Brad Bird has made a bold, fascinating leap from animation to live action with this week's glorious popcorn epic "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol." But we were curious as to what kind of connection he still has with Pixar, his former home base, as well as what else he is working on. In the second part of our lengthy interview with the filmmaker (you can read the first part here), he fills us in on Pixar, his live action historical epic "1906," the status of his animated film noir "Ray Gunn," what former Pixar owner Steve Jobs meant to him, and why Wall Street is so scared of Pixar.
We asked what was next for the filmmaker – live action, animation, or something in-between – and Bird replied that the plan is to return to "1906," the historical epic based on the novel by James Dalessandro, that he has been working on for the past few years. "I'm tremendously fascinated by that city at that moment in time and the possibilities that project would have. It's a very sprawling subject for a movie, though, and very difficult to get into a movie-sized box. There's a reason why it's taken me a while," Bird said. He described the process: "I spent years writing on it and I could get really great scenes but getting it to all click together and fit and not be a miniseries was a real challenge. So I would love to do that one." He's not running out another project, though. "There are many animation ideas that I have that I would love to pursue and other live action ideas I would love to pursue, it's just finding one that I'm excited about and hoping that I can get backing and resources that I need to make it. It's kind of a confluence of events that have to happen to fall into place to get a movie to happen. I'm just happy I get to make them."
One movie we wondered about was a project he had been developing at Warner Bros. Feature Animation called "Ray Gunn," a traditionally animated movie he described as being "an action movie film noir with a sci-fi edge, but it was the future as imagined in the 1930's" at a recent special event at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He doesn't rule out the possibility. "It's not like I can do them without Warner Bros.' cooperation, but I would say that regimes change and one of the nicest things about making movies is that hopefully you un-scare people," Bird said, about gaining the trust of the establishment. "There's a lot of fear in the movie industry because of the amount of money and resources that are involved and your goals are as elusive as what's going to entertain people of all different shapes and sizes. If you think about it in a logical way, it's an impossible job. You just kind of go forward and say, 'I'm going to make a movie that I want to see, and I hope people will join in'. [Then] I think you have a chance at doing something." He sounds optimistic, though. "Hopefully I've un-scared people about handling a live action film and I would dearly love to have more opportunities to make them."
Someone who was unafraid of what people would think was the dearly departed Steve Jobs, who funded Pixar in its early days (buying it away from George Lucas) and later sold it to Disney for unheard of amounts of money and stock options. Bird reflected on his relationship with Jobs: "I was just really grateful that I got to know him and work with a guy who is such a visionary. Talk about a guy who paid no heed to focus groups," Bird said. "He had done so many things that applied to both Apple and Pixar and it was all about not asking people what they want but showing them something that you think is great and believing that they're going to see it that way also." He said that working at Pixar when Jobs was still there was nothing more than miraculous. "I think that at any company you're very lucky to get to work with one visionary in your lifetime. But Pixar is this rare instance where there were three visionaries that collaborated – Steve, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter. They're all visionaries in their own way and the fact that they got together, it's kind of like The Beatles. It was one of those things that happened almost by accident and was this rare perfect storm of creativity and I was very happy to get to know Steve. I have so much respect for him."
And what of Bird's former home? We wondered how involved is the director with the animation juggernaut, and he confirmed that he is still on the vaulted Brain Trust ("I try to make as many meetings as I can"), he gets there as much as he can but that he's not there everyday. Bird added: "I love that studio. I love those guys and working with them. As long as it's doable I'd like to keep doing it."
When we asked what the most promising sounding movie in development over at Pixar was, Bird joked, "I can't talk about it. You're trying to get me to divulge state secrets, under penalty of torture." But it was a segue into an interesting conversation about the nature of Pixar's ideas and how the commercial world views those ideas.
"If you explain the basics of any one of these ideas, they probably will sound as nutty as a cooking French rat or a silent film starring robots in a post-apocalyptic world," Bird said. "Each one of those films, when we were in preparation on them, the financial community said each one of them stunk and none of them had the ability to be a financial success. And then the film would come out and they'd go, 'Well, they did it that time but the next one sounds like a piece of crap.' " This is true. Everytime there's a new Pixar property coming out, whether it's "Up" or "WALL-E" or whatever, there's an accompanying Wall Street Journal ad questioning its ability to sell toys (watch, there'll be another one just before "Brave" opens this summer).
Bird went on: "The truth of the matter is Wall Street is only interested in you repeating yourself. If you want to do something that sounds a little odd, the financial community is all about a feeling of predictable success. And the only thing that fits that model is something similar to what you've done before. Everyone was very enthusiastic about Pixar doing 'Toy Story 3' but they weren't excited about the idea of 'Up.' So if I told you about the ideas of various Pixar films, you and I might get excited about them, but the financial community would say 'Oh that sounds crazy.' But that's probably why Pixar films are the way they are, because they're films that the storytellers are excited to be getting on the screen. They're not some sort of focus group. So because Pixar comes from a very pure place, it's why I'm interested in staying involved with them as long as I can."
Whether or not Brad Bird stays at Pixar, one thing's for sure, and that's that we'll be watching whatever he does. "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" opens at midnight. Go see it. It's a wild ride.