Brad Bird: Hollywood isn’t brave enough to copy Pixar process
Posted in: Movies
A dazzling new Blu-ray edition of “The Incredibles” was released in April, and we screened the film at the final day of the Hero Complex Film Festival. In both settings, the 2004 movie continues to live up to its name. Hero Complex’s Geoff Boucher recently talked to Brad Bird, the writer and director of the superhero classic (as well as the director of December’s upcoming “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” with Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) and got him to reflect on the Parr family, the secret sauce of Pixar and his soft spot for Sean Connery as 007.
GB: Pixar has become the gold standard among popcorn films as far as storytelling, and I’m wondering if the process of animation — and having the story locked in before the animators get to work — is one of the reasons. What I mean is, Pixar creators need to tighten the bolts on its plot and character before the animation process starts, while today with live-action films it’s not unusual to see summer blockbusters start shooting without a finished script.
BB: I don’t know if that’s exactly true. We’re still tinkering with the story at the start of the equivalent of principal photography, which is the beginning of animation, when we’re still trying to find everything. We usually have a sequence that we know has to be in the movie, because it’s one of the big plot turns, and it’s usually 20 to 30 minutes in and it’s the shift from Act 1 to Act 2 or something that’s crucial. That will usually go into production first, because any version of the movie that would exist will have that scene in it. But the stuff around it — and often the opening — is what you do at the end, because what the opening needs to be shifts a little depending on the movie you’re exploring. So I would not say that we ever have have completely locked scripts [at the beginning of the animating work]; they are in the process of being remade as the film is in the works. There are some films like “Toy Story 2″ and “Ratatouille” where it is really last minute, chaos reigning, trying to get the stuff ready for the animators so no one was sitting idle and drawing a paycheck.
GB: Pixar is widely admired but, really, rarely copied. Why do you think that is?
BB: Everyone in Hollywood says they wish they could do it like Pixar, but they really don’t. There’s no secret at Pixar, but there is a belief in letting people pursue something with passion and take chances, and most of Hollywood, really, doesn’t like that. It’s too scary. Some studio executives will say they love obsessive creators who take risks, but really most of them would rather play it safe. Projects cost a lot of money and people would rather follow patterns they know and make things safe and accessible. Hollywood wants there to be a math formula for making hit films. To make something really great and different and interesting means taking risks and following these ideas in your head.
GB: “The Incredibles” really brings a smile to the face of any die-hard comic book fan — it’s such a lively and loving satire of the comics that we all grew up with. At the same time, the movie is completely satisfying to that wide general audience that has only a vague sense of superhero lore. Did that take special care on your part? Did you try to create a movie that would thrive with both those constituencies?
BB: If you worry too much about that, you’re just bound to fail. You have to kind of go into stories with a strong sort of “I’m doing this” sort of attitude, or else it comes off as sort of tiptoeing. I didn’t know that much about superheroes, and the funny thing is when I go to things like comic book conventions, I get asked a lot of questions by people who assume that I do know, so they refer to things and the chances are probably 999 out of a 1,0o0 that I have not read it, you know, issue No. 47 of “Atomic Man.” I got my superhero stuff secondhand from movies or television, which is practically heresy to a comic-book guy. But I did have affection for superheroes.
GB: Talk a bit about the process of finding your heroes then…
BB: When I first started toying around with the idea, I tried to come up with brand-new powers for the characters, and I realized very quickly that all of them had been done unless they were stupid, like, “He drools on people.” The comic-book superhero genre is so vast and so sort of trodden-over that some guy out there could have self-published a hundred issues in Omaha. Someone, somewhere had done just about everything with powers. Just as quickly as I realized all the powers had been done, I also realized that I wasn’t that interested in them. I was interested in how it interfaced with family or having a life and getting up in the morning. And then very quickly I said, “Well, if you were to have powers based on family members and their position in the family” then that would be a very interesting way to get into the movie: Dads are supposed to be strong, so I made him strong; mothers are supposed to be infinitely flexible, so I made her infinitely flexible; teenage girls are insecure and a little defensive, so I had her be invisible and gave her force fields; 10-year-old boys are energy balls and race everywhere, so I made him super fast; and babies are unknowns, they could be the next president of the United States or a bum — or both.
GB: I showed some old James Bond films recently to my young son and he said, “Wow, these remind me of ‘The Incredibles,’ ” which made me smile.
BB: Wow, I lucked out, I got to him first! Yes, I really love the Bond films and they had a commitment to very caricatured worlds. They did this crazy stuff with absolute conviction but with wit at the same time, fully aware of how preposterous some of this stuff was. I remember my mom saying about “Goldfinger” that she was home and in bed before she realized the extent that her leg had been pulled…. I think if you’re willing to do something crazy but with bravado you can win the audience over and certainly the Sean Connery films — Bond at his best — were great at doing just that. Sean Connery with a seagull on his head and he throws that off and infiltrates the base and then peels off his wetsuit and he’s got a dinner jacket on. That stuff is catnip.
GB: The humor was compartmentalized in those films, so they wouldn’t undermine the scenes of peril…
BB: Absolutely. Connery had the right exact attitude. In the action scenes he looked like he was genuinely afraid rather than of being a hard-ass that he’s not worried. He was wonderful at portraying genuine fear, and I feel that Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford kind of took their cues from him on how to sell action on a screen. Part of the reason “Die Hard” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and things like that work so well is that the actors really get that people don’t want invulnerable heroes. It’s far more interesting to see heroes who are afraid and then go ahead anyway.
GB: What are some of the other compass points you had for this film, as far as tone or the action sequences?
BB: One of things that people get wrong is they toss off too many witty comments — and this is really true in animation — and we tried to avoid that like the plague in “The Incredibles.” When you’re in danger, be in danger, don’t be making wisecracks and tossing things off. You don’t need to be sweating and crying but at least show that you’re worried. I tried to do that in “Iron Giant” as well. The trouble we have in animation is that the medium itself encourages the audience to believe that people can’t be hurt. The coyote falls off a cliff and he dusts himself off and goes after the roadrunner again. So in these films I made sure that people saw that when something happened, it hurt. We had that problem in spades with “The Incredibles” because not only were they animated they were also superheroes. The challenge was showing people that do amazing things but still have feeling.
GB: I remember the scene where Mr. Incredible is being held captive and he believes his family is about to die. There’s a real wrenching emotion to that sequence; there was nothing flimsy about that peril or the weight of consequence.
BB: Thanks for saying so. You know, in the prologue of the film, there’s a moment when Mr. Incredible positions himself in front of a hurtling train and, for a fleeting second, he winces. “It’s quick, maybe a second long, but it’s a shot to tell everyone that ‘This is going to hurt.’ Those little touches, if you are diligent about them, they get the audience really involved, because that’s the reality that they know. This is blown often with superheroes. There was some movie with Will Smith where he kind of deflected things that have real weight behind them; you can do that, you can deflect them, but don’t discount the weight or the fact that your inertia is going to be affected by it. What that does is announce to the audience that this is a special effect. I know that sounds funny coming from me, because on “The Incredibles” this was a movie that was announcing its cartoon-iness the whole time, but we were really trying to get people worried when the missiles were surrounding the jet plane, for instance, and that was a challenge the animators were really into. We loved that it was difficult, because we knew if we did it right, it would be something amazing and unusual.
— Geoff Boucher
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