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November 02, 2011

‘Mission: Impossible’: Brad Bird goes into Cruise control

Posted in: Movies

The Los Angeles Times Holiday Sneaks issue runs Sunday, here’s an early look at one of the stories.

Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Tom Cruise, Brad Bird and Paula Patton on the set of "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol" (David James/Paramount)

Brad Bird, who has two Oscars for his Pixar films, is on a mission to make his first live-action blockbuster but, on a recent morning, as he regaled some journalists with behind-the-scenes tales of Hollywood, there was really only one word to describe his raconteur style: animated.

Waving his arms, hunching over and making high-decibel sound effects, the writer-director was a one-man cartoon as he unspooled a story about working on the “Ratatouille” recording sessions with Peter O’Toole. It was a good story but one suspects Bird will walk away from his new project, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” with far more exotic memories.

The fourth film in the “Mission” franchise, with Tom Cruise back as super-spy Ethan Hunt, opens everywhere on Dec. 21 and, five days before that, it will get a special early run at IMAX and select prestige theaters. It was Bird who pushed hard for that early giant-screen plan — he is, quite literally, thinking big for this key career moment. But don’t think for a minute that he’s sour on his cartoon past.

“I’m not like some animation directors and like, ‘Thank God I’m out of animation and sitting at the adult’s table, I’m tired of sitting at the kid’s table,’” Bird said with a mock, raspy anger. “I have other ideas I’d love to do in animation. My ideal career from here would be to jump back and forth and let the project dictate what medium I work in. To me it’s all storytelling.”

Paula Patton plays Jane and Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" (Joe Lederer/Paramount Pictures)

The story this time starts in Russia where the Kremlin is bombed and the blame is put on Hunt and his three IMF teammates (portrayed by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton), who must embark on a perilous globetrotting mission to get to the true villains. Shooting a Paramount Pictures tentpole in Dubai; Prague, Czech Republic; Moscow; Mumbai, India; and Vancouver, Canada, shows how much ground Bird has covered since his drawing-table days. The 54-year-old Montana native started his career as an animator with early credits like “Animalympics” in 1980 (produced, by the way, by “Tron” writer-director Steven Lisberger)  and Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” a year later.

Even if audiences weren’t paying attention, Bird caught the attention of Hollywood insiders as the writer-director of the underappreciated 1999 gem “Iron Giant.” His work on “The Incredibles” — which showed a sly appreciation for classic James Bond films and the spirit of spy cinema  –  and “Ratatouille” led to two screenwriting Oscar nominations and a pair of trophies for best animated feature.

For Cruise, this year is the 30th anniversary of his first two films, “Endless Love” and “Taps,” and he has high hopes that this new “Mission” will light a bigger fuse at the box office than his last movie, James Mangold’s “Knight and Day,” which got trounced last year when it opened opposite Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.”

The star and franchise producer said he sought out Bird — whom he calls “a very special storyteller” — after seeing “The Incredibles” and “Iron Giant” and recognizing the filmmaker’s “understanding of composition to forward the story and character and a great sense of fun.” The “Mission” series has pulled in $1.4 billion in worldwide box office since it launched in 1996 and Cruise said he was eager to add Bird to the franchise director list of Brian DePalma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams.

“Back when I went to Paramount and said I wanted to do ‘Mission: Impossible,’ people looked at me a little cross-eyed because it was a TV series and at that time people weren’t really doing that” for feature-film franchises, Cruise said. “I always hoped that if it did work I’d be able to have a big platform for a popcorn movie and to bring in different filmmakers who could share the love of this genre and see what it is that interests us.”

Bird said he went back to previous “Mission” films to look for the rhythms he wanted for this new take and decided he wanted to avoid geopolitical intrigue that slipped into the relentlessly grim.

“One of my favorite moments acting-wise were the scenes he did with Vanessa Redgrave; he kind of came alive in a slightly different way,” Bird said, referring to Cruise in the first film in the franchise. “You could tell he had a lot of respect for Redgrave and knew that he had to be on his game because she was going to get every drop out of her part of the scene, so he better get every drop of his. There was a playfulness to those scenes together that I really liked. When you see the [new] film, it’s a little more playful than the other ‘Mission: Impossible’ films — hopefully without undermining the suspense or action.”

– Geoff Boucher

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