If you been listening to The Creationists for a while, you know that I like to ask my guests about the inspiration for their creations. Sometimes it's a lightning bolt of imagination that gets a creation started, but sometimes it comes out of the tedium of a slow work day.
Indie filmmaker Justin McAleece and his friends began developing the mockumentary Brick Madness while they worked as hired techs on another film. Brick Madness takes place during a scandalous LEGO competition, but we can’t say LEGO, so forget I said that. What started as a joke concept to distract them from a slow day of filming, turned into a 10 year passion project. In this episode of the Creationists, Justin shares the odyssey that Brick Madness took from its birth during downtime on a film set to its premiere in his hometown of Fresno, California.
If you're looking for a few good laughs and want to support independent filmmaking, you can rent or buy Brick Madness now on amazon.com.
Read the full transcript of this episode at imstevewaxman.com
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The Creationists is mastered in post production by Paul Farrant.
As you know I like to ask my guests about the inspiration for their creations. Sometimes it's a lightning bolt of imagination that gets a creation started, but sometimes it comes out of the tedium of a slow work day.
Indie filmmaker Justin McAleese and his friends began developing the mockumentary Brick Madness while they worked as hired techs on another film. Brick Madness takes place during a scandalous LEGO competition, but we can’t say LEGO, so forget I said that. What started as a joke concept to distract them from a slow day of filming, turned into a 10 year passion project. In this episode of the Creationists, Justin shares the odyssey that Brick Madness took from its birth during downtime on a film set to its premiere in his hometown of Fresno, California.
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Justin McAleece: Well, we were on set working on another movie here in Fresno, California, this is back in 2009, and honestly the whole genesis of it was trying to create something a lot quicker than the movie that we were currently on, and there was nothing wrong with that movie at all, by any means in terms of the production or speed or any of those things, it just seems slow to us. Having done considerably more indie projects and just rushing through things and student short films and that sort of level of production. So anyway, in our minds we could create this mockumentary, a simple mockumentary concept. We could get everyone in a room for a few days, we could bang out some improv and it would be super fun and we would be done. And then we would have a movie in a few months, however that works, and it would be awesome and that was 11 years ago, 12 years ago now, that we had that concept. So clearly that did not work out quite as planned. And part of that was just that the project itself, I think, got better in our minds, and we realized that we cared more about it than we initially had so a lot of things start on a lark and you have an idea that this is just some, some goofy little idea that we'll just do real quick and then as it develops it, they often snowball, for one they get bigger and more complicated but hopefully they also snowball into you caring more about them and thinking that, 'Oh, there really is something there.' And I think that's really what it became for us.
Steve Waxman: So was the initial idea, we're going to do a mockumentary? How did you decide on bricks, aka Lego? And what was your initial conversation? I mean you had to give it some structure at the beginning.
Justin McAleece: The way that I approach making stories in the most simplistic of manner, and this doesn't mean you're going to get the best answer out of this guaranteed or anything because it's sort of procedural, but I think that there's a way to create stories, and this is why I'm explaining this is sort of how it went, is like, okay, what kind of movie do we want to do. Alright, well, we have a crew here, and we might as well include the crew. Okay so then it's a mockumentary. So we already decided that right off the bat, that's just like a simple thing. Well, if you're gonna make a documentary, that's going to be probably funny. Okay, well if you're going to do that, then we should have a group of people, and this is sort of stealing from Christopher Guest's type concept is, if you're gonna have a group of people, then they should be competing at something. Okay, what are they competing at? I don't know, what's something that, A, we like, B, we have access to a little bit and, C, people can be very serious about that other people don't think is all that important or all that worthy of being serious about? Okay, well, what could that be? And so then we just spit out a couple ideas and then pretty quickly we're like okay Lego checks all those boxes, I loved Lego when I was a kid, I used to play with it all the time, a lot of my friends did and I have some of those pieces sitting here, and that seems like something that people could compete in. Do we know that that exists or that anyone actually cares about that real time right now, I don't know. We hadn't done any research yet, but it seemed like a fun thing. And I think whenever you're creating comedy, you always want, in my opinion, the delta between the ego, or the confidence of someone in what it should be and what it actually is, that's a huge source of comedy. So if someone is completely overconfident about something but anyone from the outside could see that there's no real reason to be confident or your confidence isn't something that shouldn't matter to anyone else then there's a lot of potential fertile ground for comedy there. And you just amp up that specific relationship. And so right off the top we're like, okay, so who do we have as these characters and how can we make them think that this world is far more important than it actually is, because we know that'll be funny, we know that there are funny things that can happen given that scenario. So we just kept going from there. What's funny too is creating the characters names and the basic situation of all this is us on the walkie-talkie while we're on set, and while we're shooting just talking back and forth about what the names are and who these people are and how this is going to work out. It all started as that sort of simplistic thing while we're doing something else completely unrelated to that.
Steve Waxman: How many of you were involved in this conversation that was happening during the shoot of this other movie?
Justin McAleece: I don't know, four or five, six of us I mean whoever's on the walkie on our G and E and camera. It's like 10 people or whatever they were on set at that moment. But, you know, probably like my brother and I and two other people are sort of weighing in.
Steve Waxman: So this is strictly amusing yourselves?
Justin McAleece: Yeah, just goofy stuff while we're hanging out. Something else to do, you know?
Steve Waxman: What were you doing on that film set? What was your responsibility?,
Justin McAleece: I was a camera operator, my brother was an electric and one of the other guys was a grip. Basically, those were like the three main people that were probably discussing all this stuff.
Steve Waxman: So then what happened next? I mean, you're having this goofy conversation over walkie-talkies, you leave later that day and sit down over coffee or beers and you say "Let's start putting this down on paper, this sounds like a pretty good idea."
Justin McAleece: Yeah, cuz I I'm not particularly good at keeping a whole ton of concepts in my head, I want to purge them, and to purge them to me is to write it down. So I don't know if I started writing down stuff the first day or not. And obviously you just try to expunge as much as possible, come out with as many ideas as possible, as fast as you can and then sort of edit later. You don't want to self edit as you're going, because then it's too limiting. So we did that process, and then just kept working through the next couple days and then I think as most things go a month later everyone else forgot about it or didn't care or thought it was like, 'Oh, that thing yeah that okay, I don't. Yeah, that was last week, who cares.' But then I thought it was a good idea and I wanted to continue with it.
Steve Waxman: How long was it until you guys started getting serious about it?
Justin McAleece: Probably two years. Within two years we had a decent amount of it. What do I want to say? Maybe we sketched out the general ideas of what was going to happen within a year. So I ended up doing a number of other movies right after that and wasn't really around. This and that. You know those things ebb and flow. The actual creation process ebbs and flows as other things happen in your life and so it was probably on the back burner for a while. And then we got together and we started doing writing groups. We would either have four or five people sit and just discuss this stuff for a few hours. We did that a few times in different groups. We would sort of bring in and take out different people that were not part of the other group so we probably had like 10 people 10-12 people maybe weigh in on this at any given time. So our writer's room was expanding and decreasing depending on who was available and who we thought was funny and had good ideas. And so we would take some of that and then we would write everything down, we basically hired a stenographer. She would take all these ideas, write them down as fast as we could spit them out and then we would edit it later and look at it and see what we liked and what we didn't.
Steve Waxman: So is there a point where you decide let's do this? This is for real. Let's go.
Justin McAleece: I don't know that there was a super specific point, but it definitely kept building in importance in my mind. And I think that what the first thing was that legitimized it, maybe, is when we realized that Ricky Six would be Anthony Taylor and started doing some interviews of him. I might have my timelines wrong on this stuff, but we were doing interviews of characters that would be in the movie later. And we were doing them for a specific thing called the Beyond the Bricks, these little vignettes we have and I wanted those to be like Behind The Music, that sort of thing, or E! True Hollywood Stories. And so we were getting basically a bunch of interviews that we could include in those, and sort of working out our world and our characters, real time as those were happening. So we were essentially writing as we're going. Improv but not improv within a whole scene of a bunch of people but improv within the interviews. And so that helped us form who these characters were and what the situation's we're going to be in, hopefully, an organic way in terms of we were writing, plus we were just spitting out ideas, plus we were actually recording stuff that wasn't necessarily anything to do with that, that could come from the mind of the person we were interviewing. It didn't need to be hobbled by what we had already talked about.
Steve Waxman: It's interesting you bring up the E! True Hollywood stories because when most people hear the term "mockumentary" they think of things like Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest movies Best In Show and things like that, which this certainly is but it's also a mishmash. There's E! True Hollywood Stories. There's also a little bit of America's Most Wanted on there,
Justin McAleece: Right, you've seen the movie.
Steve Waxman: Absolutely. I've seen it a few times, actually. And I was just wondering, did you see it working out that way or was it just a part of 'This is the process we're going through this is the stuff that we have is building up the characters, so let's expand on what the idea of mockumentary is?'
Justin McAleece: My main goal in this, personally, aside from being funny and us just making memorable characters and things like that, my main goal was to build as real of a world as possible or at least as deep of a world as possible. So it was important to me, especially in those Beyond the Bricks, those little sub featurettes within the movie, to make those as complete as possible. So everything, I think, was informed by that in terms of whatever we needed we wanted it to be real outside of the movie outside of the mockumentary. And so if you watch those things, for instance, and these are really nerdy details that probably no one ever cares about but there's a thing where we're talking about Max Grand, and he is in a newspaper and all that, or he's on like the ticker on an ESPN type thing, like I did all the research, I know exactly what happened, whatever's on screen right there, is exactly what happened that day in real life that day, eight years before. Like what's on the Lycos website is like what happened on that day at that time when that wouldn't have happened. So I tried to do my best to use the wayback machine or whatever it happens to be to accurately place these people in real time in our real world so that it felt like it was real. And that I think informed a lot of my other choices of coming out with corollaries of what would happen in real life, with cops or whatever, but making them a similar version. So I don't think we were trying to lampoon those concepts. I think we were trying to live in the world that would be if these things were real. That was more important to me.
Steve Waxman: Do you remember who the first characters were that you guys came up with?
Justin McAleece: Yeah,Ricky Six and Max Grand. And then I just knew that I was going to be in it and my brother was going to be in it because I wanted, egotistically speaking, just wanted to be in, it'll be fun. But yeah, Ricky Six was very early on. You're like, 'Okay, well we got to have a guy that has nicknames. Would it be? What if he named himself every time he wins a championship he changed his name? That's a great idea. That sounds like a super obnoxious arrogant thing to do. Perfect, that's what we want.' And so you just inform those choices by what's the most arrogant choice here. 'Okay, that's what that guy is going to do. Alright, how do we make, how do we mock him outside of that? What is he overcompensating for? Oh, his name is not a very good name, outside of that. Rashad Chauncey Lipschitz, that's like an objectively crappy name. Okay, good.' So then you have that ammo. Anyone, my characters, specifically, and other characters get to make fun of him while he gets to pretend like he's not that person. And then Max Grand we're like, 'How can we have a good name?' And these are all, literally, day one things I think as we're talking out loud that stuck the entire time. The guy who plays Max Grand is Alan Agarzarian Armenian roots, and we're like okay so it's got to be like an Armenian type name, how do we make, how do we get it to where it's going to be a nice little easy to remember simple nickname based on his real names were like, Okay. Lomax Grandamidian is a very Armenian, like, that sounds like a sort of a different name. The typical American could make that into Max Grand, you’ve got a good name. That's fun.
Steve Waxman: So you had Max Grand as the character's name before you had an actor who was Armenian?
Justin McAleece: No, he was one of the guys. So Allen Agarzarian was the grip on set. Yeah, so he was running lights and stuff like that. Ricky Six, we had the name before we had a person. He was actually one of the later ones we figured out. And that was one of those things too, just for anyone out there who's creating things, a lot of times the most obvious solutions...what do I want to say...the first thing you think of is probably wrong, because it's the most obvious, but, if you go through all the obvious things, and then still don't have an answer a month later, maybe an obvious thing is your best answer and you skipped over it because it seemed too obvious. So I think there's definitely a paradoxical situation there. We realized Anthony was going to be the best for this role, and I don't know why we didn't realize that sooner. It was very odd in casting, because he's one of our friends. He's a guy we work with. Basically everyone, well not everyone but seven out of ten of the people in this movie are people that we knew and worked with and were friends with actively before making the movie.
Steve Waxman: Okay, well, to that point, can you go through a little bit about some of the cast members that have experience that people might recognize.
Justin McAleece: Yeah. Laura Howard hasn't been a ton of stuff but you've seen her on TV. She's been in Best Buy commercials and Capital One commercials with Jennifer Garner and stuff like that, but she plays Delilah White, so she might have a recognizable face. Richard Speight Jr., I had been on a movie with him in 2010 out in Missouri. And so I just asked him if he wanted to be in it and he was super cool about it and we figured out what his role would be to where we could get it done in one day, basically, and went down to Hollywood and shot it at my buddy's bar. And so he was one of them. And then the Sand Brothers, there are three of them actually but the ones that actually have speaking roles are Jaden and Cole, and they are a little powerhouses. They were in a movie that we had worked on the year before. And then while we were doing this, we're like, hey, we need these kids in there and they're gonna be great. They're good little actors and let's put them in there. So, let's say we had shot half of Jaden scenes, and then a year later, six months later we were going to shoot the other half of the scenes, and we had a very protracted shooting schedule on a variety of ways, and so when Jaden came back we were like, so what are you guys been up to and the mom Tammy was like, "Oh well we worked on another thing that was like similar to this sort of," and I'm like, "Oh, someone else is doing a Lego mockumentary that sounds weird," and then she's like, "Yeah, sort of something like that." She was NDA and all that and she couldn't explain it to me or anything. And then we find out we're like, oh, The Lego Movie, this kid is the main kid in the Lego movie that's crazy. And so that was a come to Jesus moment for me being in the theater, seven years ago or whatever that was a long time ago when my movie wasn't anywhere near completed and that was just a reckoning that was just hard to see because they had started after me, more or less, and they'd already taken my kid. It was just a weird moment seeing it in the theater and all that and it's a great movie, but you would definitely recognize him from that movie. He was in our movie first, and our movie got finished after.
Steve Waxman: The poor kid is going to be typecast now. He's now the Lego kid. (laughing) So how much, how much of the film is actually scripted?
Justin McAleece: 70%, I think. We didn't improv from scratch, any of the scenes, I don't think, but we improv a lot of the interviews, and then found ways to combine them later. I don't think we shot anything that had action or actual plot in it without knowing exactly what we were going to do. But there's a decent amount of lines that say Anthony comes up with that I had no idea what he was gonna say, and he just said it was great and we use it in the movie. So, I think we had an exceedingly specific structure, and everything was notated out. But then we had room for improv within that. Sort of like you would do on Todd Phillips's films, when they do the stuff with Will Ferrell and some of those other people like that sort of group that does a lot of movies. It's a little like that and I, as a filmmaker, I don't know that I love those things sometimes because you get out of the mode of actually having real characters saying real things and you start to get into the mode of like these are just stand up comedians just trying to pitch jokes, which is weird. It sort of takes me out of the reality of those situations. So, it's odd to me sometimes because I just feel like I'm no longer watching a movie. Yeah, so we try not to do that specifically, but we tried to let people make up stuff on the spot. If it was funnier than what we had written, basically.
Steve Waxman: So, when did you start trying to raise funds to actually make this thing?
Justin McAleece: We did a variety of rounds of trying to pitch it and trying to sort of in the old way of pitching any movies is like 'Well, these these other movies, six years ago that made a bunch of money that were rampant successes in Hollywood and here's how much they cost, and here's how much they made.' So we tried to do that and sort of almost got some people to sign on the dotted line. We thought about crowdfunding, thought about all that. My video production business is fairly successful, we stay busy all the time, essentially, and I just realized pretty quickly that say if I was gonna do a crowdfunding thing, I just I knew how much time that took to do. And I knew that my hourly wage would probably be less than it would just doing my actual business. So I'd rather not because in that stuff there's so much logistics and it's so much stuff that I'm not great at, to produce like a good crowdfunding campaign, that I just decided to do my business. I was like, at the end of the day, the business, and me personally, we just paid for it. So we didn't have outside investors that actually put in money aside from the people that are in it that put in their time.
Steve Waxman: I'm trying to figure out how to word this question with regards to Lego. Okay. I'm presuming contractually there is no way that you could use the words Lego in them.
Justin McAleece: No we didn't. Yeah, we decided very early on that we were not going to be able to do that and to avoid it at all costs. We weren't a big enough company or we didn't have enough clout to be able to go to Lego and be like 'Hey we want to make a movie with your stuff.' I just didn't want to enter into that, and I knew that there was other situations in the past, a director of photography I worked with had done something and they use Lego and then they got sued and this and that, and I knew that they just probably weren't interested in our Podunk little movie so we didn't even try.
Steve Waxman: The materials that you're using, are they Lego materials or are they knock offs?
Justin McAleece: There's probably some knock off in there but I would say in general it's all Lego because we're actually at Lego conventions. When you go to Lego conventions they are not called Lego. They are often sponsored by Lego. Lego are there. They have a presence and they're a big part of it but they're just called Brick conventions. So there's enough of a veil between the two, to where everyone gets to stay in their lane. And we did that same thing.
Steve Waxman: So then that really leads right into my next question which was the thing I was most curious about which was where did all of the LEGO creations come from? There's a lot of stuff there that's pretty unique that had to be built.
Justin McAleece: So much stuff. So a guy that was working for me at the time at my video production company is Carl Meriam, and, I am trying to remember, but I don't think he had told us so clearly that he was so into Lego. We didn't know that he actually built it or it was in the back of my head but I had just become so blind to the fact that I just forgot. Whatever. Anyway, we were telling him about the movie and he's like, "I love Lego," and we're like, "What do you mean," and he's like "I build it all the time" and I was like oh shit, that that's true. Okay, well, what do you know about the rest of where can we go find Lego. You know, when we first thought of it, we thought we were gonna have to supply all that stuff and we hadn't really just got to the hard part of figuring that out yet. But then once we realized that, oh, there's actual Lego conventions and there's actually one in California here and we can go to it and then we can scope it out and get as many interviews as we can of actual people that use Lego in real life and all that stuff. And so any of the convention scenes are built around the Bricks By the Bay convention in Santa Clara. We went there and shot for two years, we were there for three years. And that was a big part of what we did. So those are people that know Carl or people that we went up to and said "Hey, we really love your thing we want to get you on this movie. We're going to interview you." And then we just sort of fill in the specifics of our world and have them talk about it. We didn't tell them what to say, we just had them come up with their own words, based on the scenarios that we presented. So that's where all that Lego came from. And then we built a bunch specifically for the movie. Jason Wada also worked for me at the time and he and Carl and some other people built stuff specifically for us. And then we just sort of leveraged other things that were already built to be able to unbuild on camera. The word Brick Madness that came in the beginning of the movie was like a huge undertaking building it up specifically for the movie, obviously. So yeah, we found three or four different ways to get all this stuff on camera.
Steve Waxman: Okay, the other things, some somewhat related to that at least in my head, are the merch opportunities that there were with his movie. In particular, I think the very first thing that came to my mind when I watched the film the first time was, "Oh my god, I've got to get one of those Property of Ricky 6 t-shirts.
Justin McAleece: Yeah the minion t-shirts. I thought I had more because I was gonna use one for something the other day and I don't know if I have any left. I mean, I have the original. I have the graphics and stuff that we put on there. Yes, those are quite funny. I think we came up with the minion, I think I came up with the minion concept early on. I just wanted him to have some sycophants. And what we've been successful in doing so far, which has been really fun, is we put together the Brick Master edition. So the Brick Master edition has a little Wyatt minifigs, so an actual Lego minifig, totally custom made by this guy, DJ, out of the Bay Area, who's been really good, and he made these things. And then we also have a couple different types of magnets and then we also have the Bricks candies, the Bricks Bits that we talked about within the movie, and some other stuff we made a little custom 3d printed camera and all this stuff so anyway we have that sort of merch. And we've sold posters in the past. I'd love to sell, Wyatt has a backpack, he has a Ricky 4 backpack, I forget exactly which one it is. Anyway, those, if those were a reasonable price to make I would love to make those and sell 100, definitely, they're so funny to me. Yeah, there's so much dumb stuff in there. Ricky's fragrance that he came out with is stupid to me. I just tried to make stuff that if I had nothing to do with this movie that I would think was so, so ridiculous that I would want to buy. That's what appeals to me.
Steve Waxman: So how long did it take you to shoot?
Justin McAleece: We probably, I sort of go forth we go back and forth, we probably spent, a week and a half to two weeks actually on set with everyone there, all hands on deck sort of shooting in a traditional style and then we did weeks of other shooting, and then literally, I don't know, three months ago, two months ago I did the last couple images. We had little fill in stuff so we've been shooting since 2010 or something. So there have been pieces there the entire time, but almost every year of that we had shot something which is a lot.
Steve Waxman: So the final edit was 2020?
Justin McAleece: We did a cinema premiere twice here in Fresno. One at Edwards Theater and then one at a local theater at the Tower Theater. So we did that in 2017, and then I went back and chopped it down like another 10 minutes, made some changes, fixed some stuff, added some things, and then that didn't come out and that wasn't done until, like I said, literally, like, three, four months ago was the final shots I put in.
Steve Waxman: So where can people find the movie right now?
Justin McAleece: Yeah. Currently, you can buy it on Amazon.com. We are not doing the free streaming on Amazon Prime, we will do that at some point probably, but to recoup any of our costs and sort of make back our money and try to make another one, we are selling all the copies right now. You can also go to the distributors website which is littlesisterent.shop and you can find that there and that's how you buy a DVD or Blu Ray, or you can buy the Brick Master edition with one of those types of discs with all that fun stuff I discussed earlier. If you go to BrickMadness.com, we'll get you to any of those things as well, that's probably the simplest way to do that. But if you go look on Amazon.com right now, Brick Madness pops up. And I would say that if anyone wants to go on there, they want to spend their 10 bucks, and they don't like it, if you think the movie sucks, we'll be happy to, money back guarantee your money, I'll send you 10 bucks right in Venmo I have no problem with that if you think my movie sucks, because I think it's good and I think most people will like it if they get a chance to see it and I think it's, hopefully, the people on screen were able to bring something new and hilarious and interesting to the genre.
Steve Waxman: Well that's, that's an awesome no loss deal.
Justin McAleece: Exactly.
Steve Waxman: And you know I've watched the movie three times and have laughed all three times. Well done, young man. Well done.
Justin McAleece: I really appreciate that. Yeah I mean it's, it means the world to me. I don't know if you suffer from this, but as an artist, I want to hear so much good feedback about what I did, right? You just want to talk about your thing and you want to hear how great it is. It's such a heroin situation. Like, it's never enough hearing about how great your thing is. You just want to hear it over and over again, but then also that makes me feel weird about it. You're making me blush. You know I feel weird when you say how great it is, so don't say that, but say it.
Steve Waxman: (laughing) No, I didn't say I didn't say it was great. I just said I laughed alot and I watched it three times.
Justin McAleece: Well played. Fair enough. I think what we tried to do, and I don't know if you've experienced this at all, is I try to draw a distinction between what is funny, what makes you laugh, and what is comical later. What's gonna make you laugh, the second or third time you see it. So we tried our damnedest, my brain just works in a way where things are very, sort of categorized, we tried to make things that would be funnier the second or third time you saw it, and other things that were like so obvious sort of broad humor that it would be funny for everyone, for the most amount of people possible the first time they saw it. And so it was our intention for this dumb little movie to operate on multiple levels, and not have people realize it but sort of get something out of it later. Hopefully.
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If you're looking for a few good laughs and want to support independent filmmaking, you can rent or buy Brick Madness now on amazon.com.