Brad Bird wanted to be a filmmaker since the moment he learned to draw. “I didn’t realize this until later,” says the 54-year old director of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, “but the very first drawings I did when I was a kid at age 3 were sequential. They weren’t great drawings – they were just stick figures – but they were meant to be viewed in a certain order. So from the very beginning, I was trying to make films.”
The pictures have only gotten got more sophisticated — and larger — since then. Bird made a name for himself in animation with The Iron Giant, then won Oscars with two Pixar blockbusters, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, both of which he wrote and directed. His winning streak has continued with his first live-action effort: Ghost Protocol, the fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s signature spy-fi franchise — and the second to be shepherded by producer J.J. Abrams — has received rave reviews (EW’s Owen Gleiberman even has it on his 10 best of ’11 list) and is poised to be one of the biggest movies of the holiday season. (The film, which opened in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, grossed over $17 million during a 6-day run on 425 IMAX screens.) Bird took a few minutes to speak with EW about the animation-to-live-action-to-IMAX transition.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you know you wanted to move into live-action films?
BRAD BIRD: Like a lot of people in Hollywood, I’ve spent a big chunk of time in development hell, where I was trying to get films off the ground. The industry is very much a fear-based industry, so you go through a long period where people will let you audition for a dance but they’ll never let you onto the floor. Half of the projects I tried to develop in that period were live-action. And it just happens that the first chance I was given to make a film, it was animated. Once you make one of those, you get more opportunities, though usually they just stay into that groove. After Iron Giant, which was my first feature, there was the opportunity to do The Incredibles, and then The Incredibles rolled into Ratatouille. At this point, I needed to make a stand and try to do something outside animation. I didn’t just want to be known as the animation guy.
With your animated films, you had time to write, brainstorm, and pre-visualize elaborate, intricately detailed action sequences. The ambitious action in Mission: Impossible has the same quality of cleverness and interconnectedness. Did you have the same kind of time to map those out, or does that kind of storytelling come pretty naturally to you now because of your animation experience?
On this film, I think I imagined that I was going to get to pre-visualize more than I did. I only got to pre-visualize two and half sequences, and obviously one of them was Tom climbing the building in Dubai. But we had this incredibly aggressive shooting schedule — shorter in terms of the number of days than the previous Mission: Impossible, even though the film was bigger. They kept saying, “You have to do a shot list, you have to do a shot list.” I would come up with a shot list a couple times, but it didn’t make that much difference. I was getting back home from work at 11:30 at night and I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning to work. I finally told them: “Shot list or sleep? Which one do you think I can do without?” For the most part, if I came to set each day knowing what the first shot was, they could start working on that, and I could figure out the next one, and the next one, and stay ahead of them. I think because I came from animation, and because I was used to pre-visualization, I had developed a good sense for what shots we would need and in what order they would go. I was happy later on when stuff I hoped would cut together did cut together and it all seemed to make sense.
What sequence was most challenging to map out and cut together?
It would probably seem to people as a series of sequences, but I view the whole Dubai section as one sequence with a lot of different parts. It’s not just Tom climbing around and on the world’s tallest building [Click the link for behind the scenes how-they-did-that], but the simultaneous action between different sets of agents negotiating deals in two different rooms, leading into the fight between Paula Patton’s character and the assassin (Léa Seydoux), leading into the sandstorm chase. That sequence was the most challenging, because of the fact that it was constantly chasing tempo, from big and wide, to tiny little close-ups of hands and eyes and glances. Sometimes it got quiet; sometimes it was wild. It was like a piece of music, like An American in Paris, where some parts are fast and some parts are slow and you are continually trying to move from one and another.
How much of the movie was shot with IMAX cameras?
It winds up being about 25 minutes of the film, I was really inspired by what Chris Nolan did with The Dark Knight. We were not able to do as much as Chris did, but the first time I saw The Dark Knight, I saw it in an IMAX theater. It just seemed so vivid and visceral. In all this push toward 3-D, I think people have forgotten the impact of a really big screen with a really bright sharp image. It makes you feel like you’re experiencing the movie.
What parts of the film were shot in IMAX?
The part at the beginning that takes places in Budapest that deals with an agent played by Josh Holloway (Lost). Tom climbing the building in Dubai. The shot of the Kremlin blowing up. And there’s the climactic scene set in the car park. It’s marvelous to work in 70mm and I wish more people did it. It would be cool to see what someone like Steven Spielberg would do in 70mm.
Does that car park really exist?
There is one like it in Germany. The sequence was in the script but it wasn’t defined. It said: “There’s a fight and chase in a car park.” I think that’s literally what it said. It was left wide open for me to define what that was and figure out how the action would escalate. That was one that absolutely had to be pre-visualized, because we had to figure out just how much we had to build and how much could be left to special effects. We ended up building an enormous set in an airplane hangar — there was no soundstage big enough to hold it.
In certain IMAX locations showing Mission: Impossible, audiences can see the prologue to The Dark Knight Rises, which contains a pretty extraordinary action sequence itself and complements your film rather nicely.
I love that Chris is throwing down in the showmanship arena! There’s very little that’s more powerful than a really big screen with a really big image, and if we can get theaters to screen like that, and if we can get filmmakers to film that way, and get studios to get psyched about the whole presentation, I think it will be to the audience’s benefit and enjoyment.