The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Mitchells vs the Machines.
This film has been long in the making and is clearly a heartfelt project. Mike, can you tell us how it all started?
Michael Rianda: Sony had approached me about making a movie and because these movies take so long, I thought what can I make that I already have in mind? I have this burning furnace of love in my heart for my family. They’re sort of eccentric and strange and I would always connect to people when I talked about my family because I think everyone secretly thinks their family is nuts but they don’t want to admit it. But as soon as I’d admit it, everyone was like, oh yeah great mine too! I tell this story a lot, but my dad really is a nature-loving crazy person and once he woke me up at five in the morning and was like “Mike, wake up, we gotta build these bathtubs in the middle of the woods so we can legally be naked in nature, right?!” I had no idea what he was talking about and my mother was like, “he saw it on a Viagra commercial.” And the crazy thing was that he actually built them, and everyone thought he was nuts, and I thought he was nuts, but whenever anyone saw the tubs they were like, Brian these are incredible. I realized in those moments and my dad’s commitment to making them that he’s really a crazy person making these tubs against all logic, and I’m a crazy person making cartoons against all logic. Suddenly I felt close to him and found a kind of empathy for my parents that made me see them as humans for the first time. One of the reasons for the movie is that I was finally able to sort of see parenting through their eyes.
Phil Lord: I’m curious about your father’s understanding of the law. He’s not a lawyer, is he?
MR: He’s not a lawyer! And he’s also like “I don’t own this land but I have a handshake deal with John Harrington wink wink.” So he built these on someone else’s land?! “Don’t worry about it,” he told me.
PL: I understand the way common-law works is that if you put a tub in a field that you own that land. Once you take a bath, it’s yours!
Christopher Miller: And that led somehow to you making a movie about your family AND a robot apocalypse.
MR: And the robot apocalypse came because it was funny for me to imagine a character like my dad dealing with technology because he loves nature so much. As a kid I loved robots, and as an adult I became really fascinated by the idea that robots and AI can do some of the same things we can do now. And if that’s the case, what is it about humanity that perseveres and is worth saving. The collaborations we have with one another, they’re hard but worth fighting for.
It was really trying to reflect our own teenage enthusiasm about film
The family element is so crucial. The pacing of the film is wonderful and allows that disconnect between Katie and Rick to breathe. As producers, how did you advocate for this type of pacing in the film?
PL: We met Mike in the hallways of Sony animation. There was this energy seeping into the hallways and we looked into his office and saw piles of papers, no empty surfaces, and we were like, oh, this reminds us of us. Chris and I make a lot of densely-paced, tightly-packed movies. If you can believe it, things like The Lego Movie at one point moved even faster and we’ve learned some things over time. There’s a famous story about an early test screening of The Lego Movie where a passionate collaborator said “this movie is too long, we need to take ten minutes out,” and we realized the reason it felt long was because people didn’t have enough time to engage. So we said no problem, yes sir, we’re going to take ten minutes out, and then we secretly put ten minutes into the movie and it allowed you to watch characters make choices and take in information and think before they acted and it actually made the movie play a million times faster. In this movie we spent a lot of time working with Mike and his team trying to make the emotional storytelling really land so that we could have a crazy Furby attack sequence and it would be welcomed by the audience instead of a distraction. What Mike has done so beautifully is take all these zany things and given them meaning in the family, which when we tested the movie was the thing that was indestructible.
CM: From the beginning, the family felt personal and the story felt really emotional and the creativity and density of the comedy was undeniable. It was about shaping it in a way that really allowed the audience to engage with all sides and all members of the family, where there was a real growth arc for everybody. The great thing about Mike and Jeff [Rowe, co-director] is that they were so willing to try a million things and they were never satisfied. If we suggested moving something or trying something new, they always had great ideas and they’d try anything to make it better than it was before. And they never gave up until it finally came out on Netflix. And even then, they were still adding bits and trying and were overflowing with energy and passion.
MR: We made a mistake early on with Chris and Phil where we were like “we want this to be the greatest animated movie of all time and we want to it to be really grounded and wonderful!” and then they unfortunately held us to those wild claims.
You employ so many wonderful pop-culture references to appeal to those old and young from Portrait of a Lady on Fire to T2. These are such great marriages of ideas. How did you balance that?
MR: In the whole movie, we’re trying to be observational and true to our own experiences. Me and Jeff went to film school and were jacked-up teenagers who were like, we’re going to study every Paul Thomas Anderson movie! We were trying to tap into that fervor for film and what someone growing up right now would be excited about. We had just seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire and it was amazing and it really seemed like Katie would love it. We looked at the type of people we worshipped at her age and thought about who Katie would worship. It was really trying to reflect our own teenage enthusiasm about film. I made these goofy Criterion Collection knockoff films, so I had Katie do it. We wanted to embrace our memories about that passion.
PL: In cinema culture, the distinction between what’s highbrow and lowbrow has sort of collapsed, right? You’re on film twitter and people are like, Demolition Man is a masterpiece! And we’re born of that theory that you can love a crazy silly movie and that it is cinematic, and so is a French drama about nineteenth-century lovers on an island. You can have an appetite for both and they can both inform a young filmmaker.
CM: It’s also not like Mike and Jeff and us were sitting in a room and trying to pick jokes that would appeal to this demographic or that demographic. We would find things that would appeal to us or make us laugh, or try to put it through the lens of what we think the character would say or feel. There was never data science and trying to fit these references into boxes; it was more about amusing ourselves.
MR: That was the big rule—does it make us laugh? And since we’re man-children, we cover all spectrums!
PL: Since we’re so immature, we match up pretty well with kids. I like that her taste in movies kind of legitimizes her crazy dog films as art. She’s not making them to get clicks; she’s making them because she thinks they are great works of art.
Mike, this is your first feature but you’ve been working in animation for a long time. I looked at your first short and it is so incredibly uncanny how it’s a spiritual cousin of this film. Can you talk about developing your voice?
MR: I think finding your voice is really difficult. I do think when I was younger, it was really through a process of failing that I found my voice. I would do things that were too goofy or too slapstick, or on the other hand, too personal and uncomfortable. I had to find a balance because I had sort of comedy Tourette’s where I desperately wanted people to think I’m funny. Then I would try to balance that with a story that people actually cared about. In that short, the impetus was that I was working at a job that drove me insane. I was doing data entry at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a wonderful place but data entry is not a wonderful job. So I worked at the aquarium and everyone had stars in their eyes like, do you feed the fish? And I was like, no I enter people’s names into the membership bank! But in both films, I was trying to take this kernel of truth. In the movie it’s about family and in the short it was about working and finding your passion. And then I was trying to tell both of them in the most entertaining way that’s as funny as possible but also as true as possible. Try to fit those two things together is where I got my voice.