These days, Brad Bird is one of the most sought after directors around. He helmed “The Incredibles” for Pixar, still one of the company’s best and biggest hits, and took over troubled project “Ratatouille” at the last minute, helping turn it into another classic and global hit. And last year, he made his live-action debut with the thrilling “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” which became the biggest film of Tom Cruise‘s career, and will follow it up in the near future with the Damon Lindelof-penned sci-fi “1952.”
But Bird has not always been so blessed. His first feature film, “The Iron Giant,” while glowingly reviewed, was a huge flop on release. Loosely based on Ted Hughes‘ book, the film was set in the 1950s, and followed Hogarth, a young boy (Eli Marienthal) who discovers a giant alien robot (Vin Diesel) who’s fallen from the space. Together with his mother (Jennifer Aniston), and her beatnik friend (Harry Connick Jr.), they try and hide the creature from the government, even while it grapples with its own function as a killing machine.
Charming, gorgeous to look at, funny and incredibly moving, it’s a film that only found its audience on home video and television, but is now widely recognized as a modern classic, and is perhaps still Bird’s finest hour. “The Iron Giant” was released thirteen years ago today, on August 6th, 1999, and to mark the occasion, we’ve assembled a selection of five facts that you might not know about the project. Check them out below.
1. A more faithful adaptation of Ted Hughes’ source novel would be wildly different.
Originally published in 1968, “The Iron Man” (retitled “The Iron Giant” in the U.S. to avoid confusion with the Marvel superhero) was the sixth children’s book from legendary British poet Ted Hughes, who had been married to American writer Sylvia Plath (and was played by Daniel Craig in the 2003 film “Sylvia“). And had Brad Bird and co-writer Tim McCanlies not departed significantly from the source material, we could have been looking at a very different film. A concise, cosmic anti-war fable, it begins in a similar way to the film, with a young boy, Hogarth, discovering a huge, mysterious Iron Man, who is devouring farming equipment. From there, things differ substantially, however: Hogarth lures the creature into a trap, in which the Iron Man is buried alive. Months later, he digs himself out, but Hogarth saves the day by leading his new giant friend to a metal scrapheap. But soon, a giant creature, the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon, lands in Australia, and demands to be fed by humanity. The Giant volunteers to help, is disassembled, and is shipped to Australia, where he challenges the alien beast to a test of will, involving the Giant being set on fire by burning petroleum, while the creature has to survive as long as possible in the heat of the sun. The giant triumphs, but the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon reveals that he’s actually a Star Spirit, provoked only by human warfare; it sings to the people of the Earth, causing worldwide peace. Stirring stuff, but it probably wouldn’t have flown as a movie (Hughes’ 1993 sequel “The Iron Woman” even less so: it involves the titular Giantess seeking revenge on humanity for their pollution of the seas, turning the workers of a factory into swamp creatures, who vomit black goo that turns into “The Spider-God of wealth”). The film version might have been very different, but Hughes (who wouldn’t see the finished film, passing away in October 1998) still approved, writing in a letter to Warner Bros after reading the script, “I want to tell you how much I like what Brad Bird has done. He’s made something all of a piece, with terrific sinister gathering momentum and the ending came to me as a glorious piece of amazement. He’s made a terrific dramatic situation out of the way he’s developed ‘The Iron Giant.’ I can’t stop thinking about it.”
2. The film version started out as a musical, with songs by Pete Townshend of “The Who”
In 1986, Pete Townshend of “The Who,” whose solo career was in full flight, became interested in the idea of another rock opera, or in his words, “modern song-cycle,” along the lines of the band’s hit “Tommy,” and fixed on the idea of adapting Hughes’ “The Iron Man.” Three years later, an album, “The Iron Man: The Musical” arrived, featuring eleven new songs by Townshend (plus a cover of Arthur Brown‘s “Fire,” performed by the surviving members of The Who). Featuring Townshend as Hogarth, it also included bandmate Roger Daltrey as Hogarth’s father, blues legend John Lee Hooker as the Iron Man, and, amazingly, Nina Simone as the Space Dragon. The project took its first leap into the film world with the part stop-motion animated video for the lead single off the record, “A Friend is A Friend” (watch below), but it was four years later, when a stage version premiered at the Young Vic Theater in London, that a feature film became a possibility. Theater director Des McAnuff, who ‘d just worked with Townshend on a Broadway version of “Tommy,” saw the show, and suggested that it should become an animated movie, persuading Warner Bros to pick up the rights. When Bird came on, however, he jettisoned the songs and reworked the story significantly, but the rock star didn’t mind so much, telling Bird and McCanlies “Well, whatever. I got paid.” Both he and McAnuff retained producer credits on the film.
3. “The Iron Giant” rose out of the ashes of an unmade Bird project called “Ray Gunn.”
Having started out as an animator on films like “The Fox & The Hound” and “The Plague Dogs,” Brad Bird really came to attention by directing “Family Dog,” an animated episode of Steven Spielberg‘s “Amazing Stories” anthology show, which was later developed into a short-lived CBS spin-off series (without Bird’s involvement). Its success led to Bird starting to work on “The Simpsons,” and later other animated series like “The Critic” and “King Of The Hill,” until Turner Feature Animation, who at the time were hoping to rival Disney in the cartoon movie world, poached him away, with the promise that they could get him his feature directorial debut made. Entitled “Ray Gunn,” it was, in Bird’s words, “an action movie film noir with a sci-fi edge, but it was the future as imagined in the 1930s,” and was intended to be a PG-13 movie, somewhat darker than the usual fare, aimed at an older audience. But the director couldn’t convince the studio that an audience existed for the film, and when the flops of “The Pagemaster” and “Cats Don’t Dance” saw TFA merged with Warner Bros Animation, the film was shelved, and Bird was given his choice of projects at Warners instead, picking out “The Iron Giant.” Warners animation had their own problems, with the expensive “Quest For Camelot” flopping hugely, and as a result, there was a good deal of turnaround at the company, something that Bird says enabled him to make the film without much interference. Tim McCanlies said in a later interview: ” ‘Quest for Camelot’ did so badly that everybody backed away from animation and fired people. Suddenly we had no executive anymore on ‘Iron Giant,’ which was great because Brad got to make his movie. Because nobody was watching.” Of course, it also meant that “The Iron Giant” wasn’t given much of a push by the studio, leaving it to underperform at the box office. There’s been talk in the 13 years since of a possible revival of “Ray Gunn,” and Bird still hasn’t ruled it out, telling us later last year that “It’s not like I can do it 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. 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.’ “
4. “The Rocketeer” and “Captain America” director Joe Johnston designed the titular Iron Giant.
Bird wasn’t the only filmmaker to have a serious influence on the way his film turned out, as the look of the Iron Giant itself was in part created by Joe Johnston, a friend of the filmmaker, and the director of “Honey I Shrunk The Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” “Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park III,” “The Wolfman” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Johnston had started out his career as a concept designer on the original “Star Wars” movies, later moving into visual effects, winning an Oscar for his work on “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” Bird relates how Johnston became involved in “The Iron Giant”: “Joe’s a friend of mine and my wife. We’ve known him for years and I was able to lure him to do a little bit of moonlighting. He did the very first designs of the Giant, and Mark Whiting, our production designer, and Steve Markowski, our head Giant animator, added several things to it and refined it. Joe did a great job.” Inspired by Art Deco trains like The Silver Streak, Johnston’s design (refined by Mark Whiting) was instantly iconic, and a great reason for the film’s success, even if his commitment to “October Road” meant his role on the production was brief. As for the Giant itself, the decision was made to create the character through CGI, rather than 2D animation. As Bird says, “It is difficult for a human to draw a big, solid metallic object. Animators excel at drawing movement and living, fluid objects. The giant originates from a different world, so we chose to create the giant using computer animation, CGI, which would give him the mass and solidity and also give the impression that it’s from a different place. The separation between the 2D-animation and the CGI is something that helped establish the fish-out-of-water facet of the story.” Johnston wasn’t the only interesting hire on the project: Mark Andrews, who recently directed Pixar’s “Brave,” was a storyboard artist on the movie, while Bird was able to hire students from his alma mater CalArts to assist on the film’s animation.
5. The film’s cult success is in part thanks to its regular presence on the Cartoon Network at Thanksgiving.
When first test-screened, the film reportedly received the highest scores that Warner Bros had gotten in 15 years. But by then, it was a little too late; the film’s tight production and relatively low budget meant it was something of an afterthought for the studio, and merchandising tie-ins and similar opportunities like had passed by. As Tim McCanlies says: “We had toy people and all of that kind of material ready to go, but all of that takes a year! Burger King and the like wanted to be involved. In April we showed [Warner Bros] the movie, and we were on time. They said, ‘You’ll never be ready on time.’ No, we were ready on time. We showed it to them in April and they said, ‘We’ll put it out in a couple of months.’ That’s a major studio, they have 30 movies a year, and they just throw them off the dock and see if they either sink or swim, because they’ve got the next one in right behind it. After they saw the reviews they [Warner Bros.] were a little shamefaced.” Indeed, the reviews were exceptional, but the box office wasn’t — the film made only $5.7 million in its opening weekend, and $23 million in total, a significant flop. By the time the home video release came, Warners were better prepared, with a number of merchandising tie-ins, and the film did well. But part of the reason for its enduring cult success (other than the global hits that Bird went on to direct) is thanks to another Time Warner subsidiary, Cartoon Network. The movie received its basic cable premiere on the July 4th weekend, 2002, airing continuously on repeat for 24 hours between July 2nd and July 3rd, and the channel repeated the marathon on the day after Thanksgiving for several years after that. Like “The Wizard Of Oz” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” before it, it’s a film that had its reputation restored, in part, by television.
Final Scene: Spoiler Warning