Exclusive: Phil Lord offers early details about Jonah Hill’s ’21 Jumpstreet’ movie

By Todd Gilchrist

Last summer, Universal Pictures offered reporters an opportunity to visit the set of Jonah Hill’s Get Him to the Greek, a follow-up to the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. During various interviews, Jonah Hill mentioned he was still in the process of putting together cast and crew members for the film, but revealed that Michael Bacall, screenwriter of the upcoming Scott Pilgrim Saves the World, was hard at work on script. Subsequently, Sony Pictures announced that Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the guys responsible for shepherding Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs to the screen, would be taking the directorial reins of the TV adaptation.

Last week, Hollywood News caught up with Lord in Culver City, California, and the talented writer-director generously offered a wealth of details about his and Miller’s approach to the material. Additionally, he talked about making the transition from animated moviemaking to live-action, and hinted at what that might mean for the action-comedy’s explosive set pieces.

Hollywood News: How well defined was it when you came in, and what did they ask you to contribute when you joined the project?

Phil Lord: That job was an open directing assignment. Michael Bacall wrote the script, and he’s an amazing writer, so it had tons of individuality and charm and it really felt like a new kind of movie in terms of its tone and the voice of it. That’s what attracted Chris [Miller] and I to it – that this feels like a fresh approach to an old thing, which is basically an action buddy comedy, and [I thought] this voice is something I don’t want to lose. Reading the script, you could tell that in order for this to be a mainstream studio movie that makes lots of money for everybody and makes everybody have their heart warmed by it, it kind of also has to be the sweetest possible version of a drugs and guns and exploding cars buddy cop action flick as you can possibly do. So that was our approach: it was like, what if we did this and we really worked on the characters and the sweetness. That was our experience at Sony, that works really well for the studio, and it worked really well for Superbad. Superbad is ‘let’s do a throwback to raunchy high school comedies, but the twist is going to be that you’re actually going to make it a great story and really heartwarming and sweet, and it’s really going to be a love story between these two guys.’ That hit the perfect bullseye because teenage boys are going to show up, but this is somebody that anybody can enjoy and realte to the way that Ferris Bueller is that way.

We were a long shot for this job. We read the script, we wrote up a bunch of notes,m we made a big crazy treatment with images kind of like a book how we would approach the film, and that was the basic thing. Let’s make this as sweet and character-driven a version of this movie that we possibly can, while still making it Training Day meets Superbad, or Lethal Weapon with a huge heart. If you look at the best versions of those movies, they’re all really human; like, Lethal Weapon is really a very human story about a guy who lost his wife and he’s kind of crazy, and then a family man and how their worlds collide. That’s what makes you fall in love with that, so that was basically what we identified and thought we could do with the script, which was already very ambitious in a way that we loved. We felt like ‘I think I can make this work even better as a story,’ which is weird coming from guys that were basically comedy writers before we made Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but through that experience, we got a lot pickier about stories and how they work.

Hollywood News: Do you foresee it being a similar challenge going from animation to live-action the way it was going from comedy writers to storytellers?

Lord: It’s going to be shorter – that’s the only thing I’m sure of. I think it will be really challenging. It’s going to be hard, but it’s always easier to go back and do something that you know how to do. You know what to look out for, but in our careers I don’t believe we’ve really ever done that – we’ve always tried something we didn’t know how to do. That’s been great – it’s been a blessing to be a little bit naïve, because you tend to approach things from a different side, so you get things that are really novel or unique, and sometimes you screw up really bad in a way that you shouldn’t. It’s definitely not going to be easier.

Hollywood News: Did action scenes you designed in Cloudy make it easier to map out action in 21 Jumpstreet?

Lord: Yeah, especially because an animated film is so deliberate and so planned ahead and you do so many storyboards that it’s so many more than a typical action movie would do. A lot of times a director will farm out the storyboards for an action sequence to somebody else and maybe not collaborate with them that much, but in our case, from our background, we’re going to be able to be much more hands-on in the storyboard process. Also, action in animation tends to be really deliberate and clear, and one of my complaints in most action movies is that you shoot it from a bunch of different angles and figure it out in the editing room. I feel like an animation approach is more like you understand the geography, you understand the goal, and if they’ve got to go out the back door, there’s these obstacles in between and so you’re going to be a lot more clear how you shoot it, and I feel like action works the best then because there’s a really clear objective. It feels dumb, but, you know, if you’ve got to get to get to the door – and this is what Sam Raimi does – there’s a shot of the door, there’s a shot of the character looking at the door, there’s a shot of all of the obstacles in between them and the door, and then you really clearly show it. And I think if maybe we didn’t come from cartoons, we wouldn’t think about it quite that concretely.

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