Turning Meatballs from a kids' book into a film

The title of the new animated film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs—based on the children's book by author Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett—evokes a world full of weird events and wild jokes. Appropriately, it's that sense of oddball, nonsense humor that drew directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to the project, although they knew they would need to combine those elements with a compelling story.

"The book is really very short," Lord told reporters during a group interview in Culver City, Calif., last week. "It doesn't have a whole lot of characters. It's a very simple plot, and it luckily works well as a movie structure—sort of like the Jurassic Park plot, which was like, 'Wouldn't it be neat if there were dinosaurs? Yeah, wow, that'd be really neat. Oh, wait, that would be really bad and horrible and dangerous—let's get out of here!' That's basically the plot of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but with food instead of dinosaurs."

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs follows the adventures of an amateur inventor, Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), whose food processor accidentally get shot into the heavens, causing all sorts of exotic cuisine to rain down (literally) from the skies. The movie also features the voices of Anna Faris, Bruce Campbell, James Caan, Bobb'e J. Thompson and Andy Samberg.

Key to making the book work as a film was adding an emotional arc and relatable characters, Lord added: "Characters that you're following that you care about. So it was actually kind of exciting to be able to make all that stuff up from scratch while trying to keep as many of the memorable visual moments in the book."

After an informal introduction to the filmmakers in the lobby of Sony Pictures Imageworks, Lord and Miller led us to a sizable room where pictures of all shapes and sizes adorned the room. On the front wall, images of the town of Chewandswallow reveal a dilapidated landscape of rundown or abandoned businesses. Along one side of the room ran shots of 3-D models of all of the principal characters.

Along the other wall were posted renderings of piles of oversized food promise to be visually interesting, including a shot of the sun setting behind a mansion made of Jell-O.

Lord and Miller screened a handful of scenes from the film that showcased the movie's surreal images. In the first, Flint hides from the people of Chewandswallow after his invention disappears into the heavens, only to be accidentally discovered by TV reporter Sam (Anna Faris). The skies fill with ominous clouds, which open up to rain cheeseburgers onto the town. Other sequences showed the townspeople indulging in the nonsensical abundance of food, which resembles normal weather: ice cream blankets the town like snow, for example.

In the Jell-O mansion, Flynne and Sam devour a statue resembling Michelangelo's David (with Sam's face on it), then watch the sun set through the golden arches of a gelatin balcony.

In a final scene, a massive tidal wave of food crashes onto the town as citizens flee into the nearby harbor, led by Earl Devereaux (Mr. T), a cop who catapults his son and wife into the water to float to safety on a gigantic grilled cheese sandwich.

Lord and Miller's previous work includes writing and producing episodes of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother and co-creating the short-lived MTV animated series Clone High.

Miller explained that the duo was initially contacted to develop another project for Sony, but added that he and Lord subsequently convinced them that Cloudy was the film they were destined to make. "We saw that they had the rights to this book, and it was both mine and Phil's favorite book growing up," Miller said. "So we basically ignored the other project and grabbed them by their lapels and made them let us do this."

Miller said that the development period of Cloudy from pitch to production was remarkably short and left them a little shellshocked when time came to collaborate with the artists and animators who would bring the film to life. "We finally decided to take the plunge, and literally from one day to the next we were on How I Met Your Mother, and then we're here in this room with 50 animators, storyboard artists, visual development artists, going, 'So, what's your direction for the movie?'" Miller recalled. "We were like, 'That's weird—we thought we'd meet with you guys and figure that out.' It was a big leap to direct a movie, and thank God we had tons of amazing support and great artists."

Miller said that the collaboration ultimately made for a better experience and, he hopes, a better film. "In animation, every part of the process makes the previous part obsolete," he said. "You start off with this script, and you're like, 'Great, this script is perfect.' And then you start storyboarding, and you're like, 'Nope, that doesn't work at all.' The storyboard artist contributes ideas, and you have the team of 10-15 people that are all beating stuff up like an art critic, and just the thing kind of evolves. And if you do it right, it gets better each time. You put it in the editing bay and cut that together, and you're like, 'No, we have to add this shot.' So if you're open to it, you can make your movie much better all the way through the process. And then like forget when the animators come in--they have their own ideas about how to interpret this stuff."

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs opens Sept. 18 and will be previewed at Comic-Con in San Diego this week.

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