Exclusive Interview: Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson Discuss A LEGO BRICKUMENTARY
(All photos are courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.)
Far from human reach, Juno is now on its fourth year of travel in space. In honour of the toy’s role in its design, the NASA spacecraft carries three aluminum LEGO Minifigures, modeled after the scientist Galileo, the god Jupiter, and the goddess Juno.
Back on earth, Dr. Dan LeGoff of New Jersey’s Y.A.L.E. School, leads a class of little LEGO builders, an activity that the autism therapist has used for two decades now to encourage social interaction among his students.
As seen in the new documentary A LEGO® Brickumentary, these are only a few of the many ways that the plastic construction bricks, officially known as the LEGO System of Play, are now being used as a tool rather than for play.
Narrated by an animated LEGO Minifigure (voiced by Jason Bateman), this latest project by Oscar winner Daniel Junge (Saving Face) and Oscar nominee Kief Davidson (Open Heart) follows on the massive success of last year’s The LEGO® Movie. In fact, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directing duo behind the aforementioned animated feature, both make cameo appearances in this “brickumentary” alongside famous AFOLs (Adult Fans of Leo) Ed Sheeran, Dwight Howard, and Nate Parker.
But don’t expect it to be a sequel. Instead, think of it as a companion piece that, like every LEGO brick, fits perfectly.
With the approval and support of the company itself, A LEGO® Brickumentary aims to be the consummate LEGO documentary by informing audiences not only about the history of the LEGO Group, which dates back to its beginnings as a carpentry business in 1930s Denmark, but by also introducing the diverse fanbase of KFOLs (Kid Fans of LEGO), TFOLs (Teen Fans of LEGO), and AFOLs from all around the world.
From a street artist who decorates historical sites with his “patch work” to a budding filmmaker who is attempting to make the greatest stop-motion brickfilm ever, Junge and Davidson’s eye-opening documentary gives us stories and faces behind a community that is brought together by its shared passion for creating.
I had the privilege of speaking with both filmmakers to talk about the narrative challenges of making the documentary, breaking societal norms for age and gender, and the international phenomenon known as LEGO. Check out the full interview below.
Unlike most narratives, A LEGO® Brickumentary doesn’t really follow a central human character that the audience can invest in. Instead, to fill that void, you have a collection of short stories about these various people who use LEGOs in unique and creative ways. Was it a challenge to balance all of these characters into one narrative without one necessarily overshadowing the other one?
Daniel Junge: Most movies are like novels; that’s the kind of films that Kief and I have usually made that have more linear storylines. This was more akin to a collection of short stories, and so the challenge for us was first of all to know which short stories to film, ‘cause there’s so many stories in LEGO world. But then once we had those, the idea of weaving them into some kind of articulated narrative was really the biggest challenge of the film. And the way that we did that was to structure the film where it was ever expansive and keep getting bigger, move from inside LEGO to outside LEGO. But we knew that we had to have a voice, which is why we ended up with the narrator. And we also wanted to make that as fun as possible, so [we] animated the figure in a form of a LEGO Minifigure.
As is the case with any creative endeavours, you reach a point in the process where you have to kill your darlings. Were there any stories that you documented but then you ended up having to cut out during the editing process?
Kief Davidson: With any film there’s always casualties in the editing floor. This one was particularly difficult, because we had more storylines than could possibly make it into the film. So there were a couple that were difficult for us to cut out. One in particular was a story about FIRST LEGO League, which is robotics competitions for school kids, and there’s FIRST LEGO Leagues all over the country. It was too big of a storyline and didn’t fit editorially to the structure that we have in the film. Fortunately, most of those stories will be integrated onto the iTunes extras and DVD extras.
So when you think of the categories of toys for girls and toys for boys, it’s easy to stereotype. I did a Google search of toys for girls, and the obvious things came up -— dolls and dollhouses. And for boys’ toys, it was obviously cars and LEGO bricks. But as this documentary shows, particularly through the story of Alice Finch, the LEGO community isn’t just for boys. And although the LEGO community is supportive of breaking down the gender stereotypes, do you think that the community outside of LEGO has progressed in breaking down those barriers?
Daniel Junge: Well, I think LEGO, at its core, is genderless. Historically, it has always been in the adult community — men have geared more towards it. But I think that’s changing in some ways, because of LEGO’s response to that, but also because great women builders like Alice Finch, who’s not only arguably the best builder in the film but also such a role model to girls.
Although the film shows us LEGO’s positive impact around the world, it doesn’t really ignore the financial and creative troubles that the company has faced. To get back up, LEGO acknowledged that its fans have as much influence and ideas as the people who actually work for the company. One of the things you spotlight was CUUSOO, which allows fans to submit their creations and potentially be official LEGO products. What do you think makes the LEGO company and its community, this interdependent relationship, stand out from other brands that are also competing with it?
Kief Davidson: It was really this aspect that you’re bringing up here that ultimately pulled LEGO out of the verge of bankruptcy in 2003. They were losing track of who their fanbase was, and they were making too many parts; and some of their sets were becoming too simplistic. It was really once they opened up the door to the staple community initially and the community at large that ultimately they became a much bigger and better company. So when you look at Mindstorms, that was the first really big thing that changed the company. When they invited the AFOLs in to make that better, and they were hacking Mindstorms, it became a much more superior product.
One of the executives at LEGO talks about the fact that “99.9% of the smartest people in the world don’t work for LEGO.” And once they let those people in, it became better. CUUSOO is another great example. There’s amazing builders out there. And the idea that was shepherded by Paal Smith-Meyer was that if someone submits a project and it receives 10, 000 votes, it will then be considered by the LEGO company to become the next CUUSOO release. LEGO reinvents itself through opening the doors to its fans.
In this documentary, we see the LEGO System of Play being used for art, architecture, therapy and even space travel, which surprised me the most. The use of LEGO bricks for these disparate ideas prove the film’s underlying theme that humans are inherently builders. For each of you, was there any particular LEGO creation that you were most captivated by when you were making this documentary?
Daniel Junge: Can I just first say that you beautifully encapsulated the film more clearly than anybody has ever done? Well done.
(laughs) Oh, thank you.
Daniel Junge: It’s hard not to be overwhelmed and impressed when you see, for instance, the X-wing, which is the largest LEGO creation ever built. When you imagine the team and kind of resources that — and LEGO involved — in some ways, it’s more impressive when you see some of the creations that these fans invent that are made by people in their garages and basements. Sometimes the most exquisite things are just the very small, smaller and more elegant pieces that you don’t see across the room, but when you get up close and look at them — there was a woman who made a pillow out of LEGO. I know that sounds crazy, but she did; it was one of the most beautiful things that I saw.
Kief Davidson: With the physical creations, I agree with Daniel. But aside from the physical creations, what I loved about this film is the more unexpected storylines. For instance, a boy that’s helped with his autism through LEGO, because it helps him focus, how the LEGO brick has inspired people to become engineers and scientists. There’s so much to this film that’s been inspiring.
One of the most interesting parts of the documentary was when Søren Eilers was challenging the original estimate of how many ways you can make the bricks. Do you think that humanity has reached their peak in finding ways to use LEGO, or do you think it’s really that infinite that we haven’t seen it yet? Even though we’ve gone to space, there’s something greater we can accomplish with LEGO?
Daniel Junge: I mean, look, Søren, the mathematician, proved very successfully that there really is no limits here. The fact that what happens when you put nine bricks together, and all these configurations of nine, that they don’t have an answer for that means infinite possibilities that LEGO will never ever fall apart. That’s what makes the toy, the tool, so useful for society.