Opening today in select theaters and VOD is Daniel Jung and Kief Davidson’s documentary, A LEGO Brickumentary. Narrated by Jason Bateman, the film explores how LEGO went from a simple toy to a worldwide phenomenon. I saw the film at Comic-Con a few weeks ago, and it’s cute movie that goes to some interesting places, especially as Jung and Davidson speak with the LEGO community and see how they took these tiny plastic pieces and built a world unto themselves.
Last week, I got an exclusive phone interview with Jung and Davidson. During our conversation, we spoke about why they wanted to make the movie, how they chose to structure it, deleted scenes, if they were concerned that the film might come off like an ad for the company, free-building vs. following the instructions, and more.
DANIEL JUNGE: I have a great nostalgia for the toy, neither Kief nor I are what are called AFOL (Adult Fans of LEGO) but I was approached by one of the exec producers to do a film on one of the LEGO conventions in the film, Brickworld, and thought, “Well, that’s a fun film, but what about something that covers the whole landscape of LEGO?” and then we thought even further, “What about if we approach LEGO directly and see if we can go film the whole inside and outside [of] the company, kind of a whole film on LEGO” and lo and behold, they said yes and we were up and running and I’ve known Kief for years and needed a partner on this film. It’s just too huge of a film for one filmmaker and so Kief came on board and we tag teamed on making the film.
KIEF DAVIDSON: For me it was actually freeing because after doing a slew of very dark social issue films what I wanted to do at the time was to do something that actually my young child could actually see, and something that really tied into the idea of creativity and play, because I believe very firmly as a parent that need of play will ultimately make for smarter people, I guess.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while making this film?
DAVIDSON: For me, it was I had no idea how big the adult band of LEGO community was, really until we started going to these conventions. I mean, I felt at times there were more adults than kids in certain areas. I also only looked at LEGO as something you just do on your own, something that you just play with by yourself or maybe with other kids, and in these conventions we learned that adults collaborate and it’s a way for them to explore creativity with others. It’s not that uncommon to have like a group build happening in several states where they come together once a year, this long anticipated event to put on a show.
JUNGE: For me, I think the serious uses of this so called toy were the most surprising. The fact it’s being used for therapy and for city planning and engineering. I think that indicates that this is more than just a kids toy.
What was the hardest thing to cut from this movie when you guys were editing it?
DAVIDSON: Everything, yeah.
JUNGE: We shot so much footage all around the world and it was such an expansive film, every door opened another door, that although at a certain point it was probably painful it was good that we had time and budgetary constraints because it’s just and ever-expansive subject. I think Kief and I have personal stories that we lament did not make it into the film. For me it was just, as Keif mentioned, LEGO has really become about communities and now there’s online communities of people who are building virtually and then coming together in each convention to physically put their individual components together, which I thought was a really interesting story. These young guys were doing cyberpunk creations, really amazing builds, that’s a story that I took to points on that I really miss having in the film but you have to kill some babies in this process.
DAVIDSON: Yeah we had another huge storyline which is about First LEGO League competitions, which is basically kids that are working with Mindstorms and they compete There’s over a thousand teams across the country that come together. We did a huge storyline that culminated at LEGO Land, ultimately we found that it was too big of a story. We covered a lot of ground and sometimes if a story is too big, sometimes the best thing to do, or the only thing to do, is to kill it.
Because you guys covered so much, what was the process of structuring the film?
JUNGE: That was the most difficult process. I mean, Kief and I have both made films that usually have a pretty straight narrative throughline, and this film in a way rather than being kind of a novel was a collection of short stories. And so the challenge for us was to make a cohesive whole out of these different short stories, and the way that we did that sort of is try to expand the film, try to make the film start from within LEGO and this idea of the toy and then just ever expand the film but also to try to overlap the storylines that have some interesting pairing. For instance, our therapy story blends in with the X-Wing build, and our other story overlaps with the designer story with their competition at the end of the film. So, the short answer is it was a really difficult film to structure and hopefully we crafted that. I think once you start and you take all this footage and you start putting it up on a board, you start looking at, “Ok, what are the themes here? LEGO is more than just a toy and what are the most significant things that we found in here?” LEGO therapy was also for me something I didn’t really know much about, I knew sort of the beginning of it just because I knew kids that used LEGO brick for developing or finding their motor skills. Once you start putting up all these different things and LEGO architecture, how it’s actually changing society. After you go through a very long detailed process it starts to sort of tone in and define itself.
LEGO is in an interesting position because it is both creative tool yet it is also a product, were you ever worried that the film might come off more as an ad for the company rather than a celebration of the fans?
DAVIDSON: Yeah. Well, what makes this unique is that we were not commissioned by LEGO to do this, this is an independent film and we have creative control on it. And while LEGO is a marketing partner with us, we were the ones that first and foremost would determine the fate of the film. So we didn’t really come about this from the branding standpoint, which would have been very different if it would have been a commission, we came from this as like, “What is going to make the most engaging, responding film that we can possibly make?” And LEGO, they really loved the film, and they knew pretty early on that this was going to be a film about the community so they weren’t handed any surprises at the end of the day. Of course we wanted to make them happy because they have their name on it.
One of my favorite parts of the film was when –and I am an adult fan of LEGO so I love learning about their history- you guys talk about their tour lines that didn’t succeed and the ones that started pulling the company away from their core mission. When you guys were talking with them about their history, was there anything they were hesitant to talk about or didn’t want to go into?
JUNGE: No, they were really straight forward and maybe that’s the Danish, they’re Scandinavian heritage, they were very forthright about some of their mishaps. I think they’re in a golden age right now, their company is blooming and doing so well that I think that they are a little introspective on why the company was having difficulties just over a decade ago. So I found them to be refreshingly forthcoming, considering they’re a massive global company.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, when you look at the couple who talked about that time when they were on the verge of bankruptcy, that they were quite arrogant as a company, that’s not something that most companies would admit. But they were a company that was able to learn from their mistakes and openly made the right steps by embracing particularly the adults, the AFOLs out there, Mindstorms, Cuusoo; and transformed the company into the juggernaut that it is now.
Speaking of LEGO Cuusoo, did you guys consider going back and changing the film to note that now it’s LEGO Ideas?
JUNGE: No, that happened after we finished and it just seems like very inside baseball. It’s really interesting the questions you get from an AFOL audience versus a mainstream audience, and we just have to kind of walk the line between those worlds. Hopefully we have, hopefully we made a film that isn’t dumbed down so the AFOL audience still appreciates and there’s still some revelations in there, but at the end of the day we want a film that also appeals to the mainstream audience so we didn’t want to go too inside baseball. So yeah, we know now that Cuusoo is LEGO Ideas, and that Cuusoo is still out there now in another form just seemed to be kind of inside baseball.
I agree, I was just curious about that. Something that I also wanted to ask you is –just on a personal level– when it comes do LEGO, do you guys prefer following the instruction or building your own creations?
DAVIDSON: At first when my child first started building LEGOs, he would follow the instructions and I always just free played younger. I wasn’t a massive LEGO fan as a kid, mainly because we just didn’t have the currency to keep buying bricks. But ultimately I found, as an adult starting to build again, that free play was better for me because there’s nothing worse for me than following an instruction set and messing up one piece so then you have to go back and figure out what the heck you did wrong or to make this thing not work.
JUNGE: I’m a classic space guy from my childhood, which is the nod, we have a nod to classic space in our animated section. I’ve always been a “build it once and then loose the instructions” kind of guy.
Was there something over the course of doing this documentary that made you appreciate LEGO more, in terms of not just the community but the actual structure of it that you hadn’t before?
JUNGE: The actual what?
As opposed to not just the community, which really gets a lot of love in this film, just the actual sets, something about LEGO that you didn’t notice before you started really spending a lot of time with this company and this culture?
JUNGE: Well, you mean in terms of how they run their business?
I mean in terms of the toy itself.
JUNGE: Oh, in terms of the toy itself. Yeah, I think to me it’s a really profound idea that I never thought about, that the same bricks that were released in the ‘60s that I played with as a kid that were already worn out then are completely interchangeable with the bricks made last week. That, I mean, it seems kind of obvious but I never really considered how many products or systems, especially toys, exist in the world like that, that have been unchanged and yet are completely reinventing themselves and yet not been changed at the same time, to me it’s quite profound.
DAVIDSON: And for me probably the most surprising thing that I learned is when you start talking about the infinite possibilities of LEGO, the scene where we talk to the mathematician in Denmark and getting into like, “Ok, well, he started out with putting these six bricks in all these different iterations and you have over nine million possibilities. And then what happens when you have seven or an eighth brick?” Ultimately I think we stopped at eight or nine. So it was pretty amazing to see this guy struggling over that really just shows you why this tool is as popular as it.