Helming a big-screen version of an old TV series may not seem like the most auspicious beginning to a live-action filmmaking career, but Phil Lord and Chris Miller were determined to make a 21 Jump Street movie that was more than a pale imitation of the campy '80s cop series. They've had some success adapting unlikely source material before; their previous movie was the 2009 animated feature Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a clever take on the classic children's story that wasn't afraid to depart from the text when it served the film. And while 21 Jump Street has some subtle -- and not so subtle -- homages to the source material, it definitely stands apart as its own (very funny) movie. Lord and Miller spoke with us about their transition from animation to live action filmmaking, why 21 Jump Street had to be R-rated and what jokes eagle-eyed viewers should look for in the background.
TWoP: You guys have been fortunate to make this movie after a number of other films based on TV shows have come and gone. Were there any lessons you took from some of the previous successes and failures?
Chris Miller: We didn't really think about other successes and failures. The Brady Bunch Movie did a good job with it and obviously the Mission: Impossible series. We got lucky because we had a show that was pretty famous, but it wasn't so [generation] defining. Like, it would be hard to do a remake of The Cosby Show or Cheers or Seinfeld. We wanted the movie to be its own thing, but also let people know that we saw the show and loved it.
Phil Lord: But we were also initially afraid about being burdened with trying to find somebody who could be the next Johnny Depp or make having to make the movie as cool as that show came across in the '80s. So we were trying to avoid that. If this was a movie that had to be cool and sexy, I'm not sure we could have done it. And I'm not saying we're not cool and sexy! [Laughs] But I don't know that that's necessarily our superpower.
TWoP: So how did you ultimately hit on the right tone for the film?
Miller: We decided that it would be fun to do the movie in a grounded way, but at least give a little wink and nod to the audience. It's like, "We know, guys! We know this is something we've all seen before! But it's okay -- we're going to have fun with it." We also didn't want to get too meta about it and have the movie become one long inside joke. We wanted it to be a real movie with real characters that you care about. So we sort of landed on this tone where it was trying to be grounded as much as possible in the relationship between these guys and the stakes of the movie, and that would give us the ability to do some of the crazier stuff we planned to do.
Lord: If we had done a straight spoof, that's a lot of pressure to be funny all the time. Because when you do that, you throw the story and character stuff a little to the side and you just live on the jokes. And that's a little too much pressure for me, I'm a little too scared of that. So we may have chickened out on some stuff in that regard. But one of the things that happened on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was that it was hard to sit through until we really nailed the story. Once that happened, it gave us so much flexibility; that way, you don't have to be funny every second of the movie because you're sustaining people's interest in another way. It gives you a great spine to hang jokes on because viewers might not always be expecting them. They might actually get engaged with the story and then we can sucker punch them [with humor] when they're not looking and that is a much more confident place to come from as a director.
TWoP: In addition to all the funny stuff going on in the foreground, I spotted a bunch of great background jokes. You did a similar thing in Cloudy -- is that something that comes from your background in animation?
Lord: Yeah, you don't want to waste anything. In animation, you have to design every prop. Somebody has to ask you "What do the water bottles look like in this movie?" And you have to give it some thought. In a live-action movie, they don't really ask you; you just walk onto the set and it's all there. We had the expectation that we would be talking about all that stuff, so we actually prepared a little bit. Like, we actually made a whole book about Metropolitan City, where the series took place and we wanted to be in continuity.
Miller: Metropolitan City was a very generic city, so we were started thinking about the movie Repo Man, which has a lot of very generic brand products in it. We thought it would be funny if the whole city was a generic brand product and so that became our design aesthetic for the movie. For example, every sign in Metropolitan City is in Helvetica, the boring font. We shot in New Orleans and sometimes there'd be a billboard that said "Jazz it up with Cajun rice!" We took that stuff out and put up a bunch of generic stuff. We have a sign that just says "Billboard" and another that says, "New Movie 2: The Sequel." There's also a [visual joke] that's kind of out of focus, but it's for an ad for the fake restaurant Hunan Palace and the motto is "Smells like egg rolls."
Lord: There's a lot of little things like that in the movie and it comes from wanting to surprise yourself, because you see the movie so many goddamn times during the editing process that you want to smile again. So if you frame through the movie, you'll see a lot of silly stuff. And that approach extended to a lot of the secondary characters as well. We started to get really creative with who everyone was and what their storylines were before and after the events of the movie. In particular, we were really excited by Jonah's parents in the movie. We had this whole long scene of them in the car when they're smoking pot and talking about how proud they are of their son. We just tried to give every character their own moment to be funny.
TWoP: Did you always set out to make an R-rated comedy?
Miller: That was the goal. It was us wanting to do something as opposite from our previous movie as possible to change people's expectations.
Lord: Also, you don't want to watch Jonah and Channing go back to high school and slightly misbehave. We were honestly worried about an X-rating for a little while there. You can't get an X-rating for language, it turns out, though, so we were in okay shape.
Miller: And Jonah [Hill] was obviously on the same page with us in wanting the movie to be R-rated. The script he and his co-writer had come up with was very much an R-rated movie. And part of convincing Channing [Tatum] to do it was that it would be R-rated. There was a moment where people started saying "Maybe it could be PG-13," but we all locked hands and said no.
Lord: We were like "It can't be PG-13!" You'd have to change the whole story -- you can't have kids smoking or drinking or doing drugs or any of that stuff.
TWoP: You guys are the latest animation directors to make the leap to live action, following in the footsteps of Tim Burton, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton. This movie seems much closer in spirit to Tim Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure than Stanton's John Carter, of course.
Miller: I haven't seen John Carter yet, but I thought Bird's Mission: Impossible was really fun and that crazy Dubai sequence was one of the best action sequences I've seen in a long, long time.
Lord: It's the planning and the inventiveness and the whimsy of that movie that makes it work, the willingness to be funny and the courage to be funny in a cool Tom Cruise movie was really exciting. But in terms of transitioning from animation to live action, I would say it's mostly the same skill set. When we're at our best on an animated movie, we're improvising with the storyboard artists, the voice actors, the lighting guys and the rest of the crew. It's very similar to live action, just a lot slower.
Miller: The mistake you could make as an animation director coming to live action is trying to control everything because you can. With Cloudy, as soon as we opened things up and let people contribute their ideas, we got a lot more spontaneity out of the movie and we did that again here. The whole apparatus of live-action filmmaking is to capture whatever spontaneous moments might happen. Maybe you'll get 2 or 3 a day and that's a great day. And you pray that when you string all those together it'll be long enough to release in theaters.
Lord: Pee Wee's Big Adventure is one of our favorite movies and it's one that obviously brings an animator's sensibility to the filmmaking. Our editor on this movie has worked with Burton before and he told us that Burton boards movies out and doesn't shoot a lot of coverage. Whereas we shoot a lot of coverage! We're too chicken. That's the theme of this interview: we are pussies.
TWoP: Except when it comes to sticking up for your R-rating.
Lord: Yes, except for that! [Laughs]
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