As long as I've been in LA, I've been enjoying great conversations with Brad Bird.
When I worked at Dave's Video in the early '90s, Bird was one of our regular customers. At that point, he was working on "The Simpsons," and he was already known by some film geeks for his incredible "Family Dog" episode of "Amazing Stories." At that point, I remember long conversations about pulp classics, spy movies, his dream of making either "The Spirit" or a SF animated film called "Ray Gunn," and much more. He was one of those customers of ours who really lived and breathed movies, who seemed to be interested in every genre and in every type of filmmaking.
It was little surprise, then, when I saw and loved a very early rough cut of "The Iron Giant," a movie that was a difficult political football at Warner Bros.
There was talk of a video release, talk of forcing Bird to cut big chunks of it for time, and a general sense that no matter how much Warner Bros. wanted a feature animation department, they just weren't willing to put in the time and money to really make it work. I reviewed the early rough cut, though, and that helped put pressure on the studio. When I conducted a huge free-wheeling interview with Bird, without any involvement by the studio, it served to put all of the behind-the-scenes troubles on the record, and Warner finally committed to a full theatrical release of the film that Bird set out to make. And while it wasn't an immediate hit, the film has had a tremendous second life on video, and is acknowledged as a modern animated classic at this point.
Watching his career since then, I'm endlessly impressed with the work that Bird does. He builds set pieces like a mad scientist, knowing precisely how to goose an audience along with one escalation after another. He's also great with character and theme, something that is not always the case in people who are good at orchestrating action. Bird's the whole package as a filmmaker, but because he worked in animation, it was easy for people to dismiss him. "He just makes cartoons" was something another critic said to me with a straight face one day. Never mind that the Anton Ego/Proust moment in "Ratatouille" might be one of the most sophisticated character beats in live-action or animation in the last decade. Never mind the endless invention on display in the way he crafted that island invasion in "The Incredibles." Nope. "He just makes cartoons" is actually the way some people think, and it baffles me as much as it infuriates me.
In making the jump to live-action, one of my fears was that Bird's voice would get buried thanks to all the other people in the mix, but "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is absolutely overflowing with the sort of detail that distinguishes his other work. When I sat down to talk to him, I had not seen the whole film yet. It was the day after we saw an early couple of scenes from the Dubai IMAX sequence.
I hope this opens more doors for Bird and that he's able to get some films made that are very personal to him. I think he's one of the great voices in commercial filmmaking right now, and nothing would make me happier than to see him unleashed completely.
"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is in IMAX theaters now and opens everywhere on Wednesday.