Phil Lord and Chris Miller have a thing for signing on to seemingly undesirable projects and then turning them into pleasant surprises. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, and The Lego Movie all seemed like proof that Hollywood had run out of ideas. Yet each time, critics and audiences were caught off-guard by how unexpectedly good they were. Not surprised, however, were fans of Lord and Miller’s Clone High, the irreverent, incredibly funny, surprisingly touching animated show about a high school solely attended by famous clones (Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, etc.). This weekend, the pair again find themselves with a project that should be bad — a sequel to their remake, 22 Jump Street — but instead is actually quite wonderful. We spoke to the directing and writing partners about 22 Jump Street, the influence of Clone High on their current work, and the finale of How I Met Your Mother.
Why this movie, now?
Chris Miller: We were a little skeptical about doing a sequel because we know as well as anyone that doing a comedy sequel is really hard and there are very few that have been able to pull it off. But as we got thinking about it more, we realized that the difficulty of making a sequel was a lot like the difficulty of—
Phil Lord: Maintaining a relationship.
PL: That seemed to be exciting, all of a sudden. And something we know a lot about, being in our own work-marriage together.
The first one made light of remakes, and this one makes light of sequels, but it also kind of celebrates them. Do you think ultimately the film comes down as negative or positive on them?
PL: We try not to have any vanity or judgment about genre or type of film. Obviously, if you look at our career, you know we see every movie as an opportunity. We’re working with Neil Moritz, who’s making nine Fast & Furious movies. Why shouldn’t they be great? Why shouldn’t the sixth Fast & Furious movie be really good?
CM: And by the way, they got way better late in the game. And it’s clear that we have seen the film Bad Boys II and enjoy it. There’s something that’s delightful about things getting bigger and more over-the-top. Sometimes it’s empty, and other times it’s just fun.
Were the credits [which tease a bunch of fake sequels] a way of preventing being asked about another sequel?
PL: Apparently not.
CM: It was a good cap. We found that the audience wanted to feel like those guys were gonna stay together. Also, we wanted one final — we’ll call it homage — to sequels. It was just sort of fun. It was not intended to be a scorched-earth policy, but yeah, anything’s possible.
A theme that I noticed throughout your work is an inability to communicate.
CM: Interesting. Well, we have to talk a lot about every single aspect of the filmmaking when we’re working because every little minute decision we have to end up agreeing on. But as men, we are not the most comfortable talking about emotional stuff.
PL: I also think there are things that cannot be expressed properly with words and speech. Certain things are better expressed through a sequel to a successful buddy comedy. [Both laugh.] I’m curious what made you think that.
About the communicating part?
So, in Clone High, people are constantly being shushed.
PL: Yeah, that’s interesting.
And then, in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, there’s literally the dad with a device that allows him to talk to his son.
PL: Yes, he struggles to express himself.
And then, in both Jump Street movies, there’s a noticeable tension because characters are not able to say what they want to say.
And I think with Lego, there’s a certain level of the little kid enacting this fantasy as a way to—
PL: Yes, in order to express himself.
A call for help.
CM: That’s a very astute observation.
PL: That is very astute, yeah. The idea of people being shushed. [Laughs.] There’s a lot of like, Shhhhhhh, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
PL: Yeah, and Joan [of Arc, in Clone High]’s whole thing is about not being heard or seen by Abe [Lincoln]. Our friend talks about a big motivation for characters and human beings is wanting to be seen. That a lot of times what they’re saying is, please see me.
CM: In high school, we were both, as freshmen, the shortest kids in our class, and we felt a little bit like outsiders or people who weren’t seen. Maybe that’s where it comes from.
PL: Yeah, we don’t really relate to somebody who everybody’s already championing. Even our jock character in this movie is a guy whose intelligence can’t be seen and whose sensitivity isn’t something that’s obvious to everyone.
So it’s not something you’ve noticed in your work?
PL: Yeah, I don’t know if I would’ve said, like, Oh, wow, that’s a theme that people get shut up all the time and they can’t be heard, but I think that’s totally right. I had an art-history professor who said it’s not the artist’s job to figure out what the art means. He says, “That’s my job as an art critic and as a scholar.” So, well done, thank you. I’m glad to have outsourced that to you.
You’re welcome. So what do you think the film ultimately says about male friendships, especially compared to the first one?
CM: It’s that obviously a close, close male friendship has real love behind it, even though the people may not realize it or call it that. We know that from our own experience being in a marriage of sorts — without the benefits.
PL: Male relationships are deeply emotional and hard to talk about. That’s kind of what the whole thing is. I think part of what makes these movies appeal to women is that the men are unqualified to talk about or deal with their emotions. That’s what’s funny about it. They find themselves in this really deep, emotional relationship with another man, and they don’t know what to say.
CM: We’ve tried to make the b of bromance as small as possible.
PL: You spell it little b, big R.
CM: Four-point font b.
PL: All-caps ROMANCE.
I wanted to ask you about Clone High. Now, 12 years later, how do you think about it? It makes me think of a band and their first record: where they can see it as raw and unpolished or maybe the thing that’s most purely them.
PL: Right. Like, the first Rush record was really awesome, but it didn’t have as many synthesizers in it.
CM: Yeah, it was really where we cut our teeth and found our voice as a team. Because the budget was so small, we had to do a lot of stuff ourselves. It ended up being a labor of love. You can see the influence in this movie. We’ve stolen a ton of jokes from Clone High.
PL: Yeah, the whole thing about people saying the exact same thing at the exact same time. There is literally a take on the DVD where they exactly say a line from Clone High. They say, “Get out of my head. You get out of my head.”
CM: When we were shooting, it was like, “This is exactly the same joke that we did on Clone High.”
PL: It’s all there, you know. The emotionality: that was a discovery on Clone High. It was really fun to watch a love triangle with like, Joan and Cleo [the clone of Cleopatra] and Abe, and that the more emotionally upset the characters were, the funnier things got.
You guys worked on the first season of How I Met Your Mother. Did you watch the finale? What did you think?
CM: I thought it was really cool and really bold. It was something that those guys had worked out at the very beginning of the first season and were keeping it a pretty big secret, obviously. I found out about it last year. I thought it was such a smart, unique way to bring it full circle. It was very daring.
PL: I’m proud of those guys for taking a risk with something and sticking to what they wanted to say. And who cares? Like, they get to do what they want. They’ve earned that right, and they made a great series, and it should end exactly how they think is best.