One of the biggest compliments you can pay a movie like the new Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum vehicle "21 Jump Street" — based on an old television property and seemingly hatched inside a coldly cynical meeting between studio chiefs and big-name action producers (in this case "Fast and Furious" overseer Neal H. Moritz) — is what a huge surprise it is. If you had told us a few weeks ago that we would be staggering out of the theater, our sides aching from laughing too hard and our heads spinning from what a smart, fun and earnest movie it was, we wouldn't have believed it ourselves. But it's true. "21 Jump Street" really is that good. And a big part of what makes it so fresh is that it comes from a couple of new live action directors – "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" helmers Chris Miller and Phil Lord. We talked to them about the transition from live action to animation, what they wanted to incorporate into the movie, and why Dave Franco asks Tatum about his choice in music.
"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," produced by Sony Pictures Animation and released in 2009, was a wonderful animated movie featuring strikingly simplistic character design, a retro-'80s technological aesthetic, and an anything-goes comedic sensibility, which made it an instantly enjoyable effort. It was Miller and Lord's first movie – they had created the short-lived but much-beloved "Clone High" series for MTV and worked in a writing capacity on "How I Met Your Mother" – and they made quite a splash. But for their follow up, they wanted to go in the opposite direction.
"We finished 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' and we decided we wanted to do something really different, to mix things up," Miller explained. "We like to challenge ourselves and surprise people so we knew Jonah socially through comedy circles and thought he was really funny. And we read the script that he and [Michael] Bacall had hatched up and it was crazy and funny and really hard-R. And we thought, 'That would really surprise people.' " But it wasn't like the studio or Jonah were beating down their door to make the movie (early on, Hill said that his first choice was hillbilly horror auteur Rob Zombie). Still, Miller and Lord knew how to make the job theirs.
"It wasn't exactly an outgoing phone call to us, so we put together this booklet that was basically – this is what we think the tone of the movie should be, this is what we think the look of the movie should be, and here are some things we think can make the story even better," Miller said, mirroring the kind of "mood board" or "color board" of animated movies, but in a slightly expanded form. "So we showed that to Neal H. Moritz, the producer, and the studio and everybody and everybody got on board." Miller then added, with a chuckle: "Luckily we had a good relationship with Sony from 'Cloudy' so they trusted us – suckers!"
When the conversation turned to the glut of animated directors who are making their splashy live-action debuts (among them Brad Bird with "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" and Andrew Stanton with "John Carter"), Lord said, "I'm curious as to what their experiences were like." He then went on to describe which bits of "21 Jump Street" would have found a home in their previous animated work. "For us, there are certain jokes in the movie that are the kinds of jokes that we would have done on 'Cloudy,' where it's a filmmaking joke," Lord said, referring to a gag that's more technical or visual-based. "Like that joke on the freeway where things don't explode only works because of all the craftsmanship, where it has to be shot in a certain way and edited in a certain way and sound effects have to be just right. And that's very different from Jonah thinking of something funny and he says that to Channing and they kind of do it in the moment." It wasn't an either/or proposition, Lord said: "I like both of those things. So our ambition was to have both of those things in one movie."
When we asked how their directorial duties were divided, after hearing that some directing teams feature one member who works primarily with the camera while the other focuses on other duties, a special guest provided us with an answer, as producer Moritz joined the interview saying, "They broke every DGA rule in the book!"
"We would be way more efficient if we divvied up tasks but we are both very finicky so we both do everything, unfortunately," Miller explained of their process. "But it's actually great because you always have to explain yourself and you always have to give a passionate argument for something, and if you can't explain why something should be done then maybe it shouldn't be done. If the idea can withstand the process of collaboration with each other and collaboration with the team, then you know it's going to be good."
Lord said that this process was another byproduct of their years in animation. "The foundation of our relationship is collaboration," Lord said. "In an animated film, you'll screen the animatic for the entire studio, in a big room. And there are 100 people there who critique your movie and they are not shy and the janitor gets to give you notes, basically. So you get used to working with other filmmakers all the time and I think that was good preparation for working with people like Jonah and Channing because we were used to sitting around and beating up ideas and not being too precious about stuff."
Another element that works very well in "21 Jump Street" are the action sequences, which are clearly cut together and easy to understand, forgoing the more jittery, fast edit work of ther films. Miller explained their outlook: "We have a philosophy about action sequences where we don't like it when it's just a bunch of quick close-up shots where you don't know what's happening or where you are." He added: "It was really important for us to have a sense of the geography – where you are, what the goal is, what the danger is, what's happening. So we have a bias towards that."
The filmmakers also took joy in cramming in a whole bunch of references and allusions to the original "21 Jump Street" series (some of which are so secretive that we were basically told that if we talked about it our lives would be shortened significantly), which seems to be a holdover from the visual richness of their animation days. "There's little things, like the fact that their undercover name is the McQuaid Brothers which is a recurring bit that Johnny and Peter go undercover as the McQuaid Brothers," Miller said. Another in-joke happens later in the movie: "There's a name of a street, when they walk out onto the street and the doves fly, the street they're on is Booker Avenue. We had this theory that Booker went on to become the mayor of Metropolitan City." Lord jumped in and said they found it particularly funny because, as he says, "The least successful Jump Streeter will become this successful politician!"
A good depository for all of these inside gags will be the eventual Blu-ray release, which will include a lot of material that was in the original, three-hour assembly cut of the movie. "It turns out you can put a lot of stuff on a Blu-ray!" Lord said, kind of amazed. "I don't know if we have a full-length movie like with 'Anchorman' [there was an additional movie, 'Wake Up, Ron Burgundy!' that was comprised solely of deleted scenes; it's out of print on DVD but available on the Blu-ray] but we have a solid 40 minutes worth of additional material."
One question we had (and this very well could be part of the eventual Blu-ray) is that later in the movie, Dave Franco as an eco-friendly teenager, comments on Tatum's "taste in music." There's only one big musical number, and the music is thoroughly modern, so we guessed that it must have been some '80s song (as a reference to the original series). We were wrong. Miller says that it was actually the culmination of a few moments that had to be trimmed for time: "One of the things [we had to cut] was a song when the guys were singing along to Skee-Lo's 'I Wish' in the car as they were driving…There was a call back in the party where Channing puts on 'I Wish' and Jonah didn't want to join him and look like a fool and none of the kids had heard the song before. It was a really funny little sequence."
Miller and Lord have crafted a truly impressive live action debut, and everyone should check it out with the fullest audience you can find. "21 Jump Street" opens on March 16th.