Q&A with 2023 Commencement speakers Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97
Lord and Miller discussed their upcoming projects and offered advice to the graduating Class of 2023.
Source: Courtesy of NBCUniversal
This article is featured in the 2023 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
Filmmaking duo Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97 are this year’s Commencement speakers for the Class of 2023. Highly accomplished Oscar-winners, the two have collaborated on numerous TV shows and blockbuster films, including “21 Jump Street,” “22 Jump Street,” “Clone High,” “The Lego Movie” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Their newest film “STRAYS” will premier in theaters on Aug. 18, 2023. The Dartmouth sat down with Lord and Miller, who discussed their creative processes and inspiration, upcoming projects and advice for the Class of 2023.
How does it feel to be speaking at this year’s Commencement ceremony?
CM: It is an amazing honor. We’re really excited and really nervous to be getting up in front of everybody. There have been a lot of amazing people that have spoken at these commencements over the years, from Conan O’Brien to President Eisenhower. It’s pretty cool to be in that company.
Can you explain your inspiration for your upcoming film “STRAYS” and how the film came to be?
CM: The film “STRAYS” came to us as a script from a writer named Dan Perrault. He had this idea of telling the story of his getting out of a toxic relationship through the story of a stray dog. He wrote a show called “American Vandal,” which was hilarious, and we were big fans of. He sent us the script and it was really sweet and really raunchy. It was very funny but had something to say and had a lot of heart. It felt like something we hadn’t seen before and that could be a lot of fun. Then we roped Josh Greenbaum in, the director, who had also directed a movie called “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” which we adored. And then, it all came together.
How would you describe your creative process when you write?
CM: It’s quite messy. The general process is we discuss what we think a scene needs to accomplish, and what the tone and story that we think are important, and we’ll discuss that at length. Once we’ve got a sense of what we think needs to be done, then whichever one of us feels like they have it most in hand or feels most clear headed about how to accomplish it will take the first pass. They’ll write something, and then hand it to the other one, who will rewrite it and pass it back to the other one, who will rewrite, and then we’ll get together and talk about it again. Then, new ideas will come, and we’ll rewrite it again. We’ll show it to other people, too, and they’ll tell us why it's not good, and then we’ll rewrite it again. And that’s just a fraction of the process.
How do you feel following the mass success of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse?”
PL: We’re really relieved. They say that’s the only positive emotion you can experience in the movie business. We worked really hard on this one, along with a thousand other artists. We’re mostly really happy for them. They put their hearts and souls on the screen, and it paid off. It doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes, you make something, and you put your whole body into it, and it doesn’t turn out great. Sometimes you make something that you’re really proud of, and nobody goes to see it. This is one of those rare times when we all made something we’re really proud of, and everyone went to see it. So it’s a good time to celebrate by giving a commencement speech.
What has been your favorite project you have worked on, and what makes it special?
PL: That’s like asking you to pick your favorite child. It’s very hard to do that. They all have their ups and downs. I’d say that “The Lego Movie” was the most consistently pleasant process to be a part of.
CM: That was the first time that we were really able to feel like we kind of knew what we were doing, even though we didn’t. We had the space to and the freedom to experiment. We worked with a bunch of like-minded teammates to help make something that felt like it was really special. It was a really rewarding experience — from beginning to end.
How do you see your projects evolving in the future, and what upcoming projects are you most excited about?
CM: Well, there are two big upcoming movies that are going to consume our lives, and they are the third “Spider-Verse” movie, “Beyond the Spider-Verse” and most likely, a live action movie called “Project Hail Mary.” We are really excited for both of them. I think that they are going to be really special and will be the things that our brains are obsessing over for the next while. As far as things that are upcoming, the next thing that’s coming out is season two of a show called “The Afterparty,” that we made on Apple TV+. It’s a comedy murder-mystery that’s a lot of fun, and we’re really proud of.
How did the courses you took as undergraduates at Dartmouth influence your career
CM: The most obvious ones are the animation classes we took together — that Phil convinced me to take. The ones that I was reluctant to take, but I did, launched us on the career that we have and got us hooked on working really hard to make something and expressing ourselves. There’s a ton of classes at Dartmouth that I feel were foundational and inspirational. There was the ENGS 21, “Intro to Engineering” class. That was very practical, asking, how do you conceive of and delegate and work out with a team how you are going to create something from scratch? I found that really inspiring and helpful as I left.
PL: One of my favorite classes was a painting class, taught by Gerry Auten. Gerry only had one eye, and he was colorblind in that eye. He was a really wonderful and inspiring painting teacher. I remember he looked at something I was doing, and he said “is this color red or green?” I said, “It’s red,” and he said, “Oh, that’s beautiful.” It really struck me that the idea of red was as important as the experience of looking at it — that you could experience something conceptually, and that it was even better.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned at Dartmouth?
PL: We had a professor named David Ehrlich who was our animation professor. He believed that everyone who walked into his classroom was an artist. And whether he was right or wrong, we believed him.
As the Class of 2023 prepares to graduate and embark on their next chapter, what personal or professional advice would you give them?
PLM: You have to wait for the speech! Can’t give any spoilers or else we’re just going to be repeating ourselves like the old fogies we are. We can’t give the top tier stuff, but we can give the bullet point version. I would say it’s important to create space in your lives for the arts. Because they may seem like a luxury or frivolous, but they are the things that keep the wheels of your brain turning. It’s actually quite essential to living.
What advice do you have for undergraduates who are not following a typical career path?
CM: Jump into it and go for it.
PL: You all have glow-in-the-dark brains. If you don’t do something original or meaningful to you, then who else is going to do it? You’ll be shocked at how good you are at something you don’t even know how to do yet. We are living proof.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.