‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie’ Director Charlie Bean on Making His First Feature & ‘Tron: Uprising’
Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is a hilariously funny and heartwarmingly sweet look at what happens when your dad is the evil warlord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), aka The Worst Guy Ever, and you’re just a teenager trying to get through high school as unscathed as possible. Master Builder Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), aka the Green Ninja, and his group of friends (voiced by Michael Peña, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson and Zach Woods) are secret ninja warriors who must do the impossible – fight to save Ninjago from destruction, either at the hands of his power-hungry father or Meowthra, who’s taking it apart one LEGO brick at a time.
While at the LEGOLAND California Resort for the film’s press junket, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with director Charlie Bean to talk about directing his first feature film, the challenges in making sure that everything works as it would for a LEGO, having Jackie Chan be so heavily involved (as the voice of Master Wu and in helping choreograph the fight sequences), casting Justin Theroux as the villain, how the cat got involved, and which of the ninjas he most identifies with. He also talked about where the animated series Tron: Uprising would have gone, if they’d gotten the chance to continue, being intrigued by live-action, and why he’ll likely always be involved in animation.
Collider: This is your first feature, and you really took on a big one. How did you come to The LEGO Ninjago Movie?
CHARLIE BEAN: It was intense. That doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of really smart people helping me, like Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] and Chris McKay. It was a big undertaking. I’ve worked in animation for a long time – for about 30 years – but it is my first feature. How it came about was that Lord and Miller were working on the first film and they were thinking about the next films that they would do, and them and Dan [Lin] wanted to do Ninjago. I guess they saw a show I had directed, Tron: Uprising, and they thought I might be right for it, so we met and talked about it. The film hadn’t come out yet, so they showed me what they were doing with the first film, and I was like, “Oh, my god, this is the best! I wanna do this! Please!” It was just so interesting. We’ve seen a lot of LEGO stuff out there, but for it to look like LEGO and for it to look like the fan films on YouTube, that are all stop-motion, it lined up perfectly with my taste.
What are the biggest challenges in making sure that everything works, as it would for a LEGO?
BEAN: Not to get too technical about the way we make these films, but the way we make these films is that we make each individual brick. We design all the bricks to be exactly like the real bricks, including the serial numbers and the logos, down to the plastic seams. It’s crazy! These are all used bricks that we’re creating, so they have scratches, nicks, fingerprints and dirt. And then, they all fit together in the way that LEGO fits together. It’s not like we’re designing a building and what we want it to look like, and then surfacing it to look like LEGO. We’re building a building out of LEGO, virtually, so it all has to work and fit. In fact, not everything fits together. Everything that we make in the film has to be “in system,” as they call it, at LEGO. It has to work. It’s great to have that limitations because we’re bound by the restrictions that LEGO has. The limitations are your friend. You want the limitations. The problem-solving is what makes it interesting. How do we make these figures that have no knees and no elbows do real choreographed kung fu?
The way we discovered how to do that, after a lot of development, was by using other bricks to simulate different pieces and we dislocate pieces. To swing an arm back, you have to dislocate a piece completely. It’s away from camera, so you don’t see that it’s not in the place it is. And then, you swing forward really fast and use a sausage piece to make the motion of it because it looks like that. We don’t have motion blur because it’s stop-motion, so we use other pieces to simulate the motion blur. We really utilized old techniques that Rod Scribner and Bob Clampett, and those guys, developed back in the Looney Tunes days. They would do smears, and we do the same thing, but with bricks. We call it “brick blur.” If a character is moving across really fast, we’ll have several of the same character, and it looks like a blur. That kind of problem-solving and those challenges are the most fun, really. Everyone is pushing each other and challenging each other, seeing what the other person did. As these movies have progressed, there’s been more and more of figuring out how to do things in brick.
What’s it like to not only have Jackie Chan starring in this film and voicing Master Wu, but to also have his renowned stunt team choreograph the fights?
BEAN: It’s a dream come true! It’s incredible! He’s this huge legend who really pioneered and invented this type of comedy-action. But also, as a filmmaker, I love him as a director and as a fight choreographer. The opportunity to work with him is accessing a master. He’s truly a master. It was an unbelievable dream come true to have the whole JC Stunt Team come to Sydney, Australia, where we were making the film, and set up on a stage there to work out the fights, in the same way that they choreograph fights for live-action films. There’s a deep tradition of the way that they choreograph fights in Hong Kong cinema, that goes all the way back to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films that Jackie grew up doing when he was a stuntman. He’s in Enter the Dragon. He was a stuntman for a long time. That’s how he came out. To watch the way they work out fights, and to see how spontaneously they choreograph things and come up with ideas on the spot, was so great. To be a part of that was pretty incredible.
I can’t imagine anyone other than Jackie Chan bringing Master Wu to life.
BEAN: He was the first person, once we got the film greenlit, that we put in place. Dan immediately went to Beijing, met with him and asked him to be a part of it. Once that happened, everything fell into place. Fun fact: The name of the head of the JC Stunt Team that was leading our team is Master Wu. That’s his real name! He is a master, and everyone calls him Master Wu. It was too perfect! The serendipity is incredible.
When you were looking to cast the character that’s labeled as The Worst Guy Ever, what made you think of Justin Theroux? Did you have to get back at him, in some way, for being nice, talented and good-looking?
BEAN: Exactly! He deserves it! I had to take him down a peg. This guy is just riding too high. You can’t let these people live life so well. No. With Justin, I’m just a huge fan of him, as a writer. He’s such a funny guy. There’s something so unique about the tone of his voice. We were listening to different people for the role. There was something that I was after with the tone, and we he came up, I was like, “This could be incredible!” When we cast the film, what I was looking for was people who not only had really unique voices, but had really unique comedic voices. With each of these people, they’re all writers, in their own right. They’re all people that brought so much to these characters, and they were able to riff and improvise and come up with stuff. That was a big factor in what was so attractive about Justin Theroux. And his eyes are also very attractive! It’s his mind! That’s what I’m in love with, not his beautiful face.
This movie essentially have two villains, Garmadon and a cat. How did you decide on the cat?
BEAN: I was gonna talk about the one diva of the cast. Meowthra was so difficult to work with. No. He’s just being a cat. Cats aren’t like dogs. You can’t train them. They just do what they want to do. They don’t want anything from you, but they require everything from you. From a structure point of view, we wanted to get Lloyd and Garmadon together, and war makes strange bedfellows. In the face of this greater challenge of Meowthra – this force of nature – these two have to work together. They have to deal with each other, get to know each other, demystify each other, and ultimately come to understand each other and themselves. That’s really what the movie is about, at its core. Meowthra plays that role of the greater evil for them to work against.
People really loved Tron: Uprising and wished it would have gone on longer. It had some great storytelling that explored some really interesting and thought-provoking themes. Had you planned out where another season of the show would have gone next, if it had been able to continue?
BEAN: Oh, yeah, we had a whole other storyline that was in the second season, that we had planned. The first season ended on a cliffhanger, and we had hoped to do more. Who knows? Someday, maybe. It was a really great experience. A lot of the people that I worked with on that show ended up working on Ninjago. The designers who worked on the design of Tron helped design the robots.
Where would you have taken the story?
BEAN: I’d have to dig back into my brain. I’ve been so deep in LEGO for the last four years. Clu was coming to town. Where we wanted to take it was to meet up with where the film starts.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?
BEAN: No, I don’t exactly know. I’m gonna take a break. My wife and I didn’t get a chance to have a honeymoon because we got married over a weekend, during the middle of this production. So, I’m gonna take a little break and figure that out. I’m not sure. I’ve gotta figure out exactly what I want to do next.
Are you going to stick with animation, or did you want to move into live-action?
BEAN: I’m really curious about live-action. We did some live-action in this movie, and it was really fun. Working with the stunt team was great. The pieces at the front and back of this film was really fun, and I’m super curious about it. I’m definitely open to doing more stuff in live-action, but I think I’ll always do animation. It’s in my DNA, and I think it’s something that I’ll always do.
If you were a part of your own secret ninja group of warriors that save the day, what would you want your power or ability to be and what would your own personal mech look like?
BEAN: Oh, man! Ultimately, Lloyd has the greatest power, and it’s probably closest to my power of seeing the greatness in others. As a director, you have to put them all together and get the greatness out of all the people that are around you. That’s the one I connect with the most, and that’s probably closest to what I do. I hire really talented people to surround me and make me look good. In terms of the mechs, it was so much fun designing the mechs and I really love Cole’s. I think that one was the coolest. I’m a big record collector, so I’m probably the most like Cole.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie opens in theaters on September 22nd.