The Badass Interview: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Directors of 21 JUMP STREET

Go undercover with the directors who prove that you can make a really raunchy movie that's also really sweet.

It was surprising to hear that Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who directed the CG animated film Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, would be helming a 21 Jump Street movie. An R-rated, super raunchy 21 Jump Street movie, no less. But these two brought a sense of charm and niceness to all of the dick jokes, and the result is one of the funniest movies I have seen in years. Read my review here.

I got on the phone to talk with Phil and Chris, who were in New York City for the junket. They have voices that are quite similar, and while I asked them to identify themselves at the beginning of the tape it got tough telling them apart. I think I got it right in the first half of the interview, but in the second half they would talk over each other and I sort of lost track. Thankfully they said they wouldn't be offended if my hearing wasn't sensitive enough to tell them apart.

This isn't all the interview; I have some more I'm holding back for Monday, when it'll be okay to discuss some very spoilery, very important elements of the film. 

When we first heard there was going to be a 21 Jump Street movie the resounding response was ‘That’s stupid.’ But you guys did something really remarkable with the movie. Can you talk about your approach to it?

Phil or Chris: I guess we had a similar feeling about it and then because of our fatal flaw, we got really engaged in the problem solving. Jonah and Michael Bacall had written something really crazy and irreverent and very R-rated and aggressive and macho, and we thought ‘That’s a great departure from the last thing we did. I wonder what would happen if you took all that stuff and tried to tell a real story about two guys and their relationship.’ And that was probably something else we related to, being two guys in a working partnership. It’s like two guys who got married when they were right out of college and now they’ve got to figure out, as they grow up, how they continue to have a strong relationship. The complication is that they’re men and they don’t know how to talk about stuff.

We were, at once, repulsed by and incredibly intrigued by the idea of pulling this movie off.

Chris or Phil: There’s also a universal quality to the idea of getting a second chance to go back to high school. Would you do something differently or would you end up with the same insecurities as the first time?

We watched the show growing up, and we rewatched the first four seasons through the miracle of DVD. Even though the tone of the movie is significantly different from the tone of the TV show, we tried to honor the spirit of the show and put in as many details as possible that would be recognized by fans. That way they would know it was being made by people who loved the show, and we weren’t making fun of the show.

I have been a Channing Tatum fan for a long time and people have looked at me like I was crazy. But this film will change their minds, and you get an amazing performance out of him. Was he part of the film when you came on, or was he someone you brought to the movie?

Chris or Phil: He was not involved when we came on board. We were talking with the studio and Jonah about who should play Jenko, and we kept saying it should be a Channing Tatum type, and at one point Jonah said, “I think we should just go with Channing Tatum.” He pointed out how amazing he was in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. And then we saw a short he did, he did a crazy short with Charlene Yi recreating Dirty Dancing where he was Patrick Swayze, and he didn’t ham it up or mug, he played it really straight except for having a silly wig on. Sometimes when people who don’t do comedy try to do comedy they try to be funny and it never works, but he was just being natural and it was funny. Jonah called him up and they both were fans of each other. We had dinner with him and in a few minutes it was obvious he was a really funny guy who liked to joke around, and he was charming and we wondered why nobody had ever used him this way.

He took to it really naturally. We didn’t have to use any tricks in editing or anything. He and Jonah had this natural chemistry and they played off each other so well.

You guys are coming to this off an acclaimed animated movie. You have a Lego movie lined up. It feels like whiplash for you to be going between these kid films and this very, very R-rated movie. Which of these is your preferred world?

Phil or Chris: That’s a good question. We love subverting expectations. I don’t think that we have a huge affinity for telling wiener jokes necessarily. Both of those movies have absurdist senses of humor and intentions of subverting expectations.

Chris or Phil: At heart I think they’re similar, but one uses crazier language. Both are us trying to do things that make ourselves laugh. Our goal is always to do the smart version of the movie, to be more clever than people are expecting. It’s hard from a distance to see the similarities between Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, but to us they are internally consistent.

Phil or Chris: One of the things I’m proud of, whether you like the movies or not, I don’t think either of the films are mean. Even though we have this filthy movie that parents are ashamed to say I made, what I’m proudest about with [Jump Street] is that it doesn’t feel mean. The tones feel consistent to me - Cloudy and this movie and hopefully the Lego one are joyful films. They’re trying to give you a positive experience and give you a sense of play.

Chris or Phil: One of the things we worked hard on in this movie, which we learned on Cloudy, is that you have to get the emotional story to work. You have to work hard to get people to care about it and believe the characters. The tendency in comedies is to fill it up with jokes and not make it about anything. It’s harder to make it about something, and this movie is about these guys and their relationship. We worked hard to make it about that so for you, the viewer, the crazy jokes and stuff are based on something.

Phil or Chris: Our heroes are the Coen Brothers, and those guys do a brutal drama and then a comedy and then a Western remake.

Chris or Phil: Kubrick would make a comedy and then a drama and then another comedy. He was thinking of doing a drama of Dr. Strangelove and realized it’s so insane it needed to be a comedy. That’s so admirable. We’d love to be like those guys.

It’s funny that you should name drop the Coen Brothers, because they’re almost the opposite - so much of their stuff is mean. They don’t always love their characters.

Chris or Phil: Burn After Reading is so mean.

So why is it so rare to see identifiable, likable characters in comedy? You guys make it seem so easy to have a comedy that isn’t mean - what’s the secret?

Phil or Chris: You think if I could boil that down to a little nugget I would tell you? And let everybody know?

Chris or Phil: It’s obviously an entire system of choices you make. Part of it is casting; when you look at Jonah and see what a lovable guy to talk to he is, and then you talk to Channing and see what a warm human being he is... Channing had an insight into his character and it was, “I’m trying to get Jonah to love me.” I thought that was such a revealing take on the character, and it reveals something about Channing and the kind of person he is, and the kind of person he’s trying to be.

Phil or Chris: What’s great is that the rest of our cast - Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Dave  Franco - they’re all nice people! I’m really attracted to having nice people around. Look at Riggle.

Chris or Phil: The nicest guy on Earth. So positive.

Phil or Chris: The bad guys were nice guys in this movie. The motorcycle guys - one of the heavies, Randall Reeder, is in a million movies as a bad guy and he’s the sweetest guy. He’s in a Christian motorcycle gang. There’s something about it... I always admire movies where you feel like the filmmakers are affectionate towards their characters.

I’m bummed to hear Ice Cube is nice.

Chris or Phil: But you also don’t mess with him. He makes it clear that if you cross a line, he will not be nice. He has a chair on set and you should not sit in it. He’s such a smart guy who obviously changed the face of music when he was a young man. He had produced, acted and directed. He commands respect. At the same time we were generally a little bit afraid of him because he’s super badass. He was so willing to play and go along with it.

Phil or Chris: If Ice Cube doesn’t want to do something, that’s pretty much the end of it.