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‘Loose and Wild’: Mike Mitchell Pulls Out All the Stops for ‘The LEGO Movie 2’

The director of Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s long-awaited ‘LEGO Movie’ sequel didn’t dial back a thing, encouraging crazy ideas from anyone and everyone when it came the film’s gags, cameos and brand-new characters.

It’s been five years since we last saw Emmett, Lucy, LEGO Batman and their cheerful, upbeat Bricksburg environs from Warner Bros.’ 2014 hit animated musical adventure, The LEGO Movie. Well, LEGO Batman did The LEGO Batman Movie in 2017, but for this analogy, that doesn’t count. And so… in five years, much can happen when it comes to LEGO blocks, minifigs and the mischievous minds of writers and producers Phil Lord & Chris Miller. Enter a DUPLO invasion that has laid waste to everything that was awesome from the first film, and now we witness a hardened, gritty and bleak Apocalypseburg that sets the stage for Emmet, our still “aw-shucks” unwitting hero’s dangerous journey to the outer reaches of space, beyond the forbidden Stairgate, to find himself and save the day.

Directed by veteran Mike Mitchell (Shrek Ever After, Trolls, Sky High), the long-awaited LEGO Movie sequel, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, brings us a non-stop parade of hilarious jokes, inspired celebrity and iconic-branded minfig cameos and exquisitely designed animation, with a vibrant new array of worlds, colors and characters, including Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, General Mayhem and Rex Dangervest.

We recently spoke to Mitchell about The LEGO Movie 2, his loose method of story development, and the unique production environment Lord & Miller created where everything was game and creative anarchy was encouraged. Read the full Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:

Dan Sarto: You weren’t the first director to tackle this film. What brought you to the project?

Mike Mitchell: Well actually, it was Chris Miller and Phil Lord. We’ve been friends for a while. They approached me about working on the sequel and I actually told them I don’t think they should make a sequel because the first film is one of my favorite films. It’s the perfect film. It’s got the perfect beginning, middle and end. And I was like, “I don’t know if you guys can go further than that.” It had such an emotional surprise with the live-action segments. And then they described the new story to me, the film they wanted to make, and I went from saying, “You can’t make a sequel” to saying “I’ve gotta be a part of this… I gotta help you guys do this.” They had so much great design, and great ideas, but the huge challenge was telling the right story and making sure it was an evolution and an expansion of the beloved first film. So, that was kind of my role when I came along.

DS: More than most animation directors, you also have considerable experience directing live-action features. How does that help you on a film like this?

MM: Well, this film has everything that I love to do. My favorite film is a perfect combination of live-action and animation. We’re in an era now where animated films, which were once just seen as family films, are appealing to a much broader audience. People love these films. They’re great and they’re big, with real story telling and real filmmaking. It’s not just whimsy. We really dig in and try to tell a good story. So, it’s kind of neat that they’re being looked at more in the same way people look at live-action. Look at any Star Wars, Marvel or Harry Potter film. They almost have as much animation as a fully animated film.

DS: So how does having a live-action filmmaking sensibility help you direct an animated film?

MM: Well, I think it’s just like working with actors and getting the performance you need, or crafting a story. Both of those skills go back and forth. The animation skills really inform a live-action film, and a live-action film really informs animation.

The one thing with animation that’s a real gift is you’re freer to make mistakes. I see making animated films like workshopping a play. We take rough storyboards, with just us doing the scratch track before we ever go to Chris Pratt, Liz Banks or Will Arnett… we do the voices and what I call “cocktail napkin sketches.” We put them together with temp music, and then watch the film with as big an audience as we can find. That lets us see what’s working and what’s not working. Then, we take it down and remake the whole film.

So, by the end, and this happens on almost every fully animated film I do, I’ve remade the film like 11 or 12 times. And that’s really special in animation because it allows you -- and I think this is important -- to make big mistakes, try that super-weird story thing you want to try, or make a big dumb joke that you’re not sure is going to be funny. There are a lot of surprises that I tend to find due to that process.

DS: You make your mistakes early on before they get too costly.

MM: Right. In live-action, you can do that to a certain extent with previs. But, you usually save that for your action sequences. It’s not like with animation… it’s full-on storytelling, it’s full-on villain plot, lead character, heroic motivation and culpable hero. You can try a whole bunch of stuff because it’s just a loose creative form where you’re just dealing with the editor and the storyboard artist for a while.

DS: The film is truly hilarious on so many levels. Some of the humor is subtle, some is just non-stop gag after gag after gag. You started with a Lord and Miller script, which other folks also spent time on. You get your hands on things, the main story artists do, the animators, others involved…how much of what we see in the film started at the script level? How much comes out of the production process, like voice acting sessions? How much comes from just seeing what looks funny once it’s animated?

MM: The humor comes from all of the above. I was just talking about this with Chris and Phil the other night. It was such a great partnership with all of us, because I’ve never worked with such like-minded filmmakers that are so open to anyone and any idea in the room. We really tried to create an atmosphere where the board artists, the animators, the script supervisor, the editor, anyone, everyone... we were open to any ideas. I think you could feel that in the film. It’s just this loose, playful atmosphere that we tried to create.

It really came together with the actors. They put together such a great cast for this film. All the actors were happy to read the script, but they’re also excellent improv-ers and really funny people, so we were always open to any joke. And if you notice, we cram in any joke we can. We tried every single joke that anyone had. Like, I got to cram in one idea I was really excited about. We created a character named Larry Poppins, just to be stupid, and it made us laugh in the editing room, so we just put it in. And then Will Arnett comes up with some funny line from Batman and we’re like, “Let’s put it in.”

So it was very loose... almost a little too loose. It was really wild, almost like making a film in your garage. It was really like a garage-band way of doing things, but it’s also super creative. It really worked.

DS: There are so many wonderful little bits in this film, from the DC and Justice League digs, Bruce Willis in the ductwork and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the wedding party. I could go on and on. Was there any material you had to dial it back on?

MM: We didn’t dial back on anything. We were like, “Let’s try everything.” Like I said, it was really that mentality. I’ve never worked on a film before where you could pull any character from any world into your world. It was a little overwhelming -- I called it the “Where’s Waldo” of filmmaking. We had everyone from The Wizard of Oz show up briefly in one scene. And like you said, the Justice League, Bruce Willis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It happened very loosely, very quickly, and then suddenly, there was a team of attorneys at Warner Bros. that were scrambling around, trying to find rights, and we’re already onto the next one. We kept them really busy because we put any character we wanted to into this film. Velma shows up. There’s no Shaggy, there’s no Scooby-Doo, just Velma, who is a real crowd-pleaser. It’s really interesting to me that everyone loves that moment.

DS: How did you come up with the end credit sequence? The song is laugh-out-loud funny, and the animation is exquisite.

MM: I haven’t told anyone this story -- it’s very behind-the-scenes -- but it all came very late in the game. When I was shooting the live-action sequences, I called up my buddy, Justin Timberlake. We had just done Trolls together, which was a really great partnership for me. And I know that he had worked with Lonely Island -- they did Dick In A Box that was a huge hit back in the day.

So Lonely Island always helps us out in these films. They had a hand in the original LEGO film, and they work with Chris and Phil a lot, so I thought, “How great would it be to get Justin Timberlake and Lonely Island back together again to do an end credits sequence?” So, they started to work on it, and unfortunately, Justin damaged his vocal chords, and had to cancel all of his tour dates and couldn’t do the song for us. I was like, “What a bummer!” That seemed like the perfect combination.

Then what happened is, out of nowhere, Beck stepped in and presented a song to us, which was perfect. It was also really inspiring to Lonely Island, and they picked up right where they left with Justin, and came up with this hilarious song about the credits. They worked together, back and forth… it was something that evolved at the last minute. That’s how a lot of these films are made with Chris and Phil producing. It’s this grab bag of all these creative people just jammed together, cramming for a test, and it really yields some amazing things.

And I couldn’t be more happy with the results. Not to mention, the visuals that we came up with for those credits are really stunning. It truly demands you to sit through the credits because you don’t want to leave the theater. It’s so interesting, all the visuals and that funny song.

DS: In early reviews on the film, I’ve seen a smattering of criticism that first surfaced with the original LEGO Movie that really stumps me… that it’s really just a big toy commercial. How do you counter that kind of thinking?

MM: I just disagree with it. There’s nothing to counter. When I did Trolls for DreamWorks, they had bought this troll doll from the ‘70s that a lot of people didn’t know anything about, and my touchstone was the LEGO Movie. I was like, “That is the perfect film.” It was such the underdog. Everyone was saying, “A LEGO film? That’s the silliest idea of all time. That’s going to be a toy commercial.” And guess what? It wasn’t. It was irreverent, it was funny, it was touching, it was everything...

Chris and Phil are experts at taking something that can’t be done, and doing it. Everyone said, “Another Spider-Man movie, and an animated one at that? We don’t need that.” Well, guess what? They found an angle where it’s the freshest, newest thing that you’ve never seen before. Same thing with 21 Jump Street. That just seemed like a joke movie that’s easily discarded, and it’s not. It was so much better, with such a good, funny story, that had emotion in it as well. So, these guys are experts at that.

The LEGO Movie was also a new, really interesting form of animation at the time, where they went out of their way, like we did for LEGO 2, to make it look like a kid has a giant LEGO set and is doing the most amazing stop-motion animation you’ve ever seen. So, we stuck to the rule of not bending elbows. You can’t bend knees. These guys only have the joints that the toys have. We can only use the LEGO bricks that exist in the real world, and there were a lot of rules put to the film that gave it such a charming look. I think somehow that was discounted as well.

But, I think we’re past that now. We understand that there are so many different forms of animation, from the beauty of Pixar to the springiness of Illumination, the beauty of LAIKA’s stop-motion animation, to our new LEGO 2 film, where we incorporate three or four different forms of animation. I believe people are more open-minded now, where they think, “You know what? We’re not going to hold the style of animation against it.” And as long as you tell a good story… you can tell a good story about a piece of paper and a pencil. Being a good film, a good story, has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a toy.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.