Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller came from animation, but – like Frank Tashlin before them – when it comes to comedy, funny is funny. And these guys know funny. 21 Jump Street is their first big live action film – after the success of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – and it suggests they’re going to be able to what they want after it hits. It’s massively entertaining, and the duo make for a charming interview. Check it out…

As you guys were coming from animation, I have to ask: Did you storyboard the hell out of this film?

Phil Lord: We tried to, but we didn’t end up storyboarding everything. We thought we would, but we ended up only storyboarding the action scenes, and the more crazy stuff. We ended up not having time – things would change, and you put the actors in a scenario and let them go and do the blocking that felt natural to them rather than telling them “no, you’re sitting on this chair!”

Chris Miller: For a lot of scenes we would do boards, and they would become obsolete very quickly. We ended up doing little thumbnails, but being completely prepared to change something on the day, with the exception of a couple of those big action sequences. They were pretty well thought out in the first place.

When did you guys come in on this film? Was the script well along its way?

CM: They (Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall) had the story and Michael had done a draft or two. It was a strong, super crazy, weird, funny, insane draft – as you might expect from him. And we came on a couple months after Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs had been released and worked with him for the better part of a year. Our big covenant with him was the we said that we were going to try to keep every crazy thing he have in this movie and then earn it by having as much heart as possible, and having the relationship between the guys as real as possible.

Was that balance something you refined in editing or was it there for the start?

CM: When those two guys showed up on set it was there for sure.

PL: We got very lucky with their natural chemistry and that they became real life friends. It really showed up on screen, but it was something we were really pre-occupied with since Cloudy. We had done an early animatic of that film that was all jokes and no heart and it was not as entertaining as it should have been. It was only after we developed the father-son relationship in the film it started to work, so we had the same idea on this one. “Let’s make sure you really care about these guys and their relationship.” So from the first moment we were shooting, we were protective that those guys came across as friends.

One of the great things about the movie is that Channing Tatum’s performance is kind of like a sneak attack. We haven’t seen this before from him.

CM: He is like Pearl Harbor. He’s gonna bomb ya.

21 Jump Street is a film that will live in infamy.

PL: We crafted the Jenko character for Channing Tatum, and when we sat down with him for dinner, in five minutes we knew. This guy’s really funny, sweet and warm, and that no one’s discovered this side of him, that he’s a really funny guy, we exploited for our own gain.

And exploit it well you did. I figure this was in development for a long time. Did you ever read any of the earlier drafts, were there serious takes on the material?

CM: I think more than one. There was a straight action movie version, there’s a sequence where someone’s running on a tarmac trying to chase down a plane.

I can just hear the Hans Zimmer.

CM: I read some of those scripts and then thought “I probably should just not do that.” Because we’re trying to make a different movie. I think when Jonah came on board, that’s when the big sea-change happened on the project.

Did you treat it like a comedy with action beats or an action movie with comedy?

CM: That’s funny because that was the only question producer Neal Moritz had for us.

PL: “Do you see this as an action movie with comedy or a comedy movie with action?” And we said “we’d lean a little more comedy movie with action” very trepidatiously. And he said “Exactly, that’s what I was thinking!” In our heads it was a comedy, and when we had action set pieces we didn’t want it to be just a straight action scene, we thought “what’s the comic idea of this sequence?” There’s the big chase on the freeway where things don’t blow up, and that was something that was meticulous crafted and difficult to shoot for a dumb yet cerebral joke that we weren’t 100% sure people would find funny. But it ended up working and people ended up liking that part.

At what point in the process did you guys feel comfortable with live action?

PL: Never.

CM: At this point.

PL: After the movie comes out.

CM: I’ll be comfortable two month after the movie is over.

PL: That’s what’s driving us is to make the movie as good as it can be. If we were super relaxed or chill we probably wouldn’t be as hard on ourselves. I’d think it’s better to think it’s bad, and constantly trying to make it better.

CM: I would be happier person if I was comfortable. Just in general. And probably make a hit not-that-funny sitcom.

In a situation like this, are you guys signed on for 21 Jump Street 2?

PL: We’ve been excited about the reaction so far, but we have to wait to see how the movie does before there’s any real talk of a sequel.

CM: So go see it.

These days they announce that someone’s writing a sequel before a film’s been released, so I was curious.

CM: The studios is excited, they like the movie a lot, and it’s a measure in their confidence the film and the filmmaking team that they’re talking about that stuff.

As you approached it as a comedy with action beats, what did you watch beforehand to prepare you for this?

PL: The three we talked about with our DP were Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, and – the one you might not expect – Running Scared, the Billy Crystal-Gregory Hines movie. It’s beautifully shot, and it’s shot like a gritty cop movie in Chicago, but it’s about this partnership and friendship that’s really funny and has these ridiculous moments.

CM: And it’s not about these guys who are forced to be partners, that can’t get along, it’s not that cliché, instead they’re just friends who like each other and help each other, and they’re in insane, dangerous situations and they’re acting like regular people. That was our model for this, and it proved you can make it look like a regular cop movie and still have it play funny.

PL: It doesn’t need to be an over-lit studio comedy to get a laugh.

Running Scared is a prime example of the casual sadism in cop films from that era.

CM: Exactly, and they shoot people, but it’s fine.

PL: Completely illegal, but all for the greater good.

That seems like something you embraced for this with the ending.

CM: Fully.

Was there ever a point where you thought “this is completely absurd?”

CM: There is a B movie quality to things that we liked. They have a couch in the penthouse that can magically take a thousand bullets, as if it’s made out of adamantium.

PL: And we were playing with the cop movie conventions, so we were going back and forth with that – trying to keep it as grounded as we could, yet still do all the crazy stuff we wanted to do.

CM: We felt if we kept it emotionally grounded the movie we could get away with all the insanity, and I think that’s true, when you really care about the protagonist and what they’re doing you forgive all that stuff in a crazy action movie like Rambo.

I’m surprised you didn’t pull the rug out with the relationship between Jonah Hill and Brie Larson, as she is a high schooler. 

CM: We actually had that joke for a while.

PL: We were considering it, but it’s better if she’s 18 and people don’t get grossed out.

It’s always better if she’s 18.

CM: We found that people really rejected Jonah when he was kissing a seventeen and three month year old.

PL: Okay, so if her birthday is tomorrow, is she still 17? Oh no that’s terrible. If she turned eighteen yesterday is it okay? Absolutely.

With this film there’s Brie Larson, Johnny Simmons and writer Michael Bacall…

CM: It’s a Scott Pilgrim reunion.

PL: We’re fans of Edgar Wright, and he’s a very talented guy, and we like how he pushes things, and he did a great job casting, getting a lot of young people, so we were taking from the same pool.

CM: We kept telling ourselves “Just because he got there first doesn’t mean they’re not good.”

PL: It wasn’t meant to be an homage or anything it was just that the people were really good.

With the montage stuff, especially the end, when did you figure that out?

CM: Early in editing, I don’t think it was written that way, and we started monkeying around with stock footage in the editing room, saying “how do we make this drug trip a little bit crazier.” And that was fun to work with in editing, because we were just trying to make each other laugh, so Phil was pulling stock footage clips and putting them together, and I was looking up weird puppets online that we could rent and shoot, and replace Rob Riggle’s head with. And we just kept trying to build the insanity. Our editor Joel Negron had cut Transformers 2 and Karate Kid and movies that are not quite as insane as this…

PL: Well, Transformers

CM: I guess Mars Attacks, so I guess he’s done weird movies, but when we told him “edit this like you’re on drugs and see what happens” and he came up with this weird little bit where they’re laughing and giggling, and turned one of the shots upside-down and backwards, and that was him cutting loose and exploring editing in a way he hadn’t in a long time.

PL: And the end credits was taking the most extreme parts of that and making a whole sequence out of it.

CM: We showed Neal Moritz the movie and one of the ideas floating around was “what if the whole end credits was a drug trip?” and then they showed us a stop motion sequence and stock footage, and it made us laugh so hard. We didn’t think that was going to be the idea, but when we looked at it, we were like “yeah we should go with it.”

PL: And it ended up being more meticulously crafted than you could imagine.

CM: We had to find the perfect shot for everybody.

PL: “This is going to be on screen for four frames, but it has to be this part of this shot!” But, it was a lot of fun.

It definitely sends the audience out on a high – pun unintended.

CM: I always love leaving a movie with a lot of energy. It’s like “You just got out of a cool party, and here’s one last song.”

Was there any attempt to get Richard Greico in the film?

CM: Sadly, no, and it’s one of my regrets. We did want to have as many references to original show as possible, and we were probably pre-disposed to think about the original season and cast members and stuff like that. But there’s always sequels.

PL: There is a reference to him hidden in the movie that almost no one every sees, there’s lot of hidden and not-so-hidden references to the original. The street where they get out of the limo when the doves fly out?

CM: Right! It’s Booker street.

PL: It’s Booker Avenue.

CM: We had an idea all the jump streeters went on and had other jobs, so I guess that means Booker became the Mayor or something.

PL: Quite possible.

With a movie like this, your familiarity with the original can be non-existent. How much did the original show did you watch?

PL: We both grew up watching it, in my school the popular girls watched the show so I watched it hoping we could talk about it in the hallway.

Did that work ever?

PL: No. I did watch the show because of that, and I do have a fondness for it. We did rewatch the first four seasons on DVD to see if there was anything to mine, so a lot of details in the movie are from the show, but we made it specifically so if you’ve never seen the show or heard of the show it works, and the concept is so universal of cops going back to high school but falling into the same insecurities they had the first time.

I think one of the great things about the film is how it’s about the generational shift in what is cool, was that there from the start?

CM: That was something we worked on with Bacall. I think we found that when we did research, we went to high schools, and we went to a Santa Monica high school prom, and we started talking to kids, and asked what the social structure here? And they said it’s not like that, jocks and nerds, everyone’s hanging out with everybody now.

PL: The coolest guys are the ones that are most active and social conscious, the kid that everybody can appreciate, and it’s not just the football guys. Everyone was saying “it’s so outdated how they do that in movies now.”

CM: We also thought the culture has changed so much, when you look at who’s a movie star now. There’s more Jonah Hills in some ways than there are Channing Tatum, and we thought that was a very interesting development in our culture, and we wanted our movie to reflect that.

PL: If Jonah went back to high school now, he might have been the popular one.

CM: The underdog has changed, I feel more sympathy for the lonely jock, the guy who was the king of his high school doesn’t get to be cool any more.

Korean Jesus, was that an accident or was that in the script?

CM: It was in the script, it was in a chapel, but it would be more like a church you’d find on the street.

PL: It was based on a church we found in Koreatown.

CM: The Aroma of Christ Church. And I have always wanted to know what it was like in one of those churches and so we thought if they went to the Jesus warehouse, or where you order a Christ on a Cross from, they would pick the one that looked the most like them. So we went and designed a Korean Jesus, that was a little bit Korean but not too much.

PL: Our production designer had got a sculpture to make Korean Jesus and we were delighted.

21 Jump Street opens March 16. Check it out, cause it’s great.