Lego Batman Director Chris McKay on Making the Jerry Maguire of Batman Movies

Is The Lego Batman movie the best film ever about the Caped Crusader? We find out with director Chris McKay.

After many years working in television on such acclaimed and often groundbreaking shows such as Robot Chicken, Morel Orel and Titan Maximum, animator and director Chris McKay was brought on board 2014’s The Lego Movie to co-direct the animation with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The Lego Movie was a gigantic smash, prompting Warner Bros. Pictures to put The Lego Ninjago Movie, The Lego Movie 2 and The Lego Batman Movie — with Will Arnett reprising his breakout turn as the monstrously self-centered Caped Crusader from The Lego Movie — into production, and handing McKay his first sole feature directing credit on the latter.

The result is a film that some critics have already called an improvement on the eight previous live action movies released since 1989 to feature the Dark Knight, but while your mileage may vary on that, it’s true that McKay has made a fast-moving, relentlessly absurdist comedy that also works splendidly as a superhero film and as a Batman story. It gets to the core of the character in ways that some of the live-action movies haven’t, and its tremendous supporting cast breathe fresh life into well-worn figures like Robin (Michael Cera), Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Joker (Zach Galifianakis), Batgirl (Rosario Dawson) and many more.

We had the opportunity to talk recently with McKay about all this and more, including providing justice for the original Two-Face and whether McKay will be allowed to visit the set of Lord and Miller’s new project, the Han Solo movie.

Den of Geek: This was fast-tracked ahead of the next Lego movie. The studio comes to you and says, “We’d like you to direct The Lego Batman Movie on your own and by the way, we’re putting it at the front of the line.” What’s your immediate reaction?

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Chris McKay: It’s a very mixed blessing, right, because I’m a huge comic book fan, I’m a huge Batman fan. Being able to direct a Batman movie, Chris and Phil and (producer) Dan Lin and DC and the studio allowing me to do this sort of thing is amazing, but yeah, there was supposed to be at least one or two other movies that were supposed to come before this. The fact that not only did they flip our release date, but it also moved up because they weren’t going to put Ninjago out until this year was very challenging because we started this movie about two and a half years ago with no script, just a treatment and a rough idea.

I pitched the studio that I wanted to make Jerry Maguire as directed by Michael Mann with a lot of jokes in it. Which is great, but it’s also very ambitious to even try to do a movie in about two and a half years. It’s ambitious alone trying to do a movie in about two and a half years, but it’s also ambitious to do it with the kind of scope and scale that we want to have, because we wanted it to be a big comedy but also an action movie and have a little bit of heart in it and that kind of thing.

With all your experience in TV and in co-directing The Lego Movie, was there still, for you doing your first feature on your own, a little personal pressure involved there?

Oh yeah absolutely. You’re trying to live up to The Lego Movie, which is an amazing movie and unlike anything else, so you’ve got that pressure. You’ve got the pressure from DC and Batman fans to make a movie that’s worth them going out to the movie theater to go see. I take that very seriously because it costs a lot of money to go to a movie, you want to make sure that people are having a good time, you want to make sure they’re entertained. Get to see something new and maybe see another side of Batman that maybe they don’t get to see in other movies so there’s an enormous amount of pressure. I got to co-direct The Lego Movie with Chris and Phil but this is the first time it’s on my shoulders so I feel a lot of responsibility for the crew and everybody else in the making of this movie to make something that they’d all be proud of too.

I saw a few people write online things like “This is the best Batman movie ever!” I think what they mean is that you get to the heart of the character in a way that, without pointing fingers, not all past iterations have. How challenging is that to find the heart of who this character is?

I think it’s a hard job. I think all of those movies, they’ve all tried, right? They all try to get to it in different ways, you know what I mean? Every filmmaker’s going to take a different approach in that thing and I think that they all try to find some truth in the Batman story and that’s hard, and I think you’re right. I’m a huge Batman Begins fan. I’m a huge The Dark Knight fan. I think the trilogy of those movies is almost … You could argue maybe some of the movies are better than the others or whatever but there’s a perfect trilogy. There’s a lot of great movie trilogies out there, but that one, each of those movies has some amazing stuff.

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They can’t do the thing that we’re going to do that maybe tries to solve Batman’s problem on some level. That was our way into doing something different than what anybody else was doing, and made it different than The Lego Movie also. I love movies about people who are confronted with change, confronted with things that are their blind spots, that sort of thing, and being able to do that with Batman, with a character that I love, and also be able to do all different kinds of comedy, absurd stuff, pointed stuff, references to Passenger 57 or “Let’s get nuts” from the Tim Burton Batman movie, things like that. Being able to do all of that kind of thing, in one movie, I feel really lucky that they allowed me to have something that’s silly, funny, has a ton of action for this kind of movie, and heart.

Finding that tone is tricky because you’re poking fun at Batman in some ways, but you’re also paying a very loving homage to the character.

You can undo the stakes of the movie very easily and that’s the tricky thing, is how do you manage the tone, how do you find the right way to do that. A lot of that for me is just by feel and experimentation. I’m an editor also, and we’ve got great actors here who are willing to throw stuff and try stuff but they’re also fine, dramatic actors too, so that they can do all of those gears. Then trying to find the balance that just makes sense, and it’s all about feeling out the pace.

It’s just because there’s so much juice in the original core story. There’s so much we love and care about Batman and we all have a relationship with Batman. That’s why we didn’t feel like we needed to do the alley scene. We felt like people know enough, and even if , for some kid, it’s his first Batman movie, he’s going to say, his parents are gone, he doesn’t necessarily know why, they’re gone and this is about a guy dealing with loss and really challenging him to deal with it. There’s enough emotional stuff in there that’s going to hook you and you’re going to be interested and then follow this guy on a journey and then have a hopefully emotionally cathartic experience by the end of it.

This is the first Batman movie where we acknowledge that all the other Batmans, from the 1940s until now, are all part of the same continuity.

It’s on some timeline that exists between all these movies.

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You obviously had Will coming back, and you had Channing Tatum (Superman) and Jonah Hill (Green Lantern) coming back for their parts. With everybody else, was there anyone that you were surprised to get, that you didn’t think you could?

Yeah, I was surprised that we got Ralph, obviously, because he does a few comedies but that’s not the thing that he’s most known for and for the most part, he’s a live action actor and we were asking him to do a comedy that’s also a big toy commercial. Same with Michael Cera. I wasn’t sure that he would want to do something like this because he picks very independent movies. He’s an artist himself and a creator himself, so asking him to do something like this, this is not necessarily the kind of thing that he normally picks, and people even told me, “People have tried to get him for animated movies so you’re wasting your time, he’s not going to do it.”

Fortunately Will, through his relationship with him from Arrested Development, reached out to him and said, “Hey, look, these guys are fun to work with, it’s easy, it’s a lot of fun.” He was willing to do it and he brought so much life and heart to Robin and improvised a lot of Robin’s lines. I was just so lucky that I got both of those guys. It’s amazing.

Did Will do a lot of improv in the movie?

Oh, yeah. You pretty much can’t stop him from improvising. He’s great, and I would say that 50% of his lines are stuff that he created on his own just because he’s so good and so fast and so funny. I never laughed so hard in my life than those recording sessions with him or with Zach or Michael. They’re great.

When I had Zach and Will together, that was amazing to record them together. I put a lot of mics on both of them, got a boom operator so they didn’t necessarily have to sit there with the music stand and the script, and they could run around, confront each other, get crazy, and some of our best stuff came out of that. It really made the movie lift off the screen.

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No disrespect to Tommy Lee Jones or Aaron Eckhart, but there’s a little bit of justice served in getting Billy Dee Williams into the movie to do Two-Face.

When I was a kid and I saw (Tim Burton’s Batman), and I anticipated that they were going to play this long game by casting Billy Dee as Harvey Dent and then some future movie, two movies down, one movie down, whatever, they were going to fulfill that arc and it was going to be an arc that you experienced, that you were going to see, “Oh, here he is this normal guy, he’s in the background. He’s saying things, doing things, introducing himself at a party, whatever, and then you’re going to see this guy over time then get turned and become this other thing.” I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing that they’re already building this thing here, and especially with an actor I love,” because I loved Lando, I loved Lady Sings the Blues and all those other things.

But not only did they not put Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face but then they also just … Two-Face just shows up (in Batman Forever) and he’s already Two-Face and you don’t live through that. I was really disappointed. Having worked with Billy Dee on Robot Chicken, Titan Maximum, and The Lego Movie and knowing just how much fun he was to work with in the booth, it just felt like I could just do something with this and make this.

I’m glad that people picked up on because it’s one of those things where you just don’t know if people are going to put all that stuff together. Even when he came in to record, literally the first thing he said to me was, “Oh, so I’m finally going to get to play this part that I was supposed to play?” I was like, “Yep.” I feel really proud of that.

Any thought given to having any of the other Batmen come in and do something?

Yeah, there was a lot of things that I wanted to do that we might do in a future movie, so I might hold off on describing exactly what it is but suffice to say that there may be a plan for something like that in the future.

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You’ve got to hurry, man. Adam West is getting up there.

I know. But he just did that animated film (Return of the Caped Crusaders)!

He did. He’s probably going to outlive us all.

For sure.

Aside from the possibility of a sequel, which you say you had some ideas about already, what’s next on your plate after this? Do you have something else that you’re cooking up?

I’m working as a producer on the other Lego movies so I’m working on Ninjago to help that movie get to the finish line because I’ve been through this now twice before on the ground. A lot of the filmmakers, this is their first time, even a guy like Mike Mitchell, who’s on Lego Movie 2. So I’m working on the Lego films, trying to get it through. Even though (Lego Movie 2) is not going to come out until 2019, it’s still an ambitious schedule to do a movie that’s going to be a big musical and have all these other elements and that kind of thing.

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I’m also trying to do a live action movie because I really…I love animation and animation’s a great, fun way to tell stories, but I want to try to get a DC movie and do one of those because those are characters I love and grew up with and I love genre movies. I’m just a big movie fan so hopefully I can get in there.

The Flash movie is looking for a director.

The Flash is looking for a director. I am literally sitting outside Geoff Johns’ door about once a week, just saying, “Hey, remember me?” I’m hoping, and there’s a lot of stuff they’re cooking up over there at DC and I just hope I can be a part of it.

Do you think Phil and Chris will let you come take a look at what they’re doing these days?

I might be taking a trip to London at some point in the next couple months, just happen to go by the studio and just, “Oh, hey guys. What’s going on?” I’m hoping they’ll cast me as a stormtrooper or something. We’ll see.

The Lego Batman Movie is out Friday (February 10).

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