IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller Talk 'The Lego Movie' and '22 Jump Street'

Tuesday, 04 February 2014 10:12 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller Talk 'The Lego Movie' and '22 Jump Street'

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller began their careers as writers and producers on the popular TV show How I Met Your Mother, and have since gone on to produce the Golden Globe-winning series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They soon made the leap to the big screen when they wrote and directed the popular animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Then in 2012 Lord and Miller directed their first live-action movie with the box office hit 21 Jump Street, and they are currently busy working on its sequel 22 Jump Street. But first, they return to the world of animation with their latest film The Lego Movie, which opens in theaters on February 7th. 

In The Lego Movie, an ordinary mini-figure named Emmet (Chris Pratt) is mistaken as being the Special (the greatest Master Builder who can save the Lego universe). With the help of an old wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and a tough young woman named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), Uni-Kitty (Allison Brie), Benny (Charlie Day), and a pirate named Metalbeard (Nick Offerman), Emmet will have to unlearn everything he saw in the instructions and discover the power of imagination to defeat the evil tyrant Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who is bent on destroying the Lego universe on Taco Tuesday and recreating it as he sees fit by gluing it together. In addition, the film also features the voices of Liam Neeson (The Grey) as Bad Cop/Good Cop, Channing Tatum (Haywire) as Superman, Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Green Lantern, Cobie Smulders (Delivery Man) as Wonder Woman, and NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal as himself. 

I recently had a chance to travel to Legoland California in Carlsbad, California for The Lego Movie press day and speak with directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller about their new movie. The talented filmmakers discussed their new movie, Lego’s unique licensing rights, combining characters from several different franchises into one project, why there are no Marvel characters in the film, getting approval to use Star Wars characters, casting Will Arnett as Batman, convincing Morgan Freeman to make the movie, taking advantage of Liam Nesson’s vast resume of work, making Will Ferrell the bad guy, Superman and Green Lantern’s odd relationship, why a lot of Wonder Woman’s scenes were cut, Shaquille O’Neal, a possible sequel, and what to expect from 22 Jump Street


Here is what Phil Lord and Chris Miller had to say about The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street:

IAR: To begin with, what fascinates me about The Lego Movie is the licensing and that with Lego you have the rights to use characters from several different popular franchises. Can you talk about how you decided what licensed characters to use in the film?

Chris Miller: We definitely tried to get as many crazy license characters as we could in this crazy party. We had were skeptic when they came to us and said, “What do you think about doing something with the Lego brand?” We thought, oh, man, that sounds like it would be a giant commercial. I don't think that's our thing. Then we started watching these brick films that people make in their basements and the stop motion shorts they posted online. They're just so creative, clever and funny. We thought, well, maybe we could make a movie that would be like that. It would be cool and it wouldn't feel like a commercial. Then we kind of got hooked into doing it that way.

The way I understand it, what makes The Lego Movie different from other projects is that you had the legal rights to use characters from DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings all in the same film as long as they are in Lego form. You used DC, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings characters, and obviously it must have helped that Warner Bros., the company that produced your film, owns all of those properties. But can you talk about why you didn’t end up using any Marvel characters? You had the legal rights to use them if you wanted to. Was the decision not to use them a choice that Warner Bros. made or did Disney have a problem with it?

Phil Lord: I'm sure Warner Brothers would be completely happy having Iron Man in their film. I just think that not everybody thought there was enough upside for the studio.

Miller: In all of those, even the Warner owned properties, there was still a lot of legal wrangling. They're estates and properties that have a lot of rights holders and everyone has to sign off on things.

Lord: There was all that Superman legal rights stuff that happened too. Superman was a big part of the movie then he was completely out of the movie. Then at the last second we use him again.

Miller: We tried to use as many different aspects of the Lego world as possible and behind the scenes it was a total legal challenge. However, creatively it was super fun because it was something you could only do in a Lego movie. 


So when you did choose certain licensed properties to use in the film, did you then have to ask the Warner Bros. legal department if you could use them or not? 

Miller: We would write them into the script and pretend we had the rights, and then just keep pushing until we didn't. In almost all cases we ended up getting everything we wanted to get in there. We wanted the movie to feel like it was written by an eight-year old and it was from the mind of a child. Like the way a lot of kids, my son included, when they're building Legos they put Batman, Chewbacca and a cowboy all in the same spaceship together. It seemed like it was really fun.

Was it difficult to get permission to use Star Wars Legos in the movie? 

Miller: We're not really allowed to talk about that, but you can.

Lord: I imagine it wouldn't be the easiest license to get.

Miller: We may have flown up to visit some people.

Would those people happen to live in Marin County, California (home of George Lucas and the Skywalker Ranch)?

Miller: Well, maybe. They had a good relationship with Lego and they liked us, so it all worked out.

It does serve the movie to use the Star Wars Legos the way you did.

Lord: Yeah. You're ready for something crazy to happen at that point in the film.


Can you talk about casting Will Arnett as Batman? His voice is so perfect for the caped crusader that I’m actually surprised he hasn’t played Batman in an animated film before. 

Miller: It was too perfect.

Lord: We've been really close to working with him before and we were huge fans of his. We thought, who's a really loveable, funny heel. He's just the world's expert at that, and his voice is deep. It just was perfect.

Miller: He plays that guy who's kind of a jerk, but really vulnerable. He has a really intimidating, masculine, deep, gravely voice. It was the biggest no-brainer for us to use him and he’s super hilarious.

Lord: Who else could combine Adam West and Christian Bale? He does those at the same time.

Speaking of great voices, tell me about casting Morgan Freeman? Was he at the top of your list, and when you first met with him, what was you pitch to get him to join this project?

Lord: We bombed that. We bombed it so bad.

Miller: We thought it was never going to happen. 

Lord: The meeting was hilarious because he was doing that Discovery channel show (Curiosity) about futurism and he was walking amongst a bunch of futuristic columns talking about DNA. Then they yelled "cut" or "lunch" and we sat with him for a second. We were just pitching the weirdest thing, “Then Lord Business seals the Kragle and you go blind.” Then I was like, this makes no sense.

Miller: We were like, “He's not going to do this!”

Lord: There's just no way he's going to do this. This just sounds like two crazy people talking. He later said that someone from Warner Bros. called and encouraged him to take the movie or else.

It’s hard to believe that even Warner Bros. could force him to make a movie that he doesn’t want to be in. 

Lord: I don't know how that happens either.

Miller: His career would have been just fine.


His voice adds a certain amount of gravitas and legitimacy to the film, correct?

Miller: It was similar with Liam Neeson. We saw him on this episode of Life's Too Short, Ricky Gervais’ show. He came on and did this bit about wanting to learn how to do improve. It was hilarious. We thought he had a great sense of humor. Then we asked him and he said yes. Everybody that we asked ended up saying yes. I think a lot of it had to do with people having a love for the brand of Lego and everyone just has a really positive association with it. I know that Will Ferrell’s kids were like, “Dad you’ve got to do this movie!”

Were you aware that at one point in the movie you have Liam Neeson fighting Batman just like he did in Batman Begins?

Miller: Yes. Oh yeah, it was not lost on us. There were a lot of movies that he was a part of that we were referencing.

You also had him say, “Release the Kragle,” which is similar to his famous line from Clash of the Titans.

Miller: Yes. We had him say, “Release the Kragle.” There was also the Star Wars cameo. Remember he was in Star Wars too. Every thing we were doing as we went through the movie he was like, “Yeah, I was in that.” It was crazy.

Why was Will Ferrell the right actor to play the film’s villain, Lord Business?

Lord: We wanted somebody who was really funny and could be the big villain of the movie, but also who could be vulnerable, warm, and was a great actor. Will's a really great actor and felt like a dad. He was perfect.

Miller: He's good at turning on a dime and losing it. The idea of having a bad guy being named President Business was part of our philosophy of having the movie feel like it was written by an eight year old. You're like, what's the bad guy's name? President Business! Everything was the silliest most basic thing that it could be.


As a hard core DC Comics fan, I loved the unusual relationship that you created between Superman and Green Lantern. Can you talk about casting your 21 Jump Street stars, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, in those roles?

Lord: Channing threatened us and said, “If I don't get to be a voice in The Lego Movie then you guys are dead to me.” We said, ok and then we were like, oh, well he should be Superman. Then we pitched it to him and he thought that sounded really cool. We couldn't have Superman in the movie for like a year and then suddenly all the legal stuff got figured out and he was back in. But we had to come up with a more sideline story for him because he was written out of the fabric of the movie.

Miller: That's when we thought it might be a funny running joke to include him and Jonah together because they have this natural chemistry and they play off of each other really well. We just brought them in together for a session and had them improvise off of each other. There's a lot more that’s not in the movie.

So the relationship between Superman and Green Lantern came out of them improvising together?

Miller: Well, we had the idea basically, which was Superman is cool and Green Lantern wants to hang out with him, but Superman does not want to hang out with Green Lantern. Then we just put in everything we could think of, rolled with it and tried a bunch of things. There are a couple of really funny things that just didn't end up making into the film. 

Lord: Channing does a really loveable version of trying to get rid of somebody because he's such a genuine guy. He's really polite. So it seemed like a good pickle to put him in and to have this guy just bothering him all the time. Then Jonah does a really funny and loveable version of trying to get on the team and wanting to be part of something.

Miller: He’s the friendly, annoying neighbor.

Lord: So it was a way of doing it without being mean.

Miller: It took a little convincing over at the Brothers Warner to get to do it. 

Lord: Green Lantern was a fresh wound at the time we were making the movie. 

Cobie Smulders plays Wonder Woman but she doesn’t have a lot of vocal work in the film. Did she record a lot that you didn't end up using?

Miller: There were a few things that we ended up having to cut for time and other reasons.

Lord: There was more super hero stuff that didn't stay in the movie.


Was Warner Bros. cautious about you using the DC Comics super heroes because they're trying to launch a live action Justice League movie in the near future?

Lord: They got a little nervous that somehow we were going to step on people's toes a little bit.

Miller: We ended up actually early on in the process when we were first starting to do the Superman and Green Lantern thing, we actually had to sit down with Zack Snyder and his whole team. It was before Man of Steel came out. We had to say, here's what we're doing and we're just trying to make sure we're not stepping on your toes or doing anything that would ruin your franchise. Ours is much more of it's own universe that it's existing in.

Lord: I don't know if (Christopher) Nolan ever fully signed off on.

Miller: Not on what we were doing, but again it was a complete reinvention.

Lord: Conceptually he signed off.

Was it a challenge to get approval from Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan to use Batman not just as a cameo, like the other super heroes, but as one of your film’s lead characters?

Lord: All I know is that the Warner's people were really nervous about it and then one day they weren't. So I don't know what happened. Either they were resolved not to tell him, or they asked Nolan and then he was like, “No, of course they can do it. Who cares?”

Miller: But it felt like everybody's got his or her own take of who is Batman. There was the Burton Batman, there was the Nolan Batman, and there was of course the old TV show version of Batman. This was it’s own incarnation of that.

This is Lego Batman!

Miller: Yes, it's Lego Batman and he's totally different. He exists in his own universe, which is now canon.

Lord: We want it to now be canon that he is an aspiring recording artist.


There is a Shaquille O'Neal Lego in the movie and the NBA legend voices the character himself. What was it like working with him?

Lord: Literally the way you record Shaq is you send twenty lines to Shaq's management and then he sends you back a tape.

Miller: He records it in Miami and then sends it to us. It was awesome and funny!

Lord: So we wrote a million jokes for Shaq because we didn’t know if they were all going to work and we only had one chance.

Miller: We didn't have time to fly down to Miami so it ended up being great.

Lord: He was pretty game.

Did he have any issues actually portraying himself as opposed to playing a different character?

Lord: No, he loved it.

Miller: He and Superman are equals in this movie.

Lord: I don't think there's any sports celebrity that's having more fun in their post life than Shaq.

With the exception of Charles Barkley I think you might be right!

Lord: Yes, maybe Barkley, but Shaq’s made so much money he can just chill out.

I’ve actually heard him say that he never cashed an NBA check because he made so much money in his career with endorsements.

Lord: Maybe he just used this check to dry his hands with. 

Miller: Yeah, he lit it on fire to keep warm in the winter.

Lord: Maybe that's why he's still working. But he's just psyched to do stuff. He wants to join the police force, do cartoons and he's having fun.


Finally, what can we expect from 22 Jump Street? The first film had one of the best cameo performances in movie history, will there be any surprise cameos in the upcoming sequel?

Miller: There are some cameos. There will be some surprises. It's even crazier than the first one. There's more action and more ridiculousness. We’re trying to do for sequels what the first one did for buddy cop comedies. Because everybody knows that sequels are bigger and therefore always better, right? 

Lord: It's definitely bigger. It's crazy and it's pretty darn funny. There are a lot of helicopters.

What about a sequel for The Lego Movie? Are you interested in doing another one if this film is successful?

Lord: Yeah, if we can figure it out. Do you have any ideas?

Sure, how about Marvel characters vs. DC super heroes?

Lord: We're open to it.

The Lego Movie opens in theaters on February 7th.


22 Jump Street is scheduled for release on June 13th.



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