Sunny skies for 'Cloudy' guys

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A little luck has always been part of Hollywood's recipe for success.

Consider: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, co-writer/directors of Sony's 3D animated comedy "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," opening Friday and tracking impressively.

The guys met at Dartmouth in the late '90s and started making animated student films together.

Then they got lucky.

The Dartmouth alumni magazine ran an article about Miller editing the campus humor magazine and doing a daily comic strip. But there also were a few exaggerations -- like Miller doing "an internship at ILM while they were working on the new 'Star Wars' rereleases" and how he'd designed dinosaurs for them.

"There were no dinosaurs, and I didn't actually do that," he told me. "But that article made its way into Michael Eisner's hands because one of his sons, whom we didn't know, had gone to Dartmouth."

Eisner, Disney's chairman-CEO then, passed the article along and "by the time someone from Disney television animation called me in my dorm room it was like, 'These are Eisner's guys.' "

Disney wanted to fly Miller out for a meeting, but he declined.

Miller (then): "Ah, I've got midterms. I'm really busy."

Miller (looking back): "Because I'm a knucklehead."

Instead, he sent Disney his and Lord's student films and said after graduating they planned to visit Los Angeles. "They liked them and gave us a development deal," he said. That's how they learned to write and work together as a team.

Dissolve to 12 years ago when they knew little or nothing about Hollywood dealmaking.

Lord (joking): "A development deal? That sounds great. What's a development deal?"

They went on to make "some Saturday morning shows that never really went anywhere," Lord said. A deal followed at Touchstone Television with Steve McPherson "who really liked the stuff we were doing" and is now president of ABC Entertainment Group.

Then they developed the animated series "Clone High," which wound up on MTV, and wrote and produced a bunch of sitcoms and pilots that didn't work out.

"And now here we are making a crazy, giant Hollywood movie," Miller observed.

A little more good luck helped. "Sony had just started an animation division and they liked 'Clone High' and invited us to come in and talk about a couple of projects," Lord recalled.

They weren't interested in the project Sony had in mind, but they knew the studio also owned the rights to "Cloudy," their favorite book as kids.

"We got extra excited about it and grabbed them by the lapels and made them let us make it," Miller exaggerates.

It's a highly visual story about an inventor who figures out how to turn water into food after his town's sardine cannery closes and there's only leftover sardines to eat. Picture meatballs and other tasty treats falling like rain from the sky.

"It's a no-brainer to make into a film," Lord acknowledged.

Uniqueness counts, added Miller: "You want to make sure you're showing the audience a world they've never been to before and they're experiencing something that doesn't seem like, 'Oh, this is another one of those type of movies.' "

Lord (smiling): "There are very few food-based, disaster animated comedy action movies in the marketplace."

It was about 5 1/2 years ago, Miller noted, that they pitched Sony their take on the material: "In this book there's giant pickles smashing into buildings. A giant pancake covers up the school. This should be treated like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, but silly."

Lord (clarifying): "Silly on purpose."

When Sony gave them a green light, they left their day jobs as co-executive producers on the series "How I Met Your Mother," where they'd been very happy.

"You left every day at 6. It was well-run," Lord recalled.

"We knew what we were doing there," Miller pointed out. "We were actually for once in our career not in over our heads."

On the other hand, he concluded, "We're not comfortable until we are in over our heads! So let's go make a giant studio picture in 3D."

Lord (playing Sony): "Do you guys know how to do that?"

Miller (replying): "No we don't. We'll figure it out as we go."

As for Sony saying yes, Lord jokes, "I don't know that that speaks to their confidence in us or their gross negligence in executing their jobs!"

More likely, Miller explained, "What they knew is that they liked the tone of the script we had written. It's hard to execute this sort of cheeky, envelope-pushing style comedy in a family film. So they thought, 'Well, let's give these young chaps a shot.' And we're very thankful that they did."
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