SXSW 2012 Interview: Phil Lord and Chris Miller Avoid Parody with ’21 Jump Street’
21 Jump Street ain’t no Hot Fuzz, Airplane, or Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meetballs. This TV adaptation is no satire or parody. 21 Jump Street is a straight-faced comedy, with only a few pokes at the action genre. Miller and Lord never go further than pointing out the TV adaptation/remake craze and how awesome it is to have doves in your action movie.
But like Cloudy with a Chance of Meetballs, 21 Jump Street is a late coming-of-age story. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are both nerds. When they join the police force, they want their lives to become Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys II, or Red Heat. As Flint Lockwood did in Cloudy, the duo have to grow up.
Here’s what directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had to say about not making a parody, pro-nerd messages, and invoking the cop genre style:
To start off, whose idea was the S.W.A.T. poster [in Schmidt’s room]?
Lord: [Laughs] We were looking for posters and the Sony people were like, “It has to be a Sony movie.” Luckily enough, we were like, “Oh, no way!” Neil [Moritz] produced that movie and we thought it was a little wink to Neil. He didn’t even see it till near the end of our shooting. He was like, “Oh, you guys!” We were trying to think of movies that Jonah’s character would have in his bedroom. We were like, “Oh yeah, of course he loves S.W.A.T.!”
Did Neil just respond, “Oh, that’s a great movie!”
Lord: [Laughs] That’s what I love about him. He’s a real champion of the movies that he makes and some of the crews that he worked with. One of my favorite surprises of the film is how I’ve gone from being completely terrified of Neil to being really excited every time I see him, and then, subsequently, also terrified.
Like Moritz, you also have a cinematographer who’s worked in the cop genre, Barry Peterson, who did Dark Blue.
Lord: Yeah, exactly. I love how Dark Blue looked. That’s one of the reasons we picked him. We were trying to make the movie not look like a studio comedy. We were trying to make it also look pretty naturalistic. And we talked to him about a couple of movies. We talked about 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop, and this movie Running Scared with…
The Wayne Kramer movie? That’s great.
Lord: Oh no, not the Wayne Kramer movie, although I like that one, too. The Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines film.
Ah, I haven’t seen it.
Lord: Oh my God, you’ve got to check it out. First of all, it is beautifully, beautifully shot by the director Peter Hyams. And it’s a funny comedy about friends. And it’s not like, “Oh, he can’t get along with him and now they’re supposed to be together! What will they ever do?”
They like each other and they support each other, and it was really nice. But the way, it’s shot is gorgeous. It’s this awesome Chicago cop movie. But it’s still funny. It’s like, “Look, you don’t have to light it crazy to make it funny.” So Barry knew exactly what to do. You know, “We’ll make it look like a cop movie but make sure you can see people’s faces so they can be funny when they are acting.”
And he had made Starsky and Hutch which I thought was a very faithful recreation of that shooting style, where everything is really flat and feels like a cop movie. He also has started doing commercials and has shot all over the world, and with every possible rig. He has such experience and knowledge of everything that he gave us a lot of security being first time live-action guys. We had somebody who really had our back.
Miller: And unlike Starsky and Hutch, we didn’t want it to be a spoof, but we knew it was going to be set in the ’80s and have everybody have big hair and big shoulder pads or something. So it had a different feel. The great thing about Barry is that he’s done every type of movie you can imagine and every type of style you can imagine. He was really great to work with. Nothing’s really rimmed or anything. There’s not a lot of, like, classic studio stuff in the movie, which I like.
Would you guys be on set even referencing Dark Blue or other films to him? Like, “Make Jonah Hill look like Kurt Russell in this shot?”
Lord: [Laughs] Well, we weren’t that specific. We definitely pulled a lot of frames from his movies and said…you know, we did like screen grabs ‐ those are illegal, but we did them ‐ and we put together a little playlist and kind of just stepped through stuff and said, “I loved what you did here, and here’s why,” and just tried to have him pay attention to the parts about his work that we responded to the most.
And Chris, you mentioned a good point, how you didn’t really want to do a parody. The film pokes fun at certain conventions, but that’s about as far as it goes. Where was the line of parody or satire for you guys?
Miller: That’s the trick, right? There’s been a lot of these TV shows turned into movies. We felt like we needed to say to the audience, “We know it. You know it. We all know it, OK? It’s OK. We’re aware. Don’t worry about it.” We don’t want to keep doing that too much so that it would just become to self aware the whole time. At the same time, what we really wanted to do was sort of take more classic cop movie conventions and turn them on their ears, as well as cop TV show convention. More of a satire of the whole genre than a spoof the specific show.
Lord: We thought a lot about these guys and how badly they wanted to be police officers, and that they wanted to be in a cool car chase. So the movie starts out with the lamest chase in the whole universe, which it’s like they’re on bikes and they’re chasing these guys, and we keep switching points of view during the camera work, where Channing’s stuff is kinda handheld, and we’re pointing into the sun, and he looks cool. And Jonah looks like a dummy, and everything’s really flat, and the camera’s not moving.
We felt like the whole movie was kind of a dialectic between the movie the guys wanted to be in and the movie that they really were in. And so, as the movie progresses, it gets more action-y and they actually get to be in a real car chase and a shootout. The reality gets more heightened and bad-boys-y as the movie goes on because they are starting to live their fantasy version of what the cops would be. And there’s more slow motion as the movie gets going.
We just really are big believers that you could do both; that you could do crazy, weird jokes that subvert the genre, and you could also tell a fairly engrossing character story about real people, and that those two things can actually compliment each other in a way, because you don’t see the other one coming. You think it’s like a silly comedy, but then you kinda start to care about those guys. The minute you start to care about the guys, we do like a silly joke or a weird cameo or something, and it winds up, to me, to be more surprising.
Miller: When you ground the relationships of the characters and the way that they react to events and the stakes of the world, in reality, then you get license to do some of the crazier stuff that we end up doing in the movie.
Lord: It’s a perfect platform to shoot somebody’s penis off.
[Laughs] That’s very true. You guys mentioned how good-hearted the movie, and in that way, there’s one big connection to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, with how both movies are so much about adolescent 20 year olds growing up. Is that just a coincidence?
Lord: No. That’s just like who we are, probably. [Laughs]
Miller: There’s definitely a lesson that we learned on Cloudy. When we did an early animatic of that movie, it was just jokes; jokes, jokes, jokes. Kind of like Airplane, which was a great movie. But people were kind of getting bored and stretching in their seats during the animatic, and we realized it was because we didn’t have enough heart to the movie and there wasn’t enough for you to care about. So then we had to go back in and really work on the emotional through line of the movie. It was hard for us. Once we got it to work, the movie was a lot better.
So we came in on this really strongly believing that you have to care about these guys and what they’re going through. The relationship is the core of this movie. If you don’t care about it, it’s just a bunch of jokes. And it’s really, really funny, but it can also be really…You know, you can really feel something, hopefully.
Lord: Cloudy was kind of about the one gifted child in a town with no gifted program and a guy who was, as you say, an overgrown adolescent. This was, we thought of it like a couple that got married really, really quickly and really, really young and still had a lot of growing up to do. Like, they got married right out of high school or something. And then they go have this experience and question the marriage. That’s something that Chris and I related to a lot. Not because we…
Miller: Just got married?
Lord: Ha, yeah. Chris is happily married. But because we have a partnership that’s a lot like that. And the twist on that is when you have two men in a relationship like that, you wind up not talking about the important stuff, sometimes for years. And you have to ultimately address those things or break up. I always thought that was an interesting about cop partners, or these two guys, is they have all this real emotional baggage, but they are Republicans and they own guns, and they like to shoot things, and they probably don’t talk about that stuff. That seemed like a really rich, comedic relationship.
And like Cloudy, 21 Jump Street is very pro-nerd.
Miller: [Laughs] I don’t know because we were super popular in high school and we’re definitely not nerds at all! We’re just self-loathing jocks, probably. The funny that happens to me is I feel like that nerds, like guys that have been underdogs for so long that it doesn’t seem interesting to me. It seems like what is happening now is all of the black-rimmed glasses and nerdy sweaters that are all the rage, that like the jocks are the one who are now left out in the cold. And now I feel really sympathetic towards them. I feel like those guys that I want to be protagonists of movies are more like Channing, because I feel like that guy now has something to prove; that kind of person has something to prove or might feel left out from the culture a little bit. I really sympathize with those guys.
21 Jump Street opens in theaters today, March 16.