A few months ago, Sony Pictures had an early press presentation for The Emoji Movie. Tony Leondis (Igor, Lilo and Stitch 2), the film’s writer and director, introduced the characters, explained the basic premise, and showed us several extended clips of the film. The Emoji Movie stars comedian T.J. Miller as Gene. He’s supposed to be a “meh” Emoji, but can’t control himself to be just one thing. Gene lives in the smartphone of Alex (Jake Austen), a fifteen year old teenager. When Gene has issues being just “meh“, he’s forced to go on the run with Jailbreak (Anna Faris). They navigate the wild and varied world of apps to find Gene’s true personality.
From Sony Pictures, The Emoji Movie is packed with symbolism and wicked double entendres. Each Emoji has a distinct personality that fuels their dialogue. Patrick Stewart costars as Poop, everything he says and does has a scatalogical bend. The potty humor is meant for children, but the film has quite a few messages to convey. The most important is to be yourself in a world that may not appreciate or understand you. The impetus of this story comes from the personal life of Tony Leondis, who struggled with being homosexual in his youth.
The clips we saw weren’t quite finished because the film was still in post-production. They gave most of the story away, so I’ll skip describing them. Just imagine if your phone was its own universe and Emojis had the ability to enter any application. The premise is clever and definitely timely. Anyone who spends more than a minute each day playing with their phone will get the humor.
T.J. Miller joined Tony Leondis for our interview. T.J. had just come back from the Cannes Film Festival. He’s a high energy and loquacious guy, exactly what you would expect from his comedy routines. Both men were very proud of The Emoji Movie. They wanted to reinforce the themes and serious undertones of the story. It’s loaded with humor, but does have a message of inclusion and individuality. Please see below our full interview with T.J. Miller and Tony Leondis.
Great presentation Tony, I laughed myself silly. The Emoji characters are really funny and clever.
Tony Leondis: That’s so nice, thank you. It’s easy when you have T.J. in a movie being so brilliant.
T.J. Miller: It was such a fun a movie. I just saw it before I went to [coughs] Cannes Film Festival. I love the pacing. I love that it is cinematic, the transition to the Emoji world, back into the human world. It was done beautifully. In animation, you don’t know what the movie is until you see it. My wife, Kate, has a small cameo. She plays Hard Eyes in the film. We got to see it together. I was so surprised by the hard jokes…
Hard jokes? What does that mean?
T.J. Miller: (laughs) Well, in animation, a soft joke is about visually stunning. It’s not romping comedy. The best animated films which are funny, includes both. And the hard jokes just don’t come from me. Pooptrick Stewart, as I’ve been calling him internationally, is very funny. Steven Wright, who is just one of the greatest stand-up comics…
He’s hilarious in the clips. His dry delivery is so great.
T.J. Miller: He’s so brilliant. Jen Coolidge, who plays my mom, also does a great deadpan. At the beginning, you do wonder how the dry delivery is going to do. Is it going to get old? It’s a credit to them that it’s so dynamic. Look at Maya Rudolph, she always has to be smiling while doing her delivery. It could be grating, but it’s really funny. I just feel each person is so funny. We were so lucky to have Anna Faris. We did Yogi Bear 3D…the highlight of my career…been downhill ever since. I’ve known her for a long time. We are very close. Her voice has this great brightness. It’s like her eyes. She has this wonderment in her eyes. Jailbreak has to be a lot of different kind of women in this movie. She’s overt, she’s layered, her performance is great and funny.
Tony, is this film an allegory about your life? You mentioned before that it sort of reflects you coming out about your sexuality?
Tony Leondis: I guess everything you create is an allegory for your life. Yeah, it is. I think what animated movies do now, which is lost in a lot of films, is metaphor. People are very literal now in filmmaking. There isn’t a lot of metaphor except in animation. This was a great way to talk about the other, exclusion. I also think when you grow up as the kid who’s different, you think you’re the only one. Then you realize everyone feels different…and other…especially in the world today. The current climate, being the other, exclusion, it’s really a topical theme to explore. Shouldn’t we be able to appreciate each others differences and live together? It is my story, but today, I feel it is everyone’s story.
Tony Leondis: I’m trying to so say that I don’t have to change for the world to accept me. Can I change the world for the better by being who I am. It’s about authenticity of self. Each character has their own journey of identity. Jailbreak has one, it’s kind of a secret. It talks about how women are portrayed in the Emoji set. Breaking the glass ceiling, which your character literally does, another metaphor. High Five’s journey is one of wanting fame…
T.J. Miller: Right, it’s about wanting likes and followers.
Tony Leondis: T.J.’s journey is one of friendship, being loved for himself. It’s about embracing who you are. And embracing others as they are.
T.J. Miller: Little did we know how important it was for girls and Jailbreak…
Tony Leondis: T.J. don’t say the twist! (laughs)
Don’t worry this interview is under embargo. All secrets are safe. Go on.
T.J. Miller: (laughs) What’s great about the film is that it is broad. People will find their issues within the metaphors of this film. I love the animated space, obviously. I’m all about it. When they asked me to do this, I really wondered what is this movie going to be. Then Tony laid it all out. I couldn’t believe how inventive it was. Even the idea of leaving the wallpaper and entering other apps. The Spotify world has music, where the music is literally a stream.
Tony Leondis: We had you then? (laughs) I didn’t have to work that hard.
T.J. Miller: Yes, you had me at streaming. It’s really important to me to do original properties, new ideas, new stuff. I think it’s great when studios find franchises. I’m part of a few successful ones. But, movies that are imaginative like this, that’s why I’m so excited. People are going to be blown away by the look and the pace when they see it. It has comedy and heart, but really important is the pacing. Sometimes, animated films are not paced quickly enough. I was able to bring a lot of comedy to this movie. Tony trusted me. He believed in me. He knew I could add heart…as all of us west coast, Hollywood a**holes say. The messages are important to kids. They are timely.
Let’s follow up on that Tony. Talk about managing T.J.’s improv ability? What was he able to add to the script?
Tony Leondis: He’s a very unusual actor.
[Both laugh hysterically.]
Tony Leondis: No, he’s very, very focused. I think that people don’t think of T.J. as being focused because he’s so expressive and out there.
T.J. Miller: I am a known lunatic in Hollywood.
Tony Leondis: He is like a razor, so sharp, so on point. We almost read each others minds on this.
T.J. Miller: It was an easy going collaboration.
Tony Leondis: He did re-writes. He not only came up with jokes for his character, but the others too. In animated movies, you have to laugh, but you also have to cry. Walt Disney used to say with every laugh their is a tear. I knew how truthful T.J. is from his performances. He has this soft, chewy center that you need to hold one of these movies. It can’t just be funny. That’s what T.J. has. All of his improv made what was there better. It was about making what was there funnier and passionate. He breaks my heart in this movie. He makes me cry every time I watch it.
T.J. Miller: It’s easy to elevate material that is already good. As I began to see the script…I know my voice…I’ve done the T.J. Miller stylings for a long time. I’ve done a lot of voice over. I’ve been in the booth for many, many hours. He’s right, I am focused. What are we trying to achieve here? What are we trying to express? We would dance around options and slowly make our way to the best thing. But then only Tony can know what to animate. He selects the best things. It’s not about ego or who’s right. It’s about what is the best can we give to the animated space. I really think it’s a grand slam.
Tony Leondis: The first day we recorded T.J., he was like, I have some notes. He pulled out this notebook. Do you remember this?
T.J. Miller: I’m sure I do…not. (laughs)
Tony Leondis: He had so many thoughts how to make it funnier, connect in a better way. It was thoughtful. It was all about movie first, ego last. From when he sat down, we were like, this guy’s amazing. He did his homework.
T.J. Miller: I don’t think that anyone expects me to be prepared. From my persona, they think I’m going to be a blowhard that insults everyone in the room. He’ll be stoned. He won’t have read the script. It’s quite the opposite. This sh*t is important to me. They’ve given me an opportunity to be at the center of an animated film. I do comedy not for myself. I think life can be a really tragic endeavor for everyone. The best thing I can do is to help people laugh, lift them up. The Emoji Movie transcends barriers. I’m a commercial artist. I like big movies to move people. I am not a cynical hipster. In this movie, we’re saying that “meh”, I’m over everything is not cool. Be yourself, be embarrassed, be scared, laugh, cry, that’s what we do in the film. If someone spends their time and money to see our film, I want to make sure it’s an A-plus performance from my side. We’re trying to move the moral compass, but not in a preachy way. Kids see these movies again and again and again. We have an opportunity to have a voice in their development. And I think we’ve used that the best we can here. We have no agenda apart from being funny, progressive, and inclusive.
This film has been put together fairly quickly for an animated film. Was it difficult to get Facebook, Candy Crush, all of these huge apps to participate?
Tony Leondis: We had to actually push app people away. We just wanted to tell a story that would make people laugh and think. I’m thrilled that so many apps are in it. Everyone was lovely, they want their apps to be seen in what’s best for the story. We worked really hard to make the apps work with what the characters are doing emotionally.
How does Candy Crush and Just Dance influence the characters?
T.J. Miller: Just Dance is so awesome. (laughs) What until you see it. I swear it’s hilarious.