INTERVIEW: Director Tony Leondis on “The Emoji Movie” – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: Director Tony Leondis on “The Emoji Movie”

In July 2015, Sony Pictures Animation won a three studio bidding war for rights to make an emoji-based feature film. And just two years later The Emoji Movie is here. The fast-track project was put in the capable hands of director Tony Leondis (Igor), who also has story and screenplay credits on the film.

Jackson Murphy: There are thousands of emojis out there. How did you narrow down all of the emojis that exist into the characters you use for the film?

Tony Leondis: You know, it was really a hard choice because there’s so many emojis in the world, as you said, so… we had to pick our favorite 250. So we have 250 emojis in the movie, which is a huge cast for an animated movie. That’s a lot of characters to build. But we knew that if we wanted it to feel authentic, we needed all those emojis.

The story really dictated which emojis we would use to tell the main story. It all started there. We started with Gene, who’s played by the brilliant T.J. Miller, and we kind of wrote the part for him. It’s an emoji who has every expression, and he can’t help but show it! And that’s just so T.J. And it started from there.

JM: For some of the research for the movie, did you talk with some app experts and some cell phone experts – as far as getting some authentic flavor for the film?

TL: Yes. Absolutely, we did. We had an emoji expert, who is a professor at Berkeley. He came in. We talked to people at Sony manufacturing about what phones are gonna be; what’s it gonna be like? That’s one of the reasons why we did this movie in two years, which is very short for an animated movie, because technology changes so quickly. We knew we had to get it out there fast.

So yeah, we did a lot of research. And a lot of our research was just pulling up our emoji set on our phones and just staring at those darn emojis all day! (laughs)

JM: And so much of the fun of this movie is seeing the characters go through these different apps. How did you get the rights to Just Dance, Candy Crush, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube? You use so many in this film.

TL: It was a thrill because the apps really – all those places really wanted to be a part of it when we pitched the story. When we decided on the apps, it all had to do with the characters’ emotional journey. Because as we know… in movies, it’s about that character growth and how the characters change throughout the journey that make it the most satisfying – at least to me. And I think in the best animated movies, that’s what they do.

So every app had to challenge our main characters’ flaws and bring up the central question of the movie, which is all about identity. And so each character goes through it. Candy Crush is about Gene facing his worst fear of being deleted. Just Dance – he expresses himself for the first time. And for the first time, the world doesn’t look down on him for it. In fact, they love him for it. And he starts to feel okay. Each one we specifically designed to help the characters grow.

But as far as the apps, they were lovely about it. They really wanted to be a part of it. We had to turn apps away because so many people wanted to be a part of it.

JM: And one of my favorite scenes in the film is the Firewall scene because everybody when they’re at their computers is trying to put in a password and trying to remember it. And they get so frustrated when it comes to that. You captured that really nicely.

TL: (laughs) I’m glad you could feel my frustration through that sequence.

JM: I can never remember my passwords. It takes forever!

TL: I know. And you have to keep changing them, which is worse.

JM: How did you get Sir Patrick Stewart to voice the Poop emoji?

TL: I have no idea how we got him. You know what it is? He has a wicked sense of humor. That’s how we got him. We think of him as Professor X, the benevolent leader of the outcasts and the father figure or Captain Picard. But he really has a long legacy of comedy that we don’t get to see, or Shakespearean-like.

I once flew to New York just to see him in a play and flew back: his one man show – “A Christmas Carol”. He’s just such a fine actor. People don’t see that side of him. He has a wicked sense of humor. He got it right away. And he said “Yes” immediately. It was such a thrill. I was so nervous meeting him for the first time, and he couldn’t be more lovely and down to Earth.

JM: And he has the best lines in the movie. Tony, do you remember the first emoji you ever used in a text message?

TL: Woo, Jackson, that is a good question. The first one I ever used. I would probably… You know what? I don’t remember. Isn’t that awful? Making this movie, I used the nervous face emoji a lot because we made it in two years. So there was a lot of like, “Oh my gosh! How [are] we gonna get that sequence locked and into production by next week? Nervous face, nervous face, nervous face!” But now, I’m using sunglasses a lot because… the work is done. It’s chill. It’s time to chill.

JM: You’ve talked about identity and identifying with characters. Which emoji character in the movie would you say you identify with the most?

TL: I would say the character of Gene – growing-up different. And I think kids all feel different no matter who they are. I think in today’s world… the idea of other and exclusion and being afraid of differences, I think, unfortunately, that’s something that’s rearing its ugly head in today’s world. And that’s what I wanted to make the bigger allegory about.

For me, I grew up a Gay kid. My dad’s a Greek Orthodox priest. I always felt a little different. I always felt a little “other”. And then I realized everyone feels “other”, even if you’re Black or Muslim or Mexican or Jewish or Christian. Everyone feels other. And I think that’s the universal story. And then you realize – hopefully you grow up and realize you’re okay just as you are. And we’re all the same at the end of the day. We’re all the same.

JM: That’s so powerful. So if you’re not really an emoji user, should you still see “The Emoji Movie” – and what are those people gonna get out of the film?

TL: I guess it’s like any animated movie. You don’t necessarily need to love emoji’s to love this movie because the themes throughout the movie are much bigger and more powerful than just emojis. People always ask, “Why are emojis so popular? Why does everyone love emojis?” And for me, I know it’s corny, but I’m a corny guy, in this world of technology, the human heart has found a way to connect.

Ice Cream, Cookie, Poop and Luggage in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s THE EMOJI MOVIE.

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy is a movie critic and entertainment columnist. He is the creator of the website, and has made numerous appearances on television and radio.
Jackson Murphy
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.