Millennials grew up with Pokémon. They filled binders with the trading cards and waited eagerly to find out if they could trade with their friend for a Charizard or Pikachu. They stared in awe at the television screen as Mewtwo descended into view in the first movie and called out guesses to Who’s That Pokémon? after each of the anime episodes. They opened up their Nintendo DSes each day to try their hands at capturing and battling Pokémon in games like Pokémon Diamond. Then, these millennials got to live out their nostalgia, walking through parks and on beaches to become real-life trainers as they used their cellphones to track down grass or water types with Pokémon Go.
Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is one of those millennials. Smith grew up collecting those original Pokémon cards, playing Pokémon Gold on his Gameboy Color and even carrying around a figurine of his favorite Pokémon, Totodile, everywhere he went. Now, Smith will be carrying out the dream of many—interacting with real-life Pokémon—on the big screen. The 23-year-old stars as Tim Goodman, the son of ace detective Harry Goodman, who mysteriously goes missing. The film follows Tim’s journey through the streets of Ryme City to find out what happened to his father. During this investigation, Tim is joined by Harry’s former Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), who, perplexingly, Tim can understand each and every wise-crack, and Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a junior reporter following the story.
“When the trailer first came out, I forgot I was in the movie because I was just looking at the Pokémon,” gushed Smith of how it felt to be in a film that tapped into his childhood nostalgia. “I was such a fan growing up and this was exactly how I wanted to see them represented with fur and scales and fire and all of the cool textures our special effects team added. It’s kind of breathtaking when you see the imagery.”
Director Rob Letterman’s (Goosebumps, Monsters vs. Aliens) main introduction to the Poké-verse was as a parent to his Pokémon-obsessed 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.
“I figured I was spending so much personal money buying Pokémon cards and video games and toys that the only way I’d make the money back was to sign on and direct the feature film,” Letterman joked, explaining his kids were screaming “yes” before he could even respond when he got the call to direct the film. “I got the call [from Legendary Pictures] and Cale [Boyter] said it would be Detective Pikachu, which was its own video game. He told me a bit about the game, the main character, what the storyline of the game was and that’s what really made the most sense to me. The movie is very funny and irreverent [and has] huge adventure. But it’s really the heart of the film that I love, the themes of connection, hope and second chances and the broader theme of evolution, which is snaked in the whole Pokémon canon.”
Both Smith and Letterman explained that everyone who worked on the film was a Pokémon fan and that some crew members showed up in Pikachu T-shirts almost every day. While the two concurred that making the film was tons of fun, there was also meticulous care and thought put into the film from the cinematic techniques to the noir style. The Detective Pikachu team traveled back and forth to Tokyo throughout the two-year span of the project, working closely with the Pokémon Company and its divisions to make sure they followed the rules of the universe and stayed true to the spirit of the game and Pokémon as a whole.
“We put a lot of care to make sure it would please the hardcore fans,” said Letterman, who explained there are many Easter eggs throughout the film for fans to find. “It was a lot of care and collaboration with the original creators and other divisions of the Pokémon company, GameFreak, the creator of the cards, Ken Sugimori, the original artist who drew Pikachu for the first time. We sent him the concept art and he gave comments.”
In order to get the noir-style that is evident in the film, Letterman explained he pulled in things from 1940s noir movies like The Third Man and 1970s detective cop movies.
“We tried to incorporate this neo-noir look; I’m a huge fan of movies like the original Blade Runner and I grew up in Hawaii, so I was born and raised in this cross section of east meets west and I really wanted to make our city a mash up, a bridge between east and west, so that neo-noir look comes through,” said Letterman, shouting out John Mathieson for his work as the director of photography. “We shot in London, everything is location-based and then we dressed the buildings with that Tokyo style, so it’s a mashup of Tokyo and London.”
All of the movie is filmed on actual film to give an organic, gritty look and feel, so viewers could “feel like [the Pokémon] were actually alive,” Letterman said. All of the film was also shot on location—no green screen.
The film incorporated more than 50 unique Pokémon, meaning most of the cast was made up of CGI characters and that Smith was usually acting with something that wasn’t there.
“I had a little practice because I did this movie Jurassic World where I worked with CGI dinosaurs,” Smith said. “That was a little easier because all I had to do was run away screaming. This I had to interact in real time, so that made it difficult, but it was also more just a lot of fun. It reminded me of when I was a little kid, I used to play with imaginary friends or things like that. It wasn’t that different from playing pretend. The most challenging part was having to work off of something that wasn’t there, although Rob [Letterman] did try to make it an environment where I felt comfortable.”
“Justice and I rehearsed with Ryan [Reynolds] early to just get the flow and the chemistry going and Ryan is such a genius at improv and elevating the script to something that wasn’t even on the page,” said Letterman. “We rehearsed a lot and then we rehearsed one more time in London with Kathryn, Justice and Ryan, with his crazy facial capture rig we built for his head and went through the whole script. Early on, we picked several pivotal scenes of character moments, the back and forth, they’re in this café just having coffee and the scene in the apartment. I had Ryan there that day, he would stand just to the side of me, acting. We mic’d him and then Justice would look at a hand puppet or tennis ball and they would riff back and forth in the shot. Justice had to keep his eyeline on something different, so it was just a very difficult thing.”
While working with the CGI on location proved difficult, having it all come together in the end and work cohesively was rewarding for Letterman.
“The overall experience was a lot of fun and because I was mixing my childhood with my work, it kind of made it less like work and more like a good time,” said Smith.
Detective Pikachu, a Legendary Pictures Production in association with Toho Co., Ltd., and distributed outside of Japan and China by Warner Bros. Pictures, brought Pokémon to life on the big screen on May 10.
Rob Letterman’s Top Three Pokémon
“It’d have to be Pikachu because my whole career is dependent on him right now,” he joked.
“He’s super cool and my son’s favorite.”
“That’s the personal favorite because I identify with Psyduck. When he gets confused or stressed out, he gets these headaches and they turn into mind explosions that could take out city blocks.”