03/13/2012 02:00 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

SXSW 2012: '21 Jump Street' Directors Chris Miller And Phil Lord On Making Channing Tatum An Underdog

As Sony had hoped, the world premiere of "21 Jump Street" at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin on Monday night provided the new comedy with just the right kind of buzz. Audience members went nuts for the film, and that kind of enthusiasm could make "21 Jump Street" an R-rated hit in the vein of "Bridesmaids." If that does happen, here's guessing you won't find two people happier than co-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord.

The young filmmakers (Miller is 35, Lord is 34) made their feature directorial debut with the kids' film "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," so it was a given they would follow that up with an R-rated comedy like "Jump Street." (It's not?) Loaded with course language and extreme (and extremely funny) violence, "21 Jump Street" is an ostensible reboot of the late '80s television series that launched Johnny Depp to stardom. In this version, though, the cops going undercover as high school students are played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and the school's big drug dealer is a nerdy honor student (Dave Franco). Wildly funny with action that recalls "Hot Fuzz," "Jump Street" could find itself fighting an uphill battle with general audiences, some of whom have reacted the way Miller and Lord did upon first hearing about the reboot: "That can't be a good idea."

Moviefone caught up with the directors just before "21 Jump Street" debuted in Austin to discuss how they convinced Sony to let them make this movie, and why Channing Tatum could be your next big comedy underdog.

I know Jonah had been working on "21 Jump Street" for five years. When did you guys come onboard?
Chris Miller: In the winter of 2009. There was a script that Jonah and Michael Bacall had been working on, and we had just come off doing "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," and we wanted to do something...

Phil Lord: That was the exact opposite.

Chris Miller: At first we thought, "21 Jump Street" that can't be a good idea. As everyone assumes! It's good to have a little inherent skepticism in life. But we read the script and it was crazy. It was really hard-R, as you can imagine, and we thought, "Wow, that would be crazy for us to do a hard-R action comedy." We were big fans of Jonah; we knew him socially and think he's really talented. So we decided we would try to convince everybody that they should let the guys who made the family film do this movie [laughs].

Was there any push back from the studio at the idea of you guys doing something so different?
Phil Lord: There wasn't push back, but they didn't call us.

Chris Miller: It was the same studio [Sony] -- they liked us and trusted us from "Cloudy" -- and then we made this presentation to show everybody. We were like, "Here's what we think the tone of the movie should be. It' a very delicate balance. Here's what we think the look of the movie should be, and here are some ideas we think can make the script even better." Everybody liked that, which was good. We took several meetings and showed everybody and sold everyone on the idea of us chuckleheads making the movie, and they foolishly trusted us [laughs]. Then we worked on the script with Jonah and Michael for a year. Kept developing it. We did a lot of research; we went on ride-alongs with police officers, we went to a high school to talk to kids, we went to a Santa Monica prom. We were trying to find what the differences were with kids today from when we went to high school 800 years ago.

One of the things I love about the film is how well you balance the action and the comedy, which is a difficult line to walk.
Phil Lord: We knew it was a comedy, first and foremost, and you had to make sure the action was a bonus. It was going to help you serve the broader story. That always helps. One of the complaints I have about action movies is when you feel like, "I'm seeing a bunch of cool stuff blow up, but I don't really care." It made us work harder because none of these sequences would stay in hte movie if they weren't serving the overall story.

Chris Miller: We also didn't want to do a big tonal shift, where we do a big action scene in the middle of a comedy.

Phil Lord: I think you would laugh then, not on purpose.

Chris Miller: We thought, "Every time we do an action scene, it needs to have a strong comic idea." Then we'll try to fill it with as many jokes as possible. Obviously you have to storyboard action and plan it out -- otherwise you're spending a lot of money -- but within those confines we wanted there to be the same level of spontaineity that we had in the rest of the movie. We tried to allow for that and have the guys react the way they would in that situation and see what happens. It was a really tricky balance.

Channing Tatum is a breakout star in this film -- so unexpectedly funny and perfect. Was he your first choice from the start?
Phil Lord: We looked all over the place for what kind of person that was, and ultimately -- Jonah felt strongly and we agreed -- that it should be someone different than him. We had seen a lot of guys that had looked like the two of us do comedy.

Chris Miller: A couple of nerdy guys as cops!

Phil Lord: We thought, "Man, it's so refreshing to see someone who is strong and handsome be put in that situation and be uncomfortable."

Chris Miller: Often times, we had been talking about it -- the three of us and Bacall -- and going, "It's kind of a Channing Tatum-type." Finally, Jonah was like, "Let's just ask Channing Tatum to do it." And we were like, "We should do some research on this guy first." We knew him from "Step Up" but we didn't know much about him. But we found this online short that he did with Charlyne Yi, where they recreated a scene from "Dirty Dancing" and he was Patrick Swayze, and he played it totally straight. We were like, "Wow, he totally gets it; he gets how to do comedy without trying to be funny. How come no one's ever used him like this?"

Phil Lord: It's weird. Underdogs aren't the same as they used to be. Anthony Michael Hall in "Sixteen Candles" is the old model, and it's awesome, but now I feel bad for jocks. They don't get respect. We went to visit high school and we saw all these kids with glasses like mine and weird hair and weird shoes and skinny jeans with hot girlfriends. I was like, "Wow, first of all, I was born in the wrong era. But like the jocks have gotten [screwed]." He's worked so hard at baseball or some other sport for his whole life and thought there was going to be some awesome payoff later and now he's the butt of everybody's joke. The nerds kind of won. So if you're looking for an underdog to be an authentic voice for comedy you have to look elsewhere.

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