To celebrate the release of 21 Jump Street on DVD and Blu-ray, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to the directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, about the film and their upcoming projects.
Touching on everything from Channing Tatum’s love for improvising stunts to Tom Selleck’s moustache, it’s fair to say our interview covered rather a lot of ground! Every inch as charming and entertaining as you’d expect, the pair gave a brilliant insight into the funniest film of the year.
HeyUGuys: Congratulations to you both for delivering the best comedy we’ve had this year.
Chris: That’s crazy – we’ll take that!
You must have absolutely jumped at the chance to direct a script from Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall. After focusing so much on animation, how did you end up getting the job?
Phil: We had Michael Bacall’s script based on a lot of conversations with Jonah. It was really anarchic and was very ballsy and bold and crazy and we were really attracted to all of that stuff and felt like we could help them turn it into something that also was a great relationship between two guys. We all worked together hard to make that script. Our take on it was ‘what if we made it a good movie?!’ You know, we tried to give this insanity a real background.
And it must have been a lot of fun to completely let loose after Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs?
Phil: Yeah, we had to take out all of the dirty F-bombs late in the game which was really heartbreaking…
It’s great that your film’s not a rehash of a show that a lot of people loved and is instead a refreshing and very imaginative take with a lot of detail for fans. Why were you so keen to work on a film version of that particular 80s show?
Chris: We liked the idea of young cops that go back to high school as it seemed like a funny area to explore regrets and choices that you made while getting a second chance to relive school. That seemed like an interesting idea. There’s something about it that seemed inherently funny, and we were doing a remake of a show that, when you watch it now, feels kind of outdated. It’s still delightful, but there’s definitely elements about it that feel clearly from the 80s. So it’s hard to do a really serious version of it. Also, before we came on board, Jonah was already involved, so the idea of doing a hard R action comedy with him seemed like a really, really great opportunity.
Phil: It also seemed kind of gonzo to try to make a good movie out of what seemed like a sub-standard Hollywood remake. And one of the main things in the reviews that we were kind of excited about was that so many said ‘you know, for something that looks like it’s going to be so bad, this is actually kind of good!’
Chris: And the word ‘actually’ was in almost every review! Like, ‘you would expect something different than this!’ And so we knew right away that people were going to come into it with a healthy dose of scepticism. We certainly did. It was the last thing that everyone would expect from us when they were thinking, ‘eurgh, another TV show remake.’
Phil: But then we thought, ‘what if we just use that to lower everyone’s expectations?’ And our movie seemed very good in comparison!
Chris: I think that was part of the success factor – very low expectations.
You touched briefly on Jonah there. But it was Channing Tatum who people were most surprised about in regards to teaming up with Jonah. Channing’s improvisational skills were clear for everyone to see, but did you have to rein the pair back at all? I can imagine they were quite crazy together!
Chris: It wasn’t really our job to rein them in, we just wanted to try and guide them to getting fun stuff while being as loose as possible. They were both able to improvise off of each other and had this natural chemistry that we tried to capture as much as possible. We were really very lucky to have two guys that really didn’t know each other going in, but became such good friends as they did it.
Phil: And when we sat down with Channing at dinner to talk about whether he would be a fit for the movie, well, we knew within five minutes and we were both like, ‘this guy’s hilarious and charming and so funny and natural and I don’t know why anybody hadn’t discovered that he’s a really funny guy!’ And so we felt like we were sitting on a very exciting secret.
Being Jonah’s screenplay, did he have a very specific vision or did it become one big mixing bowl, as it were, for everyone’s input?
Phil: Well, these movies are always collaborations and so none of us would be able to do it without one another. Obviously Jonah’s a great writer and a great improviser and a great performer so he brings a lot of amazing ideas to everything and so does Channing. Channing does this thing which I didn’t understand could be done – he can improvise a stunt. He’s like, ‘if you want, I can jump this car? You just need to put a couple of mats down.’ And we’re like, ‘Ok, yeah! Let’s jump the car!’ And so, that’s what’s so fun about film making, although it’s frustrating as it’s very complicated and a pain in the butt to get everybody all in the same place, but you collectively make a piece of art together.
The one question that everyone seems to want to know in regards to improvisation is about the drug scene. Was that completely Jonah and Channing’s thing or did you have some ideas there?
Chris: No, that was something we worked on a lot in the editing room. We knew there was going to be a drug scene and all the different stages they would go through. But as far as adding the eyebrows moving and his head as the ice cream cone, those are all things that we had experimented with in the editing room and we would use the computers to try and make each other laugh and the stuff that we thought was the craziest was what we ended up doing. So we just hit record with a bunch of stuff with them being weird and tried to make something out of it afterwards.
Phil: It turned out that, with all the special effects, the worse the technology, the funnier it seemed to be. So at one point we had Rob Riggle with all these dots all over his face, but in the end we decided it needed to be this gross puppet.
Chris: We found this animatronic puppet head online that we could rent for the day, so then we shot that in front of a green screen and tried to match to Rob’s performance, but not match well, so it didn’t really work!
You had a bit of fun at Rob’s expense by the sound of it, then!
Chris: Yeah! He was all like, ‘thanks for making me go in all those dots, boys, it was really great.’ But he’s a lot of fun. I mean, a lot of the stuff in the really gross scene at the end where he picks up a part of himself was, believe it or not, improvised. They were just supposed to shoot him in the crotch and then read him his Miranda rights and that was supposed to be it, but then Channing improvised ‘is that it?!’ and pointed to an area on the ground, and then we cut. So we were like, ‘we need to find something that looks like his penis!’ and we found a banana on the service table and broke it up, covered it and put it down and Rob said, ‘that’s how big you think it is?!’ And then it got even grosser from that. But none of that was in the script, so it’s one of those things where you get everyone together and they come up with crazy stuff! And that was something that people either hated or they loved. It was very polarising, but at least it got a reaction – people won’t have to go home and cut themselves!
Yes, people aren’t going to forget that in a hurry! You obviously haven’t quite had your fill of Channing Tatum yet as he’s voicing one of the characters in your Lego movie. Will Arnett has the best voice in the world, so the idea of him also being involved is brilliant. What can you tell us about the film and how it’s coming along?
Phil: The movie’s coming along great and we have an amazing team here in Santa Monica and Sydney. The movie is super ambitious, it’s sort of Inception for children, and we’re putting together an amazing cast. Arnett, obviously, is a genius and he does have an incredible voice – that man is turning out to be a significant character in our film! So he’s a great choice for that and Chris Pratt who we’ve also cast is hilarious and we’re going to be adding some new voices soon. It’s a very ridiculous film.
And what’s the latest on the Cloudy sequel?
Phil: It’s being directed by Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn. Those guys are making it, they’re doing a great job and it’s called Revenge Of The Leftovers and it comes out some time in 2014.
Finally, if you had the chance to go back and relive any 1980s TV show or movie, excluding 21 Jump Street, what would you choose and why?
Phil: Airwolf. Airwolf for sure, for me. I guess I’m feeling nostalgic for the now late Ernest Borgnine who was super, super good and everything, but I can’t get that theme song out of my head! I remember it from when I was seven.
Chris: I’m going to go with Magnum, P.I. because I always wanted to have a moustache and be super cool with a hairy chest. I think that’s a good one. There’s got to be better ones. I’m trying to think of the most obscure thing ever. I watched a lot of Marc Singer in V – the series, not the mini-series. I can’t think of anything else!
Phil: I’m sticking with Airwolf!
Well that’s a good firm solid choice!
Phil: Oh yeah, that’s a solid one! Actually, wait, can I revise my answer? I can beat Airwolf. In the UK, did they ever have this weird show that was kind of a ripoff of Tron, the super-duper successful 80s film?! It was called Automan. It was Tron in reverse where Automan came out of the computer and walked among us and turned himself into a car that could turn at ninety degrees instantaneously. That’s my answer.
And who wouldn’t want to do that?!
Phil: Yeah! It was a cop whose partner was a computer!
Chris: That’s totally better than Who’s The Boss!