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Block Party: Talking ‘The LEGO Movie’ With Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller

The LEGO Movie interview
Warner Bros.

In 2006, Phil Lord and Chris Miller signed on to direct ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,’ an adaptation of the popular children’s book that was all but dead at Sony Pictures Animation after the studio tried, and failed, to figure out how to crack for years. It was a movie no one thought could work. But, work it did, opening to great reviews and a strong showing at the box-office, spawning a sequel.

Lord and Miller, then moved on to their first live-action project, a remake of ‘21 Jump Street,’ a movie the studio tried, and failed to figure out how to crack for years. It was a movie no one thought could work. But, work it did, opening to great reviews and a strong showing at the box-office, spawning a sequel.

The directing duo then set to work on ‘The LEGO Movie,’ a movie the studio tried, and failed, to — nevermind, you see where this is going.

Lord and Miller – in just three movies – have proved themselves as two of the most daring and unique directors in Hollywood; a duo not only unafraid of a challenge, but actively seeking out challenges.

We caught up with the pair, who had just wrapped shooting both ‘The LEGO Movie’ and ’22 Jump Street’ simultaneously, to talk about why they make it so hard on themselves, how they avoiding turning ‘LEGO’ into a 90-minute commercial and why Warner Bros. had some doubts about what they wanted to do with Green Lantern.

The feedback on the movie so far has been overwhelmingly positive. What does that feel like after working so hard on this movie for so long?

Phil Lord: It’s a huge relief. You know, you don’t totally know whether it’s any good or not until you start to show you. You think you did a good job but it’s hard to tell. We still haven’t seen it. The first time we’ll have seen it finished with an audience is at the premiere. The last time we saw it was at the mix with a bunch of guys who are really nice to us, so you really still don’t know if it’s any good.

Did you bring in any friends or colleagues during production to get feedback or advice?

Chris Miller: Yeah, we did a lot of test screenings and that sort of thing, when it was in an unfinished stage. With this movie especially, there’s something magical about when it’s finished and it looks like a real LEGO come to life. Any of the CGI stuff that wasn’t fully animated or things that were in storyboard and the illusion of it being a LEGO set come to life, it didn’t have the same feel. Our process is very iterative so we’re always asking for opinions from viewers and people we trust and smart other filmmakers to watch what we’re doing and steal their free advice as much as possible.

What was one piece of advice that you got that really helped you?

PL: There’s so many. I’m trying to think of something on the broader side. Obviously, there’s a million guys going, “You don’t need that joke.” There were people who were reassuring us that some of the big moves we were doing worked, when we were sitting there going, “I don’t know!!”

CM: There was a lot of worrying about whether it was too corny. Advice we got was, “You’re gonna be fine.”

PL: We started this group at Warners, that’s called Warners Animation Group and those guys were really helpful throughout the process. Making sure the emotional storyline tracked properly, especially with the big reveal at the end. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there was an alternate version of that ending that was a little more conventional. We were a little worried about it but this group agree with the way we wanted to take it and I’m glad they agreed.

With this movie and ‘Jump Street’ before it, it seems like you guys are attracted to movies that are a challenge. These movies come with some inherent skepticism from the audience.

PL: Oh yeah. We’re definitely sadistic in that way. For some reason, we don’t get engaged with it until it feels impossible. Or, it would be really hard to pull off, but if you did it, it would be amazing. I’d love to work on a project that seems like a good idea the first time (laughs). Even with ‘Cloudy,’ it was a dead project, put in turnaround and nobody could crack it. Then we thought, “What if you made it like a disaster movie?” We really thought no one would let us do it, but thought we could really get away with some stuff. I don’t know Chris, I don’t know what you think. I think we’re attracted to doing things no one has done before. And sometimes in order to do that you have to take on a totally weird project.

CM: I’ve always like puzzles my entire life and this felt like an unsolvable puzzle. We were as skeptical as any smart filmgoer would be of a LEGO movie at the beginning and, at first, we said no. We actually said no serveral times. But, we kept thinking, “Well maybe, there might be a way if you did this and this…” There’s only a very narrow path to go where it doesn’t feel like a 90-minute commercial. Challenge accepted! And, that’s sort of the way we do things, unfortunately.

Was there ever any direction from the people at LEGO regarding something they absolutely wanted in the movie? Whether it was emotional beats or specific products?

CM: Thankfully, no. When we talked to them about it originally, we said, “This isn’t going to work if it feels like it’s coming from you guys.” It can’t be, “Here are the toys we want to sell! Now, go make a movie about it!” It has to be something where a filmmaker has an idea and wants to tell a story and they’re using LEGO as a medium and not a product. And, that means you have to trust us and basically hand the keys over to us. We promise we’re not going to do something that’s against your core values, we actually want to do something that reflects very well on LEGO, but it has to feel like more of a grassroots thing. It has to feel like it came from outside your company. And, they foolishly agreed and took the risk on us two chuckleheads.

It does have that feeling you get while playing with LEGO, without feeling like that feeling is being forced on you.

PL: Well, that’s very good to hear. Whenever we collaborated with those guys, they’d go, “Is there anyway there could be any cool vehicles in the movie?” And, we’d be like, “Yeah! We want that too.” A LEGO movie should have cool vehicles in it. At least we were on the same page and the design team was very helpful in building this stuff and making it look great. We leaned on them a lot. It made for a very nice collaboration, as Chris said. Their values are our values in terms of creativity and teaching kids the value of innovation and ingenuity and making mistakes and starting over. All of those things are things we really care about.

There are a lot of really great cameos and characters in the movie like Batman and Superman. Were there any characters you tried to get, but couldn’t?

CM: Yes. But, I will say we got almost all the ones we wanted to get. And, hopefully, if the movie is successful and everybody likes it as much as we do, if we’re so lucky to have a sequel, those people will change their mind.

PL: I’ll definitely say that we got more than we could possibly use.

Was there every any directive from Warner Bros. regarding their superhero characters and how they did or did not want those characters represented?

CM: They let us get away with a lot. There’s a few things they didn’t want us to do and we definitely had to talk them into the Superman/Green Lantern relationship.

PL: Well, there was nothing left to lose for Green Lantern.

CM: There were some discussions, we’ll say. Again, we were able to get almost everything we wanted out of it. The fact that we were able to get a very unique take out of Batman is something I’m really proud of.

How much of that is bringing in a guy like Will Arnett, who not only has the tenor to play Batman, but also the style of this particular character?

PL: We keep saying that he’s the one guy who can combine Christian Bale and Adam West into one voice (laughs). Our dream was to create a synthesis about what we thought about Batman so it was a good fit.

CM: It was definitely an idea we cultivated together. We had this idea where we wanted to incorporate different licensed characters from different movies all together. Secondly, we were trying to find out who could be Wyldstyle’s boyfriend. If she was dating someone, who would be the worst for Emmet. We thought immediately, Batman. If she’s dating Batman, you’ve got no chance. So that’s basically where we started. He’s dark and brooding and rich and he’s arrogant and kicks everyone’s ass and cool, and all of those things are things that Will Arnett does very well.

It reminded me of his character in ‘Hot Rod.’ He can play the jerk boyfriend very well.

CM: It’s right in his wheelhouse. When casting, we think about who the most talented person, who this person is right in their wheelhouse. Chris Pratt, for examples, is a person who just oozes earnestness and is so positive. He’s someone who you just love instantly. And is hilarious. When you have people like that, and we were able to do a lot of improvising in this movie, despite the fact that it’s animated, when you get a cast that can improvise and really understand their character, it can really help you out.

With this movie just coming out and ’22 Jump Street’ later this year, have you even thought about your next project? Is ‘Reunion’ your follow-up still?

CM: That certainly is something that we’re looking to do in the near future. That’s something I’m really excited about. Also, some TV stuff we’re excited about. Mostly excited about taking a big, long nap. Doing two movies at the same time is not great for your sleep schedule.

Well, I would love to see you in the Marvel universe one day.

BOTH: (Laughs) Thank you so much…

‘The LEGO Movie’ opens in theaters on February 7.

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