Phil Lord, Chris Miller and Chris McKay pulled off a miracle: They turned what could have been a massive commercial for LEGO toys and turned it into a vast, beautiful science fiction world that channels The Matrix, Time Bandits and whole lot of heart. In our exclusive interview, the directors explain how they pulled it off.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Your song from the film, "Everything is Awesome," has been stuck in my head for a week now. Was that song everything you envisioned?
Phil Lord: I'm sorry!
Chris Miller: It was something that we wrote in the script, in the very beginning. It became sort of the thing it was trying to make fun of. It was supposed to be insanely catchy and making fun of cheesy pop songs.
Phil Lord: And now it is a cheesy pop song.
Chris Miller: Our co-director, Chris McKay, and his friend Shawn Patterson, came up with the song. And then we got Mark Mothersbaugh to produce it, and then Tegan and Sara and Lonely Island came in to give it a little extra layer of a little irony. It's so accurate that I think a lot of people can't quite tell that it's supposed to be both sarcastic and sincere at the same time.
Do you wake up singing it?
Chris Miller:It does crawl into your brain and never leave.
Phil Lord: Society is doomed.
Was LEGO super cool with everything that you guys proposed? Was there anything that they said no to?
Phil Lord: Very few things, surprisingly. Every once in a while they would tell us, "You know, we know this audience really well, and they're gonna hate that."
What was that one thing?
Phil Lord: Every once in a while, the idea was too creepy. And they were pretty much right on [about] stuff like that.
Chris Miller: But they really didn't hold us back in anyway or dictate anything. They knew from the beginning that the movie had to be its own film, and not just a big commercial. We wouldn't have gotten involved in the movie, from the beginning, if we didn't feel strongly that they were gonna be supportive of making it a film first and not just a way to sell toys.
This movie is LOADED with jokes. It's relentless with jokes. How many jokes didn't make the final edit?
Phil Lord: Oh my god there's a whole movie's worth of jokes that didn't make it. Maybe two. A lot of them were just so crazy that they just exploded the entire narrative.
Chris Miller: At the end of the day, you're stuck actually trying to tell a story that makes sense. And have a narrative drive, and not a bunch of detours. A lot of those things fell by the wayside. But it's a volume business, so we tried to pack in as many jokes as possible. There's extra stuff happening in the background that the animators put in there. Or little details that you wouldn't even notice on the first viewing. It's definitely one of those movies that rewards repeat viewings.
Can you tell us one background joke we should be looking out for?
Phil Lord: In the Old West there's a pig that falls off of the train and explodes into a bunch of sausages.
Who is the voice of the pigs?
Chris Miller: Our co-director Chris McKay, he's saying "Oink."
Personally the star of this movie (for me) is Princess Uni-Kitty, the unicorn cat. I couldn't get enough of her. Can you talk a little bit about inventing her and where she came from?
Chris Miller: We wanted to have at least one of the characters be brick-built, and not a minifigure. We were trying to think of the cutest, possible thing in the universe. And we thought if you put a kitty cat and a unicorn together, you would have an adorable explosion.
We kept working on the design and we couldn't, quite figure out a way to do it that was cute. So we gave the challenge to the lead designer of Lego and we told him we want this super cute thing that was Hello Kitty meets My Little Pony. He said "leave it to me," and he came back with something that was exactly Uni-Kitty's design, it was perfect.
Then we cast the most adorable voice person that we knew, and that was Allison Brie — and she really added a whole level of adorableness to it.
For a while I was thinking (while I was watching the film) that the moral of this movie was going to be think outside of the box, everyone is special… it had an Incredibles vibe to it. But then the movie kind of spun out on its head, especially when the "Master Builder" characters turn out to be incapable of working together as a team. What do you think the overall message of this movie is?
Phil Lord: Emmett [the main character, voiced by Chris Pratt] is the guy who can synthesize both of those styles of play. There needs to be some kind of structure. That's probably true of this movie as well. There were versions of this movie that were just jokes. There needs to be some kind of lattice upon which to hang all of this creativity. These folks, when everybody is doing their own individual thing — that doesn't really work either. So I don't know that we took a really strong position, I think we leaned toward individual creativity, but we also wanted to acknowledge that that can be problematic too.
Chris Miller: There are a lot of different ways to play, and a lot of different ways to be creative. But there's also an important aspect to that which is collaboration and having some sort of foundation from which to build on. It's kind of a complicated thought to get through in a family movie. But that was the goal anyway.
Let's talk about talk about the science fiction of this movie. There are multiple dimensions, multiple realms. Did you guys know from the beginning that this was how you were going to set your Lego movie? Or did it take time to construct the world? Because this universe is dense.
Phil Lord: I supposed a little bit of both. I think very early on, we thought, "They'll crawl between the walls of the sets, and to them that's like traveling between dimensions, kind of like Time Bandits. We thought it should feel like that to them, it should feel like The Matrix. Even though to us it's something very simple like crawling through two pieces of plywood. I guess that was always part of the movie.
Chris Miller: We're obviously riffing on a lot of those classic tropes you would find in Star Wars or The Matrix.
Do you have a number for how many movies you drop reference in Lego Movie?
Chris Miller: I don't know. It's not something we're super conscious of, it's something we do somewhat automatically. It's not like we go, "Oh this movie has to be filled with…" Although I guess we did say that this movie should be filled with movie references. Because it's such a pastiche of different styles and different characters. It's a Western and it's a Space Epic and…
Phil Lord: We got The Whistler from the Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Chris Miller: He's still alive!
Phil Lord: He's still around and he lives in Italy and Mark Mothersbaugh tracked him down. And then got him to whistle in this movie. Out of retirement!
What is the one creation in the film that you're most proud of?
Phil Lord: One of them would have to be the sea cow, and the ocean.
Chris Miller: The Lego Brick ocean.
Second Interview with Director Chris McKay.
How much of this movie actually is stop motion, and how much of it is CG? Are there actual stop motion scenes in the movie?
Chris McKay: There is some stop motion. You can't create a movie like this, with this level of detail and ambition and scope, in stop motion. Or, at least, if you're going to do it, it would very expensive and take a very long time to produce. There is a little bit of stop motion in the movie. But the large majority is incredibly talented modelers and layout people and animators who love the brick films, and love the charm of the Lego minifigs themselves, working really hard.
We said, "Look, we're going to make this movie with a certain set of limitations." Because the biggest problem with CG is there's no rules. You can do whatever you want. We wanted to create something that felt like it was grounded in reality. I think there's a heart and a charm to that.
I worked in stop motion on Robot Chicken and Moral Orel. There is something about being physically on a set in an 8-inch scale, animators getting their hands on, there's a real charm to that. We wanted to try to make this movie feel like that. There's a charm to those brick films. I think part of that comes with the heart and soul of the filmmaker who comes to the table and wants to create something that is probably beyond their scope. There's something about trying to achieve that thing, that big gigantic thing, on this tiny little scale and format. With these charming little guys, to me, there's something really sincere and sweet about that.
We wanted the movie to feel like that. We wanted to take what could have been the most fucking cynical cash grab in the world, and turn it into something warm and beautiful and charming [that] takes itself seriously in the right ways.
Not so serious, but in the way that if there's a kid playing on the floor of their room, they're going to make that story as big as their imagination will let it be. And it will have all these tones. And it will be absurd and ridiculous and funny. But it will also be scary and thrilling with your pump your fist chase scenes. And love between the boy and the girl and all that stuff. We wanted it to have this full, incredible experience. So that's what we were trying to do.
Stay tuned for more from the directors in the following weeks. There's seriously so much to talk about with this movie. The Lego Movie hits theaters this weekend on February 7th.