In part one of our exclusive interview with Chris McKay, the director of The LEGO Batman Movie, the talented animator explained why his film opens in medias res, introducing more characters than any bat-film before and how his previous animation experience helped inform the movie. In this second part, he discusses Batman’s best-known nemesis, the Phantom Zone and the level of destruction an action movie deserves.
How did you land on the Joker’s very unique characterisation in this film?
I didn’t know Zach Galifianakis, and we wanted him to play Joker. In order to see if he wanted to do this role I had to go and meet him on the set of his show, Baskets. I took what our take was on the Joker and pitched it to him, but I also wanted to hear where his head was at, what his point of view was. He talked a lot about vulnerability and putting yourself out there as a comic. It made a lot of sense once we started really digging into the relationship.
A lot of the jokes in the first draft are very surface level, no-one’s going really deep into the characters. We’re just riffing on these things and we’ll make fun of this stuff in a sort of Airplane! parody way. The more that we deepened it with Batman and the Joker’s relationship, the more it became about a couple, about the emotions behind it, and the more it made sense for what Zach is really great at. So we kept peeling away the layers and digging deeper and deeper into the character as we were recording more and more stuff.
Zach is also one of these guys who is very thoughtful about the way jokes are told in comedy, so there’d be a lot of times where we sit there and take apart a joke to try to figure out the right way to do it and at the same time advance the character. So it was a very long process to get there, but people come with a lot of baggage and expectation for what the Joker’s going to be so you have to really earn it. You have to put the work in and I think it was really rewarding.
The Joker is just part of an ensemble cast of characters, all of who impact on Batman’s journey in the movie – how did you give each of those characters a role in the story?
We’ve got a lot of characters and they’re all prominent, no-one has just a throwaway bit. That was hard, trying to fit it in 90 minutes, do the action scenes that we wanted, tell the jokes that we wanted to, have the Christmas Carol-esque device with the Phantom Zone and things like that. It was a lot of hard work and you had to throw away a lot of scenes or jokes that you really think are important – but if it’s not helping you tell the story or it’s not helping you get deeper with the characters, then you have to figure out a way to get by without it. And the studio’s always aware that running time is a big factor in your budget, for animated movies every second is whatever ‘x’ dollars so they’re really trying to like squeeze every dollar they can out of the movie.
Did you always intend for the Phantom Zone to hold characters from other franchises?
We were looking for a way to have a reason to bring in these characters – we knew we needed the Joker to up his game and this seemed like the most fun, the most LEGO movie way of doing it. The Phantom Zone wasn’t the first thing that we hit on, it was like a super max prison or something or we were talking about maybe even going into the real world.
At the time Batman v Superman was about to come out, the idea that Batman and Superman might have this animosity with each other, and the Phantom Zone was such a fun part of the Richard Donner movies, it just made a lot of sense to keep playing with the DC lore. It just seemed like a fun gear to have in the movie and I love those movies so much, to be able to have that be the place where these guys that could have been banished from all of their individual zones could be was a lot of fun.
The scale of the action and destruction in this movie is epic, what made you go for such huge set pieces?
When I was a kid, we had ways into super hero movies – whether it’s the animated series, the Adam West stuff, Wonder Woman on TV, the Hulk or whatever. If I was a five or six years old I could see an Incredible Hulk episode and follow along with it. So I’m making this movie for adults and I want it to still feel like a big action thing, and I also wanted it to be a way for a kid to have their first experience of Batman and their first action movie. So I wanted to play as much as possible, like the Christopher Nolan semi-truck scene – because a kid probably can’t go see the Dark Knight, but they can see this and still participate.
Musicals, action movies, horror films, those are the most cinematic movies because they require the least amount of dialogue. They’re the most visual. Action scenes work is because they are pure cinema. So being able to do that in The LEGO Movie, it’s like what a lot of the brickfilm makers do. They do Call of Duty in brickfilm form and have crazy fun, or mimic Saving Private Ryan. Being able to do that is something that was fun as a filmmaker and fun to open up that world to some kid who gets to feel like he’s watching a big adult movie.