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For writers and directors, navigating studio filmmaking seems like an almost impossible challenge — they always seem beholden to the source material of some best-seller, fighting against fan expectations (good and bad) while adapting a beloved property, or under the thumb of the merchandising empire whose products you’re using in your film. And yet, after making Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street and now The LEGO Movie, Phil Lord and Chris Miller have not only retained their personalities as storytellers, but flourished artistically and commercially in spite of their obstacles.
The duo recently spoke with SPINOFF about their work on The LEGO Movie, a film that uniquely explores the idea of creativity itself. In addition to talking about the research they did to find their way into telling a story about a literal toy world, Lord and Miller talked about the challenges of making something that is supposed to be bad actually be awesome, and finally discussed their upcoming work, which it turns out does not include a Masters of the Universe movie.
Your movies do a great job of deconstructing these familiar storytelling formulas. What sort of research went into breaking down a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey and turning it inside out to tell the story of a guy who’s special because he’s totally not special?
Phil Lord: Well, we definitely started out, after a few conversations in coffee shops, went back and read Joseph Campbell and the Christopher Vogler Cliffs Notes versions and applied those to the broad story we were telling. Then we watched Lord of the Rings a million times, and The Matrix, and Time Bandits —
Chris Miller: And Wizard of Oz and Star Wars and many more. And we talked about them all, and what they had in common, and all of that stuff, and we were trying to turn that principle on its ear, exactly like you were saying, by having the Chosen One not actually having any skills whatsoever. Unlike Neo, who’s actually a great code breaker and he was chosen because he’s the best at what he does, this guy’s chosen completely at random.
Lord: Even Frodo has, like, the purest heart in all of the Shire, you know what I mean?
Miller: He was specifically chosen by Gandalf as someone whose heart was so pure it couldn’t be corrupted. And we wanted to say that if anybody was chosen and told they were important and needed to step up and save the universe, that we feel like most people ultimately will rise to the challenge.
Lord: [Someone] said that it was like an antidote to The Incredibles, in terms of a message. It was trying to say the exact opposite thing.
You’ve talked about the balance between people following instructions when playing with LEGOs and then others departing from them. Was the idea of shaking people out of their complicity, or their conformity, always essential to that balance, or did that emerge later?
Miller: Actually, from the very beginning, we had heard this little story which is, if you ask a room of six year olds, “How many of you can sing and dance?” everyone will raise their hand, and if you ask a group of adults that same question, maybe one person will. And then we talked about how, somewhere along the way, a lot of people lose that in themselves or get embarrassed about it, or it just falls away. We just thought, wouldn’t it be great to make a movie that inspires people to get back in touch with that side of themselves, and inspires them to go out and innovate and build and try new things.
How thematic are you as writers — how early do they emerge, and how easy or hard is it to steer a story to reinforce that theme?
Miller: I would say early, and hard. That’s the short answer. We always start out when we decide to make a movie to figure out what we want to say; otherwise, there’s really no point in making movies, if they’re not saying anything. So we start there, and then what ends up happening is we have a lot of ideas, usually too many, and then we start making a story. And the needs of the story dictate something, and then we kind of, after we’ve worked on the story for a while, go back into our original goals thematically, and try and work that in as much as possible. And it’s a big pain in the buzz because it’s a lot of revising and changing and rewriting and getting people to re-perform things. It’s not a very fast process, but we feel like it’s worth it.
The idea of stepping outside the world of the characters to see how humans play with LEGOs — was that always a part of the idea for the film?
Miller: I think it was pretty early on — I think it was something the Hagemans were kind of talking about early on, just conceptually. And then when we came on board, it was part of our original pitch, and I just never thought it was going to stay in the movie the way we envisioned it. And it did.
How did you figure out how to integrate that into the story, so it was both surprising and reinforcing of the central idea?
Lord: I was going to say it was not difficult when you have four years to work on it. Because you basically —
Miller: You go too far one way, and then you go not far enough the other way, and then you just keep working on it until it hits the right balance.
Lord: And a lot of those callouts to earlier parts of the movie arose organically either when we were writing or designing the set, or we were on set — we would think, oh, right, maybe this can link back to that. And we were designing props and we thought, oh yeah, we could call back. And then literally there’s an ADR line in there about Taco Tuesday that was something we came up with relatively late.
Miller: That’s the benefit of doing an animated movie, is it takes so long that you have a lot of time to sort of massage it.
How did you decide on the look of the film, which creates a world and simultaneously emphasizes how small it is in comparison to ours?
Lord: We wanted to do a little bit of both. We wanted you to constantly be pushed and pulled and feel like, oh yeah, I’m completely immersed in this movie, and forgot it was fake, and then we kind of remind you that it was fake. And then we kind of take you into a world where you feel just as small as everybody else, and then also make the world feel enormous and large in scope. So it was kind of like by design that we wanted you to feel both things at once.
Miller: And sort of the well we keep going to, which is like, we’re in an action movie — wait, nope, it’s lame (laughs). It’s a thing we do every time, and some day people are going to get bored with it, but hopefully not this year.
Lord: It’s like running the craps table hoping you don’t roll something bad.
Miller: But as far as the look of it is concerned, we were really inspired by brick films that people posted online — little stop motion shorts they do in their basement and put on Youtube — and we wanted it to feel handmade and imperfect as those are. Because they’re so clever, and you can feel the love that someone’s put into it. And because we were doing a lot of it in CG, we didn’t want it too feel machined, so we put a lot of effort into making it look like it was all made by hand — scratched and dust and dandruff and thumbprints and people not building the bricks, pushing them down all of the way.
Lord: And part of that was the depth of field. We starting asking ourselves, how would you actually photograph this in real life? We’d have to get the camera really, really close, and we talked with Barry Peterson, our [director of photography] on Jump Street, saying what would this look like? Even if you had snorkel cams and stuff, you would be so close to everything that the depth of field would be really exaggerated. So we tried to push it as much as we could, without having to rack [focus] to every since person every time they spoke.
Miller: That also helped us give it a really filmic look, because a lot of these CG movies that come out have an infinite depth of field, and then they want you to see the whole universe because you can. But what’s cool about movies is film cameras have a pretty shallow depth of field and they tell you what’s important to look at. And so I think it really helped us from having your eyes go overlook, because there’s a lot of stuff happening in this movie.
Was there anything you couldn’t do — something that was maybe a little too specific that you would have to invent a new shape of a LEGO in order to pull it off?
Lord: There were probably some things we wrote, like foods and stuff, that literally didn’t exist and couldn’t be represented.
Miller: Specific tiny props. But I mean, once it gets to a certain size, there’s always a clever solution. Like one of the hardest things to do was build a walker for Vitruvius for this one scene, which was easy to storyboard — oh, he built a walker — and much harder to execute with the bricks that exist.
Lord: Because he had to grab it, and we didn’t ever want to cheat, so they’re like, “we invented this bogus piece,” and we were like, uhh, how would you really have to do it? So we literally got the pieces and started monkeying around with them.
With “Everything Is Awesome,” you had to make a song that is supposed to be sort of relentless, but you can’t actually make music that’s “bad.” How did you come up with this day-glo pop song that would be infectious without being totally annoying?
Lord: Well, we definitely go right up to the edge of that, and whether we cross it or not —
Miller: It’s a matter of personal taste.
Lord: We wrote a song into the script that was called “Everything is Awesome,” and it would be relentlessly upbeat and catchy. And this guy Sean Patterson just wrote a temp version of it that just so happened to be one of those earworms that gets into your head and sets up camp and won’t leave. And we thought, well, we’ll try other versions of it, and we tried some other versions, but honestly we kept coming back to his original version that he made. And then we thought, okay, we should embrace this, because everybody, when they hear it, starts singing it, and they can’t stop singing it — and days later are singing it. And then we got Mark [Mothersbaugh] to produce a version of it with Teagan & Sara, and then just to make sure it was clear that we were being somewhat sarcastic about it — there was some irony involved, but we also asked our buddies in Lonely Island to rap in part of it so that everyone would know that it has a healthy dose of irony in it.
After 22 Jump Street, what’s actually next for you? I’ve heard you’re working on five different projects, including stuff like Masters of the Universe.
Lord: Yeah, that rumor got out there. I’m actually proud to have that be the first legitimate rumor that we’ve been a part of. Other than Alvin and the Chipmunks 4 —
Miller: Which is also false.
Lord: I don’t know where that come from.
Miller: We’re going to take a long nap — that’s the first thing. We’ve been working hard — we have some TV things that we’ve been working on, and there’s a movie that I wrote called The Reunion that I’m hoping to get started on pretty soon. But mostly sleeping, and taking some time. Because doing two movies at once is not a good idea if you like to sleep.