From directing over 50 episodes of “Robot Chicken” to overseeing animation on “The LEGO Movie” to now helming “The LEGO Batman Movie,” Chris McKay is not only a fan (and master) of animation but also a fan of superheroes with tattoos of Catwoman, Superman, Captain America’s shield and more covering his arms. That, along with his excitement and love for Batman, made him the perfect choice to direct this Lego spin-off, starring the well-loved egotistical brooding hero (voiced by Will Arnett).
Read on to find out about how McKay and the filmmakers poked fun at the universe, inspiration behind the Batman-Joker love-hate relationship, the advice he would give his younger self, and more.
CH: Robin’s excitement as Batman’s surrogate son is something we can all relate to. He’s wide-eyed, geeking out, and loving everything about Batman. Coming into this movie, did you feel like Robin at the prospect of building this world?
CM: I think that the animators rotoscoped my reaction. I said, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, and I made a big noise. They said, maybe you should do this movie because you seem enthusiastic about it.
CH: I feel like you would have to be a fan to do this movie. It comes from a place of love even though you are poking fun at it. What was the process for that?
CM: I am a huge fan of Batman. I grew up loving Batman. When I was a kid, we had the “Batman” animated series, we had Batman showing up on Friends, Batman with West—so there were a lot of ways into the world of Batman besides the comic books. I wanted to make a movie that, if a kid can’t go see “Batman v Superman,” then maybe he’ll catch the references, and then want to go see that or the Christopher Nolan movies. I hope they’ll appreciate the love and fun we’re having with Batman and maybe want to explore that character. I told the studio I wanted to make a movie like “Jerry Maguire” but directed by Michael Mann and with a lot of jokes in it. They saw the value of that and let me run with it.
CH: Speaking about “Jerry Maguire”—one of the things I loved most about this movie was how all the lines between Batman and Joker seem like they’re from chick-flicks or rom coms—what was the inspiration behind that?
CM: If you look at “The Killing Joke,” or the Heath Ledger and Christian Bale version of the Joker and Batman, it’s all throughout the comics—there is this history of this really close bromance-love relationship. I just wanted to have fun with it. It’s like, “what’s our relationship status? Wait a minute, you’re saying that we’re not in a relationship? Hold on a second.” When you go see a Batman movie, you want to see him go up against Joker. Batman and Joker are synonymous with each other. I wanted to play around with that idea—Joker saying, “I want a label on this relationship. I want to understand what’s going on.”
CH: They define themselves against each other. Who’s Batman without Joker, and Joker without Batman?
CM: Yeah! All the best villains help you define your hero. That’s their function in the movie. For [Batman] to say Joker doesn’t do that, that’s an affront to Joker, as a character and a person!
CH: Going back to what you said earlier about introducing to kids this universe of Batman—is there pressure on your shoulders? It’s interesting to think that this is the movie they’ll be watching first, and then the Nolan movies, and so on.
CM: There is a lot of pressure because you’re dealing with a character whom people love. When I was a kid, my first experience with Batman was on a T-shirt.
CH: You remember that!
CM: Yeah. And that made me go, who is this guy? I want to see him in action! I got a comic book, I read it—I was in love with Batman in that way. I’m hoping some kid is going to experience Batman for the first time and fall in love with the character the same way I did. But as far as pressure goes, you’re dealing with a history of DC, the movies that they make—I wanted to honor that. As you said, it’s a loving project. We’re making fun of this stuff—yes, there are silly things about these characters. But it’s fun to play with that. They have weird crazy villains that defy any sort of logic but that’s what is so cool about it.
CH: In making fun of it—the movie is very self-aware. That’s what makes it funny. But is there a balance you have to strike between being self-aware and yanking audience members out of the world?
CM: Absolutely. You’re always trying to keep the stakes high, keep realistic stakes even in an absurd movie. You don’t want people becoming disengaged, or else the emotional stuff doesn’t work and they don’t care about the plot. So yes, it’s like constantly turning dials, keeping the ratio of how silly you can go, how much you can break the fourth wall—there’s a constant balance you’re trying to ride so that the movie still feels enough like a movie. If you can make it feel like the filmmakers care enough about the characters and invest in the overall feeling of it, the audiences will want to go with you for the ride. You give them emotional stakes. We’re the only movie that can do a movie about Batman’s central problem.
CH: You tackle that head-on.
CM: I think it’s important. Hopefully it affects people.
CH: It’s interesting that you take such an overdone mantra of “I work alone” and play it to the full and embrace that, and still have fun with an absurd Batman. Speaking of which, what was the inspiration behind the beat boxing in the movie?
CM: That’s something that Will occasionally did, and I wanted to use it. So when he did the no’s [as Batman throwing a temper tantrum]—you hear in the movie exactly what he did. He just turned the no’s into the beat of the na-na-na-na’s, and I had to use that. He’s so much fun to work with.
CH: Batman kicks ass and defeats bad guys left and right—that’s something that kids can look up to but maybe not quite relate to. Another thing I loved about the movie is that you had Batman being lonely. There’s that scene where all supposed friends from the Justice League ask him to take the picture for them—
CM: I’ve been there.
CH: —and when I saw it, I felt it was so relatable. Was it a concern going into the movie with that idea of making this Batman relatable to kids?
CM: Yeah absolutely. It’s him sitting at home figuring out the right HDMI input. We tried to find those little things to make you understand him—those little cracks, a window into that hurt little kid that’s deep down inside. When the tragedy happened, he armored up and kept everyone at arm’s length. We start to see things that are his vulnerabilities, what he’s trying to hide deep inside—Robin brings that out in him. Like you said with the Justice League, he’s pushed these people away so much that they don’t even consider him part of this club anymore. I think that’s why you can put up with him being this charming-ish jerk because you get these windows into him. You realize there’s something more here and you fall in love with these characters along the way.
CH: If you can go back to the Chris at the age when he would have been playing with Legos to tell him a little about his future and give him advice, what would it be?
CM: Keep up the hard work. Especially when you want to do something like making movies, it’s a struggle. You never know if you’re ever going to do it or get there. For me I was really hard on myself as a kid. Some of that was good, because it pushed me, but for a lot of it I ended up beating myself up. You think the goals are totally unattainable, or maybe the people around you are telling you that it’s going to be hard and you’re never going to make it. I would say, just stick with it. Enjoy the ride. A big part of when you push yourself too hard is you don’t get to enjoy the ride. And even though it gets hard you should still enjoy all the people around you. Keep doing the hard work, but don’t beat yourself up. This is fun. And you will get there.
“The LEGO Batman Movie” flies into theaters Feb. 10!
Edited and condensed for clarity.