The LEGO Batman Movie Director Chris McKay discusses making the film, being a Batman fan, LEGO, the cast and fun in the studio.
QUESTION: Back when you guys were making The LEGO® Movie, did you have any idea it would be such a big hit with kids and adults alike pretty much everywhere?
CHRIS McKAY: You never know what’s going to happen once you put a movie out there, but we made it with a lot of love and sincerity, and had so much fun doing it. So, the fact that people seemed to really enjoy the movie and responded so positively to the characters – whether it’s Emmet or Wyldstyle or Batman or Unikitty – was fantastic. We were surprised and just really happy that people loved it as much as we did.
QUESTION: At what point did it become clear that LEGO Batman needed to have a movie of his own?
CHRIS McKAY: He basically insisted [laughs]. I mean, clearly Batman has a rich history and there’s a lot of love for Batman out in the world, so he seemed like the most natural character to center a movie around. What’s great about Batman is that he’s a character that people aspire to and love because he’s super-smart and a great detective; he’s a millionaire with all these cool gadgets and toys; and he’s got this cool job going off and fighting crime. He’s like combination of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. He’s also got one of the most tragic backstories in comics. So, there’s a lot to draw on there, but if you’re going to make a movie around him, you’ve got to have a place for him to go. And out of all the characters we created in The LEGO Movie, Batman seemed like the one with the most room for growth.
We thought it would be fun to put him on this journey where he’s got to learn to embrace the people in his life – like a Jerry Maguire, About a Boy, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou-type movie – but in this LEGO universe, where you can do things you can’t necessarily get away with things in a live action movie. So, the premise, the character and the narrative were all so palpable that we immediately thought, ‘This is it.’ And I’m a huge comic book fan, so I jumped at the chance to direct it.
QUESTION: Has Batman always been part of your life? Are you a fan?
CHRIS McKAY: Oh, yeah, since I was a little kid. I can’t remember if Batman was the exact first comic I read, but it was definitely one of the early ones. And even before I started reading the comics, the very first T-shirt that I had, after I stopped wearing onesies, was a Batman shirt – this old, ‘70s-inspired Batman T-shirt. I remember getting my first kindergarten pictures taken in that shirt. And my first toys were the Super Amigo Batman figures. So, yes, Batman’s been with me for a very long time [laughs].
QUESTION: You’ve been steeped in the LEGO world for two movies now, but were LEGO toys part of your life growing up as well?
CHRIS McKAY: Oh, yeah. I grew up in an era where it was a bucket of LEGO bricks. I think they also had city sets and space stuff and things like that back then as well, but I really remember playing with just the basic building brick sets that I got for Christmas. I actually made very bad – but fun for me – little stop-motion movies with hand-puppet characters and the LEGO sets that I built. They allowed you to create any set you wanted to, and you could shoot anything in it. So, as any kid would do, you make your own mash-up of all the things mixed up together in your toy box – it was Luke Skywalker and the GI Joe guy in the LEGO world. Those are the kinds of movies that, right away, I made as a kid.
Naturally, that’s exactly what I’m doing now as an adult [laughs]. It’s kind of amazing that you get to do stuff like that when you’re making movies with LEGO bricks and Minifigures. And it’s a lot of fun, so we continue to embrace that with all of the movies.
QUESTION: Will Arnett reprises his role from the original in The LEGO Batman Movie. What do you think it is about Will’s characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne that makes him so funny and endearing at the same time?
CHRIS McKAY: Will is just a really charming guy; it’s crazy. I mean, you could cast him as Bruce Wayne in a live action Batman movie. He has the chin, the voice, and, physically, he could play the part. Obviously, he’s a super funny guy, but he’s also a great dramatic actor. He’s precise and specific, and just really talented. I think that’s what he brings to the table in anything I’ve ever seen him do, but especially in this movie and with this role. He just gets the relationship so well. He’s able to create this very complicated character and then go between all these different tones of comedy and sincerity. He’s really amazing, and I’m lucky to work with him.
QUESTION: You brought together some really funny and stellar actors to voice all the characters – Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes… What were the recording sessions like? Did you encourage the cast to be spontaneous?
CHRIS McKAY: I’m a big believer in giving the actors the freedom to just go and riff on the material and do funny things. I mean, you’re in recording sessions with some of the funniest people in the world and you’ve got the best seat in the house, so there’s definitely no harm in doing that.
That’s what great about making these movies. You’re not on stage in front of thousands of people – that’s a whole different kind of high-wire act. Here, you can just have fun trying stuff out. There’s a ‘writer’s room’ mentality to it – sitting down in a voiceover booth with these guys and saying, ‘Just go ahead and try it. If it doesn’t work, you can try something else.’ And most of the time, even if it’s a blind alley, there’s a gem of something that is worth exploring, like, ‘What if you just changed this?’ or ‘What if they said that instead, and you had this response?’
So, yeah, improvisation, riffing, and just exploring the material is encouraged in the voiceover booth for sure, and also even in the animation and editing process. I’m a big believer in letting the DNA of all of these people you’ve invited into this process really inform the movie. I like being a director who asks questions, as opposed to telling everybody what to do. When you look at all the smart people around you and ask them questions or challenge them or get challenged by them – I think that’s where you get the best stuff.
QUESTION: Can you talk about The Joker we meet in this movie, and what Zach Galifianakis brings to the role?
CHRIS McKAY: Well, Zach Galifianakis is unpredictable. That’s one of the things that most people will say he brings to the table. But there’s also this honesty and vulnerability to him and that, combined with his unpredictability, just fit so naturally with what we were doing in the movie. And I think those were the things that Zach responded to when we all sat down to talk to him about Joker.
Obviously, there have been a lot of really great Joker performances, but the dynamic in our movie is like a big brother/little brother thing. The Joker wants to prove to Batman that he’s worthy of being on the same marquee: ‘Batman and Joker.’ I mean, the big Batman movies are the ones with Joker in them. That’s what people love. Even though there are all these other villains, like Catwoman or Riddler, it’s always Joker – that’s the thing that people want to see. And the fact that Batman denies him that status – ‘I fight a bunch of bad guys. I don’t just fight you’ – is a really fun game for those two characters to play and, like I said, perfect for a guy like Zach.
QUESTION: Can you also tell us about the dynamic between Batman and Gotham’s very strong, modern new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon?
CHRIS McKAY: Sure. If you’re looking at the silhouette of the Batman Universe, there are a lot of guys in it and not that many female characters. But there are some very famous female characters in the DC world – Harley Quinn and Catwoman are the ones who are arguably the most known, but then you have Poison Ivy and Batgirl and so on. So, we thought it was important – and would be a lot of fun – to have a female character play a bigger role in our movie. That was one of the great things about this story for me. Barbara Gordon is a really cool, stand-on-her-own character who doesn’t really need Batman, but wants to work side-by-side with him. And it doesn’t have to be a romance either, even though Batman’s totally smitten with her. He doesn’t want to admit it but he’s clearly smitten.
In our movie, Jim Gordon is stepping down as police commissioner and Barbara Gordon is taking over her dad’s job. She’s this smart woman – she went to Harvard for Police – who comes in and says, ‘Hey, guys, looking around Gotham City, I kind of noticed that Batman’s been doing his thing for 78 years and Gotham hasn’t gotten any better. It could be argued that it got worse. So, why don’t we do it the right way and have Batman and the police force team up and solve some of these crimes together.’ Then, of course, Batman says, ‘I don’t work with anybody. I work alone.’
I think that a lot of people – not just guys but women as well – grow up wanting to be Batman, and I think that’s Barbara Gordon’s story. So, now she’s saying, ‘Well, I looked up to you, but I have my own way of doing it. I can be just as good as you. I can kick as much butt as you. I’m also smart and can solve crimes. I’m going to pave my own path.’ She’s got something that she wants to bring to the table, Batman doesn’t give her the opportunity – she has to make her opportunity. That’s a universal story that I think anybody can understand and identify with.
QUESTION: Can you talk about the design aesthetic you wanted to bring to The LEGO Batman Movie and what the animation process was like, as compared to the first one?
CHRIS McKAY: Well, we were able to go way bigger. In The LEGO Movie, Bricksburg was a lot of fun to do, but the world was smaller. We could only work within a couple of blocks of Bricksburg and only do certain things with the streets and apartments. But with this movie, we could really go for it. We could make a Gotham that was a cinematic Gotham, and a Batcave that was truly a cinematic Batcave. We could drive around and fly through the city in ways we couldn’t in the first movie. So, to be able to do that and make the movie as big as we wanted to, as epic as we wanted to, that was a lot of fun.
QUESTION: What do you hope audiences experience when they see The LEGO Batman Movie in cinemas?
CHRIS McKAY: Well, I really just want people to have a great time when they go to see this movie. We made it not only for fans of Batman and the LEGO universe and Super Hero movies, but for people who are fans of movies in general. It’s a movie that takes you on this journey and not only is it fun and funny, and a little meta at times – a little winky or silly or absurd – it’s also sincere emotionally. At its heart, we’re confronting what Batman’s real, true problem is.
I look at movies like a big tent. I want everybody to come into the tent and have a good time and enjoy themselves. If you like action, there’s a little bit of action. If you like comedy, there’s a little bit of comedy. If you want drama, there’s some of that in there too. I want people to have the full experience, with the full range of emotions.
The LEGO Batman Movie has a February 10, 2017 release directed by Chris McKay starring Will Arnett as Batman, Zach Galifianakis as Joker, Michael Cera as Robin, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, Rosario Dawson as Batgirl and Mariah Carey as the Mayor.
In the irreverent spirit of fun that made “The LEGO® Movie” a worldwide phenomenon, the self-described leading man of that ensemble – LEGO Batman – stars in his own big-screen adventure. But there are big changes brewing in Gotham, and if he wants to save the city from The Joker’s hostile takeover, Batman may have to drop the lone vigilante thing, try to work with others and maybe, just maybe, learn to lighten up.
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