Director Brad Bird talks about Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and live-action versus animation

Director Brad Bird talks about Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and live-action versus animation

Brad Bird has a long, healthy résumé in animation, stretching from directing the “Family Dog” episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories to working as a consultant on nearly a decade of Simpsons episodes to writing and directing the beloved cult film The Iron Giant and Pixar’s international hits The Incredibles and Ratatouille. But he’d never directed a live-action feature before helming Tom Cruise’s fourth Mission: Impossible outing, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Leading up to the film’s 2011 release, the media was packed with stories questioning whether the talent he showed for characterization and action sequences in animation would translate to such a different production method.

Ghost Protocol’s overall positive (and sometimes swooningly hyperbolic) reviews and nearly $700 million worldwide box office suggest that Bird made that leap comfortably. So does the film itself, with its surprisingly smart plot touches and crackerjack action sequences, particularly Cruise’s now-famous full-bore run across the side of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The A.V. Club recently talked to Bird about stepping away from animation, taking input from actors, trying to force people to see the movie in IMAX theaters, and his one talent that impresses people more than directing a $700 million movie.

The A.V. Club: When you were first tapped for this project, the entire media narrative seemed to be about your move to live action, and whether you could handle it. Did you share any of that trepidation? Did you go in feeling equipped for this project?

Brad Bird: I did, in the sense that I’ve been wanting to do live action for a long time, absolutely. But it was daunting, because it was a really physically large production. It was larger than the last Mission Impossible, but it had a smaller budget and a tighter schedule, so it was both bigger and sort of lean at the same time. That was a challenge.

There was a night where Robert Elswit and my first AD took me out to a restaurant and said, “You know, you’ve got to start asserting yourself.” This was before we started filming, because I was unusually silent. I was just kind of taking in everything everybody was saying to me, trying to take in as much information as I could. I think they were starting to mistake my silence for, “I’m not going to have a point of view when the camera starts to roll.” When the camera did roll, they were relieved that I very much had a point of view, but I didn’t want to speak up. I was in a listening mode when everything was being prepared. I had certain ways I wanted things done, but when they were telling me about their experience, I wanted to hear that. I was working with the best people in the business, so I had a period where I was kind of all-ears. I think they were starting to get worried that I wasn’t going to call “Charge!” when it came time to do battle.

AVC: What was it like working with actors in a live setting for the first time? Was that kind of assertiveness necessary?

BB: Yes and no, and I’d already dealt with that to some degree doing voice work on the animated films. Actors sometimes test you. They get tossed around a lot by people who don’t have anything specific in mind, and actors, a lot of them don’t like that, so they test the waters with you. I dealt with that a certain amount, and I’ve been involved in theater to some degree, and then taking acting classes to help me be a more effective director. So talking about things on that level, and talking about what the character’s intent was, was not unfamiliar territory for me, because it’s a lot of the same stuff. Even when you’re doing an animated film, if you’re writing a story, you have to think about that stuff. When you’re writing characters, you have to stand in their shoes, so I was pretty comfortable with that.

The cast was filled with people whose work I admired, so I was already on their side, and sometimes you have to remind an actor if you want them to do something and they don’t see the way you see it initially. Sometimes you have to remind them that you have their back and that they’re not going to look foolish. You have to talk them through it. Sometimes they would raise issues that needed to be raised, because they thought about their character a little more than we had, because we’re trying to think of five characters in the scene, and they’re concerned with their character at that moment. So when an actor is resistant to something, I try to listen to that, because sometimes they’re canaries in the coal mine. They’re pointing you toward something that may be undercooked and needs to be rethought.

AVC: Do you have a specific example of that?

BB: There was a scene with Paula [Patton], where her character’s motivation was changing on the page, and she was a little uncomfortable with something. We had a scene in mind for an earlier conception of her character, and then we just kind of, for some reason, kept the same sort of mindset, and we didn’t question it. She got to the scene, and she did the scene, and she was very professional about it, but she also said, “Look.” There was a scene we shot, and I think it’s on the Blu-ray, but we didn’t use it. We reshot the scene and rewrote it and reshot it, and it was because of Paula’s thing that we had her character being tough, but being uncomfortable with seduction. There were some good bits in that scene and some good lines and stuff, and ultimately, she said, “Look, she is a woman who is here to do a job, and she would do what the job requires. She wouldn’t be squeamish about this. She would do what she needed to do. She’s not going to sleep with the guy, but she’ll play the guy. That’s ridiculous, that she wouldn’t play the guy. That’s what being a spy involves. Subterfuge.” And she made a good case. At a certain point, I didn’t have a good answer for her. I just said, “Yeah, you’re right. We’ve got to rewrite it.” So we did rewrite it, and we reshot it, and that’s the one that’s in the film.

AVC: Given that Tom Cruise is such a big star, and a producer, and that he’s played this character before, what kind of input did he want to have into the character?

BB: Well, quite a bit. In fact, on that scene, Tom and I were both initially defending the character, and trying to explain it to Paula, but Paula made a good case for it, and Tom and I went off and said, “She’s right. We ought to change this.” That was an example where he’s an actor in the scene, but he’s also a producer, understanding that the movie needs X at that point, and we haven’t got it yet. It was a great pleasure for me to be able to work with somebody whose work I admired, and who’s worked with so many good filmmakers for so long. I can’t name another actor who’s worked with that many different kinds of directors, and he’s learned from every single one of them. His film knowledge is vast, and that goes from technical issues to creative issues. It was really wonderful to be able to work with Tom.

AVC: You’ve spoken in the past about not having much time to pre-plan the scenes on a shot-by-shot basis, or storyboard the film like you have with your animated films, because the schedule was so aggressive. What do you think ultimately came out of that? How did it affect the film? 

BB: It was scary for me. I was able to do pre-visualization on three sequences: the Burj climb on the outside of the tallest building in the world, the car-park fight at the end of the film, and then I did about half of the sandstorm chase, and I was able to pre-visualize it. Those were technically difficult, but I was able to pre-visualize it. The rest of the film, though, there were a lot of challenging sequences that we did not have time to pre-visualize, because the schedule was so aggressive, and I didn’t have enough time to scout. I would arrive at a location, and they’d say, “Well, where are you going to put the camera?” And I’m like, “Can I look at it for a second?” You know?

But I think my animation training, actually, it was easy for me to pre-visualize it, and to have a sense in mind how they would cut together. It was nerve-wracking, because I didn’t know they were going to cut together, but I felt like they would. When we got back from the shoot and I could finally really look at the footage, I was happy when it did cut together. It certainly helped a lot to have a cinematographer on the level of Robert Elswit, and to have an editor like Paul Hirsch, but I was imagining this shot should go to that shot. I enjoy that part of filmmaking, whether it’s animation or live action—I like composing shots and figuring out how they go together, and how the rhythm of them accelerates or decelerates. All that stuff is fascinating to me, so I was actually really happy with how things came together. 

AVC: You’ve talked in past interviews about changing tempos, or lingering on a specific shot like it’s a note—comparing pacing and editing to classical music. Are you a big classical-music fan?

BB: I am. I don’t think I could hold my own in a detailed discussion of the differences between Chopin and Beethoven, but you know, I do like classical music, and I listen to it when I’m writing movies. I listen to film scores when I’m writing, because I like the influence of music. But I’m not like Cameron Crowe. I can’t listen to something with words while I’m writing. It has to be sound. I listened to scores that were action-movie and spy-movie scores when I was writing The Incredibles, because it kind of gets me in that frame of mind.

I do view film directing at its best—or at least, the films I admire most are like visual music. There is a correlation between going staccato all of a sudden, and then slowing down and having longer, slower notes, and letting one image melt into the next, and where your eye moves from one setup to the other. Oftentimes, I try to get somebody in a position in the frame, and when I cut, I have the thing I want the audience to look at be in the same section of the frame. Or very vigorously force the eye over to the other section, so you’re orchestrating the eyes almost like you’re conducting the viewers’ eyes. I think people look at things like Avatar, and they don’t understand why that 3-D is so much more effective than other people’s. Part of it is that [James] Cameron, even when he’s got handheld stuff crashing through the jungle and these cuts are coming rapidly, he’s incredibly precise about directing your eye from one shot to the next. That’s why a lot of those action scenes feel so visceral, is they’re incredibly well-thought-out. And because they’re handheld and abrupt and wild-looking, people mistake that for being not precise. All you have to do is look at some other filmmaker trying to do one of those sequences to see how good and thorough Cameron is at it. 

AVC: A good chunk of this film is shot in IMAX, which means it can’t be presented in home theaters without losing some of the image. What are your thoughts on the process of making a film that really can only be seen as you’ve shot it, not just in the theater, but specifically in a true IMAX theater?

BB: I think what I like about IMAX theaters is, I miss showmanship in the presenting of movies. And this is a very large subject I have difficulty in being short about, because it’s a very involved process, and it goes back to the ’40s, when studios used to own theaters, and then they had to give them up, and the slow diminishment of the theatrical exhibition since that time. One of the things I love about IMAX is the bulbs are bright, the screens are huge, the audience is forced to sit forward. If you’re in the back row of an IMAX theater, your field of vision is still pretty much filled up with that image. I like the fact that it forces audiences to see movies in a certain vigorous technical fashion that is closer to how we intend them to be seen when we’re making them.

The people that make movies, they view their movies in really good settings, then send them out into the world, where on opening day, you can see it on a dirty, tiny, poorly lit, crappy screen with scratches all the way through the print because they didn’t clean the [projector] gate. That should not be possible on a big expensive movie’s opening day. It should not be possible to see a bad screening of a brand-new movie. That’s why I really pushed hard to have this open exclusively on IMAX and some other big screens that were really good screens. No movie company wants to do that, because you’re never going to win the week if you’re in that few theaters. I think the fact that all the first people that saw Mission Impossible saw it in its grandest fashion actually set the film off on a unique course, because that word of mouth kept rippling out for the next two months. I think that’s part of what gave it legs, is that all the first people that saw it, saw it at its absolute best.

AVC: Was it a concern at all, what it’s going to look like on DVD or home video?

BB: It does look great on Blu-ray. I composed it so it will work great in Panavision. It played in regular Panavision at the Cinerama Dome, and because the Cinerama Dome is a cool theater with a really big screen, it was really impressive at the Cinerama Dome. It didn’t have to be seen in IMAX to be impressive, but if you force it to only be seen in IMAX at first, it absolutely guarantees that you’re going to see it on a good, big screen. Whereas if you send it out in a regular digital print or 35mm, you may see it on a really good screen, but odds are that you’re going to see it on a mediocre screen, because there aren’t 3,000 great screens available at once. They just don’t have them anymore. What I would love to see is for people to kind of look at IMAX and go, “Why is this company doing well, and how can we either build more of these, or compete with that by upping our game and really presenting these things in a spectacular fashion?”

AVC: Last time we talked, I asked whether you’d pick cel animation or CGI if you could only do one for the rest of your career. At this point, if you had to pick between live action and animation for the rest of your career, which one would you choose?

BB: Oh man, that’s a mean question. At this point, right now, I would say I’d rather do live action, because I’ve done three animated films, and eight seasons of The Simpsons, and the first Amazing Stories I directed was animation. I’ve done more animation. But that said, I’m only answering at this moment in time. After I’ve done three live-action films, I might want to go back to animation. If you ask me that question a couple movies from now, I might say I’d choose animation because I want to go back to it. I do not love live action more than I love animation. I mean, both of them, to me, are film. They’re just different ways to do film. The medium of film is still the language of images and acting and following characters through color and music and motion. All the stuff I love most, both mediums have in spades. I would never want to give the impression that I love half of the film experience more than the other. They’re both fantastic.

AVC: Until now, you worked in film solely directing projects you’d written yourself. How did that compare to working with outside writers on this?

BB: In some ways, it’s nice, because you don’t have the burden of writing, which is a considerable burden. In other ways, it’s rough, because one of the things that’s most useful about writing something is that you understand it really well by the time you get on the floor to make it. So if a tough actor in an animated film challenges me on something, I’ve done all my homework, and I can answer really thoroughly, because I’ve gone down a lot of avenues to arrive at the thing I’ve arrived at. Whereas when the script is A) not written by you, and B) always changing, I sometimes didn’t have good answers when the actors would ask a certain question about a character. I’d go, “Gee, I don’t know. What do you think?” Sometimes I’d go back to the writers, and sometimes I’d talk with the actor and change something on the spot, but you know, it’s all the creative process. I can’t believe I get to make a living being in that process. It’s a miracle to me that I can keep a roof over my head doing something I love so much, so it’s all good.

AVC: Can you get away from Edna Mode, your clothing-designer character in The Incredibles, or are people constantly asking you to say something in her voice, or do something in her character?

BB: Every once in a while. What I find most entertaining is that people are far more impressed that I can do that than write and direct a movie. And it’s way easier than writing and directing a movie. [Laughs.] That carries a lot more weight. If I say a line in Edna’s voice, that’s far more delightful than the fact that I spent four years wrestling something into being.

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