The Mary Sue Interview: Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson, Directors of LEGO “Brickumentary” Beyond the Brick
Filmmakers Junge and Davidson on their LEGO Brickumentary
Oscar-winning filmmaker Daniel Junge (About Face) and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kief Davidson (Open Heart) made a dramatic turn in the tone and style with their new film, Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary. The two have dived into the dramatic and overwhelming world of LEGO communities, especially the adult fans whose artistic passion and expression comes from building with the iconic brick. Everyone from mathematicians to artists, master builders to filmmakers, are profiled (not to mention a brief visit to the set of The LEGO Movie). The enjoyable documentary takes the near impossible task of making a documentary for families…which might be why they didn’t call this A LEGO Documentary. TMS’ Lesley Coffin spoke with Junge and Davidson about their film and the many, many uses of LEGO.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): What were your personal experiences with LEGO?
Daniel Junge: I was a LEGO kid for sure. Spent many hours sprawled out on the carpet putting things together with my brother.
TMS: Were you a set kid or did you just have the big bucket like me?
Kief Davidson: I’m of the mindset that the CEO of LEGO subscribes to. Make it once and then break it and free build from there. That’s what happens in our household.
Junge: Mine was make it once and then lose it in the shag carpet and never find it again.
TMS: And make your parents mad when they stepped on one?
Junge: No, the shag was so thick we really didn’t have to worry about stepping on them.
Davidson: For me, I’ve had sort of a re-awakening through my son’s eyes and then making the film. Just seeing all these builders’ passion for LEGOs.
TMS: You have a scene in the film of the production of The LEGO Movie in production. What was the overlap for the two films?
Junge: They were being made at the same time, but we didn’t know what they were up to exactly, especially how the animation would look in that film.
Davidson: The first time we really got a sense of what they were doing was when we literally went to the set and saw what the master builders had constructed. And it’s still a very small part of this film, but we were happy to see some similarities in both films. I look at that film as something kids and adults can watch together and really enjoy, and it was always our goals to make a movie that families and kids of all ages could watch together. Which is hard to do.
TMS: Especially with documentaries, which are rarely made with kids in mind.
Junge: This isn’t a documentary…it’s in the title.
TMS: What was the aim or thesis statement you went into the film with.
Junge: The initial kernel of an idea was really to look at the LEGO community, which would have probably made it more of an adult film than we have now. I actually started the project as a community film and approached LEGO a little later, and they said yes. So we suddenly had a film that looked at LEGO from the inside and outside, which made it a massive undertaking. That is when we were really off and running, and Keif is a filmmaker I’ve long respected and we’ve know each other from the festival circuit and decided to collaborate on this project.
TMS: Did you have any familiarity with the LEGO community that goes to these conventions before hand?
Junge: Only in the smallest way.
Davidson: We’d heard about them but we were both blown away when we actually showed up and saw how big and exciting these things get. It’s like someone who goes to their first Comic-Con. You hear about it but when you actually see it, it’s like, wow. But the conventions are more controlled than Comic-Con because there is a singular focus on LEGO. But what was surprising was how many adult fans of LEGO there are. It isn’t parents bringing their kids, its adults going there on their own and they are as excited as the kids.
TMS: And some of the people are laser focused on participating in one event and wait all year to compete. How did you select the individuals to focus on at these conventions?
Junge: it was hard, it really was. There were some people whose absence would have been conspicuous. Like Nathan Sawaya and Adam Reed Tucker from LEGO Architecture felt like two people who had to be included. And when we got to the conventions, there were some names that rose above others among builders. Alice Finch of course comes to mind. She’s as good a builder as anyone we encounter in the film and of course, she gave us the opportunity to address the gender gap which was an issue we wanted to address. But the bigger issue really is, when to close the door. There were some stories and builders we loved, but only so much you can cram into a 90 minute film
Davidson: But we were also concerned about focusing on different topics. So when we wanted to approach LEGO as an art form, we needed to find one or two artist to represent that group. We aren’t going to have 20 different stories about those artists. Because the premise of the film is essentially, what is LEGO? Is it more than just a toy? So we needed to find characters who used LEGO differently.
TMS: Did LEGO or the convention organizer recommend people to reach out to or get you in touch with people?
Junge: All the time.
Davidson: Especially at the conventions. We’d been hearing about Alice Finch for months before going to Seattle and then she showed up with this massive Rivendell.
Junge: At a certain time, we literally thought “we can’t take anymore suggestions.” But that is just a reminder of how die-hard this community really is.
TMS: Alice is a really interesting character in the film because she represents an issue regarding the gender gap that LEGO is still dealing with, but gender aside, what she makes is incredible and she has won the prize three years in a row which is record setting.
Davidson: It was just great. We talked early on, we want to find a woman builder, but to find out that one of the best builders in the world is a woman was a bonus. And is a woman who is a very outspoken advocate about encouraging girls to build, she was exactly the type of person we were looking for.
TMS: Were you conscious early on about addressing issues like the gender gap and the financial struggles LEGO had a few years ago with too many figures and not enough parts to build with, to make sure you were giving an informed, well rounded view?
Junge: We both come from backgrounds as filmmakers, looking at serious issues. And this wasn’t going to be that kind of film, and we were conscious of that fact. We wanted this film to be fun. But there are issues that are still important and hopefully, the film explores some ideas while still being fun. And LEGO has admitted there has been a gender gap they are trying to fix. But we wanted to explore that issue in a positive way by finding some of these talented women.
TMS: Alice and most of the people in the film have great presence on screen and are very good at articulating why they have a passion for LEGO. Were there people you spoke with who were great builders but just struggled during the interviews?
Davidson: It wasn’t necessarily that people weren’t right on camera…
Junge: Although there were some pretty geeky guys. Amazing builders, but there were some people whose form of expression really is LEGO, and not speaking, which we need as well on camera.
Davidson: The characters primarily needed to be relatable. I know some people in the video game industry who are the same way. They speak a different language. So we tried to find characters who could express their passion.
TMS: I want to commend you guys, because there is a massive celebrity around LEGO and a lot of famous people who do talk about liking LEGO and memories of playing with LEGO. But you only included three or four of those people, and it was a relatively brief section of the film.
Junge: We didn’t want a roll call of celebrities talking about LEGO. We could have had that, since it is such a famous, beloved product. But, we also wanted to indicate the fact that there are some notable people who are as passionate as the people at these conventions. But the most important thing was to find those people from very disparate paths in life. So we end up with a very irreverent filmmaker, a young pop star, and one of the most intimidating ball players in the NBA.
Davidson: My biggest disappointment was not getting to see them build. It would have been pretty cool to have filmed Dwight Howard in his house with his LEGO. That would have been cool.
TMS: One of the things I did notice, and wasn’t sure if it is the case, is a certain lack of diversity at these conventions. Is that the case?
Davidson: It really depends on the conventions you’re at. The Chicago convention is very diverse.
Junge: I think it is becoming more diverse, but it probably has more to do with economics than diversity. LEGO has been more associated with affluence because it is an incredibly expensive hobby, and the builders who go to these conventions spend a lot of money on LEGO. But I think that is changing. We actually wanted to shoot a story in Africa about a program which sends LEGO bricks to different communities, and that was an interesting story too. LEGO is making efforts to be a more economically diverse toy.
Davidson: And I think it has made a big difference because of how many schools use LEGO in the classrooms. Throughout LA, where I live, there are LEGO after school programs and first LEGO leagues. And it is very expensive, so for kids whose families can’t afford to keep buying, they are getting exposed in schools. It’s also this great way for kids to learn about mathematics and science. First LEGO League, kids are learning about science and robotics through LEGO. And that was impressive to me. There are over 1000 of these leagues in the country.
TMS: The most touching scene in the movie for me was the time you spent in the classroom with the kids who have Asperger and autism, who love building and are developing social skills. Were you aware of the initiative for using LEGO for therapy?
Davidson: I did, because when my child was starting to use a pencil, he was having a difficult time holding it correctly and his hands were getting tired. He didn’t need physical therapy, but our doctor suggested introducing LEGO to him. Turned out, he’s double jointed and he would pull his thumb too far back when he held the pencil. And using LEGO really helped him. It was really cool to see. So I had heard about the autism study, as well as LEGO being used as part of physical and occupational therapy.
TMS: The scientific study is actually fascinating. Has LEGO embraced being a toy that is educational and therapeutic? Are they donating toys to schools?
Junge: Yes. They have embraced the different uses, but are very careful about what they say about its benefits. They aren’t going to come out and call their toy a cure for anything. But they recognize the fact that people are using their toys in ways they never expected which are useful and helpful. So when they can, they will donate or make their bricks more available for those educational uses. I don’t think they will start touting the medical uses, because they are first and foremost a toy company.
Davidson: I do wonder if we surprised LEGO about anything in our film.
Junge: Me too. This is just conjecture, but I think they knew about the individual things in our film, but seeing it in a holistic way, compiling everything together, was surprising.
TMS: The proprietary nature of LEGO is really interesting, because they own the name and the patent, but there are individuals building customized items to fit into sets which they make money off of. Did you sense any tension between LEGO and these businesses?
Davidson: The business which makes figures with guns is in the film and LEGO hasn’t filed suit against them. LEGO has taken a stance that they will not manufacture certain types of weaponry, and never will. But they will not prevent someone like him from bringing that to people who may want it. At the conventions, his booth was by far the most popular selling booth. Because he’s making custom parts and seeing them all on display, your mind starts thinking about what you could do with them. So once LEGO started opening the doors to the adult community, the hackers with Mindstorm and LEGO Architecture, this has just been the natural progression of the company, and they have accepted it.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]