From Iron Giant to The Incredibles: The Incredible World of Brad Bird
Writer/director Brad Bird started his first animated film at age 11, finishing it at age 13. The film brought him to the attention of Walt Disney Studios where, at age 14, Bird was mentored by Milt Kahl, one of Disney's legendary animators known as the Nine Old Men. Bird eventually worked as an animator at Disney and at other studios.
Bird includes among his credits serving as executive consultant to the hit animated television series King of the Hill, The Simpsons and The Critic. He is also creator (writer, director and co-producer) of the Family Dog episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories. In addition, Bird co-wrote the screenplay for the live-action feature *batteries not included, but gained critical acclaim for his animated masterpiece, The Iron Giant. Bird's latest feature, The Incredibles, is also gaining considerable attention. The movie follows the adventures of a family of former superheroes rediscovering the true source of their powers - in one another. Once one of the world's top masked crime fighters, Bob Parr (AKA Mr. Incredible) fought evil and saved lives on a daily basis. But fifteen years later, he and his wife Helen (a famous former superhero in her own right) have been forced to take on civilian identities and retreat to the suburbs. Today they live as mere mortals and lead all-too-ordinary lives with their children... who go out of their way to appear "normal." As a clock-punching insurance man, the only thing Bob fights these days is boredom and a bulging waistline. Itching for action, the sidelined superhero gets his chance when a mysterious communication summons him to a remote island for a top-secret assignment. Now, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the family must come together and once again find the fantastic in their family life.
Bird talked about that film and the upcoming special edition DVD of Iron Giant, which continues to be discovered by audiences.
Paul: How long have you been working The Incredibles and talking about what inspired you to want to do an action movie?
Brad: Probably action movies, I had the idea about twelve years ago, long before Iron Giant, which I just kept tinkering on in the back of my brain. At any one time I have five or six ideas that are at various stages of being assembled and that was one that I was always returning to and nailing another board onto and buffing something and I wasn't aware of it at the time but I think it came out of the fact that I was trying to get movies off the ground. I was working on The Simpsons and really enjoying it, but my first love is movies and I was trying to get movies off the ground and having some difficulty. At the same time I had a new family and so it was that anxiety out of where best to spend, devote your time, like if you did what was necessary to break through in the movies would you be shorting your family and if you were truly a great dad, would you ever crack through the movies? I think, in a weird way, that is why I kept returning to this idea. In that the movie is about that anxiety of finding meaningful work and being a great member of your family, so it is that struggle.
Paul: What's interesting about Incredibles and Iron Giant, you didn't make films that were specifically for children. and have taken the animation art form to a kind of a higher level. Was that your intention as a writer because The Simpsons isn't specifically for children, either.
Brad: No, no it isn't. When talking to people about animation, I have often heard people call it a genre and I disagree strongly with that; it is not a genre, it is an art form that can do ANY genre and shouldn't do it exactly the way that a live action film does it but I think it could tackle any subject that you could name if it did it in a way that took advantage of the medium. My goal when I set out to make a film is just to make a good film, a film that I would want to watch and it doesn't get any deeper than that, I don't aim it at any specific audience, nor do I think any good film maker should, because there is something patronizing about that goal. I don't like this but little Billy will like this. I mean little Billy probably won't like it if you don't like it. I think that you have to like something first and then hope that other people agree with you.
Paul: With all the voice over resumes that you looked at, why did you decide to hire yourself?
Brad: When you are doing an animated film you do the story boards and you kind of rough out what you are trying to do, well you also use temporary voices to hear the lines and see how they time out, so you cast within the company, within Pixar we cast people within Pixar to get in the ball park. Every once in a while some of the voices stick. The baby sitter, Carrie, is one of our animators, Brett Parker, and Rick Dicker the kind of crusty government guy is Bud Lucky. I actually had to be conned into leaving my voice in there because, but other people thought it should stay and so there it is.
Paul: Did you develop that voice as you went along?
Brad: That is just, she is a really weird character and probably the days I was happiest as a writer on this were the days I was writing scenes with her. I just like her.
Paul: She has the best lines in the film ---
Brad: Well, I thought it was funny to have someone who idolizes super heroes but also intimidates them. Even though she is tiny and has no powers she just rolls right over them and I like it that they were only unsettled with you.
Paul: Were you inspired by Linda Hunt?
Brad: You know, she has come up, other people have mentioned, Edith Head, and people have mentioned that she looks like Patricia Highsmith, you know, we just sit there and draw it and draw it over again. If you get The Art Of Incredibles book you will see some of our other attempts where she is fatter and older and thinner and we tried a lot of things and we arrived at that and then people make their own connections and you kind of go, ok, that is valid, that is valid too, yeah, I kind of like that, I also like that.
Paul: Who's family did you have in mind when you were writing it?
Brad: You know, I have two families, I have the family that I grew up in and the family that I now have with my wife and sons and I drew on all of them. I have been the annoying little brother, I have had a ringside seat at the torrid drama that is teenage adolescent women, I had three older sisters and watched them through the door slamming phase - slam, I will never talk to you again, slam - the theatrical stuff like that, so I had a ring side seat for that I was the fussed over baby and I am the clueless dad and I have a wife who is endlessly patient with my bone headedness. So I didn't have to look too far.
Paul: As a writer/director, do you approach the script of a film like this as a conventional screenplay or do you write it visually?
Brad: Well, I think that a screen play is a screen play, is a screen play and that the scenes have a structure and you try to write it in a way that is brief but to the point that doesn't feel rushed so that the plot is both surprising and inevitable and you relate to it. I would say the only thing is, that I have been an animator and I look to write scenes that I would want to animate and they are not always defined the way most people would define a good scene to animate, because I think most people think a good scene to animators is somebody juggling balls while being on a unicycle or something that is, you know, flamboyant. I think the scene of Bob and Frozone talking in the car where they are just sitting there is a great scene to animate because they are two very different characters that get along with each other, have a shared history, have a lot of the same point of views on things but also disagree, you know, what are we doing here Bob, we are protecting people, you know, and he is slumped over and nobody asked us, you know, they are two distinct visual approaches to movement. A lot of people get obsessed, back in the Two Die days, which I hope are still continuing and think will continue on, by the way, people were always talking about the number of drawings, but they didn't realize that there were a lot of films that had a lot of drawings, smooth animation but all the characters moved the same, they moved smoothly but, you know, old people moved the same as young people, men moved the same as women, fat people moved the same as thin people and that is not the way people are, if you look around this table right now, we are all here, we are all in one moment in time, but every single person, freeze and look around, every single person has a different unique way of sitting and a way of listening and that's what animation is about, is capturing that and catching the essence of something, a distillation of something, it's not about recreating reality, it is about catching the essence of reality and making it believable.
Paul: Can you look back at the Iron Giant, which made most critics best 10 lists' of that of its year, and feel a certain degree of cynicism about the way the film industry works, when that movie was so ineptly marketed and almost thrown away?
Brad: Well, I think the way I have ended up looking at it, certainly I was very disappointed that people couldn't find it, because if they went to it, they would recommend it and that holds true to this day, if somebody sees it, I am almost startled by how active they feel in pushing it to somebody else. I think the way that I feel about it now is I got to make the movie I wanted to make and people are discovering it more all the time. In fact, a special edition DVD is coming out two weeks after The Incredibles opens.
Paul: Really, what is so special about the DVD?
Brad: It has a commentary, it has all the stuff the first one would have had if they hadn't pushed it out there really quick, so it has commentary, it has some deleted scenes, it has goodies on it so, and it is a new transfer, which I think is really gorgeous, so I can't feel too bad about it because it is the movie that I set out to make and so is The Incredibles. I don't know how many people can say that, that they get to make the movie that they set out to make two times in a row, so I am very gratified that people are catching up with the film and really beginning to notice it and if The Incredibles helps people to go back and see it, which is a good thing.
Paul: Do you see yourself making the leap or the transition, into live action films?
Brad: I have been interested in live action a long time and I have developed live action projects during that period that I was frustrated about that didn't go and I think those would have been just as good as some of the films that I have made. I think that people spend too much energy thinking about animation as a separate medium, that failures or successors of an animated film are also the failures and successors of a live action film. You are still talking about characters and getting audiences invested in them and taking the audience on a journey that hopefully they feel emotional about so you are still dealing with camera angles and costumes and colour and music and rhythm of editing and acting. It really is just film and I have ideas for both animated things and live action things, I wouldn't say that if I move into live action that means that I am never returning to animation. I think that is true of some animation directors because they feel that they have to go to live action to get respect, because I have people very, meaning well say to me, well, when are you going to do a real movie and I am like, didn't I just do one, isn't it in colour and doesn't it have characters and don't you follow it as a story but, certainly I have, I love the film medium and I would love to work in anything under that umbrella.
Paul: Will there be a The Incredibles II?
Brad: I don't know.
Paul: Is there a door open to it?
Brad: Well, you know, I think some people nowadays think that anytime a movie is successful it magically is a franchise and I don't think that is true of every project. I don't think that we need Jaws II, however, I do think we need Empire Strikes Back or Godfather II or Road Warrior or a Goldfinger so I think that if you get the original film makers and the intent of the original filmmakers is to equal or better the one that everyone like then they believe going in that they can do that then I would, you know, I love these characters and I would, you know, if I could do Incredibles II that was to Incredibles what Toy Story II was to Toy Story, I would do it.
The Incredibles opens on Friday.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.