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Interview: The '21 Jump Street' Directors On Their 'Sneak Attack' Comedy

There is no shortage of articles that address the various and sundry ways that remakes and reboots are overworked, uninspired, hallow, limp, no good very bad ideas. But we are rarely granted the opportunity to talk about a remake that hits it out of the park. 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller call Channing Tatum’s performance in the film “a sneak attack” but the truth is that the whole uproarious enchilada could be described as such.

Audiences are familiar with Lord and Miller’s popular animated work: Clone High and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. But for many, the idea of a remake to the (now) somewhat kitschy 1980s television series 21 Jump Street spelled unparalleled disaster. Add to that the preconceived notions about who Tatum is as an actor and the film had more than a few hurdles to jump (yep) in order to draw in an audience.

21 Jump Street opens in theaters today (read our review) and critics and audiences alike are having an overwhelmingly positive response to the offering. Many are predicting that, when all accounts are in, this will be considered the best comedy of the year. We had the opportunity to speak with 21 Jump Street directors Lord and Miller recently about the approach they took in the creation of this genuinely clever, outrageously funny, charming and appropriately self-reflexive comedy.

I sat huddled outside of a Hotel in Hollywood (where I was in the midst of a press junket for another film) leaning desperately into my phone as an entire wedding party went insane over a passing celebrity when our conversation began.

Screen Rant: Hello! Would you gentlemen mind saying your names as you answer the questions so I know who is who?

Chris Miller: "Yes. We’ve been told that our voices are very similar but I refuse to talk in a British accent."

SR: Well then I refuse to do the interview.

CM: "That fair. I enjoy your website. It's enjoyable."

SR: Thank you. I enjoy your movie!

CM: "We're awesome."

SR: It's true. You know I've been talking to a lot of directing teams recently and I'm wondering about some of the advantages of working in that way. Is it essentially so that one of you can take a nap mid-day?

Phil Lord: "I wish that were the case. I wish we divvied it up. What we actually do is do the exact same thing all the time so it’s very inefficient. I will say that we tend to not be going crazy at the same time. Or having a mental breakdown at the exact same time. Which is a good system."

CM: "Luckily we have very similar sensibilities on what’s funny and are very aligned on things like tone and the goals for the story so we see eye to eye a lot. Obviously we don’t see eye to eye 100% of the time. But luckily in movies you get to do multiple takes, so it works out."

SR: When there is a difference of opinion how do you decide who wins?

CM: "Usually it's self-evident but in the cases where we’re at loggerheads we’ll ask the editors and we’ll ask a consortium of friends."

PL: "There were a lot of occasions where we brought the entire editorial staff in to look at five different versions of a joke and say, ‘okay which is your favorite?’ We tortured them."

SR: I think one of the things that really works about this film is that it takes the basic premise that there is this "special task force" of police officers who look young and as such infiltrate high school crime rings (which is in itself hilarious) but it has a good sense of humor about what it is and doesn't stay married to the ensemble nature of the show. This is really one of the best buddy comedies we've seen in years. Can you talk about some of your influences?

CM: "Our primary influence was our own buddy relationship where we have a professional relationship and a friendship and there’s conflict but we really care about each other. But from a film standpoint, for the look of the movie we talked about '48 hours' and 'Beverly Hills Cop' and a movie called 'Running Scared' with Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. It’s a beautiful looking movie and its not shot like an over-lit studio comedy. It's shot like a gritty Chicago cop drama. It’s very funny and it’s about this friendship between these two guys who really love and respect each other. So it wasn’t like doing one of these cop movies where they hate each other, they can’t get along but they’re forced to be partners, which seemed like something that we didn’t really want to explore. We thought it would be much more fun if they were friends."

SR: This movie is also really playing with high-school stereotypes. Just how affected do you think we all are by the identity we had in our adolescence? Both at that time and then into our adult lives?

SR: Jonah Hill spearheaded the project and you guys aren't necessarily the first directors that spring to mind when you think about a movie like this. Can you talk a bit about how you got involved?

PL: We had just come off of doing 'Meatballs' and decided we wanted to do kind of the opposite, just to do something different and keep people guessing. We knew Jonah Hill through comedy circles and we really thought he was great and we liked each other. He had been working on the script with Michael Bacall and we thought 'this is great and it's an all-out comedy.' It's very raunchy with a lot of action and we thought it would be really fun to do. We weren’t the obvious choice to direct the movie so we put together a presentation that showed what we thought the look and tone of the movie should be, along with ideas that we thought could improve the story even further and showed that to the studio and producer Neal Moritz. And everyone got really excited and luckily we had a good working relationship with Sony from 'Cloudy' and everyone there trusted us so it all worked out."

SR: Channing Tatum absolutely kills it in this movie. He's hilarious, which was a surprise for many people. Did you guys feel like you were working against his reputation a bit on this?

SR: Working in animation you have so much control over the story and the performance. Coming on to this how much improvisation did you want to allow and play with?

CM: "Jonah has this amazing super power to think of these ridiculous things to say that are funny and to try to put a muzzle on that would be foolish. Se we knew in the beginning that we wanted to do a lot of improvisations. So we cast based on the actor's ability to contribute on that level and be quick and keep up and give it right back. And while we were working very hard on the script and Michael Bacall is incredibly talented and did a great job, it was also kind of a springboard to have a bunch of new stuff come in."

PL: "The most important thing in those scenes is to have a clear comedic idea come in and for their to be a good comedic attitude for each of the roles. It ends up being so much richer because there are so many different avenues to take."

SR: What's great is that the editorial style feels incredibly controlled and works so well for the comedy. But at the same time there is this really fresh and spontaneous feel to the performances. Can you talk about managing that balance?

PL: "That was one of our goals and one of our ambitions. Coming from animation it’s very difficult to get that kind of spontaneity and a lot of your improvisation comes from your story board artists and you come up with weird ideas as a group. And we kind of wanted to marry that process with live-action. The freeway sequence is an example where it was a collaboration between Michael Bacall and the storyboard artists and all of us who were planning that sequence. Those jokes worked because of meticulous planning and execution and we had to get the score right and the sound effects right for those things to work. But those are not necessarily funnier than when Jonah comes up with some strange thing in a moment. Or like when DeRay Davis, who plays the bad guy Domingo in the movie, made the suggestion that Jonah should sing that 'french fry song.' And so Jonah improvised the song right there and it was amazing. It’s so great to have both of those things in the movie."

SR: There is some indication about the possibility of a sequel at the end of the film.

CM: (Laughing) "It’s slightly implied, yes."

PL: "It’s weird to call your own home run. There’s been a little bit of discussion about it. If people see it and it's success...The studio is very excited and we’ve had some early discussions about what it would be but people need to respond to the characters. It’s a fun group of people, so hopefully they will."

CM: "My pitch is that the sequel will be called '2021 Jump Street' and it's set nine years in the future."

PL: "And my pitch is not that."

SR: Well we look forward to seeing Not That in theaters  in the summer of 2014.

21 Jump Street is in theaters now.

Follow me on twitter @jrothc

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Interview: The '21 Jump Street' Directors On Their 'Sneak Attack' Comedy