Director Brad Bird on Tomorrowland, critical responses and keeping secrets amid the changing face of cinema
With Tomorrowland now available on Blu-ray and DVD, ComingSoon.net has been looking back on the Brad Bird family adventure. Earlier this week, we brought you a video interview with Brad Bird from just outside the “real” Tomorrowland in California’s Disneyland. After that interview, ComingSoon.net was given the chance to sit down with Bird for an extended conversation about Tomorrowland‘s themes, its level of secrecy and some of the unexpected challenges Bird came across attempting to tell a story in a rapidly-changing world.
Bird, as many know, has proven himself quite adept in telling stories across a variety of mediums. Bird followed his debut feature, The Iron Giant, with two much loved Pixar films: The Incredibles and Ratatouille. After that, Bird delivered his first live-action feature with the franchise sequel Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Although Tomorrowland followed suite, Bird isn’t staying away from animation for long. He’ll be back with The Incredibles 2, slated to hit the big screen in 2019. You can check out Bird’s comments about his work so far on the sequel at the tail end of the below conversation.
CS: Now that “Tomorrowland” has been released, have your views on it changed at all? Has it changed you?
Brad Bird: I think that anytime you make a movie, it changes you. There are lessons to be learned from each time. A lot of the lessons are practical lessons. “I spent too much time on this and not enough time on that” or something. But you really can’t look back. You have to turn your attention to the next thing. What happens to me is that I kind of forget about it. There’s a period where it’s most of what you think about. Then, you’re kind of done with it and you push yourself away from the table. Then, it usually creeps back into your life at some later point. By then, enough things have gone by in the interim that you have a new point of view on it. It’s not a new analogy, but it’s pretty apt: [Films] are kind of like children. They develop to a certain point and you let them wander out into the world. They come back and visit you, but they’re not yours anymore.
CS: There are certain elements of your films that carry over from one to another. One strong aesthetic link is robots.
Bird: I seem to like robots! I don’t know what it is.
CS: But there’s also a recurring message in “Tomorrowland” that was certainly in “The Incredibles,” that there are certain individuals who need to do better things because only they can.
Bird: Yeah. Well, the weird thing is, I don’t have a list of things like “This is your message. This is what you must make work.” I just kind of go, “Oh, that would be cool and that would be be cool! I’m drawn to that!” Later, people tell me patterns that they see and I go, “Oh, yeah.” But it’s not like I have any clear point of view on it. But I also know that if people could see the movies that are in my mind that I want to do, they also have some common elements, but also go in different directions. Sometimes I’m impatient with certain ideas and people go, “I’m seeing a pattern!” When they say that, I go, “I should break that pattern.” Just to mix it up. I wouldn’t break it with something I don’t believe, but I’m like most people. I believe in a lot of things. Sometimes you say, “Okay. I’ve done robots. That’s good for robots. Now I’m going to do something else.” Spielberg isn’t doing aliens in suburbia, still.
CS: But he can still come back to it years later.
Bird: He can come back to it. And he does. He makes a mean alien.
CS: There’s an element to “Tomorrowland” that pulls Disney into its storyline. Is that something that you definitely wanted to do or did this just seem like a good format for it?
Bird: Disney was always a part of it. The word Tomorrowland, to me, has a Disney connection. You read some things about a movie and it’s just like when someone makes a statement you don’t agree with. You immediately want to challenge them in the room. I would love to challenge certain things I’ve read about this movie, but if you engage in social media, a lot of times it becomes like a swamp. The ways to be misunderstood are just too numerous to mention. But some people have said, “It’s based on the Disney ride!” But A, it’s not a ride. It’s a Land. Even more than a Land, though, it’s a state of mind. It’s two words that are familiar and, when you mash them together, they evoke a sense of promise and a sense of play. It sounds bright. It’s not a dark word. But it could be. If you think about the way we perceive tomorrow now. The word tomorrow has a darker connotation. Yet, if you say both words together, it evokes a sense that it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be uplifting. It’s going to be something that you drive toward. Something exciting and bright. We were trying to wrap a movie around that vibe. To get there, we had to create the anti-that. We wanted to frame it in an area of darkness because that seems to be what’s predominant now. Rather than acting like it’s not there, we wanted to go through it to this other place. I have no idea where it’s going to wind up, but you do what you do and you hope for the best.
CS: It was interesting to have this film open up when “Mad Max: Fury Road” was still in theaters. That’s a film that is, in many way, the polar opposite of “Tomorrowland.”
Bird: Yes, and I think that some of the people who are in the business of show business — commenting on it and stroking their chin about it and talking about it in a broader context of “What’s going on now?” They took “Tomorrowland” as saying, “You can’t like these other films and, if you do, we’re frowning on you.” I’m sitting there going, “That’s not how I feel.” I like “Road Warrior.” I like “Terminator 2.” I think a lot of my favorite science fiction movies are apocalyptic. But I also like chocolate and know it’s not the only flavor of ice cream that I think should be available. I think people took it as a put down of people liking those movies and that’s not at all what Damon [Lindelof] or I intended. We’re just trying to say, “There seems to be a numbing repetition of that message.” Like any message — even if you say something nice, if you say it repeatedly over and over for an hour, you’ll annoy people. Small World itself is a popular ride, but that song also kind of drives people insane because it’s so relentless. I kind of feel like the message of, “We’re doomed” is kind of becoming oppressive. I wanted to be not-that. Half the audience seemed to be like, “Good on you!” and the other half were like, “We like our apocalypse! Screw you!” All I can do is kind of shrug and go, “I made the movie I set out to make. We’ll see where it exists in 20 years.”
CS: And, of course, those contradictory ideas can coexist.
Bird: Yes, and they did. The reception of the film couldn’t have been more polarized. There were very few people in the middle about it. You were either in one camp or the other. It almost mirrors the political discourse in the country now. Again, I speak about when I was little. There seemed to be a lot more dialogue between one side and the other. Now it seems like dialogue is forbidden and you just scream your point of view and that’s it. You get TV channels that give you a world in accord with the way you see it. You rail at the other side. There is nothing to be learned. There used to be a little more convivial back and forth. I don’t know. We’ll see.
CS: There is kind of a nice parallel between the dreamers of “Tomorrowland” in the film and the fans the film will find in the years to come.
Bird: Like I said, the only critic who’s right a hundred percent of the time is time. Stories seem to eventually find their place. The immediate expectations of anything somebody does are very much involved with how something is received. In time, what’s happening at that moment in society or whatever, goes away. Whatever the piece is, one day just exists on its own. I’m curious to learn how thinks who just comes across this film in ten, fifteen or twenty year. Who doesn’t know a thing about it. It’s just something that’s on a device or someone says, “Check this out.” What is the reaction going to be in that environment? Particularly when your budgets are larger, there’s a whole parade of things that come with that. Some are good and some are kind of annoying because they seems to amp it up too much. You just want to tell a story. You don’t want 20 people come in before you enter the room going, “You’re going to hear the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard in your life!” Don’t say that! Everybody just sit down. “Are you comfortable? All right. Once upon a time…” Just let it be what it is. I think that the nice thing about when movies enter this phase is that the other stuff goes away. They just get encountered for what they are. When I was a kid, I saw “Vertigo.” I didn’t know anything about it. It was on late at night and I was about to turn off the television. It came on and I said, “I’ll watch the first ten minutes.” Two hours later, I had seen this thing where I didn’t know what was going to happen at all. I knew it was a Hitchcock movie. I think I saw the name in the titles. But I hadn’t heard anything about it before. That’s a great way to experience a movie. Now, if your budget is of a certain size, you can’t have that happen. You have to let people know about your movie. You have to concoct teasers a year in advance. You have to decide what you’re going to show first and then how you’re going to have to follow that up and then follow that up. It’s planned almost like a military invasion. I don’t know if that’s the best environment for a story to get out there.
CS: You did not do an audio commentary for this one.
Bird: I didn’t. I didn’t do one for “Ghost Protocol” either. I kind of got to thinking that it’s a misleading thing. I’ve done them for the animated films, but I don’t know if I’ll do one for the next “Incredibles.” It’s because I don’t want people to think that what I have to say is what they must know about it. They don’t have to know that about it and it bothers me that it’s fixed in time. Usually you have to record these things before you’ve even put the movie out into the world. You record these things before the movie is released, essentially. What’s important to you at that moment may not be what’s important to anyone at all. You may have been stressing about one stupid little scene that doesn’t matter at all and yet you’ll talk for five minutes about that scene. There’s something about freezing that in amber that seems wrong. I’ll do extra materials, but just let people have their own perception of what it is. I’m kind of coming around to that. Of just letting it be what it is without my comments.
CS: I did want to ask about “The Incredibles 2.” Is it something that you would have made right after “The Incredibles” or does it come out of something you’ve discovered in the intervening years?
Bird: I had a bunch of ideas that I wanted to put in “The Incredibles,” but they just didn’t fit. Certain ideas fit, but other things make you go, ‘This is great, but I’d have to give up two other things that matter more to me to get this other thing in.’ So there were a pile of ideas left over from “The Incredibles,” but it’s not a big thing. There were little scenes and things that I was interested in. I wanted to come up with sort of an over-arching idea that connected to the first film that went somewhere different. That’s the one that took a little more time. I don’t think I could have made this movie right away. Nor would I want to. I always want to break things up with something else. I know some directors who have done a movie and then, the very next thing they do is the sequel to that movie. Unless it’s “Lord of the Rings” and it was always conceived of us doing it that way, I will always want to break it up with something else and then come back to it. That said, I’m really looking forward to playing with this playset again.
For more from Bird, check out this earlier Brad Bird interview from Tomorrowland‘s theatrical release.
Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 hits the big screen June 21, 2019.
(Photo Credit: WENN.com)