'21 Jump Street:' Directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller on Balancing Raunch, Refinement and Real Feeling

Phil Lord Chris Miller 21 Jump Street SXSW Premiere - H 2012
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Phil Lord Chris Miller 21 Jump Street SXSW Premiere - H 2012

The "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" filmmakers talk about making the transition from animation to live-action with their new comedy, the buddy-cop movie featuring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

If the names Phil Lord and Chris Miller don’t ring a bell, it’s because their remarkable achievements on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, their co-writing and co-directing debut, were perhaps overshadowed by the iconic source material from which they drew. But on 21 Jump Street, their credit – or culpability -- is front and center, since moviegoers possess no shortage of trepidations about a big-screen version of an ‘80s TV show they might barely know.

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Thankfully, the film doesn’t merely luxuriate in the mythology of the series that gave Johnny Depp one of his earliest starring roles. Instead, Miller and Lord partnered with screenwriter Michael Bacall (Project X) and co-stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum to create an action-comedy that pays tribute to the show, sends up buddy cop movies and somehow manages to stand on its own as a smart and sensitive portrait of young adulthood. Sitting down with The Hollywood Reporter on the same day their film debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Lord and Miller talked about making the transition from animation to live action and reflected on the process of creating a story that balances the raunch of contemporary comedy while producing real feeling.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you started working on 21 Jump Street, how did you guys balance paying tribute to the TV show while clearly putting it in the context of a buddy cop movie? And then at the same time making sure that it was its own thing, as opposed to like being … 

Phil Lord: Like a parody.
THR: As great as Hot Fuzz is, it’s much more conspicuously referential, whereas this movie has sort of internalized the entire canon of buddy cop movies.
Well, it’s interesting because Hot Fuzz was already a movie at the time, so they sort of took that off the table in a way. As much as our movie probably owes a little bit to that movie, we also had this influence of Jonah’s experience of making movies with Judd Apatow and Nick Stoller and Rodney Rothman and doing this kind of relationship-based, reality-based comedy. So we sort of tried to marry those two things.
Chris Miller: And we thought it was kind of more clever to wink at the audience without breaking the fourth wall, without saying, hey, we’re in a movie, right guys? But to go just up to that line where it still works in the world of the scene without crossing it. And it was getting the tone right. It was definitely a delicate balance.
Lord: Our experience on [Meatballs] and this movie too is that you can basically get away with absolutely anything if you have a story that people care about, that has characters that seem like human beings.
Miller: And people reacting to things that are crazy in a real way.
Lord: When we sat down with Bacall, who had written the most anarchic script, we were really like, I’m not here to sit on you, or to “ground” the movie -- because I hate the term “grounding.” We are here to make all of that possible by trying to make it about something. And he was so excited and game for that, and hopefully the movie succeeds enough on that level to hold your interest. Because on Cloudy, there was a cut that was like-
Miller: It was like Airplane.

Lord: Every 20 minutes was like the funniest 20 minutes you’d ever seen, and the entire movie was incredibly boring. People fell asleep.
Miller: That was in the animatic stage. And so then we were like, oh, all right, we’ll have to make you care, I guess.
Lord: It was a great lesson, and I really think that filmgoing is an emotional experience and the job of the director is to induce an emotional experience in the audience. And so we try to do that as much as is possible -- in a totally insane, dirty, dirty comedy.

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THR: A lot of people assume that this generation uses comedy to sort of deflect emotion, but to me it seems like they actually use it to reveal it. Seth Rogen in particular is really good making a joke where it’s obvious that’s the only way he can articulate how he feels.

Miller: Yes. Kidding on the square, as they call it.
Lord: Yeah. And that guy is always calling out the thing that is subtextual -- like calling people out like, “Oh, I understand, you’re mad at me.” And that’s so funny because it’s socially inappropriate to do that. I think there’s a whole school of guys now that are working from real life and real feelings and real complicated relationships.

THR: How do you make sure that you’re able to acknowledge those moments and not take the audience out of it? Can you actually have a sincere payoff and include an element of humor without undercutting the feeling you’re going for?
I mean, it’s always a guess. And you try to cover your ass and cut the stuff out when it messes it up. We had a really good editor, this guy Joel Negron, and he edited Karate Kid and a bunch of other good movies, but he edits for story and feeling. He wasn’t necessarily known for comedies, and we kind of thought that was cool, as I think he did a really good job of riding the line.
THR: How do you do that?
It’s like a sense of, oh, that’s really taking away from the truth of this moment. That’s when you don’t want to do it. And then if it makes everybody laugh, there’s something there; I feel like people laugh from truth.
Lord: Or there’s some larger truth. When Nick Offerman says, “We’re reviving a canceled undercover program from the ‘80s,” people laugh because we’re all part of the truth that it is sort of cynical that we’re remaking an undercover cop movie from a show from the ‘80’s. There is like an acknowledgement of what we’re all feeling.
THR: You also have a moment at the end of the second act when Chris Parnell’s character says, “That’s the end of Act 2.” Were there specific lessons that you guys learned from, say, the experience of that animatic version of Meatballs where you could formalize your approach, or is finding the right balance to all of these things still totally intuitive?
Well, it couldn’t be someone turning to the camera saying, “That’s the end of Act 2,” you know. Then you’re like, oh, I’m in a movie, where am I? That was something that has to be something that a person would actually say in that moment and make sense in that world and be real. And then it just so happened to be the thing that is also if you’re paying attention, we’re commenting on the whole ridiculousness of moviemaking.
Lord: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s our youth or the fact that we’re sort of new at this, but we’re still really interested in how you put together that illusion of immersing somebody in the story. And so it’s really stimulating to us when you sort of break it a little bit and then you pull people back into it; I always liked that feeling of being pushed and pulled out of it a little bit. I liken it to little kids that are still trying to make sense of the universe: anytime you do something really silly or you do or say the wrong thing, they always laugh. And maybe I’ve never outgrown that feeling, but I always do think it’s kind of funny that we’re making a movie and that we’re all going to really invest in this. And you’re asking about that moment, like did we undercut it too soon. But one of the things we learned in television, or our philosophy is the idea of refrigerator logic -- like people would say, oh well, you can’t do that because that doesn’t make sense, because this other part that we did before won’t work. And the show runner at the time was like, “that’s refrigerator logic,” meaning, that’s the logic you think about when you’re going to the refrigerator after you’ve already laughed at the joke. Like, you can’t un-laugh. You can’t un-experience an emotional moment between two people, so to us, it’s kind of fun to then also experience, like, oh, wasn’t that weird.
THR: What were the parameters of what you guys could or wanted to do with the teenage characters since the movie is rated R? Particularly given the fact that you have a relationship between a teenager and an adult in this movie. You were very specific to point out that Brie Larson is 18, for example.
Yeah, but that’s a very chaste relationship by design. We didn’t want that to be creepy. You know, there’s definitely something inherently wrong. And when we talked to audiences about that …
Lord: I would say they were intolerant.
Miller: Yes. If she was 17 and turning 18 the next day, they’re usually like, "That’s disgusting!” If she was 18 and one day, they’d be like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” And I’m like, really?
Lord: So it’s strategic that she’s 18. We wrestled with it and we were just like, we don’t need to make some big statement about that.
Miller: And we didn’t want it to be like he’s a horndog and out trying to get in her pants the whole time. We wanted it to be this sort of a real sweet thing where he actually had somebody who liked him and was interested in him, and they got along and they connected on a real level -- and him experiencing that for the first time.
Lord: I like to think that they stayed friends, but they never had a relationship after that.
Miller: So that was definitely very deliberate, the level of that stuff. But of course, the overall raunchy factor of the movie was, we basically thought, you know, if we’re going to be R, let’s enjoy it.
Lord: Yeah, nobody wants to watch Jonah Hill slightly misbehaving at school.
THR: Was there anything that you guys wanted to do or had to think about just in terms of teenage kids doing drugs and things like that?
Oh, you couldn’t do anything in a PG-13 movie. If you saw The Social Network, there’s that scene where girls are doing enormous bong hits out of a six-foot bong or whatever, and I guess they had to go back to the MPAA a million times just to get that through. And it’s only because it was David Fincher and this Oscar movie that they were able to do it. In a comedy, forget it. So we just thought, we’re not going to be able to tell this story if we make it about carjacking or something. That doesn’t seem like it’s very stakes-y.
Miller: And we went to a bunch of actual high schools and talked to a bunch of kids about what they do and how they hang out and how they party. And I am going to home-school my children.
Lord: That’s what I learned.
Miller: We want it to be accurate, especially in an R-rated movie, and not pull back on that type of stuff. So we just thought it would be fun for everybody to have a good time.
THR: Jonah has already mentioned talk of a sequel.
THR: How much at any level are you guys connected to the possibility of doing a sequel to this, as opposed to having something else in mind?
We’ve all had a conversation or two about what it might be. Obviously, there’s a setup in the movie that hints strongly that there might be some college element to it. And you know, we’re all just sitting here crossing our fingers going, I can’t wait to have a conversation about the sequel. I hope that America and planet Earth agree that there should be one. But we won’t know for another couple weeks. But hypothetically, it could happen. Right?
Miller: Mm-hmm.
Lord: I can tell you this: We will make another movie, I hope, in our future. I hope.