Though his name may not be as iconic as Steven Spielberg’s, or as ubiquitous as Mission: Impossible producer J.J. Abrams’, director Brad Bird has one of the best batting averages in the biz. Having spent a number of years writing and directing for The Simpsons, he made his feature film debut with the wondrous animated flick The Iron Giant. He would later go on to helm Pixar insta-classics The Incredibles and Ratatouille, picking up a slew of awards – including two Oscars – in the process. With Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Bird makes his live-action debut, collaborating with hands-on producer/star Tom Cruise and delivering the best entry in the saga yet (complete with a sandstorm foot-chase and a thrilling climbing sequence on the 160-storey-high Burj Khalifa building). We spoke to Bird about his predilection for seeing Cruise get hit in the face, the story behind his failed first attempt to get a live-action feature (1906) off the ground, and the possibility of sequels to The Incredibles and The Iron Giant.
SM: You’ve obviously directed some blockbuster films in the past, but this is your first live-action one. Because of that, did you have to audition, or convince Tom and J.J. that you were the right man for the role?
BB: Thankfully, I didn’t. I had known J.J. for a number of years and we’d been looking for opportunities to work together. Everything from other films to, at one point, it looked like I was going to be able to direct an episode of Lost. It just never happened. I had met Tom right after The Incredibles, and we had hit it off tremendously well. We had this very long discussion about films that we loved and why, and why this medium was so great. And here was this chance to work with both of them. They very much were wanting me to be involved in this process, almost as much as I wanted to work with them.
SM: This is Tom’s signature franchise, and I imagine he’s very hands-on as a producer. I’m curious; can you tell me what he brings to that creative process on these films?
BB: Well, as I said, he’s very knowledgeable about films. Not just the films he’s been in – and he’s worked with a lot of the best filmmakers on the planet – but also all the films that preceded him. He’s seen a lot of movies, you know? All the way back to the silent era. He loves the medium. So, he not only knows about it from the perspective of watching a lot of films, but when he worked with all these brilliant filmmakers, you can get very much a sense that he asked them a lot of questions about why they were doing things the way they were doing them. When he started the Mission: Impossible franchise, one of the things he insisted on was each Mission film take on the flavour of its director. So the Brian de Palma film is different from the John Woo film which is different from the J.J. film, even though they’re all Mission: Impossible. That was one of the things that interested me in jumping on board; it was really a franchise that would embrace me doing it the way I wanted to do it.
SM: What were some of those films that you bonded over?
BB: I think that we could probably go way over our 15 minute time limit, but it was everything, from Sweet Smell of Success to Lawrence of Arabia to Casablanca and Taxi Driver. All over the place. We love a wide variety of films; big, small, black and white, colour, you know? Everything under the sun.
SM: Well, I definitely got a North by Northwest vibe from the opening sequence.
BB: Oh, cool! Actually, it’s funny that you bring that particular film up, because I was inspired by that film with the sandstorm. I was always wondering how Hitchcock managed to make a suspense scene in the middle of the day with an infinite field of view. Usually those kinds of scenes are in the dark and in more confined spaces, and yet he managed to make it work in broad daylight. I thought, ‘What would happen if you had a chase scene in broad daylight where you couldn’t see anything?’
SM: Absolutely. It’s good inspiration; he made one of the most famous and best scenes of all time with that approach.
SM: I have to ask. Was it on Tom’s insistence that Ethan Hunt get hit so many times in the face? It seems to be a recurring theme?
SM: He gets pretty viciously smacked around.
BB: Yeah, it was kind of like making the film. No, I mean, Tom and I… I told him that one of the films I was interested in us trying for the tone of was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which has got a lot of action and suspense, but it’s also a very character-oriented film where Indiana Jones gets the crap beaten out of him. Another film that we both love is Die Hard, and in both of those cases, the heroes are afraid – you see fear on their faces – but they go forward anyway. I think that makes the hero very empathetic. We wanted to kind of approach the same thing with this film.
SM: I imagine you have a lot of control with animation; you can refine scenes and sequences to the last possible detail, and action scenes can be intricately timed and executed. I’m going to assume that’s not the case with live action; it’s a bit more chaotic. Were there any particularly tough days on set or tough shots that had you wanting to run back to animation?
BB: Oh yeah, of course, because you can’t say ‘Every frame is perfect except for these five’, the way you can in animation. But a thing you can do in live-action that you can’t do in animation is do multiple takes, and you can try for things, and if you are willing to let go a little bit on the degree of control and embrace spontaneity, you can have wonderful things happen that you never imagined, and get them in the film.
SM: Going back to before you got the role. Were there any apprehensions about transitioning from animation to live-action, or was that always part of the plan for you?
BB: Well, I’ve been wanting to do it as long as I’ve been doing animated films, and I did my first animated film when I was 11. So the act of having to figure out the mechanics of filming – meaning, when to use the close-up, when to cut to a wide shot, when to use a pan and all that stuff; even though is hand-drawn, you have to pay attention to that – as soon as I started paying attention to it, I started noticing the filmmaking in great live-action films. Then the world opened up and I started realising that certain filmmakers were better at capturing your emotions than others, and I’d been wanting to make a live action film for a long time.
SM: For a while there it looked like you were going to make 1906 your first live-action film.
BB: Yeah, I kinda thought that was going to be it.
SM: Can you tell us how you felt when that was nixed and whether it’ll still happen?
BB: It wasn’t officially nixed. There were some erroneous reports on the internet that the budget was too big, or something like that, but we never got to that point. The studio wants it to be made as badly as I do, but there’s no point going forward unless you can solve the big story challenges that film has. It’s a very large canvass film; it’s complicated, and getting it all to fit into a movie-sized box is very challenging. I worked on the writing of it for a couple of years and suddenly looked up and realised I wanted to make a movie [laughs], not just plan a movie. But while I was doing Mission I had another writer working on 1906, and that may just happen yet. But it’s a very tough project to corral, story-wise, and I’m still wrestling with it.
SM: Fair enough. Speaking of erroneous reports on the internet, for close to a decade there have been rumours of The Incredibles 2 (at least since the first one came out). You’ve been talking about it a little bit while doing press for Mission: Impossible 4. Would you be open to producing it and letting someone else direct it? Can you still enter the Pixar fold in the way you once were part of it?
BB: I have trouble with the idea of producing it. I’m not saying that that would be impossible, but my opinions about how that particular universe should be handled are so finicky that I would probably make any other director miserable by being too ‘looking-over-the-shoulder’, and I think to be an effective producer you need to be helpful and also know when to get out of the way. I think I would be terrible at getting out of the way on an Incredibles sequel. If I had a story that I thought would be worth telling, I know that I would shove anybody out of the way to tell it myself.
SM: Pixar was once a studio that decried sequels, and now they have a number in the pipeline, as well as the ones that have already come out. How do you feel about them?
BB: Well, it all comes down to the idea and the project. I think that some of my favourite movies are sequels; I love The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part 2 and my favourite Bond film is the third one, Goldfinger, which is the third one. And I think Pixar has made… the Toy Story sequels are as good as it gets. So, I have no problem with sequels if they are done because someone is passionate about telling another story. I think too often sequels are done because they make financial sense and marketing departments don’t have to work. But that drives too many decisions in Hollywood these days and the worst aspect of it is sequels and remakes and reboots take up too much bandwidth. That said, if it’s a film that the filmmakers are really excited about telling the story, then it can be wonderful. And obviously, that’s what I feel we’re trying to do with this. I jumped on this film because I love the ideas J.J. and Tom were hatching with the writers about the film that this could be, and it sounded excited to me and like the kind of movie I would want to see. I think that there’s nothing good or bad about sequels, ultimately; it’s all about the attitudes that they’re made with.
SM: Absolutely. In that case – and maybe this is just pie-in-the-sky wish fulfilment on my behalf – have you ever considered, or did you ever attempt, to work on a sequel to The Iron Giant?
BB: Iron Giant is not perceived… there is not a pressure to do an Iron Giant sequel [laughs].
SM: From the fans, surely.
BB: Not enough people have seen it. I would rather – if the energy were to be spent in the Iron Giant universe – I would rather have it be to get all the people who haven’t seen The Iron Giant, exposed to it. I would love more people to see it, because when people do see it, they seem to like it. I’m always surprised people come up to me to this day and they bring up that film, because I always felt it never really got its day in the sun. But, it’s slowly but surely getting there.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol opens in Australian cinemas December 15, 2011.