This week, Giles Alderson and Christian James caught up with the amazing filmmaking duo Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, who had just returned to London after a visit to Aardman studios in Bristol.
In their university alumni magazine, there was an article written about Chris, with the title ‘The Next Dr Seuss?’ Michael Eisner, who was the head at Disney at the time, and had a son who went to the same school, had received the magazine.
“He saw this article about me and then passed it on to an underling, who passed it to another underling who called me in my off-campus apartment. It was a game of telephone by the time it got to number four. It went from ‘check these guys out’ to ‘these are Eisner’s boys, give them a job’.”
So straight after graduating, they got a job developing Saturday morning TV shows. “And we failed, we’d pitched like seven shows.”
In their early days, they’d pitch shows that they thought were interesting or unique, but “the higher-ups weren’t interested. They wanted ‘more Disney’. And that was a bit discouraging because we were like how are we going to do something that we want to do that feels like it has some sort of corporate mandate on top of it.”
Phil said that their response to ‘more Disney’ was adapting “the crummiest Disney movie ever made” which the ‘higher-ups’ loved.
They started making shows that fitted the Disney mould, but they regretted it every time.
“We learned pretty early that you gotta make something that you want to see. And thankfully I think studios and money people are different than they were back in the late nineties. Now uniqueness drives the marketplace.”
Clone High was completely different to anything that was around at the time. They’d decided that they wanted to just have fun with a show.
“We had been in writer’s rooms on other shows where the showrunner would say you need to beat this joke, but it needs to be the exact same thought. And we were like, okay, we don’t know how to do that. So we wanted to be the showrunners that said yes. If you’ve got a wild idea, we wanted to figure out how to make it work. And so that was the philosophy of that room. We said yes to basically everything and any whim that we had, we just started to play with it. It was really freeing.”
Working on that show, for them, was a real film school. There wasn’t a lot of money or a big crew, so they ended up doing a lot of it themselves – “including storyboard revisions and animatic editing.
We had to learn how to use editing software. So it was really helpful on that front. And then ultimately now working with a writing staff and an art team we can get away with anything and the feeling like you can get away with anything felt amazing. And it’s something we’ve tried to do for the rest of our careers.”
How Their Mindset Changed
“So a funny thing happened while we were making Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. We were at Sony Animation and they had a movie come out that didn’t perform how they wanted it to. They’d spent a million dollars getting a research company to reverse engineer ‘Why Animated Movies Succeed in the Marketplace’.
And the researchers said that the way to win is to be unique. You can’t be the fourth penguin movie. You have to be something that nobody’s seen before.”
If you deliver something unique, an experience that feels new, you will get people to go to the cinema.
“It has to be an experience. It has to feel like I’m going on a ride and it’s going to be something I haven’t ever felt before. Something that beats just sitting at home and watching something, it has to be worth paying for a babysitter and making a whole evening out of.”
Last Words of Advice
Phil: “Embrace the failures. For every success we’ve had, we’ve had some (often public) failure to go along with it. That’s just learning, that’s just filmmaking. You make a bunch of bad stuff, along with the good stuff.
The nice thing about animation and even the Jump Street movies, you get to make 10 bad versions of the movie before the last one. And then you learn from your mistakes.”
Chris: “Don’t chase something because you think it’s what people want to see. Make something that you want to see, that you think is special, and is something that only you could make.
It has to be something that you really are passionate about and want to spend every waking moment of your life thinking about because that’s what ends up happening. These things take a long time to make.
For more brilliant advice and insights, from Chris and Phil, listen here.