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AICN Animation Double-Header! Moriarty Interviews Brad Bird!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I’ve seen Pixar’s astonishing new film THE INCREDIBLES twice now, and it just reinforced for me how important a crowd can be to the viewing experience. The first time I saw it was at a junket screening, and they couldn’t have been less responsive. That’s a junket audience for you, though. They’re more concerned with what they’re going to eat after the movie than they are with the movie itself. I saw it again four days later in Westwood in a theater packed with UCLA film students, and they went totally apeshit for it. When Brad Bird came out for a Q&A after the film, they treated him like a rock star. Which, honestly, he is.

If you were reading Ain’t It Cool back around the time THE IRON GIANT came out, you may have read this interview I did with Bird before that film’s release. The last time I saw Bird was at the premiere of IRON GIANT, a bittersweet affair. It was clear at that point that Warner Bros. had dropped the ball, but it was also obvious that everyone who did see the film loved it, and it’s grown in esteem over the years.

It’s been a little over five years since then, and I finally got a chance to sit down with the writer/director of THE INCREDIBLES after that Westwood screening for this too-brief chat about his new picture.

Moriarty: When we last spoke, IRON GIANT wasn’t quite in release yet...

BRAD: Right.

Moriarty: ... and there was sort of a siege mentality that was setting in. There was obviously a tight-knit creative community, a family of people actually working on the film, but there was no strong sense of support from Warner Bros. Now, working for Pixar, it’s got to be an entirely different environment.

BRAD: It’s been wonderful. We had a teaser trailer that I directed a year and a half in advance. It’s been wonderful. Everybody knows what this is. If it doesn’t do well, it won’t because people didn’t know about it.

Moriarty: The teaser did such a great job setting the tone. It was obviously designed as a separate piece of material.

BRAD: When we shot it, that was the only set we had ready at that point. I couldn’t do anything but that. We tried to, uh... Mark Andrews, who’s our story supervisor and who also worked on IRON GIANT, ahd an idea of, you know, what if you did the typical superhero thing and then he couldn’t fasten the belt? Once he did that, I felt like, “Yeah, that’s it.” So I opened up all the belt gags to the animators, and I said, “Come up with a bunch of stuff,” and then we picked the best stuff and put it in the right order. Then I wrote the beginning stuff where we come over the posters and have that music playing and we set up that this guy used to be the bomb. We had a lot of fun. But literally, that was the only set we had ready. It was fortunate that we had it in that room because it couldn’t have been anywhere else.

Moriarty: One of the things that is clear right away from that trailer is the level of performance in this film. It’s really extraordinary...

BRAD: Oh, thank you.

Moriarty: ... and the performances overall, both physically and vocally, are remarkable. You end up believing in these people. Five minutes into this movie, they’re real.

BRAD: That’s great.

Moriarty: You stop thinking about the animation or the technique. In the teaser, there’s that one shot where his back is to the camera and he slaps the desk...

BRAD: (laughs) Yeah.

Moriarty: ... and it’s just so human and so real that it’s hard for me to believe that was planned. It feels spontaneous, like something an actor would improvise. How do you pull that off with so many people involved?

BRAD: That’s true. Teddy Newton kind of thought of that little gesture, and he’s a very talented guy, but, um, what I was taught at a pretty early age by the old Disney masters, and I still believe that the bar is set where those guys left it... they were big on drawing from life. They didn’t have any animation for them to look at. I think the strength... and the weakness... of our generation is that we have all this animation that’s happened before us. What’s good about that is that everybody... there are more really facile animators now than there have ever been, because we’ve been able to study this huge amount of work one frame at a time and get what they’re doing. The bad thing, the weakness of our generation, is that we tend to constantly return to the animation prool of preexisting animation and just sort of repeat gestures and expressions and things that we’ve seen. I’ve tried to push any teams that I’ve worked with to do what these guys told me to do, which is draw from life. Look at things outside of animation, whether it be other movies or theater or your uncle Herb or something that happened to you as a kid or something you saw on the bus last week. Whatever. That way, the language is always expanding. I think there are a million things that haven’t been brought into animation. We certainly tried to bring some in with this movie.

Moriarty: It’s the little gestures. As Syndrome is walking towards his jet to leave the island, there’s this little hand shake...

BRAD: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Moriarty: ... like he’s loosening up. Or as Dash realizes he can run on water, there’s that moment where it hits him, and he... he lights up. You see that, and you believe in them.

BRAD: Well... thanks.

Moriarty: For me, it’s what pushes this even farther into... and I love that it’s not photo-real. Instead, it’s a very hyper-real world. I get a real strong Ken Adam vibe off the design.

BRAD: I looooooove Ken Adam...

Moriarty: There’s such a strong Bond vibe to this picture.

BRAD: ... but I also love John Box, who did LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. There are a lot of great production designers referenced here. But definitely... Ken Adam has one of the best. I love his DR. STRANGELOVE sets. They’re very simple and great.

Moriarty: In terms of the score, you cut that original teaser to the Propellerheads version of the “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” theme...

BRAD: Actually, that was a live performance than we recorded, because we messed with it a little bit. We got the rights to that piece of music and kind of reorchestrated it.

Moriarty: Very early on, there was some talk about John Barry working on the score.

BRAD: Yeah. We worked on it for a little while, and I’m a huge fan of John Barry. But I kind of wanted him to go back to a style that he used in the past, and use that as kind of a starting place. I think he kind of felt like he’d already done that. So we’re still in touch with him, and he’s going to see the movie in New York. He was all right with us trying to find someone who could be, uh... perky and fresh about going backwards because John certainly had already done a lot of that style.

Moriarty: I think he’s got to see this as a giant love letter to his work. Michael’s score is so rich.

BRAD: Thanks! We tried to capture a whole raft of ‘60’s style, jazz style... and also, one of the good things about Michael Giacchino is he was able to capture that style but not be a prisoner to it. He created great original themes for these guys, and we’re incredibly happy with the music. He had trouble getting people to give him a break in movies, and I think people won’t leave him alone after this.

Moriarty: As much as I’ve enjoyed his work on ALIAS and LOST, this is a huge leap forward, and I think it’s the lush size of the thing. He really gets to play this time.

BRAD: Yeah, yeah, he had a blast, and he’s fabulous.

Moriarty: In terms of your vocal talent, there are some more obvious choices. I mean, Sam Jackson has one of the great voices in film, and it’s no surprise that he’s so wonderful as Frozone.

BRAD: Yeah, I’m a big Sam Jackson fan.

Moriarty: But Sarah Vowell...

BRAD: Yeah?

Moriarty: How did you ever decide to use Sarah Vowell for this?

BRAD: Well, I’m a big fan of [NPR radio show] THIS AMERICAN LIFE, so I’d heard Sarah before. And I was listening to an essay she was doing, and it was while we were casting, and it just clicked. I went, “That’s Violet! That’s Violet!” It turns out she’d been asked before to do animation voices, and she’d always refused. Luckily for us, she accepted this time. She had a blast, and I love Sarah’s work, both in the film and on the page when she writes something. It was a real treat for me to get to work with her.

Moriarty: For Craig T. Nelson, there’s a depth here that no one has tapped before.

BRAD: Craig is a great actor, and people mainly know him for comedy, but he’s a really good actor overall. He started out as a writer and wrote actually with Barry Levinson early in his career, so I think he has kind of a loose, free attitude toward material. I like him. He sounded like a big heroic guy who would also live next door to you. I had a blast with him. And Holly... Holly’s just one of the great actresses of our time.

Moriarty: Sort of like Sam, she’s got such a distinct voice.

BRAD: Yeah.

Moriarty: She brings so much character to it automatically ever time she opens her mouth.

BRAD: Right.

Moriarty: On both this film and IRON GIANT, you worked with young actors in significant roles. Eli Marienthal was great as Hogarth, a very special child performance, and now here again, Dash is wonderful...

BRAD: Well, of course, he’s actually a real person named Spencer Fox who lives in New York.

Moriarty: Is this his first film?

BRAD: I think so. I think it might be. He’s just a real character, and he did these really original line readings. We tried a lot, a lot of kids, and then Spencer would come in, bouncing in from outer space, and do something really original. We just kind of felt like, “Yeah, that’s our guy.”

Moriarty: How much direction is there when you’re working with a child? Obviously, you have a specific idea of what you want. Is it more about the casting, finding the right kid?

BRAD: It is, and then it’s also about hanging with it. Sometimes, you can only find little instances, and you kind of have to coax those out, and when you get a little diamond, it becomes about assembling those diamonds in a row. Spencer was very inventive, and like I said, his line readings were distinctive. That kind of stuff is a gift to the animator, because what takes an actor five seconds to say can take an animator three weeks to animate, and they’re going to hear that over and over. The lines have to be rich and inspiring, because that’s what gets the great visuals out of animators.

Moriarty: On THE SIMPSONS, the Comic Book Guy is a very particular archetype, and now we have Syndrome, who is a very particular type of overzealous fan. Do convention audiences scare you?

BRAD: (laughs) I think that like any other large group of people, they run the gamut from, um, you know... great people who just really enjoy film as much as someone like you or I do, to people who... maybe... should get out a little bit more...

Moriarty: (laughs)

BRAD: ... to everything in-between.

Moriarty: Now, for you adapting to working in 3D as opposed to 2D... what sort of a learning curve is there? How did you prepare to make that shift?

BRAD: I think the world is different, and a lot of times you don’t know what you’re looking at. I got trained after a while to focus on the right things, because when things go wrong in CG, they go insanely wrong. Like really psycho weird. I think that probably too much emphasis is put on the technique, whether it be 2D or 3D, and not in the fact that the language is still film. You’re still dealing in close-ups and long shots and color and music and performance and, and, uh, characters that you hopefully relate to and understand and can follow, and stories that are surprising and yet make sense when you think about them later. I think the really important ingredients to a successful animated film of any type are the same ingredients to a successful live-action film.

Moriarty: The last time we spoke, you talked about projects you were toying with like RAY GUNN [a SF noir story]. Obviously, you’re going to take some time after THE INCREDIBLES to...

BRAD: ... get some sensation back in my body. Yes.

Moriarty: Will you be going back to work on any of these projects that you’ve worked on before? After all, you’ve carried THE INCREDIBLES around with you for 12 years now, and finally, it’s done. Are there things that you know you’re going to go back to, or are there new things coming up to push those old priorities aside?

BRAD: I would still love to do RAY GUNN. I have two or three things that I’ve developed that I’d love to go back to. I also have ones that I’ve never pitched to anybody, and a couple of them, I know I could sell on a pitch. I think the ideas... I have a couple that are good one-line ideas, you know? But I don’t really want to pitch them anymore unless I’m in a position to know I can do them right. I’ve gotten to make the movies that I wanted to make. I want to keep doing that because then I can stand in front of it and say, “Whether you like it or not, this is what I set out to do, and it’s the best I can do,” you know? So I don’t know quite which one of them will light me on fire the most, but I’m excited about all of them. We’ll see.

At this point, I could see that Brad was fading fast. It was a late screening, and he was right in the middle of the publicity crunch for the film. I could have sat all night talking to him. This is a guy who got his start as a 14-year-old whose first short animated film caught the attention of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney’s legendary “Nine Old Men.” Keep your eyes peeled for their cameo in THE INCREDIBLES, recorded before Frank passed this year. Brad Bird knows as much about animation, if not more, than anyone in the business right now. On top of that, there’s a real decency to him that shines through in conversation just as loudly as it does in his films. It was great to catch up with him, and here’s hoping it’s not another five years until the release of his next classic.

I’ll be back with my reviews of THE INCREDIBLES, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, BLADE: TRINITY, Matthew Vaughn's badass LAYER CAKE, and ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR over the course of the weekend, and there’s a ton of stuff on the books for next week. For now, though...

"Moriarty" out.

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