Interview: Chris McKay On Making ‘The Tomorrow War’ Today
Amazon’s July 4th blockbuster on Prime Video, The Tomorrow War, reunites star Chris Pratt and director Chris McKay, who previously worked together on The LEGO Movie. But those expecting another genre-spoofing comedy are in for a surprise. The Tomorrow War is an intense and dark sci-fi thriller, with Pratt as a war veteran turned science teacher who gets drafted into action to help repel an alien invasion in the year 2051.
It’s an interesting assignment for McKay, who followed up co-directing The LEGO Movie with The LEGO Batman Movie, and whose previously work is almost entirely in animated TV comedies like Robot Chicken and Moral Orel. When asked what attracted him to something so different from his earlier efforts, McKay talked about the films and filmmakers who inspired him to become a director. “I grew up watching Spielberg movies and Joe Dante movies and George Miller movies and John Carpenter movies and that sort of thing,” McKay told me. “So those are the things that rattling around in my brain.”
The movie that came out of his brain does bear some similarities to those directors’ filmographies, although fans who’ve watched The LEGO Batman Movie as many times as I have thanks to my oldest daughter’s obsession with the film, may detect an interesting parallel in the two movies’ structures. During our recent conversation over Zoom, I asked McKay about the similarities between the two features, whether he plans to return to animation in the future, and why he named his Twitter handle after an obscure director of B-movie westerns. (He also told me his plan for the now-canceled LEGO Batman 2, which you can read about in detail here.)
If someone had told me that you’d made a time travel film, I probably would have expected more of a comedy than an apocalyptic action movie. What was it about the material that appealed to you?
Obviously, I love comedy. If you were to read the original draft of the script that I read versus the movie you experienced, there's no comedy. Zero levity in the script, which was called Ghost Draft at the time. It's a very serious movie. And [screenwriter] Zach [Dean] did a great job. It’s why we’re all here, why we made the movie. Zach had a great blueprint, but there wasn't that access as far as levels of tone. I compare it a little bit to Children of Men — in a good way, I like Children of Men, but it very much was that kind of thing.
They wanted to make an all-audiences movie with The Tomorrow War, and so I said “Well, first off you have to add some comedy. You have to have some moments of levity. You have to be character and situational-based, it can't just be wacky comedy.” And the emotional stuff has to, you have to really dovetail the emotional stuff in the third act a little bit more. So those are some of the notes that I had coming in.
Chris Pratt was already attached, and when I was auditioning for Skydance and for Chris Pratt, I pitched Sam Richardson. I said, “Even if you don't hire me, hire Sam Richardson to at least play this part, because you're going to get some levity, you're gonna get some joy out of this movie. And that's what this movie needs. It's little moments like that.” So I hope that I credibly did the action and the tension and the suspense and the horror and all of that stuff, but that I also made the movie be a fun ride, because there were moments where there was a joke that sort of lifted you out of the proceedings and that kind of thing. So yeah, comedy is a great tool.
The LEGO Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War are very different films, but having watched LEGO Batman a million times with my daughter, I couldn’t help but think about it while watching Tomorrow War. And one thing I feel like they both share is this notion, especially in their third acts, that it’s not so much about defeating the bad guy in a fight. It’s much more important that the relationships and the tension between the heroes get resolved. Is that just a coincidence? Or is that something you’re deliberately putting into these movies?
Yeah, you know me so well at this point. [laughs] This is exactly my M.O. Even a character like Dorian, who on the page didn’t go through all the things — that was something we developed in script form, and with the actor Edwin [Hodge]. There were things I wanted to develop even with side characters like that, like the way Chris and his father connect in the third act. There was no “Volcano Kid” in the script that I read; we just had morose students talking about how there was no future. And I said “There’s gotta be somebody in the beginning of the movie who comes back later. You can’t have a guy who’s a teacher with students and then has to figure out a big problem, and you’re not going to access the kids? You’re not going to access his dad?”
There was a lot of stuff where I was like “No, bring these people back.” It turns the movie from a heist movie, or a man on a mission movie and dovetails the relationship between Chris and his father. You have Chris and the A story, the plot-based story, and the emotional, internal B story and have them dovetail together. Like you said, that to me is almost more important, doing that kind of thing. We’ve got great stunt people. We’ve got great visual effects. We’ve got all this other stuff. You have to find a way to make [the character] stuff work. That’s the most important stuff. That’s the stuff people will hopefully remember, and watch the movie again to re-experience.
The movie was originally made by Paramount but now it’s coming out on Amazon. If it had been released by Paramount, would it be any different than the version that’s streaming on Prime Video?
No, we had finished the theatrical version of the movie. We did the sound mix at Warner Bros., the Christopher Nolan stage. We mixed it for a theatrical experience. Skydance and Paramount were nervous about the theatrical marketplace at the time we were finishing the movie, so they got amazing offers from all of these streamers. And Amazon was the one who really stepped up and really wanted the movie. They really saw what the potential was for the movie. Obviously, I love the theatrical experience. I want my movies to show up in theaters.
But I’m really happy because we did mix a version for streaming. The HDR version of the picture is the one I feel most confident is going to look like the thing I saw in the DI — from a color standpoint, from a contrast standpoint, from the visual effects and the textures. That’s really exciting, that someone at home is going to get what I saw at FotoKem. So that’s really exciting. I can’t wait for people to experience it.
Looking around online, it seems like you have a bunch of different projects in the works, and almost all of them are live-action. Are you done with animation or do you see yourself returning to it at some point?
I definitely love animation. I want to return to animation. There’s a lot of different ways that could go down. There will not be a LEGO Batman 2 because LEGO is now over at Universal, but maybe there’ll be, like, LEGO Fast and Furious or LEGO Jaws or LEGO something that I could possibly work on.
I have to wrap things up, but as someone who’s followed your work, and follows you on Twitter, I just have to know: Why is your Twitter handle @buddboetticher? Are you just a huge Budd Boetticher fan?
There are a lot of Chris McKays out there, it turns out. [laughs] It was tough to get a Twitter handle. Once I couldn’t get “ChrisMcKay,” I just wanted something ... y’know Budd Boetticher is a filmmaker, to your point about the kinds of movies I make, Budd Boetticher was a guy who made movies about characters first. They’re very pulpy. They’re very sort of plot-driven on some level. But they’re also big character studies. There’s always something about Randolph Scott’s character’s relationship with his lost wife, or the way he lives his life, or the things he chose to do, that are really what’s in play in the movie. So, to me, that is a clue into the kinds of things that I like and the things I want to make.
The Tomorrow War is available now on Amazon Prime Video.