(CBR) For writers and directors, navigating studio filmmaking seems like an almost impossible challenge — they always seem beholden to the source material of some best-seller, fighting against fan expectations (good and bad) while adapting a beloved property, or under the thumb of the merchandising empire whose products you’re using in your film. And yet, after making "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs", "21 Jump Street" and now "The LEGO Movie", Phil Lord and Chris Miller have not only retained their personalities as storytellers, but flourished artistically and commercially in spite of their obstacles.

The duo recently spoke with SPINOFF about their work on "The LEGO Movie", a film that uniquely explores the idea of creativity itself. In addition to talking about the research they did to find their way into telling a story about a literal toy world, Lord and Miller talked about the challenges of making something that is supposed to be bad actually be awesome, and finally discussed their upcoming work, which it turns out does not include a "Masters of the Universe" movie.

Your movies do a great job of deconstructing these familiar storytelling formulas. What sort of research went into breaking down a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey and turning it inside out to tell the story of a guy who’s special because he’s totally not special?

Phil Lord: Well, we definitely started out, after a few conversations in coffee shops, went back and read Joseph Campbell and the Christopher Vogler Cliffs Notes versions and applied those to the broad story we were telling. Then we watched "Lord of the Rings" a million times, and The Matrix, and "Time Bandits" –

Chris Miller: And "Wizard of Oz" and "Star Wars" and many more. And we talked about them all, and what they had in common, and all of that stuff, and we were trying to turn that principle on its ear, exactly like you were saying, by having the Chosen One not actually having any skills whatsoever. Unlike Neo, who’s actually a great code breaker and he was chosen because he’s the best at what he does, this guy’s chosen completely at random.

Lord: Even Frodo has, like, the purest heart in all of the Shire, you know what I mean?

Miller: He was specifically chosen by Gandalf as someone whose heart was so pure it couldn’t be corrupted. And we wanted to say that if anybody was chosen and told they were important and needed to step up and save the universe, that we feel like most people ultimately will rise to the challenge.

Lord: [Someone] said that it was like an antidote to "The Incredibles", in terms of a message. It was trying to say the exact opposite thing.

You’ve talked about the balance between people following instructions when playing with LEGOs and then others departing from them. Was the idea of shaking people out of their complicity, or their conformity, always essential to that balance, or did that emerge later?

Miller: Actually, from the very beginning, we had heard this little story which is, if you ask a room of six year olds, “How many of you can sing and dance?” everyone will raise their hand, and if you ask a group of adults that same question, maybe one person will. And then we talked about how, somewhere along the way, a lot of people lose that in themselves or get embarrassed about it, or it just falls away. We just thought, wouldn’t it be great to make a movie that inspires people to get back in touch with that side of themselves, and inspires them to go out and innovate and build and try new things.

How thematic are you as writers — how early do they emerge, and how easy or hard is it to steer a story to reinforce that theme?

Miller: I would say early, and hard. That’s the short answer. We always start out when we decide to make a movie to figure out what we want to say; otherwise, there’s really no point in making movies, if they’re not saying anything. So we start there, and then what ends up happening is we have a lot of ideas, usually too many, and then we start making a story. And the needs of the story dictate something, and then we kind of, after we’ve worked on the story for a while, go back into our original goals thematically, and try and work that in as much as possible. And it’s a big pain in the buzz because it’s a lot of revising and changing and rewriting and getting people to re-perform things. It’s not a very fast process, but we feel like it’s worth it.

The idea of stepping outside the world of the characters to see how humans play with LEGOs — was that always a part of the idea for the film?

Miller: I think it was pretty early on — I think it was something the Hagemans were kind of talking about early on, just conceptually. And then when we came on board, it was part of our original pitch, and I just never thought it was going to stay in the movie the way we envisioned it. And it did.

How did you figure out how to integrate that into the story, so it was both surprising and reinforcing of the central idea?

Lord: I was going to say it was not difficult when you have four years to work on it. Because you basically –

Miller: You go too far one way, and then you go not far enough the other way, and then you just keep working on it until it hits the right balance.

Lord: And a lot of those callouts to earlier parts of the movie arose organically either when we were writing or designing the set, or we were on set — we would think, oh, right, maybe this can link back to that. And we were designing props and we thought, oh yeah, we could call back. And then literally there’s an ADR line in there about Taco Tuesday that was something we came up with relatively late.

Miller: That’s the benefit of doing an animated movie, is it takes so long that you have a lot of time to sort of massage it.

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