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EXCLUSIVE: 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller on bringing their hilariously generic vision to life

There’s an early scene in 21 Jump Street, the feature-length TV series reboot directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller that hit theaters last Friday, in which Nick “Ron Swanson” Offerman, playing police brass, complains about the department’s unimaginative move in reviving the movie’s central undercover program. The monologue carries on for a couple minutes and essentially lives as a double entendre skewering of both the undercover-in-high school program and Hollywood’s very real proclivity for dredging up old ideas.

21 Jump Street sets the proper tone right at the outset, and the TV series-turned-movie is all the more successful as a result. Jonah Hill’s meta-oriented comedic sensibilities are perfectly suited to the sort of fun-poking that’s going on, all while his surprisingly strong chemistry with co-star Channing Tatum drives an underlying story that makes you care. While the movie is the product of many moving parts — Hill and Tatum produced it while Hill developed the story with script writer Michael Bacall — it all comes together under the direction of Lord and Miller, the duo that did such tremendous work in Cloudy, their first feature-length directing gig.

You can read our full review of the film here.

With Jump Street they pop their live action cherry, though they’re both quick to put the bulk of the movie’s success on anyone other than themselves. “Your job [as director] really is to remind people what the intention of the scene is and just be there as a safety net if somebody is struggling and it’s not quite coming across the way you want it to,” Lord told me in an interview shortly before the movie’s release. “Then you remind everyone to pick up the energy or, in some cases, it was trying to come up with a clear intention for someone to have in a scene.”

In the case of Tatum’s character, Jenko, that meant reminding him always of the character’s core drive, to get Hill’s Schmidt to love him. “That was Channing’s idea,” Lord said. “Every scene he played, he wanted to get Jonah to fall in love with him, basically, in a bro way. Be his best friend. His take on his own character was: I admire [Schmidt] because he’s smart and he’s different from me and I want him to like me back really bad. Anytime they would forget lines, when you reminded them of that intention, suddenly they know what they’re doing and the lines come quickly, nobody’s stumbling.”

“A lot of the times we would just get out of the way and let them do their magic, and then remind everybody where we are in the story and make sure that we’re emotionally tracking,” Miller added.

The natural chemistry between the two stars has a huge impact on the quality of the movie, but there’s also a lot to be said for the improvisatory elements. Lord and Miller didn’t experience much of that helming an animated feature like Cloudy, but they freely discuss how quickly they adapted to just letting the brilliance fly as it would.

“They were pitching each other jokes all the time.” Lord said of the two stars. In fact, the last joke in the movie, and easily one of the biggest, blossomed out of some on-set riffing. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

In the final scene, Hill and Tatum have chased down Rob Riggle’s antagonist and cornered him. There’s a brief shootout that ends with Riggle being shot in the crotch. That was all scripted. The gruesomely hilarious consequences of that gunshot, however, were all the result of ad-libbing.

“Channing is the guy who, in the middle of the take, pointed at the ground and said ‘Is that it?!’ And Rob looks over and pretends to see his penis, and screams,” Lord explained. “Then they were like, ‘Fuck, let’s get the penis. We’ve gotta get it!’ So we got… half a banana with fake blood all over it and we put it on the ground and we did another take. That’s when Jonah came up with the idea of ‘put it in your mouth.’ It’s horrifying. All we can really take credit for is having the gall to keep it in the film.”

They can take credit for much more than that, though. Hill might have developed the story and script with Bacall, but Lord and Miller are largely responsible for creating the intentionally funny generic look of the Jump Street world.
Chris: When we were casting, we were always trying to cast people who could keep up with them, and improvise on their feet. All of them were really, really great. We got so lucky that Jonah and Channing, who didn’t really know each other before coming on board with this movie, became really good friends and really respected each other and enjoyed each other’s company. They had this natural chemistry that you couldn’t possibly plan for. We just got super lucky.

“They shot the show in Vancouver and it’s set in this fictional town, this metropolitan city,” Miller said. “We knew we were gonna shoot in New Orleans, but we wanted [the city] to feel more universal than that. So we thought, ‘Let’s make it a metropolitan city and let’s make it the most generic city in the world.’ So you could shoot it in Vancouver or New Orleans and it would all sort of feel the same.”

“Every sign was in Helvetica. It was also an homage to Repo Man; they use a lot of generic products in that. The signs for all the stores. The billboards we had changed to be generic billboards,” he added.

Lord chimed in here: “The liquor store [sign says ‘Liquor,’ really plain. The police cars just say ‘Police.’ They’re all really stupid. The Jump Street chapel interior I think was the most faithful thing that we did.”

A lot of work went into finding the church, which is probably the movie’s most recognizable nod to the original series. On the show, the undercover “kids” convened in a police station dressed up to look like a church. It’s exactly the same in the movie — the “Aroma of Christ” church, the sign reads — and the directors, oddly, managed to find their inspiration for this from the real world.

Lord’s talks a little bit about how they approached the challenge of finding their police station. “Being from Los Angeles… I was taking pictures of every church I went by, and I got really interested in the storefront churches that are all over Los Angeles,” he said. “There was one in Koreatown that a friend of mine sent me which was called ‘The Aroma of Christ Church.’ And I was like, ‘That is the name of the church on Jump Street.'”

The problem with the storefront churches is that none of them really fit the vibe from the show. Lord and Miller found that the interiors of these places all resembled police stations, when what they were looking for was something that could look like both a house of worship and a police station. So they applied the storefront church mentality evident in LA’s Koreatown to a more traditional church. Then came the Korean Jesus.

“We started to theorize, maybe if you were the guy buying all the props for the Korean church, you might be attracted to buying the most Korean-looking Jesus statue,” Lord said. “So we had our production designer create a partially Korean Jesus, but not so much that it was impossible or grossly racist. Just slightly racist was what we were going for.”

One point the directors couldn’t discuss at length was the cameos. As anyone who saw 21 Jump Street this weekend knows, there are some memorable cameos scattered throughout, and many appearances from the original series’ actors. And while we couldn’t talk specifics, both filmmakers acknowledged that those who were a part of the TV series back in the day still cherish those memories.

“Certainly it was always our intention to try to have as much influence from the show as possible in the movie,” Lord said. “From what I understand, all of the cast and crew from the original show has a lot of affection for that time and are still in touch with one another. They all have a soft spot for it, because they kinda grew up doing that.”

As far as what the future holds for Jump Street, it’s something that remains to be seen. Box office numbers will be a big deciding factor, as is always the case, but the directors readily admit that ideas are already swirling in the direction of where things could turn next.

“What’s neat about the Jump Street world is it has a TV show and now it has a movie. The buzzword a couple years ago was transmedia. You create a world like Pandora [from Avatar] or something, and it could be a video game and a movie and TV show and so on. When we were coming up with the look of the movie, we were like, ‘This city and this world is sort of like that, because it’s an institution that can involve more than one person.’ It had those folks 20 years ago and now it has our guys. I certainly think there’s a lot of stories that can be told on that platform. I don’t think that they’re so old that they can’t still have adventures undercover.”

“Someone had the idea though that if you were to make multiple sequels, it would all take place at different stages of their lives and we would grow up with them. At some point they’d be infiltrating the PTA at their children’s schools and stuff like that.”

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