This story first appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Dan Lin visited Lego’s headquarters in Denmark in 2008 to pitch his idea for a movie based on the colorful plastic bricks, the producer was given the grand tour. He was shown the Lego archives, where samples of every Lego toy produced over the past 57 years (all 4,720 of them) are preserved for posterity. He visited a factory where some 19 billion blocks are manufactured each year. He even got a peek into Lego’s top-secret design lab, secured behind a reinforced steel door and guarded by 24-hour surveillance cameras. “It was really cool,” says Lin. “I got to see the future of toys.”
Still, when he arrived at the tour’s final leg, the office suites where he’d be pitching Lego executives his film, he got a cool reception. “Some were skeptical,” he says. “They weren’t rude or anything — they’re Danish — but they didn’t feel they needed a movie. They were already a very successful brand. Why take the risk? They were doing really well without a movie.”
They’re doing even better with one. Not only has The Lego Movie grossed $468 million worldwide for Warner Bros. since its February 2014 release, but last year it also helped boost sales of Lego toys by 15 percent, for the first time pushing Lego past Mattel to become the planet’s biggest toymaker. And the franchise is just getting warmed up, with three more movies in the works. The first, Lego Ninjago, based on a martial-arts-themed Lego series, is slated for September 2016. The Lego Batman Movie, with Will Arnett again voicing a blockheaded Caped Crusader, is scheduled for 2017. And Lego Movie 2, chronicling the continuing adventures of hapless construction worker Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) — presumably with returning friends Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Superman (Channing Tatum) and a slew of other brand-crossing characters (Dumbledore, C-3PO, Shaquille O’Neal) — will be arriving in 2018.
It’s all pretty remarkable for a film a lot of cynics thought would never stick. But like Emmet, the Taiwan-born Lin, 41 (best known as a producer on Robert Downey Jr.‘s Sherlock Holmes movies), had a vision. “It was when I saw my 5-year-old playing with Lego,” he says. “He had two bricks clicked together and he was running around the house flying them like they were a spaceship. They were just two bricks, but in his mind it was a much grander adventure. And I thought, ‘Wow, what a creative toy — there should be a movie.’ ” (See more photos here.)
Of course, toys are turned into films all the time. See: Michael Bay‘s Transformers; Peter Berg‘s Battleship; G.I. Joe. But figuring out what story to tell about these particular interlocking plastic parts was a challenge. “The whole idea with Lego bricks is that they’re a blank slate that lets you create your own story,” explains Lin. Unlike Transformers or other toys, Lego doesn’t have a backstory. “There’s no history to Lego characters. So how do you make a movie about them?”
Lin hired brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman, who had co-written Hotel Transylvania for Sony, to find the answer. Their treatment — about a little Lego man on a quest in a big Lego universe, with a third act reverting to live action — was what convinced the Lego executives to take a chance on Lin’s idea (“Once we heard the pitch, how Dan felt he could bring the values of the brand to life, we started to think, ‘This could be interesting,’ ” says Jill Wilfert, Lego’s vp licensing and entertainment) and gave Warner Bros. the confidence to bankroll the project with a $60 million budget. Next, Lin hired Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who had done Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs for Sony, to direct the movie and flesh out the treatment into a shooting script. “There were a couple of elements [from the Hagemans’ draft] that ended up in the movie,” says Miller. “There was a pirate character that just had a head. And it was similar in spirit. But we extended it. Working on the script was a lot like building with Lego — we were taking things apart, putting pieces back on a little differently, making new things with them.”
One element Lord and Miller added was having Emmet interact with copyrighted characters like Batman and Han Solo. That created another challenge: wrangling licensed brands from different studios into one picture, something no filmmaker had done on this scale since Robert Zemeckis introduced Bugs Bunny to Mickey Mouse in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Warner Bros. already had the rights to D.C. Comics superheroes, as well as the Harry Potter characters. “We went to Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder to show them what we were doing with Lego Batman and Lego Superman, and we went to J.K. Rowling to show her the Harry Potter stuff,” Lin says. But getting the green light to use Star Wars characters was trickier. “We flew up to Lucas Films [in Northern California] and showed them a small sample and they approved,” Lin says. “But a few weeks later, Disney bought Lucas. So we had to rush to close our deal with Lucas before Disney closed its deal.”
But all those difficulties shrunk to Duplo-sized insignificance in comparison to the film’s biggest challenge. Early on, Lin had decided that everything onscreen needed to be rooted in real-life Lego constructions. “It had to look like the whole movie really was made out of Lego,” he says. “If you stopped on any frame, you had to see the actual bricks, with no blurring. And they had to look like a child had been playing with them, with scuffmarks and fingerprints and scratches. That took a lot of time.”
Three years, to be precise. It would have taken closer to 10 and required about 15 million Lego bricks to make the film with old-fashioned stop-motion animation. But technicians at Sydney-based effects firm Animal Logic used a program called Lego Digital Designer that accelerated the process. “It’s a hybrid of stop motion and CG,” explains Lin. “We’d draw a scene on storyboards in L.A., then send those off to Australia, where they would ‘Lego-ize’ them. If we drew a dog, it would come back as a Lego dog.”
Still, a lot can happen in three years, and even as Animal Logic was Lego-izing the film, Lord and Miller found themselves having to make adjustments. “Superman fell out for a year because there was that whole litigation about whether or not Warner Bros. had the rights to the character,” remembers Lord, referring to the lawsuit brought by the heirs of Superman’s creator, which Warners won in November 2013. “But it all got worked out in court, so at the last minute we put him back in.”
It turns out, though, there are some things audiences just don’t want to see Lego doing, no matter how meticulously realistic the animation may be. “We thought it would be funny to see two Lego characters kissing,” says Lin. “Because with two plastic heads, there’d be this clicking noise. So we had kissing in the original cut of the movie. Wyldstyle and Batman kiss in one scene, and there was another kissing scene involving mermaids. But we had to cut them both. It was just too edgy for parents.”