Brad Bird interview: Tomorrowland, Star Wars, surprises

Tomorrowland, Chinatown, Die Hard and keeping films a secret are on the agenda as we chat to director Brad Bird...

This article contains a big spoiler for Chinatown.

Ah, the mighty Brad Bird. If he’d downed tools after he made the peerless The Iron Giant and never made another film again, we’d still be sending him Christmas cards every year. But then he went and made The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol as well. Gah. Now we have to send chocolates as well.

Bird’s latest film, Tomorrowland, arrives in cinemas this week, and we caught up with him to find out more about it. Here’s how the chat went…

If we boil down the movies that many of us grew up loving in the 1980s, there’s relatable stakes at the heart of them. So, for instance, Back To The Future is at its centre someone trying to get his parents back together. The Goonies, they’re trying to save their home. Batteries Not Included, too.

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Here, what got me really is that there’s a girl trying to save her dad’s job, and ultimately, what it stands for. But where was your way into the project?

Well, the idea that I got hooked on when [writer] Damon Lindelof first mentioned it was touching a pin and suddenly being somewhere else. Feeling like alternate realities are that close. That there are simultanous realities, and that’s there’s a veil that we can’t see, that’s very thin between them. But certainly the idea of there’s something about space, about going out, that is a really noble thing. You know how every job you can hold, you come under criticism. Unless you’re a fireman. If you’re a fireman, everyone loves you, because all you do is something that is a universal good.

But what is the downside of an astronaut? They’re going out, they’re risking things to explore on our behalf, and yet we seem to cut that programme, while keeping the war machine going. It’s astonishing to me. What is the downside to it? It’s expensive maybe, but what a great thing to do with people and resources. The idea that we’re shutting down going out affects me.

Is there also a little bit of her pushing a pin is her breaking out of her loneliness and solitude?

[There’s a very mild spoiler in this answer]

Yeah. There’s a little bit of that. But that again goes to reaching out. It was a way to say that even though she’s optimistic, her future is becoming limited. There was another verison of that scene that we shot that will be on the Blu-ray, where, you know, she very much says I wanted to be an astronaut, and the person who asked her the question just shrugs, says sorry, that’s not a possibility any more. I think that’s a very sad thing to tell a generation that’s on fire, and wants to go and pursue things. And explore. Nope! Exploration phase is over! I think that’s what it is.

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Is that why you surround the character of Casey with so much negativity, but refuse to let her yield an inch to it?

That’s right. We’re telling kind of a fable. We’re trying to find a way to be simple, and present ideas in a simple way. But yeah, we wanted to show that a lot of young people today kind of feel that, they’re kind of steeped in it. And it can’t help but have an effect on them. We want to say that there are other ways to think.

You talk about young people. I’ve just finished reading Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity Inc, and he talks in that about young people coming in to work at Pixar now, in awe of what it’s achieved beforehand. That it’s hard to deprogram that level of expectation from them, to allow them to be raw and make their mistakes. Do you find that? Do you find it working with a younger cast, that they’re dealing with unrealistic expectation levels?

Yeah. I think that’s true no matter who you are. You’re in awe of what came before you. You don’t realise that… a lot of films that I love I think that every step must have been where they knew they were working on something golden. And a lot of the filmmakers go no, we didn’t know what we were doing! We tried this, and that didn’t work! We tried that!

I remember being in a class, a moderated panel, when they were talking about the perfect screenplay. And they said that Chinatown was the perfect screenplay. Which I agree with. But I got to know Robert Towne who wrote it, and he was no! I tried this and that, and at the end she didn’t die, and I fought with Polanski about it. It turns out, he was right! But I didn’t know what I was doing.

That was a great comfort to me, because that’s more what I feel like when I’m making something. Maybe this’ll work, I don’t know!

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We spoke once before and briefly touched on Die Hard.

The perfect action movie!

Well, after speaking to you, I chatted to Hart Bochner, who played Harry Ellis in the film.

Right right!

He talked about John McTiernan [director] hated what he was doing with the character of Ellis, and couldn’t stand it at all. He ordered him to change it two days running, and the only reason it stayed in was when McTiernan saw [producers] Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon hunched over a monitor, in fits of laughter.

Yeah. It’s precarious, you know? They tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz. What are they thinking? A lot of our favorite moments are precarious things. There’s this much between them being in and being out.

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But without wishing to get pretentious about it, fragility is art, isn’t it?

Yeah, I think it is if you’re doing it right. New ideas are like newly born deer. Their muscles aren’t strong yet, they’re kind of wobbly. Cynicism is always very robust. It comes into the world very quickly and is usually very strong. But it won’t win in the long run. The great works of art are the ones that survive. There are a lot of popular films from 1939 that noone remembers any more. It’s all Wizard Of Oz, Stagecoach, those kind of things that survive.

To badly paraphrase a line from one of your own films, people aren’t that kind to the new.

Ratatouille! That’s right. “The new needs friends.” [Laughs] Tomorrowland needs friends! [laughs]

But doesn’t any film that doesn’t have a Roman numeral after it?

Yeah. I think that’s true to a certain extent. People are very comforted by the familiar. But that also can be a limitation. At one time Star Wars was a crazy idea that noone understood. And if you talk to George Lucas, he felt really lonely a lot of that time. He had something in his mind that a lot of people couldn’t see.

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I find it really odd at the moment that I’m part of a movie press, and many people writing within it were turned on to films by Star Wars. You Tweeted the other week about people posting news stories about “reports say,” but I’ve been reading in the last week people who supposedly love film declaring Cameron Crowe’s new film a write-off, just because of when it’s press screened. And they hadn’t seen the film yet.

Yeah. And it’s Cameron Crowe. He’s done some amazing work. Why not just go to the cinema with a sense of excitement? You don’t know what’s going to happen.

It leads me to your decision here to keep as much of Tomorrowland under wraps as you can. I understand why completely…

Yet people are almost angry about it!

I saw that. But I get and love the why you’re doing it. Can you talk about the difficulty of how you’re keeping it so secret though? Especially given the sheer scale of it?

Well, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy at this budget level either. The studio want to get people into the cinema to see it. There’s a certain amount of information that you’ve got to get out there to get people excited about the film. There’s a tendency to want to watch the coolest stuff in the film. I always feel like it’s momentarily cool, but it loses its power in context, when you’re seeing the story.

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So we’re all trying to find that zen part where we’re giving them enough to intrigue them without wrecking it when they see the movie. And there’s a desire because everyone has a surprise spoiler in their pocket. They can ruin something people have spent years on, instantly. But I think people actually don’t want to know. They say they want to know, but that’s a momentary thing. It’s better to wait, I think.

Another book, then. In the recent Jim Henson biography, it talks about the different between Frank Oz and Henson. That whereas Oz was and is a perfectionist, Henson would move on when something was right. Where, then, do you sit on the Henson-Oz scale?

I think I can call upon each if necessary! Live action sometimes something you’ve spent months planning for it to go a certain day, and you get to the day, and it doesn’t go the way you planned. You can’t just sit there and go ‘I’m going to kill myself’, or go ‘I’m going to stay here until it works’, even though it’s clear that it’s never going to work. You have to do something else and you have to do it now.

In a strange way, working in television prepared me for that. The eight seasons I had working on The Simpsons, we were doing really elaborate scripts but we had to keep them moving, because if you spent too long on one episode, the next would be hurt by it. That got me more in the frame of mind of trusting your instinct, and moving on. That said, certain ideas have to be perfect. Other ideas only have to be good enough not to break the spell.

One last question then. You were once linked with a project called 1906, about the San Francisco earthquake of that year. Is that still active?

It’s actually still something I’m really interested in pursuing. It’s a big story, and to get it into a movie-sized box has been very challenging. But I think we’ve figured out a way we can do it. So that may still happen [knocks on the wood of his posh-looking chair].

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Brad Bird, thank you very much!