Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made their careers off of poking fun at everyone’s awkward adolescence and everyone seems to really love them for it. The writer and director duo are responsible for some of the sharpest, funniest, and most emotionally resonant animated and live action comedies of the past decade.
Starting with the gone far too soon animated comedy Clone High (which people still clamour for to this day in hopes of a return after leaving the air in 2003), Lord and Miller established an eye and ear for universally resonant humor with one pencil firmly rooted in the awkward reality of teenage life and its problems and the other so far off into the land of absurdity that it was hard to tell where the pair would end up going next.
They would then go on to adapt Judi and Ron Barrett’s beloved children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs for the big screen. Blending the colourful silliness that children loved about the book with often hilarious writing that never spoke down to kids or adults, it became clear that the duo’s love for nostalgic and iconic material would never outweigh their desire to tell a well crafted and balanced story that would coast only merely on the strength of good will alone.
Then there’s their major breakout success: the R-rated live action comedy 21 Jump Street, which again isn’t that far out of character for Lord and Miller given their previous work. With the help of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and a slew of other talented folks, Lord and Miller took not only the conventions of buddy cop movies and turned them on their head, but also teen movie clichés and the very notion that any and all TV series could be mined for rebooting. It’s something that’s clearly taking the piss out of the genre, but also has loving affection for just what made the genre so special and endearing in the first place.
But before the directing team unleashes their Jump Street sequel later this summer, Lord and Miller head back to their patented brand of warm hearted, animated nostalgia with The Lego Movie (in theatres everywhere this Friday). Based on the ubiquitous building blocks your parents were always stepping on around the house or afraid you would eventually choke on, Lord and Miller put an emphasis on the creative side of the popular construction kits for kids. Taking place in a world constantly evolving through the art of Lego, the story concerns Emmet (voiced by rising comedic superstar Chris Pratt), a generally unremarkable construction worker who adheres to directions and leads possibly one of the most boring lives ever lived by a plastic Minifig. His life changes, however, when he stumbles upon the illusive Piece of Resistance: the only object that can put an end to the potential reign of terror being perpetrated by the evil President Business (Will Ferrell). Mistaken for a Master Builder when he has never had an original thought in his life, it’s up to this unlikely hero to save his world from static uniformity and a lack of creativity.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re producing an R-rated comedy or a family movie,” Chris Miller said during a recent press conference to promote The Lego Movie, “we always approach it the same way, and we just try to make each other laugh.”
“It just so happens that our sense of humour is so juvenile that it just so happens to appeal to children as well.” Phil Lord added.
“(Kids and adults) from this movie should be inspired to create and think and try new things and to just innovate. That’s a message for everyone that’s in the movie.” Miller said.
It’s that same universal appeal that lends itself nicely to the creation of an every-fig hero like Emmet, someone Lord explains is inside all of us.
“This is a movie about someone who doesn’t really see anything in himself, and finding something within himself that maybe he didn’t recognize or the society around him never recognized, and that’s something that everyone identifies with, no matter if you’re a titan of industry or just the man on the street. You can always have that feeling that people don’t recognize your full potential or that there’s something really unique about you. Watching Emmet discover that within himself is just a great message for anybody.”
Once Miller and Lord had their message in place, the next difficulty was how to handle a beloved toy known around the world with an image that collectors, builders, children and the brand itself hold very dear.
“We tried not to show them 21 Jump Street,” joked Lord about any guidelines that might have been handed down from Lego regarding the design and structure of their film. Miller continued:
“Luckily, we wouldn’t have been interested in it if they came to us and just [excitedly] said , ‘We need your help to sell a bunch of toys! Come and help us sell these toys!’ They were doing very well as a company themselves, so they didn’t really need a movie. They had the same level of scepticism about a movie that we did, so it was all pretty much agreed that this would be a film that was about something and that it always had to be a film first. They were there, but they were always really supportive of us, and they just let us make the movie we wanted to make… SUCKERS! (laughs)”
With the freedom to make a bolder, broader reaching, and more ambitious film, the next challenge came from the film’s incredibly articulate and detailed animation process.
“The thing that was most challenging for us,” Lord said “was to find a story that made sense and was entertaining out of all the things we worked on. From a technical standpoint, though, it was getting the CGI to look photo-real and full of thumbprints, and scratches, and dust and dandruff to make you think it was a real Lego set that could match up with all the real Lego things that are in the movie. Doing that so you couldn’t tell was the hardest part.”
“Finding the exact amount of dandruff was the biggest challenge.” chimed in Miller. “But Legos are both a left brained and a right brained toy, and that was something that always appealed to us in the first place.”
As for the film’s soon to be incredibly catchy, purposefully mass produced sounding pop anthem “Everything is Awesome,” reprised throughout the film and sung over the credits by the not all that unlikely pairing of Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island, Miller and Lord offer their apologies in advance:
“We’re sorry, everyone.” Miller said, chuckling at his own handiwork. “We did write into the script that there would be a song called ‘Everything is Awesome,’ and that it should be the most insanely catchy, cheesy pop song of all time. And (animation supervisor) Chris McKay and his friend Shaun Patterson came up with this tune that burrows into your brain and never leaves. It really does have this quality that just says ‘I’M NOT GOIN’ ANYWHERE!’ So for that I apologize.”
But one of their silliest creations, and possibly an even worse idea, that made it into the film is Emmet’s proudest, and seemingly least practical creation, the double decker couch – a split level sofa that might hinder watching television with friends more than it helps – which was actually somewhat based out of real experiences for the writer/directors.
“We were trying to think of the worst idea in the world, but something that people could also see as great,” Miller said “and I think it was Todd Hansen, one of our assistant editors actually built a double decker couch in his apartment, and we were, like, ‘Wait. Hold on. So if you’re on the top and in the middle, how do you get down without climbing over somebody? Is it structurally sound? If you’re watching on the bottom are you watching through a bunch of dangling legs? How does that work?’ And then we just thought that, yeah, it was still kind of awesome at the same time. So we put it in and people seem to like it!”