Explaining The Emoji Movie

How the hell do you make a movie about emojis? TJ Miller and Tony Leondis walk us through The Emoji Movie.

We’re sitting in a conference room at Sony Pictures with several journalists, director Tony Leondis and actor/comedian T.J. Miller. The latter two are here to explain how they went about making The Emoji Movie, an animated comedy about, yes, those little symbols that you use to express feelings, emotions, states of mind and other linguistic shortcuts while texting on your phone.

And these guys made a feature length movie about them.

“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, these are the new toys of the world,” says Leondis. “I mean you can make a movie about cars, you can make a movie about…These are these little characters that exist and our producer was like, ‘I want to know what the story is like inside the phone.’ And that made me think, ‘What is that whole world?’ It just kind of built from there. I think that’s such great fodder for a story.”

Miller agrees. “I definitely thought, when they came to me, I thought about The Lego Movie, and that you should not poo-poo (anything),” he recalls. “Somebody on the Internet immediately started trashing this movie with no information. But I sort of felt like, if you’re open to the story being great, then the template should not be something that you should look down your nose at…I just thought, ‘Here’s a story that I really like and I just thought this is definitely a film that we could make our version of The Lego Movie if only in the sense that you’re thinking, ‘Why the hell would I go and see this movie for, because what it is about?’ That’s just not going to be the case.”

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From what we saw in a Sony screening room just before this interview, Miller and Leondis may have actually made a very good case for why they wanted to make this picture. The Emoji Movie, which Leondis co-wrote with Eric Siegel and Mike White, takes the viewer inside the secret world of your typical smartphone, where tucked away inside the messaging app is Textopolis, the secret city where all the emojis live. It’s a vibrant, colorful world, recognizable from the screen of your phone but utterly strange as well.

“The inspiration is all about the phone,” says Leondis about the movie’s design. “It’s all about how the emojis fit on the phone. When you pull up your emojis, we wanted the world to kind of have that look and feel so when I looked at the phone, I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re looking at (retro game show) Hollywood Squares.’ So it’s kind of an easy one there.  And as far as the city and stuff, we wanted it to look emoji-esque. Our production designer is Carlos Zaragoza and he was one of the art directors on Pan’s Labyrinth, which is one of my favorite movies. So beautiful. So he helped create this world (down to) even the idea that the sidewalks will light up like your phone.”

The presentation of footage shown to the press exhibits quite a lot of detailed world-building for the film, not surprising since it’s a first-time look at this universe, but there’s a strangely blue collar ethic to it as well. “It feels a little like this is their job,” says Miller. “They live in these houses, they switch shifts, but it’s almost a family business for each and every one of them. People are clocking in and clocking out and you see it a little bit like that…that intersection of this strange kind of otherworldly but it’s-right-in-our-phone landscape mixed with your nine-to-five, show-up-just-do-your-job, don’t-do-anything-different-besides-what-you’re-supposed-to. I think a lot people can relate to that.”

Each emoji in this odd yet lively little world has only one facial expression — all, that is, except for Gene (voiced by Miller) who was born without any kind of filter and has multiple expressions. “Sometimes I feel like my whole gig in this film is expressing all different types of emotions,” says the Deadpool and Silicon Valley star. “You get one note from a lot of these emojis, whereas with Gene, you get a whole range of emotions. He feels like the only person — you know, it’s not completely analogous but in Angry Birds the lead character was dealing with being an outsider because of his ‘malfunction’ and so we’ve got a similar but very different story here of a guy who doesn’t only feel like an outsider, but a failure.”

That sense of failure inspires Gene to embark on a quest to become a “normal” emoji. He enlists friends Hi-5 (James Corden) and the hacker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris) to help find the code that will fix him, a journey that takes them through many different apps on their owner’s phone — until the phone itself is suddenly thrust into peril.

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“(Gene) feels like there’s really very little to no chance that this is going to work out for him,” explains Miller “That’s why he’s willing to go into the wallpaper, go to different apps, find Jailbreak, try and get up to the cloud. All those things are very dangerous but to him they feel like, ‘This is my last shot at fitting in and not being ostracized by this community.’ And not just ostracized just totally eliminated by these anti-virus pods so you’re going to see, these strange creepy ones.”

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Along the way, Gene and his friends encounter plenty of other emojis, including — perhaps most memorably — the famous poop emoji, whose commanding voice is provided by none other than the majestic Patrick Stewart.

“I wanted to find the classiest guy I knew!” exclaims Leondis about landing the X-Men and Star Trek legend. “Wanted to find the upper crust classy guy because the poop’s gotta be in the movie. Everyone wants the poop in the movie and so how do you do it fresh, how do you make it different, and (Stewart)’s just a classy smart guy and with a great sense of humor. And he loved getting in and recording all that funny stuff.” (The rest of the non-poop cast includes Sofia Vergara, Maya Rudolph, Rob Riggle and Steven Wright, among others.)

As with most animated films these days, there is a somewhat more serious undercurrent to the story: the owner of the phone, a young man named Alex (voiced by Jake T. Austin), struggles to communicate via social media — and emoji — with the girl he fancies, a problem all too common today in an age when we do almost all our interaction with others through our devices.

“We did a lot of research on 15-year-olds and apparently when a girl sends you a text, it’s a lot of pressure on what you answer back,” says Leondis. “Nowadays, this is the new way to ask someone out so this girl just likes something on his Instagram and his pressure is now, ‘How do I reach out to this girl? How do I communicate? How do I express myself?’ He struggles through the whole movie and because of what’s happening with the emoji, the phone is making a fool of him.”

“He wants to say the right thing,” adds Miller. “That’s sort of what the whole film is about, which is he wants to say the thing that the cool guy would say, that you’re supposed to say when a girl likes your Instagram or anything. So strangely we find through the story that it might not be about trying to fit in or do the thing that everybody else would do but rather to do something different.”

In the end, The Emoji Movie is about finding the best way to express your true self, a useful concept in an age when we use little phone symbols to replace basic English language. “That’s a big part of this,” agrees Miller. “What is your destiny? Are you supposed to be the thing you were told you were supposed to be in the beginning? These are all kind of interesting but important lessons and questions. Another reason I love being involved in these types of projects is that you are trying to suggest good lessons and help children develop a moral compass on their own so you’re not just telling them what to think — you’re telling them, ‘Here’s a story, gleam from it what you’d like to.’” He pauses a second for effect. “That’s really important for me too because that’s a very different vibe than the lessons that we all learned in Deadpool.”

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The Emoji Movie is out in theaters July 28.