The Widening Web of Phil Lord and Chris Miller
The Oscar-winning duo on the intense pressure of the long-awaited ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’, navigating the writers strike as multihyphenates, and their "filthy" talking dog movie 'Strays': "Historically, we have had the advantage of low expectations."
It’s 12:30 in the morning, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller are sure that something is wrong.
They are just two and a half weeks out from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse hitting theaters, and they’re holed up on a mixing stage at Sony Pictures Animation in Culver City.
They are nearing the end of the five-year marathon of making this follow-up to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and now, after so many challenges — six different animation styles, years of rewrites, with every change creating ripple effects that can mean weeks of more work for animators — it’s the sound of a watch that is bugging them.
A character presses a button on the watch and hears an error sound — a very minor moment in the hugely complex world of the Spider-Verse, but Lord and Miller can’t move past it. They try version after version, from serious to comical. Finally, they land on a sound that they can’t describe, but they both feel it — it works. “There are a lot of silly things that matter,” Lord, 47, says of the late nights they’ve been pulling.
The obsessive attention to detail is par for the course for the duo, who collaborators say are harder on their projects than the studio executives they work for. But even by their standards, the pressure on Across the Spider-Verse is immense.
Its 2018 predecessor won the Oscar for best animated feature and grossed $375.5 million globally. Centering on Afro-Latino teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), it capped a year that began with Marvel Studios’ Black Panther and ushered in a new era of superhero inclusion onscreen. It also brought about the multiverse trend years before features such as Spider-Man: No Way Home, Everything Everywhere All at Once and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. James Gunn, whose DC Studios will debut the multiverse-spanning The Flash two weeks after Across the Spider-Verse opens, recently named the first Spider-Verse his favorite superhero movie ever.
“Historically we have had the advantage of low expectations,” says Miller of their unexpected hits like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie. “Then it was, ‘Actually, it was good.’ The word ‘actually’ is in a lot of reviews of things we do.” But they know that with Across the Spider-Verse, which they produced and wrote, “the expectation is high,” says Miller. “We have to exceed that.”
Across the Spider-Verse once again voice stars Moore as Miles, the Brooklyn teen Spider-Man who in this installment travels to different universes to team up with various Spider-heroes. Hailee Steinfeld returns as Spider-Gwen, while new voices include Issa Rae as Spider-Woman and Daniel Kaluuya as Spider-Punk, a British take on the hero. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson direct, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings scribe Dave Callaham writing alongside Lord and Miller. (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman directed the first Spider-Verse.)
Sony has bet big on the movie. The first installment cost around $90 million; the new film is $100 million, before marketing costs.
Sony has released a trilogy of ever more popular live-action Spider-Man films from 2017 to 2021, and several modestly budgeted (by comic book movie standards) spinoffs such as Venom and Morbius that have been fun for audiences and the studio’s coffers but weren’t a smash with critics.
Five years is a long time for any studio to wait for a sequel to a hit movie, and Lord and Miller pushed back the Across the Spider-Verse release date eight months, from October 2022 to June 2 of this year, without any grumbling on the studio’s part.
Sony film chairman Tom Rothman sees Spider-Verse movies as something distinct — a chance at Oscar glory and deeper artistic achievement. (And, of course, the money: The feature is tracking for a huge $70 million to $80 million opening, according to the most recent data, a big uptick from the original, which opened to $35.3 million.)
“This is not a commodity. It is entirely particular, entirely unique,” says Rothman of not pressuring Lord and Miller on Spider-Verse’s release schedule. “It doesn’t do any good to say, ‘Eh, here’s the date.’ That’s not going to work. And you do that because you’re working with two of the most exceptional filmmakers of their generation.”
Lord and Miller, too, make the affirmative case to their studio partners that being precious about the work is good for business.
“It’s actually a commercial imperative, because if the brand is excellence, if you deliver something less than that, then the audience will know it and you would’ve thrown your money away,” says Lord.
Sony has long controlled the film rights to Spider-Man and produced a trilogy of successful films starring Tobey Maguire in the 2000s. Amid the fallout of the 2014 Sony hack and the lukewarm response to a pair of films starring Andrew Garfield, the studio made a deal with Marvel Studios in 2015 to share custody of the character. It worked, with the Tom Holland-led trilogy becoming by far the biggest Spider-Man films of all time. Yet they also have an asterisk on them for Sony: Marvel’s creative chief, Kevin Feige, takes some credit. Spider-Verse, on the other hand, is wholly Sony’s, a chance to show it knows what it’s doing with the character and can make a movie Marvel Studios can be envious of.
Sony is also home to their company Lord Miller’s TV deal, with their overall film deal at Universal. All told, the prolific duo will release five projects in 2023: Spider-Verse, Universal’s Cocaine Bear ($87.5 million globally), the studio’s raunchy talking-dog comedy Strays (due out Aug. 18), and second seasons of HBO Max’s Clone High (it debuted May 23) and Apple TV+ murder-mystery The Afterparty (July 12).
At their company, they have a few criteria for taking on a project. Is it with a creative partner they believe in? Does it feel like something that people have never seen before? “Is this a ‘hell yeah’ project? Because if it isn’t, we have enough things to do,” says Miller.
As soon as they finish postproduction on Spider-Verse, the writers strike will impose a break on their output and offer some respite. “It’ll be the first time we haven’t been in production for 13 years,” says Lord. (Animation is not covered under the WGA, which is why work on Spider-Verse continues, though it has been postproduction, not writing.) Their writers rooms shut down for a third season of The Afterparty as well as Amazon’s live-action Spider-Verse TV shows (Silk and another based on the Spider-Man Noir character). Development has paused on a number of features, too. Miller, a married father of two, plans to take his family on their first vacation in a few years, and then the two say they will be on the picket lines.
As writer-directors, they have been vocal about the need for the Directors Guild to support the Writers Guild. They see common ground, with existential issues such as AI threatening professionals in both guilds.
“One of the reasons we’re out pushing so hard on these projects is it’s important for people to see how good things can be when they’re not written by a computer,” says Lord.
In a follow-up exchange, they further addressed working amid the strike, noting in a joint statement, “We’re of the opinion that when distinctively written and directed movies and TV shows succeed it helps filmmakers make the case for the commercial value of writing and directing. We want to support the finished work, to make the case to the powers that be for the value of well-written entertainment. It is good for the WGA if finished written work succeeds.”
Lord and Miller met at Dartmouth in the mid-’90s, and though they weren’t film majors, they teamed on a number of crude animated shorts made with just a camera, colored pencils and pads of paper. Miller also drew a student newspaper strip called Sleazy the Wonder Squirrel, about a chain-smoking talk show host. During their senior year, future CNN anchor Jake Tapper wrote an article about Miller for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, which landed in the hands of then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, whose son had graduated a few years earlier. Eisner passed down word that someone at Disney should take a look at Miller, who received a call out of the blue about coming in for a meeting. He declined to fly out to Los Angeles because he had midterms.
But a few months later, after graduation, he asked Disney if he could come in and bring his friend. (The guys theorize that Eisner had only a vague interest in them, but as they were passed down the chain of command, lower-level execs assumed the CEO was hell-bent to make something happen with them.) He and Lord flew out to L.A. and landed a low-level development deal at Disney, creating kids’ content that bore no fruit but gave them two years of pay as they played around with ideas.
Then came Clone High, the subversive animated series created with Scrubs‘ Bill Lawrence for MTV. The series centered on a group of teenage clones of great people in history — Abraham Lincoln, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc — attending the same high school.
The show was formative, they say — where they learned to really create things at a professional level. But it also nearly wrecked their careers. In January 2003, their depiction of clone Gandhi sparked an outcry (and a hunger strike) in India. Indian politicians threatened to pull Viacom’s broadcast license, so MTV canceled the show. For the pair, it felt like everything was over. Recalls Lord: “I had to go to a psychiatrist explaining, ‘I haven’t slept in seven days.’ “
Clone High is now back (though Gandhi is not), with season two premiering May 23 on Max. The series picks up 20 years later, with the original teen clones having been frozen for decades and plopped back at Clone High alongside a new batch of historical clones. True to Lord and Miller’s modus operandi, their excitement for the show is tempered with anxiety over living up to the original. “It’s still scary,” says Lord.
After Clone High’s cancellation, they landed a writing job on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother and then the break that would propel their career: writing the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs movie for Sony.
Though the studio would become their longtime home, they didn’t have the most auspicious start. After a year writing, they’d crafted a lead character who was, according to their own account, unlikable and a script with many plot holes — and so they were replaced. But a few years later, Sony still hadn’t cracked the movie and felt that their original script showed enough promise to give them another go. They agreed, but only if they could direct.
Amy Pascal was running Sony at the time and was tough on them. “They were talented, but they really didn’t know what they were doing,” says Pascal, who now shares a bungalow office at Universal with the pair she affectionately calls “my boys.”
“She stormed out of a meeting that we had on Cloudy,” recalls Lord. “We had gotten a lot of conflicting notes, and I said, ‘What do you want?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘I want a story.’ She slammed the table and walked out. And she was dead right.”
They reworked the movie, focusing less on jokes and more on character and heart, and it earned $243 million globally.
A few years (and a couple of Jump Street movies) later, Pascal no longer was studio boss but was still guiding Spider-Man. She asked Lord and Miller if they’d be interested in tackling an animated feature. “Sometimes, you know when people are winners,” says Pascal of her big early bets on the duo. “People walk into a room and you go, ‘Oh, that person is going to be something.’ You know it from their energy.”
Despite the stress and the plates they have spinning, the duo seems calm to outside observers. Rothman recalls trekking to Sony Pictures Animation to review footage with Lord and Miller, with the meeting happening during the 2022 NCAA tournament. Lord was decked out in University of Miami gear (he grew up there), and seemed to be paying more attention to the game than the task at hand. So, Rothman and the rest stopped to watch with him.
Miami won with a half-court buzzer-beater. “I said, ‘Perfect. Good omen for the movie,” recalls Rothman
In the past decade, as the pair’s profile has grown, the landscape for comedy features has diminished, moving away from theatrical and more into streaming. Those that do hit theaters often struggle to find an audience. Universal bombed with the much-anticipated Bros in September, and the studio moved an untitled comedy from SNL trio Please Don’t Destroy to streaming earlier in May.
In this distressed landscape, Lord and Miller are still able to get projects into theaters. In fact, the release date once held by the Please Don’t Destroy film was taken by Strays, a risky live-action/animation hybrid starring Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx as talking dogs, with Will Forte as Doug, a lousy dog owner. “It’s very filthy — the dogs say so many four-letter words. And it is maybe the sweetest film I’ve ever been a part of,” says Lord.
Sweetness is something Lord and Miller say the best R-rated comedies achieve, citing Superbad and Animal House. “We used to worry that we were being soft. And now I see it as quite radical to try to represent relationships that work,” says Lord. “A common refrain of ours is it’s not spectacular to watch people argue. That’s something we all experience all the time. What’s spectacular is watching people get along.”
That’s not to say Strays is without edge. When Lord and Miller agreed to sign on to the project, a nonnegotiable point for them was keeping an extreme act of violence at the end of the script (written by American Vandal co-creator Dan Perrault).
“We were like, ‘If we do this, this violent act must happen, and it must make the audience stand up and cheer when it does,’ ” says Lord. “And at the first test screening, they did.”
Likewise, no comp for Universal’s Cocaine Bear, directed by Elizabeth Banks and telling the (somewhat)-inspired-by-a-true-story story of a cocaine-fueled bear rampage in the 1980s, Lord Miller president Aditya Sood notes that when pitching a project from the guys behind 21 Jump Street, “All of a sudden, you can do the math and understand it’s not just a joke. There is something that is of substance there.”
Despite their output as writers and producers, Lord and Miller haven’t co-directed a movie since 2014 (Miller directed the series The Afterparty solo) — though they’ve tried. In 2017, they spent months on the U.K. set of Lucasfilm’s Solo: A Star Wars Story and were fired over creative clashes with Lucasfilm (Ron Howard ultimately earned directing credit). At the time, THR reported that their loose, improvisational style did not jibe with Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy.
The pair have rarely publicly spoken about Solo, outside of general expressions of gratitude to the cast and crew, but actors who work with them confirm that improvisation is part of their process. “You try one [take] crying, you try one angry, you try one yelling,” says Ben Schwartz, who starred in season one of The Afterparty, of filming a grueling moment on the show. “I will trust that they will find the version that will make the show the best.”
One reason Lord and Miller say they like animation so much is because you can write the movie up until you turn it in and rework a scene over and over — without expensive reshoots. (“You have to basically rip the movies away from them because they’d just keep redoing them long after they’re in the movie theater if they could,” says Pascal.)
Now, for the first time since Solo, they will co-direct a live-action movie together, heading to the U.K. early next year to shoot Project Hail Mary. The adaptation of The Martian author Andy Weir’s 2021 novel stars Ryan Gosling and tells the story of a lone astronaut who travels to another star on a mission to save Earth.
“The [Solo] experience clarified what was important to us,” Lord says. “In the case of Hail Mary, it’s kind of radically benevolent. And it’s going to be hard.” Much of the Drew Goddard-penned movie features Gosling’s character, Ryland Grace, alone on a spaceship with no one to talk to. But the key emotional relationship in the film will be between Ryland and an alien, one much easier to describe in a novel than depict onscreen. He speaks through musical tones, not language — and won’t have a cute cuddly face (no Baby Yoda toys to sell on this one).
“Having one of your main characters have no face and speak through music is a challenge that’s crazy enough that we would want to take it on,” says Miller. But they’re used to translating challenging concepts for audiences.
“When we were doing Spider-Verse the first time, there was a lot of nervousness at the studio that people wouldn’t understand the concept and that it would be too confusing. And our attitude was, ‘Audiences are smarter than you think,’ ” notes Miller.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, the final installment of the trilogy, is on the calendar for March 29, 2024, though it’s anyone’s guess if that will stick. They’ve got the beginning and end figured out pretty well, but “the middle is still a little squishy,” says Miller.
But after years of work, they are finally feeling good about the current one. On the first Lego Movie and the first Spider-Verse film, there was a moment during the mix that both believed they had something special. Says Miller: “I’ve just had that feeling recently on Across the Spider-Verse, so I hope that I’m right again.”
The Lord-Miller Verse
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
The duo were fired and then rehired on the animated film that launched their movie career. Then-Sony boss Amy Pascal challenged them to stop focusing on the jokes and home in on the characters and the heart. The lesson worked, with the film earning $243 million globally.
21 Jump Street (2012)
Their pitch for the Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill reboot of the 1980s TV show was simple: “What if it was good?” recalls Lord. The strong reaction and $201.5 million haul sparked a 2014 sequel and solidified the duo as rare filmmakers who could straddle live-action and animation.
The Lego Movie (2014)
Lord and Miller had plenty of fears about the film starring Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks. “People are going to think this is just a toy commercial,” Miller recalls. Instead, it became their biggest hit to date, earning $468 million globally and launching a sequel and multiple spinoffs.
The Last Man on Earth (2015-18)
Lord and Miller asked Clone High star Will Forte if he had ideas for a show, and the trio developed a pilot that earned Forte a writing Emmy nom and the duo directing noms. “Ultimately it became Will’s vision,” says Miller of working with Forte, who starred on four seasons for Fox.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
The groundbreaking film earned a best animated feature Oscar and pioneered new animation styles. It earned $375 million globally and, in addition to this year’s sequel, has multiple film and TV spinoffs in the works, including Amazon’s Silk.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)
The pair produced alongside director Michael Rianda, who took a personal family story and put it against the backdrop of the robot apocalypse. The film, starring Abbi Jacobson, dropped on Netflix amid the pandemic and was Oscar-nominated for best animated feature.
Cocaine Bear (2023)
The title alone was among the film’s most powerful marketing tools on the (somewhat) true ’80s-set story about a bear who goes on a rampage after ingesting cocaine. The duo produced for director Elizabeth Banks, with the feature bringing in $87.5 million globally.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.