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Behind the Scenes of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS: Bringing a Favorite Children’s Book to Life in 3D
By Tom Snyder, Editor
Dartmouth grads Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have long wanted to do a movie version of their favorite book as a child, CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS.
Thus, when Sony approached them about doing some movies with them, they jumped at the chance to do the movie version of the book when they heard that Sony had the property rights.
“We forced them to let us make it,” Miller said with a slight chuckle. “We just commandeered the meeting.”
About seven years later, their delightful movie has finally reached the moviegoing public, opening to some of the year’s best reviews, including MOVIEGUIDE®.
Clearly, these two young men had a strong vision of what this movie should be, and have carried it out in magnificent fashion.
“The book was a big influence on our comic sensibilities,” Miller said. “We looked at it and saw pickles smashing into buildings and pancakes on the schools. We were like, ‘This is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, but silly on purpose.'”
Lord added, “In the illustrations at least, there’s this kind of undertone, ‘Look how excessive all this crazy consumption is, look how silly it is.’ And then, once we started getting into the [hero’s] story, it became a lot about what it’s like to be a creative outsider in this small town, embracing your inner geek and believing in yourself.
“The sense of humor and the tone of the book was a huge inspiration,” he continued. “Obviously, it’s incredibly visually amazing, and there’s all these great details [in the book].
“All we really did to craft the story was open the book up and look at all this stuff. We wanted the story to be full of little added details in the background, to make sure the animators could pitch all sorts of little bits that you could really only catch on the third or fourth or fifth or the 100th viewing.”
Lord and Miller said the biggest challenge was expanding the story in such a way that viewers would find a 90-minute animated movie compelling and engaging.
“That’s not easy,” Lord said. “We were maybe less adept at the very beginning in making the emotional beats work.”
Miller joked, “We had to dig deep behind our veneer of irony and sarcasm to get to the chewy core!”
“We had to find a way to stomach that [emotional] stuff,” Lord added. “So, we went to these movie places of fathers and sons, and I love you, [asking] How can we do that in a way that’s novel or unique or just a little bit twisted?”
Actress Anna Faris, who plays the heroine, Sam (short for Samantha), said, “I love the father-son relationship [in the movie]. And, I love the idea of embracing your passions and interests with pride. Especially right now, in this place we’re at in the world, there is this idea of excess, greed and gluttony. I love that the movie has more than one theme in it.”
“The thing I could relate to the most,” said actor Bill Hader (who played the goofy but heroic inventor, Flint Lockwood), “was having something that, in your little community, makes you kind of weird, and people don’t really get it, and no one is into the thing that you’re into, but that makes you unique, and you should commit to it 100 percent and enjoy it.
“That’s a cool message.”
Lord and Miller not only were inspired by the book, they also were inspired by disaster movies in general.
“We watched every Irwin Allen disaster movie [e.g., THE TOWERING INFERNO] ever made,” Lord laughed.
“It helps to hire really talented actors,” Lord noted.
“During the recording sessions,” he added, “Anna and Bill and the other actors had to do a lot of lines with their mouths full. So, we had to get cheeseburgers for everybody, right?! We were like, ‘No, put more burgers in your mouth!’ And, the slow-motion footage of dropping action figures into a vat full of Jell-O is pretty awesome.”
Besides their animation work on Disney’s CLONE HIGH for MTV, Lord and Miller have done a lot of work in live action situation comedies, most notably as co-executive producers and writers for HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER on TV.
Miller said, “One thing that was different from working in television that we did for the first time on this movie was, you can kind of get by on television doing a lot of jokes and having a sort of loose structure for a story. This, we realized pretty early on that, to keep everyone’s attention for almost 90 minutes, you need to have some emotional thru line, that you actually care about the characters and try to have some real heart to the movie. That was hard for us, because we had never done it before.”
Both writers/directors said comedy has to keep changing these days, to avoid becoming stale.
“People are really savvy and they can see jokes coming now,” Miller explained. “So, you have to put a twist on those jokes.
“That’s always been our policy,” he continued. “You have to be unique, no matter what it is. You have to do something that no one’s ever done before. That was true from [the standpoint of] the story and the experience of going to a movie and seeing what it’s like inside a spaghetti tornado. People know to expect [a] joke, so you have to do a twist on the joke of the joke.”
“Right,” Lord agreed. “You’re always trying to do something unexpected or surprising. That’s a big part of it. And, it’s just necessarily [true] that comedy changes over the years. The thing that was unexpected becomes expected, so now you have to do the opposite.”
Miller said they always filmed the actors doing their voice work so that the animators could have a video reference if they wanted it.
“A lot of times they would use it,” he said, “and a lot of times they would just hear things in the performance that would give them inspiration. They have their own video cameras on their desk, and they shoot themselves mouthing the dialogue and watch that also. So, it was a combination. You’re sort of directing two sets of actors, the animators and the voice actors.”
Lord added, “Video references of actors are just a tiny bit mythical. The animators draw a lot of inspiration off of the [actor’s] voice. That kind of like gets their imaginations going. They do that more often than rotoscoping or drawing on the video.”
Faris and Hader said working on CLOIUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS with Miller and Lord was harder than they thought it would be but that both men were great to work with anyway.
“They were really good at walking you through it,” Hader said.
What do Miller and Lord like about doing animation that’s different?
“The great thing about animation,” Lord said, “is it gives you a lot of freedom. The thing about the Warner Bros’ cartoons we grew up with and loved, is that there’s kind of a level of abstraction or absurdity to it that, ‘Wow, anything can happen!’
“We’re overjoyed to work on something where the sky’s the limit. If you can think of it, try it. The weirder the performance, the better. The stranger the choice, the better. We really encouraged [the actors and the animators] to embrace unusual, unique or strange choices.”
“One of our inspirations was the Muppets,” Miller said, especially in creating the hero’s father, whose bushy eyebrows cover up his eyes, except at special moments.
Besides disaster movies and The Muppets, another source of inspiration was Buster’s Keaton’s movie SEVEN CHANCES, especially the bit where giant boulders are chasing Buster.
“We love that type of slapstick comedy,” Miller said.
“It’s a little bit more elevated, to the level of dance,” Lord added.
One of the biggest challenges was creating a unique love interest for the hero.
In the movie, the hero meets a beautiful Cable TV weather girl, who has her own inner geek. The hero shows her that she is more attractive when she lets her intelligence shine through, especially when she puts her glasses back on.
“We were very worried about making a stock love interest character, a cardboard cutout type of character,” Miller said. “So, we decided to have it perfectly fit in with the themes of wanting to be comfortable with who you are and science is awesome. That’s why, the first idea we had was, what if we did a reverse makeover of Samantha, where she goes from letting her hair down and taking off the glasses to putting the glasses on? That would be so great!”
“We built the character out of a bit, basically,” Lord noted.
“She’s hiding who she really is,” Miller added. “That was perfect for Anna [Faris], because she often plays these ditzy characters, but she’s really a smart person.”
“It was really fun to have that reversal,” Anna chimed in. “Normally, you have the nerdy girl who becomes hot and cool, and it was fun to flip that on its head.
“What I also liked about playing her was that she’s feisty and frustrated. They really had a specific character. Sometimes you play a character and you have no idea what the character is like, and the character is just serving other characters softballs or something. But, this was great. I love the way she looks. I had a blast doing it.”
Perhaps the scariest thing about making CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, however, was finding out what the original author, Judi Barrett, and illustrator, Ron Barrett, would think.
“We were extra nervous showing it to them,” Miller said.
“They were tickled that the book influenced our sense of comedy and the types of art we like,” Lord said. “So, it’s really neat for them to have the filmmakers be people who grew up on their book. They’re kind of like mystified, ‘Can you really believe we made this thing in 1978, and then people grew up on it, and a whole movie came out if it?'”