Director Chris McKay Shares The Secrets Behind ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’

It’s not lost on Chris McKay – who directed this weekend’s upcoming sure-to-be blockbuster, The LEGO Batman Movie – that his movie has to live up to some pretty high expectations when compared to 2014’s The LEGO Movie. It’s also not lost to McKay, who served on the previous film as animation co-director under directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, how bizarre it is that these LEGO movies now represent a kind of quality that comes with such high expectations in the first place.

Don’t forget, when the first The LEGO Movie was announced, it was dismissed almost immediately as a stupid idea. “Now there’s like a backlash of like, well, it’s a good movie,” says McKay in response to his movie having to live up to the now high expectations, “but it’s just not as good as The LEGO Movie.” McKay laughs as he continues, “It’s like, yeah, trust me, I know. We worked really hard to make that movie as great as possible because we wanted to overcome everybody’s prejudices against it.”

When you speak to McKay right now, he’s brimming with excitement in a way where he can’t quite believe his movie is finally coming out. A veteran of Robot Chicken (oh, and there’s a lot of Robot Chicken influence in The LEGO Batman movie) McKay steers us through this particular world of of a cocky, sad, and lonely Batman – a world filled with obscure references to just about everything – who goes home to watch Jerry Maguire in his own personal theater by himself, where he laughs and laughs and laughs. (McKay’s excitement is contagious. This interview was almost canceled because I had a death in the family, but I’m so happy it worked out because I left this in the first genuine good mood I’ve felt all week.)

Ahead, Mckay takes us through some of the secrets behind making The LEGO Batman Movie – including, yes, even that Gymkata reference.

What do you think Batman finds so funny about Jerry Maguire?

[Laughs.] I think it’s probably sincere emotions, things that he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of experience with, maybe? I think that’s probably what I was hoping that people would get out of that moment.

I thought he might cry, but then he bursts out laughing during the “You complete me” scene.

But for some reason he wants to share that same feeling with other people, and he immediately looks to the left and looks to the right and says, “How can I share this hilarious moment?” It’s like you’re watching The Hangover or something like that and you want to look to your buddies, “I can’t believe they just did that.”

And it’s the actual live action Jerry Maguire

For me, I wanted as much as possible to make this movie feel like it’s the inmates kind of running the asylum. Maybe you’re not supposed to do stuff like this? And hopefully we can get away with things like that. Like, oh, you’re not going to try to do a LEGO version of Tom Cruise, you’re just going to put the footage from the movie in there – which it seemed fun, it felt fun to us.

Speaking of the references, is there a line between too many past Batman references or not enough? Or is it just the more, the better?

I’m sure for some people there is definitely a line. You know, for me, I think part of what was going to be fun about this movie is putting a lot of references and a lot of allusions to other Batman movies, other DC movies and superhero movies in general. Also, for me, I’m a film nerd, so putting references to other movies, other films and filmmakers, that was important to me, too. When I pitched the movie, I said that I wanted to make it “Jerry Maguire as directed by Michael Mann with a lot of jokes in it.”

What was the most obscure reference? Gymkata?

Yeah, Gymkata is very obscure.

That reference has been very popular with some people in my crowd.

Oh, good. Oh, good. That’s awesome. And Probably like Fox Force Five. Yeah, that one might pass most people, not sort of remember that from Kill Bill, so yeah.

I think Joel Hodgson said once about Mystery Science Theater 3000 that there are certain jokes that no one’s going to get, but the one person who does get it is going to find it the funniest thing in the world.

Yeah, I fully subscribe to that philosophy. You know, that’s sort of the Airplane!, The Naked Gun movie kind of philosophy. Where it’s like, look, you may not like this joke or get this joke or care for this joke or this style of humor right now in this minute, but two minutes from now there’s going to be another joke that’s the kind of thing that you’ll appreciate.

When you looked at Batman in The LEGO Movie, did you look at that character and think he needed this other dimension that he’s sad and alone? That you couldn’t do whole movie with him just being kind of the cocky asshole?

There are obviously a lot of reasons why you pick LEGO and Batman to make a movie about: Will Arnett’s performance and the fact that those two brands together mean something to Warner Bros. and the world and that kind of thing. But, I think for us, it’s the fact that Batman as a character has a very clear second act. When you set him up as this narcissist, vain, self-involved guy who’s not very self-aware, you definitely have a place to go with this guy who, whether it’s 100 percent true or not, mostly works alone or acts like he works alone in all of the media that he’s in. And so that’s a great character because you get to have your fun with having him be cocky and kind of in people’s face, and not really sensitive to their feelings. But because of Will Arnett’s performance, you want this guy to get it right and you love all the people that he’s meeting along the way.

You went deep into his villain list. You even got the Condiment King. That’s impressive.

Yeah, yeah. We were able to make a movie that had Condiment King and Crazy Quilt and Kite Man and at the same time had Mutant Leader and Dr. Hugo Strange and some of the other darker villains – and have them actually in the same frame, which is kind of fun.

Condiment King was in a DC Rebirth Batman issue a couple of weeks ago. There’s been a lot of Condiment King in my life this month.

Yeah, it’s like there’s a McConaissance. This is the Condiment-aissance.

And you went well beyond Batman’s obscure characters. There are even Harry Potter characters in this movie.

Well, there are definitely a lot of Warner Bros. properties in there. You know, we also obviously had the Jurassic Park dinosaurs and the shark from Jaws, Daleks and all that kind of thing in there. My dream was to have like Kathy Bates from Misery and Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes and things like that.

You even included the Gremlins.

Yeah, Gremlins and Agent Smith. And Warner Bros. bought the MGM library, so they’ve got the Wicked Witch. But also, the one reason why I can’t do Kathy Bates or Moriarty is less about the rights holders and more about the fact that it would be hard to sell who that character is easily. I’d already crammed it with a bunch of Rogues Galleries and we’ve got a lot of main characters and a lot of characters that we want to hear more from, so at a certain point it became like, okay, how many obscure characters can we fit in and people understand who they are. At one point I had HAL from 2001 in there.

What happened to HAL? Why didn’t HAL make it?

You know, I ended up having to cut him out, and he was in the Phantom Zone. Technically, if you look on one of the plinths, I think he still might technically be on there. But he did have a line of dialogue in the movie. I’m trying to think what the line was. It was one of my favorite little stupid jokes. But yeah, it was one of those things where it was like, it’s hard to get that. We did a good job of sort of making it look like HAL. But for a quick bit? For you to understand that it’s HAL and then get the joke on top of it? There were too many layers there. It’s tough with LEGO, because you’ve got to kind of like interpret LEGO.

It’s weird, there’s so much happening you almost expect a Marvel character to show up. Then you remember that can’t happen. But then you did reference Iron Man. How does that even work?

Yeah, we still have to run that up the flag. And LEGO has a relationship with Marvel that they enjoy and want to keep. So we still have to talk to people and say, “Hey, we want to do this joke.”

“We want to make a joke about their most popular cinematic character.”

Yeah. And they get it. I mean, Marvel, they do the same kinds of things in their movies, so they know. But they were really behind it – and fortunately, they have a sense of humor and get it. You know, they’re filmmakers too and want to make funny stuff that references pop culture and that kind of thing.

So chances are they could come back to Warner Bros. in like a year and go, “Now we have a movie and we want to say that Batman sucks. Remember when we did this favor for you?”

[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Hopefully, they will.

Have you read the reviews?

You know, I’m still sort of like finishing the movie, in a way, in my mind, so I’m not quite ready. I’m really glad for the crew and I’m glad for everybody that the movie is well received. I wish I could still keep working on the movie! There are still jokes that I wish that I could try to make. You know, we were talking about HAL. It’s like, oh man, I wish there was a way we could have made that joke work, or one more thing work.

It’s just the craziest thing that if we go back a few years ago, when they announced the first The LEGO Movie, people were like, “Oh, that’s going to be stupid.” Now it’s the standard everything will be compared to.

Yeah, exactly. And I’m glad that we did, but now it’s sort of like every movie’s got to live up to this thing that was not only a great movie experience in the making of it, but a great experience for the audience. And for my niece and nephew, that’s a movie like Star Wars or something like that to them. It’s a big movie for them as kids. And they even sort of dissociate me from it, you know what I mean? They can’t put the two and two together. And so it’s not like it’s my movie, it’s like this movie that they experience in the movie theater. So anyway, I’m proud of both movies and I’m really happy that Warner Bros. gave us a chance to try to do something with Batman because I love Batman and I’m a huge Batman fan. And I got to work in the Batman world and create Batmobiles and a Batcave and tell an emotional story about Batman that’s also funny and fun and hopefully full of joy – and a couple of cool action bits for people to just kind of like have a great time at the movie theater.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.