The following conversation with Tomorrowland director Brad Bird is a good reminder of why we need filmmakers like him. Not that we could forget his cinematic contributions anytime soon thanks to The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol etc. but Bird’s commitment to big, original story ideas and the way in which he fosters them is important to all of us film-loving fans.
When Screen Rant sat down with Bird to discuss the film which, as it revolves around two genius-level scientist inventor types (played by George Clooney and Britt Robertson) who embark on a mission to rediscover a better future via the hidden utopia-like Tomorrowland, is about as “big idea” as summer tentpoles get these days, we got Bird talking on the subject of Hollywood as “a state of mind” and specifically how good ideas can go bad when a studio is motivated by a date on the calendar (looking at you, Transformers 4).
Read on for more insight into the hidden gems of Tomorrowland, why Brad Bird loves Walt Disney and his thoughts on returning to The Incredibles for its long-awaited sequel. [Hint: It may or may not involve him speaking in Edna-voice]
I just came from speaking with Jeff Jensen [writer/executive producer], he was telling me that during your brainstorming sessions you went into fun digressions of the nerdy persuasion. I know you mentioned how much you enjoyed the Disney and futuristic elements, was there one something particular you were excited to use your base nerd know-how or general passion for and then expand upon for the film?
Well, where my area of expertise so to speak would be Walt-era stuff. I’m a huge fan of the stuff Walt Disney produced in his lifetime and was very influenced by it but I have my own interpretation of what Disney is and I can get as adamant about it as anybody can about Star Wars or Marvel films or something like that. This film, the word Disney in some ways has come to represent for some people things like corporate or toothless entertainment aimed at kids – I think they’re wrong, but that’s what the word brings to mind for some people. For me it brings a sense of wonder, a sense of play, the willingness to go dark which Disney certainly did. There are things in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that are really dark. There’s the scene of James Mason as Nemo playing the organ as they basically blow up a ship and people go down and that’s also Disney and it’s beautifully-made and it means quality to me, he was willing to go the extra step to make a vision full. For example, when Pinocchio walks on the bottom of the ocean, the depth of the imagination in that stuff is staggering to me, so that’s what Disney means to me and this movie was a chance to act on what I felt that Disney was.
Was there one particular day on set that was particularly memorable or unbelievable?
There were a lot of moments. Getting a chance to work with [cinematographer] Claudio Miranda was wonderful, he’s a tremendous artist but when we were filming at NASA on the launchpad that sent all these space missions into space, but it was for a movie I was getting to direct and having the Casey character walking up and showing her against the launch pad was really inspiring. Here I am a) getting to make a movie on a large scale b) I am on a NASA launch pad making this movie and that kind of struck me because I had a lot of deep and fond feelings for not only space but also movies. Movies that were big and transported you somewhere else and here I am at NASA making one, so that was cool.
I love the love for Tesla and the other inventors, is any of that based in reality?
Well, Tesla worked for Edison and Edison was kind of a jerk so we barely touch on that in there, but they did all go to the World’s Fair in Paris, so the were all four of them there, whether or not they met though, we’re not quite sure.
I’ve joked with Mr. Lindelof before, “Why bring a George Clooney into this?” But, what happens when you bring him in? Does it bring more eyeballs on the project? More of a budget confidence?
Well, I think this business and in many ways this town – if you can call Hollywood a town. It’s kind of a state of mind but it is kind of created out of the thin air, often times a person will have nothing but a dream or a vision and he or she has to come into a room and go, “This thing is real! It’s happening! I’ve got so and so already involved” – and maybe they have nobody involved, but because they have so-and-so, somebody else goes, “Oh! You have so-and-so? That might be a thing! I’ve got to get on the phone…” and in the meantime, them getting on the phone gives you confidence to go to someone else. All I’m saying is that it’s made out of thin air, you’re creating dreams out of nothing but momentum and enthusiasm and when you get someone like George involved it makes it more real to people. “Oh, this is actually something,” and you collect, if you can get them, a great cinematographer now and a company willing to invest and gradually you have the tools to make this thing come into being, but it’s a very intangible thing, it’s not like making a widget. You don’t know whether it’s going to work or not, you think it will. You con everybody into thinking, “It’s gonna work, absolutely!” when the truth is you have a lot of confidence with it but you don’t know for sure, particularly if you’re doing something new. Making films is an act of just saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and you fill it in with something and it ends up consuming years of people’s lives but at the end of it, there it is.
That’s a fantastic explanation of the momentum, especially as it may or may not explain how we get really good movies and then really bad ones that are greenlit via momentum…
Yeah but sometimes when they do bad movies they have only a date. They say, “We need a thing on this date and that thing should be big and noisy and we should get some stars on it and it should be a title that everybody already knows so we don’t have to advertise it and, go! ” And it’s just a date. You go, “Shouldn’t we have a script?” “Yeah, yeah, get kind of a script, but most important get the date,” and a lot these films go into production without knowing what the third act is and then they go into nightmare-ville because the date has become more important than the movie. Most often those things don’t work out, you can’t really sell a date.
Does any of that apply to Pixar in the way that they do not abide by those practices, not feeling like they have to do a sequel at a certain time and whatnot? Like you coming back to Incredibles, you decide in your own way, not because of having to meet a date?
Well I think there is that world where any idea that is successful there is this notion, which I hate, which is, “You’re leaving money on the table if you don’t go again and start pushing it again,” and I reject that reason for doing things. However, there are certain ideas where you have a sandbox built and you’re excited about playing with those characters again. Incredibles I had a blast making that movie, I love all the characters in it, I feel close to them all – flaws and all – I enjoy that group of characters. You can stay out of it for awhile, but if you don’t get going pretty soon, too much time goes by and your chance is kind of lost. I welcome the chance to return with those characters.
Real quickly before you have to go, what is your way in on that one and is Edna going to have a bigger role, I hope?
I’m not going to say a damn thing. No, no. You think that after going through all this stuff about not spoiling surprises in our movie that I’m going to spoil that one? I’m not saying a darn thing.
Is it at least fun? You’re having fun?
I am having fun.
I didn’t expect you to give me any spoilers! I’m just selfishly hoping for more Edna.
[Said in perfect, delightful Edna voice] You never know darling, you never know.
From Disney comes two-time Oscar® winner Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland,” a riveting mystery adventure starring Academy Award® winner George Clooney. Bound by a shared destiny, former boy-genius Frank (Clooney), jaded by disillusionment, and Casey (Britt Robertson), a bright, optimistic teen bursting with scientific curiosity, embark on a danger-filled mission to unearth the secrets of an enigmatic place somewhere in time and space known only as “Tomorrowland.” What they must do there changes the world—and them—forever.
Tomorrowland is directed by Brad Bird off of his and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay and stars George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson.
Tomorrowland opens in theaters May 22, 2015.