Why 'Detective Pikachu' Has Nothing to Do With Ash Ketchum or His Pikachu (Exclusive)

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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Since the Pokémon boom of the late '90s, there have been no less than 21 animated films, 22 seasons' worth of the anime series (not including spinoffs) and countless video games set within the expansive universe of the colorful, peculiar pocket monsters. But there had never been a live-action film.

So, when Detective Pikachu opens in theaters boasting photoreal Jigglypuff and Greninja, Pancham and, of course, Pikachu, it will be the first of its kind. It's also telling an entirely new story: Upon learning about the mysterious disappearance of his father, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) travels to Rhyme City, where he reluctantly teams up with a talking Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) to crack the case. On the phone with ET, director Rob Letterman discussed how he picked and chose which Pokémon to cast in the movie and why the first live-action Pokémon film doesn't include Ash Ketchum or his own trusty Pikachu.

ET: How well-versed in this world were you before this movie? Do you remember how you were first introduced to Pokémon?

I was introduced via my kids, so I'm well-versed as a parent and a purchaser of all things Pokémon for my two kids. They binge watch the television series, watch the anime movies, the Pokémon cards, the toys, the games, the Pokémon fashion. I mean, it's all over our house.

When you got hired onto this project, where did you jump in? Was there a script already? Or did you start with the game?

There was no script. Legendary and The Pokémon Company already knew they were going to do Detective Pikachu as the first live-action Pokémon movie and [had] the basic game script for that. I got the call and I dived in at that point. But it was already [decided] it was going to be Detective Pikachu.

Was actually playing the game the first step, then?

There was no game. The game was being developed in parallel [with the movie]. I was given access to the game's script, so I could see how the game would play in a sort of blueprint form.

The story follows many of the same beats as the game, but it is also very much its own thing. As you were breaking the script for the movie, how did you decide what you wanted to keep, where you wanted to go your own way, what new twists and turns you wanted to add?

My whole thing was just to pull the human story through and try to find the iconic set pieces that would tie into the game. That was the first stab at it. But it was really just mapping out the relationship of Tim and Detective Pikachu and crafting a movie story. That was the bulk of it, and then there's a lot of back and forth. It was a weird one because they were still working on the game, so there was a lot of influence back and forth. It was very malleable during the early development period.

Video game adaptations are notoriously pretty disastrous. Were there any pitfalls you knew you needed to avoid heading into this?

I get asked the question a lot. It really just didn't even occur to me. [Laughs] I never thought of it as a video game even though it was a video game and is based on the Detective Pikachu video game. But because my kids were so into Pokémon, there's so much story and mythology and character in its universe. I just looked at it as a movie adaptation of a larger Pokémon universe and just tried to dive into, What is our human character's journey? and just craft it [with] old-school storytelling. And then connect it into the larger Pokémon universe, whether it was [through] our little Easter eggs or specific references or what have you, to make it a part of the larger Pokémon mythology.

How did you approach making the movie for such a wide audience? You said your kids binge the anime series. My boyfriend, who is a 27-year-old man, also watches Pokémon every Saturday morning.

[Laughs] It's really interesting. Like, the Millennial generation is so big on Pokémon. I didn't even realize that until I got fully involved in the movie, how deep it goes for people in their twenties and early thirties. And a lot of the crew are big fans who grew up on Pokémon.

Listen, I'm a parent. I go to movies with my kids. I get it. I appreciate it when I can enjoy a movie alongside my kids, you know? And this was a perfect platform to do a movie for all age groups because it has an audience that is young now, the kids right now, but also the older generation that grew up on it. It plays for a pretty wide spectrum of people, and for me, it was just about making a movie, really, for adults that's appropriate and accessible to kids.

Do you know the total number of Pokémon included in the movie?

I don't. I know approximately. I'd hate to get this wrong because I do feel like people are going to start counting them. And how terrible if I had it off? It's around 54. But I don't know the exact, exact number. And there's over 800 Pokémon in the Pokédex, but we ran out of money around 54. [Laughs]

Of course, the story dictates some of the Pokémon involved, but how do you go about picking the others that build out this world, that you maybe only see in passing?

The Detective Pikachu game had a certain grouping that was already baked in. And then for the reasoning that we were just talking about, we went to the first generation Pokémon, the fan favorites, because we wanted to put in the Pokémon that people in their twenties and thirties would remember, the ones they grew up on, the nostalgia of that.

So, there was that whole grouping, and then we worked really closely with The Pokémon Company throughout the whole process of making the movie but especially in crafting the characters and getting those right. Erik Nordby, our visual effects supervisor, myself, and The Pokémon Company, we kind of combed through the list and tried to pull out the ones that we thought we could do a really great job bringing into the photoreal, CGI world.

Did you get any input from your kids on Pokémon you definitely needed to include?

Well, Mewtwo is my son's fave, so that was easy because that was already in there. My daughter loves Jigglypuff, so Jigglypuff snuck in. But they also haven't seen the movie yet, so I sort of keep them at a distance from it all, because I just want it all to be good and done before they check it out. [Laughs] But they have been living with it for quite some time, so they know all the ins and outs of the story.

As you came to become better versed in this world, were there any Pokémon that you personally wanted to include? And were there any you wanted to put in there but for whatever reason didn't make the cut?

Psyduck got in because I relate to Psyduck. A lot of people do. Just anyone who's neurotic and has slight-to-severe anxiety and gets stressed out and confused and headaches that makes their head explode, Psyduck is their familiar there. [Laughs] So, we got Psyduck in. And Mr. Mime was a big sort of ask, to put that into the movie.

And then the ones that didn't make it, there's little nods to them if you really look at the movie. There's legendary Pokémon that are, like, a big deal, and we have examples of them. We state clearly that they exist in our world, but we never got there. Not so much for budget reasons, but they have specific story components that wouldn't have worked in our Rhyme City setting.

What Pokémon was the most difficult to bring to the screen? Or which went through maybe the most revisions before its final end product?

It was Pikachu, for sure, because we just had to get it right. And so we put a lot of time and effort into that one. It's the co-star of the movie. And the face of Pokémon, really, is Pikachu. So, that took about a year of development before we even started shooting the movie, going through different iterations. Trying to make sure we hit the silhouette of Pikachu correctly while at the same time interpreting it into the live-action world was very, very sophisticated CGI work that went into bringing that one to life.

Were there any radically different versions along the way? Or was it smaller tweaks to really hone in on it?

It was all smaller tweaks. One of the defining principles of all the character work was to start with the original drawings from Ken Sugimori. The original model sheets are what we started with, and then start applying a variety of photoreal textures until we figured out the language for each character, of what their natural world equivalent surface details would be. It was an iterative process really, but we always stuck to the silhouettes of the Pokémon so that we stayed on point.

This may be a bigger Warner Bros./Pokémon Company question, but were there ever any concerns about claiming Pikachu and Psyduck as the main Pokémon of this movie, if the studio ever wanted to do a movie centered on Ash and Misty and that crew?

That's above my paygrade. I don't know that. But one of the things about the way Pokémon works is Pikachu, Psyduck, they're species. So, Ash's Pikachu is a very different Pikachu than Detective Pikachu.

Right. Were there conversations about tying this movie more closely to the Kanto region? Or giving any more obvious tips of the hat to the stories of Ash or Misty or Brock?

Yeah. I mean, we do that in the movie. We do mention Kanto region on purpose. We do a lot of things to tie us into the rest of the Pokémon universe, so it's all one cohesive world. So, we mention Kanto region. Having Mewtwo in the movie, just in and of itself, connects all the dots. Even the battle posters in Tim's bedroom are all nods to the rest of the Pokémon storyline.

But it never went as far as, Let's get a cameo from Team Rocket in here?

No, no. The Pokémon Company were pretty specific about wanting to invest in building out Rhyme City as its new region and not undercut Tim Goodwin and Detective Pikachu's storyline.

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