Making of 'Lego Movie': 7 Years, a Trip to Denmark and a Race Against the Disney-Lucasfilm Deal Clock
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.)
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Of course, toys are turned into films all the time. See: Michael Bay's Transformers; Peter Berg'sBattleship; 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."
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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