It’s a snap! Phil Lord and Chris Miller create movie universe for beloved Lego figures


On the tiny, yellow face of it, building an entire cartoon feature around Lego—those colorful plastic bricks and smiling mini-figures that have been a staple of childhood bedrooms and playrooms since the mid-20th century—seems like an absurd proposition. After all, if you were looking for a toy to base a film (not to mention a potential film franchise) around, there would certainly seem to be more overtly cinematic options. The Transformers and G.I. Joe series, for instance, descended from toy lines that come equipped with established characters and built-in storylines, while Battleship had…well, battleships.

By the order of its namesake Danish company, though, Lego has long avoided shaping the way its wares are played with, either through gameplay rules or competing camps of good guys and bad guys who can be pitted against each other in plastic-on-plastic battles. (Although that's changed somewhat in recent years as the company has branched out into manufacturing licensed characters based on popular franchises such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and both Marvel and DC superheroes.) Instead, they provide the literal building blocks for the young and young at heart to create their own characters, worlds and stories—a process that bears a striking similarity to filmmaking. So perhaps the question shouldn't be, "Why would anyone make a Lego movie?" It's "Why hasn't anyone made a Lego movie until now?"

The spirit of creative freedom that comes built-in to this particular toy was precisely what encouraged producer Dan Lin to pursue the idea for what would become The Lego Movie, which opens in theaters on Feb. 7. "The Lego stance is that they allow you to create the story in your own mind," he explains. "That what's so unique about their toys; when you play with Lego, you can mash up and mix up your toys and genres and that's okay, because that's the way you play with Lego. You can be a cowboy who'll play alongside a pirate or a spaceman or Batman! We wanted to capture the Lego play experience in this movie."

Lin sold both Lego and Warner Bros. on the idea of The Lego Movie in 2008, but it took another two years until he found the pitch that most closely mirrored his own hopes for the project. It came from the filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the two mid-30s wunderkinds who had just transformed the slender children's book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs into an animated feature that scored healthy reviews and box-office returns. "I loved what Phil and Chris did with Cloudy," Lin says. "It's a very visual book without much story and I had a similar issue with Lego—amazing toy, beautiful art, but no story. It was a big challenge, but they had been able to pull that off with their previous movie. Also, they were just huge fans and lovers of Lego; they grew up playing with it and it was important to me that the people making the movie really respected the brand and the toy."

While they may be longtime Lego aficionados, Lord and Miller admit that they weren't initially certain that directing The Lego Movie was a job they wanted. "Like most people are and should be, we were skeptical about adapting a toy into a movie," Miller remembers. "There's always the fear that it's just going to feel like a commercial. But then we had this notion: What if you got a bunch of different characters together—like a spaceman, a pirate, a wizard and a knight—and sent them off on some kind of quest? We wrote up a couple of paragraphs for Dan and said, 'If this is useful, run with it. We love Lego, but we don't know if this [is for us]. He ended up pitching it to the studio and the Lego people in Denmark and they really liked it. So we got sucked into writing a version of it and, in the process, fell in love with it and had to make it."

Although a theatrical Lego feature has never been attempted before, it's not as if the toy is making its on-camera debut with The Lego Movie. For decades now, they've headlined short stop-motion movies made by amateur filmmakers or kids goofing around with the family camcorder. (Do a search for "Lego movies" on YouTube and you'll be greeted with a wealth of results.) And as Lego itself has extended its brand into videogames, books and other media, the company has experienced the financial benefits of saying "yes" to film and television producers. Starting with the 2003 direct-to-DVD computer-animated feature Bionicle: Mask of Light—based on the company's now-defunct Bionicle line—Lego's filmography has grown to include the Clutch Powers and Hero Factory series, as well as a Lego Batman adventure. Meanwhile, their television credits include a popular series of “Lego Star Wars” specials, as well as the ongoing Cartoon Network show “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu.” For a certain generation of kids, Legos only came to life when you played with them. These days, seeing a walking, talking Lego mini-figure is as easy as turning on the TV.

Despite the sudden ubiquity of animated Lego productions, Miller and Lord wanted to ensure that the toy's big-screen debut distinguished itself from the pack. "We knew early on that we wanted this to be different from any of the other Lego stuff out there," says Miller. "We wanted it to look like an actual homemade brick film, like a Lego set come to life. We wanted everything to be made out of Lego, including fire and water. For example, there's a scene with a pirate ship out on the ocean and the ocean itself is made out of thousands and thousands of undulating bricks. We also didn't want the characters to move and bend in ways that the plastic couldn't move and bend. Those kinds of limitations are fun, because you've got to find creative ways to solve them—like, there's only seven points of articulation on a mini-figure, so how do you choreograph a fight sequence with a character who can't wind up to punch someone? We were really inspired by a lot of the short films that people make in their basements and post online where they come up with such clever solutions to those limitations."

Due to expense, the film was largely animated on computer by the Australian-based visual-effects company Animal Logic (whose feature animation credits include Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and both Happy Feet features) and less through traditional stop-motion techniques. Still, the directors strove to blend the practical and digital Legos into a seamless whole and received a great deal of assistance from the toy's creators, which furnished the production with a special version of their Lego Digital Designer software (which allows users to create their dream Lego creation in a virtual space and then order the plastic parts to build it) as well as hands-on design help. Lin notes that Lego's head toy designer Matthew Ashton is an executive producer on The Lego Movie and his team is responsible for many of the vehicles and characters that viewers will see in the finished film. And some inspiration came from even closer to home. "Chris' mom sent us his Lego space set from when he was a kid and we used it in the movie," Lin reveals. "That's how much of an emotional connection we have to Lego as filmmakers."

For story inspiration, Miller and Lord turned to another formative piece of their respective childhoods: 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which famously featured such classic cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop sharing the screen for the first (and probably only) time. "Roger Rabbit was definitely a touchstone," says Lord. "It's so delightful and clever and we were hoping to capture some of that magic that comes with mixing different elements and characters together. We wanted to replicate the experience of playing with Legos in somebody's room; you know, the Batman Legos and the Prince of Persia Legos and the Lego City pieces are in their separate boxes for two seconds and the minute you open them and start playing, they comingle." So if you thought watching Daffy and Donald Duck tickling the ivories—and beating each other up in the process—was a laugh riot, just wait until you see a Lego-sized Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) appearing in the same movie as Abraham Lincoln and Michelangelo…both the painter and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

"We could have used Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg making a few calls for us," Lord jokingly says of the often-difficult logistics behind getting some of these characters into the same frame (certainly the behind-the-scenes battles that duo endured on Roger Rabbit trying to satisfy both Disney and Warner Bros. are the stuff of Hollywood legend), but the strength of their creative sales pitch combined with the durability of the Lego brand meant that they secured most of the cameos they wanted. Naturally, they decline to reveal too many of these very special guest stars, but Lin is a bit more forthcoming, hinting that Ninjago's Green Ninja puts in an appearance at one point by special request from the producer's son. (And parents, if you have no idea who that is, don't worry—for your kids, it'll be like Marlon Brando popping up in Superman: The Movie.) 

Just as in Roger Rabbit, though, the bulk of the film is built around an all-new, all-original hero, in this case Emmet (Chris Pratt), your average, ordinary mini-figure who, through a case of mistaken identity, is dispatched on a grand adventure to save the Lego Universe from the destructive machinations of Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Helping him out of tight spots is kick-ass heroine Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the Dark Knight himself.

"We were looking for somebody who had a really sympathetic approach to a naïve character; basically, a really human version of a dumb guy," Lord says of their leading man, perhaps best known for his role on the NBC comedy, “Parks and Recreation.” "And Chris has so much earnestness and such a pure heart that he really holds your attention." Miller quickly adds that the duo are claiming bragging rights for giving Pratt his first swing at being a big-screen superhero, as The Lego Movie is hitting theatres six months before the actor enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Star-Lord, one member of the band of intergalactic warriors known as the Guardians of the Galaxy. "He's going to have two Lego characters made of him, one as Star-Lord and one as Emmet. But ours is coming out first!"

According to the directors, the decision to cast Arnett as Batman—the standout star of the movie's trailers—was another no-brainer. "Will had this really specific take on Batman, which is that he's kind of a douche," Lord says, laughing. "And we thought, 'Nobody plays a more human, vulnerable douchebag than Will Arnett!' Just look at Gob from ‘Arrested Development’; it's really hard to play a jerk who everyone loves and Will's got that nailed down."

To take full advantage of their vocal cast's prodigious comic talents, Lord and Miller tried to get them into the studio together whenever possible and also left plenty of room to improvise. In many instances, those sessions yielded jokes and story ideas that the directors hadn't previously considered; for example, Miller cites the constant bickering between Wyldstyle and Batman that audiences will hear in the finished film as the direct result of having Pratt, Banks and Arnett all in the same room riffing off one another.

The movie regularly changed shape in the editing room as well, as the filmmakers and their crew tinkered with the pacing, structure and content of their scenes. "I would say that the process of making this movie was very dynamic," Lord says, which, he adds, is the same way they went about making Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. "We'd think we'd have the whole scene figured out, but then the editors would take a shot at it and we'd realize that our ideas were terrible and theirs were better, so we'd remake the whole scene. Same with the actors. At every step, we like to inject as much creativity into the process as we can. It makes our financial backers very anxious, because the movie changes constantly. But it's for the good of all."

Speaking as one of their financial backers, Lin jokingly remarks: "I'm glad they acknowledge my pain! Yes, there were many versions of this movie, but what's great about Phil and Chris is that they love to experiment and try new things. For them, it's all about, 'What's the funniest version of the movie and the most emotional version of the story?' And the beauty of animation is that we can change things; in fact, we were changing things all the way up until the end. Eventually I had to tell them 'Pencils down.'"

Complicating the production process further was the fact that, in the midst of getting The Lego Movie up and running, Lord and Miller got the call that Sony had decided to greenlight a sequel to their surprise 2012 live-action hit, 21 Jump Street, the revival of the vintage ’80s cop series refashioned as a buddy-cop comedy vehicle for Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Thus, the duo tapped their assistant director, Chris McKay (a veteran of the toy-based stop-motion series “Robot Chicken,” which has made regular use of Lego) to fly to Australia to oversee the animators at Animal Logic while they decamped for Louisiana to reunite with Tatum and Hill on 22 Jump Street. "They would send us dailies, so after our 15-hour days of shooting, we'd go home and watch the Lego Movie dailies on our iPads and give notes and then fall asleep and start it all over again the next day. Then on the weekends, we'd have long conference calls. So it was a bit of a challenging period, but we got through it and couldn't have done so without Chris and his strong vision." (Perhaps as a favor to their overworked directors, Jump Street stars Hill and Tatum also contribute vocal cameos to The Lego Movie as Green Lantern and Superman, respectively.)

Having built one Lego movie out of scratch, Lord and Miller are excited by the prospect of continuing to play within this universe should The Lego Movie prove as big a hit with kids and adults as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The duo are already collaborating with Lin on a planned Ninjago feature film that they'll produce, but not direct, and continue to be inspired by the creative possibilities of Lego, not to mention the kids that play with them. "My son is a huge fan of Lego," Miller says. "He's a kid who literally does have a Batman mini-figure next to Chewbacca on a spaceship. And my nephew was another inspiration; I helped him make a Pinewood Derby Car and he came up with one that was about a foot-and-a-half tall with all sorts of crazy feathers and pipe cleaners. It was the least aerodynamic thing you can imagine! I was like, 'If you want to win the race, you've got to build it differently,’ and he just said, 'No, we need to add a helicopter blade over here and let's give it some wings!' It turned out to be super-slow, but it was the coolest, craziest-looking car you've ever seen. That was a real inspiration for how kids play and we wanted to infuse this movie with that."

A zest for creativity, as well as a sense of fun, is also something that Lord hopes viewers see in the film. "For selfish reasons, we're interested in demystifying the idea that there are only a few people out there who are creative geniuses. We like it better when everyone's involved, so I hope the movie inspires people to do more of their own stuff—like putting their own Chewbacca mini-figure next to Superman."