Last Saturday night, a sneak preview of Pixar’s new computer-animated movie, Ratatouille (which opens for real on June 29), left gung-ho fanboys (and girls) in rapture. Online message boards abound with excited praise, and no wonder. As it spins out the story of an aspiring chef who just happens to be a Parisian sewer rat named Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt), Ratatouille garnishes its ingeniously staged action scenes with more omigod camera angles and tracking shots than an Orson Welles movie.
We caught up with writer/director Brad Bird (an eight-year contributor to The Simpsons in the 1990s, as well as the guiding hand behind 1999’s The Iron Giant and 2004’s The Incredibles) to talk about his new ode to culinary artistry. Here’s what he had to say about the ”ick” factor of rats, the rigors of competing in a summer of endless sequels, how much he chafes at condescending attitudes about animation, and why the term ”brain trust” gives him the willies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It was tough not to be skeptical about this movie based on early posters and footage. The central idea of a rat loose in a gourmet restaurant kitchen is just so inherently repulsive.
BRAD BIRD: Everybody is kind of reacting, Ewwww, who would want to make a movie about rats? Why is Disney doing a rat film? Ugh!
So what did Pixar see in such an unlikely subject?
When Jan Pinkava [pronounced: Yon PINK-uh-va] pitched the idea of a rat who wants to cook, everyone at Pixar immediately recognized it as having a sort of huge [dramatic] tension. Because a rat is death to a kitchen. I mean, they’ll close a restaurant that has a rat in it. And a kitchen is death to a rat. So a rat that wants to move into that world? It’s the most impossible goal any creature could have. Everybody was very entertained by that. The film was being developed while I was doing The Incredibles, and I’m part of the group [at Pixar and Disney] that kind of goes over all the films and throws their two cents in, as people did for my film as well.
Do you actually call it the ”brain trust”? That’s the term I’ve read in articles.
I’m uncomfortable with that name. It sounds like Dr. Strangelove. It sounds like we have a giant domed room that you have retinal scans to enter. It’s a lot more casual than that. But whatever you want to call it, I’m a fan of it, because it’s input from fellow storytellers. They’re tough, but they also recognize the problems of making a story work. They don’t give impossible notes like you get sometimes from executives. You know, like, ”Make it 10 percent funnier.” Or, ”Make this section appeal a little bit more to the 9-to -12 demographic.” You don’t get those kinds of notes at Pixar.
After you finished The Incredibles, you were asked, in the summer of 2005, to come in and take over Ratatouille, writing a new script and replacing Jan Pinkava as the director after nearly four years of development. What happened?
I was finally on a vacation that summer. Two days into it, I got a call from [Pixar honcho] Steve Jobs. A day later I got a call from John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull, who were then running Pixar]. Even though they didn’t say, ”Come back from your vacation right now,” suddenly my vacation was full of worry.
Because they asked you to put on your super suit and fix Ratatouille. Kind of the way John and company fixed Toy Story 2 when it wasn’t going so well. What if you had said no?
I don’t think that they would have treated me like [they were] loan shark[s] or anything. But I respect all three of those guys tremendously. I think they’re visionary guys. You need to do whatever you can to help out, because this little Camelot they’ve made is a very rare place. They were in a spot, and I felt I could help. And I liked the idea. I thought, This deserves to be on the theater screens.
What was it like adopting another person’s cinematic baby?
Sharon Calahan, the director of photography, and Harley Jessup, the production designer, were already on it, with a whole gifted team. They’d already done a ton of research before I got there. I brought Mark Andrews aboard, who was the story supervisor on Incredibles, to help oversee the storyboarding. We did a whole new story reel, and only used two shots from the previous versions. We had to work incredibly fast defining the camera work. It was like a film-school project. Here are your parameters, you have this much time — Go!
NEXT PAGE: How Bird chose Patton Oswalt — and coaxed cuddly CG rodents to walk on all fours
You oversaw Iron Giant from script to screen in about two and a half years. On this one you had more like 18 months. How stressful was that?
I would probably prefer not to work that way, because it’s really scary and hard. But I think the film actually benefited from the fact that I had to just make decisions and stick with them. All the time for rumination had been used up.
Did you hesitate to rework another director’s project?
Jan is very talented. But at a certain point the curtain is going to come up and you know, it has to be a vision that everyone can feel confident in. It wasn’t like Jan ever had a version that he was happy with. He didn’t. And he was constantly trying to find it. Look, movies are hard. They’re technological, but it’s not an exact science…and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Rather than shut the movie down, Pixar did what they needed to do to make it happen. No one wants to change [key] people. Eric Stoltz was the [original] star of Back to the Future. And Eric Stoltz is a great actor. But ultimately what they needed wasn’t happening, and they had to change to Michael J. Fox. In hindsight, they made the right decision. I think even Eric Stoltz would say that. It’s just that weird alchemy. You’ve got to acknowledge it and deal with it.
But it still must be difficult having to walk in and say, Okay, I’m taking over.
Yes, it was hard. I have a lot of respect for Jan. But I also ultimately have a huge respect for Pixar. They were in a tough spot at a very vulnerable time. They were potentially going to be on their own [if they broke off from Disney]. It was the first film — the only film — that was greenlit by Pixar alone, without anyone else having anything to do with it. It was an important film to get right. So if I could help them, it was the right thing for me to do.
So what sorts of problems did you have to tackle?
When they were [first] developing the film, they were starting to realize people were having an ick factor about rats. They dealt with that by shortening the tails and getting them up on two legs and not making anything rat-like about them. That was one of the things that I wanted to change. But [the CG models for the rats] had all been built at considerable effort to stand on two legs. When we simply dropped them onto four legs, their bodies deformed in weird ways. I was very insistent they be re-rigged. They said, ”This is a really big deal. Are you sure you want this?” And I said yes. This is about a rat trying to move into the human world. I want to see him make that choice. I want him to physically separate himself from all the other rats.
So you embraced the rat-ness of the rats, except in Remy’s case. Bold move.
I think everybody likes it now. But it’s a tough sell. We’ve been sort of surprised at it. There’s been more resistance than we expected. People aren’t sure what to make of this film. And it’s not just the rat subject matter. It’s the fact that we’re being thrown in with all these yakking-animal films that have come out. If people watch this for even a minute, they’ll see it’s not that.
The problem is, people make snap judgments. They’re conditioned to do that by the whole marketing machine.
Right. Where decisions are made based on how well you can sell them rather than how good they are as a story…. If we had approached this only from the standpoint of marketing, maybe this movie would not have been made. But that’s not what interests anybody at Pixar. What interests us is, Does this sound like a great story? Would you hunker down at the campfire if somebody started this story and started telling it well?
How did you go about finding Patton Oswalt to play Remy, your naturally gifted chef?
That was a very difficult character to cast. They had tried a number of people before I arrived, and had done tests with good people who were just not hitting it. Then I was listening to the radio driving and I heard Patton on the radio doing this comedy routine about Black Angus Steakhouse. I just immediately went, That’s Remy. That’s him. Patton is really passionate and volatile and funny, and he has a very big personality. But it sounds like it’s coming from a smaller body, and that’s what I needed for Remy.
Is it further proof that comedians make an especially good fit with voice-only acting?
Certainly Pixar has gone down that road before. I think in general, comedians tend to be pretty good at [voice] acting because they’re alone on stage with nothing else. No sound effects, no lighting. And they have to grab a room full of people, all from different backgrounds, and make them see things through their eyes.
NEXT PAGE: So, Janeane Garofalo, John Ratzenberger, and Peter O’Toole walk into a recording studio…
Then you’ve got the human characters — let’s start with Linguini, a clumsy kitchen assistant voiced by Pixar artist Lou Romano. Lou was a production designer on The Incredibles. Why him and not an established actor?
It’s really important to cast people who are perfect for the characters, not necessarily based on marquee value. Because animators feed off that. If the voice is rich and suggests a lot of things, that throws coal on the fire of their imagination for how to present it.
And it’s extremely tedious work, animating.
What takes an actor five seconds to say, it may take an animator a month to animate.
A character named Colette also works in the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant, and she’s voiced with a strong French accent by, of all people, Janeane Garofalo.
Colette was a minor character with maybe three or four minutes of screen time, and maybe eight lines. I made her a major character. I watched this film being developed as part of that [advisers’] group, as I told you. I kept going, Why is Colette the only woman in the kitchen? Is this unusual? And research proved exactly what I wanted, which was that in the world of French cooking, counter to what we may think in America, women are the minority. They are discriminated against. Serious cooking is considered something for the men. And that worked tremendously for what I needed for the character.
So why Janeane for that voice?
She can convince you she’s feisty and is not going to do anything she doesn’t believe in, but she’s also vulnerable underneath. Which is perfect for the character. The only question became, Can she do a convincing accent? She’s a good actress and she did her homework. I think anyone seeing the movie cold, without knowing who’s in it, would never guess that it’s her.
You’ve also got John Ratzenberger, who’s been in every Pixar film, playing a French waiter who happens to be named Mustafa. Not exactly a French-sounding name.
But see, that’s another thing that’s interesting, is that these kitchens are absolutely international. Go to any French [restaurant] kitchen, and it’s a misfit band back there. They come from all parts of the world. Like Colette says, they’re pirates, and they’re proud of it.
The character of the self-satisfied food critic, Anton Ego — how did you come around to casting Peter O’Toole?
The moment I started writing Anton Ego, I heard Peter O’Toole. He’s exactly who I was picturing. He has done almost no animation, so he took a bit of wooing, and I was just praying that he would say yes. He remembered doing some voice for some animated thing like 20 years ago, but it didn’t really mean anything to him. He was like, ”Ewh, I think I did some sort of Nutcracker thing or something.” He spoke about it like it was left-over string he’d found in the back of his dresser. Once he kind of came around and agreed to do [Ratatouille], he had a ball.
Did he find it odd adjusting to being alone in a recording booth, playing to air?
Some people you have to work with a little bit to get them to go to a heightened place that’s not hammy. He got there in two seconds. He was able to pitch it perfectly for the medium.
Anton’s office is a really intricate piece of design.
I had a really good time working with [production designer] Harley Jessup on that. It’s meant to resemble a particularly nice coffin, because he’s at a dead end [creatively]. He’s facing his own portrait and his own reviews and awards. We even pushed it into the typewriter. If you look, it has a little skull design on it. Some people see it, some don’t. But it’s there.
One of the movie’s major accomplishments is done so well, I don’t think people will realize how difficult it must have been: The food all looks delicious. Even the title dish, ratatouille, makes you salivate. In most restaurants, ratatouille is a boring, humble vegetable stew. The Pixar artists make Remy’s rendition of it look succulent.
That came out of a road our team first went down with Jan [Pinkava]. I certainly can’t take credit for it, but I can say I really admire it. To make this food in the movie look edible, almost as if you can smell it, was a really a tough thing to do. The computer always wants to make things look like plastic.
So what’s the project you put aside to do Ratatouille?
It’s a live action movie, actually. And I’m about to go back toward that.
Can you talk more specifically about it?
No. It’s way too early, but it’s a really interesting idea and I’m really looking forward to working on it.
NEXT PAGE: Bird discusses Frank Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit — and why animation is really for grown-ups
Some years back, you wanted to adapt Will Eisner’s newspaper-and-comic-book creation The Spirit for animation. That never happened, and now Frank Miller, the mind behind 300, is going to do The Spirit as a live-action project. (Read EW.com’s recent Q&A with Miller about The Spirit.) What’s your take on all that?
Well, I think Frank Miller is a very talented artist. I have several of his graphic novels, although I’m not really a comics guy. I mean, the only comic that I actually know well is The Spirit. I have a lot of respect for Frank Miller, but my own personal belief is that The Spirit should be animated and it should be hand-drawn.
Because it’s [Will] Eisner, man. He’s a very specific kind of artist. His stuff is very cinematic on one hand, but the characters’ expressions are very cartoony, in the best sense of the word. They’re really well drawn, but they’re not the sort of chiseled, rock hard expressions that a lot of superhero things have. I think [a movie of it] should be animation and I think it should be top-drawer animation and I think it should be hand-drawn animation. That’s just the way I see it. I’m not saying you can’t make a good film that’s otherwise, but I’m going to have trouble with anything that’s not that. That’s the film I wanted to make from it. Maybe he’ll surprise me and do something that is as good as what I was imagining for animation, but the movie in my mind is fantastic, and I’m sorry I was never able to do it.
You should do it as a 10-minute short and release it with Frank Miller’s feature. The original Spirit stories were only seven pages long each.
I got to know Will Eisner, and I put a little tribute to him in Iron Giant. That’s one of the things Hogarth pulls out of his bag of recommended pop culture — a copy of The Spirit. I hoped people watching would go, What’s The Spirit? and discover it for themselves. But I got permission from Will, and used an actual page from The Spirit in the movie.
And of course the black mask designs in The Incredibles…
Were Eisner-influenced, yeah. Absolutely.
Do you keep up much with the crew from The Simpsons, and are you looking forward to the movie?
I totally am looking forward to the movie. In fact, Jim Brooks and David Silverman and those guys asked me to be a consultant [on the movie]. There was just no way to do that, while I was doing this. I’ve known David for years, and he worked on Monsters Inc. for Pixar. I kept kind of half entertaining a thought in my mind of doing a Krusty [the clown] scene for the movie. But there was not one moment of daylight on Ratatouille, because it was big and complicated and there was so much work to be done. I had a great time on The Simpsons and learned a lot. Part of what made me able to do both this film and Iron Giant on truncated schedules was working on all those episodes of The Simpsons where you couldn’t linger on any decision. Another episode was coming right down the conveyor belt, and you had to go with your gut. Our gut was maybe not perfect, but the batting average was very high.
Plus The Simpsons was never really designed for kids.
I wanted to align myself with shows that were aimed at adults. If kids enjoyed it, great, but it wasn’t aimed at kids. Because I always felt animation was a bigger medium than that.
Lots of people don’t feel that way. They see animation and say, ”Oh, it’s for kiddies.”
There’s this kind of unspoken prejudice. I never hear animation filmmakers discussed as directors the way live action filmmakers are, even though the visual language is the same. It’s still close-ups and medium shots and long shots, and editing and color. How you get there is a little different, but you’re still using the language of film.
Will animation ever get away from what you and Andrew Stanton at Pixar call ”the kids’ table”?
I don’t know. I mean, that’s kind of up to a lot of forces we don’t have any control over. I know that I bristle at it. I don’t want to complain too much, because I’m really happy getting to make films and I’m grateful to anybody that wants to see them. But I can’t tell you how many times somebody will come to me and say, ”My kids really love your work.” And then you go, ”But you like it too, right?” And they go, ”Oh, I love it.” But they don’t ever lead with that. It’s like the kids are their beard to get them into the theater. Or people will say, ”I’m happy about this film because I have a 5-year-old.” And I’m like, Well, congratulations, but I didn’t make this for the 5-year-old. I made it for me, and I’m not 5. I can’t think of one other art form that has its audience so narrowly defined. If you work in animation, people tell you, ”Oh, it must be wonderful to entertain children.” Yes it is. But that’s 10 percent of the audience I’m going for.