Brad Bird on Ratatouille


Rats in the kitchen? The idea alone sounds nauseating, but that’s only until you see Pixar’s new animated-adventure Ratatouille. The story centers on Remi, a rat who lives in Paris and makes his way into a gourmet restaurant after he’s dramatically separated from his family who doesn’t share his desire to become a five star chef. He befriends the garbage boy, Linguini, who doesn’t know the first thing about a kitchen, but between the two, they cook up a warming heart-filled story of friendship, family and what it means to truly go after something you want. recently talked to director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) about what it was like coming onto to the project so late and how he created a visually stunning animated Paris. You weren’t involved with this project from the beginning. When did you come on board?
Brad Bird: It started with Jan Pinkava who won the Oscar for a short called “Geri’s Game” and he was working on it when I first came up to Pixar in 2000 to do “The Incredibles” and was developing it through the whole time I was making “The Incredibles.” As part of Pixar’s sort of story group, we look at each other’s work during the times that films are being developed to give each other fresh eyes. So I was aware of the film and participated in the development of the film from that sort of perspective the whole time it was being made. But, a little over a year and a half ago, everyone loved the film, they loved the idea of the film, they loved the world and the collection of character types. But, the story was not coming together the way they wanted it to. John Lasseter and Steve Jass and Ed Campbell came to me and the film that they kept mentioning was “Toy Story 2.” Another idea they really loved, meaning the story of “Toy Story 2,” that concept of the story dealing with death in a way was an idea that they loved, but they felt it wasn’t being developed to it’s fullest extent so they asked me to come on board and write a brand new script starting from the premise. I could cut characters, I could add a few characters, but it needed to be about a rat that wanted to cook and Skinner was in there and a lot of those characters were in there. But, it was about getting the story on line. It was a race for me. The film had a huge amount of effort put into developing everything and working on the food prior to my arrival. The team was in place, but I entered it late. For me, it was like laying tracks in front of a moving train.

CS: When you were a little kid or a young boy, what was your dream that people wanted to discourage you from?
Bird: Going into the film industry. I started drawing from an early age, the age of three. I didn’t figure this out until later, but the very first drawing I did were sequential. They were meant to be viewed in a certain order. They weren’t animation though. They were more like a comic strip. They were simple drawings you know, circles and squares and dots for eyes. I would tell the story while I was showing these pictures. I was trying in my own crude three-year-old way to make movies. So I actually started making movies at 11 and that’s when I started animating. When I had to decide if whether something was to be drawn or presented in a close up or a medium shot. That’s when I started discovering the world of film and great filmmakers. I started realizing that most of the time; chills went up my spine when some guy named Hitchcock was involved. Then I started going, “wow there’s all these great films out there.” I knew what I wanted to do at an early age. My parents supported me 400% the whole time. But, my town, it was considered a very weird thing and I’ve mentioned it to some other people that I had a very frustrating half hour with a guidance counselor in junior high. The guy was trying to get me to be a floor manager at Buymart or something like that. He said something like, “what do you want to do with your life?” Then I’d say, “I want to make films.” Then he’d go, “well what else do you want to do with your life?” Then I’d said, “well I’d probably try to find a way to make films.” “If you couldn’t do films, what would you do?” “Well I’d have to find a way to do films.” “If films didn’t exist, what would you do?” “I would have to invent them.” We did this for a half hour and finally we just agreed to disagree. My parents, God bless them, could not have been more supportive.

CS: What town did you grow up in?
Bird: Corvallis, Oregon. It’s a college town, a great place to grow up and I had a great time, but the movies were considered another universe. We had three terrific movie theatres in our town, but that was probably the height of my achievable aspirations with those people. Maybe I could run one of those theatres. Actually working in the movies was not considered possible.

CS: Do you talk to that guidance now?
Bird: No. He was a good guy. He wasn’t trying to be difficult; he was trying to help me out. Things happen. I remember Sydney Pollack came to Oregon State University when I was still in high school and my parents allowed me to play hooky to join the college audience listening to him talk. It was three days and by the end of it, I kept asking three questions to everyone else’s one. By the third day, I was raising my hand and he would go, “hey Brad, how you doing babe?” I kept saying, “what should I do” and he saw that I was doing photography and I told him I was drawing and making films and he said, “just keep doing what you’re doing.” I’ve never seen him since, but he was encouraging and the fact that he came to the town and was like, “yeah you can be a filmmaker, why not?”

CS: Did you fill the offices with rats in cages so that people cold pet them?
Bird: We had rats, yeah. They were nice fluffy lab rats though. They weren’t germ ridden sewer rats. They’re actually quite sweet and when they crawled around on us, we saw how they kind of led with their nose which was perfect for our rat. They kind of experience some things first with their nose which is kind of perfect. Yeah, they’re kind of sweet.

CS: Have you ever had to trap one?
Bird: No, nor have I been cornered by one or woke up with one crawling on my elbow. I’m not telling people that they should allow rats into their homes and telling them to cook. But, I am saying take a little crazy journey here with us for two hours and you’ll have fun.

CS: Can you talk about how this film will raise the bar for cutting animation?
Bird: I wouldn’t presume to say that. That’s for other people to say. I know that we tried to push the envelope with every film at Pixar, but that said, I think the thing that made me want to come to Pixar was not the technology, but the fact that they protect stories. They want original stories and they allow you to develop them without focus grouping stuff to death or making you take out everything that is interesting and all the things that you deal with in a lot of the film industry. It’s a little pocket of sanity in a crazy business and I really love the people there. When the heads of Pixar, the founders of Pixar came to me and said “we’re in trouble here. The curtain is ready to go up on this and we’ve got to get this story solved,” I dropped what I was planning to do and jumped in to help out because I have a huge respect for those guys and this a really amazing company that they’ve created.

CS: The production notes talk about how you spent a lot of time in French kitchens experimenting with cuisine.
Bird: In American kitchens too.

CS: Okay, would you say that was one of the biggest perks of working on the project?
Bird: It was and how stupid was I to get involved that late. I only got one trip to Paris. While it sounds like a great gig and in many ways was, I had to go to a bunch of three star restaurants in a row, which again sounds wonderful, but I approached eating there like an American. If I see a small plate with dainty little things and they taste good, I’m going to eat every one of them. I ate every one of them and then another plate came out, again not too many of them and I ate all of them. Another plate came and about half way through this endless meal, I’m starting to go, “I’m going to die.” So you start not eating and then they come out, “is there something wrong?” “Oh no it’s delicious. Please God, help me.” Then they bring out the cheese tray with six cheeses that are to be eaten in this order and this is proceeding the dessert tray. So thank God it was short because I would have either died or weighed 400 pounds by the time I left there.

CS: The animation of Paris was so stunning.
Bird: We had an amazing group of talent. The goal was to not be realistic, but to give the impression of something. Sharon Calahan, our director of photography, we were after a lush looking film that was kind of sensuous which is not something you connect with animation usually. Harley Jessup, our production designer led a very talented group. They went to Paris. They went all over the place. They looked at the lights. Do you know who Al Hirschfeld is? He’s a caricaturist. Have you noticed how Al Hirschfeld when he does a drawing of a celebrity, he’s no longer with us, but when he did it, it often looked more like the person than the person did. That’s our goal in animation. If we’re going to capture Paris, we aren’t trying to perfectly reproduce the actual Paris; we’re trying to reproduce the feeling of being in Paris. When we do movement for characters, we’re trying to give the impression of a character, rather than perfectly mimicking reality. So that’s our goal, to give he feeling of being under water in “Nemo” or in a kitchen in a 5 star restaurant.

CS: What about the scene with all of the rats cooking in the kitchen? That must have been a nightmare to composite.
Bird: There are many nightmares, but hopefully they’re not your nightmares. Hopefully, they’ll be very easy to observe. They were hard for us.

CS: Didn’t you voice a character in the film?
Bird: Oh, I’m just Ego’s assistant. It’s not anything big.

CS: What did you have to do with “Lifted,” the animated short that is shown before “Ratatouille”?
Bird: I didn’t have anything. I’d just sit there and munch popcorn. Gary Rydstorm directed that. [Here’s some] trivia. He used the Linguini model for the little guy who elevates out of the [bedroom]. Another piece of trivia as I’m leaving because I’m getting the signal, is that Lou Romano who art directed “The Incredibles” who voices Linguini in the movie, also did the cover of The New Yorker this week. These are multitalented people.

CS: He had one, but he didn’t show us.
Bird: Oh, he’s kind of bashful. He didn’t tell me. I got that information through email and I’m like, “why didn’t you tell me?” He said, “I wanted to be sure they were going to use it.” It’s a great cover.

Ratatouille opens in theaters on June 29.