When The Incredibles came out in 2004, it was a film ahead of its time. Marking a major paradigm shift in animation as a whole, Brad Bird’s family-centric superhero story was so ambitious—in the midst of the technology and techniques of the era—that it seemed impossible to make, even for artists at Pixar, one of the most innovative and influential animation studios of all time. When Bird’s original work achieved huge success at the box office, and built an avid fan base, a sequel became inevitable. And while Incredibles 2 would have beasts of its own to slay—from conceptualization through completion—they were of an altogether kind. Technology had caught up with the scope of Bird’s ideas, meaning that the problem to work out was the story itself, rather than the means through which to tell it.
Picking up the story of the Parr parents and their remarkable children—seemingly ordinary citizens living a double life as superheroes—the sequel manifested itself in certain fundamental ideas early on, with “the right combination of stuff” to follow. “The idea for the [parent] role switch, I had early, while we were promoting the first film—and I had the unexploded bomb of Jack-Jack, the audience knowing that he had multiple powers, while the Parr family did not,” Bird explains. “But I didn’t have the villain story, the action storyline thing.” For the writer/director, Incredibles 2 would have to make good use of a world and characters that had already been built, while advancing the story—pleasing diehard Disney fans, with an eye toward creating something new.
“Every film has a lot of questions that you don’t know the answer to, and you just hope that you figure it out. But I tend to like things that are hard; I don’t know why,” Bird says. “I probably shouldn’t, but for some reason, I like these big, complicated things where I’m doomed to fail.”
Making ambitious live-action films like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland in between animated outings, Bird continues to fight against preconceptions of animation as a form. “The weird thing is, if I’d made The Incredibles, shot-for-shot—exactly the same script, same timing, same shots—in live action, it would be perceived very differently, and somehow more adult than me doing it in animation,” he says. “I find that fascinating and frustrating.”
Back when were developing the original Incredibles—after a difficult experience making The Iron Giant at Warner Bros.—could you have imagined the way it would be received?
Well, you hope any film finds its audience and makes enough money that you get to make another one. The Iron Giantwas a weird situation because Warner Bros. had gotten kind of burned in animation. A lot of people had spent Warner Bros.’ money without much to show for it and then headed for the hills, and they were looking to get out around the time that it was our turn at bat, so we had to move fast, in order to maintain the freedom that we had. That was our incentive to be very efficient and productive, that they would let us be.
I had to fight a lot of ideas. They wanted to make it present day; I had to fight that one down. They wanted to give Hogarth a sister, and I said, “No, The Iron Giant has to be his pal. We can’t start filling the house up.” So, in other words, I had to spend a third of my energy protecting what the other two thirds of my energy had produced.
The thrill at Pixar was, I spent just as much energy, but I spent it all on the movie—not on protecting the movie. I was happy to have that kind of support, which I didn’t during The Iron Giant. They were I think intending to cut their losses, and put the film on the shelf until some date opened up, and you needed something to fill it. I think they were taken by total surprise when the test screening went through the roof.
Can you give a fuller sense of how Pixar reacted to your vision for The Incredibles, starting out on that project so many years ago? What about it made them nervous?
Everything that CG was bad at was what our film was. It scared the crap out of Pixar, and to their credit, they went for it anyway. When they saw our story reels, they were exhilarated, but they were also [saying], “Holy crap, are we expected to solve all the problems necessary to make this film happen?” At a company meeting, somebody asked, “Should we even be doing this now?” [Pixar President] Ed Catmull had the microphone, and he looked at me and said, “Brad, you want to take this one?” And I said, “Absolutely, we have to do this. We should be doing things that scare us. Because we have a lot of talent here, we should do things that are outside of our reach. Who else is going to do it?” The reaction was good, and that ended up being a good moment.
It took 14 years to see a follow-up to The Incredibles. Was this just a matter of allowing ideas to marinate until you felt a sequel was justified?
No, to [Pixar’s] eternal credit, they didn’t ever say, “You have to get going now, or we’re going to give it to Joe Schmoe. We’re going to take your baby and give it to some other family that just moved into the neighborhood.” They respected the fact that if there was another Incredibles film to be done, I wanted to be the guy that did it. It seems like it’s a commercial film, but it’s actually strangely personal to me. It has a lot of my family in it, and the family that I have with my wife and sons, and they respected that. Other than Peter Jackson doing Lord of the Rings, I don’t get it when filmmakers follow up a movie with a sequel to the same movie. God bless ’em if they can be up for it, but that would drive me insane. I don’t get it, but to each his own.
So finally, I thought I had the right idea. I pitched it, they green-lit it, we got a release date, and then our release date got moved up a year because Toy Story 4 was having trouble coming together. Then suddenly, I realized a chunk of the movie didn’t serve the idea that I was committed to, which was the role switch. The superhero/villain plot involved artificial intelligence and it was a cool idea, but it didn’t operate emotionally with the part that I was committed to with the family. So, that part of the idea was constantly changing through production, and we had this oncoming freight train of the release date, a year closer than it should have been. So, it was a race, and the other projects that I’ve been involved with—not only working on a television schedule, on The Simpsons, but also Iron Giant, and to some extent, Ratatouille—were races as well.
Let’s discuss the role switch you’d mentioned, with Elastigirl out saving the world and Mr. Incredible at home with Jack-Jack, struggling to hold down the fort. For you, what was this development about?
He becomes aware of how much the family matters to him in the first film. Now in this film, he has to actually step up. At the beginning, he views it as an obstacle that he has to somehow get through, in order to get what he wants, and by the end of this film, he’s not thinking that way. The version of Helen that we see in this film, the action person, is in the opening minute of the first movie where she says, “Why would I settle down? Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so,” and that’s the side of her that she’s sort of sublimated, in order to look after the family, and has to bring to the fore again. That’s a fun thing for her character—it’s a challenge—and I think the animators really sunk their teeth into it.
Did you intend this as any kind of gender commentary, questioning the roles we’ve been assigned, while exploring the many ways a family can function?
That has always, I think, been our secret sauce, if you compare us to other superhero films, that we are a film about what family means, about the structure of a family and the roles that we all play within a family. We have the baby—not only from the baby’s point of view, where they’re just kind of looking for color, and touch, and sensation—but you have the parent’s view of the baby, and that horrible moment when the baby starts becoming mobile, and you realize they can hurt themselves in 20,000 different ways now. So, you’re always on alert. But it also has the 10-year-old perspective on life, which is full of energy, and then the angsty teenager part of your life, and the part where you meet your mate and have children. All of those perspectives are in this, and it’s sort of incidentally about superheroes.
How did the Screenslaver come to be, as we see it in the sequel?
The character is somebody’s quickly assembled idea of what a villain should be, and some critics kind of lost that. It’s a creation of somebody in the film. It’s like, if you suddenly had to create a villain relatively quickly, what would you do? How would the villain look, who would inhabit this thing, and what would the villain say? The character is a creation, made for a reason. It’s not a character with a separate life, and I felt like it was a mark of success that people talked about that as a separate entity, because it really isn’t. It’s a concoction—the concoction of a smart person, but still a concoction.
The voice of government agent Rick Dicker, Oscar-nominated animator Bud Luckey passed away earlier this year. Filling in for him this time around is Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks. Is it a coincidence that both Banks and Bob Odenkirk feature into your sequel’s cast?
It is, but I happen to love Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I think Vince Gilligan and Team Gilligan are amazing, and I was aware of what those guys could do because they were two great characters in two great shows.
Will there be an Incredibles 3? Is that something you’re open to?
I would rather say I’m not closed to it, but it’s not on my mind. It’s like, the last thing you want to do after swimming in the ocean for a month is go for a swim. I need to do something else for a while, and we’ll see what the future has in store.
You’ve talked in the past about the ways in which animation is marginalized, discussed as if it’s a genre rather than an art form unto itself. At the Oscars, animated works are often sequestered in their own category, though with your last two Pixar films, you managed to break out of that box, earning nods for Original Screenplay and more.
Nobody in animation ever gets nominated for director, though. Isn’t that kind of interesting?I think people think a machine does it.
So, more needs to be done, in acknowledging these works?
Yeah, I think so. It’s getting better, but we’re still kind of separated from everyone else. The nicest thing about being nominated for screenplay is, they don’t say Best Animated Screenplay, they say Best Screenplay. You’re in the room with other people who’ve made all kinds of movies, and that’s the way animation should be seen. It’s not a separate kind of movie; it’s a separate process, but it’s still a story. You still have to get audiences to care about characters, and the editing needs to have a rhythm to it, and the shots need to be well composed. It’s the same thing; you’re just using slightly different tools.
So, I don’t get the separation. I get that it’s going to be there for longer, but it’s kind of wearying. I had people come up to me when I was doing press for [Mission: Impossible] Ghost Protocol, and without any idea that what they were saying would be insulting, they’d say, “What is it like to direct a realfilm?” And I’d go, ‘Well, I’ve actually made three real films. The other ones were animated, but it’s another way to make a film. It’s nice to work in a slightly different way.” [Laughs]
They are different beasts, in terms of getting people motivated on the set, and having to deal with problems that are physical. There’s an endurance that you have to have in live action that would test anybody from animation, but a film is a film, is a film, and nobody can tell me that Snow White isn’t one of the best films of 1937. And yet, it wasn’t even nominated [for one of the Oscars’ primary categories in its year].
While The Iron Giant was conceived in turbulent creative times, it went on to be regarded as a modern animated classic. What did it mean for you to see Steven Spielberg pay homage to the character this year with Ready Player One?
I was totally honored. Not only is Steven a huge influence and hero to me, but he also gave me my first three chances to write, and direct, and produce—and even, in a small way, act. I got all those first opportunities from Steven, so it was a real honor to have it show up in a Spielberg film.