Some character spoilers lie ahead for The LEGO Batman Movie…
Having co-directed The LEGO Movie, Chris McKay retreated to the other side of the world to put together his full directorial debut, The LEGO Batman Movie. Ahead of the movie’s release, he spared us some time for a chat about it…
I wrote in my notebook after watching your film, ‘nerd gold’!
I read on your website ahead of this chat a quote you’ve got there from Frank Capra. “There are no rules in filmmaking, only sins, and the cardinal sin is dullness”. I can’t think of a film I’ve seen in recent times that’s such a prolonged assault on dullness! How easy, when you’re putting the nuts and bolts of the film together, is it to keep perspective of that?
That’s a really good question. Obviously you want the movie to move, you want it to be ahead of the audience. A little ahead of where everyone’s at. But it takes a lot of time to find the right pace. You don’t want it to be a complete overall assault, but you want to move, and you want to entertain people. Just like the Airplane! movies and the Naked Gun movies. We want to tell a lot of jokes, to have jokes for a lot of different audience members. One joke’s for kids, one’s for adults, one for people like me, Batman nerds. I wanted a bunch of film jokes that people would get if they know anything about films, and lines from movies, and references. I also wanted it to be emotionally true and honest too. For the movie to be a full buffet, and a lot of fun. Maybe even a bit of hope! Hopefully a fun ride.
There’s a bit in Terminator 2 where they turn to John Connor and he’s asked how many police are out there, and he basically says “all of them”. When you were talking there about in-movie jokes, if I was asked how many are in The LEGO Batman Movie, I think I’d end up saying “all of them”.
[Laughs] [A lot]
Without going too spoiler-y for the film, I’ve written down for instance to ask you what your favourite John Cuscack rom-com is!
There’s a couple! [Laughs] My favourite one is The Sure Thing. It’s a pretty fantastic movie, and also very Frank Capra inspired, like It Happened One Night. A road picture like that. The Sure Thing! I don’t know why we threw John Cusack into the movie, to be honest!
Because Must Love Dogs doesn’t get enough love!
How does it change for you personally, then. You had co-director credit on the first film, and my understanding of your role on The LEGO Movie was that you were very much in the trenches. Here, it’s just you, and everything is on you. The LEGO Movie has made a ton of money, so clearly you have sinister Warner Bros people in suits behind you all the time. How did the mechanic change for you personally, and how did the expectation change off the back of the incredible success of the first movie?
There’s a lot of pressure, obviously. The first movie, everyone kind of left us alone. In terms of an animated movie, it was more on the middle to lower budget end of animated films. Warner Bros isn’t Pixar. It isn’t DreamWorks or Disney. Warner Bros doesn’t put out a big slate of animated movies. We were one of only a couple they were working on. That radically changed, because now you look at Warner Bros, LEGO animated movies are one of the pillars as far as the future of the studio goes. They have Harry Potter movies, they have DC movies, they have LEGO movies. We are one of three ‘cinematic universes’ – for lack of a better phrase – that they are relying on.
So as far as the pressure. The expectation went from ‘let’s just see what they’re doing from their garage in Santa Monica’ to ‘it’s an industry’. The fact that the first movie was not only successfully financially, but it was successful with the audience. People loved it, and loved it so much, that the expectation was it’d be nominated for an Academy Award, then it wasn’t, then the song became part of popular culture. There was a lot of pressure on this movie, obviously, to try and achieve the same kind of success. I think for us working on the movie day to day it was just important… we’re all fans of Batman, we’re all fans of comic books. But we just wanted to make a good movie. We wanted to make a movie that… this is the only movie where you can address Batman’s central problem. That hole in his heart, that deep hurt, that when he was a kid his parents died. That was a catalyst for the adventure in those movies, but for us, we wanted to take a look at the problem and ask ‘why can’t Batman be happy?’.
For us it was more how do you crack that story? How do you make it as fun, sincere, earnest and emotional as possible.
Is that why it jumped the queue? Because the original announcement was we’re going to get The LEGO Movie 2 first, and that you were directing that. Then The LEGO Batman Movie sprung up. You talk about LEGO being one of the central pillars for Warner Bros: with Harry Potter and DC, that’s after eight or nine movies each. With LEGO, you’ve just had one film to get that status.
Part of the reason we moved ahead was that LEGO 2 is such an ambitious movie. There’s a lot of music in it, a lot of songs. It’s a whole other thing. This story, behind the scenes I was working on both. I was working in partnership with Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord, the two directors of The LEGO Movie] and Dan [Lin, producer], I worked on the development of Batman. We pitched Batman and LEGO 2 on the same day. It was very clear that Batman had an idea that everyone was excited about. LEGO 2 was something that was going to take a lot more time to get the material together. It made a lot of sense. Then LEGO Ninjago [due out at the end of the year] was actually supposed to come first, but they weren’t ready, so they asked us to move up our release date. We made this movie in about two and a half years, which is literally from no script to finished product. It’s definitely one of the most aggressive schedules for an animated movie that there’s ever been.
In the midst of all of this, you were linked with directing a live action reboot of Masters Of The Universe for Sony? Was that internet chatter, or was there something to it?
I was very lucky. Chris and Phil were very generous, and I got to be a big part of the first movie. After that movie came out I went around and met with people, talked to people about stuff. I got to meet on a bunch of different things. [Masters Of The Universe] was me literally pitching an idea to Sony about that. It’s one of those things that turned into an article.
I think people have a lot of love for that particular property. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the Dolph Lundgren version, but I think they wanted a good version of that movie, and with the success of the Lord Of The Rings films and stuff like that, there was an appetite and ability to do that kind of movie. I happened to be lucky enough to be pitching at that time, and somehow an article came out about it.
You’re on a water bottle tour after a movie comes out, and that was one of the many meetings that I took. I think that would be a great movie, but I think it’s going to take a second for those guys to crack it.
Are you involved in Masters Of The Universe at all now? Or has that passed?
I think that’s passed. I think McG is working on it.
You are the director who has brought Roald Dahl’s take on Gremlins to the screen. There’s the sequence where the Gremlins are attacking the plane, and the nerd in me nearly exploded on the spot. How did that come about, and what kind of permissions did you have to get? Was it any more complex?
We wanted a plan. We wanted the Joker to have some provable to Batman that he was better than all the other people that Batman could fight. And because when I played with toys, I’d mash everything together. The first remixing that people do when they’re kids is they take Luke Skywalkers and Voldemort and put them in a battle together, that kind of things!
The original inspiration for Gremlins was that George Miller Twilight Zone episode, where the Gremlin is pulling apart stuff on the plane. I was mashing up my memories of the history of Gremlins into one thing. To be able to put Agent Smith, Sauron, Voldemort and the Daleks into the movie. All of these bad guys from my childhood. It was a lot of fun.
I have to ask about ‘British robots’. Clearly for a start a Dalek isn’t a robot, it’s a Kaled mutant! But Doctor Who: are you a fan, and where did the idea of mashing it into The LEGO Batman Movie come from?
I’m a fan! The Tom Baker Doctor Who and Monty Python – that was my Sunday night growing up in Chicago, watching those shows. To me, you want to find characters who are internationally known. You want to find stuff that’s not just US centric. The Daleks are there for that reason. We could have called them the Daleks, but Zack had an improv, calling them British robots, which sounded funny! That’s where that came from!
You’ve referenced so many Batman films, but did you involve the directors of them at any point? Were Zack Snyder and David Ayer, too, opening the door for you so you could see what they were doing with Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad?
No. We didn’t really get a chance to meet with anybody. I think we sent some stuff to [Christopher] Nolan’s camp and [Zack] Snyder’s camp to get them to see what we were doing. There was never any quid pro quo. They didn’t invite us over to go and see what they’re working on! [Laughs] These movies are so small, and even though there’s a lot of expectation on this, working in animation is like its own ghetto, for want of a better word.
Final question, then. I have to honour a Den Of Geek tradition, and ask you about one of our finest exports. Chris McKay, what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?
I’m a big fan. I think he is really… I don’t think people think of it as a Jason Staham movie, but The Italian Job. I think he’s so charming and fun, and a great part of that ensemble cast. He’s incredible, but that would probably, off the top of my head, be one of my favourite Jason Statham roles.
You are only the second person to cite The Italian Job. The other was Mark Wahlberg, and he was being ironic!
[Laughs] [Even more]
Chris McKay, thank you very much!
The LEGO Batman Movie is in UK cinemas now.