The crowd-pleasing moviemaker and animation genius discussed career beginnings, dream projects, and his upcoming action-adventure spectacular with his Ratatouille leading lady Janeane Garofalo in a fun and freewheeling chat as part of the Tribeca Talks: Directors Series. Here are the essential takeaways:
It Was The Jungle Book That Started It All
Bird was inspired to pursue “the coolest job in the world” by Disney’s animated animal classic, The Jungle Book. Bird found his interests peak even further after a composer friend of his parents took him on a tour of Disney Studios at eleven-years-old. Encouraged by both the visit and the Disney animators’ claims that he would outgrow his interest in two weeks, Bird spent the next few years time creating samples (including a homemade, fifteen-minute animated film), before sending them in and getting set up with a mentor. “It helps to have well-connected parents,” Garofalo drolly intoned before quickly adding, “And talent!”
Voice Performance Isn’t an Actor’s Paid Vacation
Much was cleared up about animation and our commonly-held misconceptions about the “medium,” starting with it not being a “genre,” a lesson Garofalo learned when Bird corrected her own classification mid-question. Bird was also quick to clarify that, contrary to popular belief, voice acting is not for the lazy or exhausted actor looking to take a salaried rest. Under his direction, voice acting is an active art form unto itself, something that Bird had to communicate directly to the late Peter O’Toole while trying to woo the acting legend for the pivotal role of Ratatouille’s delectably elitist food critic Anton Ego. O’Toole cited a previously lackluster experience working on a Nutcracker animation, but after Bird persuaded him that the role would allow for as much energy and experimentation as needed, O’Toole came onboard and ultimately delivered a finely flavorful vocal performance.
Bird is Still a Tom Cruise Fan. And Yes, Garofalo Went There.
Although Bird’s self-curated clip reel curiously left out his two seminal works, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, it did feature a deliciously lengthy, white-knuckle scene from the Kremlin break-in during 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, his first live-action movie that Bird said he had a few qualms about joining. Bird noted that the series has always been able to “accommodate individual [directing] styles” so that even if he was “fixed to a skeleton…[by] working within the confines of a huge commercial venture,” he never found his “passion” or “vision” "hindered."
Bird credited series star Cruise for, "protecting and supporting" him during filming, and went on to praise his polarizing leading man for his surprising funnyman abilities, his extensive cinephilia (at one point, Bird told Cruise to study silent film comedian Harold Lloyd and, to his surprise, Cruise knew Lloyd’s entire canon), and his being more than up to the challenge of the near-“Olympic events” of a big-money, blockbuster action-bonanza. “He takes it really seriously,” Bird maintained, “which is why he can do things like climb the Burj Khalifa and look effortless about it.”
The gloriously wry Garofalo, however, couldn’t help but voice what, admittedly, everyone everywhere thinks about when they think about Tom Cruise. “Thank you, L.R.H.,” Garofalo responded while looking upwards, making biting mention of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. “That’s a very inside reference,” Bird semi-awkwardly though good-naturedly replied, to which Garofalo asserted, “Not really… That documentary, ‘Going Clear’… We could talk about that all day…”
"Animation should go horror..."
This suggestion by Bird gave way to audible cheers by the SVA audience. Bird also admitted that he'd love to try his hand at making a western and a musical someday (though no word on a western-musical), just so long as what he attempts "is different than what's already been done."
Bird’s Ambitious Dream Project Still Awaits Him
Bird spent the four years in between Ratatouille and Ghost Protocol developing a scrapped film adaptation of James Dalessandro’s historical novel 1906, which chronicles the San Francisco earthquake of the title year in sweeping, stupendous detail. So, what happened? “It took too long,” Bird said simply, before elaborating that he felt the story, its inhabitants, and its big-picture view of early twentieth-century American life too impossible to wrangle down into a cohesive whole, although he hopes to resume the project someday.
At His Core, Bird is an Optimistic, Idea-Driven Visionary
After showing an exclusive clip from Disney sci-fi adventure Tomorrowland, which arrives in theaters May 22nd, the subject of optimism came up with surprising frequency as Bird made especial note of his ongoing frustration with continual “gloom and doom” and what he perceives to be a general mentality of “throwing in the towel.” “What happened to the future?” Bird asked with heartfelt seriousness midway through the discussion. “There used to be this optimism about [it]. What happened?"
The time-hopping Tomorrowland appears to not only be an appetizing movie-movie thrill ride of the kind Bird always excels at, but also—and even more appealingly—an honest reckoning with a culture of pessimism, imbued with the wide streak of “social consciousness” that Garofalo described as one of Bird’s defining hallmarks as a filmmaker. “I like when there’s a little more to chew on,” Bird noted in regards to his own filmic preferences. He cited American cinema of the 1970s as a major influence, noting that it was a time when such disparate classics as Annie Hall and Star Wars could equally vie for Best Picture, each being “interesting” and “dazzling” pictures that nonetheless “keep you thinking once you leave the theater.”
If the eager, fan-filled audience who came clad in Pixar hats and armed with Incredibles posters is any indication, these same achievements can be easily and deservedly applied to Bird himself, who has become an ever-reliable creator of the sorts of popcorn flicks that maintain their depth, intelligence, and emotionality without ever sacrificing even a second of pure cinematic bliss.