Brad Bird had already helmed one of the best actioners of our time, The Incredibles, before he stepped into the director’s chair of his first live-action film. And what a live-action debut to make. A previously established franchise (based on a previously established franchise), elaborate set-pieces and an ambitious centerpiece action-sequence that features Tom Cruise scaling the tallest building in the world — the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

To add to the complexity of the shoot, nearly twenty-five minutes of the film were shot with 70mm IMAX cameras. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol opened in IMAX theaters last week (grossing $13 million on only 425 screens) and goes wide beginning today (read our Ghost Protocol review). We had the opportunity to sit down with Bird to talk about working in the format, taking on a film of this scale and the pleasure of watching Tom Cruise run.

Screen Rant: You’ve said that each of the Mission Impossible films have their own unique tone and flavor. What did you want to bring to the franchise?

Brad Bird: “It’s hard to answer that legitimately because I don’t stand outside my own style. I would say though that there’s probably a playful quality to this that’s a little different from the other ‘Mission Impossibles.’ I think it enjoys its own movieness. Certainly I think that there’s humor inherent in a lot of different situations, but I don’t ever want it to be something that takes away from the intensity of the action or the suspense. I don’t like it when people wink at the camera. One of my favorite films is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and that to me had this perfect balance between humor and intense action. So if I got even halfway there with this, I would be a very happy man.”

What other films were you inspired by?

“My favorite spy movie is ‘Goldfinger.’ I just think in any Bond argument, I would go, best villain, ‘Goldfinger;’ best henchman, Odd Job; best theme song, ‘Goldfinger.’ Come on. Best gadget, the Aston Martin hands down. And—the hat, come on, it’s just great! Best girl, it’s definitely Pussy Galore. I mean, she’s great. Cuz she can kick is ass, too, so that’s my favorite one. And I like the scene where he’s on the laser, because it’s an updated move from the sawmill thing from silent movies, only it’s a laser. And it has a great score. The score that John Barry did is one of the best movie scores ever done.”

Brad Bird on the set of Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol

Tom Cruise has one of the most recognizable runs in Hollywood.

(Laughing) “He does. There should be an Oscar for that I think, don’t you?”

Did you think the only way to make it more distinct was to have him run in IMAX?

“We have him running in IMAX. That’s a good point. I think that should be on the poster. ‘He runs… IN IMAX!’ We have a chase in a sandstorm so I think we have a lot of set pieces that are unusual like that in this movie. I believe there are more stunts in this movie than any of the other ‘Mission Impossibles.'”

 There are some incredibly complex sequences. As an animator, did you meticulously storyboard?

 “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But our schedule was so aggressive and we didn’t have much prep time for this, even though I think it scale-wise is  the biggest ‘Mission Impossible.’ I didn’t really have time to pre-plan more than two and a half sequences. The Burj sequence I pre-planned and I pre-planned a climax sequence and I pre-planned half of the sandstorm. Some of it you just had to go with whatever because you can’t control it very much. We have one of the best helicopter pilots in the world for this kind of stuff, where you can actually discuss how you want it to feel and what kind of angle and he’ll do it. But they have updrafts to contend with and there’s rules with how close you can get to the building and if we hadn’t gotten cooperation from the government of Dubai, we never would have been able to get those shots because they’re actually probably too close to the building.

But the rest of the movie I kinda just had to quick draw because the schedule was so aggressive, and the days were so long, and we had so much to do that they came to me and they said we’d love to have a shot list for you in the morning. I did it for a couple of days and then I went, ‘Look, it’s either shot list or sleep. Which one do you think I can do without?’ They went, ‘All right.’ So I learned very quickly that if I arrive and I have a shot to start them with, then I can figure out two more while they’re working on the first one and then I could get ahead of them for the rest of the day, as long as I didn’t exceed in the number that we could get in a day. So I stayed ahead of them and I got my shots but I think the fact that I come from animation and I’m used to previsualizing made that fairly easy for me. And also working on television, you have to shoot from the hip a lot. So those two things I think kind of saved me.”

jeremy renner tom cruise 570x380 Interview: Director Brad Bird on Stunts & Style of Mission: Impossible   Ghost Protocol

What have you enjoyed about the  live-action experience versus animation?

“I would say spontaneity is very present in live-action, which is not present in animation. Animation’s all about pre-planning and imitating spontaneity. It’s about little incremental changes and piling them up. So with live-action, if you had an idea you could instantly implement it and have it shot that day. But also if something wasn’t working, it costs X amount per minute and it’s staggering how much you could waste if you don’t move. So, you had to solve problem right away. How I would love to approach it is just be passionate about the story and then just find the best medium to tell that story in. “

Very few recent films have used IMAX – The Dark Knight (and of course now The Dark Knight Rises), Transformers 2 and TRON: Legacy. Why haven’t IMAX sequences caught on like 3D?

“Well, I think that it’s a cumbersome and expensive process. It takes longer to get shots. The reels are smaller so you can’t shoot as much on a mag. So there’s all kinds of physical limitations with it. Some of those films they bumped the resolution up to IMAX but it’s not real IMAX where they use the IMAX cameras for significant sequences. I was more inspired by the Chris Nolan’s use of it because he filmed several major set pieces in real old school IMAX. And when I say old school, I mean the film, the 15 perf film, 70mm film horizontally so the frame’s this big on each frame. I thought seeing ‘The Dark Knight’ with several sequences in IMAX was a thrilling way to see that movie and I wanted to have us have that same kind of showmanship.”

tom cruise1 570x380 Interview: Director Brad Bird on Stunts & Style of Mission: Impossible   Ghost Protocol

Do you think you’ll use IMAX for 1906?

“We’ll see if it’s my next movie. I’m hoping. We’re still working on it. But certainly there are massive sequences in that movie, and this was good, good preparation for that. I think that’s another thing, a lot of filmmakers today love cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting, whether it’s a dialogue scene or an action scene. The filmmakers I admire most view images like music where you’re constantly changing the tempo. You’re having a shot that goes on for a long time and then rapid fire for a bit so that the audience never gets used to a rhythm. It’s always accelerating and decelerating. what I’m interested in returning to the theatrical experience is showmanship. When I was a little kid, if you wanted to see a movie when it just opened, you had to see it in a great theater. You could not see it in anything that wasn’t great because they would put them only in the premium theaters first and then it would roll out to the smaller theaters as time went on. Nowadays, the print runs are so small and it’s all about how many screens you’re opening on, that the quality control is so widely varied. And you can see a brand new film on opening day presented really well or, more likely, presented indifferently on a crummy screen with bulbs that have been turned down to save how long they can use them and compromise, compromise, compromise.

So to me, one of the things that appealed to me about IMAX is that if you see it in IMAX, you have to see it on a really big screen projected on a really bright, sharp image with great sound. That’s what it is. And so, you know, it’s not a huge number of screens but this film is going to open on IMAX for about five days before it opens wide, and if you see it in the first five days you have to see it presented really well. And so that’s exciting for me. “

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is in theaters now.

Follow me on twitter @jrothc

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