With his first theatrically-released feature, director Chris McKay got to enter the studio sandbox and play with one of his all-time favorite characters: Batman. Having worked with Phil Lord and Christopher Lord on The Lego Movie—a mega-hit for Warner Bros. grossing nearly $470 million worldwide—McKay was a natural fit to helm The LEGO Batman Movie (the first of two follow-up features, the other being The LEGO Ninjago Movie), given his passion for the character, which reaped similar rewards for the studio this year.
Speaking with Deadline, McKay discusses his visual influences when it came to the project, including movie monster illustrator Basil Gogos, and fun to be had in metafiction.
What made you want to take on The LEGO Batman Movie?
I’m a huge Batman fan. I’ve been a Batman fan since I was a little kid. Batman was the first comic book character I fell in love with. As I got towards my teenage years— discovering Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns—I basically grew up with this character. These characters and this world have been a part of my life since I had an imagination.
I was the co-director, animation director, and head of story, as well as the co-editor on The Lego Movie, so I started working with Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] on that movie. I was kind of the guy on the ground while Chris and Phil were making 21 and 22 Jump Street.
We had a relationship, and we started talking about these other movies that we could do. Batman came up, and the minute it looked like they were interested in putting out Batman before any other movie, I jumped at the chance to direct it.
What visual style did you pursue with this film?
I’m really fortunate that I get to work with a really great team. Grant Freckelton, the production designer, and Vivienne To, the art director. We started with a three-page treatment, and they had a release date for 2017. We basically had to hit the ground running and immediately hired Grant and Vivienne and the art team, and started working with them.
I wanted this movie to have some affinity with the history of Batman, whether that’s comics, graphic novels, movies [or] TV. I wanted there to be a big umbrella where we could still make it feel like an adult [feature]—where you could pull the camera back and mistake our movie for one second with Ben Affleck’s Batman, or the Tim Burton stuff.
One of the inspirations that I pitched to Grant and Vivienne was Basil Gogos, who recently passed away. He did cover art for famous monsters—he did some of the famous pictures of Frankenstein and Dracula, and the reason why I liked that is because it was dark and contrasty like a Batman movie. Batman movies generally take place at night, but they’re also heavy on saturation.
If you look at those covers, to me, as a kid, they were very cool. It was these moody shots of Frankenstein and Dracula, but they were also colorful, like comic books. Lego, when you dump a bucket of bricks out on the ground and look at the individual bricks, there’s all these colors. I didn’t want to move away from a colorful world—I just wanted to be able to find a way where we could do both.
What was the process in translating this vision to the screen?
We do it in the computer, but the principles behind the way we rig the characters… We’re very strict about what the characters can and can’t do, as far as what the camera can see, because we use a lot of stop-motion techniques. For the most part, the characters were animated on twos, as opposed to ones—so, animated every two frames.
Another thing is, a regular LEGO mini fig can’t reach its arm around its body. The arms just sort of move side to side. But if I need somebody to do a reverse draw—like they’re pulling a gun out of holster across their body—I want that arm to come across. This is where layout and animation all have to work in concert. You’ll have to set up the camera in a way that the character can reach across its body.
I tried to explain to the crew—and we also had stop-motion animators on the crew—the kind of things that we do on set if this was Robot Chicken or Moral Orel, where you’d shave down a part of the plastic on the Lego in order to be able to do a move like that. Because the camera only sees the right-hand side of the body. When you cheat, the left hand coming around in a way that would make it feel like he was doing this reach across his body, because it’s only taking place over a handful of frames. Persistence of vision. Your eye just sort of puts all the pieces together and makes it feel like you saw him reach across his body, even though the character can’t actually do that.
But we also made the rig very simple, so that we couldn’t cheat it. We had to cheat in ways that you can cheat in stop-motion, but not cheat in ways that the computer would—like, squash and stretch things.
How did you mine the Batman universe for visual gags?
We’re all familiar with Batman and his world. Everybody has some kind of working knowledge of Batman. If you knew the [Joel] Schumacher movies, and the response that people had to Batman and Robin and things like that, we could make jokes about that. We could rely on our knowledge of Batman to be able to tell jokes. We could tell jokes about Suicide Squad, and Batman v. Superman, and stuff like that, because they’re in the popular culture now.
We like to look at the making of the LEGO movies like we’re getting away with something, and it’s a little more punk rock. If it feels like Warner Bros. would be mad at us for telling a joke, people sort of appreciate that, that we’re given some measure of independence and can kind of do it. This is the kind of movie where you can make that kind of commentary.
That’s a fun part of making these movies—when you watch these movies, you sort of feel that the filmmakers are being a little bit naughty.
To me, being able to look at [Batman] as a real human being was what was fun about this. This is the only movie where you can actually do that sort of thing. Because there’s no upside, I think, to these other movies. The other movies have to be about a plot. The Tim Burton movies were usually about villains; the Christopher Nolan movies were about Gotham; and in our movie, we can actually make it about Batman and his main problems, and what if Batman tried to solve his main problem, and invite people into his life? It’s a movie that no one else would be able to do with these characters.
It must be fun to be able to play with characters from all the Warner Bros. franchises—Voldemort, for example.
Yeah, or to reach out to BBC and get the Daleks—to pull things that are from the world culture at large. This is probably the only movie where you can put King Kong and Daleks and Voldemort and Agent Smith from The Matrix and all that stuff into a movie, and mash it up. These are all characters that I love. If we had more time, more budget, I would have put Pinhead and Leatherface and Mike Myers. The list goes on. At one point, we had HAL from 2001 in there for a one-off joke.
Part of what is so fun about The Lego Movie series is the casting. What was it like to work with Will Arnett as Batman, and Zach Galifianakis as the Joker?
I think I actually lied to Zach—I don’t think I told him it was an animated movie when we were first talking. I’m not sure. I think downstream, nobody else corrected that. I honestly think that for a second there, he thought that he was cast in a live action Batman movie, only to find out that we were just recording his voice.
He was a great partner, an amazing guy—amazing comedian, amazing human being. He was so much fun to work with and brought a lot of vulnerability. Zach brings dangerous vulnerability to characters, and that’s a very rare thing, to be both of those things at the same time. That’s why he’s the perfect fit for Joker.
For a brief moment, we were talking about doing a live-action version of a movie like this, when Batman came out and people liked it and it worked. There was a moment where I was trying to convince Dan Lin and Will Arnett that we should just take all the same actors and do the exact same movie as a live-action movie and see if we can get way with it.
And we would. I mean, Rosario [Dawson] would be a great f—king Batgirl. Will Arnett would look great in the Bat costume. He’d be great as Bruce Wayne, great as Batman. And he’s also a physical guy. Zach would be a great live-action Joker. Michael Cera would make a really sweet Robin. You literally could see these people in the live-action movie. We should go back and pitch Dan Lin about this.