2014 is a pretty good year for Chris Miller and Phil Lord. Their The Lego Movie was not just a huge hit, it defied all expectation and was absolutely great. And this weekend you're going to learn that they've defied expectations yet again by making a comedy sequel that's actually better than the first film; 22 Jump Street is incredible and awesome and you'll watch it a dozen times at least.
Without much more blabbing from me, here's my interview with Lord and Miller. It's spoiler-free.
You guys met in college. Is any of your college experience reflected in 22 Jump Street?
Chris: Some of it is. There’s a brief scene where Channing and Wyatt play beer pong in the fraternity and they’re playing it in the Dartmouth style - who are the true inventors of beer pong - and on the other side of the pong table, just off camera, are Phil and I playing with them.
On 21 we visited some high schools and were surprised how different the social structure was from when we were in high school, so before going into this one we visited Dartmouth and visited a fraternity at UCLA… and were surprised to find how little it had changed from when we were in college. We tried to lean into that. The sports and fraternity culture seemed like still a big thing, and in college it seemed less about popularity and more about different cliques and finding your place in the world. So we tried to make it about that.
For a pair of filmmakers who take on risky propositions in movies, a comedy sequel is maybe the riskiest proposition yet. There are almost no good comedy sequels at all, period. What were the challenges you knew walking in you’d be facing?
Phil: We thought that no matter what people were going to say it’s worse than the first one, so we just tried to accept that as something that goes with the territory. And we embraced it with our approach to the movie in general. We thought, maybe we can make this an asset, that making the sequel to something is hard and that can be what the movie’s about. Make it a sequel to the relationship. That made it meaningful, and as Jonah and Channing try to keep their relationship going we’re trying to keep the franchise going.
Chris: Comedy sequels are extra hard, I think, because comedy is supposed to be surprising and sequels are supposed to remind you of the first movie. That balance was something we were very aware of and trying to play with. We were trying to make it the same but also have it end up being different and have it find its own new jokes and new ideas.
You have some meta, self-aware jokes in the first one. You have more this time around. How do you know where the line is when comes to these meta jokes?
Phil: We might not know where the line is. We may have crossed it. But the audience tells you; we showed the movie to a bunch of folks a bunch of times and we got the sense the more the movie went on the less anybody wanted to hear about that. They don’t want to watch a whole movie and in the end have you tell them the thing they just liked is dumb. They’re fine with you telling them it’s dumb before they watch it.
Chris: Up front it’s easier, but as it goes on you want to do it less. We shot a lot of safeties and alternates and we had - believe it or not - more of it in there, and this is the cut down version. Sometimes you just want to be sincere, and not constantly reminding everybody that we know it sucks.
You talk about this movie being the sequel to a relationship; in a lot of ways this film takes the idea of a bromance and takes the B off it - it’s just a romance movie. Can you talk about the decision to make all of that subtext pretty much textual?
Chris: We tried as much as possible. Phil was saying earlier today that it was important they didn’t realize they were in love with each other and that the things they were saying were just straight up from a romantic comedy. Once it became clear to them it wasn’t quite as charming. We pushed it about as far as humanly possible.
Phil: That’s the bleeding heart of the movie. That’s why people are going back to see a sequel - the best thing about the first movie is those guys’ relationship. When we were thinking up ideas for the sequel we had all these crime plots but the only thing that seemed to be working was those two guys. Even at the screenwriting stage that was where we decided to invest everything. That’s where we got excited, wondering what would happen if there was another man in the relationship, and how would that effect them. Jonah kept saying when we were talking about story stuff early on, “I am just a high school teenaged girl this whole movie.”
By having them not aware of the romance is that how you avoid gay panic in the comedy? Is that how you make it less “look how icky this is” and more funny and sweet?
Phil: We’ve noticed, being in a work/friendship relationship for quite some time, that it’s quite like a marriage, that you have those emotional moments in it. As men we like to avoid talking about it - that’s our strategy - but I think it sort of speaks to a deeper truth, in that it’s not meant to be anything more than saying a really close friendship is a love.
Channing has so many great comedic scenes in this movie, and I feel like he was a comedic discovery for a lot of people in the first film. Have you seen a change in him as a comedic actor? And in the beginning of the movie when Channing isn’t very good at improv - is that an in-joke?
Phil: That thread is playing on the idea that Jonah is known for comedic improvisation and, up until these movies, Channing is not. His character talks a lot about how dumb improv is, but the truth of the matter is that he’s a very good improviser. He’s actually more comfortable being offbook than trying to remember the exact thing somebody wrote. The fact that he can put it into his own words and the fact that he has the freedom in a scene where he can roam is more his preferred way of working.
There was a video making the rounds last week about visual comedy, and how good Edgar Wright is with it. I’d argue that you guys are as well, and there are a ton of great visual gags in 22 Jump Street, like the Benjamin Hill School For Film Studies. How do you approach visual comedy - are you coming up with gags on the set, are you writing them into the script? How does that work for you?
Chris: It’s all over the place. We come from animation, and animation is a lot of preparation, so we’re thinking about the scenes in a visual way. Oftentimes it strikes us when we’re on set, but the Benny Hill one we storyboarded that one and shot it at the last minute not sure if it would make it into the movie. It’s not a reference everyone in the world knows.
Phil: It’s the the difference between the times when the camera isn’t supposed to interfere and it’s just about the performances and about the times when the camera is telling you the joke. The camera is the voice of the joke. It usually depends on where the joke originates. I’m sure Edgar storyboards a lot of his material far in advance, but we didn’t have that luxury on this one. When we do, we draw stuff out ahead of time and that’s where that happens, in that process of putting pencil to paper. That’s when your brain says, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if in the upper right corner of the frame this thing happens.’ You’re not thinking that way when you’re on set working with actors. You have to think of that ahead of time in your room by yourself.
Chris: Right. It’s a balance. You’ve got people who are great improvisers and you want to let them be spontaneous and capture something real so when you do a very meticulously planned shot it’s the opposite of that. The interplay between those two is interesting to us.
Phil: The ability to do both in the same movie is fun. The Coens do that, not that we’re comparing ourselves to them, but they storyboard their whole movie A to Z and there are things that are only funny because they’re composed in that specific way.
You guys might have the best ending credits of all time in this movie. Are you dropping the mic on the Jump Street franchise?
Phil: We like to think there are infinite possibilities for more Jump Streets.
Chris: We’ll say anything is possible.
Phil: The thing we’re looking forward to the most is taking a nap. Making two movies at the same time was exhausting. But we had a lot of fun making the end credits, and we’re trying to keep them kind of a secret… but it’s not going to be.
Chris: It’s going to be hard.
Phil, I saw you at the Cinefamily the other night for the Unarius show.
Phil: How cool was that! That was far out!
There are a lot of filmmakers who have very standard points of reference, but I keep seeing you guys at cool, non-mainstream film events, so I suspect you have some influences that are unique.
Phil: I have a close friend who went to CalArts and their film program and through him I’ve been exposed to more avant garde cinema. We do think of our movies as weird, avant garde punk pranks, even though they’re incredibly commercial movies. We went to a fancy college and we wrote a bunch of silly papers on random movies. We think about things in that way.
One of the things that was fun about going to college in the 90s is that people were taking popular culture as serious text, and we try to do the same thing. We try to put as much strangeness in the movies as we can.
And the Unarius stuff has a lot to do with the Lego stuff - that’s what the connection is to me. That creativity can be a religion and that it can heal people. That, I thought, was really special.