An interview with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019) director Rob Letterman. Conducted by phone on May 3rd, 2019, and transcribed by Jeremy Williams.
Chris Mirjahangir: How did you come onto the project? Was it in development or were you there in the beginning?
Rob Letterman: It was in development, so Legendary Pictures and the Pokemon Company were already sort of set on making Detective Pikachu a live action movie. The game was also in development so it was kinda of a parallel track. So that was already happening when I got the call.
Mirjahangir: How long did it take you to work on the story and everything before getting ready to shoot?
Letterman: I first engaged like at the end of 2016. And then we started shooting in 2018. So I was on it for like a while. Like it was a lot of development, a lot of not just writing on the script but also just like developing the Pokemon characters in advance. You know we put a full year of work into the designs of all the Pokemon. Working hand in hand with the Pokemon Company to get all the characters right. And have that all set and locked in before we started shooting.
Mirjahangir: Was it Legendary you worked with or was it also Legendary and Toho and Warner Bros? Like a big group effort?
Letterman: It was a big group effort between Legendary and the Pokemon Company during the development and production phase. That was all integrated together and all the different divisions of the Pokemon Company, and you know for sure Toho and Warner Bros. during the whole marketing and distribution. And getting the word out, like everyone just sort of went big on this. It’s pretty amazing and humbling to see it.
Mirjahangir: Were you a fan of the series and everything, the games and stuff going in?
Letterman: Well I’m slightly older, so I just missed it. But my kids are huge fans, so I as a parent, I went deep on Pokemon. My kids love the cards, the toys, the games. The T.V. show was just hitting Netflix so they binge watched that and all the movies. You know I watched the Pokemon First Movie with my kids and you know, so, I was inundated with it via my children.
Mirjahangir: Did you try playing the games as well to try and get a feel for it?
Letterman: I played the games, my son and I play Pokken DX. He always chooses Mewtwo, I always lose. I mean it’s crazy. We’ve gone to the Pokemon world championship when it was in Anaheim. And you know it was, it’s fun as a parent to like connect on anything with your kids. So it’s great.
Mirjahangir: Well this is suppose to… If I remember correctly, this is gonna be part of like an expanded universe. Are you in talks for another one?
Letterman: I mean I would love to do another one, you know I’m very superstitious so I don’t want to jinx anything. The first movie has to work before that happens. But yeah, if we’re lucky enough to be able to do another one, I would jump at the chance.
Mirjahangir: How did you decide which Pokemon would go into the movie and were there ones you wanted to put in but you couldn’t?
Letterman: Well there’s… I mean a hundred I wanted to put in, but I couldn’t for budgetary reasons. We just we just ran out of money. But uh, you know the ones that are in there are a combination of them, because it’s based on the Detective Pikachu game, there’s a certain set of Pokemon that are inherent in that. Like Ludicolo and the Aipom are baked into the game. And then beyond that, I wanted to get a lot of the first generation Pokemon characters so that you know there’s a nostalgia factor for people in their twenty’s and thirty’s who grew up on it. And you know having the Pokemon that they remember and love being represented in the movie, and then you know just working with the Pokemon Company and all the original creators on kind of narrowing down the list and working with Eric, our visual effects supervisor, on which characters we could best represent in photo real live action. You know, just kinda combing through the list that way and it was a combination of all those things.
Mirjahangir: Ryan Reynolds having him play Pikachu. I’m curious because you know he does a lot of, you know there’s a lot of jokes in there. Some jokes work, some don’t. You have a test audience to see what’s working. And I’m curious like what his process was cuz I saw he was on set for what, three days running lines?
Letterman: Yeah, he was on set for three days and so the pivotal scenes that you know we thought we would need him there for just to get the chemistry between him and Justice right. But before all that, we rehearsed quite a bit and Ryan, you know, he scrubbed through the script to make sure that Pikachu’s dialogue was fitting with, you know, his ideas. So he played a part, um, in just the script stage. Then Justice and I worked with him, we kind of workshopped for two days in L.A., the script, and just try to you know land the characters and the chemistry that way. And see, you know, improv and let Ryan riff and let Justice riff and then I took all that and reworked the script so it reflected those workshop days. And then we had a… he was there a week before we started shooting and we did a full stage play with the… He had a facial capture helmet rig thing on. And then we just kind of went through the whole movie, let them act it out like as a stage play. With Justice, Ryan, Katherine Newton, and a mime. Um, and so by the time we had those days on set while we were shooting we had… there was a lot of work that lead up to getting to that moment.
Mirjahangir: The stage play aspect I think would be a great Blu-Ray extra *laughs* just to see it.
Letterman: You’re right, I don’t know why we…
Mirjahangir: Just to see it that way would be great.
Letterman: Someone’s got to dig it up! You’re so right, it should be in there. It would need to be like edited into something, but uh, the whole movie is, there’s a version of the whole movie with those guys just sitting in chairs, walking around, a weird mime performance, Ryan with a crazy thing on his head. It’s a strange version of the movie. *laughs* That exists.
Mirjahangir: Can you request that, like you know what, let’s make this available for everybody.
Letterman: Probably, but we’ll see how the movie does.
Mirjahangir: That would be great.
Letterman: If it’s worthwhile, maybe we’ll dig it up.
Mirjahangir: How many versions of Pikachu were there in the design process? How long did he take to get right?
Letterman: He took about a year to get right. There’s a lot that went into Pikachu designing. Oh my gosh, fur, no fur, short fur, long fur, different fur. You know all the slight variations of the color yellow. I mean endless work, I mean there’s what people probably never know is that there is a skeleton with muscles on it, a skin on the muscles. You know, the fur is every hair of Pikachu is interacting with every other hair and you know the eyes have like really sophisticated computer simulation with light that refracts, all real world physics are happening in there. It’s a really really sophisticated CGI character that took a full year to develop. And this is before we start shooting.
Mirjahangir: Oh yeah I mean it looks great, yeah, oh wow! So did you hone it kind of a little more in post just to kinda…
Letterman: A little bit but we had to nail it.
Letterman: Otherwise, the performance from the actors would be, if it was off by a millimeter it would just, the whole thing would fall apart.