[INTERVIEW] Directors Mike Mitchell & Trisha Gum “play well” to create ‘THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART’

Lucy/Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Emmet (Chris Pratt) in THE LEGO® MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART is a film that takes the LEGO company’s abbreviation of the Danish leg godt  (“play well”) to heart in the greatest of senses. Not only is this highly anticipated sequel a story about a brother and sister learning to use their imagination together, the production itself was a creative collaboration between many creative minds – two of them being director Mike Mitchell (TROLLS) and animation director Trisha Gum (THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE).

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with both the affable talents about everything from the film’s profound themes, to how receiving the actual toys to play with altered the film’s production, to a few well-hidden Easter Eggs.

Animated films take a long time to make, but could you ever have anticipated our culture would shift and this could be seen as a film that encourages imagination and creativity, but also the revoking of toxic masculinity? Was this something you were conscious of when making this?

Mike Mitchell: Yeah. All those themes. It’s the little boy getting older and turning into a tough guy, leaving his playfulness, naiveté and imagination behind, which is what Emmet represents and Rex represents. But also having empathy and…

Trisha Gum: …learning to see something from another person’s point of view. I think that’s something the brother and sister have to learn. But also, the little boy growing up and him losing his imagination and seeing his sister’s imagination…

MM: …and reigniting his. The fact that working together is so… Anyone who has got a brother or sister, or anyone with kids, or even just for Trisha and I to work together, we’re living the theme. With us working together, we had so much more creativity to it than just going into our offices.

TG: We had to learn to bounce off each other creatively and to tell the story. It was great to have each other to offer two different points of view was really inspiring.

MM: Another theme was that everything is not awesome. Let’s admit it. Everything can’t be all cupcakes and rainbows, but it’s okay if we work together to maybe overcome it if everyone gets along.

Was there a litmus test for not just blending the heart and the humor, but making the jokes still work the 800th time you’ve seen it?

TG: It’s all about the timing and pacing and whether we can make each other laugh – that’s a big part of it. If we’re laughing, the joke has a better chance of making other people laugh. We do screenings before we’ve finished with the movie and it was fascinating to us to see what the audience was laughing at. We weren’t too sure about a joke and it’d get a huge laugh.

MM: It goes the other way too where sometimes we think a joke is gonna kill and it’s crickets. When we animated films, we do the voices before monitoring the actors and put together a very rough drawings with music. We show it in a theater with a whole group of people in rough form and we probably remake the film ten or eleven times. Each time it’s like workshopping a play where we can fix our mistakes, or elevate a joke. It’s a really cool form of filmmaking where you’re allowed to make mistakes and mess around.

Since this is LEGO, do you use LEGO for your animatics?

MM: Oh yeah. On little sticks and stuff. It was trippy though. Everything is done on a screen and our animators had been working for years on animating the ships and these characters. Half-way through production, LEGO sends the real toys. They are tangible and in the room. It’s almost like a rock star has come to visit. On each animators desk, there’s a surge of energy that happened.

TG: They even helped us. The LEGO company started building the Queen into different shapes. We had our own shapes we knew we wanted in the movie, but they are making her into a toy and had other shapes. They brought those shapes to our animators and they got so inspired, they started putting them in the movie from there.

Ultrakatty (Alison Brie), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman), General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), Batman (Will Arnett), Benny (Charlie Day) and Lucy/Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) in THE LEGO® MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Minor spoiler warning

I heard they gave you a brand new color to work with: Vibrant Coral.

TG: We wanted the little girl’s world to feel very vibrant and colorful. We didn’t want it to all be pinks and purples. We wanted a lot of different color. LEGO, in tandem, was also working on coming out with new brick color pieces and we came up with coral. So you can see a pop of that.

MM: She also came up with a new hairstyle and paint that had never been done before for [General] Mayhem. It’s a new hair design with glowy hair and a new paint that LEGO had never used before that was from Trisha’s designs.

Minor spoiler end

Maybe it’s just me reaching, but the pun connection dawned on me days later that Tiffany Haddish’s character is perceived as duplicitous and made of DUPLO.

MM: [laughs] I don’t think we ever thought of that. But great.

How much did you have encourage Pratt to tweak his voice to be Kurt Russell meets John Wayne for Rex?

MM: We had a session for him in London where we tried a few different voices. That was one where we really honed in on it because it made us laugh and was believable. We showed him the ship and how he looks.

TG: We went to London with a deck of, “This is who Rex is going to be. This is who inspires us and what inspires us about him.” All the different facets of his personality and where his character was going to go in the story. He went home that night and started playing around with voices. He came into the studio the next day with it and were immediately charmed by it.

Emmet and Rex Dangervest (both voiced by Chris Pratt) in THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Did you have to run Batman’s new white costume by DC for approval?

MM: You had designed that for LEGO BATMAN and never used it.

TG: I was like, “I remember this beautiful costume we have.” So we took that as inspiration and built upon that.

MM: The attorney’s had already signed off so we were fine.

Did TROLLS musicality prepare you for this film’s? Was that a sensibility you brought with you or was that something that was already there?

MM: They hadn’t necessarily said it was going to be a musical when I first started on this, but that was something [Trisha Gum] and I wanted to do.

TG: That was the dream. I’m a huge musical theater fan and [Mike Mitchell] had just come off working on TROLLS.

MM: We also brought the glitter from TROLLS over to this one.

TG: I know that Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] loved the idea that Bianca was a colorful, singing, dancing kind of character and we all came to the conclusion that it has to be a musical. These songs have to be funny, but catchy. It was a hard balance to strike.

MM: We thought it was impossible not to use “Everything is Awesome” even though everyone is sick of it. Everyone wants to hear the song again. We got to do a new version of it. We got to do a twist to it. It already was in the DNA of this franchise.

Do either of you have a favorite joke or gag? My favorite was the water-cooler raptors discussing the Wi-fi password. “I don’t know. Ask Sharon.”

MM: By the way, that was a last minute thing! Ryan Halprin, one of our producers, wrote that joke. I’m a big fan of Emmet’s breakfast nook that leads to an underground playground.

I know animators love to sneak in brilliant little sight gags. What were some of those here? 

TG: There’s a lot of little ones. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg dances down the stairs, she does a little can-can down the stairs. My animators will try to sneak stuff by and I’ll approve a shot and they’ll start laughing. I’m like, “What did I just do?”

MM: In Apocalypseburg, there’s a crowd shot and a guy with a bow and arrow and he shoots it all the way across the screen and it lands in an apple that’s randomly on someone else’s head.

TG: Another thing, the effects team gave me a little mini-fig wearing a robe and a staff when I left. They said, “This is our gift to you. We call him ‘The Wanderer’.” This is our effects team that does all the crowds you see in the background. He’s in almost every frame there’s a crowd in it. Like “Where’s Waldo,” they hid him for me. They’re like, “Now we want you to find him.” I didn’t even know they were sneaking that in.

Can we talk about blending the different animation styles (stop motion, 2D, CG) and puppetry?

MM: It evolved naturally. It helped that [Trisha Gum] created this little girl’s world where she can do anything she creates. There’s no rules. There’s three Wonder Women that show up at one time, which is very strange. That helps. When we’re shooting the live-action, we have to do what’s called a puppet pass for the editors so they know what’s going on. In this particular movie, the characters are moving around a lot more in live-action than they did in the first one. I would just move it with my hand or this little stick. Trisha and the producers thought, “Oh wow! That looks so much like a kid who’s playing. So instead of re-editing this, let’s just use the puppet pass.” It comes out with this silly weird form of animation that worked really well.

TG: There’s a moment where Mike was puppeting a character on the live-action set and I’m looking in the monitor and he knocked over some paint. I was like, “That’s the shot. We have to keep it.”

Was there anything you learned from your previous projects that you brought to this one like how to navigate challenges, or your technical know-how?

TG: I definitely learned a lot on LEGO BATMAN, where Chris McKay brought me over to work with him. I worked with him on ROBOT CHICKEN. We both went through the stop-motion ranks together, so when he brought me in, I had never done a CG movie before. He said, “I promise you, this movie is a lot like stop-motion animation. We want everything to feel like stop-motion and physically look like it and embrace the limitations of it.”

I’m a mixed media artist, so I wanted to do what I did on LEGO BATMAN, but Mike and I talked early on about how this little girl was going to be crafty and glittery and fun and likes pipe cleaners and craft paper, so that’s exciting for me. I get to incorporate more tactileness and fun layers to this and plus the storytelling in that way.

When you make a sequel as a part of this brick universe, do you think about where the other LEGO properties can build off this?

MM: I don’t think we through about that at all. We did whatever we wanted to for this story. For my experience, this was one of the most complicated stories I’ve ever tried to tell before because, unlike TOY STORY, it’s got this live-action that’s very different. The characters in the world aren’t aware of the humans which makes it very complicated. We also had some twists and turns with who the bad guy was and who the good guy was. That was the biggest challenge for us to tell.

TG: Moreso, we just really wanted to do a service to LEGO ONE – to keep the heart and charm, but to take it to the next level for this movie. That those two films really spoke to each other. That Emmet felt like we knew and loved from the first movie. That Lucy felt like Lucy, but evolving. We were fans of the first one that wanted to plus this next one.

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART opens on February 8. Our review is here

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