Brad Bird is one of the most innovative directors of feature animation in cinema today. Who cannot forget his luminous classic The Iron Giant or the critically acclaimed The Incredibles. Now Bird is back, with his comic adventure of a rat in Paris who loves to eat, cook and aspires to become a chef. Very different in tone from his previous films, Bird talked to PAUL FISCHER at Pixar’s headquarters in San Francisco.
Question: Was it your intention after The Incredibles which was such a complex film and perhaps a little darker than the norm to do something that was a complete 180° flip around from that tone?
Bird: No it wasn’t. I mean I was actually starting to work on another project when John Lasseter, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull asked me to take this project on. That said though, I always thought this was a really great idea for a movie and my favourite filmmakers are versatile. They make more than one kind of movie. And so I want to be that kind of filmmaker – one that can do all kinds of stories, because I like all kinds of stories.
Question: What was the challenge for you to make a movie about rats that was going to end up being appealing, because it’s a very grey area I guess.
Bird: Well I think the challenge is kind of suggested in the way you asked that question. How do you make a film about a rat and maintain the rattiness and still make you empathise and care about the little guy. So that is the challenge. Because I think the tendency is to deal with it by making them not rat-like. You know, by making them like little humans. But I thought it was important if you’re going to do a film about a rat that’s trying to bridge into the human world to show him choosing to work on two legs and choosing to adopt human mannerisms and then based on his emotional state, having to be more or less ratty.
Question: Do you find yourself being at the mercy of perpetually changing technology? I mean where you go from one tool to another – Iron Giant was ahead of the game at the time but now you’ve got this film which seems to be a lot richer in colour, a lot more sophisticated …
Bird: Yeah, I don’t feel imprisoned by it or anything like that. I think that the key is not in the technology, it’s in the storyteller. And, you know, CG films are much more advanced than they were when Toy Story came out, but if you look at Toy Story today, it’s still a great movie. And you still care about the characters. So my goal is to not be a prisoner of the technology but have it be a tool that you can use.
Question: Obviously it’s important to tell a strong story is a dominant facet of this. How much toeing and froing is there to get the story right?
Bird: Quite a bit although in this film, because I was being asked to take on the project because they were struggling with the story, I had to find answers very quickly on this. So this film was actually shorter for me than Iron Giant, which was short for an animated film. I would say that my TV training came in very handy because on TV you don’t have time to second guess yourself. You have to go with your instinct. And I think that actually, even though I wouldn’t recommend making films this way, it ended up being a good thing for this film because there are some really weird ideas in the film that if I’d had more time to think about them I might not have put them on film and I think that would have been a mistake because I like the way it turned out.
Question: Is it unusual for you to take on a project after it’s already been initiated by someone else?
Bird: Yes, yes.
Question: Were you very reluctant to do that?
Bird: Yes, first of all it was someone else’s baby and I felt a little conflicted about that but it wasn’t like, you know, Jan Pinkava came up with this idea and he won the Oscar for Jerry’s Game. It wasn’t like Jan had a perfect version of the film that he was totally happy about. He didn’t. He had trouble making something that made him totally happy. And other people that got involved had trouble making this story work. They went through something similar on Toy Story 2 where everyone loved the idea but there was a struggle to get it to happen. Every movie’s different and movies are hard to make so I was very touched that they honoured – that they came to me to be the problem solver on this but once I was on the film it was a very challenging job.
Question: Were the problems easy for you to solve?
Bird: No they weren’t easy. They had to be arrived at fairly quickly I would say but that just meant that I had to gut it out. It was nerve-racking but it was not easy.
Question: How has the animation industry changed for you since Iron Giant?
Bird: In good ways or in bad ways?
Question: Whichever way ….
Bird: How long do you have? I would say in good ways I think that animation is seen as a really viable storytelling medium and that people are realising that it can be very successful at the box office. When I first started out I was told that no animated film would every make more than $50 million. So that kind of idiotic argument isn’t had any more. I would say in the bad way, there has been a really short sighted belief that only CG animation is good, hand drawn is old fashioned and clay animation is old fashioned. Anything that’s not CG is old fashioned, which I completely disagree with and nobody at this company believes. I also think there is still – the thing that has not changed is the general, unstated belief that animation film directors are not film directors and that we’re technology wranglers or something. I don’t know what they think we are. But there is still a tendency to seat us a the children’s table and not see us as filmmakers. And one of the reasons I was most honoured to be nominated by best original screenplay for the Oscar was that there was no differentiation between my screenplay and the live action screenplays. All my fellow nominees were live action filmmakers. And I like that we weren’t set aside or best ‘animated’ screenplay, you know what I mean?
Question: And what are you working on now?
Bird: Oh I’m working on resuming the vacation that I was on when I was called on to this. I now have four months of vacation piled up and I would like to start on that.
Question: Can you say anything more?
Bird: I’m working on a live action film, so I’m going to go back and forth between the mediums. I love them both. It’s all film to me and I love it.