In the spirit of a subject that has allowed generations to build whatever their heart desires out of thumb-sized plastic blocks, it’s only fitting that when Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson set out to make a film about the venerable Lego, they wouldn’t be confined to what they’ve done before.
“I think we’re so used to having the word documentary on everything that we do,” said Kief Davidson, whose last film, the short “Open Heart,” was nominated for an Oscar in 2013. “Whereas this transcends documentary in a lot of ways. This is every bit as much of a family film as it is a documentary.”
It is a “Brickumentary,” to be exact, and with unprecedented access to the Scandinavian toymaker and a seemingly unlimited travel budget, Davidson and Junge (the Oscar-winning “Saving Face”) show how the building blocks have captured the imagination of millions around the world. However, in spite of turning their cameras on people building life-size X-Wing Fighters from “Star Wars,” filling the cracks in their streets with Lego blocks, and making gallery-worthy sculptures, perhaps the two filmmakers, who have separately made careers out of harrowing subject matter, exhibit the most creativity, letting a boisterous mini-fig (voiced by Jason Bateman) guide the audience through the massive fan events such as Brickcons, the innovation suites of Lego’s master builders, and the homes of young and old enthusiasts alike to see the full breadth of the community.
Shortly before the film hits theaters, Junge and Davidson spoke about the fun they had on the career detour, the massive undertaking of such an international effort and making a film in partnership with a company like Lego, but independent of them.
Daniel Junge: We’ve been friends for a long time and we respect each other’s work. This particular project originated with me. Jim Packer, the executive producer, approached me to do a film on Brick World, which is one of the conventions of the film and [I thought] that’s interesting, but it’s rather limited, so I expanded it to a film about the entire Lego community. Then we asked Lego to come on board. They said yes, but then it became a film about all things Lego, which of course is a huge film and too much for one filmmaker to tackle. Soon after starting the film, I asked Kief to come on board. Thankfully, he said yes. We collaborated from there.
Logistically, is this the most difficult thing you’ve ever worked on? You travel to so many places around the world.
Daniel Junge: In some ways, yeah.
Kief Davidson: In some ways, it was a difficult film. There’s a lot of people that we want to make happy with the film like this. We’re trying to make a film that families would want to sit down and watch together – a film that would be liked by a six-year-old as well as a 40- or 50-year-old. That’s a tough nut to crack. At the same time, we were hoping that the Lego fan base will embrace it as well, so trying to put together a narrative that works is challenging, but I think we ultimately accomplished that.
With such a big world, how do you decide what to focus on?
Daniel Junge: The big decision was actually what to not to focus on. We knew going in that we were going to start the film within the Lego company because we had access, establishing it [first] as a product from the company and then expand outwards to the community. Then there were a few fixtures in the community that we knew we wanted to film. As we filmed within that community, more and more stories presented themselves. At a certain point, time and budget constraints are not lovable, but probably were helpful in this process. We just had to say no, that’s too much.
Kief Davidson: Clearly, we just couldn’t film everything. The primary question we [started with] is Lego more than just a toy? Then you start seeking out, like okay, how is Lego helping people in therapy? How is Lego being used in science? How is Lego being used in engineering? There are a lot of different topics that we cover in here, so ultimately, we weren’t just taking a shot in the dark. There were very calculated decisions that went into it early on.
A thematic throughline would seem to be the idea that Lego was one of the first open source products, a term that’s usually limited to computing. Was that there from the start or a realization you made as filming went along?
Daniel Junge: One of the early ideas of making the film is that the idea that resonates in the ’60s are fully integrated into a box set that you buy right now off the shelf at Target. It’s a very simple idea, but very profound, and I think that speaks to the open source nature of this system. How profound that is didn’t really strike me until I interviewed Tormod Askildsen from Lego. He said, “Lego is more than a toy. It’s really a language in the way that English or Windows is.”
When you start looking at when Lego ultimately came back from the brink of bankruptcy, the open source kind of world we’re in now [all started from the company] making this a more open system like in Mindstorms. It was opened up to the hacker community to try to make it better. That’s actually the first main thing that ultimately propelled the company into making a comeback.
Did you actually benefit from that spirit of openness? Between this and “The Lego Movie,” the company seems to actively be courting the cultural spotlight when in the past, they seemed to operate close to the vest.
Daniel Junge: Some of that may have come from the fact that Lego was involved in both films, but this is the Lego ethos. At the end of the day, both films are about building it yourself and exhibiting your own creativity. There’s a huge community of very fervent – sometimes too fervent – fans at the core of this toy. That story line runs through both films. I don’t think that’s coincidental. That’s the Lego story right now.
Kief Davidson: Yeah, there’s more to this too. I know the ins and outs of the animated film what I would imagine was similar to this. We weren’t hired by Lego to make the film for them. We were working as independents where we had creative control. Obviously, we wanted to make this accessible to the fan base and families out there. We wanted Lego also to like it as well. But it’s a big difference in being commissioned to make a film where they have final cut versus you making it.
Was there anything off-limits?
Kief Davidson: Designing was definitely off limits. There’s just so much R&D there. Could you imagine if we went in with cameras? We’d have to have everything blurred just about. We were fortunate enough to have access to their design rooms, not the room that they work in on any day to day, but we were still able to get an inside view to see how the master builders actually work. There’s a real inside view in here with Lego that people haven’t seen before that’s fun.
How did the idea of a narrator come about?
Daniel Junge: It was necessary. If you liken it to writing, this film is less a novel and more a collection of short stories. It was really a dense amount of information, more so probably than in other films Kief and I have made that are more story-based. In the spirit of the film early on we figured, let’s make him a Lego mini-figure and late in the process, we were very fortunate to get Jason Bateman on board. That helped further inform the voice of the film.
Kief Davidson: An animated mini-figure also opened up the door to a younger age group. I know for my kid, who saw it when he was six, it’s all the animated sections where all of a sudden he’d pop up. In making a film that the six-year-old and the parent would enjoy, the mini-fig not only was our creative, narrative glue.
Daniel Junge: Yes and yes. We’ve both filmed in conflict regions around some very serious subject matter. Those films are hard to make. But this film is hard to make in a completely different way. It was so expansive. The layers were so massive. Also, it’s so beloved that the responsibility of telling the story of this brand and telling the story of this community, it was on us to get this right.
Kief Davidson: Yeah, the stakes were high. That’s the big difference. When you’re making a social documentary about one specific character or a specific disease – whatever it may be, you don’t have that pressure to make a film that everyone is going to enjoy. There’s huge expectations when it comes to what a Lego documentary would be. There’s huge expectations around what the animated feature was. That feature did so well because it was super creative, so we had the same responsibility on our shoulders to deliver something that would appeal to a lot of the people.
Where was the craziest place this film took you?
Daniel Junge: It’s just all so overwhelming now.
Kief Davidson: I didn’t particularly like having to go to China for two days, simply because it’s a really short trip for such a long distance. Ultimately, it’s not even a really a big story in our film, but [it was valuable] to see how different it is, the toy being used in China. [Lego] is a super popular toy for five-year-olds, but once they start getting to first grade, Legos are left behind and music takes over [as kids’ primary interest]. Music is the ultimate creative tool that’s going to make you a smart person, so the cultural difference there was interesting.
In general, was it interesting to see how different parts of the world interacted with it?
Daniel Junge: It’s interesting just to see how universal it is. Language is not a barrier. Age is not a barrier. Even intellectual capacity is not a barrier. It’s a toy or a tool, depending upon how you want to look at it, which is able to be used by people across the spectrum.
“The Lego Brickumentary” opens on July 31st in limited release and on VOD and iTunes.