‘Detective Pikachu’ Filmmakers: How ‘Star Wars’ Shaped the First Live-Action Pokémon Movie
The unlikeliest (and cutest) of summer blockbusters has arrived. The filmmakers behind the highly-anticipated adaptation of the Japanese sensation tell all.
In the market stalls of Ryme City, the neon-lit metropolis of Pokémon Detective Pikachu where Pokémon and humans coexist, a Charmander works a shift as a sous chef, using its tail’s flame to grill food to perfection. Downtown, a squad of Squirtles aids firefighters in extinguishing a blaze, while Growlithes march in and out of a police station with their human officer counterparts. Braviaries flit across the sky delivering mail. And a Machamp stands in an intersection, using four burly arms to direct traffic around a Snorlax caught snoozing in the middle of the road—a known habit of the narcoleptic Pokémon.
It’s a scene as mundane to the people onscreen as it is unparalleled wish fulfillment for fans of Pokémon’s 24-year strong gaming, card, and anime mega-franchise—finally, here in live-action, the iconic critters feel “real,” with digitized fur, feathers, scales and all. Most Pokémon stories are conflict-oriented, with heroes and villains catching and training the creatures for high-stakes battle. But in Ryme City, where battling is outlawed, Pokémon work 9-to-5s in harmony with humans—a weird, wondrous eccentricity glimpsed mostly in the background of a noir-tinged mystery surrounding a boy, his father, and a talking electric mouse.
Basically, it’s Star Wars.
At least, that’s how the film’s co-writers, Pokémon superfans Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (One Day at a Time, The Tick), saw the moment their hero first steps into Ryme City after a life spent far, far away from adventure. Tim (Justice Smith) is thrust into the city’s ecosystem like Luke Skywalker stumbling into the Mos Eisley cantina: he’s overwhelmed by the alien spectacle around him, yet intrigued all the same—and so are we. “You don’t know what it all means but you know you want to learn more,” says Hernandez. It’s a setting both lived-in yet foreign.
But if Detective Pikachu is Pokémon Star Wars, it’s an installment that forgoes certain staples of the franchise. Writing a Pokémon story in which “there are no pokéballs, no trainers, and no battles,” Samit says, is like imagining “a Star Wars story where you can’t have any lightsabers or the Force in it.” Except here, that’s the draw. Detective Pikachu isn’t about catching ’em all, or being the very best (like no one ever was). It’s about a father and son’s broken relationship, a wise-ass Pikachu, and a side of the Pokémon universe that hasn’t been explored onscreen. “We didn’t just want to show stuff we’ve all seen before, but now it’s in live-action” he explains. “We wanted a reason for the movie to exist.”
In lieu of catching, battling, and training, Detective Pikachu’s writers honed in on the concept of Pokémon evolution. “Pokémon evolving is such a fundamental part of this property,” Hernandez says. They set out to tell a story “not just about Pokémon evolution, but asking the question of whether people can evolve, too—can relationships between fathers and sons evolve? That was kind of our guiding principle in connecting us to the lore that came before us.”
The emotion of the story and the kick of watching Pokémon perform everyday jobs come second to the movie’s real novelty, though: beholding “live-action” Pokémon at all. The uncanny sight of actual taste buds on Lickitung, hair follicles on Jigglypuff, and individual strands of yellow fur on Pikachu proved jarring for fans when the film’s trailer debuted. But on the big screen, the textures add welcome bits of weirdness (as with Mr. Mime), scariness (Gengar’s ghostly quality was modeled after Harry Potter’s dementors) and of course, cuteness to the animal-like characters. (The movie’s coffee-addicted Pikachu is almost criminally adorable.)
Around 65 Pokémon appear in the movie, each hand-picked to represent seven “generations” (the franchise’s original 151 Pokémon has expanded to include upwards of 800). “The ones we gravitated toward for this movie were the ones that had a really obvious neurosis or character trait,” Hernandez says, explaining how the perpetually migraine-struck Psyduck ended up with the movie’s No. 2 role after Pikachu. “He has an inherent comedy to him,” he laughs. “There’s a personality attached to it that really creates a great three-dimensional character.”
Mr. Mime, the center of one of the film’s funniest sequences, was another standout choice. Ditto Magikarp, a fish Pokémon which is famously useless in battle and something of a punchline, but which finds vindication in a hero-saving set piece. And ditto, uh, Ditto, the shape-shifting Pokémon known for sometimes having trouble replicating faces. “We sort of started with our dream list and narrowed it down to the ones that appear in the movie,” Samit says. “Dan and I had so many others that for various reasons seemed to get cut.”
Director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps, Monsters vs. Aliens) is blunt on that point: The Pokémon “got narrowed down dramatically for budgetary reasons,” he laughs. “It’s insanely expensive to bring these characters to life.” He spent the year before shooting working with the Pokémon Company to develop the tone and physical appearance of each Pokémon, along with art director Ravi Bansal and visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby. The goal, he says, was to “make a movie for fans of Pokémon first” and appeal to viewers less familiar with the franchise second.
To do that, the film’s creative team connected directly with Ken Sugimori, the original character designer and art director of Pokémon, and peeked into the “design bible” of original animation models (with differently-angled views and technical diagrams of each Pokémon) used for the franchise’s first anime in 1997. The film’s concept artists used those designs along with a photo reference texture sheet for potential real-world surfaces to use on each character, while Letterman’s team flew back and forth to Tokyo presenting the Pokémon Company with ideas, getting notes, and adjusting.
The hardest character to nail down, of course, was Pikachu. “We put a lot of extra, extra care into that one,” Letterman promises. The film needed to “make it adorable and still adhere to what makes Pikachu Pikachu”—with an extra complication in another uncertain first for the franchise’s most recognizable character. Pikachu never speaks apart from squeaking its own name, but is here voiced by a characteristically chatty Ryan Reynolds. Suddenly, Pikachu has a lot to say.
For his part, Reynolds helped shape Pikachu’s personality over two days in Los Angeles with the director and Justice Smith, finding the pair’s chemistry and riffing on the screenplay. “I really wanted his improv and I wanted him to ad lib,” Letterman recalls. He reworked the screenplay to include Reynolds’ quips, but swears the actor’s Pikachu is more than just Deadpool-lite: “There’s a lot of heart in this movie and Ryan keyed in on that early on,” he says. “So it is a balance of all his wit and humor but with a very grounded, heartfelt performance.”
It helps that his Pikachu’s comedy doesn’t begin or end with one-liners—it’s in the very idea of what he is. While the film is based on the Detective Pikachu Nintendo 3DS game, Hernandez and Samit drew on classic noir stories, from Double Indemnity to Raymond Chandler’s crime classics Little Sister and Farewell, My Lovely, in sketching out the persona of their star detective. “The way that they speak, the sort of tough-guy language that they invoke—the second that you have it coming out of this little Pikachu, it’s going to be very funny,” Hernandez explains with a laugh.
Many of the movie’s more surreal moments, meanwhile, include costar Bill Nighy as a billionaire fascinated by the concept of Pokémon evolution, and Ken Watanabe as a police lieutenant whose partner is a Snubbull (it looks like a frilly pink bulldog). Letterman combusts at the memory of directing “these award-winning, classically-trained actors” to react to invisible, cutesy CGI costars. “The fact that they did it without even blinking was awesome,” he laughs. “It’s such a weird world, we needed them to ground it to make it believable.” (The project was mutually beneficial: Nighy emerged a true Pokémon fanatic.)
Letterman enlisted cinematographer John Mathison to shoot on 35mm film, and shot the movie’s Ryme City scenes on location in London, sometimes using zoom lenses from six blocks away to catch Smith in rush-hour traffic. “It wasn’t just a pretentious ‘I want to shoot on film’—I mean, it was a little bit of that, but there was a purpose to it,” he explains. “We had very cartoony characters that I needed to make real, living, breathing creatures in the world.”
Every choice, from the location shoot, the loose camera work, and “the sloppy nature of shooting on the streets,” he says, was made with the aim of blending Pokémon into the real world in mind. “It’s the imperfections and the organic nature of film that makes the visual effects look more real, in my opinion,” he says.
As for which Pokémon the Detective Pikachu team would choose as their life buddies in Ryme City? Letterman lands on the anxiety-wracked Psyduck: “I’m like, literally the living embodiment of that thing,” Letterman sighs. “On a daily basis, I’m a stressed, confused, neurotic, mental breakdown of a person and so Psyduck, I relate to that character quite a bit.”
A fan since his early teens, Samit chooses one of the three original starter Pokémon: “Bulbasaur. That was my guy at the beginning so he’s always had a special place in my life,” he says.
And Hernandez chooses Psyduck—then switches to Jigglypuff after hearing that Letterman scooped him. (He also reveals a longer sequence featuring the film’s karaoke Jigglypuff was cut from the script.) “I feel like with me as the manager and Jiggly as the star, is there room for us to be American Idol? I think there is,” he jokes. “A Jigglypuff Is Born.”