The LRM Interview with LEGO Batman Movie Director Chris McKay

– by Edward Douglas

Fans of Batman are going to get an extra special treat this weekend as Will Arnett’s incarnation of the Caped Crusader introduced in 2014’s The LEGO Movie gets his very own solo adventure in The LEGO Batman Movie, opening Friday. 

The animated film is directed by Chris McKay, who was animation director on The LEGO Movie and who cut his teeth as a director and producer of Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken before joining Phil Lord and Chris Miller to create a new animated LEGO universe.

In the new movie, Batman has to deal with the fact that his desire to be a loner has left him rather lonely (not that he’ll admit it) and the introduction of a young orphan named Dick Grayson (voiced by Michael Cera) and the new Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Scott), gives him and Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) a chance to form a family as they take on the latest evil plan by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis).

LRM got on the phone with McKay earlier this week to talk about his latest foray into the world of LEGO and the Batman story he wanted to tell in that universe. (Note: There are a few SPOILERS towards the end of this interview about non-Batman characters that appear in the movie.)

LRM: I spoke to Phil and Chris years ago, probably before the first “LEGO Movie.” At that time, no one (besides them) really knew what that movie was going to be until we saw the first trailer. That’s kind of the case here, as well: Is this just going to be a Batman movie with LEGOs? At what point did you guys decide to branch off and do a LEGO Batman Movie? Was it during the process of making the first LEGO movie?

Chris McKay: Well, it was toward the end. I’m a big Batman fan, so I think all of us wished--as we were making these characters--we thought, "Oh, what if we made a spin-off of this? Or what if we did that?" I don't think it was until the first movie did well and people liked it where we said, "Okay, let's make a Batman movie."

But it was one of many things we were talking about, because we were talking about LEGO 2, and I think the only thing that they were kind of working on before we finished The LEGO Movie was Ninjago. That series had done well and people liked that. When the movie did well and people liked Will Arnett's character so much, we started developing Batman Movie and LEGO 2 kind of at the same time. When we pitched both of them to the studio, The LEGO Batman Movie treatment was so well received, and the LEGO sequel was such a big movie with a lot of music and a lot of new music needed to be written for basically a musical side for that movie. We were like, "Okay, this is going to take more time to get this right, so let's switch the release dates." Ultimately, because Ninjago was taking so much more time they even moved up my release date from May 2017 to February, to now, so we had a very short time to go from three or four pages of a treatment to finishing the movie a month ago. Basically, just a little bit under two and half years. Yeah, it's been a crazy ride just trying to get as big, an epic of a movie out as possible. I really wanted it to feel like a Batman movie, like a really big, epic story.

LRM: As a Batman fan you must know there's been so many stories between the comics, cartoons, TV shows, and other movies. Was it hard trying to figure out what story to tell that hadn’t been told in this way before?

McKay: Absolutely. There's so many great interpretations of Batman and so many fans of each of the different ones. Trying to find something that was original, and different, and yet not just retreading the origin story and that kind of thing. I think that's why we decided to focus on Batman being confronted with the one thing, which, in my eyes anyway, nobody else had really tried to focus in on, him confronting his main fear of being afraid of being hurt again. Letting people into his life, and then being hurt if they're ever taken away. We thought that maybe we could do a movie that's just about that, because that's something that maybe the live action movies can't really do--there was stuff we could do with that. What I pitched to the studio was I wanted to make “Jerry McGuire as directed by Michael Mann with a lot of jokes in it.” I wanted it to be about this guy who didn't have relationships with people and then grew to allow them into his life and how they change his life and make him a better Batman for it.

LRM: I don't know much about how the animation works when it comes to LEGOs, but they always look more like stop motion even though they’re done with CG.

McKay: Yeah, they still feel kind of handmade.

LRM: Yeah, exactly. That's what I mean.

McKay: They have that handmade quality, because I really think Chris and Phil, obviously, on the first movie, that’s kind of why they hired me, because I worked in stop-motion. I worked with them on the first movie to try to get that movie kind of a Rankin/Bass stop-motion quality to it. On this movie, I still wanted it to be epic and action-packed and full of Batman type scenes--cinematic, visual, and set piece style themes—but still within stop-motion, so we don’t do any squash and stretch like they normally do in an animated movie. We still try to give it that stop motion look and feel even while doing that stuff. A lot of replacement bricks, a lot of stuff where we crash things into the body in ways that you can't see, because the camera is set at a certain angle, but still feeling mostly like stop-motion.

LRM: You have a lot of big set pieces, so I wondered if you set limitations on yourself to keep it in that mode that was set up with the first movie.

McKay: Yeah, we set a ton of limitations on ourselves and what a LEGO does where you can't do this, you can't do that. They have a whole bible, literally a bible, of things that you can't do. I got real great animators, who are storytellers themselves, who care about finding ways of looking at observed behavior and re-imagining them in LEGO and finding a way to express them in LEGO with the body, facially. I'm really fortunate to work with these artists who are amazing collaborators.

LRM: One decision was to have Barbra Gordon be part of the story, rather than having her running around as Batgirl, which is traditionally what happens whenever Barbara is introduced. Can you talk about going in that direction?

McKay: Yeah, in the Batman universe, Barbra Gordon/Batgirl has always been kind of a side character, but doesn't have a lot of prominence. I wanted to have a really strong female character in there, who is kind of an equal to Batman, maybe wants to do things a different way than Batman does, but is a good strong foil to Batman, andne of the many people who confronts him on the way that he lives his life. Also, maybe do it where it's about being a coworker or a friend, and not necessarily about a relationship. Because all the Batman movies, they have these very disposable--most of them, not every one--a lot of them have a disposable relationship whether it's Vicki Vale or Chase Meridian. They just kind of show up and they're a love interest, they kind of say a few things that are important and then they go away. There's some more value to this relationship.

We are juggling a lot of characters in this movie, but I wanted them all to kind of have a point of view on Batman or be a significant emotional touchstone for Batman along the way. I just thought it was important to find a way to make her character unique and strong. Fortunately, we found a great voice actor in Rosario Dawson who could come in and she herself is an activist and a strong woman. I liked that she is literally the character of Barbra Gordon in real life and could play Barbra Gordon/Batgirl in a movie, you know? I would watch that. Actually, when we cast Rosario and it went out in the trades, I think people at first mistook it for the fact that Warner Bros. had cast her as a live-action Barbra Gordon. People were super-pumped that it was her, and yeah, I could totally see that. I think we should pitch Warners on doing a live action Barbra Gordon movie with Rosario Dawson. That would be amazing.

LRM: After seeing this movie, I think they should put you in charge of the whole DC Universe. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, but still…

McKay: (laughs) Which I’d love. I'd love to work on a movie with them, that's for sure. I'm probably like you--I'm first in line for, no matter what it is… If there's a superhero movie. I grew up on Richard Donner's Superman and Tim Burton's Batman. Those are movies for me that captured my imagination and made me want to make movies. I watched that scene where Superman rescues Lois Lane from the helicopter over and over again as a kid, because I just wanted to study how it's done, why it made me feel a certain way, and why I got excited by it. That was one the things that catalyzed me as a filmmaker. Someday, I want to be able to make live action movies like that, because they were the things that made me want to go to them as a kid.

LRM: I imagine you’re a fan of the ‘60s Batman and ‘70s Super Friends, too, since you make nod to them as well. I know DC and Warner Bros are very protective of their characters in general, including Batman.  Was there anything you weren't allowed to do? Or was it like “Whatever works to get a laugh or make it more fun”? Were they very open?

McKay: They were fairly open to everything. Honestly, the only thing I couldn't do was go deep into Batman's rogues gallery with characters that… and this was from LEGO, not necessarily from D.C-- I couldn't go into Professor Pyg or Flamingo, stuff like that, just ‘cause the backstories were too dark. At a certain point, people had to cut me off, because I was like, "Can we build this character?  Can we build this character." Each character I'm asking them to do someone's got to design it, build it, rig it, there's all this stuff that people have to do, and at a  certain point I was filling the roster with all these characters that were just going to be background things that were nods to the fans. At some point, they just had to find reasons to cut me off.

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LRM: I have to imagine someone is going to use Condiment King in a comic one of these days. It just seems inevitable. Harley Quinn was just a character in the cartoon until the comics adopted her. What about some of the other licensed properties—was it hard to get them in there, too?  Or were you given limitations as far not being able to use their actual names or things like that?

McKay: It's funny, because we make that “British robots” joke about the Daleks, but the BBC gave us the license to be able to use the Daleks, but that’s just a funny joke that Zach (Galifianakis) did in the record and (The Joker) just has that kind of attitude, the American-centric attitude to that joke, which made me laugh, that the Joker would sort of feel that way. You'd be able to namecheck all these other characters but wouldn’t know the Daleks. When I was a kid, I watched Monty Python and Doctor Who on channel 11 in Chicago on Sunday nights. When I was growing up, people wouldn't know the Daleks, but now, there's a lot of kids that grow up on Doctor Who. It may not be the most prevalent thing. I also like doing things that are sort of secret jokes that kids can get, "Oh no, those are the Daleks, of course.” They know what they are.

I just wanted to throw as many in there that I possibly could. There was ones that I wanted to do, like maybe put Moriarty in there from Sherlock Holmes, but it's just a hard read. Some of them are just so visual that you immediately get who they are or at the very least that they're a bad guy. The Agent Smith is probably the closest thing to Moriarty, but it's just such a distinct performance thing and a visual look to it. We could do sort of the thing with one guy turning into three of them that even if you don't know those movies, you just sort of get it.

Again, I'm hoping that this is sort of a gateway for kids to ... A lot of kids don't get to see Batman vs. Superman or Suicide Squad and stuff like that, so this is like a gateway drug, these kinds of movies, and then be curious about, "Oh, who are these guys?" The Matrix guys and Agent Smith. “Why does the computer say 'Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed' when the Batmobile starts up?” Stuff like that. Like “Always bet on black” and then they’ll find out that that’s a Passenger 57 reference. There’ll be stuff that people want to go down the rabbit hole like I did when I was a kid, wanted to watch the Lucas or Spielberg movie and saw the references they were making to John Ford or Kurosawa or Pinocchio or whatever the stories they were referencing.

I'm still hoping that if some of that stuff goes over some kids’ heads, maybe they’re curious enough to go chase it down like I was when people would laugh at jokes that I didn't get, but I'd want to find out what the reference was, if I was in a room with older adults or somebody's older brothers and sisters or that kind of thing.

LRM: So your whole intention and plan with this movie was to create future nerds….just to keep the cycle going… 

McKay: (laughs) Yeah, absolutely.

LRM: Before I let you go, you had Ralph Fiennes doing the voice of Alfred, so when you finally get to bring in Voldemort, was there any temptation to have him voice the role he played in the movies? Or would that have been too confusing? 

McKay: That's a good question, because I originally said, "Can we get him to do both?" It's one of those things where I had so many characters and so many things going on, I was always really afraid of us not being able to capitalize on some of these things, because I would want Alfred and Voldemort to have a scene together. I would want to do something with that, or I was afraid that if we did do something like that it would just end up getting cut, because for time reasons, because there’s only so much stuff we can animate. I pitched it to the studio, but I think they were just sort of like, "Look, there's so many characters, so many stories, you're never going to be able to fit that thing in." Yeah, it was one of those things that we couldn't do, unfortunately.

The LEGO Batman Movie opens nationwide on Friday, February 10 with previews on Thursday night.

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