Although they have proved themselves to be two of the most gifted and promising filmmakers working in Hollywood today, the thing that stands out about Phil Lord and Chris Miller is the fact that they’re just plain nice guys. Smart and funny, they exude a kind of honesty that you don’t find in too many industry types, so even when they’re working on getting you to see their latest work – in this case, The LEGO Movie – you never quite feel like you’re being sold.
Following their successful presentation for the film in Comic-Con’s Hall H, Lord and Miller trekked across the street to the Hilton Bayfront, where they gamefully sat down (alongside co-director Chris McKay) with press to discuss the challenges of making a movie that didn’t feel like a 90-minute toy commercial. (Their solution? Making it 85 minutes.) Beyond the jokes, however, the duo discussed the process of choosing its characters, which draw from multiple generations of toy sets, and then finding a way to harness the creativity inherent in the toys themselves to tell a story with commensurate imagination and fun.
LEGOs are a pure toy for creativity. How did you guys adapt the idea to lead into an actual narrative that’s entertaining and explores the LEGO world?
Phil Lord: That’s funny. We figured out that we started with this idea that they are a machine for creativity and let’s make a movie about, “Can a regular construction worker learn those skills?” We found out that we had to really hide the ball because the more you say the word “creativity,” the less you want to hear it. It started to get tired pretty fast, so there are versions of this movie that felt like a college paper or something like that.
Chris Miller: The word creativity is actually not in the movie at all but it’s obviously all about creativity. The idea is there are two different ways that people play with LEGO. There are people who buy the kit, follow the instructions, and build the thing exactly how it is, and that’s awesome, because then you have this really cool thing. It’s a Millennium Falcon or something. And then, there are people who just dump all the bricks together and build whatever they want to do. And that’s awesome as well to learn to have the whole thing be a dialectic about the different ways there are to make things.
Lord: That sounds super awesome. That’s what’s going to be on the poster: It’s a wonderful dialectic.
Chris McKay: I think the most fun thing about it is, these guys especially, when they opened it up to everybody on the crew to access their inner child. It was a lot like play the way we set up the environment for all the different departments from when we started working on the storyboards and then going into animation and layout and everything else. It was just play like you’re a kid. Have fun. What if the story was this? You just start running with ideas and that kind of thing. It was very organic and almost improvisational throughout the entire process. It was just how crazy can we make this. The way these guys talked about it originally was like if Michael Bay had kidnapped Henry Selick and forced him to make The LEGO Movie and it’s inside Michael Bay’s brain, that’s what this movie is, but it is literally those two guys coming together. It’s an explosion of creativity and that’s what makes the movie, because it is. It’s kind of like a joy ride through a 10-year-old’s imagination.
Lord: McKay built a creativity machine that was the production, and he did it in a way that was flat and allowed for a lot of dialogue in between departments without a lot of layers so that the editors could talk to the storyboard artists and request some drawings and try things out without showing us first so that you got everybody. Everyone’s office is right next door to one another’s. So it became a very fluid and iterative creative process which was great.
You have some amazing voice talent for this film. Can you talk a little bit about the casting process? Did you have anybody in particular in mind when you first started?
Lord: I’m trying to think of who the first ideas were.
Miller: Well we thought of Chris Pratt pretty early on because he’s hilarious and he has this sort of regular guy-ness to him. He actually grew up about two blocks from me in this small town of Lake Stevens, Washington, and he’s a hilarious guy’s guy, but he seemed perfect for that.
Lord: We knew him because of Anna Faris on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. We had met him. He was at the time her boyfriend. We just met him as a guy and then watched him become the funniest person on television. He has a real sincerity to him that we thought was important to the character. Also, we got a lot of people that we went after. We got this idea to make Morgan Freeman into a crazy wizard.
Miller: We thought he’ll never do it, but he did it.
Lord: We had no other casting ideas for that part, like we didn’t know what we were going to do.
Miller: We saw the Life’s Too Short [TV series] that Liam Neeson was on, and he was hilarious, and so we were like, “We got to put this guy in the movie.” We asked him to do it, and we thought he’d never do it, and he did it too, and we couldn’t believe it. We’ve always wanted to work with Will Ferrell because he’s an amazing guy and hilarious and just a wonderful person, and this was a great opportunity to do that. We’ve been friends with Elizabeth Banks for years, and we worked with Charlie Day many years ago, so we tried to assemble some buddies and people that we really admired in the world.
Warner Bros. has had terrific success with the LEGO video games and PT games with some really funny cut scenes. Did you talk or work with them?
Miller: We went out to Manchester and met with John and saw his whole operation and what they were doing. The stuff they’re doing is really clever and they use the LEGO-ness of the LEGO characters, and their arms pop off and that sort of thing. It helped us think about it. When you’re writing it, sometimes you think of them as people and you forget that they’re these little plastic dudes. So you want to remember to continually use that as part of the charm of the thing and that really helped us.
What was the recording process like? Did you get an opportunity to get some of the actors to record their voices together? Did you want them to?
Miller: We did.
Lord: We’ll let you know when it’s done.
Miller: We did Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett together a couple times because they play off each other…I don’t want to spoil it. Also, we did Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell together over the phone, which was kind of funny, because Liam was in New York and Will was in L.A., and they both had stuff that they had to do. We got them together and they did their scene over the phone. It was awkward at first, but then it became amazing. Those were the only ones that we were able to get in the same room. It was our goal to try and get people to play off of each other because it’s more fun and you get a lot of improvisation, and these are all really super funny people that can riff. And so, we ended up getting a lot of good stuff that way.
Lord: The sad reality of casting a bunch of really famous movie stars in your movies is that they’re incredibly busy.
Miller: Oh you’re doing Hunger Games and you’re doing Anchorman. There’s a million different things, so we worked around their schedules but we tried to make it work as much as we could.
Can you talk about the look of the movie? Everything about the movie is so LEGO. Where did the decision come from to give it that look?
Miller: It was inspired a lot by brick films that people make online. There are a ton of these on YouTube where these people very creatively make funny, funny LEGO movies and the limitations of the characters is kind of funny. Also, there are some photographers that photograph the little LEGO people and try to make it look really epic, just from the lighting. And we thought that was pretty cool when they tried to marry a cinematic lighting style with a brick film aesthetic.
Lord: I think it was a choice we made the instant that Dan Lin pitched us the project. We were like, “Well, if you did it like this, we would be interested. But if you don’t, if no one will commit to that, then there’s no way we’ll do it.” I don’t know why we were such hardliners about that, but for whatever reason, that was what was inspiring to us.
Miller: We wanted it to feel like it was a real LEGO set come to life.
McKay: But you would be surprised how many people were resistant to that idea. I mean, just on every level, people didn’t get it and didn’t think that the charm would come through. Literally, we had to prove that you could.
Lord: At every level, we had to prove it – at the conceptual level with the folks at Warners, and then again on the technical side, and then again with the animators, and all kinds of people. I’m sure there will be some reviews that will be like, “Ughh. I don’t like what they did.” But we discovered that we could get a lot of expressiveness and emotion. One of the things that Chris and his team have done is just to get so much real humanity out of the toughest drawings in the whole world. That was our dream, that what a great trick it would be to make you care about the dorkiest looking things in the whole universe.
Miller: It’s like in the Muppet movies, Kermit’s eyes don’t move and he’s just doing this (mimicking Kermit). You can get so much expressiveness out of the limitations.
How do you walk a line in a film like this between having it feel like a creative story and not be sort of an ad?
Lord: It’s all an ad.
McKay: The ad is inescapable.
Miller: That was something that we were really, really nervous about. We didn’t want to make a 90-minute commercial for toys.
Lord: So we settled on an 85-minute commercial.
Miller: We decided obviously LEGO are a medium that people use to tell stories. It’s like clay or a Claymation movie in a way. Luckily, the people at LEGO were very trusting of us, maybe too foolishly trusting. They allowed us to make a story that we thought was fun. They were really there to just help us and make our ideas a reality.
Lord: The short answer to your question is zero ad. It’s 100 percent a creative movie.
Miller: That’s what we’re going for and the partners at LEGO realized that the entire movie was made out of LEGO.
McKay: It was called The LEGO Movie and that was a good enough ad.
How long did it take to make the movie?
Miller: It’s not done yet.
McKay: It’s still being made right now.
Lord: But hopefully only six more months.
Miller: We started writing it before we did 21 Jump Street.
Lord: The summer before we left for 21 Jump Street. Right?
Miller: We started writing it and so it’s been…(laughs) I don’t even know how long ago that was.
Lord: That would have been about 2010.
Miller: It will be about three years from beginning to end. It comes out in February.
Lord: That’s actually short. That’s what we told Chris McKay all the time we were working on the movie.
Are you able to reveal any of the other superheroes that appear?
Miller: Yes, we just said in Hall H that there are other DC superheroes in it. Superman is being played by Channing Tatum and Green Lantern is being played by Jonah Hill, and Wonder Woman is being played by Cobie Smulders. But there are a lot of other characters that we’re not allowed to talk about right now from other IP, other movies, other LEGO sets, and they all interact in a way that if a kid was playing with a bucketful of LEGOs, they would make them play together. That’s a really fun part, but we can’t tell you about that stuff just yet.
Can you talk a little bit more about getting this wonderful stop motion and the experimentation that goes into doing that?
McKay: Like I said, it was something that people initially didn’t necessarily think was going to be able to portray emotion. The way I approached it was just to look at it as if you were given the task of trying to figure out how to make WALL-E or R2D2 emote. You would basically sit down with the animators and go through a process of, “Alright, let’s try to do something. Let’s show how sympathetic we can make these characters and how understanding. I treat the animators like they’re actors and I say, “I want to know what this guy is feeling. What’s going on behind his eyes? I want you to observe behavior that is true and real.” When people started clicking at that, I said, “Don’t worry. I don’t want to see this. I want you to really feel.” The mandate these guys had from the beginning was to make this feel like a big adult movie. I don’t want it to feel like a soft, bullshit film. I want it to be something that feels real. I went to the animators and said, “I want to see the guys do parkour stuff.” We have people that come from different disciplines as far as 2D, 3D and stop motion, and these guys really attacked it madly and with a lot of love. That’s what we started to do, just go, “Okay, let’s get this thing up on its feet.” We didn’t want it to be a bullshit movie. We wanted to make it something that was real.
Lord: Yes, to take everything seriously, and that’s been your approach and our approach. Just because they’re little toys doesn’t mean that you’re not going to try to tell a big, grown-up story, and that translates into the animation. One of the things that would happen, that happens on every animated production, is that sometimes initially you get a lot of stock stuff that feels like a classic move that you saw Frank & Ollie draw a million years ago, and it’s wonderful but it doesn’t pertain to that moment. It’s not an interpretation of that voice performance.
McKay: It’s not germane to the body language.
Lord: Yeah. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything. You’re like, “I don’t understand. I don’t connect to that.”
Miller: You connect to it when you feel like it’s driven by the story and the feelings.
Lord: Another thing is that with stop motion there’s no motion blur because every frame is its own little thing. We found out if a character is moving really fast across the screen, it was going to get a little bit jumpy. And so, we developed this brick-built motion blur of the characters when they’re moving really fast, and we have these special clever solves for things like that.
McKay: We also tried to add in mistakes, too. Just like with film prints and things like that, but also maybe animation that felt a little more like we would talk through. Like what if you were dragging a hand up from one place to the other, especially at that scale, on a one-inch scale, you only have so many moves that you can actually technically make, that a human being can actually do to make that. So we’d think through stuff like that. Some of those were the kind of choices that we’d make to make this feel. There was sort of an innocence and a charm to that which is what we wanted to capture. And sometimes it was just puppeted. Sometimes we would literally make it look like somebody had their hand on the thing and was walking us. Some of the guys would walk around like that or they’d jump up and move as though they were puppeted. There’s something neat about that, too.
Lord: Sometimes our notes are just, “Make it dumber. It’s way too sophisticated.”
How did you guys choose which LEGO characters to use and which ones not to use?
Miller: There are so many obviously and a lot of them are originals and stuff.
Lord: There are a bunch of classic worlds that LEGO’s been doing for years and we wanted to make sure that each of those worlds was represented and we wanted it to feel like we were mashing all these different genres. It ended up being dictated by the story obviously.
Miller: We started with the ones that we could remember from our childhood and tried to extrapolate from that. I think that the toughest thing was to convince our partners that we should take discontinued and old vintage things and put them in the movie along with everything else because that’s what would be at the bottom of somebody’s toy chest.
McKay: And that’s another [example] of where the movie wasn’t quite an ad either. It’s like stuff that you were talking about in the beginning. It’s like what are the things that you remember about the sets that you had and some of those things aren’t necessarily products that they want to promote.
Lord: They’re not selling Classic Space or Pirates from years ago, or that type of stuff, but we wanted to put those things in there.
The LEGO Movie hits theaters on February 7th, 2014.
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