Interview: Daniel Junge And Kief Davidson, Directors Of 'Beyond The Brick' A LEGO Brickumentary chronicles how children and adults alike use Legos for work, play and therapy. The documentary also explores the Lego Group's near demise — and meteoric return.
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More Than A Toy: Lego Enthusiasts Have Built A Community

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More Than A Toy: Lego Enthusiasts Have Built A Community

More Than A Toy: Lego Enthusiasts Have Built A Community

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

You're tuned to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. And I'll admit it - I'm a total AFOL - that's adult fan of Lego. Devotion to Lego isn't really unusual these days, when from toys to TV shows to the big screen, Lego seems to have achieved world domination. But back in 2003, the company nearly went bankrupt. The amazing rebirth of the brick is chronicled in the new film "A LEGO Brickumentary." I spoke with the co-directors - Keif Davidson and Daniel Junge.

KEIF DAVIDSON: They lost track of why this toy is so great - that there's infinite possibilities we have just building with Lego bricks.

DANIEL JUNGE: We explore that they really in some ways lost touch with the community that had grown up around their toy. And in many ways, our film is about that ever-expanding community and the amazing things that they're doing with this so-called toy.

RATH: One of the things that got Lego back on track - Mindstorms - the kits you can use to build programmable robots. They were intended for children. But as the documentary explains, AFOLS took the bait.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A LEGO BRICKUMENTARY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Half of the sales were to adults for adult use.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Then there was someone who liked Lego who was at Stanford and was like this brick, I could hack that open and then reverse engineer it. And they were opening up the Mindstorms and writing new software for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Within three months, a thousand hackers were working on it.

DAVIDSON: One big factor in their resurgence was the fact that they opened the doors to the hackers. The hackers came in and made that product better.

RATH: There's kind of a moment of truth in the film where Lego has to decide how they respond to their product being cracked open and modified.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, for sure. Well, look, you know, the AFOL community, which is the adult fan of Lego - you'll hear that a lot in the film - you know, they made a very conscious decision at a certain part. We could keep this closed as a company or we could open it up. And as soon as it was opened up, you know, they realized - and they say in the film that, look, 99 percent of the people out there are smarter than us. You know, so they took that knowledge that's out there and they embraced it. And that was, I think, the big turning point for Lego as a company.

RATH: Talk about the range of these Lego enthusiasts. And use the acronyms as you need to because it's an amazing community.

JUNGE: It's a huge community. It's maybe a little bit geeky at its core, but it really embraces all aspects of our culture. And in fact, we interview famous AFOLs, if you will, in the film, including, you know, NBA player Dwight Howard, pop musician Ed Sheeran. But we're also seeing people use it in ways which are, you know, far different from whatever Lego probably expected. You know, it's being used as a tool in the film. It's being used for therapy. It's being used for engineering and city planning. It really makes you question whether at its core it's a toy or something greater.

RATH: Talk about these conventions where these - where these enthusiasts meet up.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, these conventions, they're all over the country. We focused mainly on three - BrickCon, Brickworld and BrickFair. And that was really the first glimpse for us as to just how enormous these conventions are and the fan base and just how many AFOLs there are - the adult fans of Lego.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A LEGO BRICKUMENTARY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: For me, this is the class reunion with all your best friends once a year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: AFOLs are definitely a community, very much so. And thank you Internet for making that happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: It was kind of a light bulb when I go on the Internet and I'm like wow, there's other people that like doing this.

DAVIDSON: I always looked at Lego as being something that you just sort of play with on your own as a kid. But here's a huge group of adults that actually would build remotely together. Someone in one - you know, in Tennessee would build one part where someone else in South Carolina may build another part, come together at these conventions and show their stuff together. It was a real sort of collaborative, wonderful thing going on at the conventions that was surprising to see.

RATH: I know I've seen with my kids - I have a daughter - Lego's been making a push to appeal more to girls. What's the gender balance like at these conventions?

JUNGE: Well, historically, it's - it's skewed much more towards boys. And in the adult communities, you see more men doing it, but that's changing. I mean, obviously, Lego's addressing that. But in the adult community, you're seeing women start to build. And some of the best builders are women. We profile a woman named Alice Finch, who did a scale model of Rivendell from "Lord Of The Rings," which is just unbelievable.

RATH: Beautiful.

JUNGE: And when you see it in the film, it is unbelievable. And, you know, she's as strong of a builder as we've ever encountered.

RATH: Among the wide and really surprising range of uses Lego has been put to, one of the most affecting to see is being used in therapy with autistic children.

DAVIDSON: I mean, it was definitely one of the most unexpected things for both of us. And that was kind of the point of the film, too. It's like Lego is more than just a toy. And in the case of autism, with this boy, it was a tool that really helped him - his name is Adrian (ph) - and it really helped him focus. And focus was, like, his biggest problem. But he sat down with a Lego kit - a Star Wars X-Wing fighter - and he would uninterrupted just build this thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A LEGO BRICKUMENTARY")

ADRIAN: I'm having a bit of trouble attaching this part. And if I don't get it right, then it's not going to work.

JUNGE: And we found a doctor, Dr. Dan LeGoff - yes, that is his name - who's using this formally as a therapeutic tool. And he's actually been printed in scientific publications doing so, so that was greatly surprising to both of us.

RATH: There are building toys. But is there - has there been anything - was there anything like Lego, any kind of precedent for Lego?

JUNGE: There are other construction toys. You can think of Lincoln Logs or Erector sets. But I - there's been no other construction toy to my mind that has the ability to build with such complexity and yet is such a simple system. It's a binary system. It's a stud and a tube and click, they fit together. We all know that experience. And it transcends really language and age and cultural boundaries and really has become something universal.

RATH: Is there - did you get a sense from the leadership at Lego what their next kind of big plan is? Did they have anything...

JUNGE: They don't - they were very open to us. But the design room was the one area which our cameras were off limits.

DAVIDSON: Just continued world domination.

JUNGE: It's like the chocolate room, "Willie Wonka."

DAVIDSON: Yeah, for sure.

RATH: Daniel Junge and Keif Davidson are the co-directors of the new film "A LEGO Brickumentary." Gentlemen, thanks very much.

JUNGE: Thanks so much for having us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you.

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