There are several ways to know you're watching a movie written, directed, and/or produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Chief among them, you're probably laughing — they are very funny. But another telltale sign that you are watching a Lord/Miller movie is that you are very aware that you are watching a movie.
Starting with their breakout animated series Clone High and through blockbuster success with the 21 Jump Street and LEGO Movie franchises, Lord and Miller have built a small empire out of smart, self-referential comedy that winks at the audience and pushes hard at the fourth wall. In 22 Jump Street, fake sequels play as a coda in the finale, and in this winter's Oscar-nominated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, there are endless references to real Spidey products, from old movies to deformed popsicles. Instead of taking the audience out of the movie, the meta nods only enhance the experience, in part by making everyone feel like they're in on the joke.
The first LEGO movie was filled with those kinds of gags, which often alluded to corporate rights and the fact that we were watching sentient LEGO figures running around on the screen. And in the film's most critical scene, we learn that the action is really taking place at least in part in the mind of a young boy who is playing with his father's very beloved (and very off-limits) LEGO set. That sets up a whole new world of possibilities for the sequel, which expands that revelation to make the new dimension a central part of the plot from the very start.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Lord and Miller as they made the rounds to promote The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (even the name is a bit meta) to talk about their unique style.
You reveal late in the original that the action was happening in a toy set, in a kid's imagination, and that this is not some fantastical world. But we only see Emmet (the figure voiced by Chris Pratt) move the slightest bit on his own. Here, the figures can really get around the real world quite easily. How'd you approach the different layers of reality in this thing?
Miller: We didn't have to keep it a secret. The audience knew the whole movie was in this basement and the whole LEGO universe was in the imagination of the child, and we knew audiences would come in armed with that information. So we thought it was fun have this interplay between the live-action world and then two different imaginations and have the audience trying to figure out what was happening in each dimension of storytelling. It became an obviously complicated sort of multidimensional story, but made it really feel special and interesting and like an evolution of the first movie.
Lord: It lets you explore ideas like, do characters have any existence outside of ourselves? And how would they feel about that?
Miller: And what if our ideas are real things or not … and other big spiritual stuff.
Lord: French existential questions.
Miller: We wanted to make sure that when characters are in the real world, which you can believe it's actually happening or not, depending on how you want to interpret the movie. They still don't move around like Toy Story characters in the real world. They are still very limited, and that was done with puppet animation. We actually had little mini figures on rods that Mike Mitchell, the director, would have "hop around," and then we would erase the rods [in post].
It really does beg the question of how much the whole thing is in this kid's mind, how much is in his sister's mind, and whether any of the world exists in the minds of the LEGOs themselves.
Miller: Exactly. A lot of those LEGO mini figures are really due an existential crisis once they start questioning their own free will. So I think this was sort of asserting that imagination has a free will of its own in a way and that ideas can take a life of their own.
Lord: Well, stories are a great technology. They travel from one person to another and across cultures, and they carry ideas with them and attitudes and lessons, and so we think that these characters are no different. Especially when they get passed among filmmakers, you know, we, Chris and I, pass them back and forth and we share those with Mike and Trish, our co-director, and all the filmmakers we worked with on the movie.
Miller: And with this thing it's like you're telling a story told half from the point of view of a 13-year-old who's obsessed with sci-fi dystopian hard-edged time-travel-type storyline tropes, and then another half of the story told from an 8-year-old who's interested in totally different things, and seeing those worlds colliding and melding into one super-imagination is part of the fun.
And then they're due an existential crisis when they don't know whether they have any say in any of it.
Miller: Exactly. Then the next one will just be a real French, they'll be just, it's going to be sad people in hats, sitting in a café, drinking espresso.
Lord: Reading Camus.
You've made self-referential jokes and plots central to so many of your movies, and obviously the first LEGO movie was no exception. When you're doing a sequel, do you feel like you have to double down on it? Is there an endpoint to the amount you can do?
Lord: It can't be the only thing that's there. There has to be a lot of meat on the bone. I think it's fun to remind the audience that they're in a movie from time to time. But ultimately, we're really sincere guys and we want to tell an earnest sincere story that makes you care about the characters and the themes and all of that stuff. Being able to just have a little fun with it and remind ourselves not to take life too seriously is great but only works if there's something really there.
Miller: We take the movies seriously and the audience seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously.
I know you did a rewrite or new draft in 2017, and in the opening of the movie, the LEGOs are living in a dystopia. That felt very timely, to say the least.
Lord: Well, when we were writing it, we were definitely conscious that the first movie presented a song that was meant to be ironic, but was kind of taken literally, called "Everything Is Awesome." It's a wonderful song but kind of lacking in nuance. And you know, we're thinking about the world today and how it's not really true that everything is awesome.
But there are some things in life that are awesome, and I think it's a choice that we can make to have that attitude, that we can still make things more awesome, and that's something that we need to have, and I think that's why the movie feels relevant today, and I think it will stay relevant going forward.
Miller: And you know, we're not powerless. We influence each other. That boy has tremendous influence over his younger sibling, and she has influence over him. And leadership that we can show in our day-to-day lives, modeling our values and also trying to be our best selves and listen to our better angels. That has a cumulative effect, and it's the thing that we can control, is the situations we make and the values that we try to embody.
At the end of the first movie, you hint at the younger sister being able to play with LEGOs, so the gender divide was baked into this one from the start. Now the older brother is now 13 and hard and into dystopia, and I'm not sure when the term "toxic masculinity" hit the mainstream, but it's definitely hinted at here.
Miller: It's a call for empathy. But also a lot of fun. It's not like we're trying to give a sermon on a soapbox to anybody, but just trying to talk about things that we care about. I think people can walk away with something if they want to get something out of it. And if they want to just go have a good time and laugh, they can get that out of it too.
Lord: We did think a lot about growing up, what it means, and whether, you know, what maturity looks like. I think there's an idea of maturity when you're 12 or 13 that is about being hardened and—
Lord: And avoiding shame and not allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and I think when you get a little bit older, the more sophisticated version of maturity is that you embrace your vulnerability and you learn to listen and be kind and empathetic and that certainly what Chris and I, in our extended adolescence, is what we aspire to.
Miller: The first year we went to Comic-Con I was like, "Wow, look at all these people dressing up, this is insane." And then the second year we went to Comic-Con I was like "Oh my gosh, this is amazing! This is a place where everybody can feel comfortable expressing themselves and feeling excited and happy and joyful about things." And protected and not, they don't have to feel any shame or embarrassment or ridicule.