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This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Having met as freshmen at Dartmouth College, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller headed to Hollywood in 1997, taking out a six-month lease on a Park La Brea apartment with vague ambitions of making it in animation. Nothing came of a development deal to dream up Saturday morning ideas for Disney, but they soon created 13 episodes of MTV’s animated Clone High and established themselves as sitcom writers/ directors before going on to write and direct their first animated feature, 2009’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, at Sony.
The studio then allowed Lord and Miller to become the rare animation directors to cross over to live action with 2012’s 21 Jump Street, which surprised with strong reviews and $200 million in worldwide grosses. Now, months after their The Lego Movie created a franchise for Warner Bros. with $462 million worldwide, Lord and Miller are back June 13 with 22 Jump Street, again starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.
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Now, having both worked on the first season of How I Met Your Mother and directed the pilot for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they are putting their TV experience to use in a new Will Forte comedy at Fox. Both 38, Miller lives in Cheviot Hills with wife Robyn Murgio and their two young children, while Lord, who resides in Venice, is in a long-term relationship with jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth. They invited THR to their busy office on the Fox lot, where they maintain a deal with 20th Television, to talk Lego spinoffs, whether raunchy movies play a role in violent shootings and how they manage to take on more and more jobs. Laughs Miller, “We haven’t had time off yet, but some day.”
Right at the top of 22 Jump Street, Nick Offerman’s character announces your intention to repeat lots of bits from 21 Jump Street. Why?
MILLER It’s basically a comment on how all the forces were driving it toward, “Just do the thing you did last time.” And we were like, “We don’t want to do the thing we did last time. We want to do something different.”
LORD Then you start writing the story, and you realize that some of those choices are just the best choices. And there’s a reason why we made them in the first movie. So we started thinking of the movie as a companion piece to the first movie and accepted that the first movie was going to be part of the second. You had to write to that. Once we made that discovery, the rest of the movie came a little easier.
Jonah Hill and screenwriter Michael Bacall developed 21 Jump Street, and then you came on and Channing Tatum was cast. Did the script change much with the addition of Tatum?
LORD When Channing came on, we tried to take as much from his life and put it into the movie as we could — but we did the same thing for Jonah.
MILLER Channing had a reading disability, so he had trouble focusing on tests, so we put a thing about that in the movie. And the scene where they roll on the hood of the cars and Jonah gets hit, he was talking about how he and his buddies would practice stunts on cars. Jonah was involved from an earlier stage and so a lot of his life experiences were already put into the movie, but throughout, we kept hearing stories. Jonah’s mom breaking up a party with a mini baseball bat, we thought, “Oh, that’s great,” so we put that in there. And the photographs of him as a child that his mom keeps in his house. We did the same thing on 22 where a lot of Jonah’s story was about him. When we were developing the story, we would sit down with him and talk about what it would feel like to be 30 and feeling insecure. And Channing had an experience where he almost got a chance to play college football but didn’t, and so this was sort of a wish fulfillment for him. We found that the more you can tailor a movie to the people, the more funny and true stuff you’re going get out of them.
Given The Lego Movie‘s success, are you now the keepers of the Lego franchise?
LORD We are working with [producers] Dan [Lin] and Roy [Lee] and Warners on developing more installments of the franchise and a few standalone offshoots. The Ninjago movie is slated already for 2016.
Unlike Transformers, which already had developed a mythology, you were working with a blank slate on Lego. What was your starting point?
MILLER It was the exact opposite of Transformers. Transformers had all of this IP and all of this storytelling, but they didn’t have a very strong position in the marketplace. Lego’s one of the fastest-growing and biggest toy brands in the world.
LORD We got inspired by the great films that people make online, little stop-motion movies they make in their basement. We thought, “What a crazy thing to make. There’s this manufactured, centrally planned toy that creates all of this spontaneous, democratic, populous creativity.” The tension between somebody dictating how you’re supposed to build the thing and these fans making their own thing seemed like a great idea for a movie about creativity. Lego just trusted us and said, “Well, please make sure there are cool vehicles in the movie so we can make toys.”
MILLER There was a Clockwork Orange joke we had to take out where Emmet was being re-educated because he had seen too much and it was crazy. They were like, “I don’t know if this is the most appropriate reference.”
Warners and Lucasfilm have licensing deals with Lego, but did you have to get separate permissions to use Batman and Han Solo in the movie?
MILLER The DC Comics characters were the easiest ones. We had to talk to Zack Snyder’s company and make sure there was no overlap with our Superman and his Man of Steel. And then we went to Lucasfilm and pitched a potential Star Wars bit. Luckily, all these companies that have partnered with Lego have had really good experiences and wanted to say yes on some level.
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LORD And Lucasfilm has a philosophy of, “We will support the exploration of these characters in pop culture.”
How far along is a Lego Movie sequel?
LORD Still in the stage where we’re sitting around talking about things and trying to figure out how to craft a story.
MILLER We have a lot of themes and some ideas that we like.
LORD One of the problems we made for ourselves is the brand of the movie is originality. So it’s really hard to sequelize that.
After the recent Santa Barbara shooting, critic Anne Hornaday slammed Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen for fueling fantasies in which the schlubby guy gets the girl. That happens to Jonah Hill in the Jump Street films.
LORD That’s poor science. Especially when we should be thinking, as a society, about what can we really do to help with mental illness and gun control? Pinning it on [Neighbors director] Nick Stoller‘s incredibly warm and human movie is just a bad observation.
MILLER The idea that movies glamorize life and that people’s expectations aren’t ever going to meet — that is true of all movies and all media and all music and everything. The idea that a movie should be held responsible for a mentally ill person …
LORD You would have to take down all the cave paintings.
MILLER There are going to be things that happen in movies that won’t happen in real life, and unfortunately that’s always going to be the case.
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LORD There is always going to be people that are really sick, and we have to find ways to take care of people that are really sick.
But female critics do often say that as women, they feel ignored by a male-dominated culture.
LORD 22 Jump Street actually tested 10 points higher with women than with men.
MILLER And the big reason with that is that it’s about a relationship. It’s not a traditional relationship, but it’s about a partnership and feeling hurt, and we play a lot off that in the movie. It’s not just dumb jokes and things explode.
LORD The movie is a romantic comedy about those two guys and the other woman in this case is [another guy] Wyatt Russell, who gets in the way of them. And obviously, the fact it stars Channing Tatum doesn’t hurt. One of the things that is true in the marketplace is that when you can get a movie that plays well to men and women, especially a comedy — Bridesmaids for example, or Neighbors — you capture a lot of heat.
So, with so much going on in movies, why did you sign a TV deal with 20th TV?
MILLER Because we’re not busy enough.
LORD We didn’t know this stuff was going to work! It’s not like we thought The Lego Movie was going to do the business that it did.
MILLER We spent a decade in television and made a bunch of great relationships with writers and actors. It seemed like a fun opportunity to do more stuff. A lot of the best stuff right now is on television. It’s just a great medium to tell stories.
TV comedy is going through a tough time, especially on broadcast networks.
LORD We’re buying low.
MILLER Exactly. I don’t think comedy in television is ever going to disappear. So we’re trying to do interesting things like what we are doing with this very unusual show with Will Forte [Last Man on Earth at Fox], trying to make things that are not the same thing you’ve seen a million times before.
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The premise has been kept secret. What is it?
LORD It’s really about if you were to start society over, would you do it the same way?
MILLER What conventions would you keep?
At one point, there were discussions about making it for Netflix. Will the show look different on Fox?
LORD Hopefully not.
MILLER We’ve had a lot of support from the studio and the network about making the show that’s really in Will’s head. They’ve been very supportive throughout this process in trying something that doesn’t feel like all of the things you’ve seen on a network television show. Networks realize that the stuff that’s happening on cable is really exciting and the things that people are talking about. They’re trying to shake things up if they want to stay on top.
Fox, though, did just part ways with network chief Kevin Reilly.
MILLER That was a surprise for us.
LORD We worked together on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and he was a big champion of Forte’s show and some other projects, so we’ll miss him.
MILLER We happened to be having lunch an hour after the news broke with [20th TV’s] Dana [Walden] and Gary [Newman], and so we talked to them about it. Everyone was very surprised. But we got a call from [Fox Networks Group CEO] Peter Rice assuring us that the Will Forte show has the support of the network.
You worked on such sitcoms as How I Met Your Mother before you got Cloudy, your first animated film. How did you pitch yourselves?
MILLER Everyone thought that the tone of the script we had written was fun. Why not take a flier on these two chuckleheads? Working with [Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman] Amy Pascal was the hugest education that we’ve had, as far as learning how important it is that you care and how you can’t be afraid of emotions and sincerity. That was something that we were very afraid of in our early stuff. We were always really snarky and silly.
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LORD She blew up the movie basically halfway through: “This was funny, but I don’t care. I’m falling asleep. You had me for the first 20 minutes, then I’m asleep.”
MILLER Then we sort of did a 180 and became evangelists for putting emotion and really strong character relationships into comedy.
Has working in animation had any other effect on how you work in live-action?
LORD For sure. We’re really aggressive in postproduction. Animation is all postproduction. You’re editing the movie for three years. So that experience really helped and showed us how you could rewrite a movie in the edit bay. We’ve done that in all of our movies. That was useful.
MILLER For example, in the first 21 Jump Street, the drug trip scene was like, “What if he has an ice cream cone for a face?” Then we built that during the editing process. There’s [also] a car chase where things weren’t blowing up, and it was a very visual joke that took a lot of imagination to see that it would actually work. It was a very expensive joke to do because we had to shut down this freeway and bridge in New Orleans for several weekends. All the while, everyone was saying, “Are you sure this is going to work? This is a very expensive joke.” And we were like, “Oh, it’s definitely going to work.” But we were privately going, “Oh boy, I hope it works.” But that was from our animation background. We were planning the storyboards and visuals of how that would work.
Conversely, has your work in live-action had any influence on your work in animation?
MILLER Getting spontaneity.
LORD That’s the holy grail. If you can make it feel spontaneous, you’re doing something right.
MILLER We used to trim out people’s odd breaths or throat clears in the middle of lines, and now we keep them in.
LORD [In The Lego Movie] there were funny lines that Morgan Freeman said that were just things he said off-mic or to us that we happened to record. Then we would go back into the production offices and storyboard an entirely new scene based on little snippets. So our whole story process from start to finish was really loose and very improvisational. And we tried to build the production so that there were not a lot of layers between the storyboard artists and the editors and us.
Were you able to record any of the actors as a group or did they all record individually?
MILLER The problem is that movie stars are off shooting over here or over there, but it was really important for us to get people interacting as much as possible. And we were able to get Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks together several times, and Will Arnett, and [get] the three of them to play off of each other. And we ended up getting Will Ferrell and Liam Neeson on the phone together, with Liam in New York and Will here, and we had a recording studio in each place, and they played some scenes together, live over the phone, which was crazy but really helped both of them be able to be looser and have fun. I wish we were able to do more of it because you get such great stuff out of it.
LORD Yeah, I have a fantasy of doing what Wes Anderson supposedly did on Fantastic Mr. Fox, where he just rented some cool house in Connecticut or something, and everybody came and he went around with boom microphones and recorded them doing scenes on the beach and stuff. That sounds better.
Is it ever tricky switching quickly between PG and R?
LORD Every once and a while you are pitching jokes and you realize you can’t say that.
MILLER But on every movie we just try to make ourselves laugh and not to talk down to people. The only difference is the language we can use and the fact that we can shoot people. It just so happens that our sense of humor is juvenile enough.
LORD It’s right in the sweet spot. I don’t recommend Jump Street for kids, but 13-year-old kids love 21 Jump Street.
MILLER It’s not appropriate for them.
LORD It’s not appropriate for them, but it’s not mean and it’s playful.
And how about blending violence and comedy? How do you approach that?
MILLER It’s a tricky thing to make sure every scene has a comic point of view.
LORD Nobody cares about the action in a movie unless it has a comedic or character-driven idea.
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