Tony Leondis is the director of Sony Animation’s latest project, “The Emoji Movie.” Leondis talks to The Knockturnal about modern day expression, favorite apps, and dreams for a Shrimp Cake With Swirl spin-off.
THE KNOCKTURNAL: How did you go about making a movie out of these small symbols?
TONY LEONDIS: When I looked at the phone, I stared thinking “okay, is there a story about these emojis? And what would it be like to be in that world?” I thought it was interesting that Smiler’s always smiling, and that Frowner’s always frowning. They have to be the same thing every day. So I thought, what would be a fun take on that world? If the status quo is that everyone is the same, what would happen if someone was born different? I thought, well, I guess he would have EVERY expression. What would that mean? Would people praise it, or be threatened by it? Unfortunately, in today’s world, difference makes people feel threatened. It’s a big allegory for today’s world – how we are threatened by “other” and “different.” Especially in today’s world.
All three characters have stories that are, in a way, attempts at returning to the status quo. Is that what you were going for?
Yes! Right off the bat, I knew this was a story about identity. So for Gene (T.J. MILLER), it’s about embracing his differences and his identity. For Hi-5 (JAMES CORDEN), it’s about not using popularity to define you. It’s about what’s true in this world to identify with. And Jailbreak (ANNA FARIS), she was stuck in a box – literally, in a cube. So she didn’t have any options. I think it’s interesting to talk about women, nowadays, how sometimes there options are limited. We met with this group, Girls Who Code. It’s interesting – to this day, girls are still not encouraged to follow computer programming. Isn’t that crazy? The numbers are, like, all the men do it, and then there’s a little chunk of women who do it. There’s something in our society that’s telling women it’s not for them. So that theme kind of came out of that, how women are “supposed” to be one thing in this world, and they don’t have to be. It’s all about identity. I’m glad you picked that up.
Along with the three main characters, you have two other storylines, with the real world kids & Gene’s parents. How did you approach incorporating these stories as well?
Well, when it came to Alex, the kid, we knew we wanted it to be about self-expression. Gene’s journey is all about how he can’t express all of his feelings, because if he does, he’s going to be deleted. Sometimes, that’s how we feel in our life, as people. That we just can’t express ourselves. That’s what I love about emojis – in a world of technology, the human heart has found a way to break through. It really helps us communicate as people. So kids, especially boys, grow up naturally not being able to express themselves. He needed Gene to help him do that, but Gene needed to go through the journey to be able to do that. It’s all intertwined. For Mel and Mary, who are the older Mehs, it was about how men sometimes can’t express themselves. Sometimes, you hear from women about how their husbands don’t express themselves, that they sit in front of the TV all day. That’s why when they go into the YouTube app, Mel says “I don’t even need a remote!” He’s so happy to be in front of a television, and that breaks them up. Only after his loss, does he realize he has this malfunction too.
Speaking of YouTube, and the apps the Emojis go through in this phone world, how did you decide which apps to use?
A lot of apps really wanted to be a part of the movie, which is lovely. But we really chose apps that would challenge our heroes’ growth, and force them to change. Candy Crush is Gene’s worst fear, that he’s going to be deleted. The first thing he does is face his worst fear, and he succeeds, with the help of his friends, which builds their friendship. Just Dance is the first time Gene expresses all of his emotions, and realizes it’s okay to express himself, and people are gonna be okay with it. It was all a part of the journey, and challenging their flaws, so they could overcome them and grow.
You have a couple of great cameos in the film. Were there any Emojis or cameos you wanted to fit in, but didn’t have the time?
We tried to pick some funny ones, like Fish Cake With Swirl. Y’know, there’s 250 emojis. We actually had the problem of having so many characters, and having to only choose a couple. But I would love to explore Fish Cake With Swirl more, because what the heck do you need that for?
Obviously, a big dialogue in the culture today is the idea that technology is the end of communication. It seems you think the opposite is true. Did you try to touch on that idea specifically, or do you think it’s apparent in the work?
When I was thinking about this movie, I asked myself “what the heck is it that people love about emojis?” Then I realized I get texts from my mom, and she sends heart eyes, and kissy faces. I realized, it’s what I said before – emojis really are a way for human hearts to connect in this technological world. That’s what I love about emojis, and it actually means something. When my mother sends me those emojis, it makes me smile. She overdoes it just like she does in real life – too many hugs! Too many kisses! And that’s how she sends her emojis, too! I really think it’s helping people express themselves. But in the end, the kids have to connect, and technology only gets you so far. I’m certainly not saying technology is going to replace human emotion, but in this movie, it helps people connect, and I think that’s something specific to emojis.
THE EMOJI MOVIE comes out this Friday, July 28th. It stars Miller, Corden, and Farris, along with PATRICK STEWART, MAYA RUDOLPH, and SOFIA VERGARA.