If you’re a fan of Disney and Disney•Pixar then you’re probably a fan of Brad Bird.
Bird was awarded a scholarship from Disney to attend the California Institute of the Arts, where his classmates included future Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, and after graduating worked for Disney on the traditionally animated The Fox and the Hound (where he toiled alongside fellow Cal Arts graduate Tim Burton). After he left Disney, he contributed to a number of highly influential animated series, before making The Iron Giant for Warner Bros. While it wasn’t exactly a box office smash, it was a fan favorite and Lasseter signed Bird to write and direct features at Pixar and serve on its influential brain trust.
That partnership gave way to two genuinely classic films: The Incredibles, about a family of superheroes, and Ratatouille, a film about a rat who dreams of being a chef. Both won Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature. Now he’s back at the studio for Tomorrowland, a film named after the futuristic section of the Disney Parks. In the film, George Clooney plays a reclusive inventor who is hounded by Casey (Britt Robertson), a young girl plagued by visions of a gleaming utopia. She thinks that he can get here there; he doesn’t want to go.
In many ways, this is the perfect vehicle for Bird. It features dazzling action set pieces full of suspenseful moments, wonderful, fully dimensional characters, and the kind of big ideas that go down easy thanks to how effortless the filmmaking seems. We sat down with Bird and talked about how he came to Tomorrowland, the many references he slotted into the movie, The Incredibles sequel, and and 1906, his long-in-the-works, hugely ambitious live action film about a cataclysmic earthquake.
How did you first become involved with Tomorrowland?
Well it began with Damon Lindelof. On Mission: Impossible, the movie was basically shot but I had a few lingering story things I wanted to fix and most of the movie was done but there were a few little surgically precise things that needed to be fixed and Damon did some amazing, unbelievably precise writing to solve those. We were talking about what to do next and he mentioned this idea and I was completely sucked into it. But this project started with Damon.
And the first presentation regarding Tomorrowland back at the last D23 Expo featured this mysterious box. Where did that come from?
I think that Damon had a meeting with Sean Bailey, who is the president of Walt Disney Pictures, and Sean mentioned this box. Then Damon, as he looked at it, was half-filled with junk but it was intriguing junk. He didn’t know if it was put there to be discovered; some of the things looked like they were absolutely faked but I think it got his mind working and he took it from there.
Was it hard to parse out the Disney references? The scene in the Blast from the Past comic book shop seems littered with Disney references.
Well, not just Disney. It has Gort and there is some Iron Giant there and a few Simpsons nods. Zurg from Toy Story 2 is in there too but it was a chance to throw everything in there including the kitchen sinks, and have it not be weird or unusual.
And Space Mountain is there too.
Space Mountain makes an appearance.
Did you have a backstory for the functionality of the Space Mountain in your Tomorrowland?
It became a blur at a certain point because there was so much stuff in this movie and so many spinning plates. But that’s also what was intriguing to me.
Was there anything that you wanted to make it in that didn’t?
Sure, there was a lot of it. We filmed some of it and we didn’t film other things. There was, briefly, a storyboarded moment where young Frank went to a part of the World’s Fair called To the Moon and Beyond. It was a movie that was shot in 70 mm and projected in what they called Spacearium 360 by Cinerama. And he was there watching this, which was projected on the ceiling and then he leans back and sitting next to him was Stanley Kubrick, who was also at the World’s Fair and in seeing that film, tracked down Douglas Trumbull to do the effects for 2001. So we had that and we were going to find a guy who looked like young Kubrick but that was one of those ideas, where there wasn’t enough room for it. And it’s beside the point. But the ‘64 World’s Fair had a lot of those things in it and that’s why it was such a cool idea for me.
But was Walt ever a character in the movie?
No but he was referenced and he was referenced in the Blast from the Past thing. And the longer version of that sequence will be on the Blu-ray.
Were those animated histories of Plus Ultra originally in that sequence too?
Well, yes, they were but we did that as a template for, this is what we want the film to be; this is the style that we want it to be in. But it was going to be in ride form. Some of it was going to be projected on mist, some of it was going to be wooden things that swung in and out over the water. And ILM was taking its first steps in terms of taking that artwork and turning it into a dark ride and we couldn’t get around the fact that it was fascinating to us but in the movie, you were watching a character watch something and it slowed down the movie and we had to be merciless and cut it.
So Pixar made them?
Oh yeah and Giacchino scored it and everything. And that’ll be on the DVD too.
Let’s talk about Michael Giacchino and his score for this movie, which is simply incredible.
I think it’s one of his best and I’m a huge Giacchino fan.
What is your creative relationship like?
Well The Incredibles was his first movie and he was one of these guys who, I’m not sure if you’ve had this experience before, but you don’t know them and you meet them and it’s like you’ve know them for 30 years. It immediately felt like some guy I’d grown up down the block from and we went out and did stuff together. He likes a lot of the same things I like. He’s really a storyteller first and a composer second. He’s not just interested in music as music but he is really into the story and what does the story need and that’s why I love working with him.
And he’s got a great cameo as the skipper at it’s a small world!
Yes, he’s got a whole name and backstory for that guy.
There are some Star Wars references in Tomorrowland and there was talk that you would go from Tomorrowland right into directing Star Wars.
Yes. That was discussed. Kathy Kennedy and I talked about that and there was no way to do it in the time frame that Disney wanted unless I stopped doing Tomorrowland and we had already gotten George interested at that point and there was tremendous momentum on the film and even though I love Star Wars I didn’t want to take for granted the increasingly rare opportunity to make an original film on this scale. Star Wars will get made whether I do it or not but I didn’t know if Tomorrowland would get made. It was a tough decision.
Would you circle back to something Star Wars-related?
If they’re interested in that and the proper thing came up, that would be interesting. But that moment in time was intriguing because it was kind of undefined in its picking up from Jedi-ish. It’s a tough thing to talk about because really J.J. is going to do a tremendous job. It’ll be fun.
Are you itching to return to animation? How in contact are you with the gang at Pixar?
Well I’m writing a sequel to The Incredibles right now so I’ve been in contact with Pixar all along. I’ve only been in there a few times. I left to do Mission: Impossible about a month before Toy Story 3 came out. So Toy Story 3 was the last thing I was around for. And I came in for various meetings here and there but I haven’t really been around that much, just because I’ve been sucked into other things. But they’re a fantastic place and I’m hoping this is going to be a really fun trip.
Are there other original animated films you’d want to do?
Yes, I would love to do a hand-drawn thing at some point in the future. But there are also other live action ideas that I have. And it’s more about the idea than it is about the medium. Everybody thought when I moved to live action with Mission: Impossible that I’d never go back to animation. Like, why would you go back to the kids’ table? But I’ve never looked at animation that way. I think it’s an amazing art form and for me it’s all about film and that’s just another way to do film.
What’s going on with 1906?
It’s still alive and well. What happened with it was it was this incredibly rich world, incredibly complicated. That town at that time was sort of between the old west and the future. I mean gas lights coexisted with electric lights, cars coexisted with horse-drawn carriages, you had San Francisco being referred to as the Paris of the United States, but at the same time bars were still knocking people over the head and selling them to ships for Shanghai. It was the wild west and the modern world coexisting at the same time. And in a very small place. So it is a fascinating area, a fascinating time period, it was—how do you get all of this stuff in one movie? I kept having to throw away things that intrigued me but I think we’ve come up with a way to get the best of both worlds: of getting all of these interesting stories and the spectacle of a movie, together. I remain optimistic about it.
Can you give us a little hint of what to expect from Incredibles 2?
It’ll be more Incredibles. I’m not going to give up anything! I come down on the side of surprise.
Tomorrowland opens on Friday. Wanna go?