AN INSIGHTFUL, IRREVERENT INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTING TEAM BEHIND CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS.
Chris Miller and Phil Lord certainly landed a dream gig that many animators would kill for. Only a few years out of Dartmouth College, where they made individual animated films in a studio together, they got the chance to direct the animated adaptation of their favorite kids book of all-time, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. It took them a few years, but they have created a well-received film adaptation of a cherished children’s book that many feels captures the spirit of the original — a town called Swallow Falls becomes blanketed by flurries of food that are at first welcomed, but later become burdensome — while adding a backstory to include a young inventor (named Flint Lockwood) who generates the food storms, the weather woman (Sam Sparks) who breaks the story and the townspeople who learn about how moderation is a good thing. And, of course, there’s romance between two characters chasing their dreams and trying to prove to the world that they can make it. Ultimately the 3D extravaganza that is Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs is a clever and well scripted animated adventure that provides a message with its gastronomic goofiness.
ADD caught up with the directors at a junket in New York that was held, ironically enough, at Dylan’s Candy Bar, a lavish emporium of confectionary delights. The two men, who look ten years younger than they are, have a wonderful comedic chemistry and play well off of one another. So well, in fact, that later during tape playback, distinguishing between the two amid their quick banter often proved to be a challenge.
How are you?
Chris Miller: I’m awesome, how are you?
Phil Lord: Did you fill your jar with candy?
I did. I got some gummy tarantulas. But not the bacon gum. That’s just wrong.
Chris Miller: I’ve yet to have something with bacon in it that wasn’t delicious.
You obviously have a lot of food in this movie. The 3D works very well, and that is partly due the fact that there’s lot of subtlety in many of scenes. You didn’t go overboard. I expected to see a lot more meatballs flying out of the screen. How much of a temptation was there to go old school with the 3D, and why did you decide to hold back on the clichés?
Phil Lord: I’m impressed and psyched that you think we held back. That’s good. We were worried that there be too much hot dog in your face.
Chris Miller: We knew this movie was going to be in 3D maybe two and half years out, and we also knew that there would be three or four big 3D movies coming out before ours. We had a feeling that some of the real, ridiculous gagginess would be played a little bit – maybe it would or maybe it wouldn’t, we weren’t quite sure – but we wanted to play a little bit on the safe side. The good thing about the new version of 3D is that it immerses you in the story and supports the movie in this great way — and don’t get me wrong, we did a few ridiculous, in-your-face gags — but sometimes those take you out of the story. And you want to feel immersed and brought into it rather than be pushed back out.
You could put that on the DVD, the “3D Overdrive” version.
Phil Lord: Yes, exactly.
Chris Miller: You know, there is some food in your face stuff there, too. Just enough to keep you entertained.
When this project was in pre-production, it was two French directors and a French chef. How did you guys land the gig and get to stick with it?
Phil Lord: These movies go through a lot of iterations. They are born, they die and they are born again. We came on about six years ago writing a version of the script, and we were invited to direct it in February of 2003. Why did they not fire us? That’s kind of what you’re asking. I don’t know. That’s a mystery to me. We should have been fired multiple times throughout the project. Sony had great faith in us and showed a lot of confidence and gave us a lot of support all the way through this project.
Did you come up with the idea of the machine in the sky?
Chris Miller: Yes. We had come in on a meeting for a different project at Sony and found out they had the rights to this book, which was our favorite kids book growing up. We basically grabbed them by the lapels and forced them to let us make this movie because we loved it so much. They called us a couple of days later and said, “Hey, do you have any ideas for that other movie?” We said, “No, but we have lots of ideas for Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.” “Really? Can you come in and pitch us tomorrow?” We actually didn’t have any ideas, so we said, “Maybe the day after tomorrow?” So we hung up the phone and basically came up with the plot we have now – the inventor, the machine and the backstory of Swallow Falls.
Phil Lord: We approached it as if this story was a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and how would a big Hollywood studio approach this thing? Let’s just own that. We wanted to make as brawny and crazy and as big a summer movie as possible. If you’re going to follow the disaster movie paradigm, they always have a scientist and always have a reporter in the cockpit, stuff like that, so we tried to do silly versions of all those archetypes.
What is your favorite disaster movie?
Phil Lord: Earthquake. By far.
Chris Miller: It sets up a lot of stories that don’t actually pay off, which is hilarious.
Phil Lord: It’s a good enough movie that you can watch it all the way through, but bad enough that you’re laughing all the time.
Chris Miller: Richard Roundtree plays a motorcycle stuntmen and has a story arc that gets set up that was clearly cut out of the movie. At the end, he just disappears. “Oh wow, he’s a motorcycle stuntman! I’ll bet he’s going to do a big motorcycle stunt!” But no, he doesn’t.
You two have a great chemistry together. How did your lives intertwine?
Phil Lord: We were friends at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. We had an animation professor there, and I tricked Chris into quitting an important government class there, because he was a government major, to take this animation course. We got really into it. We shared a studio our senior year and made these incredibly long student films. We had an animation professor there, David Ehrlich, who comes from the Japan animation world, and he turned us onto this do-it-yourself approach to filmmaking. That’s what great about animation – it’s the one form of filmmaking that you can do with one person.
Chris Miller: We did this movie with 500 people, so it was the opposite. It’s been a long process from working on our own to working together to working on a sitcom [How I Met Your Mother] with several dozen people to working on this movie with 500 amazing, talented artists and filmmakers all collaborating together to make something awesome. [After school] we moved to L.A. at the same time and —
Phil Lord: Shared a bedroom that side by-by-side Bert and Ernie beds.
Chris Miller: It was a little too much time together at that time.
Phil Lord: We carpooled to work. It was sad. [Our story began when] Chris got this call when were seniors in college from the Walt Disney Company, and basically there was an article about Chris in one of the alumni magazines that they send out to get donations. It turned out that Michael Eisner’s some Eric was Dartmouth ‘95, but we never knew him. The story was told to us that Eisner apparently gets this thing handed to him about this young animation guy Chris Miller, and he hands it to someone who hands it to someone who hands it to someone, and by the time it gets down the line, it goes from being like “Hey, check these guys out” to “These are Eisner’s boys! Bring them to Los Angeles! Give them a job. I don’t care what they look like.” And then Chris made the biggest mistake of his life [by saying], “Can I bring along my friend?”
Chris Miller: They assumed that we were a team, and we actually had never worked together before. “I guess we’re a team now.” And we have been ever since.
How did you guys work together on this film?
Chris Miller: It would be way more convenient if one of us did one part and the other did the other part, but we work in the least efficient way possible, which is that we both try to do everything, so it sometimes is a very long process.
Phil Lord: There’s an art to our working relationship. We started out as completely individual filmmakers who were asking each other advice, and now we’re in this position where we’re collaborating constantly. That has been a little like a marriage. You have to figure out how to compromise constantly and not be annoyed with the other person.
Chris Miller: And we’re almost there.
You obviously had to do a lot of research on food. Which food was the most challenging to recreate on the screen?
Phil Lord: Broccoli. You might notice that it’s not in the film.
Chris Miller: It’s very hard to render convincingly the little leaves of the mini-tree on broccoli.
Phil Lord: The Imageworks guys really can do everything, but it’s just a matter of what you’re putting your focus on. Because broccoli wasn’t a huge factor in the movie we decided to cut that and other things. For the three shots they were in the background it wasn’t really worth it.
Chris Miller: Cheeseburgers were actually very difficult because when they fell they had to break apart convincingly, not [bounce] like a rubber toy. That meant that they had to model each piece separately. Lettuce had to have the characteristics and sloppiness of lettuce, the beef had to have the glistening, shininess of meat and the buns had to squish a little bit. That was a big challenge. Also, the spaghetti tornado was a huge project, trying to get it to look like spaghetti and also awesome.
As far as the character designs in the movie, who came up with the idea for giving Tim, Flint’s father, the big eyebrows, and who decided about not using the mohawk for the character played by Mr. T?
Chris Miller: With Mr. T, we thought about it [doing the Mohawk], but it’s not really a joke. “Look, it’s Mr. T, remember he had the big mohawk?”
Phil Lord: [At one point] we wanted to further than that, so we gave him a reverse mohawk [from side to side]. He went through a bunch of different iterations to one point where he just had a regular hair cut, and there was some action scene where it got buzzed.
Chris Miller: It was too much of an actual pop culture reference that we were trying to avoid.
Phil Lord: We’re such nerds.
Chris Miller: There many times when we were pitching things, and we were tempted to have him say, “I pity the food.”
Phil Lord: There was another one that people implored us to do: “You had me at Jell-O.”
Chris Miller: As for James Caan’s character, our inspiration for the character design came from the original book and a series of books – This is London, This Is Paris, This Is New York – from an artist called Miroslav Sasek, classic animation and the Muppets. One of the things about Muppets is that they exist in three dimensions. They’re really appealing, have a really simple design and are able to be really expressive without having eyes that move. The character [of Tim] was not supposed to be emotionally expressive. We thought it was the perfect choice for a character where his eyes are windows to the soul, and he’s reserved, so you can’t see that. But you get a glimpse of them every now and then.
Phil Lord: We had to fight tooth and nail to get that through the gauntlet because studios want you to make appealing characters that you can put on T-shirts and market, and he doesn’t look cute or friendly or nice.
Chris Miller: So the compromise was that underneath those eyebrows you get to see them eventually, and it wound up being a great bit for the movie.
Check out the interview with Cloudy… co-star Anna Faris.