As a kid in Coconut Grove, Phil Lord remembers that the picture book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs appealed to his budding appreciation of oddball humor. As a second-grader, "I recognized it as Surreal before knowing what Surreal was," he recalls.
His well-thumbed copy was among the prized possessions his parents held onto for him when he graduated from Ransom-Everglades in 1993.
So how cool is it that Lord, sharing writing and directing credits with longtime collaborator Chris Miller, makes his feature film debut Sept. 18 with the movie version of that favorite childhood book?
It's almost . . . Surreal.
Ron and Judi Barrett's 1982 book long ago moved into "classic'' territory, having now sold more than three million copies. Less a conventional story than a series of preposterous (and hilarious) vignettes about the extremely weird weather in far-off Chewandswallow -- meatball rain, pea soup fog, strawberry traffic jams -- Lord and Miller's challenge was to lay a bigger narrative onto the book's absurdist plot.
"We added in complications," Lord said. "What if it wasn't a pleasant rain shower of spaghetti but a thunderstorm? What if you can't stop it? That's the arc of a disaster film."
Author Judi Barrett (she and Ron Barrett have divorced but still work together on books) saw a rough-cut version of the film in August and found herself delighted. "It was actually fascinating," says Barrett, a kindergarten art teacher in Brooklyn. "I didn't know what would remain of our book, but we were pleased with what we saw. It's very sweet, and there's a poignancy to it that was nice to see."
For Lord, the son of Wally and Carmen Betancourt Lord, directing films wasn't a goal when he left Miami for Dartmouth College.
"I always think I got into this field accidentally, but if I go back and look at elementary school, I remember they let us take a video camera out of the library to shoot commercials," Lord recalls of his days at Coconut Grove Elementary. "We would make edits by stopping the tape and show the commercials by wheeling the TV cart around from room to room."
Lord would have you believe his owes a lot of his success to chance, the product of a lot of happy coincidences.
His longtime collaborator Miller happened to be his roommate -- they teamed up quickly in college, doodling comics for the student newspaper and making amateur films. After graduation in 1997, the two headed to Hollywood.
"We were granted an interview at Disney because [then-CEO] Michael Eisner's son was a Dartmouth alumnus," Lord recalls "but through some random comical misunderstanding, by the time the message got to the guy interviewing us it had become, ‘These are Eisner's boys. You have to give them a job.' ''
Lord, now 33, and Miller worked at Disney for four years, drumming up ideas for programs that never got produced. "They just said no and would never tell us why."
Underemployed, their proposals got increasingly goofy: a remake of Disney's "worst movie ever," The Cat from Outer Space, in which the cat "spoke'' through thought transference; a Saturday morning cartoon featuring the Bronte sisters as super heroes titled -- wait for it -- Brontesaurus.
"I'm not saying they were great ideas but it was a great laboratory. We got paid to generate ideas. Normally you have to do that in your spare time. We did that all day long," Lord said.
Those weird ideas became the calling card they used with agents, which finally led to a show idea that did get made -- the animated Clone High, which ran for two seasons on MTV. From there, they moved to a live-action sitcom, co-producing How I Met Your Mother, which aired on CBS until 2006.
The kooky brainstorming served them well again when they heard through the grapevine that no one had yet come up with a saleable screenplay for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Sony had bought the rights in 2006.
"It was known around town as the top unproduced kids' project," Lord said. "and we heard it was in ‘turnaround,' Hollywood lingo for back-to-the-drawing-board. So we ambushed [Sony]. We told them we wanted to treat it like a Jerry Bruckheimer disaster movie. They liked the idea and told us to come back with more.
An all-nighter produced an idea Sony liked. Lord and Miller spent the next year and a half developing a script.