The actors were improvising a scene about improvisation last October, as the "21 Jump Street" veterans were graduating from the last film's high school setting into college for the coming "22 Jump Street."
In a pub at Tulane University converted into a fictional college for the sequel, Tatum and Hill's undercover and generally incompetent police officers were, as in the first hit film, trying to track down a school drug dealer.
As part of their detective work, Officers Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) were investigating a campus comedy club. Schmidt, in his attempt to woo the friend of a drug overdose victim, already had performed one of the worst slam poems on record (one line: "Jesus cried. 'Runaway Bride.'"). Now it was Jenko's turn to try to understand why an improv comedy team didn't just write out their jokes ahead of time. "Wouldn't that be much funnier?" Tatum asked them, before offering the team a string of crude ideas — almost all involving the body parts of elderly women — for their next sketch.
"This is the dumbest scene we have ever done on this movie," Hill said while the production took a brief break. Added Tatum: "And we have done some really stupid stuff."
Only a few snippets of the sequence would make it into the finished film, but the scene was illustrative of how directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller like to work: Almost everything that happened that day on the "22 Jump Street" set was made up on the spot, and yet it stitched together, almost seamlessly (the outtakes will be on its DVD).
It's part of the Lord and Miller filmmaking mantra: Embrace failure. Go for the unexpected. Don't be afraid of sequels or making fun of the very thing you're making a movie about.
And it's helped make them rare birds in Hollywood — directors who make popular entertainment that's smarter than you would ever imagine it could be.
Off-screen comedy team
Lord and Miller met as Dartmouth College students, when Miller accidentally set Lord's girlfriend's hair on fire (both also worked on the college newspaper). Several years ago the two were having a get-to-know-you meal with Mads Nipper, then the chief marketing officer of Lego.
The filmmakers were at breakfast to talk about "The Lego Movie," but before the conversation turned to business, Lord and Miller stacked their omelets on top of their pancakes, dousing the whole "omfle," as they called it, with maple syrup.
When a skeptical Nipper tried a bite, he pronounced it delicious and the meeting was off with a bang.
"It's an example of something they did that was at first perceived to be weird but then it turned out to be genius," said Dan Lin, a producer of "The Lego Movie." "They are both highly creative guys who think and work in unconventional ways."
"Unconventional" doesn't fully describe their talent. With this year's "The Lego Movie" and 2012's "21 Jump Street," Lord and Miller have turned what looked to be Hollywood's most cynical efforts to cash in on recognizable brands into legitimately good movies.
Their films have a refreshing self-awareness that gives them a kind of "meta" quality. In the "Lego Movie," for example, the characters sing about being Lego characters. The directors know that their audience — even the youngest — understand that they are watching a fictional universe that's ultimately aimed at selling them a product.
Yes, "The Lego Movie" (worldwide gross: $462 million) and "21 Jump Street" (worldwide gross: $201 million) were highly profitable. But they also drew almost shockingly positive reviews: "The Lego Movie" attracted positive notices almost exactly commensurate with the best picture Oscar winner "12 Years a Slave," and everyone who had modest expectations for how they would adapt Johnny Depp's corny 1980s TV series "21 Jump Street" into a feature had to be more than satisfied with the resulting movie.
"I wish we were smart enough that every time we had an idea for a script that it was great right off the bat," Lord said after filming wrapped on "22 Jump Street," in which Hill and Tatum's characters try a trial separation as crime-fighting partners, only to realize their professional relationship shouldn't be annulled.
"But I don't know that we're that great. Everything we've ever done — the first draft of things have been not very good — we keep working at them and then we're open to new things like the joke about Channing and the improv comedians."
Like most successful filmmaking teams, Lord and Miller, who previously wrote on television shows including "How I Met Your Mother" and "Clone High," often finish each other's sentences, and there's no readily discernible difference in how they divide job responsibilities. Lord, 37, has more nervous energy, frequently raking his hands through his turbulent hair. Miller, 38, by default is the calmer of the two, and with his comparatively calm and laconic manner it's possible to mistake him on set for Lord's talent agent, not creative partner.
While the two had some early success after leaving college, they struggled for some periods, and their MTV show "Clone High" was canceled soon after an episode about Gandhi sparked a hunger strike in India. The two, who live in Los Angeles, almost didn't get to complete their first feature, the animated "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," after a series of creative clashes with producer Sony Pictures (the studio fired them before rehiring them to finish the movie).
Lord and Miller — the former's longtime companion is jewelry designer Irene Neuwirth, while Miller is married to college girlfriend Robyn Murigo, with whom he has two young children — said the experience taught them the value of returning to "square one," as they call it, and also welcoming any and all ideas, even those destined to nose-dive.
"We certainly had our share of failures early on and worked on a bunch of canceled sitcoms, which were very helpful in learning," Miller said.
Added Lord: "I was just talking to an NYU student on the way to work today who asked for some advice. So I called him on the phone and gave him the line, 'You need to hurry up and fail.' It comes from a story that [animator] Chuck Jones tells about his teacher at CalArts who said, 'You all have 10,000 bad drawings inside of you and you had better start getting them out.' You need pencil miles to be a great artist, animator, or filmmaker, and the sooner you start making mistakes, the quicker you learn."
Old brands, new ideas
It seems almost reductive to note, but the movie business is often its own worst enemy. Not only does it typically steer away from original ideas, but it also has a habit of taking decent interpretations of bad ideas and crushing them down into lowest-common-denominator landfill.
Lord and Miller believe — and their films have proved — that an undeniably premeditated notion for a movie doesn't necessarily have to be as calculated in its execution.
At the same time, the two openly parade that they are in the recycling business. Early in "21 Jump Street," a deputy police chief says the guys in charge are just revamping old programs and expecting no one will notice. The conclusion of the sequel includes ersatz (or are they?) previews from the next raft of "Jump Street" spinoffs.
In the case of "21 Jump Street," Lord said, "We came in with a very specific, dogmatic point of view that was, 'What if the twist on this movie is it's really good? What if people go in expecting to see a dumb comedy and they come out going, "Wow, that was actually a good movie!" '
"We thought that the thing that would make you feel that way was if we told a compelling story about a relationship between two guys and how they solidified their friendship. In every case, the point of inspiration was not cynical. It was actually really, almost unrealistically optimistic. 'The Lego Movie' was the same way."
Said Miller: "In the case of 'The Lego Movie,' we thought that was a way to make a really great Lego movie. I mean it's a toy that's about creativity and there's a million possible ways that it could go. There's a crap, commercial sellout version of it that would not interest us at all and so we thought, 'We're interested in it if you guys are willing to not have it feel like it's a big commercial coming from the Lego corporate offices.' Everyone was on board with it. It turns out that if you give them an opportunity to make a movie good, people will go with you because good is commercial."
That may not necessarily be true with all movies — there are scores of great independent and foreign-language films that never find an audience — but Lord and Miller are showing that there is a way to satisfy both the industry's accountants and its most discriminating ticket buyers. Like their other three features, "22 Jump Street," which also stars Ice Cube as Tatum and Hill's commanding officer, is attracting strong reviews and is likely to fare even better than its predecessor at the box office.
Unlike many rising directors, Lord and Miller say they remain interested in doing more sequels and spinoffs: They are developing two "Lego Movie" follow-ups and another "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" movie.
"Doing a sequel is even more cynical, right?" Lord said. "So we were probably even more skeptical than we were on '22 Jump Street' than on '21' and we didn't get really excited about it until we starting thinking about how the idea of making a sequel to a successful movie rhymes a lot with trying to re-create magic of the beginnings of a great relationship.
"Then once it felt like we could make a movie about how hard it is to be in a marriage and sustain success in a marriage, then it got cool. Then it became about something, and the movie has a reason for being. It has to be a mission, not a job."