With ‘Cloudy,’ alums. score box office sensation
By Annie Zhang
Published on Thursday, October 1, 2009
This week Spaulding Auditorium, and theaters worldwide, were besieged by lethal spaghetti and meatball tornadoes; graced by gigantic Jell-O castles resplendent with gelatinous Venus de Milos and solidified swimming pools; overrun by sentient and incredibly violent roasted chickens; and protected by a police officer whose chest hairs visibly tingle in the presence of danger.
These fanciful images come from the collective imagination of Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97, the inspired minds behind “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” the top-grossing film in the United States for the past two weeks. Lord and Miller presented their critically acclaimed animated feature for audiences at the Hopkins Center on Tuesday evening, and appeared in person to discuss their odyssey from Dartmouth to the Hollywood limelight.
From pulling all nighters, hanging out at Amarna and crashing Hanover High School proms, to now writing and directing a wildly successful animated movie, Lord and Miller seem to be living the dream.
The creative process of “Cloudy” first began six years ago, when Lord and Miller pitched the project to Sony Pictures Animation, which owned the film rights to the beloved 1978 eponymous children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett. It was not until two and a half years later that Lord and Miller decided to focus solely on the production of “Cloudy,” writing the screenplay and directing.
Since the original book had only a sparse storyline, Miller and Lord invented the tale of a young inventor (voiced by Bill Hader) whose water-to-food machine accidently takes perch in the sky and spills three meals a day upon the struggling denizens of his remote island.
Since its release on Sept. 18, the film has grossed over $63.8 million and earned an 85-percent fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
This film is not Lord and Miller’s first brush with fame, however. The pair garnered critical acclaim for their MTV series “Clone High, USA” and CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” where they produced and wrote for the show’s first season.
Lord and Miller first met as freshmen at Dartmouth, where Lord majored in art history modified with film and Miller majored in government. During their freshman year, Lord convinced Miller to drop one of his government classes in favor of an animation class, beginning the start of a lasting and immensely fruitful friendship.
David Ehrlich, their freshman animation professor, noted that both Lord and Miller each had their own strengths.
“Chris was very good with character development and personality, while Phil’s strength was wild perspectives and movement,” he said.
For his senior honors project, Lord produced the animated short “Man Bites Breakfast,” a film that features the rebellion of breakfast cereal against man, and may, he said, have served as a subconscious precursor to “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
Miller drew a comic strip for The Dartmouth about a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed squirrel titled “Sleazy the Wonder Squirrel Show,” and was editor-in-chief of the Jack-O-Lantern.
Although the pair did not work formally with one another during their time at Dartmouth, both Lord and Miller sought one another’s advice and suggestions.
“It’s only after we got out of school that we sort of accidentally stumbled into being each other’s partners,” Miller said. “We just showed up at Disney together, and they just sort of assumed we were a team. We didn’t even realize we were coming off as a team.”
Lord and Miller said their experiences at Dartmouth influenced their career and work.
“Being at Dartmouth, we developed a taste for doing things that were both silly and sophisticated, trying to balance highbrow and lowbrow,” Miller said. “I think that translates into what we’re doing with ‘Cloudy,’ which has really visceral silly humor, but also more smarty pants humor as well.”
The fact that Lord and Miller both attended Dartmouth has not escaped the notice of their fellow screenwriters, including Pam Brady, who worked on both the “South Park Movie” and “Team America,” and who often references Dartmouth in her work solely as a means of mocking Lord and Miller.
In person, Lord and Miller are very much like the characters in “Cloudy”: offbeat and self-effacing, yet very relatable.
Whether they were joking about what to title this article (top suggestions: “Lord lords over Miller” and “Miller lords over Lord”), reminiscing about the angry skateboarder that Miller offended in his “Sleazy the Wonder Squirrel Show” comic or bantering about bagels can harm the female physique, the talk with these two was never ordinary and always side-splittingly funny.
Lord and Miller’s well-developed sense of humor is very much evident in “Cloudy.”
“We’ve always had at least some comedic element in the things we’ve done,” Miller said. “We have a hard time taking ourselves very seriously.”
Lord and Miller said they were pleasantly surprised by the massive success “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” has achieved.
“People seem to respond to it,” Lord said. “[The film is] proud of being smart and of being a little weird.”
Miller finished Lord’s train of thought, as they often did throughout the interview.
“It’s different. A lot of these movies come out and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, talking animals again, great,’” he said. “Also, we were able to get really good performances from our awesome cast and animators. Everybody added a lot of their own details.”
Despite the film’s lighthearted tone, however, Lord and Miller agree that the actual process of developing and creating the movie was exhausting and challenging.
The pair oversaw a crew of over 500 members, Miller said.
“It is the second hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Lord said.
Miller likened the experience of working on the movie to an athletic feat: “Imagine if you had to do a marathon, but you had to sprint the whole way. So now we’re passing out on the finish line, covered in our own vomit and with bleeding nipples. But at least we made it to the end and we’re happy with our results.”
The dream of making it in the film industry was something Lord and Miller said drove them throughout their Dartmouth careers.
“Chris did an internship in San Francisco,” Lord said. “I went to visit him and I remember hanging out on Coit Tower in a very cheesy way, overlooking all of San Francisco and feeling very expansive about the possibilities of our lives, and I remember either [Chris] or me saying, ‘I think we can do this. I bet we can do this.’ So I think we were very conscious our whole senior year of trying to figure out a way to make a career out of what we were doing.”
And make a career they did. And now, the next thing Lord and Miller say is on their to-do list isn’t to produce the next summer blockbuster or to become the next Spielberg — it’s to take a nap.