[INTERVIEW] Director Rob Letterman captures a grounded reality within the fantasy realm of ‘POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU’

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Justice Smith, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and Kathryn Newton star in POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Giving the world of Pokémon a tangible sense of wonder and imagination presented quite the challenge for director Rob Letterman. Even though it had existed previously in different iterations throughout the years, turning the IP into a fully immersive and cinematic experience with POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU was a Herculean effort on the part of the filmmakers. But with dedication to the craft and some metaphorical elbow grease, they were able to nail the finished product.

Not only does this live-action/ CGI hybrid show a world where cartoon creatures and humans comingle, it’s also doubles as a heartfelt action-adventure, neo-noir about a young man (Justice Smith) solving the mystery behind his dad’s disappearance with his father’s Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and an intrepid reporter (Kathryn Newton) in tow.

At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable director about everything from his decision to shoot on film, to if we could expect a more adult skewing cut featuring Ryan Reynolds for the DVD release.

Was shooting on film something you and your cinematographer John [Mathieson] discussed in advance? And what was the studio’s response to this decision?

Ha. Oh man. You’re asking a sensitive question. John and I definitely discussed it in advance. I adore film and I always wanted to shoot on film and it’s not easy. When John and I met, we started talking about the look and I told him I wanted to try to do everything we could to make it look like we shot on film. John was like, “Let’s just shoot on film.” I was like, “Huh. Okay. How do we do that?” He brought me into the world in London where there’s a cottage industry still going of being able to shoot on film.

It’s very unique and John is a masterclass cinematographer, so that experience was there and together we went to the studio. You get a couple markers that you can pull – not a lot – as a director. I had to burn one to get us on film. I called all the way up. It was a tough fight, but we got there. In retrospect, it was a really great decision.

That grain helps sell it.

Yeah. It wasn’t a pretentious move. It was really that I wanted to bring these cartoon characters to life and it’s tricky. Shooting on film, somehow imperfection makes things real. It’s a weird thing. We shot on location as well – there’s very little green screen in the movie. It’s a combination of all those things that help bring the Pokémon characters to life. They are these cartoon silhouettes with photo real texturing on them. All those things work in unison to make them feel real.

This is rated PG, but is there a cut that’s more PG-13 skewing with Ryan riffing?

It’s not a cut, but there’s a scene that had to be completely reworked. Ryan tilted us way past PG-13 at one point and we got shut down.

Tell me about this scene!

It’s so hard. I would totally add it to deleted scenes, but in a movie like this, deleted scenes can cost you a fortune because the visual effects are insane. We never really got it far enough. Ryan is hilarious and we let him loose. He naturally goes to certain places that just cross over to inappropriate.

How many incarnations did it take to make Pikachu function on maximum cute?

So many. It literally took a full year – really on all the Pokémon – but really to get Pikachu right. There were a lot of iterations to figure out what is cute. I am aware of the fur debate, but believe me we tried all the variations of what it could be: no fur, yellow skin, or yellow plastic. It was weird. How do you bring that to life? It’s not adorable when there’s no fur on there, trust me. Pikachu technically has fur. They based him on a pika mouse. We kept exploring it and refining it.

There’s a point where I had the Pikachu from the movie on my laptop and I flew to Tokyo and had a meeting with Tsunekazu Ishihara, the president of the Pokémon Company, and Ken Sugimori, who’s the original designer of Pikachu. It was daunting. I walked them through all the choices how we got there and in that meeting you could see them smiling and gave their blessing.

The Torterra sequence seems like it was intense to shoot. Am I wrong in that assumption?

It was very intense and complicated. We were running Justice and Kathryn through Scotland and then rebuilding the forest on a moveable floor. They were running along a plank with the trees built in on a backlot in London and the whole thing would bend so they could run up a hill. The whole thing was very complicated – all the wire work. On top of that, all the digital world-building. It didn’t all come together until the very last week when we put the movie in the can. It was that scene – those visual effects shots were so complex.

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU opens on May 10. Read our review here.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.