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Phil Lord and Chris Miller on leaping from animation to Jump Street

Early on in 22 Jump Street, undercover officer Jenko (Channing Tatum) makes a new friend. He’s trying out for the local college football team in an attempt to infiltrate and expose a drug ring responsible for the overdose death of a student — and in the process, he literally butts heads with the team’s captain, Zook (Wyatt Russell). Jenko accidentally drops a Q-tip into Zook’s roast beef sandwich, and the two man-children mutually identify their situation as a “meat cute.”  

It’s a very cute moment, but perhaps not quite as cute — and certainly not as fiery — as the meet-cute that brought Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller together for the first time. Lord and Miller met each other at Dartmouth College, and their partnership is one that was literally forged in fire. 

“I accidentally lit Phil’s girlfriend’s hair on fire when we were freshman,” Miller told Digital Trends. “Somehow, that sealed our friendship.” 

“We like to tell interesting and fun stories in whatever medium that story requires.”

For his part, Lord wasn’t upset to see this stranger setting his at-the-time girlfriend’s hair ablaze. “I thought, ‘That’s great. I need to get to know that guy more!'”

“The fact that he wasn’t mad at me, and that he kind of thought it was funny, made me realize, ‘Okay, we should be friends,'” said Miller. “He’s a very forgiving person.” 

Following the trial by fire, Lord and Miller’s friendship evolved in the form of their mutual interest in filmmaking. It was Lord who first suggested to Miller that the two should sign up for an animation class, and their casual interest quickly caught fire. 

“We took some more film classes and made some student films, and helped each other on each other’s films,” said Miller. “It ended up taking over our college careers, even though Phil was an art history major, and I was a government and studio arts double major. We ended up spending most of our time making animated films and short films. We decided that maybe we should try and do that type of stuff professionally.” 

After graduation, Lord and Miller cooked up the idea for Clone High, the MTV animated series that focused on an experimental high school populated by clones of historical figures of varying degrees of note. The series, featuring voice work from Lord and Miller as well as comedian Will Forte, only lasted 13 episodes, but it proved to be an invaluable experience for the duo’s future projects. 

Phil Lord Chris Miller 22 Jump Street

“It was the great film school for us,” said Lord. “The budget was very small, and we ended up having to do a lot of the work ourselves. We handled the animatics ourselves, a bunch of storyboard revisions — we had a great crew as well and an amazing writing staff, but the budgetary limitations ended up being a great learning experience for us.” 

“We had a lot of freedom — or negligence, is another way to look at it,” added Miller. “There was a lot of creative freedom and a lot of tools to just try things in a different way. When you give somebody that opportunity, they’ll come up with their own vernacular, instead of copying somebody else’s. It was an opportunity for us to come up with our own style a little bit, and develop that in kind of a vacuum.” 

Following Clone High‘s cancellation in 2003, Lord and Miller were hired to write and direct Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Despite the film’s eventual success, it took Lord and Miller several attempts to come up with a version of Cloudy that satisfied studio brass, audiences, and themselves. When it was released to rave reviews and strong box office returns in 2009, the future was wide open for Lord and Miller, leading to their first-ever live-action feature film: 21 Jump Street

“Every movie is scary, and we don’t get interested in a movie unless we’re a little bit scared.”

“It’s faster, which is nice,” Lord said of what he’s learned from making live-action movies like Jump Street versus working in animation. “There’s a lot that’s out of your control in a live-action film, in a cool way. You get really natural, spontaneous performances that feel very real. You’re limited by daylight and other time constraints, so you have to make quick decisions.” 

A second Jump Street was a foregone conclusion following the success of the original, but it didn’t come at the expense of Lord and Miller’s animation roots, what with the release of The LEGO Movie back in February, several months before the release of June’s 22 Jump Street. Even as Lord and Miller have “graduated” to live-action features, the directors have no intention of trading in one style of filmmaking for the other. 

“I think it’s refreshing to go back and forth a little bit,” said Miller. “Animation is such a grind. Four years on the same movie and you can really go crazy, so it’s nice to be able to take a break from that for a second. It’s neat to see how the different styles of filmmaking influence one another. The live-action approach to improvisation is something we carried over a lot into The LEGO Movie, way more than we did on Cloudy.” 

“We like to tell interesting and fun stories in whatever medium that story requires,” added Lord. 

And it seems like audiences are willing to follow Lord and Miller wherever they go, no matter the medium. The duo are teaming together with their Clone High partner Will Forte for Fox’s upcoming post-apocalypse sitcom Last Man on Earth. They’re attached to a LEGO Movie sequel, if only as producers. Based on the ending of 22 Jump Street, the possibilities of where the hard-R franchise can go next seem virtually endless.  

But the wide-open future is a far cry from the confined quarters of their college youth, and even their Clone High days. Expectations for Lord-Miller projects are much higher now than they were a decade ago. That fact isn’t lost on Lord and Miller — in fact, it drives them forward. 

“We’ve had the good fortune of having projects that have low expectations going in,” said Miller. “It’s a lot easier to meet low expectations than to come in with lofty expectations and try to exceed that. It’s a little bit dangerous [right now].” 

“But every movie is scary, and we don’t get interested in a movie unless we’re a little bit scared,” added Lord. “Hopefully our careers are long enough so that we’re trying all sorts of different movies. I hope each one presents its own challenge.” 

Luckily, Lord and Miller know full well that if they ever find themselves hitting a creative wall, all they need is some hair and a lighter to burst their way through. 

“The fact that that really happened, and it happened during college, and we didn’t put it in this movie — I can’t believe that,” Lord laughed. “Is it too late to put it back in? Do we have time for a quick reshoot?” 

22 Jump Street is in theaters now.

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