There’s just something about Batman that gets audiences excited.
Whether he’s in comic-book form, a playful 1960s TV character, or the focus of a brooding feature-length blockbuster, the Dark Knight is a character we just can’t get enough of — even in Lego form.
That was evident when one of the highlights from the 2014 “The Lego Movie” was the appearance of the Lego Batman, a self-centered hero who did everything on his own terms and was voiced perfectly by Will Arnett. He was so popular, in fact, that once the movie came out it was obvious Warner Bros. should make a spin-off movie dedicated to Batman.
Tasked with pulling that off was Chris McKay. Known within the animation world for directing episodes of the Adult Swim show “Robot Chicken,” as well as working on the visual effects and editing side of the show’s “Star Wars” movies, McKay was also the editor and codirector on Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s “The Lego Movie.” McKay was even in charge of the movie’s animation and rendering when Lord and Miller had to go and direct “22 Jump Street.”
Warner Bros. was very bullish on getting another Lego movie out the door following the success of “The Lego Movie,” and McKay worked closely with Lord and Miller in developing “The Lego Movie” sequel and a Batman spin-off. However, when the trio went in and pitched their ideas for both projects at the studio in the early summer of 2014, it was evident the release plan needed to be tweaked. The ambitious “Lego Movie” sequel with its big musical numbers needed more time. That led to the idea for the Batman movie to be released first. But it needed a director.
“At one point Chris and Phil were going to direct ‘The Lego Bagman Movie,'” McKay recently told Business Insider, but they were about to embark on making the young Han Solo “Star Wars” movie. “Everyone turned and looked at me and I said, ‘Are you guys asking me to direct “The Lego Batman Movie”? I have a Catwoman tattoo, so, yeah, I’m in.'”
McKay dove right into storyboarding and developing a script with screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith in August of 2014, as the February 2017 release date loomed large.
“As far as turning around a feature animated movie with all these moving parts, two and a half years is a very, very short amount of time,” McKay said.
But he was familiar with tight deadlines. Back in his “Robot Chicken” days, his team worked at a breakneck speed to pull off 12-minute episodes every week, often only having six days for the animation portion of production. However, there were other things McKay needed to factor in to make a Lego movie.
McKay said he always had to be mindful that the movie is for young kids (very different in tone than the adult-focused comedy on “Robot Chicken”), but there also had to be elements sprinkled in for the adults to laugh at, as well as for the “Batman” super-fans. Then there was the challenge of connecting every live-action Batman movie (and TV show).
“This premise where Batman has been around for 78 years in Gotham City and all the timelines are all in our movie in some way, I was constantly monitoring that it was all working,” McKay said.
In the movie, we follow Batman on his latest crime-fighting adventure, but things become more complex when he suddenly is responsible with raising a boy he adopted and his greatest nemesis, the Joker, turns himself in.
McKay compared directing “The Lego Batman Movie” to how directors like Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg operate as producers, overseeing everything and making sure the department heads are on task. “There’s no ‘We edited something today and it’s in animation tomorrow and then in lighting and it’s done.’ I was constantly running around trying to figure out how to use all the teams to their potential at the same time.”
And as this all went on, jokes for the movie were constantly being added or tweaked, causing Arnett to be on call with his Batman voice at all times.
“Will was literally shooting a movie in Wales and I would call him up and get him to go into someplace private on set where he’s shooting so he could record new lines,” McKay said.
This was vital when he needed Arnett to give him a few lines for the rap Batman does at the end of the movie.
“It was like 10 at night in Wales and he had just got off a day of shooting outside and it had been raining all day and he went and put a coat over his head with a microphone and did some of the rap.”
But all that work looks to have paid off. Currently with a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “The Lego Batman Movie” is getting Arnett’s Batman compared to some of the best who ever put on the cape and mask.
And with the great supporting cast — including Michael Cera as Robin, Rosario Dawson as Batgirl, Zach Galifianakis as the Joker, Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as Green Lantern, Adam Devine as The Flash, and Conan O’Brien as The Riddler — McKay hopes all this talent can be utilised in a bigger capacity in future movies.
“I did cast some of these actors with an eye to make other movies in this world, like Justice League or Super Friends, because I really love these actors and it would be fun to play off each other and go on some adventures,” McKay said.
But for now he’s thinking of more immediate projects for himself, like that vacant director chair over at the Warner Bros. feature-length “The Flash” feature.
“I love the live-action superhero movies,” McKay said. “I would love to do ‘The Flash.’ I’m always trying to get meetings to see what’s coming up because I would love to do any of their DC Comics live-action movies.”
The way McKay sees it, he was at the right place at the right time for “The Lego Batman Movie.” Why couldn’t lightning strike twice?
“The Lego Batman Movie” opens in theatres on Friday.
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