Brad Bird interview: Mission: Impossible, The Iron Giant, Die Hard, fast edits and movie music

Brad Bird chats to us about Mission: Impossible, The Incredibles, Die Hard, sound, Inglourious Basterds and much, much more...

Brad Bird

Regular readers of this site will be all too aware of our love for the movies of Brad Bird. The Iron Giant is a firm, firm favourite in these parts, and our feelings towards The Incredibles and Ratatouille are no mystery, either.

For his fourth film, Bird has tackled the fourth Mission: Impossible movie. And as part of the promotional tour for that film, they let us in a room with him for 20 minutes. The fools. Here’s what happened… 

Does it get any less scary, the process of moviemaking, and everything associated with it?

I don’t think so if you’re doing it right. I think if you get too comfortable with it, then something’s missing. I think that you ought to be a little frightened. It’s like an actor going on stage: if you’re not a little bit frightened, I don’t think you’re going to give your best performance.The instant, and not unreasonable assumption, when someone moves from making an animated film to a live action one, is that it’s the visuals that will be the obvious beneficiary. But I don’t think people focus on sound enough.

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What struck me about Ghost Protocol is that your use of sound at times is quite exquisite. You deploy tactical silence, and I think that silence in big movies is a treasured and lost art form.I agree with you.

So what was your thinking? How easily could you fit your silences into such a frenetic film?

I think that people forget about the power of it. They also forget that contrast is what makes things have impact. The same rules that apply to sound, in terms of silence versus noise, also goes for the rhythm of cuts.

You see some action films, a lot of them actually, have a cut every two seconds, whether it’s a dialogue scene or an action scene. And what that does is reduces the impact of fast cutting. It starts to become like a metronome, and you tune out of it.

Even though this film moves pretty quickly, very consciously I was always trying to continually change the rhythm, and be accelerating or slowing down, subtlety, all the way through it.

Have you ever noticed in a motion simulator, in an amusement park, that there’s the initial rush of speed, and then it evaporates. And the only way to get it back is to slow down, which you also experience, and then do it again. That same thing holds with music, or with film, or with sound. That’s what keeps it alive.

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Have you seen Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol?

I have not.

Appreciating that it’s a divisive film, I found the silence in that, too, to be really effective.

The sound designer of that is Randy Thom, who I worked with on Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and The Iron Giant. And on this film, we had Gary Rydstrom, and those guys, all of them, are amongst the very best sound designers in the world.

Fortunately, I live in the Bay area, they are all converged there. Walter Murch, Ren Klyce who does David Fincher films. And they all work in and around Skywalker.

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I think that it’s a huge part of the process, and I agree with you.

Apart from one moment in Ghost Protocol, you clearly let us see what’s going on throughout. Only the sandstorm…

Yeah, that was the point.

Even in the sandstorm, though, you hold your shot. I wonder if there’s a little bit in there of someone who has been frustrated sitting through too many action movies and not being able to see what’s going on?[Laughs] Yes! Yes!

I think my favourite action directors are Spielberg and James Cameron, and John McTiernan at his best. I don’t think action films get any better than Die Hard.

It was interesting, I gave a talk at CalArts, and I was trying to talk to the animation students about staging. And I compared Die Hard with one of the sequels. One of them was directed, and the other one there was a lot of coverage that was then flung at a team of editors. And all of the pace that was missing in the original photography was then forced in by editors.  The editors were doing an expert job, but it feels manufactured, rather than musical, and that’s what a great action director does.

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I think with the initial Die Hard, it’s all in the camera’s lens, though. I remember reading an article about the third one, where McTiernan was apparently composing his shots, and working out where things would be added.

It struck me then that when he was making the first Die Hard, he saw pretty much everything that was going to end up on screen through the camera. I didn’t get that from the third one, which I still quite like. But I think that’s part of the difference.Yeah, that’s true. Also, the first one was shot by Jan De Bont, a terrific cinematographer.

True. Out of interest, are you a Hudson Hawk fan?

I’ve not seen that film in a billion years! Is it good?

Well, I’ve always thought it’s underrated. It’s just when you played Dean Martin over the opening sequence of Ghost Protocol, I wondered if you were tipping your hat to it a little?Is there Dean in that film?

It’s Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello singing 50s numbers while they go and rob places. In terms of Ghost Protocol, I thought it was an interesting and effective way to play with expectation.

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You talked about rhythm before, and at first, I though the opening seemed quite relaxed, and the escalation and bringing in of genre elements was excellent. But Dean Martin was the icing on the cake for me, just pulling away from expectation.

Absolutely.

It ties into your use of music in the film. Because you commit to a full score, which you’ve always done. I remember the extras on The Iron Giant DVD, with you sat next to Michael Kamen.Yeah, yeah. Fantastic.

And you were very precise in the positioning of your beats there. Why – and I’m glad you do – do you hold the musical score so important?

I love film music at its best. It’s what I listen to when I write. I listen to score. Even if I’m doing a quiet scene, and I’m listening to a bombastic score, it gets me into the sound of storytelling.

The best movie composers in my opinion were great not only because they understood music, but mostly because they understood storytelling. And they’re awake to the structure of storytelling.

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If you notice, even if you have a guy that’s great, unquestionably, like John Williams, his best work tends to be with well directed films. And that’s because there’s a logic and a structure to the images that he can grab onto and support with a score. When the films are not so well directed, the music is still good music, but it’s never a great score. And I think that’s why he likes to stay close to Spielberg, because Steven Spielberg is a wonderful storyteller.

My relationship with not only Michael Kamen, but also Michael Giacchino, is kind of founded on the idea that… Michael Giacchino loves movies. He’s really concerned with the storytelling aspect.

It struck me looking back at your previous films, that at least two of them you snatched significant victory from the jaws of defeat.Which two?

Well, The Iron Giant you were clearly up against all sorts of problems…Yeah, yeah!

And Ratatouille, you came into a year and a half before it was finished, which strikes me as utterly insane for an animation project.

Particularly because we only used two lines of dialogue and two shots from the previous versions. It was kind of crazy.

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This one seemed to come to you a bit more logically. I know you were developing 1906 at the time, which I hope you get to make…

… me too!

But, of all the films you’ve done, even appreciating the fact that you’re doing things like going up the tallest building in the world, is it the most straightforward, in an odd way?You know, I would love to say yes! [Laughs] But the script was continually evolving while we were making it. It was a very tight schedule, the movie was the biggest Mission: Impossible in terms of set pieces. When we were in Dubai, the head of the stunt team, Greg Smrz, was telling me that ‘we’ve already done the amount of stunts of a normal action movie, and we’re not even 40% done with this one’. The scale of it was enormous.

I kind of felt somewhat like Ratatouille, where I felt I was running two or three steps in front of a freight train, and if I fell down, I’d get run over. Actually, Ratatouille was perfect happening before this.

Do you thrive working like that?

I sure hope not! [Laughs] I would like to think I would be in a more reasonable situation.

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The Incredibles was a thing where I knew what I wanted to do, and I was getting a chance to do it. With that film, it was trying to stretch the budget, and make a film that was three times larger than any other Pixar film, with the same number of dollars. So there was still that feeling of you’re behind by thirty points, going into the fourth quarter.

Maybe I do need it, but I sure hope I don’t. It’s exhausting.

If you throw in the kitchenware of Ratatouille, then flying has been important in your previous three films. With this one, though, the problem was surely gravity?[Laughs]

You can play with that in animation, and you don’t have those choices in live action.Well, you can expand and contract things a little bit in film. It’s a fairly fluid medium, so you can have somebody start to fall in one angle, cut to another angle and move them back a little bit to extend the length of the fall. But certainly, you can get away with cheats more in animation.

You’ve said in the past that CG animation is grand if there’s an elbow that needs adjusting or something like that. Hand drawn you have less choice, but real human beings are odder beasts!

Yeah, yeah. Everybody knows what a human moves like.

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How did you find just getting out in the fresh air on a film shoot?It’s physically more exhausting, because we went from Prague, which was starting to go towards winter, to Dubai, whose winter feels like most people’s summer. Then back to Vancouver which was in full-fledged winter. So you were constantly dealing with temperature changes, and just staying healthy was a challenge.

We spoke to David Fincher, and he was saying that on a physical film set, he gets at most – on Fight Club – 75% of what he wants. In animation, where you can pre-plan everything, you get a lot closer to what you want. But as soon as you go onto a physical set, with human beings, that throws up immense variables. Especially the human beings!

It’s definitely different. It’s more about trying to create a situation where lightning can strike, and having the equipment running when it does.

Is that a problem, often, that the equipment isn’t ready?You want to make sure you’re ready for it. I think there’s a danger in rehearsing too much, and then you catch something  when the camera’s not on. I think there’s that.

I think that if you expect live action to be like animation, where you can move something a little bit to the left, you’re going to be disappointed. It is a little more catch as catch can. But if you embrace that, and take advantage of the spontaneity, then you can catch things that are just wonderful.

One of my favourite scenes in the new movie is a scene on the plane between Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg, where they’re talking about his assignment. And because it was a table, and we could bounce the light off the table, we could shoot both angles at once.

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The take that is in the movie is one take. It’s a whole minute long scene in one take. We did other takes before it, but that take, we used it in real time. That kind of thing, when you see it happening, the energy you get from it is amazing. There’s two terrific actors just being natural and making something magic right in front of your eyes.

Going back over what we’ve been talking about, it sounds like the script that was the hardest bit?

Well, the script that Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum did, working with JJ Abrams and Tom [Cruise], was full of these inventive set pieces that were really exciting to do.

The nuances of information, which these films really have in spades, was a real challenge. Because you don’t want the audience to guess what’s coming next, but also you don’t want to be so, quote, clever, unquote, that you allow them to disconnect. If the audience becomes confused, they start to disconnect, and you don’t want that either.

You have this very narrow sweet spot that’s hard to hit, and certainly, the script was always morphing while we were making the film. It kind of drive us crazy a little bit. I understood that it came with the territory.

When the Mission: Impossible films are working at their very best, it’s the build up that’s really fun. I think if your shortcut telling people how difficult what you’re about to do is, and don’t put people in the midst of that, the pay-off never really works in the same way.

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Your big sequences here had a beginning, and a middle, and an end, and I never thought the third film had that each time. I think it cut in a little bit.I think that there is a couple of things that work. Everybody knows that the clock is running, and that we live in an ADD culture. And I think that often times, people are selling short the delight the audience has in expectation.

I was really happy when I saw Inglourious Basterds with my middle son, who at the time was sixteen or seventeen, and was right in that coveted spot that Hollywood wants to get. And I was very interested in that long scene in the bar, how he would react to it.

And he loved it. The tension of waiting for the thing to explode was amazing. And he loved it. Most filmmakers don’t give people that delicious thing any more.

A very interesting thing happened on The Incredibles at one point. We had the longest animated film that they’d made at Pixar by far. And there was this desire, this nervousness about the length. So they had me cut ten or fifteen minutes,  as much as I could from the film, and see if it still made sense.

I cut all these sequences, mainly in the first half of the film, and then made one new sequence, to cover the bits of information that we needed to have to move ahead. And I had it in storyreel form, and I played it for everybody.

They said, you know, that last act was not nearly as exciting, what did you change in the last act? It was not nearly as action packed as I remember?

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And I hadn’t changed one frame.

All the stuff that I’d changed was in the first half of the film, but because you didn’t care about them as much, you weren’t as involved when all the action happened. That was a big lesson to me. I ended up putting all the stuff back, and it’s in the movie.

If you don’t care about the person running from the fireball, it doesn’t matter how big and spectacular it is. The greatest special effect is caring about the characters.

Finally, I have to talk about The Iron Giant, and a possible Blu-ray release. Is there any chance of going back to it?I’ve been talking with Warner Bros for basically the past ten years, and all sorts of options have been discussed.

There’s been talk of doing about a minute and a half, two minutes, of new animation for it, that were some sequences that we designed in the original, that I think were cool. There’s been talk of doing 3D. There’s been talk of doing a limited digital release, kind of like Blade Runner had. And all of them kind of blossom and fade. Now, we’re having more serious discussions about doing something in anticipation of the Blu-ray.

But I don’t want the Blu-ray to simply be a higher resolution version of our DVD. I would love to get into some of the stuff, now we all have some perspective, that went into the making of it. There’s a lot of good stories there that haven’t been told about the struggles that we went through. We’ll see what happens, but we are in discussions about it right now.

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If you can get the film back on a big screen, I’ll march an army of people through the streets to see it!I’m with you, man!

Brad Bird, thank you very much.Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol opens on IMAX screens from 21st December, and is on general release from 26th December. Our review is here.