should literally be the opening scene of Jump Street 2. She dumps him and they go to college to get her back. And she's dating a Patchouli-oiled professor or something.
A guy who's more creepy, so Jonah seem even more age-appropriate. Your next movie is Lego. It seems like a project that, like the toys themselves, you could literally construct any story from it.
Chris: Phil was saying that the other day, like it's about paint, it could be anything. It's really more of a medium than like a toy, unlike other toy brands which are what they are. The amazing thing about it is there are all these films online of people who just take Lego bricks and make little movies in their basement. The range of what they are is so vast—it's really inspiring.
Phil: We're sitting here in the Lego offices as we speak, working on the story and going like, "I think this is the way we go?" There's definitely a lot of possibilities and that's one of the things that's challenging about this is boiling it down to what's the thing that's most endemic to Legos, and the way people play with them, and the kinds of things you imagine the minute you see some of these minifigs [Lego people]. So we think we're close.
There's been kind of a feminist scandal about Lego creating and marketing Legos for girls, which just look different. Are those going to have a place in this world?
Chris: So far, they're not in the motion picture as of yet. It's interesting, because obviously all Legos in, like, a bucket of bricks is cool for boys or girls to play with. I get what the Lego corporation is trying to do, to do more like character and home-based stuff, but I think that it probably came off in the wrong way. I definitely don't fault the Lego corporation for trying to make more appealing looking female characters.
Phil: It's pretty hard. When we heard they were doing that stuff, we were like "Well, maybe that will help us because these Lego girls and Lego minifig women, it's very hard to not make them look incredibly boxy. So if you have a love interest for the main character, it's a very narrow target to hit. They're all super wide looking faces, and they don't have noses.
And they definitely have birthing hips.
Phil: There's nothing in the shape to indicate the difference between a girl or a boy. So when you sort of have to draw it on, and then the minifig looks extra weird—it just sort of looks lumpy. But we have the best artists in the world doing a good job making of them look cute.