Home » Finding the Heart of ‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ with Michael Rianda, Phil Lord & Chris Miller – Exclusive Interview

Finding the Heart of ‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ with Michael Rianda, Phil Lord & Chris Miller – Exclusive Interview

by Chris St Lawrence
Katie Mitchell stands in the center of a collage from the many colorful visuals of the Oscar-nominated animated film THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES, directed by Michael Rianda and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

After being introduced to its dynamic and highly-spirited world almost a whole year ago, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is one of 2021’s most beloved films – period. Sprung from the mind of writer-director Michael Rianda and guided to the big screen by producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, The Mitchells‘ imaginative charm, whit, and character has earned it a rightful place in constant online conversation as well as a spot among the year’s Best Animated Feature nominees at the Academy Awards. 

Featuring the titular Mitchells family, the film follows Katie Mitchell, a prospective film school student just before her freshman year, as she navigates complicated familial relationships amidst the voids of technology and generational differences. “A masterfully crafted hodge-podge of art styles, colors, and characters,” The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a vivid display of rich storytelling – the perfect film for modern audiences.

Previously known for his work as a creative director and writer on Disney’s Gravity Falls, director Michael Rianda brought the film to life with the help of producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, whose storied history at Sony Animation included credits on countless films from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The Mitchells is but the latest in a line of releases from Sony Animation that further solidifies the studio as a leading innovator in the medium, further proving the importance of creative and artistic freedoms. In celebration of the film, we were joined by the trio for an exclusive interview where we discussed all things Mitchells, including the film’s innovative look, its stand-out main character, and how it feels alive

Michael, I’m curious if there’s an exact moment that you could pinpoint when the idea for the film first came into your mind? Or how you slowly came to develop it?

Michael Rianda: I actually have it on tape. I’ve listened to it, it doesn’t sound good or sexy (laughs). It was basically me trying to combine the thing I love the most, which is my crazy family, with this freedom that we had at Sony. It felt like, “Oh my god, this is like an open world. We can do whatever we want here.” It was incredible because there’s no house style. There’s no movie formula that we had to follow, so we got really excited.

Me and Jeff Rowe, the co-writer and co-director, wrote this crazy manifesto and stuff. We were like, “What if all the things we talked about in art school… we could actually do that?” It was really wild because we were able to do them. All of that stuff came together over the course of days, weeks, and months. Especially as the crew grew, it was really fun to get excited with them, just hyping each other up into this fever pitch. There was a whole world where the movie maybe wouldn’t have gotten made, but then Chris and Phil swooped in and were able to both lend their credibility/excitement and ideas to the movie – and make it way better than it would have been without them.

Working at Sony, where there’s no house style, feels like a really distinctive thing about this movie. It just is its own thing and has its own rhythm and form. How did you all come about developing that style?

Chris Miller: Well, I can tell you that when we came on board, Mike had already had a manifesto written about how he wanted to revolutionize animation.

Michael Rianda: There were a lot of question marks in the manifesto. Like, “maybe we can do it?????”

Chris Miller: I would say his excitement and passion reminded [Phil and me] of ourselves when we were making our first movie and just those limitless possibilities. We thought, “Oh, maybe we can steal his youth essence and stay young forever,” and be on the cusp by channeling that energy. So we had a lot of conversations about how anything is possible in animation; you can make it look however you can imagine, and there’s been a decade of people making movies that look the same. But now we have the ability and the responsibility to make this look like its own thing.

With Spider-Verse it was, “Let’s be inside a comic book.” So what should it be for this? [Michael] was really inspired by the drawings, paintings, and little Gif animations of a woman, Lindsey Olivares, who had already been working as a character designer on the movie. He’s like, “I just want the human world. I want it to be lumpy, bumpy, and irregular but observed, accurate, and true. I want it to look like this woman’s paintings and drawings, but in three dimensions.” Then we were like, well, let’s hire her as a production designer so that we can make it look that way.

A collage of the many vibrant visuals and colorful characters of the Oscar-nominated film THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES directed by Michael Rianda.
‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ courtesy of Netflix

Chris Miller: The humans are messy and sloppy, and irregular and imperfect. Then the world of power computers is sleek, elegant, and simple. That contrast was going to be what the movie was about. So it made sense for that to be what the visuals were, and then on top of that, Mike wanted to cover the movie with Katie’s personality in the way that kids are putting Instagram stickers on all of their things. And Lindsey had a way to do that so it could feel like the doodles of a 17-year-old girl come to life, and also feel handmade and personal – not clicky or “icony.” It felt like it was a window into her personality and emotions, and that all came together as this hectic mixed media, clunky but beautiful, gorgeous mess.

Michael Rianda: The other thing is that we’re trying to emotionally and dramatically tell the story. We were trying to portray humanity as a gorgeous mess. So we’re trying to show that the Mitchells are a gorgeous mess, and we’re trying to match the themes with the art style because it’s the celebration of humanity. How can we make every frame look like it was actually made by a person? – even though we were also using some of the cinematic wonders you get from the lighting of doing everything in CG.

When it came to the Mitchells-DiscussingFilm takeover on Twitter, it really made me realize how many people relate to Katie and how your movie strikes a chord with this really online film presence. What are your thoughts on how The Mitchells vs. the Machines feels different from its contemporaries and how it relates to real people, right now?

Michael Rianda: We tried to be really honest and authentic, because we have a lot of experience making stuff and hoping that people liked it and thinking, “Oh, this is terrible, but maybe if I make it better… oh Jesus!” I do think people really relate to the honest self-criticism that Katie has, as an artist. I think they notice, “Oh, she’s passionate like me, and she hates the first version of her art like I do.” We found that the more specific we were making Katie, whether it’s that she draws on her pants or that she’s LGBTQ+ or that she has a sweet relationship with her little brother, it made people feel closer to her. It’s like, “Oh, this is really what I felt like when I was 17.” You know, it’s sometimes hard to remember but we went in our writing tank (laughs).

A quote from producer Phil Lord over a family image from THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES that reads "Animated movies are not made by companies. They're made by people."

Phil Lord: Partially, the reason the movie feels like that is because the crew embraced the idea of behaving like film students and seeing the making of the movie as this big opportunity to try stuff and to not lean on tradition, or on the way you did the last movie. Culturally, we had built a little bit of that point of view with making Spider-Verse [at Sony], but Mike and his team really solidified that we’re not here to adhere to some kind of formula.

Animated movies are not made by companies. They’re made by people. And we wanted this movie to have lots and lots of personality. So because it’s about people and it’s made by people, we wanted to see the fingerprints and the messiness of that. We wanted the people that are drawn in the movie to have lumps and mistakes and not to be symmetrical and not smooth. We wanted the mark-making to also feel like it was made by a person and so one of the things we’re most proud of is that the movie comes across to people like it’s a person.

You’ve spoken a lot about how this “aliveness” comes from Katie Mitchell herself and the film’s LGBTQ+ representation. How did you go about introducing that to your story, and how do you feel about the reception of that?

Michael Rianda: It started really slow, because like I said, we were trying to be observational wherever we could. We were noticing that all of the art school girls that we were basing Katie off were our friends from art school, and most of them were LGBTQ+. That led to the crew being like, “Is Katie gay? What’s the deal?” So we talked to one of our artists, Lizzie Nichols, and a bunch of other LGBTQ+ team members and tried to figure it out with them, like “Would this feel okay?” And they were like, “Yes, do it! Are you nuts?!”

Then, along with them, we tried to figure out how to do it in a way that felt authentic. We got it wrong sometimes and they would be like, “Go this way, not that way.” We would oversteer at certain points, but it was really nice to ultimately work with them and get their thumbs up. I’m really moved and sort of bowled over when people say, “My daughter is gay, and this meant so much to her” or something. Because I think even Lizzie said, “Maybe if I saw this when I was 12, I would have felt less alone.” It was so heartbreaking to even hear that. That was like, “Oh my God, we have to do this” because if there’s anyone at all who feels a little bit less alone, that would be wonderful.

Phil Lord: We set out to make a movie that felt contemporary and had a character that felt like she was someone that you could see out on the street. It’s a fantastical movie, but it’s not a fairy tale. We wanted it to be relevant, and this is what families look like today. This is what families are. It was very important for us for this to be a normal family and for Katie and Rick’s problem to not be her sexual identity, right? We wanted it to be about something else, and just like it is in life, it should be no big whoop.

So that’s why we were quite circumspect in the movie to have a pretty light touch and not have the story steer into this because the story wasn’t about that. The story is about a parent and a child trying to see eye to eye, and we didn’t want to introduce to a child who’s watching this movie, the idea that there might be something about them that would be problematic for someone else in their family and make it harder for them to get along with their parents. We wanted to be really careful not to represent that to kids who are still learning about the world.

Katie Mitchell stands in front of an animated Lesbian pride flag in THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES, produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ courtesy of Netflix
The Mitchells vs. the Machines also has a nuanced approach to technology. You’re not heavy-handed with “phones bad” which is a pitfall that a lot of movies fall into. How did you settle on tackling this topic?

Chris Miller: Well, “phones bad” is such a trite view of the universe. It was important for us to show the idea that technology is with us and will always be with us; it’s not going away. It’s part of the family now. We’ve got to learn how to live with it in a healthy way, and then it can be used for great stuff. And it can be used for not-so-great stuff. So it was really important to all of us that we find a way to show that. Like Katie’s using technology to be in touch with like-minded people from around the world, and to make these crazy movies that she’s using software and computers to share them with. That’s really positive and really great.

Then, we also needed to show how [technology] can pull people apart and make them isolated – as well as bring them together. There’s a reason why the movie ends on a Zoom call between the family. Because now everyone has learned to sort of embrace technology and use it to stay connected to one another. And I think that’s a complicated thing to do, to tell a story with a nuanced theme. But it felt really important to do it right because just going like “Kids, get off your phones” is just a bummer. For everyone.

Michael Rianda: Also, just from my own personal experience… that’s how I discovered animation and met all these cool cartoonists and found my passion in life, and even realized where I wanted to go to school! It’s always been, for me, at least, this sort of source of joy, even though as I get older, I do see the negatives to it.

Phil Lord: Not me!

Chris Miller: It’s also how we made the movie. We made the movie on computers, and then we finished the movie over Zoom. So, you know, it’s kind of weird for us to be in a Zoom meeting going like, “Gosh, the internet, right? So bad.”

Phil Lord: But look, I mean, it’s just like making a movie in CGI. Your computer is a tool, and our connectivity is a tool and an opportunity. It’s just like a paintbrush, you know? You can make something beautiful or you can make a “kick me” sign. It’s just a really powerful thing. So we were always thinking about that while we were making the movie – a movie about the technology that we’re using. How do we use these tools that are so powerful to heighten our humanity instead of flattening or diminishing it? It was a really interesting metaphor for what the movie was about in the first place.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the recent news regarding the Oscars broadcast where certain categories are to be awarded and recorded before the main event. Most specifically, relevant being Best Animated Short.

Michael Rianda  I personally think it’s a bummer just because both, it’s really nice to honor those crafts and those filmmakers that are doing work that’s not as mainstream, and also, just as a viewer, it’s fun to watch someone win for something like Best Documentary Short. You get to see the best moment of someone’s life. It’s such good TV. You know, Nicole Kidman has won a bunch of awards. Like, she’ll be fine, you know? But it’s really cool to see some guy who’s like “This is it!” So I’m bummed, personally.

Chris Miller: It’s also a bummer for me as well. As a film nerd, I want to have more categories. I want stunt people and casting and all sorts of people to get recognition. I understand why they don’t want to have a 17-hour broadcast, but I love seeing people who do great work get celebrated.

Phil Lord: With respect, you know… I don’t envy trying to refresh the broadcast and make it relevant to everybody. That is a really interesting challenge, and many really smart people have taken swings at it with all kinds of different results. But I do have to echo these guys. I respect the effort everybody’s trying to do to make it relevant.

Personally, it is like, the greatest reality show. My two cents is that I love getting to know the people behind the scenes and getting to see them get recognized, and watch their spontaneous reactions and speeches – good and bad! I’m here for the bad speeches. I’m here for the good ones. When there’s a train wreck, it is great TV.

Chris Miller: I mean, people coming in with purple paisley cummerbunds and stuff? I just…

Phil Lord: I’m all here for it!

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is now streaming on Netflix

Read more on Awards Season 2022!

Follow writer Chris St. Lawrence on Twitter: @ey2studios

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