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Q & A with Phil Lord & Christopher Miller


 

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, co-writer-directors of Columbia Pictures’ 3D animated comedy “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” from Sony Pictures Animation, opening wide Sept. 18.

In “Cloudy” Flint Lockwood, a wannabe inventor, yearns to invent something that will make people happy. Flint’s town is unhappy. Since its sardine canning factory closed down, all they have to eat are leftover sardines. So Flint invents something to solve that problem – a machine that turns water into food. When it actually works, Flint goes from being an outcast to the town hero.

“Cloudy” features the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris, Al Roker, Lauren Graham, and Will Forte. Written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (their first feature), it’s based on the book written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. It was produced by Pam Marsden and executive produced by Yair Landau.

“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” in theaters September 18.

“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” in theaters September 18.

Q: A lot of young directors start out by going to film school, but when you guys were at Dartmouth you weren’t studying film.
Chris: We actually did make student films while we were in college, but I was a government major for some reason and Phil was an art history major.
Phil: That was my last major. There were like four before that!
Q: How did you manage to parlay all this into getting into the movie business and, before that, TV? I know you’ve said it was actually a mistake that got you a job doing cartoons for Disney.
Chris: What happened was there was an article about me in the Dartmouth alumni magazine that they send out (that said) I was doing some things — editing the college humor magazine and doing a daily comic strip and that sort of thing. It was filled with exaggerations about things I had done — like I had done an internship at ILM while they were working on the new “Star Wars” re-releases and it said I had designed dinosaurs for the new “Star Wars” re-releases. That was wrong for many reasons — there were no dinosaurs and I didn’t actually do that.

But, anyway, that article made its way into (then Disney chairman & CEO) Michael Eisner’s hands because one of his sons (Eric), who we didn’t know, had gone to Dartmouth. I guess he saw the article and passed it down the chain and by the time someone from Disney television animation called me in my dorm room, it had been like “these are Eisner’s guys.” They called me and they wanted to fly me out for a meeting. I was like, “Ah, I’ve got mid-terms. I’m really busy” because I’m a knucklehead.

I sent Phil and my student films that we’d been working on to them and said we were planning on coming out to L.A. after we graduate and do you want to take a look at this stuff? They liked them and hired us and gave us a development deal straight out of that. And from there we actually learned how to write and —
Phil: —work together and be a team as we had never done before.
Chris: And now we’ve been working together for 12 years.
Phil: “A development deal.” That sounds great. What’s a development deal?
The stars of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, Bill Hader and Anna Faris (Right).

The stars of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, Bill Hader and Anna Faris (Right).

Chris: So it’s a very unusual career path. From there we made some Saturday morning shows that never really went anywhere and ended up getting a deal at Touchstone Television with (now ABC Entertainment Group president) Steve McPherson, who really liked the stuff that we were doing. We worked on a bunch of sitcoms and developed (the animated series) “Clone High”, which ended up going on MTV. Then we started writing and producing — mostly a bunch of sitcoms — and making and directing some TV pilots that never went anywhere. And now here we are making a crazy, giant Hollywood movie.
Q: How did you get to direct a feature?
Phil: It’s the first feature script we ever wrote. Sony had just started an animation division and they liked “Clone High” and invited us to come in and talk about a couple of projects. We weren’t interested in the project they pitched us so much as we were interested in “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, which we knew was a property that they owned and were developing. So we kind of looked around and asked about that.
Chris: It was both Phil and my favorite kids’ book. So the fact that they had the rights to it, we got extra excited about it and grabbed them by the lapels and made them let us make it.
Q: Clearly, it’s extremely visual material with meatballs and other good things to eat falling out of the sky.
Phil: It’s a no brainer to make into a film.
Chris: It’s such a fun and whimsical book and there’s so much rich detail in the illustrations. It just lends itself to things that you’ve never seen or experienced before. When you’re trying to make a movie, especially an animated movie, uniqueness is key. You want to make sure you’re showing the audience a world that they’ve never been to before and experiencing something that just doesn’t seem like “Oh, this is another one of those type of movies.”
Phil: There are very few food-based disaster animated comedy action movies in the marketplace.
Q: When did you first start working on it?
Chris: We came in on a meeting about five and a half years ago, believe it or not, and pitched our take, which was basically, “In this book there’s giant pickles smashing into buildings, a giant pancake that covers up the school. This should be treated like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, but silly.”
Phil: Silly on purpose.
Chris: Exactly. And they really liked that and so we had their great support from the beginning, which is either just very niceness or negligence on their part letting us take the reins on this thing! That’s how we started. We started directing it about three and a half years ago full time. We left (as co-executive producers on the series) “How I Met Your Mother”, where we were very happy. Great cast. Great writing staff.
Phil: It was so comfortable. You left every day at six. It was well run.
Chris: We knew what we were doing there. We were actually for once in our career not in over our heads.
Phil: It follows the rule that we’re not comfortable doing that.
Chris: We’re not comfortable until we are in over our heads! So let’s go make a giant studio picture in 3D.
Phil: “Do you guys know how to do that?”
Chris: “No we don’t. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
The stars of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, Bill Hader and Anna Faris.

The stars of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, Bill Hader and Anna Faris.

Q: But Sony said yes.
Phil: They said yes, but I don’t know that they speaks to their confidence in us or their gross negligence in executing their jobs!
Chris: What they knew is that they liked the tone of the script we had written. It’s hard to execute this sort of cheeky envelope-pushing style comedy in a family film. It’s very hard to get that tone right. So they thought, “Well, let’s give these young chaps a shot.” And we’re very thankful that they did.
Q: When I talk to writer-directors about adapting books what I hear much of the time is, "The book was 800 pages and we had to cut it down to a two hour movie." What was “Cloudy” like as a book?
Phil: The book doesn’t really have any characters in it. We knew starting out that we were going to have to add a lot of material and that the movie was going to be to some extent different than the book. But on the other hand, the illustrations are so rich in detail and have so many clever ideas that we included as many as we possibly could—
Chris: —while keeping the story structure making sense and not being too repetitive.
Phil: But there still are things that are in the book that we tried really hard to work into the story but we couldn’t quite get (to include).
Q: How did making a movie differ from working on your earlier TV projects?
Chris: One thing that was really special about this movie, I think, is the kind of cast that we got. We tried to co-opt all of our comedy friends and heroes and let them do as much adlibbing as possible to get to mine their comic genius.

We learned while making this movie that you want to be able to sit through a movie and care about the characters for 90 minutes so you need to have an emotional structure there and a lot more heart than we’ve been used to in our wacky days of television where you can sort of get by on snappy dialogue and funny jokes. The newest thing for us was making a movie where it’s not always funny but there’s parts that pull at your heart strings.