The Buddy Movie: Starring Aditya Sood and Chris Miller
As the Dream Factory careers of longtime Class of 1993 friends soar, their friendship remains a touchstone.September 2016
By Jim Collins / Photographed by Betty Udesen
At the start of a hot morning in early July, Aditya Sood finds Chris Miller at Building No. 3 on the Fox studio lot in Century City, just a few minutes’ walk down Avenue G from Sood’s office at Genre Films. They have a joint press interview scheduled, the last thing either of them needs. Boxes and packing tape clutter Miller’s office. In less than a week he’ll be off to London, where he’ll spend the better part of the next year directing the new Han Solo movie in the “Star Wars” anthology. Both of them seem excited, animated, even with lack of sleep. (Sood has a toddler at home. Miller has two young children. There’s always a lack of sleep.)
Their banter is easy, natural, comfortable as old friends, which is what they’ve been forever, even before graduating from Lakeside together in the Class of 1993.
“All ready for the move?” asks Sood.
“Not even close,” says Miller, and they both laugh.
Despite burgeoning careers, the two friends manage to see each other a couple of times a month, for Seahawks games, for dinners. Their families live just 10 minutes apart. They’re part of a group of crossword puzzle aficionados who regularly gather for drinks and puzzle-solving at fancy L.A. watering holes or at the Soho House, a members-only club for “creative souls” that The Hollywood Reporter has called the most important club in Hollywood, “a high-wattage magnet for A-listers and dealmakers.” Screenwriter Craig Mazin is part of the puzzle group, actress Zoe Kazan, magician and New York Times crossword puzzle creator David Kwong. “One of the members of the group calls us The Illuminerdy,” says Miller.
Their sense of humor is infectious.
“My parents were incredibly supportive of my creative pursuits,” Sood tells the reporter. “Both first generation immigrant doctors. Of course they were.”
“My parents knew they had a weird kid on their hands,” says Miller. “They were just grateful when I met Aditya – they realized I wasn’t alone.”
The love of humor and storytelling that animated their years together at Lakeside is something they continue to share, now professionally. They routinely swap scripts, ask advice, offer ideas, talk about people they’re considering hiring or collaborating with. A big part of being successful in this industry is working with people who are good to work with. The two of them have a reputation for not only being good to work with but being “good guys.” Their story is the stuff of Hollywood.
Sood and Miller fell in love with movies growing up as best friends. They watched films all over Seattle — comedies and action flicks at the Oak Tree and Crossroads theaters, epic revivals at the old UA 150 downtown. Sood remembers being at a Northgate arcade and rushing to catch a bus for one of those epics, maybe “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Gone with the Wind,” and slamming into a door that he thought Miller was holding open for him. He ended up at Children’s Hospital getting stitches. The two of them still made it to the theater for most of the movie.
At Lakeside — Sood arrived in 6th grade; Miller joined him a year later — the two friends got interested in making films themselves. They were good students, chemistry partners, both broadly interested in culture and history. But they were nerds at heart, fascinated by stop-motion photography and obsessed with “Star Wars.” Sood discovered an industry newspaper, The Hollywood Reporter, at the Bellevue Library and talked his mom into buying him a year’s subscription in return for a good grade on a physics test. He saw a documentary about the making of “Return of the Jedi” and pretty soon was fooling around with a Super 8 camcorder. He got Miller and a few friends together with the idea of making a send-up of an action movie on no budget called “The Adventures of Jungle Steve."
The great thing about knowing someone for 35 years is that you can trust them. I don’t mean trust only in terms of honesty, but trust their judgment. I know how great Chris’s taste is. I trust his sense of humor. - Aditya Sood '93
They spent endless hours on the one editing machine in the Lakeside library, fighting for time with the kids making snowboarding videos.
“Our movie was intentionally full of every cliché you can think of,” Miller would say later. “I was the villain. I would literally twirl my mustache. It was horrible.” Sood describes the movie as a pastiche of “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” action scenes — “great stuff” like a garage door closing as one of the actors rolled under it just moments before the door hit the ground. Chris’s sister, Katie, Lakeside Class of ’98, played the robotic sidekick. “She was young and very short when we started,” Miller recalls. “But we shot the movie over a few years, and she kept growing taller. Each time we shot, we wrapped her in aluminum foil in a very classy way, but the continuity was pretty poor.”
One of their friends, Greg Ostrander ’93, had an aunt who owned an amphibious vehicle. They used the vehicle in a dramatic scene filmed at the Kirkland waterfront, but they had to figure out how to write a new character into the script because Greg was the only one allowed to drive it. (Years later, Miller and Sood got together and watched “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and hooted when they saw the huge action scene involving a Russian-made amphibious military vehicle. “Spielberg probably got his hands on a bootleg tape of ‘Jungle Steve!’” Miller cried out.) The movie-making experience was a revelation to both of them, especially to Sood: He says it showed him, for the first time, how challenging and rewarding it could be to tell a story through the medium of film.
The two friends stayed in touch after going to college — Sood to Pomona, Miller to Dartmouth. Sood studied politics and philosophy and economics, but he knew already where he was going and began interning almost right away with a couple of studios in Los Angeles, including a startup called DreamWorks. He impressed executives with his wide-ranging curiosity and his knowledge of the industry, gleaned from his religious reading of the trade papers dating from his Lakeside days. Miller double-majored at Dartmouth in government and studio arts and wasn’t at all sure of his path when news of his offbeat, weirdly intellectual cartoons and animated shorts reached producers at Disney. When they called, Miller said he had exams and couldn’t take the time to fly out to L.A. just then, but could they see him over the summer, when he was already planning a trip there? Disney agreed, then hired him.
They lived together for a while in Tower 46 of the Park La Brea Apartments in L.A. as their careers in Hollywood took off. In 2002, at age 25, Sood became the youngest vice president in Warner Bros.’ history. In a press release picked up by the trade journals, Warner’s president of worldwide production, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, said, “Aditya has a great story sense and works extremely well with filmmakers and talent. He’s been a strong contributor to our team over the past several years.” Eight years later, along with British-born producer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (“Sherlock Holmes,” “X-Men”), Sood started a new production company called Genre Films, which signed a first-look deal with 20th Century Fox.
Not long after, Sood came across a self-published book for 99 cents on Amazon, written by a computer programmer in Silicon Valley. At a recent visit to Lakeside, he told students that he had never read anything like it. “It was an incredible story of a guy who gets stranded on a planet,” he said. “It was equal parts great storytelling and hyperaccurate scientific storytelling, human and funny at the same time. I knew instantly that I wanted to spend the next however many years turning the book into a movie. It was the project I’d been looking for for 20 years.”
He brought the book to Fox’s studio executives and suggested they move fast. They bought the movie rights just as the big publishing houses were reaching out to author Andy Weir for his story, “The Martian.”
The movie version, produced by Sood and starring Matt Damon, would go on to earn seven Academy Award nominations, win a Golden Globe for best motion picture, and gross more than $600 million worldwide.
Meanwhile, Miller, along with Dartmouth classmate Phil Lord, had created a critically acclaimed pilot for a series called “Clone High,” written and directed “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” and directed the movie “21 Jump Street.” At the same time Sood was working on “The Martian,” Miller was busy directing his most ambitious, and unlikely, movie yet, “The Lego Movie.” What could have become a crass, 90-minute commercial for Lego turned out to be a nuanced, surprisingly emotional animated story that appealed to children and adults alike — and to critics who almost universally praised the storytelling. As a film reporter for BuzzFeed described it, “The Lego Movie” could easily have been a typical example “…of slapped together, mediocre ‘product,’ spawned by Hollywood only for their brand-name value. Instead, Lord and Miller have made each of their films richly and delightfully weird, filled with the kind of smart, sharp edges that most studio films have aggressively sanded down.”
“The Lego Movie” — which included the actual Lego space village play set that Miller had played with as a child — won dozens of awards and was one of highest-grossing films of 2014. Following its release, Miller came back to Seattle and threw out the first pitch at a Mariners game in which players were announced on the massive center field scoreboard in the form of Lego figures. After the game, “The Lego Movie” was shown on the big screen.
For both Miller and Sood, the huge successes have put them in high demand. Among other projects, Sood, who was an executive producer on the 2016 blockbuster “Deadpool,” the eighth installment of the “X-Men” film series, now is working on “Deadpool 2.” He also is developing the movie version of the massively popular (and Seattle-based) trading-card game Magic: The Gathering, executive producing the new ABC television series “Designated Survivor,” and collaborating on a recently announced, as yet unnamed, project with “Martian” author Weir.
As for Miller, his list of announced projects and films in production and post-production is dizzying, including the next batch of “Lego” films (including “The Lego Batman Movie”), producing an animated Spider-Man movie for Sony, continuing work on the Fox comedy series “The Last Man on Earth,” and developing a hybrid live-action/animation film called “Son of Zorn.” All this with landing the all-consuming job of co-directing, with Lord, the much-anticipated Star Wars film, “Han Solo: A Star Wars Story.” As he recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “Now, somehow, we’re 10 times busier than we were when I thought we were too busy and I was going to die.”
And here the friends are, a few days before Miller’s world shifts 5,000 miles east, chatting as if they have nothing else to do, as if they’re reluctant to say goodbye. They won’t see each other again until Sood travels to the U.K. later this year to film a remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” on which he’s serving as a producer.
The talk turns to stories — like when they were in the 2nd grade at the Evergreen School and little Chris Miller won the annual KOMO 4 Christmas card drawing contest. The prize was a chance to ride in the KOMO 4 traffic helicopter, which landed and picked Miller up right there at the school. “He was like a celebrity,” says Sood. “It was a pretty amazing way to find out a classmate was so unbelievably talented.”
Or like how Miller worked the title of the Lakeside school newspaper, Tatler, into a “21 Jump Street” scene. Or how he wrote a scene where an amorous couple in a science lab gets carried away and ends up breaking a bunch of crucibles — a reference to the many crucibles he and Sood accidentally broke during Dr. Fisher’s chemistry class at Lakeside. (“Too bad that ended up on the cutting-room floor," says Sood. “People don’t know how expensive crucibles are. Unfortunately, we do.”) Miller suddenly turns as an idea lights up his eyes. “I’m going to try and get a planet into the Star Wars film called Numidian!”
The half-hour interview runs to 45 minutes, then 60, and an assistant starts to move Miller toward the door. “We’ve got a lot to do,” she says. Miller has live auditions to oversee that afternoon and a hundred other details to attend to before heading to England.
The reporter asks one more question, about what it means to collaborate with someone you’ve been friends with for most of your life. “The great thing about knowing someone for 35 years,” says Sood, “is that you can trust them. I don’t mean trust only in terms of honesty, but trust their judgment. I know how great Chris’s taste is. I trust his sense of humor.”
“I wish I felt the same way,” says Miller, deadpan — and then they both break out laughing. “That’s why I went first,” says Sood.
This article was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Lakeside magazine. Jim Collins is a magazine writer whose articles have appeared in Glamour, Outside, and Reader’s Digest, among other publications. He’s the parent of a Lakeside 9th-grader.