The arrival of The Mitchells vs. the Machines on Netflix feels like the detonation of a confetti bomb—it’s a colorful, inventive, and all-around delightful movie. In fact, as my colleague Sam Adams wrote for Slate, it’s the first great animated movie of 2021. Directed by Mike Rianda and co-directed by Jeff Rowe, the movie stars Abbi Jacobson as Katie, a girl about to head to college, and Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, and Rianda respectively as her father, mother, and younger brother Aaron, all of whom join her on a road trip in an attempt at a last hurrah before she flies the coop. That trip hits a bit of a road bump, however, when a robot uprising threatens the entire human race.
One of the biggest—and funniest—set pieces of the film involves the Mitchell family having to fight a horde of Furby dolls. We spoke to Rianda to find out how it all came together, from getting Hasbro to approve killer Furbies to the terrifying Furby that actually lives in Rianda’s home. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Karen Han: What was your preexisting relationship with Furbies? Were you scared of them as a kid?
Mike Rianda: My history with them is: My mom got me one. I was a little too old. I think I was 13. I was like, “This is a baby thing! I’m an adult! I’m 13, Mom! Thanks for the gift!” But I did enjoy it, because it’s a strange, wonderful thing. I was actually talking to somebody about how it was made by a farmer, or something? It seems like it was a very earnest endeavor. It wasn’t made by a toy company to be like, “How do we move some product?” Some weirdo was like, “I like owls, and I want to put a face on an owl, and I want it to talk to children!” I had one, and I got sick of it, and my mom was scared of it, so I put it in the closet, and it would literally talk in the closet at night, waking me up and terrifying me. This movie is a therapy session where I’m working through those feelings.
What was the genesis of this scene?
My buddy Alex showed me a picture of a Furby without a face, because when you burn them off, there’s this horrifying underbelly. And he was like, “You gotta put that in the movie,” and I was like, “Oooh,” because it’s so weird and specific. With the movie, we’re trying to be really specific, and this is so specific and so memorable that we would just put it in the background of posters. We would make these fake posters to be like, “Look, the movie is real! Greenlight it!” We would always put a giant, city-sized Furby in the background, and everyone always loved it. And then we sort of tried to figure out how to jam that into the movie.
You’ve spoken a little about getting Hasbro to allow the use of Furbies in the movie. I think you said that they were surprisingly cool with it.
They were! Because I really like Furby! And also, I think, to them, they have the new one, and the old one they don’t even sell anymore. I’m like, “Oh, that’s free advertising!” And they’re like, “I dunno, whatever.” Hopefully they like it. But it took a long time. No one would get back to us. And then it was this Immortan Joe–style Tickle Me Elmo, who was like, “Come, brothers!” It was funny, but the people at the studio rioted. They were like, “Bring the Furby back!” And I was like, “Jesus, I guess we gotta bring the Furby back.”
Was there ever a limit to how evil a Furby could be?
Yes. They used to explicitly talk about blood and killing. “It is now time to spill the blood of the innocents” was the old line. We actually took a lot of that stuff out before we sent it to Hasbro, because I was like, “They’re never going to say yes to ‘the blood of the innocents’ and ‘now is the time to kill.’ ” There are a couple of other lines that I was really happy with, but for the greater good, we took out some of the more hellish Furby dialogue.
They’re rendered very photorealistically. Was the idea always to make them as real as possible?
As soon as it didn’t look exactly like the nightmare that you had when you were 9 years old, it didn’t work anymore. For the dad and Katie, we had these really intense calisthenic drawings of the characters and their spinal cords and how their muscles work, but for the Furby, we just handed them a Furby and were like, “Make this, please!”
For the noises, did Hasbro send you MP3 files of Furby noises?
It was literally just: Our editor got a Furby. It was the best day of his life. His name is Greg [Levitan], and he is the funniest dude in the world. He was like, “Mike, dude, I’ve got a Furby! I’ve got a recording set! I got it to sing! I’ve never had a better time! This is the best day I’ve ever had at work!”
Did you guys talk at all about Furby language? Because the giant one actually has some lines.
Yes. I am the voice of the giant Furby. It is my proudest accomplishment in the movie. The Furbish doesn’t quite track, I will say. It was basically whatever’s funny. Our editor Greg did a pass that made us just cry laughing. We were doing the touchdown dance after he showed us the scene. I was like, “Well, what are we gonna do besides that? It’s gotta be that!” We never touched any of the sounds. In fact, sometimes people would, as it goes down the pipeline, be like, “Oh, we have a cleaner Furby noise!” “Don’t touch it! That Furby sound is perfect!”
Speaking of Furby sounds, am I crazy or is there a Godzilla noise in there at one point?
There’s sort of a shriek mixed in with, you know, [roars], this really low pitch, but it’s mostly human sounds. It’s mostly me screaming.
Did they alter your voice at all?
No, I just have an insane voice. [Roars in Furbish.]
That’s very, very impressive.
Are there any plans for movie tie-in giant Furbies?
From your lips to God’s ears. I want it. I was begging Netflix, like, “You’ve gotta build a giant Furby!” It’s funny, when I pitched the movie, I made a bunch of merchandise, like a lunatic, and I bought an old Furby and stuck an “As seen on The Mitchells vs. the Machines!” sticker on it. I would love a Furby with an evil setting, or where it starts screaming at you, but nothing is in the works yet.
Are you aware of the phenomenon of Long Furby?
Yes! Actually, I will show you … [produces a giant rabbit doll whose face has been replaced by two Furby faces] I don’t have a long one, but the same friend that suggested the Furby in the movie bought me this monstrosity. My wife is like, “That lives in the closet now, not in our home.”
Can it talk?
I think these are McDonald’s Furby faces. They don’t have the real capacity for speech.
You mentioned trying to find more specific details for the movie. One of the funniest things in the movie is that yelling gibbon video. I looked it up, and I’m not sure if it’s a reupload, but it’s not exactly viral. How did you come across that?
That was like a gift from God. All of the stylistic—we call it “Katie-vision”—seeing the movie through Katie’s eyes, and it’s like she’s editing it, was all kind of an experiment we were trying one time, and I wrote in a script, “Tim and Eric–esque monkey freakout moments.” The joke wasn’t working, and it was 4 in the morning in my office, because I wake up insanely early, and I was just Googling “screaming monkey.” I looked through a hundred, and then I saw that one, and I was like, “Oh, shit!” I made the same noise that the monkey made in the movie. “Whoa-oh-oh!” The cool thing is we had one of our art production guys, James, who’s awesome, track it down, and it was these guys, and they loved Spider-Verse and they were so nice, and they were like, “Oh my God, here’s the original audio, here’s the video, anything we can do to help.” They were really cool. And that was another one of those ones where our editor Greg just went A Beautiful Mind on it. He was like, “Give me 10 minutes, man,” and he cuts it together, and we’re both crying laughing. That was a real get. I was very glad we got that in the movie.
Speaking of one other specific detail, Doug the Pug, an Instagram-famous dog, voices the dog in the movie. How did that collaboration happen?
Well, Doug and I went to high school together… No. You just get in these casting meetings, and I’ve seen animated movies where it feels like the casting decisions are based on who is the most famous person, and that, I think, is gross, because you should cast who the best actor is for the role! I remember people were like, “Well, who should be the dog?” I was just the dog in scratch. I was like, “We should get a real dog!” And they’re like, “What does that get us? What if it’s a famous pug owner, like Jessica Alba owns a pug!” I was like, “I am not gonna sit in front of a microphone and force Jessica Alba to pant. She is a gifted actress and a human being that has feelings.”
Everyone in the movie, we wanted to be someone that we loved, like Sasheer Zamata or Charlyne Yi. I was like, “I like Doug the Pug! I follow him on Instagram! My nephew likes him! Let’s put Doug the fucking Pug in the movie!” I got to meet Doug the Pug, and he snorted into a microphone for 45 minutes, and we used a best-of reel, and we used the same bark like 28 times. “That’s the good bark. That’s the one.” I like it because it’s coming from a place of love rather than a place of, “How do we maximize viewers?”
I also want to ask about the really distinct style of the movie—it’s 2D and 3D, with this added layer of what you call “Katie-vision.” How did you develop the look?
All I did was write a checkbox on the whiteboard that said, “Make the movie look groundbreaking and use animation in new ways!” And then it was like, “Well, we gotta figure that one out.” Lindsey Olivares was the 2D art boss, and then there was a 3D art boss, Mike Lasker, who was responsible for translating that stuff. Lindsey’s style was so specific and observed, which is what we were going for with the whole movie, and also since it’s a movie about humanity, we wanted that humanity reflected on every frame. We really wanted to make it look like people made it. The robot stuff could pop more, because that looks more synthetic, and we pushed that to be as digital as possible.
We really felt like we were a bunch of film students that hijacked a big-budget animated movie. “They’re letting us do this? We gotta go nuts!” It’s like we got the keys to our dad’s Porsche and we’re just speeding out on the road and crashing.