Interview: ‘21 Jump Street’ Directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller Talk ‘Cloudy 2’, ‘Lego’, ‘Bob the Musical’, and More
Posted on Wednesday, March 14th, 2012 by Angie Han
Phil Lord and Chris Miller immediately marked themselves as filmmakers to watch with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a sweet family CG comedy. So naturally, for their sophomore effort, they attempted to something completely different. 21 Jump Street is rowdy and live-action, and yet it retains much of the same heart and humor that made their first go-round such a hit. It’s no wonder they keep landing such intriguingly offbeat projects — the duo are now set to helm Warner Bros.’ Lego film and something called Bob the Musical, as well as produce Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers.
During the recent press junket for 21 Jump Street, the pair sat down with /Film to discuss their upcoming projects, the difficulties of transitioning into live action, their “chickenshit” fear of moving into drama, and Lord’s nefarious strategy to make sure Miller needs him forever. Read the full transcript after the jump.
How did you get involved with the film, and how did you land the job?
PL: It was not an incoming call, as you might imagine. It was a departure for us and I don’t know that we were on the top of the list of people to do this movie, coming off of Cloudy [With a Chance of Meatballs] but we felt like we really wanted to do something different. We read the script, thought we had a good take on — Our basic take on it was, what if we try to make this a really good movie, and it could be just as funny and just as crazy as this. So we approached [producer] Neal [H. Moritz]‘s company and took like seven meetings because we had a lot of people to convince that we were the right guys and then finally we sat down with [writer/star/exec producer] Jonah [Hill] and everyone at Sony and pitched our take and luckily they responded to us. Jonah picked us, and we’re here.
Was it tough to convince the studio that you could do it? Because your last movie was so different from this one.
CM: Yes. We had such a good relationship with the same studio. Sony did Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and we had a really good relationship with them, and they, wisely or not, trusted us. So it actually wasn’t as hard to convince everybody as we thought it was going to be, but we did prepare a fancy book of here’s what we think the tone of the movie is, here’s what we think the look is, here’s some ideas to help make the story even better, and we also had a relationship with Jonah cause we knew him from our comedy friends and we were fans of his. So we had some advantages from being just like random guys off the street.
Were there any unexpected challenges in going from an animated PG film to a live-action R film?
CM: Yeah, we definitely learned a lot along the way. The main difference is the speed of which the things happen, because in an animation you’re doing a lot of the same things, it’s just spread out over years. And you have time to discuss and dissect and say, maybe we shouldn’t do it this way, or try this way, try this way. On a live action set you’re like you have to make decisions right away. You only have so many hours of the shoot day. And so we had to sort of go back to our sitcom days where we had to rewrite jokes on the spot, on set, when they weren’t working, to get back to the quick reflexes, the takes.
PL: You also don’t know the names of anything. The culture’s different. You haven’t been on set, really, the way that everybody else has, so you don’t know the protocols, and you just keep messing up all the time and you feel like you’re in everyone’s way on your own movie. So I’m glad to have that experience over with and feel a little less like a newbie.
It’s hard to shoot an action sequence really well, like everyone’s seen a lot of bad action, so where did you take your inspiration? What were you going for?
CM: We storyboarded all the action sequences pretty heavily cause we knew it was going to need to be well choreographed. We have a philosopy about action, that it’s important to not just be a bunch of really close shaky shots where you don’t know what’s going on.
PL: It’s nice to know where the people are trying to get to and why that’s important.
CM: What the geography is, and what’s the stakes, where’s the danger, what’s the goal, where am I, all those things are really important, so we are really fussy about that type of stuff. Stylistically, we also like to do cool shots, but most importantly for us in an action scene is to be clear what’s happening. And then we also want to do, never just do a straight action scene. This is an action comedy. Even action scenes had to have a comic premise around them and be funny in and of themselves. Because if we were just trying to do a straight cop action scene it would be boring and feel out of place in the movie.
Jonah Hill’s mentioned recently that the studio’s given him the green light to do the sequel.
PL & CM: [Laughs.]
PL: I love it, the sequel’s being greenlit!
CM: Yeah, that’s not quite an accurate interpretation. But obviously the studio’s really happy with the movie and they’ve talked to us all about the idea of it. But we have to wait and see how the movie does, and we have to see if Earth, planet Earth, loves it.
PL: Yeah, it’s really up to the citizens of Earth whether or not we do a sequel.
Do you guys want to be involved with a sequel?
CM: We’ve talked with them about it and we did a little brainstorming with them the other day about what it might be, but…
PL: Yeah, we’ve already all started brainstorming stuff.
CM: But really, we just finished this one, and we just want to enjoy having made a movie –
PL: For one second.
CM: Before we jump into doing another thing right away.
I wanted to ask, because when I walked out, honestly, I was like, I need to see ten more hours of these people hanging out.
PL: Oh, that’s good. So you’re thinking maybe five more?
CM: It’s good.
PL: This is our Fast and Furious.
CM: Oh my.
PL: The twelve years making the same movie. Neal loves it. Neal wants to pass that on.
CM: Yes. The Fast and the Furious franchise?
PL: Fast and the Furious franchise, yeah, doing another generation. Yeah, it would be awesome if people were excited enough about the movie that we could legitimately have a conversation about doing a sequel.
I hope so. Do you prefer doing live action now, or do you want to run back into animation?
PL: I love it. I don’t feel like fleeing to animation. I like that this is a lot shorter.
CM: We like doing both.
PL: I like making more movies.
CM: We’re doing interesting movies whatever the medium is, and things that are cool.
PL: They’re different, you know. With animation you really are telling a story through movement and meticulously describing the movement of these characters. Actors don’t follow your instructions the way computers do. So that’s different. That’s more, you’re trying to capture the real human moments that spontaneously happen onstage between these amazing actors and then hope to string enough of them together to make a movie. Those are kind of different — a little bit different exercises, and they’re both fun.
Do you mind if I ask about some of the other upcoming projects you have going on?
PL: No, go for it.
Okay, so Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs — are you involved at all with the sequel?
CM: We sure are.
PL: We are, yeah.
CM: We’re producing the sequel and we worked on a treatment for the story and we picked these guys, Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, to direct it, who worked on the first movie with us, and we knew they would do a great job.
PL: They’re awesome, and the movie’s really funny, and the tone is really consistent with the first one, and it looks gorgeous.
CM: They’re really doing a great job.
PL: Same production design team, with a few notable additions. The movie’s gonna be even weirder than the first one, which I’m happy about.
Can you tell me anything about the plot? I heard a while ago, there was a rumor that it was gonna be based on the book sequel, is that still the case?
CM: It is not based on the book sequel.
PL: It is not based on that. It is sort of…
CM: We kind of [are limited as] to what we can actually say.
PL: I don’t know either.
CM: I don’t think we’re allowed to say anything. But it did get out that they’re calling it Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers. At one point, we were going to call it Cloudy With a Chance of Sequel. We still could, Cloudy With a Chance of Sequel: Revenge of the Leftovers.
PL: I’m still pushing for that title, yeah. I like that.
CM: A nice long title.
PL: Super duper long. I feel like, I hear that’s good for marketing purposes.
CM: They’d love that.
Where is that movie right now?
CM: They’re working on animatics and we’ve been seeing a bunch of stuff from that. I’m not sure what the actual release date is.
PL: I don’t know when it’s scheduled for. They’ve been working on it for over a year, just starting to develop the story and a lot of early preproduction stuff. The artwork looks amazing. The new places that the movie goes to are really incredible, and I think people will be excited about it.
So, you also have the Lego action-adventure coming up.
CM: Yeah, right now it’s called Lego: The Piece of Resistance.
PL: I feel like that title’s testing well, if the three people we’ve told it to seem to like it okay.
CM: And it is mostly animated with a little live action element, and it’s about the world of those little yellow minifigs, in an all-Lego universe.
PL: And it’s like an aggressive Michael Bay action film. But with little characters. One of the big things, one of the challenges that we’ve given to everybody, is that they can’t move any differently than the real minifigs, so they have to have like a punching fight where they can only do this and this. [Demonstrates Lego arm-swinging motion.]
CM: It’s pretty amazing what people are able to do, if you’ve ever seen any of those brick films online that people make in their basements. We just thought it would be so cool to do that with a much bigger budget and better resources. Better lighting and cool camera moves and stuff.
PL: Yeah. That should be really fun.
CM: It should be neat.
What can you tell me about the plot or the tone of the film, other than it being like a Michael Bay-style action movie?
CM: Well, it’s also sort of a — obviously, it’s a comedy. I guess we’re doing a lot of action-y comedy stuff. But it’s sort of like if The Matrix and The Magnificent Seven and…
PL: Had a baby with…
That’s a lot of parents for a baby.
CM: Yeah, it’s a lot. [Laughs]
PL: Uh… Time Bandits?
CM: It’s pretty crazy, I will say.
PL: Lord of the Rings!
CM: Yeah, there’s a little bit of Lord of the Rings in there, and a little bit of Star Wars and everything.
PL: It involves many worlds. Basically, the least qualified Lego characters in the universe having to keep the world from being frozen together.
PL: Yeah. [Laughs] Something like that. Is that more than I’m supposed to say?
CM: I don’t know.
PL: I don’t remember.
So where is that right now, and when do you expect it to…
PL: We’ve been working on it for the last year or so.
CM: With this guy Chris McKay, who’s co-directing with us. From Robot Chicken, very talented guy.
PL: It’s great, we’re sort of in the middle of developing the story and refining the animatic. We’re starting character design, doing a little early casting stuff. A lot of that will be coming together in the next three or four months, hopefully.
Oh, nice. What about Bob the Musical? Are you still involved with that?
PL: Yeah, we’re developing Bob the Musical. This guy Matt Fogel is writing it, he’s a genius.
CM: And [Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez]…
PL: Songwriting geniuses.
CM: From Book of Mormon…
PL: Avenue Q, Book of Mormon, all that stuff.
CM: Are writing songs, and it’s really, they’re really great, and Matt’s really great, and the script is coming along.
PL: It’s a really great concept about a guy, who’s the least likely guy you would ever find in a musical, gets trapped in a musical, and it’s set in the least likely place for a musical to take place.
Which is where?
PL: New Jersey. [Laughs] We’re really excited about it. Matt’s doing some awesome stuff.
It seems like you’re trying a range of things. Most of them are comedy, but do you have any thoughts of moving into drama or straightforward action or anything like that?
PL: Maybe when we run out of funny ideas, I guess. Which might be right now. I’m definitely afraid of not being funny anymore, and in that case maybe we’ll try to make, I don’t know, Sidney Lumet films or something.
CM: That would be awesome, he’s very talented.
PL: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m nervous. I’m too chickenshit to do a drama.
CM: We do like to mix it up. Certainly the good thing about comedy is that you know when it’s working because people are laughing and with drama it’s a little harder to tell. I guess if everyone’s sobbing and it’s a real tearjerker then you know, but…
PL: You’re really exposed.
CM: Yeah, it’s hard.
PL: In a comedy, if you make the story work just a little bit, you really beat everyone’s expectations, you know? And then you have the jokes to fall back on if you fail anyway.
CM: Drama you don’t have that.
PL: Yeah, it’s a little more forgiving. Yeah, drama’s not as forgiving.
I know you guys work together all the time. How does that relationship work, what do you think each of you brings to the table, or how do you think you balance each other out?
PL: We should have a better answer to this at some point.
Do you get tired of each other?
PL: For sure. We used to live together, which was a mistake. Especially once Chris got married.
CM: Part of what attracted us to the movie in the first place was that it was about this friendship and working relationship. We could really relate to that, and the conflict that’s sort of inherent in that, and the sort of underlying love and respect that’s there. I think that’s true for both of us also, that we both really admire the other one and what they bring to the table. Unfortunately, unlike some pairings, where it’s like one person’s good with story and the other one’s good with camerawork or something like that, neither of us is awesome at anything.
CM: We’re both pretty okay at eveything, so we don’t divvy up any responsibilities or anything.
PL: No, and that way neither of us can get really good at one thing, right? Like if you just got to do the camera stuff all the time, you would get really awesome at that. But by keeping your attention divided, I make it so that you need me no matter what.