The LEGO Movie writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller just want to tell a good story, regardless of the film’s format. They went from the triumph that is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to the surprise live action hit 21 Jump Street (they also have 22 Jump Street coming this summer!).
Their third film in many ways combines both those worlds in that it is computer animation, told with the scope of the biggest action movie imaginable.
We caught up with Lord and Miller at Legoland recently for an exclusive interview and they dished what it took to make this astonishing accomplishment happen and whether their comedy savvy The LEGO Movie cast (which includes Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman and Chris Pratt) had the ability to utilize their innate improv skills to create something funnier than was first imagined on the page. The answer is an absolute yes!
Movie Fanatic: This world of LEGO could have been so expansive. There are so many avenues you could have gone down. Coming down to this one story and who to include and who not to include, was that one of the bigger challenges?
Phil Lord: Yeah, totally.
Chris Miller: By far the biggest, I would say.
Phil Lord: And we had to sculpt it down to that because it got really big, really fast. There were 13 main characters at first [laughs].
Chris Miller: It’s kind of like cooking down a sauce where you keep stirring the pot and it takes a lot of time and it’s slow. And it cooks down to something that is more concentrated. That’s the challenge and joy about LEGO is that there are infinite possibilities. You just need to pick a few. It came down to the main character’s story and then everything that would support that ended up staying. Everything else was too much of a distraction from that… but there are a lot of crazy jokes on the cutting room floor.
Movie Fanatic: You had to cut down the story, and then you shot it and had to cut the movie. Was it hard making those decisions about what scenes worked and what didn’t?
Phil Lord: That happens a lot. There is a lot of extra material. There are also so many versions of the movie. Each one of those versions has a great scene that it killed us to remove. But, it made the overall story better. But, animation is that process. You make it. And you make it again and again and again.
Chris Miller: I think that’s why so many animated films turn out well is that you get a chance to see it before it’s finished and react viscerally. I think that’s why so many of the timeless movies are animated. With live action you shoot it and think, “I think this is going to work.” You get back to the editing room and you get what you get.
Movie Fanatic: What were you guys’ influences – animation wise – as you were getting into this field?
Phil Lord: The old Warner Bros. shorts, because they never talked down to kids. Chuck Jones because he was making thought experiments with high art out of these six-and-a-half-minute cartoons.
Chris Miller: I interned and worked one winter for Bill Plimpton. He was a real influence for both of us -- both comedically and stylistically. For this movie, it was the brick films that people make in their basements and stop motion films that people post online. That creativity really got us inspired.
Movie Fanatic: One thing that struck me, even from that first The LEGO Movie trailer is it is just gorgeous to look at. Was there ever a point where you could have gone too far with the colors and the lushness… or is there such a thing when you’re making a LEGO movie?
Phil Lord: Cloudy (with a Chance of Meatballs) was so crazy and over the top. You couldn’t’ recreate it on film because the colors were so insane. There are no chemicals in the world that could create that on celluloid. This is actually conservative by that measure [laughs]. But, we did want it to be a lot of eye candy.
Chris Miller: Our production designer, he had done 300. He has an epic scope in the way that he likes things to be lit. That was the fun of it is we wanted to take something that looked like a real LEGO set and light it like it was an epic action movie.
Movie Fanatic: Yes, this is The LEGO Movie, but it really feels like it could be a Michael Bay movie.
Phil Lord: [Laughs] Yeah! It’s big and grown up. It was really easy for this movie to be quaint and cute. But, the joke is that you are trying to tell the biggest story possible with the smallest possible tool.
Movie Fanatic: Like you said Chuck Jones did, it’s animation for everybody. It doesn’t talk down to kids and adults are insanely entertained. Was that important from the get-go?
Phil Lord: We’re interested in just making movies, not necessarily saying that they’re for this group or that group.
Chris Miller: We make movies for ourselves. I feel lucky that we’re pretty immature.
Phil Lord: [Laughs] Kids can relate to our ideas.
Chris Miller: We were never worried that kids weren’t going to enjoy a LEGO movie. We just wanted to do things that we think are funny in every movie that we do. And that is of the utmost importance.
Movie Fanatic: On a movie like 21 Jump Street, you have room for improv. But with an animated movie, is there any flexibility for that? I mean, you have some improv pros with Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett.
Chris Miller: We like to set up, in animation, as many times as possible to get the actors together so they can play off each other. It usually doesn’t happen that way, but that’s how we like to work when we can.
Phil Lord: They’re in so early in the process. We don’t have such a solid script at that point. We’re just fumbling around in the dark at that point to find the story and the characters. And those guys are a big part of helping us figure that out.
The LEGO Movie blew us away and completely surprised us with how awesome it is.
Click through to see the 9 animated movies, including Lord and MIller's, that shocked us with how fantastic they are.
And want further proof of Miller and Lord's talents? Why not watch 21 Jump Street online!