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Moriarty Visits Pixar To Chat With Brad Bird And Patton Oswalt About RATATOUILLE!

I’ve been to Pixar once before, when I was invited up for the INCREDIBLES DVD release. I found the place to be just as magical as you’d expect. Sure, Pixar may be an incredibly important corporate asset for Disney, but when you’re there, you can see that it was built to inspire real artistry, and that it’s all designed with one goal in mind: the production of films that are genuinely special. This time, I flew up very early on a Friday morning, and then caught an insanely expensive cab ride into Emeryville, where the Pixar campus is located. Randy Nelson, the dean of Pixar University, was waiting to take me around the campus again for a tour. I met him during my last trip, and he’s one of those guys who exemplifies what Pixar is all about, in my opinion. He’s got the same sort of measured enthusiasm as Fred Rogers, the same sort of innate decency and interest in everything. He is the first face that most guests to Pixar encounter, and I can see why. As he talks about the way the company works, you know you’re not being hard-sold. Instead, this guy is just a true believer. He’s seen the effect that the Pixar system has on artists and writers, and he knows that he’s working for a company that treats its creative people as special, that values everyone in the building equally. Even if you’re an accountant at Pixar, you’re still able to participate in a very real way. Every employee is allowed to take classes at Pixar University, allowed to work on animation skills or sculpting skills or filmmaking skills. They want every single person there to understand the process so that when an animator asks for money for an extra shot or a reshoot of a sequence, that accountant knows what that’s all about. It creates a united front instead of an adversarial relationship, something other studios could learn to do. Near the end of the tour, we walked through one hallway that had been turned into a gallery to celebrate the career of Bud Lackey, the guy who wrote and directed BOUNDIN’. This guy has been influencing me with his work since the early days of SESAME STREET, and now he’s retiring. As a result, the entire Pixar staff has created art to sum up the way he’s inspired them over the years, and it was a moving display to a real unsung giant in the industry, another reminder of just how tight-knit the Pixar community really is. Finally, I was led to a back corner of the building, where Brad Bird was waiting for me in the editing room. I hadn’t seen him since that INCREDIBLES visit, but I always enjoy talking to him. Ever since our first meeting years ago at Dave’s Video, I’ve been impressed by the passion that Brad has for animation, and as his reputation has grown, he’s remained the exact same person. He doesn’t strike me as remotely egotistical, and with a track record like his, he would be easily forgiven if he was full of himself. Instead, I see him as a guy who is constantly pushing himself and the people around him because no matter what he’s done, and no matter how well it’s turned out, he always believes that he can do better, and he believes that the artists he works with can do better, too. In this case, Brad was actually brought onto the film fairly late in the game. He’s had to create RATATOUILLE on a compressed production schedule because the film’s original director, Jan Pinkava, left after production had already begun. I read many speculative stories online about why that had happened, but Brad seemed happy to clear it up as we got started. And this plays back into that theory about everyone at Pixar continuing to hone their skills, no matter what they’ve already accomplished. Anyone who’s seen “Geri’s Game,” the short film that Pinkava directed for the studio, knows that he has skills. However, after they were underway on RATATOUILLE, Pinkava himself decided that story wasn’t one of those skills. At least, not in terms of assembling a full-length narrative. He had a great core idea, but the film wasn’t working as a whole, and he knew it. He chose to shift his attentions to a story program at Pixar University, leaving room for Brad to come in and take over as director of the feature. Even though he knew he’d only have 18 months from start to finish, Brad stripped the film down to its core idea and then rebuilt it completely. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but based on what I’ve seen, I’d say the gamble may have paid off for him. Basically, Brad said that it was the outlandishness of the concept that drew him in. “What’s the one thing that all kitchens fear the most? Rats. So imagine if you had a rat whose only ambition was to become a master chef. Something about putting those polar opposites together really spoke to me... it seemed like such a challenge. I had to find a way to get an audience to root for the character to achieve his dream, even if they wouldn’t normally.” That character is, of course, Remy. By now, we’ve shown you some great featurettes about the development of the film and you’ve seen at least two trailers that focus on Remy, the rat with the impossible dream. One of the key pieces of the puzzle when putting together an animated film is casting the voice, and Brad has demonstrated in the past that he has a real knack for putting just the right voice together with the character design to make it come to full and quirky life. When he cast Sarah Vowell in THE INCREDIBLES, it was because he had listened to her on the radio. The same thing happened here when Brad heard a comedy routine by Patton Oswalt talking about the commercials for the Black Anghus steakhouse. Listening to Patton rant about food, Brad realized what he was hearing was the exact mix of passion and humor that he was looking for, and he quickly put together a test using that comedy routine and some footage of Remy. The test was enough to sell everyone at Pixar, and Oswalt was given the job. I’ve known Patton for a while, and he’s a rabid fan of both great animation and fine food, so it seems like blessed synchronicity that he would end up playing the part. The first sequence Brad showed me takes place early in the film. Remy and his family are packed into the walls and the attic of a French woman’s farmhouse, and when they’re discovered, she starts shooting. This sets off a wild chase that ends up with Remy in the sewers, washed away and finally coming out in Paris. What came through clearly was just how far Brad’s pushing the dynamic potential of animation in this film, and also how amazing his attention to detail really is. The walls of the French farmhouse are stained yellow from decades of cigarette smoke. The trip through the sewers is dizzying, kinetic. The woman herself represents another step forward in human modeling for the company, as do all the human characters in the film. I remember when TOY STORY came out in 1995... as much as I love that film, it was obvious that including humans in the movie was a very tricky thing, and not something they could really render convincingly yet. But now, it seems that the only thing that holds Pixar back from doing anything is the limit of their own imaginations. The second sequence Brad showed me is essentially what you saw when the nine minutes of the movie was recently released. You can judge that footage for yourself. There are a number of familiar voices in the film, like Ian Holm as the main chef, Janeane Garafalo as the female chef, Peter O’Toole as a sinister restaurant critic, Brian Dennehey as Remy’s father, and Brad Garrett as Gasteau, the chef whose cookbooks served as Remy’s primer in the culinary arts. But the pivotal role of Linguini is played by Lou Romano. Lou’s a conceptual artist at Pixar, and his work is consistently fascinating. You can check out some examples on his blog or in the various books that Pixar has put out about the making of their various films. When he did the voice of Linguini, it was supposed to be temporary, just for the story reel, but Brad really connected with the voice work that Romano did, and I can see why. In each of the scenes I saw, there’s a natural vulnerability to his work, and it’s nice to hear a character, and not a celebrity. His relationship with Remy is the key to the film either working or not, and that scene on the banks of the river sold me completely. I also saw a scene between Colette (Garafolo) and Linguini, and I was impressed by the way Brad has nailed the dynamics of a real kitchen. Colette knows that she has to work twice as hard as any of the men working in the kitchen, and her relationship with Linguini isn’t a conventional simple romance by any means. Instead, she’s more concerned with him not dragging her down if he screws up, and even if she likes him, she’s not willing to let him tie his fate to hers. The final sequence I was shown involved the food critic, Anton Ego, as he hears about the buzz around Gasteau’s. He had killed the restaurant with a savage review years earlier, and the growing reputation around the cooking being done by Remy and Linguini means he’s going to have to review it again, something he loathes the idea of. After all, he’s already killed it... why should he be forced to do it again? The thing that makes THE IRON GIANT or THE INCREDIBLES or FAMILY DOG work so well is the emphasis on performance and character, and RATATOUILLE appears to be a further evolution in the way Brad works. The more we talked about the film, the more animated he became himself, and I could see just how much he has personally invested in each of these characters. So much of what passes as “family animation” in this country these days is just cookie-cutter garbage, aimed at the lowest common denominator. But with Brad, I get the sense that he really believes in storytelling above anything else. Yes, the films he makes are animated, but he doesn’t treat that like some catch-all genre. Instead, he simply sees animation as the way you tell some stories. I like that he’s thinking of working in live-action next, and I think it’s cool that he plans to go back and forth depending on what stories he’s telling. I asked him about the possibility of an INCREDIBLES sequel, and he was frank when he said that he’s got no plans at all right now. “If I came up with a story that was really worth telling, I’d definitely want to do it. But the great thing about Pixar is that they’re not pressuring me to do it just so they can release a sequel.” There are plenty of other stories in the works at the studio, and if they don’t make a sequel to THE INCREDIBLES, then fine. It’ll stand alone as a great film. And if they do, then rest assured... there will be a reason for doing so. The next morning, I went to WonderCon in San Francisco to see the presentation that Brad and Patton made about the film. You can see some clips from that presentation below:
I think you can see the chemistry the two of them have, and it definitely translates to the final footage. After the convention, I walked across the street to meet Patton in a restaurant for lunch. Our conversation was anything but a typical interview. We talked about the just-starting Grindhouse Film Festival here in LA. We talked about animation technique in general. Patton talked about his first visit to Pixar, which he described as being like a trip to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and the incredible pride he has at being invited to be part of this company’s history. We talked about comic book movies, a subject that Patton can hold forth on for hours at the slightest provocation, and what he’s enjoyed versus what he hasn’t. Mainly, it was just a nice chance to reconnect with a friend I don’t see often, and to see him as it was starting to sink in: RATATOUILLE is going to change his life. Patton’s always had a following as a comedian, and in recent years, he’s been more and more in-demand as a writer and as a punch-up artist. But a film like this will give him exposure to people who have never heard of him, and if it works, who knows where it could for him as a performer? He’s done voices for animation before on projects like THE AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD, but something like that is a specialty geek title. RATATOUILLE has the potential to cross over to a huge audience, and if they fall in love with Remy the way they’ve fallen in love with Buzz or Woody or Nemo and Dory and Marlin or Sully and Mike and Boo, then there’s a chance Patton’s looking at a significant change in his career and his visibility. And seeing that start to sink in, and seeing my buddy trying to adjust for it, it’s a lesson in the way you should handle it. Patton’s gearing up for the release of his new album, and he’s still focused on projects like his comic book scripts or his work at Dreamworks, but on that particular weekend, he was finally enjoying the fruits of this particular labor. Yes, Pixar is a trusted brand-name at this point, but no one gets a free pass. My enthusiasm for RATATOUILLE isn’t just because of some blanket love of the company. Instead, I can honestly say that this looks like one of the most big-hearted films of the summer, and as an animation freak, I’m amazed by the level of accomplishment on display. Thanks to Disney and Pixar for having me up to take a peek, and for once again pushing themselves as hard as they possibly can to give us something potentially wonderful this summer.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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