NEW ORLEANS, LA. It's November 2013 and Phil Lord and Chris Miller are living a double life.
By day, they're hard at work on “22 Jump Street,” the sequel to their 2012 live-action feature debut, which went from an adaptation of a FOX TV drama that nobody thought they needed to being one of the most profitable and best reviewed blockbusters of that year.
By night, they're deep into post-production on their latest return to animation. Like “21 Jump Street,” it's based on a property fueled by nostalgia. And like “21 Jump Street,” it's a property that faced skepticism throughout its development process, right up until audiences got a glimpse at the first trailer.
It's quite possible, then, that “22 Jump Street” is the first movie the “Clone High” veterans have done that will actually be greeted by an audience without an initial wave of skepticism. Is that prospect scary for the longtime collaborators?
“No, that's what you guys are for,” Lord tells a small pack of reporters huddled just off the turf at Ted Gormley Stadium outside of New Orleans. “We are here to lower expectations. You need to go back to the and write all about how like you're not really sure, you think it may not be that good.”
“All of everything we've ever done has been riding on low expectations,” Miller admits, aptly. “'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,' a terrible idea. Doing '21 Jump Street' as a movie is a terrible idea. 'The Lego Movie' sounds like a terrible idea. If people think this is a good idea, we're screwed.”
[Yeah, that animated movie they're cutting together is “The Lego Movie.” This is the fall of 2013. It's hard to know if there's an audience for a movie about building blocks. Pretend like you aren't psychic.]
It's here that Lord & Miller go into what could best be described as the opposite of damage control.
Think of it as damage exacerbation mode?
“We're in deep trouble,” Lord says, feigning concern.
Miller jumps in immediately.
“'Cause, guys, we all know that sequels are terrible, right?”
Lord seals the deal: “Yeah. No. Who wants to see a dumb sequel?”
There you go. Expectations lowered, right?
On the set of “22 Jump Street,” everything is as meta as possible. If “21 Jump Street” was about how stupid it was to make a movie based on “21 Jump Street,” “22 Jump Street” is at least in part about how stupid it would be try to do a sequel to a better-than-expected movie based on “21 Jump Street.”
“That was part of the joy of it for us was trying to find a hook-y idea about doing a sequel, You know, the first one was a lot about buddy cop movies and bromances in general and then we felt like this one should have like the same attitude towards sequels,” Miller says.
Adds Lord, “And we're trying to make it work for the story of the movie, so the movie's really about can you recreate the magic of that first time that you meet somebody, those first dates? Like how do you sustain that over the course of a relationship? And or in our case a movie.”
This prompts me to ask a dangerous question on a set like this: What is the line at which things become too meta?
“We're gonna find it,” Lord admits. “We're like explorers.”
Miller adds, “[W]e always protect ourselves with safety stuff whenever we feel like we're getting too meta. The story has to work on its own obviously and there was the same issue for us when we did the first one is that we had sort of packed it with all these like little hidden meta gems, but anytime it crossed the line and it didn't make sense as a real story, we had, we just ended up taking it out because it didn't fit.”
So it's something that you learn to recognize in the editing room?
“The movie kind of tells you,” Lord says.
Miller confesses, “Yeah, and then you go, “Uh oh, oh that's too far. Now we're disappearing up our own a**holes.”
But “22 Jump Street” isn't just meta on the level of the difficulty of recapturing the magic of an original movie on a sequel. It's also about the inevitability that sequels have to be bigger and more expensive than originals.
Lord: “It's definitely more expensive.”
Miller: “Yeah. But not as much more as you might think. It turns out the studios have like budgets and finance and stuff and they care about whatever. But yes, I mean, you know, a lot of this has been about yes, it's a joke about how sequels have to be bigger and crazier, but it also should be bigger and crazier, right?”
Lord: “It's like a joke that came true.”
Producer Neal Moritz knows a few things about escalating sequels and he's simultaneously excited about perpetuating the idea that “22 Jump Streep” is bigger, while also underlining that it remains grounded.
“It”s a much bigger scale, and we”re trying to do is have fun with the fact that it”s a sequel, but also, you know, talk about the trappings of a sequel which everyone always thinks needs to be bigger, louder, faster, bigger explosions, and whereas we have some of that, I don”t think that”s what”s at the core of the movie,” Moritz swears. “You know, I”ve learned a little bit from doing all of the 'Fast and Furious' movies about what has to happen in sequels and I think kind of the most important thing is why people like the first one is they loved that relationship between Channing and Jonah, so if there”s at any time we”re thinking that explosions or bigger budget or bigger action sequences are overshadowing that, we”re really careful to make sure we get our priorities right as to what is the important thing of this movie and that really is the relationship between the two of them and we don”t want to try to just do the same thing with that relationship. We”re trying to grow the relationship from the first one.”
The relationship stuff would be almost impossible to avoid, because as you may have already sensed, Lord & Miller are a buddy comedy in and of themselves, with Lord distinguishable by his wild hair and glasses, but with the two Dartmouth alums not just willing, but eager, to finish each other's sentences and play off each other's punchlines. So far as we know, Lord and Miller don't fight crime, but it's tempting to think that there's a lot of the directors in Channing Tatum's Jenko and Jonah Hill's Schmidt. That's a supposition that they deny, but eventually accept.
“We're super shy about like putting stuff that's too self referential in the movie,” Lord says initially. “But there's definitely things and hallmarks from our college days… [L]ike I don't know if it'll stay in the movie, but there's a whole like beer pong playing sequence and, if it stays in the movie, the guys playing pong on the other side, just off camera, are us. We have a lot of experience thinking and talking about what it's like to be in a marriage with, like, your friend. Who you can't sleep with. Because he's married to a woman. And you have a girlfriend, you know. Yeah, so like the complexities of a long-term male friendship where you're working together all the time and you're forced, like a lot of friendships, you're not really forced to deal with the hard stuff. And when you work together like we do, you have to deal with that stuff.”
The atmosphere that they create in conversation with each other is the atmosphere that they create on set and watching Tatum and Hill create their own version of the Lord/Miller dynamic is fascinating. The scene we've been watching involves a dropped sandwich, a Q-Tip and the introduction between Jenko and a new character played by Wyatt Russell. The beginning and the end are fairly consistent, but the punchlines in the middle vary wildly between physical comedy, enthusiastic vulgarity and lunkheaded charm. The variation and versatility are especially interesting when you remember that these guys come from such a different background, one that normally wouldn't involve helping real-life actors find real-life chemistry in a real-life environment.
“Dude, they're awesome. Because they come from an animation world, all this is almost painful for them,” Tatum laughs. “They're just like, 'God, I just want to get in and edit.' They're just like, “Put me in a dark room with an editor and a screen” and that's when they really want to make the movie. This is their second movie, really, and they're so much more comfortable than the first time, but still, we get here and we're just like, 'Alright. There's infinite possibilities of where the camera could go, where you can set the people, what're you gonna have in the foreground.' And they are just amazing to collaborate with, because they're not these sorta really like, 'It has to be this way. This is the way we've envisioned it.' They really want everybody's input and to kinda go on the fly and it's a lot of fun.”
Lord agrees, “This is more spontaneous…. [E]very take is different. There's a million different ways to cut it. In animation, you do so much planning ahead of time, it has to be so precise. Although I have to say with 'The Lego Movie', we did a lot of dialogue recording and unfortunately the 'Jump Street' mode infected the 'Lego' process a great deal. But you do get to… It's looser, you know. And that's scary, because you don't get to plan things out ahead of time. You don't know if things are gonna work. But it gives you a lot more latitude in editing.”
Normally those are words that a producer wouldn't want to hear on a franchise movie which may be smaller in scale than your “Fast and Furious” or “Transformers” movies, but could still see its budget go higher and higher with each mention of “infinite possibilities.” Moritz, however, remains enthusiastic.
“Honestly, they”re just two of the kindest nicest hard-working guys that I think what makes the difference between them and so many other people I”ve worked with is they really know how to instill heart and character into movies, just even like a silly comedy scene, they know how to get that heart into it, and they really know how to track the relationships from beginning to end to make sure that that”s the main thing that we”re interested in the movie, is that really staying forefront and center at all times and they”re really good at that,” Mortiz says. “The first one, since I”d never worked with them, I was kind of all over it, trying to put as much of my imprint on the movie as possible, and on this one, obviously, though I”m involved, but when there”s been any creative major decision that had to be made that maybe even a disagreement is too strong a word but we had a different opinion, I just rolled with what their thoughts were on this one. They have my complete confidence.”
And what Lord & Miller's thought is is that they want “22 Jump Street” to be something different.
Miller: “One of the bits is that the management wants the guys to do the exact same thing they did last time 'cause that's what was so successful.”
Lord: “So we're playing the department as like the studio and they're saying like you guys are messing up. What you need to do is exactly the same thing as before.”
Miller: “Right. And then so it starts out similar and then it's like we're giving you a drug case and just do the same thing you did…”
Lord: “But they're like we don't wanna do the same thing and it's feeling kind of dull.”
Miller: “It's more and more different as the movie goes on.”
As we sit on the set, “22 Jump Street” is heading toward a Summer 2014 and while the original premiered with no expectations and only whispered talk of a sequel. There's less whispering among the filmmakers now.
“If anyone had told me I”d be making number seven 'Fast and Furious,' I would say 'You”re crazy,' so I have no idea,” Moritz says. “Every time I”m like 'This is the last one' and my wife says, 'Don”t say that. You know that”s not the truth,' and I say, 'OK.' So, I don”t know. Honestly, as long as we have something that we think it funny and a relationship that we think we can keep evolving, I think we”d all like to do them. We”re actually having fun. Is it hard work? Yes. Is it long hours? Yes. Is it a pain in the ass? Yes, but as long as we feel like we”re evolving and having fun doing it, I think we”d like to keep doing them, but come June 13, we”ll have a much better feeling if the public feels the same way.”
As you might have gathered, “22 Jump Street” premieres on June 13.