Interview: Phil Lord & Chris Miller, ’21 Jump Street’

The word that would best describe new action comedy 21 Jump Street (2012) (released in UK cinemas this Friday) seems to be ‘unexpected’. From the R-rated comedy take on the original 1980s TV show premise to Channing Tatum’s hilarious deadpan comic performance, it’s a movie that constantly surprises. Who better, then, to tackle such an unconventional project than the anarchic duo that brought the world evil, sentient, mutant roast chickens in the 2009 animation Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? We sat down with 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to discuss chickens, car chases and going back to high school.

Ivan Radford: Were you both fans of the original 21 Jump Street TV show when you were younger?

Chris Miller: When I grew up, the popular girls in my school watched 21 Jump Street. So I said I also watched the show so I could strike up a casual conversation with them. It was a pretty great play, but it never quite happened. Now I just go up to the same girls and say, “Hey, you remember that show you watched? I just did a movie of it.”

IR: That’s definitely the most elaborate pick-up attempt I’ve ever heard.

CM: I was playing the long game! (Laughs) But yeah, both of us watched the show and have a fond nostalgia for it; even though the tone of the movie was very different from the original, we did it with a lot of love for the show – putting in lots of details for the fans to spot.

IR: So were you worried about alienating the fans by shifting the tone so much?

CM: We came on after Jonah [Hill] and Michael [Bacall] had written the script and it was already a pretty wild, R-rated comedy with crazy action. I was pretty bulled. Then we got to meet and hang out with Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell, the original show’s creators. Stephen was very excited about this take on the series and having a way to make it new and fresh – his belief made us a lot a little less anxious.
Phil Lord: But Jonah and Michael had already taken that leap to decide to do a big-ass comedy with action, so our strategy was like, if people don’t like this tactic, we’ll blame those guys. 

IR: Going from an animation like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to a live action comedy with car chases and shoot-outs must have felt like a big step?

PL: Well, both involve human beings you have to talk to. That part was really similar.

CM: Obviously the difference with live action is the pace of it. It took us three years to direct Cloudy and a little over a year to shoot and edit Jump Street. You’re on set and you have to get a certain number of shots per day and there’s only a certain amount of daylight, so the decision-making has to be a lot quicker. And, you know, we’re still obviously working with the actors we’re working with and they wanted to keep it as open to improvisation as possible. There was definitely an intention from everybody to cast the movie so that everyone was able to improvise.

IR: There’s a great sequence in the film where Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) take drugs, start tripping and and a man’s head turns into an ice cream cone. Was that all your idea?

PL: We had an item in the budget for some really sophisticated computer animated creatures. The line in the script said ‘he turns into something weird’ and our choice wound up being to take the least sophisticated looking thing. That’s actually a departure from Cloudy, where we tried to make everything look high-end. It somehow felt funnier here – and, in a weird way, safer – to do something that was just really dorky.

CM: For that scene, we shot an actual ice cream cone with some eyeballs that we put on it.

PL: We added the mouth afterwards…and then we shot stuff where we took a hair dryer and melted it and shot it at like triple speed. It’s like the most low-tech thing we’ve ever done! (laughs) And that cat head? That was something Chris found on the internet. We were trying to find like a Chuck E. Cheese’s puppet or something and then we thought the cat head was so funny.

IR: One of the big surprises of the movie for people has been Channing Tatum’s comic performance. Were you surprised that he could be funny?

PL: Not once we met him. The minute we sat down with the guy for a few minutes we realised that first of all, he’s incredibly game and not worried about his persona or himself as an actor – that he’s willing to put himself out there and take risks. You also realise that he’s a thoughtful actor who’s really thinking about what he’s doing every scene in a way that really helps comedy. He’s got a clear directive, but he doesn’t have a prescription for exactly what he’s going to say or do, so we knew this guy was going to be able to hang with anybody and stay in the moment and just react like a normal person.

IR: I have to ask you about the LEGO movie you’re both working on – how it coming along?

PL: We’ve got a co-director, Chris McKay, who’s very talented, and we’ve had a lot of great support from the LEGO company. Our philosophy was that we’re not going to make a commercial for LEGO toys, that we’re going to make a crazy, giant, epic adventure-action-comedy and use LEGO as a medium to tell that story – in the same way that Wallace and Gromit isn’t an advertisement for clay.

IR: First a kids book, then an ’80s TV series and now LEGO. If I took you back to 10 years ago, would you have predicted any of this happening to you? Are you surprised?

PL: Cloudy was our favourite book and we got a lucky break to work on it, but if you asked me that 10 years ago, I would’ve said “OK, that sort of makes sense.” 21 Jump Street possibly less so. Certainly these three things in a row – it’s all crazy.
IR: You both seem to work well with crazy – it’s great to see directors enjoying themselves so much with what they’re doing.

CM: Yeah, it’s nice to be able to like what you do.

PL: We feel like we enjoy it at least 1 per cent of the time – and that’s what you’re going for.

Judging by the brilliant – and bonkers – material these two US filmmakers have produced so far, here’s hoping that their crazy streak continues for a long time to come. You can read our review of 21 Jump Street here. The film is released in UK cinemas on 16 March, 2012.

Ivan Radford