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Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are slowly taking over Hollywood by proving that there is no medium that they can’t excel in. In the past decade they have worked in both television and film and in both animation and live-action for both, helping create hits like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, How I Met Your Mother, and 21 Jump Street. This weekend will see them enter yet another new arena with the release of the stop-motion animation/CGI hybrid The LEGO Movie, and the film may be their best yet.
Last weekend, I took a drive down to LEGOLand in Carlsbad, CA where Warner Bros. was holding a press event for the new movie and where I had the great opportunity to sit down with the two directors one-on-one to talk about both their new movie and both where they’ve come from and where they’ve been. What did I learn in our conversation? Read on to find out!
Their Careers Started By Failing To Get Work On The Rugrats MovieLord and Miller have had quite the strange introduction to the film and television industry. They got their first big break creating the animated MTV series Clone High, worked as co-executive producers and writers on How I Met Your Mother, got their directorial debut making the hit Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and then moved over to R-rated live action to make 21 Jump Street. They’ve forged a unique path that will never be duplicated – and weirdly it all got started when they failed a drawing test while trying to get work together on The Rugrats Movie back in 1998.
Finding no luck in the feature world, they eventually turned to television and began pitching ideas for Saturday morning cartoon shows to Barry Blumberg and the people at Walt Disney Television Animation. And as Lord puts it jokingly, "We’ve just been failing upward ever since."
"We went to Dartmouth," Lord continued. "All our friends became stockbrokers and stuff. I figured, ‘I guess I’ll go to law school or something,’ and here we are. It’s still an option I guess, if this doesn’t do well."
They Have Their Own Ideas About Getting Into The Comic Book Movie GameFew parts of the film industry are booming quite like comic book movies right now, and one of the most interesting things about the genres evolution in the last few years has been the selection of filmmakers handling projects. When Kenneth Branagh and the director of (500) Days of Summer are making the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood, the door seems to be open to anybody with a good idea. It’s something that Lord and Miller have thought about and would be interested in – they’re just waiting for their time to come.
"A lot of that has to do with the comic book movie companies and who they pay," Lord said when asked about the potential for trying something superhero related. "Maybe we should create our own comic book brand, and make a popular character that’s like popular for a generation and then 25 years from now, direct that," he said laughing.
"We’re open to doing all kinds of things, because we really only like to do things that we don’t know how to do," Miller added.
The LEGO Movie Was Almost A Musical, And Would Love To Do A Real One In The FutureOne of the best episodes of Clone High is about a new drug craze hitting the titular high school, but rather than being an average after school special parody the whole thing is a rock opera featuring original songs written by Lord, Miller and their staff writers. Music has played a significant role in their careers ever since, with even The LEGO Movie featuring the insanely catchy pop song "Everything is Awesome," and it’s something that the two filmmakers would like to explore even more in new projects.
Asked about the role music plays in their creative process and any ideas of potentially writing a musical, Lord said that he and his writing partner had worked on one together previously (presumably the long in-development Bob The Musical) and that at one stage there was a possibility that The LEGO Movie was going to feature a lot more music.
Their main appreciation for the artform comes from how impressed they are when something can both rhyme and be funny. "It’s actually really pure because of rhyming and because of the meter, it helps create an expectation that you can then subvert at the last second, in the fourth line of the verse," Lord explained. "It just kind of boils down comedy to its purest form."
There’s A Very Specific Reason Why The LEGO Movie Was A Special Challenge To MakeThe great joy of playing with LEGOs is that you can build literally anything that your mind can come up with, but they have their drawbacks when it comes to filmmaking. As it turns out, when someone builds a police station out of the plastic building blocks it actually takes the mind an extra moment to process the structure and identify exactly what it is. This ended up being something that Lord and Miller had to consider with every single shot, and something that they discovered by constructing the sets before the animation process.
"If you’re shooting a live-action movie or even a traditional animation movie and you’re setting a scene in a coffee shop, you know you’re in a coffee shop immediately because you see everything that says you’re in a coffee shop," Miller explained about the filmmaking process behind LEGO. "In this movie, when you have a set that is a coffee shop, everything is being represented by something different. There’s like a tray of croissants there, and ‘Oh we’re using this weird piece as the barista’s machine’ and it takes a second to realize what’s being represented in this iconic form."
Looking at their sets they had to determine the best ways to visually explain each scene without over doing things on the production design side. Said Miller, "Sometimes it meant that we had to adjust our angle or make this shot a little bit longer than you’d think so you could understand where you were."
The Name Of The Janitor On Scrubs Was Revealed Six Years Early On Clone HighOne of the longest-running jokes on the television show Scrubs was that the lead character, J.D. (Zach Braff), could never figure out the real name of the hospital’s janitor, played by Neil Flynn. Full episodes were dedicated to figuring out what it said on the surly custodian’s driver’s license, but the series creator and writers steadfastly refused to give the answer away until the end of the show. The truth, however, is that the real name of the Janitor was actually revealed during the third season of the series – albeit on a different series on a different network.
While Lord and Miller never worked on Scrubs themselves, the medical comedy series shared production offices with Clone High and Bill Lawrence was credited as a creator on both shows. In a 2003 episode of Clone High titled "Litter Kills: Literally," Lord and Miller got Scrubs star Flynn to guest star as the voice of a character named Glenn, the janitor of the high school. Six years later in 2009 it was revealed in an episode titled "My Finale Part 2" that Flynn’s character on Scrubs was named Glenn Matthews. This is not a coincidence.
"[The idea was] that it would be the story of how the janitor left [Clone High] and started a job with a hospital, and so we called him Glenn," Miller said when I asked about the connection between the characters. "Then years later when they were going to reveal the name of the janitor, Bill thought it would be funny to make it Glenn."