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Exclusive Interview: Brad Bird talks Iron Giant, Tomorrowland flop, & more!

10.01.2015

While attending the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, I was contacted by Warner Bros with an interesting proposal. They wanted to know if JoBlo.com would be interested in a solid fifteen minute interview with director Brad Bird to celebrate the return of THE IRON GIANT to theaters (see my TIFF review here). Obviously the answer was a resounding yes. THE IRON GIANT, while a flop during it's summer 1999 release, has since gone on to become a classic. Bird has gone on to a pretty great career, including the Pixar hits THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE, as well as MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL and TOMORROWLAND. While the later was a box-office disapointment, no one can deny it was exactly the film Bird set out to make, and in our extended interview the gracious Bird was happy to discuss that film's failure, which – in a way – isn't that different from how THE IRON GIANT was initially received.

Brad Bird

I remember when IRON GIANT came out in '99, I was seventeen and I must admit it was a hard sell for me, especially with that Warner Bros Family Entertainment logo with Bugs Bunny...

Well not you alone.Within the studio I fought over that logo. I said “nobody loves Bugs Bunny more than I do. but you're sending a couple of different messages here. One is, you put Bugs Bunny in a tux, which is taking away his 'Bugs-ness', number two, saying family signals to anyone above the age of seven that it's not for them. That's it's not cool for teenagers because he's taking this big, broad crunch on his carrot, it's basically saying that whatever is to follow is toothless, bland... And I know that's not the intention, but that's what it does.” I said, “if you want to pay tribute to your wonderful heritage in animation, there's a cooler way to do it.” They said, “no, this is our logo.”

Finally, about a month before it came out Bob (Daley) and Terry (Semel) said, “yeah, put in your logo.” So the logo we had in front of our film, we designed and it was to remind you of the old Looney Toons thing where the shield came up in a circle, but to do it in a more restrained, kinda classy way, to have it come in and out of light as it goes forward  and we thought it was a much cooler way to make a nod at a famous animation heritage but to do it in a much classier way.

It couldn't have been easy following CATS DON' DANCE...

Well, that was Turner and it was kinda grandfathered in...

Or QUEST FOR CAMELOT. I did finally see it in college where they showed us movies on 16mm, pan and scan...

Oh no! Noooo!

 

And it wasn't a theater, it was a big white board with a movie shown on it with folding chairs. I went in with some friends not expecting much, but then we were all so caught-up and the audience too. I bought it on DVD, I think a lot of people did. It turned into a real cult phenomenon. It wasn't successful theatrically...

No. We opened and no one showed up initially. The weirdest thing was, the schizophrenic response we got all over the country was that the theater was one third full, but at the end the one third would stand up and applaud, which they weren't doing for other films. So, you had this bittersweet experience of not having enough people there, but having all the people there unanimously getting emotional about it and reacting openly.

Well, there have been a lot of movies like that which haven't been so well-received and maybe were ahead of their time. THE WIZARD OF OZ, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, something like TOMORROWLAND. Let's see how people feel about that in 10, 20 years.

Well, what I'm curious about is, TOMORROWLAND had a strange response in that it's almost exactly cleaved in half. There are people that loved it, and people that hated it. There's almost no one who thought, “meh.” They either really liked it a lot, or just couldn't stand it. And I wonder how it will be received when it's divorced from expectations.

No doubt, but from my perspective, I don't want to say it failed...

Well, it did on some level...

Well, I think maybe the reason people had a hard time with it is that it's an optimistic film, and we're not used to optimistic movies. We're cynical.

Yes, and no one wanted to be called on that. But it is, it was partially born out of “when did pessimism become the only credible future?” And isn't that a passive response, as if we have no hand in creating the future. We tried to make a fairy-tale about why are we giving-up, we're surrendering our future and why. We're acting like “we can't really do anything about it.” And no man, we create it every day. But anyway, it is what it is...

Well, you should be proud of it.You made the movie you wanted to make and it has your personality all over it.

Well, thank you. We'll see what happens to it in time.

Getting back to THE IRON GIANT, now its considered a classic. Especially for readers of a site like JoBlo.com. Everyone loves it. It feels like it really resonated with a somewhat older audience. People in their teens, twenties. Male and female. I think it really predicted what happened with Pixar later-on, because Pixar does movies like THE IRON GIANT now.

Well, the truth of the matter is, it's really complicated and one of the things we're working on now that won't come out until the Blu-ray is a really detailed documentary on it. A lot of time these kind of things aren't really interesting, but this is fascinating because, if Warner Bros had had a better experience in animation...they spent a lot of money and got mislead by a bunch of people, and I mean I'm sympathetic to management.

Once Disney was making a lot of money on those musicals in the nineties, every studio jumped into animation. The thing is, you can't jump into animation. It's not like live action in the sense that there are a lot of freelancers out there that you can collect at will at any moment. If you were starting a live action film tomorrow, you could put the word out and maybe fifteen, really, really great cinematographers might be available that week. In animation, teams are made over time. It's more like an orchestra that gets used to playing together. And the only one that was dedicated to a future in animation at that point was Disney, so they had a honed animation team.

But every other studio wanted to jump in so they got whoever was available, like live action, and you can't do that unless you really know what you're doing. You really have to be connected to that world, and they hired a lot of people who weren't. They spent a lot of money and didn't really yield very much. They were heading for the exits by the time we showed up.

If they hadn't been heading for the exits they may very well not have taken a chance on something that was not a musical, that's a strange period film, and what I pitched was “what if a gun had a soul and didn't want to be a gun?” which is not really the book and the thing is, everyone at Warners responded to that premise. They were genuinely excited about it. We started production and (QUEST FOR) CAMELOT failed, and they were like “that's it, we're out of animation.” So they were basically, we were perceived as a film that would be finished and put on the shelf until there was a hole or something in the release schedule in the future. And then we'd be plugged in. They wouldn't give us a release date, they didn't have any hopes. They just thought animation wasn't going to really work for them.

So it was kinda like the TITANIC. The good thing is we could run through first class and drink all the brandy and have all the cigars but we knew we were going to be on the bottom of the ocean in an hour and a half. But we thought that if we could get just enough people on the opening week that word of mouth would take care of it, and that would be enough. We needed to make 8 million. Our test screenings had scores through the roof. And Warners was shocked by the test screening. They weren't ready for the film, meaning they hadn't laid all the groundwork you're supposed to lay, with fast food restaurants, cereals, teasers, posters. We only had one poster and it was a teaser poster. We never had a real poster, because they didn't make more than the teaser poster.

They weren't prepared for it to be good and to be fair to them they actually knew that they screwed up when the film turned out the way it did and it scored so highly. They said, “we should delay it and properly lead up to its release,” and I said “you guys have had two and a half years to get ready for this.” I was feeling confident due to the test scores but it needed eight and I think we got five, and we were done. Even if everyone told everyone they knew, it wasn't enough to hang in there.

When I watched it again, it struck me that this came out soon after Columbine, and it's an anti-gun movie. Coming out again now, it's sadly relevant. But it's aged better. If you put it out now I wouldn't know it was made 15 years ago. Was it a struggle to get it out with the PG rating, and darker scenes such as the one with the deer?

Actually no. I got along very well with the management and I'd been coming off a period where I'd been working with middle-management. Middle-management in Hollywood is a very frustrating level to work under and you're not working with anyone who can say yes, you're working with people who can say no or maybe. If they say maybe, maybe they can get it to the person who says yes.

So what do you think they do? They say no a lot. They make you change things before you show it to the person in charge. And the person in charge never sees your version of it and you can never go back to your version of it because the person you're under had just peed on it and that pee can't be wrong. And yet, they don't own the pee! So, on this one I was working with Lorenzo Bonaventura and Billy Gerber for a little while, and they could say yes.

And so it suddenly became much easier for me because it was just about the movie. It wasn't about maintaining my parking space or anything that concerns lower level executives. These guys were secure with themselves and I can take no for an answer. But maybe keeps you from moving forward. So, we had to push on some things – they thought there weren't a lot of characters in the movie so they wanted a dog at some point and they wanted to set it in present day and have rap music at one point and I was very forceful is saying why it needed to be the fifties. But I have to say, when I was forceful they were very cool about it and so I got along very well with management.

The right people must have seen it as THE INCREDIBLES felt like a good segue from THE IRON GIANT, but I have to ask -how is THE INCREDIBLES 2 coming along?

It's way too early for scoops, but it's coming along fine. I'm writing it right now and story-boarding it.

Do you feel like the right people saw IRON GIANT?

Absolutely, John Lasseter, who went to school with me at Cal Arts loved it and I had called him a year or two before when TOY STORY had come out to tell him I loved that. Even though it didn't initially do well, I got offers all over the place from people who had seen it in the movie industry. It was very good for me and for other people involved. I took about fifteen people from it to Pixar with me, and one of them ended up taking over BRAVE to direct it, and another just took over THE GOOD DINOSAUR. The people I brought along with me did really well at Pixar because they're really talented people.

Have you seen MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION?

Oh yeah – I enjoyed it. It was fun to see everyone work together again.

Check out THE IRON GIANT: SIGNATURE EDITION in select theaters September 30th and October 4th!

Extra Tidbit: Check out THE IRON GIANT: SIGNATURE EDITION in select theaters September 30th and October 4th!
Source: JoBlo.com

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