Matt's Blog


Interview - Director Chris McKay On The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is receiving terrific reviews (it’s currently 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) and I recently caught up with Chris McKay (the film’s editor and animation director) to talk about the film. You can listen to the full audio extract from the interview by clicking here.

Matt:  When I first heard they were making a Lego movie, my first reaction was one like “What? Really? How?”  Did you get a lot of people asking you the same sorts of questions when you signed on?

Chris:  Yeah.  That’s a perfectly reasonable response to the idea of doing The Lego Movie.  When I said we were going to do it in the stop-motion style and try to make it feel as charming and warm as a Rankin-Bass movie, they were still saying no one is going to want to watch a movie where the minifigs only move the way minifigs can move and where the style is trying to adhere to a stop-motion aesthetic.

For Chris, Phil and myself, we stuck to the vision of what it thought it might be.  When you watch those “brick films” that fans make on Youtube, they’re beautiful and silly and absurd.  Their ambitions are epic and that’s the kind of movie we wanted to make.  We wanted it to feel like Michael Bay or Henry Selick were 10-year-old boys and got together in their basement to make the coolest movie ever!

Matt:  I’m accustomed to a director sitting on a set, giving instructions, looking at footage overnight.  How does it work though as the co-director of an animated feature?  What’s your day-to-day routine?

Chris:  Day-to-day, I’m the guy who is down on the ground with the team.  I’m with the layout artists, designers and animators.  I’m then sending those images and edits back to the studio and back to the other filmmakers.  We then have a dialogue about where the movie is going and what other opportunities exist.  We may have come up with an idea in animation or with the dialogue that will require a change.

We also had some amazing actors who would go off on tangents while they were recoding that would open up other possibilities.  We would explore those things and then send them back to Chris and Phil and say “look, this is where the movie feels like it’s going” so let’s follow this path and see what happens.

Matt:  One thing I’ve always wondered about in animated features is the way characters mouths move up and down while speaking.  Is there a formula you follow – as in “when they say this, their mouth should always move like this” or is it more random than that?

Chris:  It kind of depends on the design but there are definitely rules people follow.  That said, rules are always made to be broken.  It has to be measured against what you feel like is “true”.  Every time there’s a rule that says “you have to do it this way” – for example a lip sync has to be “this” way every time a character does a “P” – there’s always another solution that does something completely different but rings absolutely true.  You have to go with your gut.  It’s way more art than it is science.

Matt:  In this film you have characters from DC Comics, The Simpsons, The Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter.  Do you have certain rules from the copyright-owners that you have to follow when bringing these characters to life in the film?

Chris:  Yeah, to a certain extent.  We were obviously in love with all these characters and so we never wanted to do anything like poking a stick in someone’s eye.  When you’re dealing with Star Wars and stuff like that, there are copyright owners that get nervous with the way they’re being presented.  But honestly, with every single person we approached, we showed them what we were doing and said that we might improvise a few things.  No one ever said “no, you cannot do that” or “here’s a set of rules”.  By background is Robot Chicken.  Phil and Chris made Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.  People knew that were going to treat these characters with love and respect because we’re also fans.  They trusted us.

Matt:  There’s so much going on visually in this film – not just with the characters but with the detailed background shots that all I have to look like some kind of Lego construction.  To give us some kind of perspective, how many people are working on a film like this?

Chris:  We had close to 300 people work on the movie but that’s actually a small crew for an animated movie.  That number is from top to bottom including sound and everything else.  Usually it’s closer to 500 or 600.  I had 30 animators at most.  I had 5 board artists.  There were a handful of people in lighting and in layout.

Compared to other animated features, this was a low budget movie but it’s a testament to the crew that we pulled it off.  Many of them wore multiple hats.  There were plenty of people that did a variety of jobs to just get the movie done.

Matt:  What sort of work goes into editing a film like this?  Given the expense of pulling every scene together, I’m guessing there’s not a lot that gets left on the cutting room floor so to speak?

Chris:  (laughs) Yeah, it’s different for an animated movie because post-production starts at the very beginning.  You’re starting in the story phase as you’re taking the boards that are coming in and you are editing them against music and voices that you and your co-conspirators are doing in order to make a scene work.  You get need to get the movie up in an emotional way to show people if this scene is working and if this act is working and if the character’s arc is working.

You are doing the pre-visualisation of the movie as an editor.  There are only a certain number of editors that have that skill set as other editors are only reactive to the material that’s in front of them.  In animation, you need to develop and build the idea and come up with new ways to solve problems.  For example, if a joke isn’t working, you may have to come up with a way to sell it through different visuals.  It’s something that you do in tandem with the board artists.

Matt:  You have your own little cameo in this film as Larry the Barista.  How did that come about?

Chris:  It’s because I was doing scratch voices and one of them stuck in the movie.  I recorded it on my desk while trying to meet a deadline and we needed to figure out who would be this character and I was like “ok, I’ll just do it” and so I recorded a bunch of things.  Believe me, I tried, I wanted to get other people to do it.  We had other people read it.

It’s part of the magic of filmmaking.  If you get it right once, that’s all you need.  Some people can psych themselves out of a performance because they’re trying to work it too hard.  At the end of the day, if you can just get one take right, you’ll be fine.  So actors out there, just relax, it’ll be ok!

Matt:  You’ve won an Emmy and directed a bunch of episodes for the animated TV series, Robot Chicken.  And I was therefore going to ask if you wanted to step up be the head director of an animated feature film… but I believe that’s already the case!  Is it true you’ll be heading up a sequel to The Lego Movie?

Chris:  Yeah, I’m going to direct The Lego Movie sequel.

Matt:  When will that get started?  When can we expect to see it?

Chris:  We’re working on a treatment right now.  Once the movie took off like it did, we knew we wanted to make a sequel.  It’s kind of a double edged sword because good sequels are very hard to come by.  I’m looking forward to the challenge of trying to make this into something that’s worthy of the first movie because it’s so special.  Having watched it several times with different audiences and seeing how people respond to it, it’s something that’s very important to me.


Would You See A 4 Hour Movie? What About A $50 Movie?

There are two very different film going experiences on offer in Brisbane this weekend.

Firstly, for one week only, the Palace Centro will be screening both volumes of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.  Described in the press notes as a “wild and poetic story of a woman’s journey from birth to the age of 50”, the film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellen Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe.

The film is rated R for its “high impact sexual themes, actual sexual activity and nudity”.  I suppose that will raise a few eyebrows… but what I really want to note is the film’s length.  The two volumes clock in at a combined 4 hours and 1 minute.  There’s also a 15 minute internal (not included in that runtime) that will allow me to replenish my popcorn.  From memory, this makes it the longest cinematic release in Brisbane since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet back in 1997 (which was one minute longer).  With only two sessions per day, it’ll be interesting to see how it performs at the box-office.

I should also mention that the 4 hour cut is not the whole film!  There’s a 5 and a half hour version that will most likely be released on DVD later in the year.  Bet you can’t wait.

Secondly, Event Cinemas are continuing a concept they launched last year and are holding a special screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier this Sunday night at their Chermside and Indooroopilly cinemas.  You’ll be able to see the film a few days before everyone else (it’s not released officially until next Thursday) and I’m sure many Marvel / comic book fans will be keen.

There’s a catch though.  The ticket cost is $50 per person and it includes a small drink, poster, figurine, 3D glasses and a Marvel branded bag.  This is piggy-backing off an idea that was trialled in the United States last year.  It’s a way of getting a few extra dollars from those people who are prepared to pay more to see a film in advance.  You may see it as a “cash grab” but it’s not a new concept in the entertainment world.  Some pay more to attend the opening night of a theatrical production.  Others pay more to attend the sound check at a major concert.  It’s economics 101 – supply and demand.

The likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas aren’t fans of the concept (you can read an article here) and I’m curious to know if this trend will continue in coming years.  Would you pay $50 to see a movie in a theatre?  A quick check of the Event Cinemas website shows that both the Chermside and Indooroopilly sessions for this Sunday are close to fully booked.  So I’m guessing there’s quite a few out there would answer that question with a “yes”.

Interview - Nick Frost Brings Us Some Cuban Fury

Nick Frost

We’re used to seeing Nick Frost in supporting roles (or working alongside Simon Pegg) but he gets a chance to take the lead in Cuban Fury, a romantic comedy that also stars Rashida Jones and Chris O’Dowd.  I caught up with him recently to have a chat about the experience. You can download a short audio extract from the interview by clicking here.

Matt:  I believe this is your baby, your idea.  Can you tell us where it first came from?

Nick:  I think I’m known for playing a certain role… and for being in Simon and Edgar’s films and the three of us making genre comedies with a sci-fi / cult slant.  For years and years, I’ve harboured a dream to be a dancer and to make a dance film.  I’ve had the idea of a long time and whenever I had a few beers, it would pop into my head and I’d go “this is a good idea… you have to tell someone about this”.  But I had a fear that if I told someone then somewhere down the line I’d probably have to do it.

About two and a half years ago, I plucked up enough courage and I wrote an email pitching the film to Nira, my producer.  I pressed “send”, went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning, slightly worse for wear, there was an email back from Nira saying “what a great idea, let’s do this.”  That was that.  I’d been caught and it was now out of my hands.

Matt:  So if you’ve always wanted to make a dance movie do I assume that you’ve always known how to dance?

Nick:  Yeah, I could dance and I like dancing but I’d never danced with anyone in a competition or anything.

Matt:  So did you have to do a lot of training?  How much work did you have to put in to get ready for the main scenes in this film?

Nick:  Yeah.  It was 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 7 months.  I had a team of 15 people who would rotate around and they taught me how to salsa dance. 

Matt:  Was it what you thought?  Now having been through the whole process, is there stuff that you would have done differently looking back?

Nick:  I probably wouldn’t have sent the email!  It was just really hard all the time.  It never got easier because as soon as you think “I’ve got this” then they pile more stuff on you.  One of my greatest fears in life is having people watch me dance.  You come to this place where you’ve been training for these scenes for 7 months… and then you’re standing on a stage with your partner being watched by 500 of the country’s best salsa dancers.  It was an absolute nightmare… but it also made me feel great.  I felt like I’d conquered something which had held me back as a person in my life. 

Matt:  There’s a stigma associated with dance and it’s touched upon in the film.  Your character is teased for doing it at high school and then you’re bullied again by someone at your work.  Is it actually like that?  When you went your through training, did you get any odd comments or looks from anyone?

Nick:  Yeah.  I was training at Pineapple Dance Studios which is a really famous studio in London.  Sometimes I’d be outside having a break and someone would walk past and say “what are you doing here, why are you at Pineapple?” and I’d say “well I’m training to be a dancer” and they’d often laugh and walk off. 

Matt:  What’s interesting is that in the early scenes of the film, you actually have to dance not-so-well.  Is that as easy as it sounds?

Nick:  No, it was a pain in the bum!  When we were looking at the early takes of those scenes, it was kind of too good.  We had to tone it down and I was talking to the director and producer and saying “why didn’t we shoot this 7 months ago?”

Matt:  We’re going through a wave at the moment of dance films – like the Step Up series – and TV shows – like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.  Do you have any idea where this surge in popularity has come from?

Nick:  I don’t know.  That’s a really good question that I haven’t been asked yet.  I think it’s cyclical.  We’ve always had dancing on TV and I think that Australia has always had a rich history of dance when you look at the success of films like Strictly Ballroom. 

Matt:  Were you involved in the casting process?  How do you pick out who would be a good fit for these roles?

Nick:  I wanted Chris O’Dowd straight away.  I’ve worked with Ian McShane on Snow White and me and Nira thought he’d be perfect for it.  As for Olivia Coleman, I’ve always wanted to work with her on everything I do.  I just did a sitcom with her and she was also in Hot Fuzz.  As you can see, you end up with a list of people you want to work with and then you end up being very lucky if they want to come and hang out and make a film.

With Rashida, she was someone on the top of most people’s lists.  I met her for a cup of tea in a restaurant in town… that turned into a glass of wine at 5pm… and before you knew it, it was 9pm.  We just got along.  It was one of those meetings where I felt like I’d found a friend for life even if we didn’t end up working together.

Matt:  Chris O’Dowd is sensational in this.  It’s as if you gave him the instructions of being the most annoying, irritating, offensive individually imaginable.  I’m guessing he had fun with it?

Nick:  He did have fun with it but to be honest, he found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that he was going to have to play this horrible scumbag and that’s not who he is in real life.  He’s actually a lovely charming man.  Often during a scene he’d turn to me and say “oh my God, I can’t say those things to you” and I’d say “come on, let’s do it, let’s do it”.

Matt:  The film recently had its premiere in the UK so finally people have had the chance to see it.  What sort of comments have you been receiving so far?

Nick:  I think people seem to be liking it on the whole.  I realise that not everyone is going to like every film and that’s just how it is.  What’s surprised me is that men are enjoying it too.  Getting men to see a dance film was thought to be difficult but because Rashida and Chris are in it, they’re going along for that and then enjoying the dancing too. 

Matt:  I always finish up by asking what’s next.  What projects do you have in the works?  Will I be seeing you in the next Step Up movie?

Nick:  I could play an old, wrangled hip-hop artist!   I did a film with Vince Vaughn just before Christmas and I think that’ll be out in the autumn.  It’s called Business Or Pleasure and it was a lot of fun to shoot.  I’ve also shot a sitcom called Mr. Sloane with Olivia Coleman and that comes out in the UK in May.

2014 Oscars: 12 Years Takes Gravity In Technical Knockout

Another Oscars race has come to an end and here’s everything that I think needs to covered…

Oscars Competition

A big thanks to the 76 people who entered my 14th annual Pick The Oscars competition.  I tried to come up with a few tricky categories but in the end, there weren’t a lot of upsets this year.  17 different entrants managed to score 5/6 but only 3 pulled off the perfect score of 6/6.  It seems the hardest category was original screenplay with Her edging out American Hustle.

The three entrants with the 100% result were Rob Eddy, Geraldine Rodriguez and Solo Fogg.  It therefore came down to the tie-breaker question – what would be the age of the person who presented the Oscar for best picture.  Many would have been surprised by the choice – 45-year-old Will Smith.  It turns out Solo Fogg was closest to the mark with his guess of 57.  Solo wins a $100 Amazon voucher for his efforts and it’s worth noting that he won back in 2011 with another perfect score.

Oscar Betting & Tipping

In terms of overall tipping, I can’t really complain.  I managed 20 out of 24 with the misses being best picture, best documentary feature, best foreign language film and best animated short film.  I believe it’s my best effort since The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King swept all and sundry back in 2004.

Did I manage to turn that into a financial gain?  Nope, not quite.  My big bet of Gravity didn’t come off but thankfully Matthew McConaughey’s best actor win helped stem the damage.  I lost $400 on the Oscars which offset the $328 win at the Golden Globes.  If you do the math, that’s an overall loss of $72.  I can’t complain but it continues my mediocre Oscars gambling form…

1996 – profit of $750 – won on Susan Sarandon
1997 – profit of $300 (cumulative profit $1,050) – won on Frances McDormand
1998 – loss of $250 (cumulative profit $800)
1999 – loss of $250 (cumulative profit $550)
2000 – profit of $620 (cumulative profit $1,170) – won on Kevin Spacey and Michael Caine
2001 – loss of $190 (cumulative profit $980) – won on director Steven Soderbergh
2002 – profit of $480 (cumulative profit $1,460) – won on Halle Berry
2003 – profit of $275 (cumulative profit $1,735) – won on Catherine Zeta-Jones and Adrian Brody
2004 – profit of $150 (cumulative profit $1,875) – won on Sean Penn
2005 – profit of $214 (cumulative profit $2,089) – won on Hilary Swank
2006 – profit of $350 (cumulative profit $2,439) – won on Reese Witherspoon
2007 – profit of $1,463 (cumulative profit $3,912) – won on Eddie Murphy at Globes, Alan Arkin & West Bank Story at Oscars
2008 – profit of $268 (cumulative profit of $4,280) – won on Tilda Swinton and the Coen brothers
2009 – profit of $253 (cumulative profit of $4,533) – won on Mickey Rourke & Kate Winslet at Globes, Kate Winslet at Oscars
2010 – loss of $830 (cumulative profit of $3,703)
2011 – profit of $30 (cumulative profit of $3,733) – won on Social Network at Globes, Tom Hooper & King’s Speech at Oscars
2011 – loss of $640 (cumulative profit of $3,093) – won on Jean Dujardin at Oscars
2012 – loss of $850 (cumulative profit of $2,243) – won on Ang Lee at Oscars
2012 – loss of $72 (cumulative profit of $2,171) – won on Matthew McConaughey at Globes and Oscars

Oscar Results

The winners in the major categories were as follows:

Best Picture – 12 Years A Slave
Best Director – Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Actress – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Supporting Actress – Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)
Best Original Screenplay – Spike Jonze (Her)
Best Adapted Screenplay – John Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
Best Animated Feature – Frozen
Best Foreign Language Film – The Great Beauty

For the second year in a row, we had a split in the best picture / best director race (which doesn’t happen all that often).  Gravity dominated the technical awards with 6 wins, then added to the collection with its best director prize… but it couldn’t quite take the big one.  12 Years A Slave took best supporting actress, best adapted screenplay en route to the best picture crown.  It’s worth noting that only Cabaret in 1972 won more Oscars (8 in total) without best picture.  Gravity now ranks second on that list.

You’d have to say that Dallas Buyers Club was the night’s other big winner.  It took two acting actors for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.  I’d have never have picked those guys to win an Oscar several years ago.  McConaughey was stuck in formulaic romantic comedies and Leto had taken a break from acting to focus on his music.  The film also won the award for best makeup and hairstyling – preventing Jackass: Bad Grandpa from a surprising/historic victory.

The Aussies couldn’t have asked for much more.  Cate Blanchett won as expected and becomes the first Australian to have won 2 acting Oscars.  She’s just 44 years of age and there’s plenty of time to build on that total.  Catherine Martin took home two Oscars herself for best production design and best costume design on The Great Gatsby.  This gives her 4 in total (she won twice for Moulin Rouge) making her the most honoured Australian in Oscar history.  Beverley Dunn picked up her first Oscar – sharing the production design award with Martin.  That only left 2 Aussies who went home empty handed – David Clayton (who was never going to win visual effects for The Hobbit as it was up against Gravity) and Michael Wilkinson (who’s American Hustle costumes lost to Catherine Martin).

Just as notable as the winners… were the high number of shutouts.  Despite earning best picture nominations, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Nebraska, The Wolf Of Wall Street and Philomena all came away with a blank scorecard.  It’s particularly surprising for American Hustle given it led the nominations with 10 in total (including all 4 acting categories).  Its best chance was in the original screenplay category but in one of the only minor surprises of the night, it was beaten by Spike Jonze’s Her.

Frozen was the night’s only other multiple winner – taking best animated feature and best song.  I remember meeting producer Peter Del Vecho last November at the Australian International Movie Convention and talking about how a Walt Disney Animation Studios production had not won the animated feature Oscar since it was introduced in 2001.  That’s now changed and it was cool to see Peter on stage with his Oscar in hand.  It’s also worth mentioning the win of The Great Beauty in the foreign language film category.  I had a few small issues with the film (would have preferred Denmark’s The Hunt to win) but it’s a visual feast that I’m sure I’ll see again in the near future.

I’m normally fairly forgiving when it comes to Oscar hosts but Ellen DeGeneres was not good.  She tried for a few edgy jokes in her short opening monologue but none were particularly funny.  It didn’t get much better from there.  DeGeneres seemed to spend the rest of the show trying to improvise with members of the audience.  She took selfies with ordered pizza.  Perhaps this was designed to target the show at a younger crowd?  I’m not convinced it worked.  None of the presenters made a mark and John Travolta will forever be remembered for his atrocious pronunciation of the name Idina Menzel.  Could he not read the autocue?  Or did he not go to rehearsals?

Well, that’s it for another year.  The book is closed, the statuettes engraved and in a few months, I’m sure we’ll be speculating as to next year’s winners.  Hopefully my finger is a little closer to the pulse.