Rob Letterman on Detective Pikachu, keeping Ryan Reynolds PG, and what led him to direct the film.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Rob Letterman, a co-writer and the director of Pokemon Detective Pikachu. I spoke to Rob the day after the film premiered and we had a very lively conversation about all aspects of the film from working with Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds to what initially drew him to the project.
Please be warned that there is one part of this interview where we talk about the ending but I noted that its spoilers so just be warned that if you haven’t seen the film, you should definitely skip over the paragraphs where it implies that there are spoilers.
Scott Menzel: Good Morning, Rob, how are you?
Rob Letterman: I’m very good, how are you?
Scott Menzel: Doing great. Thanks for asking. So, it looked like a lot of fun last night at the premiere.
Rob Letterman: It was crazy. Not an easy place to get to, Times Square.
Scott Menzel: No, not at all. I saw all the photos, it looked like a blast. That leads me right into this movie. This is probably one of the best live-action family films I’ve seen in quite some time.
Rob Letterman: Oh my god, thank you so much.
Scott Menzel: No problem, honestly, I really dug it. I went into the screening and I didn’t know what to expect. I knew what Pokémon was because I have six younger brothers, so they played with the cards and watched the TV series. I remember taking them to see the first movie in theaters. However, personally, I didn’t have that deep connection to these characters and their story. But this film is just a joy to watch from beginning to end.
Rob Letterman: That’s amazing, thank you. I’m so flattered.
Scott Menzel: As a director, you’ve done a bunch of different projects over the years, and when reactions come out since we live in such a world where everything is almost immediate, what was your feeling seeing all of the positive buzz surrounding the film?
Rob Letterman: I don’t know yet. I hide under my couch to be perfectly honest with you, I’m so terrified all the time, so I haven’t been looking. I’m superstitious and I just hope people like it, so I haven’t really looked at everything.
Scott Menzel: No, I think that’s fine and especially the way that the world is right now, I feel like if you interacted at some point people would be like, “Oh, why is he interacting with stuff?” You’re probably taking the right approach.
Rob Letterman: I hope so. It’s mostly out of nerves, for no other reason.
Scott Menzel: I think the biggest compliment I can possibly give you is that this movie does a great job of being a fan movie and a non-fan movie because nowadays I feel like most movies don’t succeed at doing both. They either work for one and not the other, and you’ve managed to do both.
Rob Letterman: Oh my god, you’re so nice. I’m going to hire you as my publicist. This is one of the nicest interviews I’ve ever had.
Scott Menzel: I appreciate that. I’m a film fan and a critic so I am not afraid to give a compliment when I really like something. Anyway, throughout your career, I feel like you’ve been in the family movie world, you’ve directed Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens which were animated and then you moved into the live-action territory with Gulliver’s Travels and Goosebumps. Is there something about the family film genre that speaks to you?
Rob Letterman: I don’t know, you get in a career path where people hire you for what you do, and that becomes a highway that you’re just on. But for me, I grew up on the movies of the 80s, like the Back to that Future, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and all that stuff, and while maybe in today’s language those might be considered family movies, when I was growing up those were just movies for everyone. I really do love the all-audience film, and just the story, the human story, the tone of those films is something I really love. That’s the big influence for me in all the movies you listed that I’ve done. I’m never really making movies for kids. I’m a parent so I have to go see movies with my children too, so I can relate. These are films that are for adults as much as they are for kids. I love the experience of going to a movie with my kids and enjoying the movie that my kids are enjoying. That’s been the approach.
Scott Menzel: That’s a very good approach, and I also think that it gives you a great perspective because you’re making films from a movie lover’s standpoint. I grew up in the 80s and loved watching all of those films from the 80s. I love that decade. I think they’re just amazing and there’s something that’s lost today that we don’t have as much of anymore. They were so character driven in the 80s.
Rob Letterman: It’s so true. It’s really hard, it’s hard to get back, it was a golden age for that kind of movie, and it is lost. It’s all been dissected these days.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, and I feel like that’s a real disappointment because there’s so much focus nowadays on the visual aspect of everything, or in comedies the gross-out gag or whatever we can do pushing the envelope, that it seems a lot of filmmakers forget that it was all about telling a good story with characters that you love.
Rob Letterman: That is true, and that’s what it’s all about. That is true, for all movies of all genres.
Scott Menzel: I agree. You said you had kids, were you familiar with Pokémon prior to going into this?
Rob Letterman: My bank account was. My kids destroyed it with Pokémon cards, the video games, the anime, the movies, the TV series, the toys, and even the manga comic books. My house was filled with that stuff long before I even heard about the live action movie being made.
Scott Menzel: Haha, I think a lot of parents would say the same thing. Did you work with your kids at all as to what they would want to see from this type of movie?
Rob Letterman: I write at my house, I have a little office in my house, and so they’ll just pop in after school and look over my shoulder, so they got sneak peek at it. Or when I had to take them to work because we were juggling a soccer practice here or there, so they’ve been living with it the last two years as well and chime in different ways.
My son loves Mewtwo, and whenever with play Pokémon DX that’s the character he picks, so I get crushed every single time. There’s just no way of beating that one. My daughter loves Jigglypuff, and so yeah it snuck in. But on the same token, they haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’m waiting for opening weekend to take them to see it. We’ll see.
Scott Menzel: So do you get to be the world’s greatest dad because they’ll go to see this film and you can be like, “You know who made this? I did.”
Rob Letterman: They don’t do that. My adorable children still think of me as just dad, and I hope it always stays that way.
Scott Menzel: Oh that’s great. I’ve gotten that response from a couple of other people in the industry who’ve done big movies and have children. I’ve got a very similar reaction that their children don’t seem to really care either, they’re just like, “Ah that’s cool, dad. I liked it, but you’re still dad.”
Rob Letterman: Yeah. The good and bad of children is that they’re going to give you the honest answer whether you like it or not. You just are what you are. It’s great.
Scott Menzel: The selling point of this film, I think for a lot of the older audience for this movie is the Ryan Reynolds factor, which to me was the most nerve-racking thing about watching this movie because we have become so established that Ryan Reynolds is Deadpool who has a foul mouth and says whatever he wants. Was it hard to keep Ryan Reynolds PG on set?
Rob Letterman: The great thing about Ryan is you’ve got to let him loose. It wasn’t a problem. There were a couple of moments where he said stuff that I literally fell out of my chair laughing while at the same time knowing that’ll never see the light of day.
But yeah, Ryan’s amazing. He’s so funny, irreverent, subversive and all that stuff. But at the same time he is doing this for his kids too, he’s got two young daughters, and he understands the emotional side of the story and relates to it on that level, and is a filmmaker in his own right, and so he brought a lot of the heart and warmth to that character, as much as the comedy. It really wasn’t a problem.
Scott Menzel: That’s great. This is a spoiler but I didn’t see the ending coming, which I thought was surprising because my wife and I usually see things coming a mile away and both of us did not see that coming. But something that I personally love about the movie because I grew up in a house with foster children all throughout my life. Four of my brothers are black, and I loved the reveal that Ryan Reynolds is the father. Sorry, I’m really not trying to gush, but I’m a fan and a journalist, so when I really like something I’m just going, to be honest, and tell you. And when I really don’t like something, I’m also going, to be honest, and tell you.
But what’s so fascinating about this movie to me is that how you were able to do that so seamlessly and without a, “Oh my god, bravo, look what I did here,” it just felt natural when Pikachu turns into Ryan Reynolds at the end, you’re just like, “Okay, I got it”. There’s no, “Oh, the white guy has a mixed-race kid,” I just thought that was brilliant considering we live in a world where inclusion is a big part of the conversation. I love when it just happens naturally.
Rob Letterman: Listen, I’ll take you everywhere I go, man. I’d hate to do a movie you don’t like. Well, thank you. I’m so flattered. Yeah, it’s weird to talk about it because I always have to dance around the ending in these interviews because I don’t want to give it away.
But it is the reason I did the movie, the whole father and son story is really important, it’s the whole design of the movie, every scene is designed to make its way towards that ending. There are several screenwriters, myself included. But my big thing when I did my pass was to just do this father and son story. My whole pitch was the father he’s looking for has been with him this whole time, which is a line at the penultimate moment before we reveal it.
That was in the script, that was before Justice, and before Ryan. I didn’t look at it from a racial standpoint at all. I grew up in Hawaii so it’s all seamless to me. It’s just a big melting pot, my background, so it is what it is, and it makes no difference to me. But the fact that it’s Ryan and Justice is purely attributed to the merits of their skills.
Justice, I was a huge fan of because I’m a big hip hop fan and I watched The Get Down and I’m like, “Who is this guy? He’s awesome, I’ve got to get to know him”. I reached out early on to talk to him about this movie and he said, NO, and I was like, “What?!” I was chasing him down, I finally got him on FaceTime, and we hit it off. And then the worst part of that was I didn’t even have the authority to offer him the movie, he had to come back in and audition for it. That was awkward and weird, but it was really fun. He’s so gifted, he’s so gifted as an actor. He’s really, really impressive. I chased him down because of his skills with comedy and the real grounded performance.
And then conversely Ryan, there’s not a lot of guys who can do that kind of comedy and that kind of heart seamlessly. We actually did a test using a clip from The Change-Up, which we animated Pikachu too, and once that happened, this is before we shot to Ryan, once that happened it was like, “That voice, that’s it. That is our Pikachu”. I went after those guys purely on the merits of them as actors, and it really didn’t matter how it looked on screen at the end. The emotion was right.
Scott Menzel: That’s a fascinating story, but you brought up a really interesting point, it was something that I was going to ask you. When you work on a movie like this and there are multiple screenwriters on it, and I guess you did kind of answer this but did you split up certain sections of the script where you were going to revamp and then how do you get that final copy of the script that you know you’re going to use?
Rob Letterman: Every movie is different. In this case, it was just different iterations. It wasn’t a bunch of writers sitting in the room. There was an original draft and then another person came in and did a pass on that, and then I came in and did the rewrite, and then I got really tied up as the director which I am more than happy to fire myself as a writer any day of the week.
I felt like bringing on other people to … it was an iterative process of people doing passes, but I ended up doing a lot of just rewrites all the way through, right up until, through post really. It’s an endless writing process for these kinds of movies. You’re always rewriting. When you’re editing you’re rewriting. It’s all about the story, so it never stops.
Scott Menzel: Thank you, Rob. Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you one last question? You mentioned earlier in the interview that you didn’t look at these types as family films, so going off that, is there an actor or a type of movie that you would really like to make that you haven’t been able to tackle yet?
Rob Letterman: Yes, of course. I dream of a day I make a movie that has no visual effects in it. I really do. It just would be the greatest thing ever, and I love visual effects. I would love to explore more mature material. I’ve pitched Ryan, I told him I’m available for Deadpool 3 anytime he needs me, and he said, “No, thank you”. I’m not sure if he was joking. I’m pretty sure he was serious. But no, all joking aside, I just love working and I love directing and love making things, so any opportunity to do something in any genre and any rating as long as the material’s good, I would jump at it.
Scott Menzel: Alright, well thank you so very much. Congratulations once again on the film
Rob Letterman: Thank you, man. It was great talking to you. Thank you for being so complimentary, it was really nice.
Scott Menzel: No problem whatsoever, it was a pleasure.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is now playing in theaters everywhere