Phil Lord and Chris Miller interview: 21 Jump Street, Cloudy, and testicles

The co-directors of 21 Jump Street chat to us about the film, Bob The Musical, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, and the human bladder…

Have you seen Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs? You really should. It’s an utterly charming, bright, vibrant animated movie, with one of the finest voice casts assembled in recent times. Its directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, may not have, off the back of that, turned out to be obvious choices to helm the movie take on the old Johnny Depp TV show, 21 Jump Street. It turns out, though, that they were inspired choices.

As the film arrives in cinemas, they spared us a bit of time for a natter about it…I went into 21 Jump Street as a bit of a remake cynic, and I get the impression, given some of the things you did in the film, that you two are, too. I had a blast with the film, as it turned out, but I’m curious how you went about attacking the general feeling towards doing a remake at the moment?

Phil: Our approach to this was, what if we made it good? And we thought that it could work if we took it seriously, and made the character story good, and try to make it work emotionally? Then we could take the rest of it completely not seriously, and have a lot of fun with the concept. But still do something that’s an enjoyable experience, where you think the filmmakers though this was kind of a crazy idea too, but they took it seriously enough and did a good job.Ice Cube’s monologue near the start of the film felt like a mission statement of sorts, where he’s raging about resurrecting things from the past. Was that your addition?

Chris: We definitely had our own amount of healthy scepticism about remakes in general going into it, as I think everyone should. But we felt that we didn’t want it to be like a spoof, and we didn’t want to just be serious, because we felt like we weren’t going to compete that way. We chose a tone where we decided to let the audience know that we knew. They knew and we knew that doing a remake isn’t something that should be approached without scepticism, but it’s okay, relax, have a good time, it’ll be alright.

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Presumably, when people talk to you about taking on 21 Jump Street after making Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, they tend to forget that you have to talk to human beings when directing an animated movie too…

[Laughs] Yeah!

Do you share the frustration, then, that animation is pigeon-holed as a genre in its own right?

Chris: Yeah. Obviously we think that animation is a medium, and not a genre. It’s just a different way to tell stories. When we were making it, we were trying to make something that made ourselves laugh, and felt right to us, with a good level of bad language, too! But there were 500 humans that worked on Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.

Phil: I didn’t talk to any of them personally though, obviously. I talked to them exclusively over speakerphone and email!

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There is a difference, inevitably, in moving to a live action set. Did it give you more space to improvise? How much more spontaneous was the process on the set?

Phil: It’s actually kind of the same as it is in animation. You just try and be as prepared as possible, then as loose as possible on the day as you can. It’s not so different. Jonah [Hill] is obviously an incredible improviser. Channing [Tatum] is an incredible improviser. And all the way down the line, you want to create an environment where people can feel free to go off. You almost invariably get a better result.

It was the same way with our animators on Cloudy. Very early on when the animation was reviewed, someone pitched an extra version of a shot as a joke. And then, our response was great, let’s put that in the movie, that’s hilarious. I think the minute everybody realised that we were going to try to put that stuff in the film, it opened the floodgates. Then people started bringing their creativity to the project.

My one Cloudy question, as you’ve brought it up! Disney’s Glen Keane once said that if you’re going to make a mistake with animation, don’t make it in the eyes.

I was struck, in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, with the character of Tim Lockwood, whose eyes are covered for all but the whole film. That seems to go against the rules as such of animation, that you have to hook us through the eyes. Yet Tim was such a beguiling and compelling character. What was your thinking?

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Chris: The executives were very sceptical about it as well, for the very reason that you brought up. But when we were designing the characters, we thought a lot of The Muppets. And how appealing they are. There are a number of Muppets who don’t have eyes at all: the Swedish Chef, Bunsen. Yet they are able to get very different performances from them, and people still warm to the character.

We just thought we should never see Tim’s eyes, but we promised the executives when making the film that if we couldn’t get a proper expression, there would be actual eyes underneath his eyebrows.

Phil: We did it both ways, and they never complained during dailies, when we didn’t show his eyes. Everything had to go through the gauntlet. And then when the time came that you got to see them, it became a funny joke.

Chris: I think the reason why there is that conventional wisdom that you need to see characters through the eyes comes from the reason why animation is so compelling, I think. Which is, as a human being, you are conditioned to see subtle changes in an expression of another person. In animation, you reduce the number of dimensions of movement, but that has the effect of exaggerating it.

A lot of times, you increase the size of key indicators, the size of the mouth, eyebrows. Mostly, by picking out most of the other mushy stuff, you really accentuate those expressions. It’s not that different with an eyebrow and a mouth than it is with eyebrows, eyes and a mouth. You still get that heightened simulation of a facial expression. In this case, it worked to the benefit of the characterisation.

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Back to your new film, then. Are we going to get a longer version of the Peter Pan production from 21 Jump Street when we get to the DVD release?

Phil: There will be a lot of scenes on the DVD. I think we have 21 [laughs]. We have a lot of material that is very funny, but didn’t make it in the movie for pacing reasons.

You talk about pacing. One thing that struck me about 21 Jump Street was your aggressive editing of the film, right down to the way it – and this isn’t spoiling anything – very suddenly stops. Was that a day one ethos, to keep it so fast and so tight?

Chris: It definitely felt like we didn’t want the film to be over two hours long. With comedies, often shorter is better. You don’t want to outstay your welcome. We have a strong belief that you should be wanting more, rather than wanting to leave! [laughs]

Phil: Our dream, probably, was to make a 90 minute movie. And we didn’t quite get there. It was the action stuff sometimes, it slows it down. So I think from our point of view, it’s too long! I don’t know where that comes from, probably a fear-based impulse. Anytime that the audience isn’t laughing or enjoying something… someone put it that you have to imagine that you’re hanging from your balls! And you just don’t want to do that for very long.

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Are you method directors, then, who hang yourselves by your testicles while you make the film?

Chris: [Laughs] Yeah, then they yell “Cut, cut!”

Our first assembly of the movie was about three hours long. So it took a lot of effort to get it down. We didn’t even watch that cut from start to finish, we just started cutting it down. We did it act by act, to get it to a manageable size. The human bladder can only do its job for so long!

Jonah Hill has obviously come out and said that he’s started working on a follow-up to 21 Jump Street. Does that hold much appeal to you, or would you rather step back, and perhaps put a producer hat on for the sequel?

Chris: It’s really early, still, and we have to see how Planet Earth responds to the movie. And if they like, and we hope they do, there will actually be a sequel. We had a great time making this one.

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You’re working on a Lego movie now. You know that if that works, there’s a bunch of us waiting for someone to take Lego Batman, Lego Star Wars, and turn those into films too. Is that your future job?

Chris: [Laughs] Well, y’know…!

Your immediate priority is clearly the Lego film, and you’re overseeing Cloudy 2. Have you got a project or two in the cooker beyond those that you can talk about?

Phil: Besides the Lego movie, that we’re in the midst of over at Warner Bros, and Cloudy 2, that we’re producing for Sony, we’re developing called Bob The Musical over at Disney. It’s a live action musical, and that is likely to have a lot fewer dirty words in it! But I like that. I think it’s punk rock to go back and forth between PG-rated and R…!

Phil and Chris, thank you very much!

21 Jump Street is out today.

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