If you’re a director ready to tackle your first feature film, you could certainly take an easier route than the duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who decided to adapt the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett into a fully CG (and 3D!) animated experience.
Previously, they had produced the short-lived MTV animated series “Clone High” and the long-running CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” but neither could have prepared them for the task of capturing the magic of the beloved book about food falling from the sky. Working on it for 3 1/2 years, they succeeded at making a computer-animated movie as funny and entertaining as anything from Pixar or DreamWorks, embellishing the high concept premise with non-stop humor, impressive action scenes and a touching story about a son trying to win his father’s love and pride. Part of what makes the film special is the amazing voice cast, including Bill Hader as Flint Lockwood, the guy who invents the machine that turns water into food, Anna Farris as the weathergirl Sam Sparks who becomes Flint’s muse, and a many more, including Andy Samberg, James Caan, Bruce Campbell and even Mr. T himself!
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the very funny filmmakers at New York’s Dylan’s Candy Bar, a store on the Upper East Side that is literally lined from floor to ceiling with any and every kind of sweetie imaginable–a veritable crack den for kids.
Note: As always seems to be the case when interviewing a writing or directing team, they often speak as one, completing each other’s sentences, which sometimes makes it hard to figure out which guy said what, so hopefully we credited each one properly and they won’t be too upset if we attributed something said by one to the other.
ComingSoon.net: Having read the book however many years ago, what was your approach to convince Sony to let you make a movie based on it? Did Sony already have the rights? Phil Lord: They had the rights. We came in for a meeting on a different project and we knew that they had it and we kind of had a take on it. We’re like, “This is a crazy good disaster movie, but what if you took it really seriously?” We slyly asked how it was doing, what was going on, and they said, “We’re actually looking for someone to pitch a version of it,” and we said, “Well, we have some ideas for it.” That’s kind of how it started. It was something we targeted, it was a book we both really loved and it made a big impression on us when we were growing up. Chris Miller: One of the things about it is that there’s a wish fulfillment element of the book but then the second half of the book gets pretty crazy with pickles smashing into buildings and everyone has to evacuate. It actually plays kind of like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.
CS: I was thinking more like Roland Emmerich. Lord: For sure, for sure. In fact, when I saw the trailer for “2012,” I was like “That’s exactly the movie we wanted to make.”
CS: Did you guys get to see that clip that Sony showed at Comic-Con? Everyone was going nuts, and I’d never seen anything like that before. Lord: I thought it was really great. I think he really topped himself in the most amazing way, because I have a feeling that guy knows what he’s doing. He knows the whole thing is tongue in cheek. Miller: Might as well smash an aircraft carrier on top of the White House. Lord: Let’s smash everything. That trailer was everything I wanted it to be. Miller: Yeah, since we come out between “Julie & Julia” and “2012,” we just wanted to take the best elements of both. Lord: Yeah, so it’s like a nice continuity between the two.
CS: You guys had done some animation before for television, but nothing like this. Was Sony Animation already involved when you guys first found out about the project? Lord: Yeah, when Sony decided to have an animation wing, they commissioned someone to figure out what are the top 10 unproduced kids’ books were. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was #1. “Okay, let’s get it.” Miller: It was their first acquisition as a studio. Lord: It was easily 7 years ago, if not longer. Miller: Yeah, when that happened, so we came aboard and have been with Sony throughout the process.
CS: You’ve obviously worked with animators before but this was a much bigger scope. Miller: Yeah, doing a cable 2D animated show is very different from doing a big CG 3D spectacular, but we made a career out of being in over our heads, so we just jumped right in and luckily, we had a real amazing crew. There were 500 people working on this movie, a lot of really talented artists, and… Lord: It’s the same process, it’s just on a much larger scale. “Clone High,” maybe Chris and I were interfacing with 15 people any given day and giving directions and comments and thoughts, and suddenly, it jumps to like, “It’s 100 people and they’re all sitting in the same room.” The theater is a lot larger. Once you get over… I don’t even know if I ever even got over it… how awkward it is to give notes to a room of 50 people, but once you realize that it’s just the same thing, it gets a little easier.
CS: Once you guys were on the project and had to write the script, what was the first thing you had to figure out? I’d estimate that the original book makes up maybe 10% of this movie… Lord: Yeah, the book is an inspiration. Miller: The book doesn’t have any characters that have an arc in it in the traditional Hollywood sense.
CS: Or any explanation of why it’s raining food. Lord: Yeah, none of those things are there and we knew that we had to… Miller: Expand upon the book. Lord: We knew we had to add elements for it to really work as a narrative movie that you could follow for 80 minutes.
CS: As you were writing it, did you ever write anything that you thought, “There is no way that anyone can possibly animate this?” Miller: For sure, we’re like, “We just wrote the most expensive movie ever made.” Lord: That’s exactly what Imageworks told us. (We asked) “What was the biggest technical challenge of the movie?” and they said, “It wasn’t any one thing. There wasn’t anything you wrote that we couldn’t do. But doing all of the things that you wrote in the same movie was the real challenge.” Miller: Like for example some of hardest stuff was the spaghetti tornado, just getting all the software for that and all the R & D that was put into that scene. The inside of the Jello mold where light had to refract and reflect and the surface had to warble. They’re using this new raytracer software called Arnold, which calculates light as it bounces off of surfaces. When the surface is changing and warbling and it had to recalculate every frame and almost blew up the computers because it was so difficult. The giant “Foodalanche” that happens when the dam breaks…
CS: I wanted to ask about that. Were there any actual scanned food items included in there? Lord: No! Miller: All CG food.
CS: Because all of that looked so real, all the different food elements involved in creating that. Miller: Oh, that’s great. I’m glad that you think that. Lord: We certainly did a bunch of reference and every once in a while, you’d be like “There’s a candy corn. Here’s the design.” Miller: “There you go. This is a gummi bear.” Lord: Everything is hand-modeled and even the things that look the most realistic in the movie. In the contest of the movie, they look like they’re really there but if you compare that to the real thing, it’s idealized in some way or it’s been… Miller: Stylized.
CS: I was wondering about the look of the movie because Ron Barrett’s art from the book has a very specific look, but you guys went for something different, which I’d almost say is influenced by the Muppets. Is that possible? Lord: For sure it’s influenced by the Muppets. That was a very deliberate thing, because the Muppets are really simple characters, they’re really well-designed, they work great in 3D and they’re really expressive and those are all the things you want in a cartoon. I remember watching “A Bug’s Life” and having it click in my head, “Oh, it’s puppets. 3D cartoons, it’s about puppets.” Miller: The thing about human characters is in CG, if you make them look too realistic, they get kind of creepy looking, so early on, we definitely knew that we wanted the character designs to have a more cartoony aesthetic so one of the many sources, including the book and classic ’50s and ’60s animation, was the Muppets, and that went across for all the characters, especially Flint and Tim with his monobrow.
CS: I think Tim’s monobrow is what really gave it away. How did you end up with Bill providing the voice of Flint? Lord: We looked at a lot of different people and obviously, Chris and I wanted to put as many great comedians in the roles as we possibly could.
CS: It’s a pretty crazy cast, you have to admit. Lord: It is a pretty crazy cast, and it gets started with friends of ours like Andy Samberg and Will Forte and Neil Patrick Harris and trying to expand to other people in that comedy universe and heroes of ours like Bruce Campbell and James Caan and Mr. T, things like that. We wanted to have a great comedy cast… Miller: And the great thing about Bill and this is also true about Anna and everybody that we cast is that… (At this point, we were interrupted by two workers walking in–one of them apparently singing Elvis–and they started taking the chairs around us and immediately eyed the ones we were sitting in as if we were keeping them from doing their job. We all had a laugh about it before Chris got right back into his response)… is that they’re really great at doing character comedy. Bill does many different voices and Anna’s characters have a lot of great range in their vocal abilities… Lord: We wanted to make sure we had somebody who had a voice that would really pop off the screen. Miller: Also, Bill just as a person just has the perfect aesthetic for Flint, the main character, just because he is a cool version of a nerdy guy. Lord: We cast him off of an interview he did for “Superbad” – that’s like the piece we showed to the execs to convince them, and you can see in that interview, he’s doing all of these big characters, broader characters, in those comedy movies but in this interview, he’s really warm and sweet and vulnerable… Miller: …and sincere… Lord: Yeah, all of the things that you need a lead to do. That’s how we demonstrated that this guy can carry a movie. Miller: You have to be able to be funny but also be really sincere and have them get behind him.
CS: Did you guys film the actors while recording their voices to try to capture some of their mannerisms? Lord: Yeah, we always do that and the animators use that as reference. The animators also do a lot of video taping of themselves. They all have the equivalent of a mirror so they can capture their movements and sometimes, they’ll even go into a room with like the grid pattern on the walls and really track their movements. Miller: Yeah, it’s great doing an animated movie because you really do have two sets of actors, the voice actors and the animators.
CS: Did you record any of the voice actors together or did you do them all separately? Lord: Actually, we do. We tried to get Anna and Bill together a couple times, which was really fun, because they’re both great improvisers and it just gives it a more live feel, and then also for that scene of Bill and James Caan on the phone together, when he’s trying to teach his father how to send an Email, we had Bill live from New York on the phone, recording both sides of it… Miller: With James Caan in L.A. and they were really getting into an argument. Lord: I think there’s even outtakes of just the awkwardness of being on the phone with another actor somewhere else that we actually used in the movie.
CS: Did you have all of this written out as a script and then just let them improvise around it? Miller: We would write a scene and then have them do it as written and then we’d have that, but once we had it as written, we’d have them try to go off-book so they could add their own flavor to it and take it into crazy places. A lot of that stuff made it into the movie so it doesn’t have as much of a canned feel like it would otherwise.
CS: You talked about how the animators used real food as reference. Besides what you took from the images in the Barretts’ book, were all the different food ideas and gags in the original script or were the animators able to put in requests for foods to include? Lord: Yeah, we tried to represent as many of those. A lot of that stuff comes from the script and storyboard process. Miller: Some of the ideas came from storyboard artists and a lot of it we wrote in the script early on, and the trick was trying to be able to render as many of these different kinds of foods as possible in a movie about raining movie you want to have. There’s probably 80 different kinds of food… Lord: And we probably wrote like 200. Miller: And there was definitely a meeting one day where they’re like, “Okay, you get 100 kinds of food. You have to figure out which ones really count.”
CS: There are so many great food jokes that could be made, you could probably just sit there writing food jokes all day if you wanted. Lord: Oh, yeah. You totally could.
CS: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot but how did you and your animators not gain hundreds of pounds while making this movie? Miller: (laughs) Lord: That’s funny. You get super-duper hungry and then you look at cheeseburgers for 12 hours and then you’re like, “Man, I could really use a tomato.”
CS: I’ve met a lot of animators and they’re usually fairly small and thin guys, and I wondered if that was the same case here. Miller: Yeah, ’cause they’re always hunched over their desk like in their cave. Lord: And a lot of them work out. A very surprising number of animators go lift a lot of weights.
At this point, it started to feel like the people of Dylan’s Candy Bar had enough of us and were ready to take our table, the chairs and us with them, so we wrapped up the interview right there.