Interview: Chris Miller & Phil Lord (21 Jump Street)

Interview: Chris MillerPhil Lord (Directors of 21 Jump Street). By Simon Miraudo.

Chris Miller and Phil Lord are following in the footsteps of Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton (just barely) before them, leaving behind the world of animation and making their live-action feature debut. However, unlike Pixar alumni Bird and Stanton – who began the next stage of their careers with a blockbuster Mission: Impossible sequel and the CGI-heavy John Carter respectively – Miller and Lord have emerged from their cartoon-cocoons with a raunchy comedy based on a 25-year-old television series: 21 Jump Street.

Holster that cynicism though! The duo – whose previous credits include the family flick Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the controversial, criminally short-lived TV show Clone High – are intent on challenging everyone’s expectations that this might by yet another lazy reboot by delivering a fresh, frantic, foul-mouthed flick. It stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as immature cops tasked with posing as teenagers and unearthing a drug ring at a local high school. So begins a barrage of penis jokes, comic violence, and substance-induced freak-outs certain to assure any viewer that this is not their father’s 21 Jump Street.

Check out our review of 21 Jump Street here.

We spoke to Miller and Lord about using 21 Jump Street to pick up girls, eschewing reverence for the source material in favour of originality, and being mistaken for narcs at a high school prom.

(L-R) Brie Larson, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller.

SM: Transitioning from animation to live-action seems to be the in-thing at the moment. Is that a move you always wanted to make?

CM: We like both live-action and animation; they’re both really interesting ways to tell a story. It took us five years from beginning to end – when we started writing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and three-and-a-half years of directing it – so we thought it might be nice to do something a little bit shorter. We very much wanted to do something significantly different from our last movie because we like to stretch ourselves and challenge and surprise people.

SM: There’s an amount of control you have in animation that you just don’t have in live-action. Was it tough surrendering that control?

CM: In some cases, I would say definitely. In other ways, I think what we’re always trying to do in animation is capture spontaneous and true-feeling moments and make it feel not canned. What’s great about this movie is we knew we were working with Jonah, so we wanted to surround the cast with other people who were great improvisers. We could have a sort-of looseness to it that would allow for spontaneous moments to come true. At the same time, we were also – coming from our animation background – very meticulous and wanted to craft specific jokes that were only told in the way they were shot or edited. There’s a balance between lovingly crafted, well-thought out, meticulous kinds of jokes, and free, loose association, spontaneous moments, and that interplay was interesting to us.

SM: Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with the 21 Jump Street series?

PL: Yeah, Chris has a story about that.

CM: I used to watch it as a young teen when it was on, because the popular girls in my school watched it.

SM: Sure.

CM: So I also watched it in case they were talking about it in the hallway; that I could join into the conversation. That never happened.

PL: [Laughs]

CM: But I did have nostalgia for the show. We both watched the show and liked it a lot, and had a fond memory of it in our hearts. Even though the tone of the movie is very different, we both wanted to honour our memory of the show, so we tried to put in as many different details about the show as possible.

SM: Well, one of the running jokes in the film is that ‘teenagerdom’ has changed since the main characters went to high school, and that they’re struggling to blend in and be hip. Was that a concern for you? That the show was no longer ‘hip’?

PL: We are not particularly – if you’ve seen the film – reverent about anything, let alone the very franchise that we’re working on. That said, it was something that we cared a lot about, grew up with, we had nostalgia for; we cared a lot about Stephen Cannell who created the show, who we got a chance to meet and who we miss very much. Stephen embraced the idea of reinterpreting the original material, and that’s what got us excited about it. We could take this thing that we cared a lot about, give it an original spin, and that might be the saving grace of the movie; that you’re taking what seems like a cynical Hollywood thing and using it as a platform to make something as original as possible. That was always our take; that like, yeah, this is an existing property, but we want to give it a real voice. That’s why you have somebody like Jonah, or hire guys like us, or even hire the people that did other aspects of the filmmaking, like Mark Mothersbaugh doing the music; you hire those people because they’re going to give something distinctive to the film and not just going to recreate what’s pre-existing.

CM: We didn’t want it to be a spoof movie, and we didn’t want to set it in the 80s, with crazy hair and big shoulder pads and wacky outfits. It was important to us to do something reflecting what today’s teenagers are like. So we did a lot of research, and we went into a bunch of high schools, met with a bunch of kids at various different high schools. We even went to the Santa Monica prom, to see what proms are like. We tried to get into the after party but they wouldn’t let us in because they thought we were narcs. We tried to do a lot of research, and so the social structure in high school was based on real observations and things we noticed while talking to kids in high school today.

SM: Interesting. Jonah was attached, as a producer, from the very beginning. Was it tough finding an appropriate foil for him?

PL: [Laughs] In a sense, yes. There were a lot of comedians and people in comedy and comedic actors that come from a nerdier, hipster place. So when you have Jonah and you want to pair him with someone, it’s not as fun to pair him with guys that play low-status. So, Jonah mixed with Seth Rogen or something, it would feel like two of the same thing, almost. That’s why we looked for someone who would be just as funny as Jonah – which is very hard in the first place; you can count on two hands those guys – but then be an entirely different type of person, so that there was a real contrast in their characters and a real tension in their relationship. That’s a real hard sweet spot of casting someone who was a different type and was maybe really successful in high school. We were looking around and thought, ‘Which of these hunky action stars will be great actors and natural and funny and game and not so precious about their image that they wouldn’t be willing to take a risk?’ It was Jonah’s idea, firstly, to say, “What about Channing?” We had sometimes called the part ‘A Channing Tatum Type’, so why not go for Channing? We had enjoyed him in A Guide to Recognising Your Saints, and we had a soft spot for him in Step Up. When we were talking about it, we looked online and found this short that he did with Charlyne Yi where they recreated a scene from Dirty Dancing, and he was Patrick Swayze. It was hilarious, and he played it really straight which we were impressed with; how he played it natural and didn’t ham up or anything. We thought, “This guy is actually pretty funny.” We went out to dinner with him, and he was hilarious, and he joked around with us and was so natural and warm and easy-going. We were, “How come no-one has exploited this side of him yet? He’s hilarious.” And so we knew if we could just get on screen the way he actually is, he would do great.

SM: That Dirty Dancing video is really funny, so that’s a more than appropriate audition tape. Now, I’m a big fan of Clone High and I understand that you also worked on the first season of How I Met Your Mother. Would you return to television?

PL: Sure.

CM: Absolutely, I love television.

SM: Or, better yet, make a Clone High movie for us die-hards?

CM: [Laughs]

PL: Please, please. Free it from the dungeon at Viacom.

CM: Clone High was taken of the air very quickly because of a hunger strike in India, due to the Gandhi character. So all record of it disappeared over night in a sense. Thankfully, it had a small cult following, which was nice to see, but we loved making that show and it holds a very special place in our hearts. If someone could ever wrestle away the rights to it, we would do something in a heartbeat.

SM: That’s wonderful. Just to finish up, can you tell me what you’re working on next? I understand there are rumours of a sequel to 21 Jump Street, but obviously you’ve got to wait for that to come out before that eventuates.

CM: That is true. We have to wait and see if planet Earth likes it as much as we do.

SM: Have you floated any ideas for a sequel yet?

PL:  There’s been a few conversations, but it’s all very preliminary. There is a slight hint as to what the sequel could entail at the end of 21 Jump Street. Or, a very loud declaration, I guess. So there’s already a jumping off point at the end of our film, but as Chris said, a lot of things have to happen before we’re greenlit. Although, I guess if the studio really liked us all, they would green light and pay-or-play everybody before the film came out.

SM: That would be a wonderful Hollywood to work in, I imagine.

CM: [Laughs] That would.

PL: But you asked us what we’re working on. We’re doing the LEGO movie. We’re actually in our offices right now, writing away in pretty heavy pre-production on all that. We will be back-and-forth; it will be a couple of years before the LEGO movie comes out.

21 Jump Street arrives in Australian cinemas March 15, 2012. Check out our review.

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