Interview: Director Chris McKay Discusses The Tomorrow War’s Themes

Directed by Chris McKay, The Tomorrow War is a sci-fi action flick that releases on Amazon Prime Video today. The film features a star-studded cast featuring Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Edwin Hodge, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Matthews, and Keith Powers.

“The world is stunned when a group of time travelers arrive from the year 2051 to deliver an urgent message: Thirty years in the future mankind is losing a global war against a deadly alien species,” says the official synopsis. “The only hope for survival is for soldiers and civilians from the present to be transported to the future and join the fight. Among those recruited is high school teacher and family man Dan Forester (Chris Pratt). Determined to save the world for his young daughter, Dan teams up with a brilliant scientist and his estranged father in a desperate quest to rewrite the fate of the planet.”

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with director Chris McKay about how his past in animation prepared him to succeed across genres, the emotional punch in The Tomorrow War, and the great performance by Sam Richardson. Check out our video interview or read the full transcript below.

Tyler Treese: One of my favorite television shows of all time is Moral Orel. So I have to ask, seeing you blow up and have all this success. How do you go from directing that to something wholesome like the Lego Batman Movie, then a blockbuster action flick? How are you able to go across so many genres?

Chris McKay: I’m lucky, I guess. I’m really lucky that I’ve been in the right place at the right time in a couple of instances. I loved working on Moral Orel that was. I’d been working on Robot Chicken, and Moral Oral and Robot Chicken they sort of shared a space and a team of animators and things like that. So for half the year, we would do Robot Chicken, for the other half of the year we do Moral Oral. Working with Dino [Stamatopoulos] and Jay [Johnston] and Scott [Adsit] on Moral Orel was a real treat and a real education. So a lot of fun. I loved working on the show. I love the design of the puppets and it was fun.

It was fun to do storytelling in stop motion and sort of storytelling that went. It wasn’t just a bottle episode after bottle episode, it was storytelling that went on. You were rewarded if you paid attention over multiple episodes and things like that. That’s what was behind Dino’s initial impulse on that show is to really tell us the story about this family and that town. That was a lot of fun, but it was a great training ground for me because Robot Chicken was very sketch comedy-based. So being able to do storytelling in Moral Orel and Titan Maximum, that was great. That prepared the way for me to work on The Lego Movie with Chris and Phil, and then ultimately direct The Lego Batman Movie after that. Then I kind of bounced around developing some stuff and working on a few … sort of like helping out in other people’s movies a little bit, kind of behind the scenes.

Then I got the opportunity for The Tomorrow War, which was titled Ghost Draft when the script crossed my desk. I am a huge genre fan. I love genre movies and I love John Cassavetes movies. I love things that have heart and soul and sometimes wear their heart on their sleeve. So Tomorrow War is kind of a blending of all the things that I love. It’s a solid sci-fi, action, or genre movie, and it’s also got a character study and a family story kind of in its heart. So yeah, it kind of melds both worlds as far as I’m concerned.

What surprised me about The Tomorrow War is there’s so much great action, but there’s so much heart to the film. I think the theme of family and being able to accept your loved one’s mistakes and their ability to do better was so apt today. How did you connect personally to that?

That’s a good question. I think we all have, at one point or other, difficult relationships with our parents or our siblings. So for me being able to tell a story about generations, I don’t have kids, but I also think a lot about what’s the legacy you want to leave behind? How do you want to leave a world in a better place than the world that you found? What can I do to participate in making the world better? So a movie that kind of had stuff like that on its mind was something that was really attractive to me. Chris Pratt and J.K. [Simmon]’s relationship is a kind of relationship that I’ve seen in my life. It was something that I wanted to try to replicate. Chris and his relationship with his family and his struggles to sort of want to feel important, or to do some important things and stuff like that. I sympathize with them, and so for me, there’s a lot of stuff that was personal.

chris mckay interview the tomorrow war

There are some really emotional scenes between Chris Pratt and Yvonne. As a director, how do you approach those types of scenes and how are you able to give them the necessary breathing space?

Well, breathing space is a great way of putting it because on the scene on the beach, for instance, I just wanted them to be able to move anywhere they felt like moving. I didn’t want them to be tied down to blocking. So that creates a lot of problems for Larry, the DP, the camera operator, for everybody. It’s been important to me to let the actors feel like they could kind of just use the space to do anything that they wanted. So, and fortunately, we had a really great camera operator Lucas [Bielan], who was just like another actor in the scene. I mean, he literally did a dance with Yvonne and with Chris and just kind of followed them. I treated him like another actor in the way that I gave him direction and things like that.

He just responded to that kind of stuff. He would just wait for the right times to move, his instincts, he just got in sync with the way Chris and Yvonne were acting. So it gave them a lot of confidence to feel like they can move and that the focus pullers and everyone would find them in that scene. It starts giving them a bit of freedom to feel like they’re the priority, that their emotional landscape is the priority. That whatever they need to get to, the place they need to go, that that’s the priority, and then nothing else is going to stand in the way. That we’re going to capture it no matter what they do. I think maybe there’s a level of trust or something, but I think that’s what kind of got us to the place we needed to go with the emotional scenes.

I was glad that you brought up rewarding the viewer for paying attention to Moral Orel because I saw some similarities in The Tomorrow War, where there’s no filler and every scene has a meaning to it. There’s either character development or moving the plot forward. How important is it to make sure that every scene has a meaning and the viewer gets something out of it?

There’s a lot of movies. I mean, think we’ve all watched movies that it’s a great movie and we had a great time, but it’s like a movie that could have been told a little bit faster, a little more economically. The movie didn’t need to be over two hours long or that kind of thing. I knew that our movie was going to be long because I knew there was a lot of story to tell, especially with where the movie ends up going in the third act. So I really wanted us to pack as much as humanly possible into every scene.

So there had to be multiple layers of things going on, and particularly when talking about sort of like rewarding the audience I wanted the beginning of the movie to introduce you to some characters. You think that they’re there for one reason or another, but then they end up coming back later in the third act for a whole other reason. Because Chris is going to talk to J.K., Chris is going back for another reason other than just to get the plot moving. He’s going back there for character reasons, and it shows something that he’s changed and that kind of thing. So, for me, trying to pack that’s where getting everything into the writing before you start shooting as much as humanly possible. Really work that script before you show up on set. That’s where stuff like that’s really important cause otherwise payoffs like that don’t exist. That stuff can’t happen unless you’re really cramming it. I also have to give a lot of credit to the animatic team because I was doing a lot of previs and storyboards and animatic. So they would be pumping out versions of the scenes and then I’d sit down and watch them and I’d go, let’s try to get this in the scene. Let’s try and do that. So it’d be writing stuff into the scenes as we’re building these animatics before we started shooting so that we could just really make sure that the movie gave you as much information as humanly possible.

You have a great ensemble cast in this film. One of the breakout stars is Sam Richardson. He’s been really having a lot of momentum and I thought he was phenomenal in this role. He shows his comedy. He’s able to show an action side, which I wasn’t really expecting. How bright is his future?

When I pitched to the studio at Skydance and to Chris Pratt, my take on doing the movie before I was ever hired, the second or third to last panel in my keynote presentation was a picture of Sam Richardson and it said, “you need to hire this guy to play Charlie.” Even if you don’t use me as your director, hire this guy to play Charlie because he’s going to bring, you know, he’s a comedy generator, he’s got a great every man look. He’s also a really great actor. Sam brought emotional stuff to that character at times it was really moving, uh, to me. I can’t say enough good things about Sam. Sam’s the greatest. Any movie I do from here on out is going to have Sam if at all possible. So, I’m always going to hire Sam and I’m sure a lot of other people will.