Since the turn of the century, director Brad Bird has galvanized Hollywood with animated masterpieces The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Now he’s boosted a sagging spy franchise with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, his live-action thriller that has ironically blown past comics-based blockbusters like Captain America and Green Lantern to become the year’s finest action film.
“A lot of live-action directors have to describe things, but if you work in animation you describe things by visualizing them,” the Oscar-winning Bird told Wired.com by phone last Friday, as Ghost Protocol opened in limited IMAX release. “That part came fairly easy to me, especially when it came time to realize the vision with cameras.”
Bird has become increasingly brilliant at realizing his alternately hilarious and striking visions. He’s been on an undeniable roll ever since his teenage apprenticeship with legendary animator Milt Kahl – one of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men – and his Cal Arts friendship with Pixar Animation Studios’ John Lasseter.
Last century, Bird helped shape legacies for The Simpsons, The Critic and King of the Hill. This century, he scooped up Oscar statues for Best Animated Feature winners Ratatouille and The Incredibles.
Stuck in the middle of Bird’s stellar resume is his sublime animated feature debut, The Iron Giant, which remains one of the most intelligent, moving sci-fi films of any format and era, despite its studio’s maddening inability to understand or market it.
Bird’s made stunning films from the start, and the PG-13 Ghost Protocol, which opens wide Wednesday, fits his curriculum vitae like a virtual glove. The director talks about Mission Impossible’s resurrection, Tom Cruise’s balls, Alfred Hitchcock’s genius, the future of his stalled disaster epic 1906 and much more in the interview below.
Your live-action debut was going to be 1906, so how did you get involved with Ghost Protocol?
Brad Bird: It’s just one of those happy coincidences of timing. I was working on 1906 right after Ratatouille, when suddenly I looked up and a couple of years had gone by. I was still wrestling with story problems, and didn’t want the rest of my career to read, “He worked on 1906.” I wanted to actually make something. So I set 1906 aside and started looking around for films that were already in motion. Michael Giacchino – who not only created the score for Ghost Protocol but also my previous two films, Ratatouille and The Incredibles, and had also worked with J.J. Abrams on Lost, Star Trek and the last Mission: Impossible film – and I were having lunch at Bad Robot when J.J. walked by and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was just looking around, and that night he sent me a text that just said, “Mission?” It was just one of those things that happened at the right time. It was also a chance to work with both J.J. and Tom, which sounded like a lot of fun.
How was the transition to live-action, given that you’ve worked in animation your entire life?
Bird: I had been interested in doing live-action almost as long as I’ve been doing animation. As you said, I started making animated films from a very early age. But the act of trying to figure out the language of film – which you’re forced to confront if you’re making any film, even if it’s a handmade one for yourself and your friends – made me aware that certain filmmakers were speaking that language really well. So it was great to finally make one, although it’s slightly different in how you get the moments onto the screen. But a lot of it is the same: You’re still trying to have characters the audience can connect with, and still be surprising yet somehow inevitable in retrospect when you tell a story. It’s all the language of film.
Do you find that having worked in animation, where the possibilities are endless, has given you additional advantages that filmmakers trained in live-action might not have at the ready?
Bird: I don’t know. I can’t comment on how other people approach it, but I know that animation does encourage you to pre-visualize, to be able to imagine something fairly thoroughly. If I’m explaining something to someone in animation, I often find myself picking up a pencil and drawing out what I want. You’re actually showing people what is on your mind, and you start speaking visually earlier. A lot of live-action directors have to describe things, but if you work in animation you describe things by visualizing them. That part came fairly easy to me, especially when it came time to realize the vision with cameras. And it was fun to work with a cinematographer as sharp as Robert Elswit.
Did you find that your actors had an easy time rolling with your visualization, especially Cruise, as he was sitting on the tallest skyscraper in the world?
Bird: [Laughs] They were really game, and they don’t come any gamer than Tom Cruise. He really loves doing his own stunts, and he’s also a real student of film. His deep knowledge goes all the way back to the silent era, so you can really discuss stuff with him in detail. And you can shorthand, and he’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. Even though Tom is aggressive and pushes hard to make a moment great, I’m really comfortable with that, because that’s how I like to work too. So it was just fun to be with someone who enjoys the medium as much as I do. The same goes for the entire cast. It sounds like some corny promo piece, but it was a joy to go to work with really creative people on Ghost Protocol.
It’s interesting that you talk about your shared reverence for film with Tom, because Ghost Protocol had many moments that recalled the thriller genre’s rich history. The chase and skyscraper scenes in Dubai felt like they sneakily quoted Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, and the brawl with the briefcase at the finale seemed like a quick nod to John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man. Do you plan any of these allusions, or are these things people who study film history just can’t help but pick up on?
Bird: I do, but I don’t think of them in a mechanical way. It’s not like I’m carefully crafting shots to remind viewers of moments from other great films. It’s more like I love all of those films, and am inspired by them. It’s funny that you mention North By Northwest, because what was on my mind during the sandstorm chase in Dubai was how to make a suspense scene in the middle of the day, and North By Northwest’s crop duster sequence is the greatest example of that. Usually with suspense, you aim for darkness and claustrophobic spaces. But Hitchcock set that scene in the middle of the day, in a cornfield with an infinite field of view, which broke all the rules and delivered an amazing sequence. So yeah, I was inspired by that.
I was also tremendously inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, the way that film enjoyed its own movie-ness without taking away from any of its action or suspense. It had a sense of humor about itself. But I don’t think about these things in a deliberate way. I’m just trying to evoke the feelings that a lot of these other movies evoked in me. And learn from these guys, because they’re masters.
And because I love the medium. It’s the puzzle that can never be figured out. And you don’t have to look that far for good examples; you can go see the Coen Bros. version of True Grit. When you see a bad movie, it can make you feel that the medium is played out, that it’s been around too long, that every story has been told, that it’s a bore. You can start closing down. And the antidote to that is to see anything great. If I see a lousy movie and get depressed about the medium, I slap on something wonderful like The Godfather, and suddenly film seems brand new to me. I remember that its possibilities are endless.
So what’s your protocol now that Ghost Protocol has wrapped? Are you going back to 1906?
Bird: Well, I have a lot of ideas that I would love to pursue. But I haven’t figured out which one I want to focus on next. You never know what will actually get backed. You have to convince someone to pay for this stuff, because it’s not cheap. But we’ve been working on the 1906 script as I was shooting Ghost Protocol, so if we can address its story challenges, I think it would make a great film. So we’ll see.
Are any of the ideas in your head animation features, perhaps a sequel to The Incredibles?
Bird: Yes, absolutely, although for The Incredibles I want to be driven by figuring out a story that I really want to tell, rather than make the film because it would be easy to market. The bar has been set very high at Pixar, especially with the Toy Story sequels, which I think are every bit as good as the original film. I think it could even be argued that they’re better, although all three are really great films. So I wouldn’t want another Incredibles film to be anything less than the one we already made; I’d want it to be as good or better. I do have bits of another Incredibles film in mind, but I haven’t got it all figured out yet. But if I was able to figure it out, I’d love to work with those characters again.
Can you tell us about your other ideas for animation or even live-action films?
Bird: No, I think it dissipates the energy when I start talking about it too much in detail. It’s better to fumble my way through the dark and see if I can crack it. If I can get it to the point where I can crack it, hopefully I can con someone into backing it! [Laughs]
Finally, I have to ask you about The Iron Giant, which could be my favorite film of all time. It never got the love it deserved, but its cachet only seems to be growing as the years pass.
Bird: You should inform Warner Bros. of that! [Laughs]
I’m trying! But what do you think about the way it has gracefully aged?
Bird: Well, I love that The Iron Giant has had a resilient afterlife. It was kind of rough when the film came out, because we all worked really hard on it. No one really seemed to know what it was when it was released, and not that many saw it in theaters. We kept getting these really strange reports of only 30 people being in the theaters, although the 30 would spontaneously applaud at the end. So it was bittersweet: People really reacted well to it, but there were only a handful of them.
But the fact that it has endured, and that people are gradually discovering it, really makes all of us who worked on it feel really great. I’m trying to get Warner Bros. to give it a limited theatrical reissue, like they did with Blade Runner a few years ago. You never know: I may actually get them to do that, because I obviously think the best way to see it is in the theater on the big screen. We’ll see what happens. These things have a way of sticking around, which is nice.
This interview appeared in Wired