Phil Lord and Christopher Miller know how to make just about anything a good time.
Over a broad 20-year career, Lord and Miller, who first met at Dartmouth College, have demonstrated a unique knack for finding fun, clever stories in some of the least likely places.
The tag creative team—which often swaps writer, director, and producer hats—gave staid plastic bricks a stellar makeover in the “The Lego Movie” franchise. They helped turn the lesser-known cartoon character Miles Morales into an Oscar winner with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” They laughed in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with the Fox sitcom “The Last Man on Earth”, and in a serious 80s TV drama, with the movies “21 Jump Street”. They also produced Netflix’s animated Oscar contender, “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” which turned a terrifying technological singularity into a heartwarming family adventure.
Now they’re bringing glee to murder with their new series, “The Afterparty,” whose first three episodes will premiere Friday on Apple TV+ (the remaining five episodes air weekly).
When Miller came up with the idea of murder mystery in 2010, he saw it as a feature film, drawing inspiration from classics like “Rashomon” and “Clue.” In 2019, he reworked the story to fit it into an episodic TV format, and he was the showrunner and director of all episodes while Lord executive produced. The end product is a whodunit built like a Matryoshka doll, with multiple cinematic genres nestled in one big mystery.
Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Ike Barinholtz, Ilana Glazer, Sam Richardson and Ben Schwartz, the series revolves around a high school reunion that ends in death. Tiffany Haddish plays a Columbo-style police detective who investigates the crime scene.
“We’re all stars in our own movies,” the detective tells the suspects, and the series literally makes the point. Nearly every episode revolves around a different partygoer’s account of the evening’s events and is presented in a style that reflects that character’s personality: a merry rom-com for Richardson’s amorous alumnus pursuing an old crush; an absurd action film for Barinholtz’s unmasked ex-jock; a psychological thriller for Glazer’s paranoid farewell speech that fell out of favor.
Lord and Miller recently talked about “The Afterparty” in a joint video interview from their respective Los Angeles homes, where they’ve been preparing “Spider-Man: Across the Universe (Part One)” for an October release, as well as scripting and animating the reboot of their early animated series “Clone High” for HBO Max. The puck-like pair discussed shifting gears, sweating the details and getting a second chance to make a good impression. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You jumped right into this live action project after completing an animated project ‘Into the Spider-Verse’. Do you approach these two media differently?
PHIL LORD The bottom line is that we don’t really see them differently; we treat everything the same. I don’t know if our sense of humor is just youthful enough to appeal to children, but in all cases, we’re trying to do something that we haven’t seen before. We always try to experiment. Maybe that’s why we ping pong back and forth.
CHRISTOPHER MILLER We always try to take a story and figure out how to make it something new and add something to the conversation. We follow that story to where it wants to be its best self.
In an animated episode, there is a quick joke about Easter eggs. Do viewers have to search everywhere?
MILLER This is crazy because we are crazy people. Since it was a murder mystery puzzle, we thought it would be a lot of fun to add some hidden Easter egg style clues, codes and numbers as a bonus for people to solve. You don’t have to freeze and solve these things to find out who’s there; it’s all in the story. But on top of that, for the uber-nerds, there are lots of little details in the set dressing, signage, and other hidden messages that, if you decipher them, will give you hints as to who did or didn’t. Creating a show where each episode is its own little movie, each episode shot with different lighting, lensing, costumes and music is a huge production challenge. We thought, “Why not add one?” Lake production challenge top of it?”
GENTLEMAN It’s like customizing something. I always like getting a gift from filmmakers, something physical that has had so much attention as opposed to something that feels clean and fabricated. The trick with this stuff is that it’s mass entertainment, but you never want it to feel mass-produced.
Have you gone back and taken notes on movies from all different genres?
MILLER Absolute. There are many different subgenres within these genres. There are many different types of action movies. So there were a lot of conversations like, “Is this going to be a “Fast & Furious” or a “John Wick” or a classic “Die Hard” action movie?” We never wanted to make a parody or a parody of anything. We are big movie buffs, and it’s all done with love and admiration for how other people have found interesting ways to tell stories. We steal all their best ideas and put them in one thing. We wanted to use the narrative conventions of those genres to give us a glimpse into the inner lives of these characters.
What styles would you use to tell your personal stories?
MILLER One of those rambunctious, improv-filled comedies that don’t have much plot, because that’s what I think our everyday lives are like.
GENTLEMAN White male boredom – like, “Oh, we all just rented a house in Ojai and we’re going to solve our problems of growing up.”
What was it like to create and film during the pandemic?
GENTLEMAN We made a summer bubble in 2020. We both rented places in Malibu, so we would walk the beach and have production meetings.
MILLER But, of course, making the show was personal. We shot from October 2020 to February 2021. I think the chemistry in the show was due to so many people just being home alone. They came on set and were just so happy to be around other people. So the atmosphere on set was like nothing we’d ever done before.
Unsurprisingly, most cast members would be considered the “exclamation points” of their past projects.
MILLER It’s basically a show filled with a dozen exclamation points! You get all these people who are the funniest people you know in a room, and it makes for a joyful experience. So many of the cast are hyphens – creators, writers, directors, showrunners. They all approach this from the point of view of someone who also makes things. So they were able to keep this complicated thing in their heads. You ask them to come in and not just play a character, but play eight different versions of a character. It is a very complex question.
GENTLEMAN They are also all on the attack. No one is trying not to get into trouble there, play it safe, or avoid looking stupid. They’re all there to find out, “What can be contributed to this moment?”
Have you attended any of your own high school reunions?
GENTLEMAN I’ve been to … a lot. The first hour conversation is always like, “I’m miserable!” “Yes! I hate it here!” “Let’s leave!” By the end you just hang out with those few people you grew up with and remember why you were so close so long ago, and that’s a really warm feeling. Warmth and humiliation. When I was 25 they gave out certificates and I got ‘Most Improved’. It was nice to feel for a moment that I was loved. And then I immediately threw the entire cocktail table over. I leaned on it when I felt confident, then it collapsed under my weight and I felt embarrassed again. In a reunion you experience all the emotions of high school in four hours. It’s like “High School: The Ride.”
MILLER I missed one or two. It’s a complicated experience. You go to these things and you are confused with many conflicting emotions – there are good memories and painful memories; you’re going back to the old dynamic and you want to feel like you’ve moved past some of those things. What high school reunions are to many people is they present the version of themselves they want their old classmates to see.
What the show is really about is trying to get people to take a moment to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. If you do, you will find that people are more surprising and complex than you think.
How do you think the other has changed after working together since college? Is your work dynamic different from what it once was?
MILLER It’s not that one is ‘this person’ and the other is ‘that person’.
GENTLEMAN Goods both “the messy one.” Chris used to be “the messy one” until he met me.
MILLER He is right. I’m the Felix for Phil’s Oscar, but I’d be the Oscar for any other person. But we are both very involved in every step of the creative process. In our early days, we looked over each other’s shoulders while trying to write scenes in the same room, and it was really hard. Today we talk about what our goals are, then we go out separately and have a little space to try things, fail, figure it out and then send them to each other. It only comes on screen when we both feel like we have something.
GENTLEMAN Now I think we’re more curious about what the other person is going to bring, knowing that the end product is going to be something neither of us would have done on our own. That’s the fun of a partnership, because you just don’t know where it’s going. That used to feel scary and now it feels really exciting.
MILLER And the key to that is a lot of trust and admiration. It’s like a marriage.
GENTLEMAN Like a marriage, without some of the fun stuff.