How The Iron Giant director Brad Bird built a robot with a soul
At the height of Disney Renaissance in the 1990s, Disney’s animation studios were churning out hit after animated musical hit, from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to The Lion King and Mulan. Soon, every studio in Hollywood wanted a piece of the animated action, and while some efforts soared (like Anastasia), others fell flat (remember Quest for Camelot and The Swan Princess?).
In the middle of that rush, Warner Bros. tapped an animator named Brad Bird to helm his first-ever feature film: The Iron Giant.
As a teenager, Bird had created his first-ever animated short (see the clip below) and impressed Disney animators so much that they invited him to join the studio as an apprentice, working with the legendary artists known as the “Nine Old Men.” Bird went on to work on shows like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and direct seminal episodes of The Simpsons before turning his eye to Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel The Iron Man, a sci-fi fairy tale Hughes wrote for his children after their mother, Sylvia Plath, died by suicide.
Warner Bros. had been pondering a musical Iron adaptation for years, but Bird came to them with an unusual take on the classic book: What if a gun had a soul, and it didn’t want to be a gun? Shortly thereafter, the studio hired Bird as director and recruited Tim McCanlies to co-write the film’s screenplay.
The result was The Iron Giant, a Cold War sci-fi adventure about a young boy named Hogarth Hughes who meets and befriends an enormous robot in Maine in 1957. When the huge metal man crashes down to Earth, it’s the adventurous Hogarth who teaches him all about what it means to be human — while trying to avoid a sinister and paranoid government. It’s a frank, stirring tale of morality and choice, with a stellar voice cast including Harry Connick Jr. as the beatnik artist Dean, Jennifer Aniston as Hogarth’s single mom, Annie, and a certain actor named Vin Diesel as the voice of the giant.
When The Iron Giant finally opened in August 1999, however, it was a box office dud. Trampled by other new releases like The Sixth Sense and The Thomas Crown Affair, The Iron Giant debuted in ninth place. Over its entire theatrical run, the film earned only $23.2 million domestically — or roughly a third of its reported production budget.
But the audiences who did the see the film fell in love with it. Critics universally hailed The Iron Giant as a triumph, and it won a whopping nine Annie Awards. When it finally hit home video, the news started to spread, and before long, the tale of Hogarth and his giant became one of the most beloved animated movies of the past 20 years.
Since The Iron Giant first found its audience on home video, it’s only fitting that the film is coming back to the small screen with a brand new Blu-ray release — including a specially remastered version with two all-new scenes and the making-of documentary The Giant’s Dream. Ahead of the Blu-ray release, EW talked to Bird (who’s since helmed films like The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) about why The Iron Giant has endured and how its messages of morality are more relevant than ever.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Between the Blu-ray, The Giant’s Dream documentary, last year’s theatrical rerelease, and a panel at Comic-Con, what’s it been like to spend so much time revisiting and thinking back on this movie?
BRAD BIRD: Strange, but also strangely satisfying! Because it feels like the movie has not done what we were fearing way back when it was released, which was that it was going to disappear and not be seen. And we always believed in the film ourselves, and it’s surviving very well and growing every year. I go to publicize other movies that I’ve been involved with, and The Iron Giant always comes up in a very nice way. So I think that that’s been very gratifying to know that it’s here to stay. And actually, more people are seeing it and recommending it all the time.
After the initial theatrical release, how long was it before you realized that this was really starting to catch on?
I think around the time that we were coming out with The Incredibles. People started to mention it as my first film, and so it was just in articles that were being written about The Incredibles. They mentioned The Iron Giant, and people started seeing it on video. And part of me is like, ”Oh, you’ve got to see it on the big screen! It’s shot in ‘Scope, and you’ve gotta hear the sound, and it’s better to see it with other people!” [Laughs] But the bottom line is that people were seeing it.
The nicest thing is that when I talked to the people who had seen it, they had it recommended to them by somebody. They didn’t just stumble across it. Every once in a while there’d be somebody who stumbled across it, but oftentimes — most of the time — it was somebody recommending that they see it. And the fact that it was word of mouth from someone who had seen it made it more personal and more satisfying because it wasn’t about carpet bombing them with marketing. It was something intimate and almost sort of “slow food” about it.
So this was your first-ever film as a feature director, and I know the documentary spotlights some of the obstacles you were up against: the schedule, the budget, all of that. When you look back at that, do you think, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we pulled it off”? How do you feel reflecting on that?
Well, it brings it back to me. I think that making films is in some ways like the way women describe childbirth. You know, where it’s this incredibly painful, challenging thing when you’re going through it, and then afterwards, you have this nice little baby and you tend to forget all the trouble you went through and focus only on the sweet part. This kind of helped me to remember how hard it was. It really was hard! [Laughs] But it also makes me very grateful for the opportunity.
When the film first came out, there was a lot of criticism about the way Warners handled it. Certainly, some of that was warranted, but to me, the most important thing was that they made the film. They made a kind of movie that really no one else was making. And they allowed us to do it, and they supported it. I mean, they kept funding it, week after week. And we were skating on thin ice because they had not had good experiences with animated films at that point, and they were losing interest in it. A lot of films had gone over schedule, and they’d spent too much money, and not enough of the quality was on the screen. So we had a very tight budget and schedule, but as long as we produced it responsibly, they let us make the movie that we intended to make. And I think that, for me, is the headline — that Warner Bros. allowed us to make something that was pretty unique.
This is a film that was released in 1999 and set in the 1950s, but it raises these questions of technology and weapons and fear that are so universal. In some ways, it feels more relevant than ever. Why do you think this is a story that resonates with people in 2016?
I think that it’s the core issues of it. In sort of a fairy tale way, it addresses which side of your nature you are willing to act on. [It’s the idea] that we all have a destructive side, and we have to steer ourselves away from that and towards a more nurturing, positive side. I think that’s a struggle that the human species particularly goes through because we are smarter or more intelligent than the other animals, and we can invent things. And we invent things that are extensions of ourselves. We can invent ways to cultivate fields, and we can also invent ways to destroy the planet. Which part of ourselves we choose to act on is a continual struggle and will be a continual struggle a hundred years from now.
In the documentary, you talked a little bit about your initial pitch for the film, this idea of: “What if a gun had a soul, and it didn’t want to be a gun?”
Yeah. Well, it was a very unusual thing to have at the center of an animated film. That’s the part, again, where I take my hat off to Warner Bros. Because when they heard that pitch, they didn’t shy away from it. They leaned forward, and they wanted to know more. And I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that could be pitched for an animated film in too many places and have people be excited. But perhaps because they were more a live-action studio, they were more interested in the concept itself, and you could pitch something like that. And the guys that were running the production, they were making The Matrix and L.A. Confidential at the same time, and they were willing to talk about it on an idea level.
And I loved that because I oftentimes feel like there’s a separate bag for animation. It’s this assumption that it’s a kid’s medium, and because of that, there’s a patronizing aspect to a lot of what people choose to make in animation. You oftentimes get the feeling that people are backing films that they actually don’t have any interest in seeing. I’ve always reacted against that. I’ve always figured that animation is a really fantastic medium, and it’s a wonderful way to tell a story. And you can tackle some interesting notions. That’s certainly been the case at Pixar, which is one of the reasons I was interested in coming to Pixar. Toy Story 2 deals with death, and Inside Out deals with sadness and the importance of all emotions. So these are kind of hefty ideas, yet they’re wrapped in a very accessible sort of package. I like that. I love it when films have some ambition. Even when they fail, it’s much more interesting for a film to be trying to be about something than to be about nothing and succeed.
I love the idea that you can address these big themes in animation and that just because something’s “for kids,” you don’t have to take certain topics off the table.
Yeah! A better way to think about it is if you aren’t a kid, and you’re making something for kids, then you’re making it for not you. And I think that that always comes across as disingenuous and false. I’ve always felt that you should make a film that you yourself would be interested in seeing and bringing people to. The medium itself may have an appeal to kids, but I think the medium is way too powerful for that. And I think that more often you should be trying to appeal to the child in everyone and get to that feeling of wonder and excitement that you have when you’re a child. But if you live right, you can keep that part of yourself alive and well until you die.
Last year, when the film was first remastered and rereleased in theaters, you added two new scenes, and those are going to be available on the Blu-ray release.
Yeah, it’s important to mention that both versions will be available on the Blu-ray. So if people want to see the original cut [they can], which I totally support. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. They’re both valid.
So you don’t have a preference?
What was it like going back and working on this new cut with these new scenes, all these years later?
Oh, it was nice. There were a couple of scenes that I always thought were valid scenes, but they weren’t absolutely essential. But they did add some bits of nuance to the story that we were telling.
There was another thing that I wanted to do to which was extend the battle sequence at the end. But when we didn’t have the resources to do the original sequence, which was even bigger and longer and really cool, I changed certain aspects of the story so that it fit in the film that we originally released. And I can’t go backwards and reengineer it now without wrecking a bunch of good things that we did. So I could never really do the original battle sequence because it would screw up the one that we have, and it would screw up things that worked really well. So I said, okay, I can’t do the big, big mammoth one because I’ll take one step forward and two steps back. But if I did these two little scenes here, I think it’ll add some depth to it that I think is worthwhile.
It’s not like Warner Bros. didn’t support the other version. It was literally like, we have X amount of resources that we can expend, and if we do this, we can’t do this. And those scenes are not absolutely essential for the story to work, but they do add some depth do it. So I was very happy to get an opportunity to get back in there. We’d recorded the sound for them, and they had already been designed and everything. We just had to kind of get some of the band back together and do it, so that was fun.
That is fun, to get everybody back together.
Yeah, and Ken Duncan’s studio did the animation, and several people that worked on Iron Giant were working at Duncan. So we were able to use our original people. And the coolest thing is that people who have seen it don’t know which parts are new. Everybody thought that it’s seamless in the way that it blends into the original stuff.
So what are the scenes people should look out for on the new cut?
Well, ideally, I shouldn’t even point them out because I think they fit in really well. [Laughs] But there’s a little scene that has a little bit of chemistry starting to build between Annie, who’s Hogarth’s mother, and the beatnik character, voiced by Harry Connick. And Annie is voiced by Jennifer Aniston. And there’s a little scene there that was originally recorded that I thought was sweet and kind of showed the beginnings of something.
And the other scene is a more complex idea. The giant, when it’s sleeping in the junkyard, starts to have a dream, and it actually manifests itself as a signal coming out of his head and actually affects the TV show that Dean is watching. It actually appears on the television. And we actually got the soundtrack from The Tonight Show, which, at the time the film is set in, was hosted by Jack Parr, and we actually got a little snippet of Jack Parr’s soundtrack and animated Jack Parr to it. So it’s a short scene, it’s not a huge scene, but it adds some complexity to what is haunting the giant. And I really liked the idea that because he’s a metal guy, his dreams can actually be transmitted inadvertently.
We have a clip from the documentary, where you talk a little bit about designing the giant and working to get this thing that’s made out of metal to show emotion. I thought that was so interesting, all the physical details you focused on.
When you think of a metal thing, part of what metal is, is it’s not really flexible. And yet when you think of expressions, flexibility is all you think of. And to be able to convey that something is a hard thing, that’s not going to bend or anything, and yet it conveys happiness, sadness, surprise, all that stuff. It was a real design task to be able to have a minimum number of things that are not bending, but by changing the angle that the camera sees them from, it can give them the appearance of a smile or a frown. I mean, that was a first-class piece of design work, and I credit Joe Johnston and Mark Whiting and Steve Markowski and others with figuring that out. As you know, making something simple is oftentimes the hardest thing because you have to reduce the number of ideas down to the essential ones, and then let that stand. We certainly had to convey a lot of emotions, and to do it with hard metal pieces was a real challenge. But I felt really good about how we dealt with that.
I know a lot of people have asked you over the years about the possibility of a sequel, and you’ve been pretty adamant that this is a story you’ve told and now it’s over, right?
But I know you’ve been a huge champion of hand-drawn, 2D animation. Would you ever want to direct another hand-drawn film?
Yes! Absolutely. I think that one of the side benefits of computer generated animation is that at least initially, it broke people away from the public domain, fairytales-as-musicals thing that was the only thing that they would back for a while. But the inadvertent thing is that people now believe that computer animation is the only kind of animation that can really succeed. And I don’t believe that. I believe that there is a magic to hand-drawn animation that is exclusive to hand-drawn animation. I love it. And while I love computer graphics animation just as much, I don’t think it’s the only way to tell a story in animation. And I love it when people like Henry Selick and Nick Park and Miyazaki and others go in different directions and use the medium in different ways.
I would love the opportunity to do hand-drawn. But I also have other films that I want to do and other live-action films that I want to do, and it’s just trying to get all of them made before I move on to the next dimension. Whatever that is. [Laughs]
The Iron Giant: Signature Edition hits shelves on Sept. 6 and includes both the original theatrical cut and a newly remastered version with two brand-new scenes, as well as The Giant’s Dream making-of documentary. A special “ultimate collectors edition” will also be available, including a plastic statue of the giant, a letter from Bird, collectible Mondo art cards, and a hardcover book on the art of The Iron Giant.