SPOILER ALERT FOR THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. BUT, LIKE, ACTUALLY.
Audience members young and old who caught the raucously joyful LEGO Batman Movie this weekend likely left the theater with one major question (besides how soon they can get their hands on the soundtrack): Did LEGO just pull off the greatest movie mash-up in modern history?
The film, which puts the spotlight on Will Arnett’s brooding Caped Crusader as he’s forced to break out of his surly, solitary shell, enters its third act with a grand move by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) when he unleashes infamous villains from across film, TV, and literature to descend upon Gotham City.
Between that mind-boggling array of cameos (including Sauron!), a voice cast of surprising reveals (like Billy Dee Williams!), and the guiltily addictive soundtrack, EW had questions. Fortunately, director Chris McKay — a name you ought to know if you’re going to be enjoying the LEGO film franchise for the next few years — has the answers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s one thing for a movie to throw in a quick cameo or two, but LEGO Batman’s entire third act is crafted around getting these iconic pop culture villains. Tell me about the genesis of this whole idea.
CHRIS MCKAY: The Joker needed to up his game and prove himself, and we talked about this being the Joker’s big romantic grand gesture. So in order to do that… I loved the [1978 Richard Donner-directed] Superman and the idea that the Phantom Zone, in our world, could possibly house all of the villains from other LEGO universes. It’s almost like Cabin in the Woods. Or, in Last Action Hero, when Charles Dance says, I can go into all these movies and I can bring out Jack the Ripper or King Kong. When I was younger, watching that movie, I was somehow expecting a scene between King Kong and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I was always bummed it didn’t go there. [Laughs.] But in our world, we can do something like that and unleash all these characters into Batman’s world.
Which villains didn’t make the cut?
I would have had Kathy Bates from Misery, and [Sherlock Holmes nemesis] Moriarty, and at one point I pitched Daniel Day-Lewis’s character from Gangs of New York and David Carradine from Kill Bill. At a certain point, though, you have to weigh what characters the kids going to get. In LEGO, it’s sometimes hard to get a really quick interpretation of something. I was already worried that we weren’t doing enough with some characters. Also, at one point, we did put HAL from [2001: A Space Odyssey] into the movie, but it was a tough read. Maybe in future movies, we’ll try to bring more characters in.
Was licensing a nightmare?
You need an army of lawyers and producers who are willing to run around and do all the hard work of finding out all the rights-holders. Fortunately, Warner Bros. made a lot of those movies, but for others, we had go to out and get them. I wanted characters from all over the world. I wanted Daleks. I wanted stuff that has a history and is time-tested, like the Wicked Witch. And I hope people love Gremlins as much as I do. And Sauron. But even for the actual Batman villains, even though that’s all [property of] DC, someone still has to go out and find it, you know, the guy that wrote Gentleman Ghost into the issue where he first shows up. I definitely kept a lot of coordinators, producers, and lawyers busy on this movie. I’m sure I drove people crazy.
Voldemort seemed to have the most elevated role in all of this, and obviously J.K. Rowling is still deeply involved in that canon. Did you have to get her personal approval?
Yeah. We used Dumbledore in The LEGO Movie as a quick one-off joke, but Voldemort obviously plays a bigger role in this movie, and J.K. Rowling obviously cares very deeply about these characters, so we absolutely had to run stuff by her. But honestly, there were no notes. The only thing that she gave us was, like, spell suggestions and things like that that Voldemort should say. It was all really positive and helpful. It was never ‘I’m uncomfortable with that.’ I can’t say enough good things about working with her.
Did you ever consider having Ralph Fiennes actually voice Voldemort as well as Alfred?
At one point I approached the studio and asked if I could get Ralph to do both parts. But unless you’re going to do a scene where Alfred and Voldemort confront each other, I didn’t want something to feel like a missed opportunity. [Laughs.] I do remember when I was pitching him the movie, I said, “Yeah, then all of these bad guys are going to be unleashed like King Kong and Sauron and Voldemort—” And then I stopped for a second because I realized who I was talking to.
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Now that the secret voice cast is out, who have you been dying to talk about?
Being able to cast Billy Dee Williams [as Two-Face]. As a kid, when I saw the Tim Burton Batman movie, I knew enough about all the characters that when I saw they cast him as Harvey Dent, I was so excited because I thought they’re going to play this long game where in the next movie or two movies down the line, he would show up and have this great arc from good guy to bad guy! And then when the third movie came around and not only had the cast changed, but there was no arc — it’s just suddenly Tommy Lee-Jones as Two-Face — I was really bummed out. So to be able to cast somebody in that way was great. I mean, the first thing he said when he showed up on set was, ‘Oh, I finally get to play the role I was hoping I was going to play.’ I felt really proud about that. It felt good to fulfill something from my childhood that always felt like a missed opportunity or just a bummer.
The film’s ending doesn’t pull back into the human world like the first film did, but it still sort of winks at the macro idea that we’re watching a movie about physical toys on a table. Do you think that’s going to be a staple of LEGO movies?
Everyone says this, but for lack of a better phrase, there’s a LEGO cinematic universe that we’re building that has a sci-fi premise, as far as the world that the movies are taking place in for the majority of the running time, and the other world that’s out there. I think over the course of the movies, we’re building out the relationship between those. There’s no mandate necessarily to do that, but we are very actively working to find all of the rules and develop that relationship between the real world and the LEGO world. You’ll start to see it in what we’re doing with Ninjago and what what we’re doing in LEGO 2.
Is Batman going to be in LEGO 2?
There’s definitely a part for Batman in LEGO 2. Everyone loves Will Arnett and the Batman character. There are going to be the repercussions of what’s happened in [LEGO Batman]. If you agree that he went through some change, there’s more stuff in store for Batman in LEGO 2.
Let me quickly ask about the soundtrack. Is “Friends Are Family” the new “Everything Is Awesome”?
Well, there will never be another “Everything Is Awesome.” [Laughs.] That song was a big part of the plot of that first movie in the audience understanding the Matrix-ness of this movie. Batman’s got a different musical style and we wanted him to be somewhere between heavy metal and rap, with very self-aggrandizing lyrics and all that. For us, music was more about a journey on this one, from that “Who’s The Batman” style to, ultimately, Michael Jackson and finally “Friends Are Family,” which to me is just… I wanted the movie to end with joy. Like, really go over the top and move the needle from Batman’s point of view at the beginning to Robin’s POV by the end. Actually, my dream would have been to make this movie a musical. I think if we had more time, there would have been a version of this movie that would have been a full musical and had more point of view songs like that for sure. But really, we just wanted people to leave the theater smiling and feel good as Batman embraces these people.