Mike Rianda’s animated ode to his family

March 23, 2022 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this free excerpt from our article interviewing co-writer/director Mike Rianda about The Mitchells vs The Machines from Backstory Magazine’s issue 46 – now available to read! This is not the full article – so, if you enjoy what you’ve read in this free excerpt – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by by subscribing to Backstory Magazine so you can read the rest of the piece and so much more!


Oscar Lessons

Mike Rianda on his breakout Netflix hit that combines 2D and 3D animation.

By Danny Munso

It all started with a lie. In 2016, Sony Pictures Animation was looking for new talent to collaborate with, so the studio reached out to Mike Rianda, who had just wrapped his role as a writer and the creative director for Disney Channel’s hit animated series Gravity Falls, to see if he had any ideas for a feature. “I told them I was overflowing with ideas,” Rianda laughs. In fact he had none. That soon changed. Rianda decided to drive from Los Angeles to his hometown of Salinas, a town in Central California known for, among other things, being the birthplace of John Steinbeck. He brought a tape recorder with him and came up with the rough idea for what would become The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a style-defying outsize hit for Netflix that has already garnered handfuls of major awards and is looking to add an Oscar to that list for Best Animated Feature Film.

The story centers on aspiring film student Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), who is struggling to bond with her father, Rick (Danny McBride), before leaving for college. Rick doesn’t believe Katie is pursuing a practical career and is worried for his daughter. Despite having good relationships with her mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph), and younger brother Aaron (Rianda), Katie feels misunderstood and is longing to get to school to find her people. In a last-ditch attempt to connect, Rick cancels Katie’s flight to school and insists they take a family road trip to drop off Katie. Along the way, the world becomes besieged by a robot uprising, and as humanity’s last hope the Mitchells set out for Silicon Valley to try and stop the AI that started the whole thing. An old photo in the first frame of the film’s end credits gives away the truth: The Mitchells are in fact based on Rianda’s real-life family—not only his own parents and their trips when he was a child but his current nieces and nephews. The writer-director’s ties to home are so strong he recently made a return trip to Salinas so his family could watch the reveal of the Oscar nominations together.

It was a different connection that would serve Rianda well in the writing process for the film. Though he says he took a week and a half to pen a very rough first draft of this story idea just to have something down, it was always his intention to bring on a collaborator. And he did just that with friend Jeff Rowe, who joined the film to pen the script with Rianda and take up the position of co-director, which on an animated film means he is essentially the number two person in charge. Rianda worked with Rowe on Gravity Falls, which had been Disney XD’s highest-rated series, and knew he was the perfect partner for this long journey. “We are both really harsh critics of things, so we’re also harsh critics of each other,” he says. “Which is good because that means if we both agree on something, we know it’s probably good.” The pair started by doing an intense outline, color coding the different characters and story arcs to keep things organized. Then they dug in to tear Rianda’s first draft to pieces. “We just beat the shit out of it. It was, ‘You take this scene, I’ll take this scene,’ and we would trade them back and forth. I would rewrite his, and he would rewrite mine. It was really nice and fluid that way. We had a good partnership.” Of course even the strongest alliance can be tested by the rigors of screenwriting, as he quickly adds jokingly, “There were parts where I didn’t know if the friendship was going to survive.”

That part is clearly hyperbole, but there is no mistaking the pressure Rianda and Rowe were under. Studio animated features are not cheap, and Sony was entrusting its next big one to two guys who had only worked in television. That’s partly why the studio brought producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — the filmmaking team that shepherded massive animated hits The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — on board. Rianda had initially put the pressure squarely on his own shoulders by penning a manifesto of sorts before starting the project. “I wrote the 10 things I’ve never seen done in an animated movie, and here’s how we can do them and push the medium forward,” he says. “I had all this bravado, but really it was just because I was scared of failing. So maybe if we had these things on the wall to inspire us, it would force us to take chances. We tried to trick ourselves into believing all the scary stuff was exciting.” That’s why the addition of Lord and Miller ended up being so key. The two had the trust of the studio but are also filmmakers themselves, and they would encourage Rianda and Rowe to push the envelope visually. “They were our greatest protectors. They told the studio to keep the strange things about the movie. They said the fact that it looks weird is an asset, not a liability. It was great to align forces and have those guys cheerlead our craziest ideas and also hold our feet to the fire. It was like going to film school.”

Rianda’s manifesto was born out of a desire to see something different in feature animation. As much as he admires the artists that work at places like Pixar and Disney Animation, he thought that the resulting films could be too similar from a visual standpoint. He was determined not to make that the case with Mitchells, and he succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams. The film heavily leans on the fact that Katie is an aspiring filmmaker, and that comes out in the visuals. There is 2D drawing onscreen along with animated graphics meant to show her point of view, almost as if she were making the movie alongside Rianda and Rowe. There are even a few real-life YouTube clips used in the film. That combination turns an already strong story into a complete visual feast, pushing the boundaries of studio animation. Though some of the same 2D techniques were employed in Spider-Verse, this is that on all the steroids you can find. “It could have been such a disaster,” Rianda admits. “We tried to lean into the fact that you can make things as weird as you want and innovate as much as you want and show people something new if the story works. If the story works emotionally and you’re doing all that visual stuff at the same time, you’ll have the greatest party in the world.”

Unfortunately for Rianda and Rowe, one thing missing from the first draft of their script was the story’s heart. “We looked at it and knew this wasn’t emotional enough,” Rianda says. “Your job as a writer is to create a spark in the audience that they care about these characters. Then your job is to make sure that spark grows into a flame by the end of the movie. That was our big job. For Rick and Katie, the audience needs to want them to come back together, and if they don’t, the whole movie doesn’t work.” For their next draft, they got deeper into how the characters had grown apart and why Rick was so worried about Katie being interested in a digital world just doesn’t understand. “We got really into their perspectives of why she wanted to go to film school and what that meant to her and his perspective and why he wanted to hold onto her so tight and what that meant to him. As soon as we cracked those, the movie opened up and became something people could embrace.”

The next key problem the writers had to solve was if you spend an entire movie with two people who are butting heads, it runs the risk of wearing on the audience. “In the first draft, in act one, Rick and Katie were mad at each other,” Rianda says. “In act two, they were mad at each other. At the beginning of act three, they were mad at each other and then they made up. It was miserable to read. That’s when we realized act two needed to be them coming together, but it couldn’t be a real coming together moment or the movie would be over, so it needed to be kind of a lie.” Their solution was to have Katie lie to her dad in the wake of the robot uprising. He wants to hunker down in a gas station and stay safe, while she wants to go to California to stop the robots so she gives him a fake inspirational speech about how much she believes that they can pull this off. That gets him going and emotionally lifts the entire family, but when Aaron mentions to Katie how great it is to see her and their dad getting along, Katie admits she made it all up just so they could get going. “I think everyone has had that experience of lying to their parents. You think of your parents as monoliths, but then you have this moment where you hurt them and suddenly your mom is crying because of you.” The moment, of course, comes back to haunt Katie after her and her dad really have bonded. The robots have secretly been recording the Mitchells, and the AI, PAL (Olivia Colman), shows Rick the video to try and drive the family apart. Naturally, it crushes him. “That was the moment we were trying to build to, that this lie gets found out and she sees the pain in her dad’s eyes. [It’s then that she truly] realizes he’s a person [with feelings] and she did a horrible thing.”

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