Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have proven themselves in the field of animation. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Clone High are hilarious at the rapidest possible pace. The question is whether those skills will transfer over for their first live-action movie, 21 Jump Street. Based on early word of mouth, Lord and Miller successfully created a wicked funny buddy cop comedy.
A group of us movie bloggers had the chance to interview the directors on set in New Orleans near the end of the shoot. They discussed their influences in the genre (Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs., and the left-field choice Running Scared), their approach to adapting the original series, how the movie fits in with the series continuity, the value of test screening, and their “F-bomb problem” with the R-rating. Read what they had to say after the jump.
Question: We were just hearing a list of what the drug actually does.
CHRIS MILLER: Oh, yeah! Davey Franco was telling you?
PHIL LORD: Stage 1 is “The Gigs.” Laughing, giggling.
MILLER: Stage 2 is “Tripping Major Ballsack.” Stage 3 is “Over-Falsity of Confidence.” Stage 4 is “Fuck Yeah, Motherfucker.”
LORD: Stage 5 is you pass out.
MILLER: Yeah. You pass out in a fountain. Then you throw Phil into it afterwards for no good reason. But it’s cool. He can roll with that. That’s the phase.
Is something like that more where an anarchic, more animated style of humor might come in?
MILLER: Oh yeah. Filmically, that’s probably more of our sensibility. A lot of it comes from Mike Bacall, who wrote the script. As you guys know, he did Scott Pilgrim. That has a very animated sensibility to it, too. So it does creep in there, but it’s obviously a much more grounded looking movie than the one we did before. Which had flying cheeseburgers.
Can you talk about the inspirations visually? There seem to be buddy cop influences, action, comedy, and of course the original TV show.
LORD: When we talked with Barry Peterson, the DP—who is awesome by the way—early on, we talked about having it be like some of the more classic action-comedies, like Beverly Hills Cop or 48 Hours. And we talked about Running Scared.
MILLER: We talked about 48 Hours and Running Scared a lot. Go back and watch Running Scared. Beautiful movie.
LORD: Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines.
MILLER: No joke, it’s a great looking movie. The director I’m going to get wrong. Is it Peter Hyams?
LORD: I don’t remember.
MILLER: It’s a guy, he’s a cinematographer… I think it’s Peter Hyams. I could be wrong.
LORD: If only there was some way for us to find out. A source that we could access. Oh well! So, that was what we wanted to make sure it would look like. We were afraid of it being too over-studio-litcomedy, or having it feel like a really broad spoof movie. We really wanted to make sure that it felt like it was, in its bones, grounded, so that we could do some of the more silly stuff, like five phases of a made-up drug.
Jonah was talking about color being very important.
LORD: We’re nerdy geeks about stupid color theory that no one will ever notice or pay attention to. But we like the idea that red and blue were some of the thematic colors of the movie, because they’re cops. And America!
MILLER: We thought of them as republicans. They love America. They love law enforcement. They believe in the drug war.
Can you talk about coming from a film where you were there from the ground up, in terms of the writing, and coming [here] where you had an existing script? How much participation that you can really have in shaping that material that already exists?
MILLER: In some ways it’s the same, because you’re still collaborating with a bunch of artists. In animation, there’s a script, but you also have the storyboard team that makes such a big contribution to the story and what the movie is. The dialogue and all that stuff. So it’s still a group effort. And this is no different in terms of the amount of effort that we put in with Michael and Jonah on the script.
Was there any pressure to live up to the success of the original TV show?
MILLER: They’re going to [last] for more seasons than us. That’s for sure.
LORD: Anytime you’re basing something off an old property, you have to tread very carefully. Last time, making Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, we didn’t want to piss off fans of the original. We ended up watching all the season and all the episodes beforehand.
MILLER: And afterwards. To see where we screwed up. But you have to make it its own experience. We tried to take the very interesting idea of undercover cops in high school and try to build a neat character story around it. But essentially, it is a lot of the same things. They were trying to make high school seem a little more grown up. It felt like they succeeded in making it not a kiddy show, not a tweener show. It had edge to it. We’ve done a lot to make it seem as grown up as possible. There’s a lot of great high school movies, but we didn’t want it to look like something that felt like High School Musical. We wanted it to feel like it was safe to take your girlfriend to it.
LORD: The original was not an R-rated action-comedy, so it differs in that regard. But the premise of being grownups trying to pretend to be in high school is inherently a comic idea. We thought that trying to play it seriously would be unintentionally funny.
MILLER: Also, the show didn’t take itself that seriously. There were a lot of comedic beats in that thing, and it was about the relationships at Jump Street, and how going to high school strained them. To us, it was like a nice jumping off point to do something we’ve always wanted to do: a crazy action-comedy. A lot of people are doing these kinds of things—taking existing properties and trying to make something new out of them. It’s nice to have the confidence that a known property gives everybody. It gives you [the ability] to be creative in a weird way. All the people investing money in it breathe a big sigh of relief. “Okay, we know how to sell this! This is comfortable! We’re not freaking out.” You can go and sneak away and make something original.
How careful have you been with the R-rating? Not only to balance potentially audiences, but also to doing something comedic and over the top, and have real intensity to the action?
MILLER: We feel like NC-17 was too… to the bottom line. We try to stop short of that. We do have an F-bomb problem on this film.
LORD: When you’re free to say whatever you want…
MILLER: Yeah. I feel like once you cross a hundred, you should slow down. So we’ve tried to do that.
LORD: We always do clean takes so we have a nice balance. And so we don’t get too numb. Obviously, the subject matter of kids and drugs, there’s some gunfights, people get shot. There was a long discussion about whether it should be PG-13 or R. We felt like the shackles would be too much. We wouldn’t be able to do it accurately or real.
MILLER: We started talking to the Sony people about The Social Network. You know that scene where they smoke pot with the girls at their house? They have the big six-foot bong? They went back to the MPAA like fifty times to get the perfect cut that would allow that in a PG-13 movie. We heard that, and we thought, “How are we going to do a movie about kids selling and taking drugs, getting drunk?” Doing things you’re not supposed to do felt like a disaster. Eventually we all just locked hands and committed to doing [it with an R-rating]. And it made financial sense for the studio, because those movies end up doing really well on DVD. It kind of balances out. Maybe you take a hit by it being R-rated, but the unrated version helps you later.
What’s the balance as directors? Is one of you more interested in the look, and one with actors? What’s the back-and-forth?
MILLER: We are not very efficient.
LORD: It’d be way easier if one of us did one thing and the other did the other thing. Instead, we both discuss and both do everything to adequacy.
MILLER: Yeah. That’s our goal. Adequacy.
MILLER: Competence, I would say. Borderline competence. A big goal for the movie: coherence. So, we’re on our way to our goals.
Do you care about proficiency?
LORD: Just those three things. Aim low and you’ll always be pleasantly surprise.
What has the learning curve been for you guys? Did you direct episodes of How I Met Your Mother?
LORD: No. We were co-executive producers on that, so we were on set all the time. But the only live action things we’ve directed were very small shorts, and things like that. It’s a very expensive way to learn on the job. But it’s a lot of the same skills from doing an animated movie. Same language, but a lot more compressed and faster.
Did the improvisational element add to that learning curve? Was it like trying to figure out how to fit another piece into the puzzle?
MILLER: It makes it better. It makes it easier, honestly, because you have that much more footage, and that many more choices. Way more ideas.
LORD: We’ve been working with improvisational actors for many years. It was actually something we were really excited to do. Obviously Jonah is an expert at that. He really brings a lot. Any time he opens his mouth, he says a bunch of new stuff that you’re not expecting. It’s really great. You just have to make sure you have enough footage.
MILLER: And it just sounds better and feels better. We found that on Cloudy and Clone High. We tried to get things that sounded more in the voice of the actor. It just doesn’t sound as fake.
LORD: When people read written lines, it can come off canned. If you let them do it in their own language and improvise, as long as they stay on story and their drives are moving forward in the scene, it’ll feel a lot more natural and real.
So you think we’ll have a lot of good quotes in this movie?
LORD: I would hope so. There are definitely things being quoted by the crew all the time.
MILLER: You never know. It’s so weird. You go to test screenings and you have no idea what’s going to land. People go crazy for one thing you really don’t expect. Like that “fuzzy walls” sequence in Get Him to the Greek, people freaked out over. There’s like, applause breaks in the audience at the test screening. Our friends that worked on the movie were like, “We didn’t know! We have to recut it now to add room so that people will be able to hear the important line that happens after that.” We would be so lucky to have that experience.
Have you found the test screening process is really helpful to you guys?
LORD: It’s great, actually. Because of all the improv in the movie, we’ll have so much more movie than can fit into a standard movie-length box. So it’s great to be able to test it out.
MILLER: We could have a box set.
LORD: Exactly. To be able to try different versions out to see audience reactions is a huge bonus. I feel like not doing it is crazy.
We talked to Andrew Stanton recently. He was talking about how animated films almost build in the idea of reshoots into the process so you can refine and change things.
MILLER: Yeah, because you’ll screen that animatic so many times. You’ll screen the animatic two years before you do the thing. You don’t have that luxury the same way in live action. Although Ezra [Swerdlow], our producer, has worked with Woody Allen many times, and he said that’s what Woody did. He’d shoot for a while, do reshoots while shooting—like throw the previous day’s scene out and shoot it again a couple of days later.
LORD: He had in his contract like, three weeks of reshoots.
MILLER: I don’t know what he does now, but that sounds really smart.
Is that test-screening process analogous?
MILLER: If you have enough footage it is. Like in the way that Judd, Stoller, Rodney and Jonah are making these movies, they’re generating a lot of material. You have, like, a four-hour movie. So if you have enough footage to monkey around with it, it really does operate that way. Lindsay, our friend, has been through a hundred of those experiences. I asked, “How often are they wrong? The general vibe of the audience, the notes that come out of it?” And she’s like, “Almost never.” I kinda believe her. More or less, they’re right. They’re as scientific as it can be. But talk to me after the first test screen, I probably won’t say that.
LORD: “They don’t know what they’re talking about!”
MILLER: “They don’t get it! It was too loud!”
In casting Channing, who has never done a comedy before—although we heard today that it turns out he’s really good at it—but what went into that thought process?
LORD: He’s amazing. We had heard that he was really funny. He had done a couple of random, weird little shorts we had seen on the internet.
MILLER: He did this thing with Charlyne Yi, where they did a scene from Dirty Dancing really, really straight. And the only thing that’s weird about it is that it’s Charlyne Yi, and he’s wearing a really ridiculous wig. But he plays it so straight! I was so impressed with him.
LORD: He did not ham it up.
MILLER: Yeah, he wasn’t trying to be funny. He wasn’t ego-driven like that. He was just trying to do a good job. And it worked out great.
LORD: We had heard the rumor that he was funny. Then we sat down for dinner with him to see if he would do the movie. After the dinner, we’re like, “This guy’s awesome! He’s so hilarious! If we could just translate our conversation at dinner onto the screen, we’ll be set.” People are going to be really surprised by him.
Whenever you mention high school, there’s automatically a sense of nostalgia for anyone. There’s also the nostalgia for the show that was on in the 80s. Are you playing that up at all, or is it something you’re trying to avoid?
MILLER: You mean nostalgia as a thematic thing in the movie?
In terms of, anyone who thinks of high school thinks of older songs. Will that be in the film?
LORD: There is an element in the film where the two characters knew each other in high school. Channing was more popular than Jonah’s character—probably very surprising for you to hear. And they had some issues between each other in high school. Now that they’re going back to high school for a second time, they’re unresolved. They have their own demons that they have to conquer from the first time. The theme of what life was like for them the first time and having to relive it again is very much running throughout the whole movie.
What can you tell us about the continuity from the old show to this show?
MILLER: That’s a good question.
LORD: It exists in the same universe.
MILLER: In 1987, there were cops that worked at Jump Street and went undercover in high school.
LORD: There’s a line in the movie that says something like, “We’re re-commissioning an old program from the 80s that was shut down.”
It hasn’t been going all this time?
LORD: No, they’re starting it back up.
MILLER: There was legal trouble. This is actually true if you look up the L.A. By Program upon which the original Jump Street show was based.
LORD: We talked to Steven Cannell.
MILLER: Yeah, it was a real thing. They did shut it down sometime in the aughts, I think, because of a lot of litigation and entrapment issues.
LORD: In the universe of this movie, they’re reopening the Jump Street division.
MILLER: There’s been a rightward swing in the political spectrum of Metropolitan City. And they’ve kick-started the program back up.
LORD: They dusted off the Jump Street chapel, and back in business.
Did you have a favorite episode of the show, or one that you thought would be perfect to apply to the movie?
MILLER: It never gets better than the pilot for me.
LORD: The pilot has some dated elements to it.
MILLER: Gangbangers from the Beat It video crash through a white person’s kitchen and hold them up by gunpoint. Happens to people all the time.
LORD: The guy’s scary because he’s dressed like Michael Jackson.
MILLER: It’s definitely shocking.
LORD: And Johnny Depp has a sax solo while thinking about his dead father.
MILLER: He’s really good at the saxophone. And that’s what cool people play. That was the political reality of 1987: saxophones made you cool. That’s real! That really happened in our society! It’s tremendous. Go back. Learn about history.
For more coverage from the set: