Walking through a giant cardboard box at the Toronto International Film Festival, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a curio shop. The walls are lined with movie props and costumes, and the aisles are crowded with action figures, stuffed animals, and model airplanes—all arranged and labelled attractively. In the centre of it all, a man in a Santa Claus hat is sat behind a desk, surrounded by a rack of model airplanes—the final resting place of a lifelong passion.
It’s a shrine to the man’s favourite hobby. As you approach the counter, you see him gazing at a framed photograph of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. The most curious of items on display are the shoes she wore in the film Cleopatra, with her face painted on them in brilliant red, white, and blue. Taylor was a woman who liked to live life on the edge, and this certainly falls into that category. And then you remember: this is what happens at the end of Goodbye Christopher Robin.
The scene is a Parisian restaurant. Through the window, you see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. But we know something is amiss, as a dark, foreboding cloud hovers over the city. You see it before Robin Williams walks in through the front door, looking dazed. The film’s opening credits begin to roll, as if on cue.
This is a Hollywood blockbuster built on a foundation of Lego, a world where movie magic is as ordinary as eating a sandwich. In fact, it was made possible through the extraordinary imagination of producer Peter Docter, and his brother director Bobby Docter—whose previous collaborations include Monsters, Inc. and Robot Chicken—along with a host of A-list talent. This is the story of how they made the perfect movie out of the tragedy that befell on September 11th, 2001, and how a hobby turned into a passion that changed their lives forever.
In the summer of 2002, the Docters were scouting for story ideas when they came across the headline: ‘World Trade Center Designers Are Missing’. It was an eerie detail that stuck with them. “That’s when the idea for the Lego Movie came about, really,” says Peter. “If we could do something that brought all these characters to life, that was something we hadn’t really done before.”
To craft the story, the brothers turned to one of the first people they called. “We needed an architect to make a blueprint for us to follow, ” explains Bobby. “And so we called Richard Barnes, who was an architect for the World Trade Center.”
The two had first met in 1980, at a party for the New York City Ballet Company. “He was the most charming man we’d ever met,” remembers Bobby. “So it was really special when we found out he agreed to work on the movie.” Richard Barnes became a dedicated Lego fan, and a consultant on the movie, helping to bring the building blocks to life.
The process was arduous, and took nearly two years. The brothers researched and developed characters, designed minifigures, built sets, and shot the film in Paris and London, using a combination of miniatures, models, and digital effects. As a result of all this hard work, the film is a dazzling achievement; a beautiful mixture of humour and tragedy, where fantasy and reality collide in extraordinary fashion.
The brothers were inspired by a Lego set called the Architecture Studio, which came with a blue whale, a giraffe, a dragon, an eagle, and a polar bear. They wanted to see what would happen if they put the set’s characters inside the World Trade Center. “You could kind of see how they could be like the famous personalities that worked there,” says Peter.
Though the Lego Movie series has gained popularity around the world, it’s had its struggles at home in the US, where it has often been overshadowed by bigger, louder blockbusters. The first film opened in 2010 to middling reviews, and reportedly lost about $15 million, which is a lot of money for a comedy directed by two guys in their early twenties. But that didn’t stop the brothers from pushing on, and the third film, directed by Clark Spencer and featuring the voice of Owen Wilson, was recently released in cinemas worldwide. It received rave reviews and became a major success, winning the International Animated Film Festival’s prestigious Teddy award and picking up a Screen Actors Guild Award in the process.
“The movie is very much a love letter to New York City, and to the people who worked tirelessly to build it,” says Peter. “The sets and costumes all had a very distinct New York City feel to them. The people who worked on the costumes especially brought that vibe to life. Every set had that big, bold, Broadway-ness to it. So that’s what we tried to bring to the screen.”
Building Blocks And Beyond
After designing sets for film and television, including the landmark series Brooklyn Bridge, the brothers turned their attention to designing and building their own houses. “So far, we’ve done four houses, which are really fun to design and build,” says Peter. “And each one gets more and more challenging as you go along.”
“What we like about the houses is that they’re very minimalistic in character,” says Bobby. “And they give the viewer a chance to really see how the pieces work cohesively as a whole.”
They start with a skeletal framework constructed of extruded aluminium and steel, which serve as the structure for the building. The floor is a raised platform of wood and steel mesh, which gives the room a sense of airiness. One of the hallways is punctuated with a circular saw and wood chipper, the remnants of a murder that happened in the house a few years back. “I like the fact that it looks like a lethal weapon,” says Peter, referring to the scene where the character Nick encounters an intruder and has to fight for his life. “It fits naturally with the ‘grim’ humour of the movie.”
Though the houses are quite minimalistic, in keeping with the nature of their design, they still feature all the creature comforts typical of a well-crafted home. The bathrooms are stocked with all the usual amenities, including a Jacuzzi and a bidet. There’s also a fully stocked pantry, so anyone planning on staying a while can fill up on all the snacks and drinks they could want—with a view to creating the perfect binge-watching experience. “We wanted the movie to be something that people could watch over and over again,” says Peter. “So that they could get engrossed in the story, and not feel like they’ve missed out on anything.” He adds, “We’re always looking for different ways to amuse ourselves. And one of the best ways is to sit down with a big bowl of popcorn, and watch a good movie.”
Though the story focuses on the events of 9/11, it’s not a film about terrorism. “We wanted to make sure that people knew this was a comedy, and not a documentary,” says Peter. “Because there’s definitely a lot of humour in the story. We try to make light of the situation, and not be too serious.” When asked about the role of terrorism in modern society, he offers, “I think it’s an important issue, and one we need to be mindful of. But humor can sometimes be a great way to deal with difficult topics.”
The Perfect Ending
The ending of the film is one of the most poignant sequences—and one that brought the brothers great satisfaction, both personally and professionally. “It was really important to us that this be the perfect ending to the story,” says Peter. “And it is. It’s such a beautiful moment when Robin walks in through the door, and he’s greeted by an image of his daughter’s face. It’s a perfect way to end the story. It feels really happy, but it also has this sense of longing. You wanted to see more of these characters, even though they’re dead.”
Bobby adds, “This is one of those stories that’s hard to put into words. To see something that you helped create, and know that it’s reached its final form, and is perfect… It’s a feeling that you can’t put into words.”