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Producers of Lego Movie 2 Discuss What Asian American Representation Looks Like Behind The Camera

Lego Movie 2
(L-R) Unikitty (ALISON BRIE), Benny (CHARLIE DAY), President Business (WILL FERRELL), MetalBeard (NICK OFFERMAN), Emmet (CHRIS PRATT), Lucy/Wyldstyle (ELIZABETH BANKS) and Batman (WILL ARNETT) in a scene from the animated adventure “The LEGO® Movie 2: The Second Part,” from Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Animation Group, in association with LEGO System A/S, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy: Warner Bros Pictures

By Erin Wen Ai Chew

When you think of The Lego Movie, it is easy for your mind to devolve into an idea that this movie is one only for kids. Nevertheless, if you saw the first movie, you know part 1 highlights the relationship between father (Lord Business played by Will Ferrell) and son (Emmet Brickowski, played by Chris Pratt). The Lego Movie 2 – The Second Part focuses on the relationships between siblings, with comedic adventures which is unique to The Lego film franchises. It is this continual theme of family relationships, combined with both kid and adult humor, which makes the film appeal to audiences of all ages.

So what is the second installment about? Well it has been five years and The Lego universe has experienced periods of peace and harmony up until the Lego Duplo invaders from outer space invade their universe. It is up to Emmet, Lucy and Batman to save their beloved universe from these space invaders. Definitely an entertaining film to take your family to watch. However, the primary purpose of this piece is not to give a review, nor is it to recount what happened in the film (that you can go out and watch for yourself). This piece will focus more on what goes on behind the scenes in creating the Lego reality by talking to three of the producers of The Lego Movie 2, and yes, all three are Asian American. Producers Dan Lin and Roy Lee are the producers who were responsible for bringing The Lego franchise animated films to our screens and with this second installment, animator Jinko Gotoh was bought on as a producer. I spoke to them about what went into bringing a child’s imagination to life as well as the state of Asian/Asian American representation behind the scenes. Discussions of representation in Hollywood usually revolve around representation in front of the camera, but just as important are the decision makers behind the scenes.

Discussing The Lego Movie 2 – The Second Part, I was curious as to how Lin, Lee and Gotoh would personally describe the film. What do they feel is the sticking point and the essence to this sequel was – and what makes it different from the first part.

Lego Movie 2
(L-R) Green Lantern (JONAH HILL), Superman (CHANNING TATUM) and Lex Luthor (IKE BARINHOLTZ) in a scene from the animated adventure “The LEGO® Movie 2: The Second Part,” from Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Animation Group, in association with LEGO System A/S, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

DAN LIN: It picks up where Lego 1 left off, looking at the relationship between a father and son and the problems they have not playing well with each other. In the second part we introduce new characters into their play adding in more family dynamics and new characters who go on a new adventure with new villains and obstacles.

ROY LEE: The Lego Movie 2 is an extension of The Lego Movie 1, where the first movie dealt with father/son problems and the second one focuses on adventure among siblings.

JINKO GOTOH: Lego 2 is a sequel to a major successful Lego Movie franchise. When it first came out, it was so special that no one expected branded content like Lego to come out how it did. It was definitely a fresh surprise. For a sequel, audiences expect the movie to really go into the “what’s next” realm and we hope that number 2 will fulfill this expectation.

The next question asked was about the origins of how The Lego Movie came to be. How the famous toy played by kids and adults for generations finally come to life and become an animated film?

DAN LIN: In 2009, Roy Lee and I went to Lego headquarters at Billund, Denmark to get the rights to be able to create the film. Lego as a toy has always done well in terms of its popularity and at the time, as a toy company it was up 25%. Therefore, we sold it to them saying that we wanted to build their story telling aspect and the way to do that was to make the right movie to capture that story and one, which will reach all audiences of all ages.

ROY LEE: Just to add to that, at the time Dan was an executive of Warner Brothers and later became a producer and that is when we really started to work together. When we proposed to make am animated movie about Lego, there was definitely interest from Warner Brothers to develop the screenplay for a Lego Movie.

JINKO GOTOH: My involvement started with this second part. Both Warner Brothers and Dan Lin reached out to me. Before that, I have never worked on a major movie sequel and thought that this was a great opportunity. I was so excited to get behind this movie and wanted to learn the challenges of working on a sequel.

At the core, Lego as a brand stands for “creativity, team work and the value of play”. Lego is a toy with endless possibilities, depending on how and what you build with it. I discussed this with the three producers and was curious as to how they were able to insert Lego’s core values into the second part.

DAN LIN: This is an interesting question. Firstly, both these Lego Movies are personal to us as it reflects our personal journey. If you think about it, it is based on how ordinary Emmet becomes extraordinary – this is the same for us, because all of us are on an extraordinary journey in creating this. The Lego Movie 2 is about siblings and mirrors how we play together with our siblings, particularly during teenage years where there are many difficulties. I feel this is how we were able to capture the core values of the Lego brand.

ROY LEE: I think we really looked at the idea of Lego and analyzed how children related to each other when playing with toys like Lego where it is about building something. We also compared what adults and children experience when playing with Lego with their siblings and that is how we came up with our concept.

JINKO GOTOH: Well I think we were able to do this because the first part was about the relationship between a father and son, whilst the second one is about the relationship and bond between a brother and sister. You can really take these core values of Lego and expand this to families and that is what we were able to do with the second part.

Lego Movie 2
(Center) Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (TIFFANY HADDISH) in a scene from the animated adventure “The LEGO® Movie 2: The Second Part,” from Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Animation Group, in association with LEGO System A/S, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy: Warner Bros pictures

 Now to the next major part of this piece which is looking at issues of representation in Hollywood BEHIND the camera. As mentioned earlier, the discussions over social media and in the public sphere about representation usually revolve around what is in front because that is the most visible. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that representation behind the camera is just as important and this is the discussion I had with Lin, Lee and Gotoh. I was interested in hearing their thoughts and have them reflect on their own experiences in reaching the career of becoming producers of a major animated film franchise and brand.

DAN LIN: There is definitely a long way to go in terms of seeing fair representation behind the camera and in the production team. If I really think about it I can really only think of myself, Roy and Jinko being visible producers of a major film. Of course, we have Justin Lin and James Wan who are producers/directors, but we definitely need more involved in producing and directing major films. We also need more women and more specifically Asian women in these roles. I hope that via advocacy around representation in front of the camera will also transform to seeing more representation behind the camera. Those of us who are in these positions need to really look at encouraging opportunities and diversity behind the camera.

However, I do not think there is necessarily a racial “ceiling” in senior positions behind the camera; it is more that it is hard to get started. If I had to redo my career, I would not know how to do it because it is hard – there are more film studios now than when I started in the industry. It also depends on what you want to do and it is about having a branded story to tell and how you propose to tell it, because you are essentially competing against major producers to get your story produced and developed. I think the best way to go about being a producer is to look at it in an entrepreneurial way and that is working out how to sell yourself. You also need to be able to take risks, face failures and conquer challenges in order to break through the ceiling.

ROY LEE: That is a great question! There are a few producers of Asian descent in Hollywood, but yes, we really do have a long way to go. However, there are a lot more producers emerging from movies made and developed in Asia. The major film studio systems are still a much-closed system, but now you have streaming services like Netflix who will collaborate and develop content with Asian producers. Eventually, it is inevitable that we will see more Asian representation behind the camera in Hollywood, but for now asides from some of the names Dan already mentioned, it is us who are the only ones in Hollywood with major studio deals.

JINKO GOTOH: There is definitely a long way to go. That is why I am so grateful to be a part of Dan and Roy’s team. I am also grateful that all of us three represent the major countries in East Asia from a heritage standpoint.

I have to say though, when we talk about the representation of women and more specifically Asian women behind the camera and in animation ( which is my specialty) we really have not seen significant change. I serve as the vice president of an advocacy group called “Women in Animation” and back in 2015, before movements like #TimesUp, we as a group made a declaration that we wanted to see 50/50 representation by year 2025 of women. We made this statement because at the time we learned about the animation industry that there were more females studying animation than males. However, these numbers were not reflected in the workforce. But back to talking about the representation of Asian women, in my day we were a rare breed. That is changing nowadays though, where we are seeing more Asian American women and men in animation and working in films, but we can still do better and that is what I hope will eventually happen.

Lastly, I asked the three producers, Lin, Lee and Gotoh what advice they would offer for up and coming Asian American producers as well as those who are just starting up in their careers.

DAN LIN: I would say just go out and do it. Start by finding the right talent, which will make your film production epic. Find writers and directors that match your ways of working and with whom you have strong chemistry. This will be the only way your story will be told with true authenticity.

ROY LEE: I guess it really comes down to getting great material and to be persistent. Fighting hard to tell your story as authentically as possible is the way to go, and build relationships with those who will be important in pushing your film to the studios. The world of Hollywood movie studios is a very hierarchical system and you generally will need to go through layers of executives before you reach the top seniority. But really, just go out and do it, and ensure your story is authentic. 

JINKO GOTOH: We have to be authentic with our story telling today – that would be my main advice. What we have now we did not have ten years ago in terms of the demand for authentic storytelling. Nowadays there is huge interest in stories, which brings in our Asian heritage and our experiences growing up Asian American.

 To end, I would encourage everyone reading this to go out, check out The Lego Movie 2 – The Second Part, and support a franchise, which was produced and developed by a team of Asian American producers. I learned a lot about what goes into being a producer from chatting with Lin, Lee and Gotoh and it definitely was a revelation for me in truly understanding what goes on behind the camera/scenes of animated films.

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