Interview: Director of ‘LEGO Batman’ Chris McKay Is the Hero We Deserve
Who better to direct The LEGO Batman Movie, a film covering 78 years of Batman history, than one of the Dark Knight’s biggest fans?
We spoke with Chris McKay (The LEGO Movie, Robot Chicken) about his directorial debut, which has enjoyed two number one weekends at the box office – and is widely considered a critical success. A barometer that any film buff will understand, The LEGO Batman Movie is currently sitting at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes out of 219 reviews.
“I’m just very happy that people like the movie, and are responding to it – and appreciate the characters,” said Chris. “I love Batman; I grew up loving superheroes, and literally my first superhero t-shirt was a Batman shirt. I’ve always had a real affinity for the character, and the world. Gotham City, the Rogues Gallery – these are things that made a big impression on me.”
Batman has been a part of the director’s life in some iteration no matter what age.
“When I was a kid it was the Super Friends, or Batman: The Animated Series. And occasionally Batman and Robin would show up on Scooby Doo. Then as a teenager, I experienced the Frank Miller stuff, and Alan Moore stuff. Comics and Batman kind of grew with me, as did the movies; the Tim Burton movies, the Schumacher movies, and the Christopher Nolan movies. I’ve been living with all that stuff as a fan my whole life. And now I’m able to play in the world, and lucky enough to be invited by Warner Bros. and LEGO. To be able to make a movie like this – it’s a parody movie – a fun, funny movie; Hopefully people are laughing and enjoying it. But it also takes a serious look at the actual character of Batman that no other movie can do.”
When it comes to the caped crusader, it is widely debated among fans who the best Batman and Bruce Wayne. Not surprisingly, Chris had his own answer.
“I’m a huge Micheal Keaton fan, so my favorite Batman is Keaton. My favorite Bruce Wayne is Christian Bale. Those movies are more about Bruce Wayne to me.”
The LEGO Movie
Before Chris landed the job as director of The LEGO Batman Movie, he worked very closely with Chris Miller and Phil Lord on 2014’s worldwide hit The LEGO Movie. His official title was Co-director of Animation, but he explained what that really meant for the film.
“I was working at Robot Chicken, the stop-motion show, and we had done sketches in LEGO. Chris and Phil were looking for a co-director; they were doing 21 Jump Street, and ultimately 22 Jump Street, and starting their live-action career. They needed basically somebody when they were in-studio who could be a good general to work underneath them; take the big ideas and work with them to develop the script and animatics. And when they were gone, someone who could take over, and take charge with the studio. Someone to keep the movie moving forward, and present them with new ideas and changes. And I had experience doing that when I worked with Matt and Seth on Robot Chicken, where I was kind of a producer but also a director.”
On why he wasn’t credited as a co-director on the 2014 film, Chris said,
“Because the movie has a live-action component, I wasn’t able to be credited as a co-director. The union rules and opinion take precedence over stuff like that. They frown on multiple people being named ‘director’ on a movie, even though there are famous co-directing teams. But they definitely frown upon a third guy being named co-director. So my title became Co-director of Animation, and because I came from a stop-motion background I was also what they called on this movie the ‘animation supervisor.’ I worked closely with animation team, and I was also an editor on the movie, as well as head of story. So I had several titles, all of which allowed me to work very closely with the directors, the producers, and the studio.”
Not only was Chris in charge behind the scenes, but also had a huge role in how the film ended.
“I helped write a bunch of the jokes in the movie, as well as the ending. The ending of The LEGO Movie went through many changes; at a certain point I was literally rewriting the ending of the movie because Chris and Phil were finishing up 22 Jump Street at the time. So I re-wrote all of the stuff with the live-action, with Emmet and President Business. Because of that trust, and the relationships I built with the filmmakers and studio, they asked me to come on and start working on LEGO 2 as a director. At the same time Chris and Phil wanted me to work on LEGO Batman, and we pitched both of them on the same day.”
When it came down to working on either The LEGO Movie 2 or LEGO Batman, the choice was clear.
“LEGO 2 is going to be this gigantic musical, as well as action movie. It has a great script by Chris and Phil, but needed time to develop the songs and all that stuff. But once we decided to put Batman and LEGO together as a spin-off movie, the studio was very excited for two of their biggest properties together. Because I had done TV, and I can turn things around quickly (not to mention I have a giant Catwoman tattoo on my arm, and a Superman Shield on my shoulder), they said, ‘you seem like the right guy to make this movie!’ We had a turnaround time of 3 years, which became two-and-a-half years. So they knew that I could get the movie out, and keep it the same quality as The LEGO Movie. And I would fight to make it as good as possible. So that’s how I was able to direct this film.”
The LEGO Batman Movie
“I pitched the studio that I wanted to make Jerry McGuire as directed by Michael Mann, with a lot of jokes in it. And they let me. I’m very happy with how it turned out.”
When I mentioned speaking with Kevin Conroy recently, one of the most respected Batman voice actors in history, Chris already had ideas for him in the future.
“I think if we do a sequel, there’s a whole thing I want to do with all the people who played Batman. Get as many as will agree to do it – get all their voices in somehow. There’s sort of ‘next level’ stuff that I think we could do, once you start to establish this world and the characters. And I also love the Rogues Gallery so much; that’s why I wanted to cast it with a bunch of these people – so that if there is a sequel or spin-off movie – we can do a crazy ‘Oceans 11’ or ‘Suicide Squad’ movie. With the Rogues Gallery, Batman and the Super Friends, or get the other people who played Batman to play a significant role in the movie somehow. There’s a bunch of things that I’d love to do.”
About the unbelievable critical reception surrounding the film,
“I’m very clearly drafting off the work of a lot of really smart people,” said Chris. “The writers to start with: Seth Grahame-Smith; Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers from Community came in to do some work; Jerrod Stern and John Whittington basically brought us to the finish line. Then obviously Will, Zach, Michael Cera, and Rosario are all writers and show creators themselves. And then the mountain of writers and creators who have worked on all this other stuff. It’s like I’m remixing or DJ’ing all of these things, the work that people have done throughout the years.”
The film does something that we have never seen in a Batman movie before. It takes the entire history of the character, across all mediums, and merges them into one story.
“Something that I think made all this possible is the idea that Batman in Gotham City has been around for 78 years, so that all these movies and literature exists on one timeline. And the idea that if Batman has been the sole consistent law enforcement tool in Gotham City for 78 years – and it’s still the most crime-ridden city in the history of comic books and movies – maybe something needs to change. Framing the movie like that provided us the ability to be able to use all of these really great things like ideas from The Killing Joke, and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin – along with the Ben Affleck version of Batman with the Burt Ward Robin from the ‘66 series – and put them in the same Batmobile together. I think those are the impulses that we had from the beginning that hopefully made this movie fun. It’s a celebration, kind of the ultimate party for this character that we all love.”
The Rights to Do These Characters Justice
“When Joker goes to the Phantom Zone, it’s more than just characters from Warner Bros. It’s the shark from Jaws, Jurassic Park dinosaurs, the Daleks (Doctor Who) and everything else. And even with Warner Bros. and DC, like if you’re going to use Gentlemen Ghost, you still have to deal with whoever wrote that. All of those side characters had different authors who pitched that idea at DC, and wrote those stories. So there’s a lot of lawyers and producers, and coordinators, that get involved very quickly if you want to do something with this sort of scope and scale. At one point I wanted to have HAL from 2001, and all of these other characters in the movie, and you have to get people chasing down rights and who created it, and get everyone to sign off on it. I did burn through a couple of producers on this movie for that reason, and really pushed the Warner Bros. legal department. It truly does take a village to create something like this.”
When asked if LEGO Dimensions, the critically-acclaimed 2015 videogame, had anything to do with the production of his film, Chris said,
“We were shown a prototype of LEGO Dimensions after we came up with this idea. And I think even for a second we said, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do this,’ because it felt too commercial. That’s also why I wanted to make it the Phantom Zone and not something else. We were actually going to do a super max prison idea, but went with the Phantom Zone because I love the Richard Donner Superman movies. But they showed us that thing, and where it helped was that they had already started designing things like Gremlins. So we were able to sort of draft off the stuff they were doing there.”
Chris said that the game didn’t help him get access to non-Warner Bros. properties, but actually helped in another very useful way.
“It didn’t necessarily make getting the rights to use that stuff any easier. How it helped me was they had already approached a PG-13 property like Gremlins, and then I’d say, ‘why can’t we do The Matrix?’ Even though it’s R-rated. Gremlins is a pretty violent movie, and in fact it’s that and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that are the reason why we have a PG-13 rating. So I was able to point to that, and say we are approaching characters in pop-culture. Just because kids haven’t seen The Matrix, they might be familiar with it from a YouTube clip or something – the agents or this kind of guy with these kind of the powers. It made my argument to try other things a little bit easier.”
So Many Talented Actors
The list of voice talent in The LEGO Batman Movie seemingly goes on for days. Aside from the lead roles, Chris and WB were able to get an entire cast of talented actors to voice the people of Gotham and the Rogues. Fans of the How Did This Get Made? podcast and Comedy Bang Bang are sure to recognize Jason Mantzoukas as The Scarecrow. Or how about Late Night host Conan O’Brien as The Riddler, and comedian Doug Benson as Bane? Even Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill returned from The LEGO Movie to voice Superman and Green Lantern once again. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
On Ralph Fiennes voicing Alfred in the film, and not Voldemort (the villain from The Harry Potter series he portrayed for a decade),
“I know, I really should collect all of the tweets and articles, and bring them in to Warner Bros. Obviously I’m sitting there talking to the guy, and we’re talking about these characters, and I’m explaining to him the bit that I want to do in the middle movie. A lot of time these guys are just reading their sides, or have just received a certain part of the script, so I’m explaining what happens in the middle of the movie. And for a second you sort of get lost when talking to an actor, and I tell him, ‘Joker does this thing, and then he unleashes all the bad guys from film, and television, and literature history.’ And I’m listing off all the bad guys, ‘it’s gonna be King Kong, and Agent Smith, and Voldemort.’ And then literally as the words come out of my mouth, I realize I’m talking to Voldemort. Originally my pitch was to have Ralph do both, but there was some resistance. And I get that the resistance, on the studio side, probably has to do with the relationship with J. K. Rowling. And from my perspective some of it has to do with the fact: if you’re not going to do something with it, like have Alfred and Voldemort confront each other, it may be disappointing to some people. I was aware that I was trying to cram a lot into the movie, and what if I had to cut the scene with them together? Between the studio resisting it and me feeling like there was going to be an expectation there, it’s one of those notes that you just take and realize that there are other battles to fight.”
Chris ended up getting Eddie Izzard to voice Voldemort, who was great in the role.
“Eddie’s a funny guy, and was sort of doing his own thing. And I think he’s actually friends with J.K. Rowling, so he’d actually talked to her before he came in and did the scenes with us, and got spell pronunciations. He’s a great actor, so it was fun to work with him.”
A Dream Come True
The LEGO Batman movie finally made the dream of Billy Dee Williams a reality, after almost 28 years. The actor, who played Harvey Dent in the 1989 Tim Burton film Batman, was finally able to play Two-Face.
“I knew when I went to see the movie, since I was obsessive about Batman as a kid, that this character played by an actor I love (Lando in Star Wars) was going to go through this arc over the next movie or two. And you were going to follow this thing that is really tragic, and I was in on this cool thing that could happen – this long game that the filmmakers are going to play. And not only did it not happen for an actor I liked, but they didn’t even do the arc for that character. They just switched out the role, and literally started the movie with him straight up as Two-Face – not really doing the emotional stuff. I was really disappointed. And as an adult I got to work with Billy Dee on Robot Chicken, and Titan Maximum, and then The LEGO Movie. He’s a fun guy to bring into a voice-over booth, and since it didn’t really matter what we what did with the character – like I was mixing up the comic book version of Bane with the Tom Hardy version – it just sort of felt like I could do anything I wanted. So I decided that I was going to make it Billy Dee Williams, because that’s the thing that I didn’t get to see when I was a kid. And I got to have LEGO design a Billy Dee version of Two-Face, and put him in the movie. Literally when he walked into the booth, the first thing he said was, ‘so I finally get to play the role that I was hoping to play since the ‘80s!’ It just felt really good to be able to do that as a fan of those movies, and fan of Billy Dee Williams. I’m lucky that I’m a fan who gets to do this stuff, and play out these fantasies that all the fans of Batman hoped for.”
The LEGO Batman Movie is now playing in theaters everywhere. The film has grossed over $150 million domestic and $109 million overseas in only four weeks. As of March 10, it is currently the highest grossing domestic film of 2017.