THE LEGO MOVIE – Interview with director Chris McKay

It should come as no surprise that Chris McKay, director of ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ is not only a giant Batman fan – he even has a tattoo of Catwoman on his arm – but is a ball of infectious energy.  When Movies Plus (M+) Magazine had the pleasure of sitting down with the director to talk about his first cinematically release feature length film, it was hard not to get caught up in the passion and joy that McKay obviously has for the project.

Released in Irish cinemas this month on Feb 10th, ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ is a spin-off from the phenomenally successful ‘The LEGO Movie’, and we caught up with Chris McKay to find out more about the film, who he considers to be “his” Batman, and just how much pressure he felt to keep the LEGO franchise rolling.

Watch the trailer below

People are as passionate about “their” Batman – the Batman they consider to be their favourite or the best – as they are about “their” Doctor from ‘Doctor Who’. Who is ”your” Batman?
Chris McKay: My Batman is Michael Keaton because that was the first cinematic version of Batman that I saw, and I was also old enough… I knew who Michael Keaton was before Batman. I knew him as a comic actor and I liked him; ‘Night Shift’ is one of my favourite movies, and in fact we use a song from ‘Night Shift’ – Al Jarreau “Girls Know How” – for the Tuxedo Dress Up Party. I knew Michael Keaton as an actor, but I was also aware enough that the controversy when they cast him… “Wait a minute, they are going to cast this comedian?” and the best thing they could say for him was that he sort of has the chin enough for Batman. Michael Keaton is [Batman] for me in that first Tim Burton [movie], and I love ‘Batman Returns’, It was because of Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance that I love Catwoman.


You had a role in ‘The LEGO Movie’, but how did you get involved in ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’? How did you get your spin-off?
CMcK: I worked with Chris and Phil on ‘The LEGO Movie’, I was kind of their co-director, animation director and editor. I worked really close with them and the studio on the first movie, and when they were going to do the sequel, they were going to give me the opportunity to direct the sequel. As we started developing both the sequel and ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ – we were developing them both at the same time – it became really clear that ‘The LEGO Movie’ sequel was going to be a very big, very ambitious movie with a lot of music and just a big movie. It seemed, at the time, like they should switch the release dates, and they didn’t have a director for ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ but they wanted to do it first so they asked me to come on.


Did you feel a lot of pressure taking on the spin-off from ‘The LEGO Movie’?
CMcK: Yeah it sucks being the guy whose movie comes out after the first one does so well and is a critical success! A lot of pressure, but it was a fun movie to make, it was a fun team to work with. I got to work with a lot of my favourite people, and work with Will [Arnett] a lot more and then bring on these other actors, and do a movie that meant something to me, as far as being able to go at Batman’s central problem in a way that no other movie can really do. The other movies are never going to solve Batman’s problem! The idea that we could do that kind of thing and make it emotional, I had to put some of the fears and the expectations aside and just try to make a good movie.


There is a long legacy of LEGO Batman video games, and they are almost silent as none of the characters really speak. Did you take any inspiration from these?
CMcK: Only the standpoint of we did look at some of the ways they interpreted characters because those games, they got a chance to interpret the Rogues Gallery before LEGO had the chance to do it. They had a bunch of characters that they had already done a pass on interpreting so part of our research was to look into those games and see what they had done in making a LEGOised version of The Condiment King or somebody else.


There is such a longevity to Batman as a character, what do you attribute this to?
CMcK: He’s got a great backstory. That sense of loss, that sense of revenge, that sense of trying to take the moral high ground by not killing, but also trying to stop crime. I think there’s that, I think the fact that he’s a human being, that he’s a detective; he’s James Bond and Sherlock Holmes all mixed into one thing. There’s a glamour aspect to it. He’s a very human character, so he’s very relatable and I think that’s why he’s stood the test of time, and that’s why you can interpret him as absurd as Adam West or as grounded as a Christopher Nolan movie or somewhere in the middle. You can make it about Frank Miller’s Reagan era stuff, you can make a complete flight of fancy and just have it be bright and pop-y and silly. Batman stood the test of time because people relate to him.


On the other side of the coin, LEGO has been going since 1949, why do you think it has stood the test of time?
CMcK: With LEGO there’s a mixture of right brain and left brain stuff, where if you are a science head or an architecture head and you want to build something and you want to test the properties of building stuff and how high you can build something. It’s got a mix of left brain stuff and right brain creative kinds of artistic problem solving and development. I think there is a meditative aspect to it too, it is like a puzzle. Also the way they designed the original characters; there’s such a charm to that design and a simplicity to that design, I think people just like the look of that thing. I think for a lot of reasons LEGO has been around forever.


Obviously Will Arnett was in place as Batman since he had played the role in ‘The LEGO movie’, how did you go about assembling – sorry! – the rest of the cast?
CMcK: It’s tough because there are only so many people who can do what Will Arnett can do, somebody who can be kind of a jerk but also charming. That’s not something that every actor can do some people straight up come off like a jerk; there’s no charm to them and you don’t want to follow their story and the best written version of that thing, the voice or the performance just doesn’t do it. It’s a high wire act that Will Arnett does. Wanting to find somebody who could be super positive, somebody who’s also a comedian and also has a voice that sounds young but probably isn’t a kid, and somebody who isn’t over exposed in every animated movie, that’s a very small list of people. Obviously Michael Cera is one of those people. I think our biggest concern was that he wouldn’t want to do a movie like this because he does do more indie movies, and he is very picky and choosy about the stuff that he does. Fortunately he saw the value in what we were trying to do and that there was a heart to the story, and an emotional centre that was a reason for all of the jokes.


In this film you play with the canon creation of several established characters, particularly Barbara Gordon, in the Batman universe, and don’t necessarily follow the rules. Was taking the opportunity to make up your own stories, the way a kid would play with LEGO, something you relished?
CMcK: And the fact that there have been some interesting and good versions of Barbara Gordon, but I don’t think that anyone has nailed it so well that it’s definitive, that it’s canon and written in stone, so we had some licence. I wanted it to be diverse, I wanted a female character that could be an equal with Batman, and that could challenge Batman and be someone that comes in with a critique of Gotham City and of Batman. That’s why I wanted her to be the Commissioner; it made sense that she would be able to go head to head with Batman and challenge him. Casting Rosario [Dawson], who herself is kind of an activist in her own life made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons.


There are villains in ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ that exist within the Batman and DC Universe, and others that are cross over’s from other franchises. How did you go about choosing who appeared in the movie?
CMcK: I wanted only Batman’s Rogue Gallery, but I only wanted in Gotham City to be characters that you would have experienced in a Batman comic, a Batman movie, TV show or graphic novel. I wanted only those people, people you wouldn’t normally expect to be in Gotham City. The Phantom Zone was somewhere where all bad guys from the LEGO universe could reside; sort of like when kids are playing together, there’s the toy box, it’s a place where all the bad guys or any character can go.

‘The LEGO Movie’ was a surprise in that as many grown-ups are fans of the film as kids. How did you find the balance between appealing to grown-ups and kids alike?
CMcK: We have a rapid-fire approach to jokes. We want to turn jokes fast, like the ‘Airplane’ movies, where it’s like “If you didn’t like that last joke, there’s another joke coming around the corner that you’ll probably like”. We tried to make it as much of a joke-fest as possible, so in that sense we can try out jokes and a lot of it is trial and error; what works for our story, what can keep the story momentum going, what doesn’t make you feel too exhausted because a lot of the stuff is physical as well as word play jokes. A lot of it is just trial and error, what makes us laugh. I love to try to make the crew laugh.


There are tons of references to Batman of movies past, was this something you felt you had to do, or something you wanted to do, as a Batman fan?
CMcK: Something we wanted to do; we wanted it to encompass all the iterations of Batman. I liked, when I was a kid, seeing movies that made me curious about other movies. If there’s a reference to some other thing it made me, as a kid, go “Oh! I’ve gotta find out what that means! I want to see what that other movie was!” If the licence plate was THX1138 in ‘American Graffiti’, that’s a reference to George Lucas’ first movie, I wanted to see it. it felt like a puzzle  to solve, so I wanted to do the same thing with this movie and out some of that red meat out there for somebody who would be curious about it to go and find out more information. Go find out there’s a live action TV show in the ‘60s and he did crazy dances and characters like King Tut! Because Batman is so flexible he can be that absurd ‘60s comedy and go all the way to the grounded stuff that the Christopher Nolan movies are. It just shows how universal that character is.


You are working on the ‘Adventure Time’ movie next. Can you tell us anything about it?
CMcK: Not much, partly because it’s still early as to what’s going to happen with that movie, but Penn is a great guy and it’s a great show so hopefully we will figure out something really special to make, because it has to be a really special movie if you’re going to take that world to the big screen.
Words: Brogen Hayes

‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ is released in Irish cinemas on February 10th.