Before you interview Hollywood bigwigs, especially stars and star directors, a SWAT team of publicists and assistants often descends to offer advice. Don’t mention this, feel free to ask that, only eat the blue M&Ms. That kind of stuff.
Brad Bird, you are told, will not tolerate a dumb question. But he likes it when people challenge him and push him. Under no circumstance refer to animated films — like the two he directed for Pixar, The Incredibles and Ratatouille — as cartoons.
There is unfortunately no way around that last one, as it cuts to the heart of why Bird decided to step out on Pixar and direct Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, his first live-action film.
Bird, 54, is an animation virtuoso with credits that include The Simpsons (he helped design Sideshow Bob) and The Iron Giant, one of the best-reviewed films of 1999. The 2004 film The Incredibles made him an Oscar-winning member of Pixar’s famed creative council, or “brain trust.”
But Hollywood still sequesters animation at the kiddie table, and the likes of Bird feel the sting. To be taken seriously — to be a “real” filmmaker — you need to make pictures with real people doing real things. “It’s frankly insulting,” Bird said during an interview last month at Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ lavish postproduction site in this wooded hamlet north of San Francisco. “A film is a film is a film.”
Bird, who looks like a soccer dad with strawberry-blond hair and flashing blue eyes, said he didn’t tackle Ghost Protocol with the specific intent of becoming an A-list director without an asterisk. Live action represented a new challenge.
“I don’t want to make the same kind of movie over and over,” he said. But it’s clear from talking to him that part of the challenge is not just mastering a different kind of movie. It’s proving that a director is a director is a director, breaking out of what is perhaps Hollywood’s most restrictive ghetto.
Directed by:Brad Bird
Starring:Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Paula Patton (Jane), Simon Pegg (Benji), Jeremy Renner (Brandt), Michael Nyqvis (Hendricks), Vladimir Mashkov (Sidorov)
Running Time:133 Minutes
Taiwan Release:Currently showing
Bird’s movie, the fourth in the Paramount Pictures franchise, cost an estimated US$145 million to make and was filmed on location (Dubai, India, Russia) using Imax cameras. Adding to the pressure, the movie’s star, Tom Cruise, who is also a producer, urgently needs a fresh hit.
Bird got this gig largely because of Cruise. He called Bird shortly after The Incredibles was released. “His composition and storytelling was absolutely wonderful, and I said, ‘If you ever want to direct live action, please, please direct me,”’ Cruise said by telephone from Tokyo. Bird was charmed. But he went on his way, pursuing an ambitious live-action project about the wild and woolly scene in San Francisco just before the 1906 earthquake.
Then, one night at about 11:30, Bird got a text message from J.J. Abrams, a friend (they used to share an agent) and a producer of Ghost Protocol. Abrams also directed Mission: Impossible III. His message read: “Mission?” Bird was intrigued. “It sounded big and daunting in a good way, crazy, but the kind of crazy that I got into this business to embrace,” he said.
In many ways the core of Bird’s job on Ghost Protocol was the same as on a film like Ratatouille: coordinating various creative teams, making decisions on myriad small details, staying on schedule, paying attention to thematic questions. Are the characters relatable? Can the audience understand what the characters are thinking from moment to moment? Does the story elicit emotions? Is the ending surprising yet satisfyingly inevitable?