As Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe were writing the story for The Mitchells vs the Machines, they realized that all of the people they knew who inspired Katie Mitchell were queer. In discussing this with LGBTQ+ members of their crew, the decision to make Katie open about her queerness was obvious.
This Netflix sci-fi family comedy, produced by Sony Pictures Animation, follows the Mitchell family, which is based on Rianda’s own family. Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker with a dream to go to film school and has a contentious relationship with her father Rick (Danny McBride), who doesn’t understand technology and is dismissive of her interests. In a last-ditch effort to save their relationship, Rick takes Katie and the rest of the family, his wife Linda (Maya Rudolph) and son Aaron (Rianda), on a cross-country road trip to drop Katie off at school. While on the trip, a technology entrepreneur’s flippant choice to declare his AI, PAL (Olivia Colman), obsolete results in the AI ordering robots to capture all of humanity. As they managed to avoid capture, it falls on the dysfunctional Mitchell family to save the world as the last remaining free humans.
After talks with LGBTQ+ members of the crew and Abbi Jacobson, who voices Katie Mitchell, Rianda decided that it was important that her queerness not be a conflict in the story, just a facet of Katie that is accepted and normal, and the problems she should deal with are normal teenage problems.
DEADLINE: How did you come up with the ideas for having the 2-D graphics appearing over the 3-D animation?
MIKE RIANDA: That is my favorite part of the movie. Lindsey Olivares, who was our production designer, we’d always talked about that, and just one weekend without telling anyone, she just stole some animation, and drew on the screen, and made it just with the crappy Photoshop that she had on her computer. It was so exciting to see, basically, this super expensive animated movie that some teenager had graffitied all over.
Even more than us thinking it was cool, we realized that if we used it to sort of show Katie’s bubbling teenage emotions, just how when you’re in a teenager, you just feel emotions shooting out of you, like white hot sun beams from your mouth and ears and eyes. It basically felt like what it feels like to be a teenager, and we were able to sort of like use her drawings to externalize all those really intense feelings she had.
DEADLINE: Katie Mitchell is the first openly queer character in an all-ages animated feature. How’d you arrive at the decision that she was queer?
RIANDA: Well, basically, our North Star for this movie is kind of coming from a place of observation. We were writing the character, and we realized that all of our references of our friends that we went to art school with, that were like Katie, were all queer, and some of the LGBTQ+ members of the crew were asking, “Is Katie gay? She seems gay.” And so, we talked with them and we’re like, “Is that okay?” And they’re like, “Yes, of course. What, are you crazy? Do it.”
It was really cool, and it was really wonderful working with them, because one of them said something like, “If I saw a character that was like me when I was nine years old, maybe I would’ve been less alone growing up.” I was like, “We have to do it now.” All of those artists were really great, and they were like, “Look, it just should just feel very normal, but we should be really explicit about it.” We did our best to try to make our friends proud.
DEADLINE: Was there any pushback on that?
RIANDA: There wasn’t any explicit pushback, which is great. Sony was not chicken shit about it, which was wonderful. But I think people are always sort of nervous about this, but one of our artists wrote this really incredible letter saying, “Oh my God, this would mean so much to me.” All of our crew who worked on it with us wrote these letters, and it was really hard to deny their humanity. “Look at this letter. Are you going to say no?” And everyone’s like, “Well, we’ve got to do it.” And that was really nice, because it wasn’t a big fight, but we did have to sort of provide our case, and Sony was really great.
DEADLINE: A pitfall that some movies do with queer characters is they make that their definitive characteristic, which overshadows everything else. Obviously, Katie is not like that. How do you kind of toe that line between being explicit and saying, “Yes, she is a queer character” without falling into that trap?
RIANDA: That’s a great question, and that was something that we kept going back and forth with the crew about. One of our artists was Lizzie Nichols, who’s really wonderful. She was a great background artist in the movie, and we also talked to her a lot about this sort of thing. She was like, “Look, my hair is blonde, my eyes are green, I like girls, and those are all just part of who I am. But I also like rock climbing, I’m an artist, and blah, blah, blah.”
She was like, “It should be as proportional to her life as my identity is, or your identity is, or Aaron’s identity is in the movie, or Rick and Linda’s identities are.” Because Aaron likes a girl in the movie. It was important to sort of strike a balance between not hiding it, because that would be the worst, but also sort of making sure that it was clear.
DEADLINE: I have to say, it’s also really refreshing to see a story where the character is queer, but that isn’t a conflict.
RIANDA: Oh, great! That’s awesome. Abbi Jacobson, who was the voice of Katie, is bi and when we talked to her, she was like, “It’s really important that their problems just be normal teenage daughter problems, and this is never part of the conflict. They just totally accept her for who she is, and they just have conflicts about other stuff like everyone does.”
DEADLINE: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten about the movie?
RIANDA: Oh my God, there’s a couple that really mean a lot. One is, I just read it this morning, but there was this girl who was able to come out to her parents. The movie sort of helped her through her identity issues, which was really meaningful.
And then, there was another guy who had this kind of rocky relationship with his dad. They watched the movie together, and it brought them closer together. He got a tattoo of the moose on his leg.
That stuff really hits home, because the movie has a lot of jokes and stuff but we really wanted it to connect with people emotionally, and it’s been really nice to see that it has been.