Brad Bird began his career with Disney in the early 1980s, working as an animator on the movies “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron.” After serving as a creative consultant during the early heyday of FOX’s “The Simpsons,” he moved on to directing feature films. His first effort “The Iron Giant” (for Warner Bros.) earned universal critical acclaim, became an instant cult favorite among animation enthusiasts, and earned him the opportunity to follow up with “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” and “Tomorrowland” at Pixar and Disney.
During a recent media event for the highly-anticipated sequel “Incredibles 2” at Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, California, Bird sat down alongside his producers Nicole Grindle and John Walker to discuss how and why he and his team brought the super-powered Parr family back together for a second entry in the “Incredibles” franchise.
Q: We’ve heard about how little time you had in putting together this movie. Can you explain the constraints you were under?
Brad Bird: I would, except there’s no time. [laughs]
John Walker: Next question. [laughs]
Bird: It has happened a number of times [at Pixar]. The original ‘Incredibles’ was supposed to be after ‘Cars.’ It was going to be ‘[Finding] Nemo,’ ‘Cars,’ [then] ‘Incredibles.’ And our reels came together a little earlier than ‘Cars’ did, so we moved up [in the schedule]. The same situation happened here with ‘Toy Story 4.’ They’ve been going a number of different directions [with the] story and it was concluded that we were a little further along than they were, so we moved up. That was a challenge for us, but the studio is three times bigger than it was during [the first] ‘Incredibles.’ So if we didn’t choke, we could actually theoretically get the movie made. That is what came to pass.
Nicole Grindle: I would just add that it can be a real benefit to the production to be under some amount of pressure. Obviously it was very intense for this team, but having worked here on a number of films, I can tell you when there’s that kind of schedule and intensity, people really rise to the occasion. Sometimes they even do better work.
Bird: When I got involved with ‘Ratatouille,’ it was a little over a year and a half between my involvement and the finished film. And we only retained two lines of dialogue and two shots from all of the previous versions that had been done. It was like running in front of a moving train laying down track like ‘Wallace and Gromit,’ but as Nicole said, everyone rallied. As long as it’s clear where we want to go, people rise to the occasion.
Q: Can you talk about the decision to set the beginning of ‘Incredibles 2’ at the moment the original ended? Had you considered any other options?
Bird: I thought about aging [the characters] the way everybody does, and then I thought, ‘No, that sucks.’ [laughs] So that’s about as deep as it went.
One of the conceits of the original film when I was first starting to work on the project– long before Pixar [got involved], even I think before ‘Iron Giant’– when I first had the idea, I went to a comic book shop and thought, ‘I’ve got to think up new powers.’ And after about a half an hour in the comic book shop, I realized every power has been done by somebody somewhere, even if it’s only a hundred issues self-published in Ohio. Everything has been done. And then right after that, [I had] a little epiphany. I realized I’m not very interested in the powers. That’s not the part that interests me. What interests me is the idea of having a family, and having there be a reason to hide the powers.
Once I had that insight into what I wanted to do, I picked the powers based on who they were in the family. Men are always expected to be strong, so I had Bob have super-strength. Mothers are always pulled in a million different directions, so I had [Helen] be elastic. Teenagers are insecure and defensive, so I had Violet have force fields and invisibility. Ten-year-olds are energy balls that can’t be stopped, and babies are unknowns– maybe they have no powers, maybe they have all powers, we don’t know.
That’s what Jack-Jack was. He was seemingly the first normal one in the family and then at the end of ‘Incredibles’ you find out that he’s the wild card, and that he’s sort of a swiss army knife of powers. And that to me reminds me of the way babies can grasp languages really easily and adopt them easily.
So that idea changes if you age the characters up. The insight into those periods of your life and those particular perspectives disappears once you age them up. I’m not interested in a college-age Jack-Jack. I’m interested in my sons growing up, but in terms of the interest for me in these movies, it stays more iconic if everyone situates themselves [in the same age]. I also was [a creative consultant] on the first eight seasons of ‘The Simpsons,’ and that’s worked out rather well for them. [laughs]
The two ideas that were in my head as the first movie was ending, like ‘Oh, this would be interesting,’ is a role switch between Bob and Helen and exploring Jack-Jack’s powers, making Jack-Jack a main character rather than a side character. Those were in from the beginning and never left the project. What changed is the plot, the superhero / villain plot, and that shifted endlessly and it drove me insane. I was always faced with the release date, and if something didn’t work, I couldn’t sit there and try to bang on it. I had to throw it away immediately and go to another idea that solved some of the issues that the first idea didn’t have. So that half of the story was always shifting.
Q: The first movie came out before Disney bought Marvel, and before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How has the recent superhero movie Renaissance affected ‘Incredibles 2’?
Bird: Well, on some level it’s kind of like going out to the football field and there’s been way too many games on it, and there’s just this dry dirt with a few sprigs of grass and everything’s kind of clunky, and life doesn’t grow there anymore. So there’s that aspect, where you feel like, ‘Oh jeez, it’s really been covered.’ It kind of reminds me of westerns were in the late 50s, where if you had a television, 95% of what was on was a western.
So we’re in that phase a little bit, and it makes it very challenging on a story level, because not only do you have every superhero under the sun, and cross-promoting films, but you also have a bunch of television shows. Even years ago, there was a show called ‘Heroes,’ [which] the creator of actually told me it was a mash-up of the movies ‘Crash’ and ‘The Incredibles.’ But ‘Heroes’ used to do five, six, ten different superheroes with storylines that continued on every week. And it seemed like everything had been done.
So it’s easy to freak out and go, ‘Why even try? Everybody’s got everything done to death,’ but then again I return to what makes us unique. And it’s this idea of a family, and that superheroes have to hide their abilities. Those things actually are unique to us, and there’s plenty left to explore.
Walker: When we were trying to sell the idea of the first ‘Incredibles,’ one of the criticisms of it was, ‘Well, what is it? Is it a family movie? Is it a spy movie? Is it a superhero movie? What is it? Pick one!’ And I think that’s been the strength of both the films, that they are all those things, and it isn’t rooted in just the superhero genre.
Q: Mr. Bird, you’re the rare Pixar director who works alone, without a co-director. What makes this approach preferable to you?
Bird: I’m not one of these people that [delegates] sequences. I’m elbows in. I have very strong opinions about how I like to see things staged. Ask people. I’m heavily into choreographing the shots and I have very strong opinions. That said, I try to create an atmosphere where I will get the shot that I want, but if somebody comes up with an alternate shot that they think would be cool, they can persuade me.
There are a million different ways to make a film, and one of the great things about this company is that it allows for that and accommodates that. I always look at the other filmmakers and I go, ‘Why would you give up any part of this movie? Why would you give it to someone else to do?’ And they just wave at me like, ‘Shut up.’ [laughs] That’s the best way to handle me. Just tell me to shut up.
Grindle: One thing I would say is on the first movie, you were able to choreograph a lot of [the action] very carefully in storyboarding, and because of the limited schedule [on the sequel] folks were throwing a lot of that stuff up there and bringing it back to you this time.
Bird: We had to move fast. And there were a lot of good ideas that I used. I’m not opposed to other people’s notions. I just want to make sure that I get mine in first. [laughs]
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the voice cast in ‘Incredibles 2’? Were there any standouts in your mind among the returning actors and new additions?
Bird: There’s no weak link. I’m the worst person to ask, because I think they’re all just fantastic. When I was an animator, I really hoped that I would have a good soundtrack to animate to, because what takes an actor five seconds to say may take an animator three weeks to animate. They have to listen to that dialogue over and over and over, and if it’s flat and boring you just want to kill yourself. But if there’s dimension to the line reading, something to grab onto and explore, you can dive deep on a single line and it’s endlessly fascinating.
So I try to collect the kind of soundtracks that I would want if I were an animator. And all of our actors delivered. Of the new actors, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, and Sophia Bush just kick it out through the roof. I love our voice cast, and I loved returning to working with Holly [Hunter] and Craig [T. Nelson] and Sarah [Vowell]. We have a new Dash, who is amazing, just every bit as good as the first Dash, who was also amazing.
Bud Luckey, who did the voice for Rick Dicker, he was sick and he’s since died. We had to replace him and we got Jonathan Banks. I’m a huge “Breaking Bad” / “Better Call Saul” fan, so he took over the role. And as Walker says, the first Rick Dicker you can’t imagine that he possibly could have killed a man, and this Dicker [you can believe it].
Walker: Or more than one. [laughs]
Bird: Jonathan Banks is a wonderful actor and he’s really great as Rick Dicker. I would love to tell you that one person was excellent above all other, but they’re all on that level to me. I’m the worst person to ask.
Q: There was a very interesting idea in the first movie about what makes someone super, and exploring the concept that if everyone is special, no one is special. To you, what ideas are being explored in the sequel?
Bird: It explores a lot of ideas. I don’t like to talk about the ideas as if that was the reason I made the movie, to push some agenda. It’s more like you create something that’s hopefully fun and entertaining, and then there are places where you can put little ideas here and there that add dimension to it.
The most important mission of the first movie was to entertain the crap out of people. The second thing was, we have some other things we’d like to comment on: the role of men of women, fathers and mothers, how teenagers view the world, mid-life crisis, that kind of stuff. There were a lot of little things buried in the movie. Certain things got more attention.
[In the sequel] we have things about, again, exploring the roles of men and women, the importance of fathers participating, the importance of allowing women to also express themselves through work, and that they’re just as vital as men are. There’s aspects of being controlled by screens, feelings about the difficulties of parenthood, that parenting is a heroic act. All of those things are in this movie, but if I start to single out one of them and say, ‘This movie is about that,’ it doesn’t give you an accurate picture of the movie. It makes it sound like we’re having broccoli and not dessert. And I don’t mind nutrition, but I’d like to have it in dessert, if possible.
Q: How challenging was it following up a movie that so many people love?
Bird: I think it’s really distracting to think of that. If you think about pleasing an audience that has no definition– it’s old, it’s young, it’s east, west, north, south, conservatives, liberals, everyone in between– if you try to think about pleasing that, and ‘What will they like two years from now?’, you just will curl up into a fetal ball and never come out of your room.
A better way to think about it is, ‘I’m going into a darkened movie theater, the curtains are opening, and I’m seeing what? What do I want to see?’ If you ask that question of yourself that way, you’re always connecting with the person that wants to be told a story. And to me, I feel comfortable answering that question, rather than ‘What will audiences like? What will critics like? What did they like about the last one, and do I do it again because they like it, or do I try to surprise them?’
The answer is a little bit of both: you want the characters to feel consistent. You want the world to feel consistent. But you don’t want to be able to know what’s going to happen next. So that’s the challenge, and it’s not an easy challenge to meet. But it definitely is your job if you’re making films.
Walker: The fact that we took fourteen years to do it suggests that we took the challenge seriously.
Bird: The thing is, many sequels are cash grabs. There’s a saying in the business that I can’t stand, where they go, [sleazy Hollywood voice] ‘You don’t make another one, you’re leaving money on the table.’ Money on the table is not what makes me get up in the morning. Making something that people are going to enjoy a hundred years from now is what gets me up.
If it were a cash grab, we would not have taken fourteen years. It makes no financial sense to wait this long. It’s sheerly [because] we had a story that we wanted to tell.
Disney/Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” will be released into theaters on Friday, June 15th.