Interview

'Incredibles 2' director Brad Bird’s recipe for a successful superhero sequel

Even among Pixar’s storied “brain trust” — the auteurs who shepherded the company through some of its biggest successes — Brad Bird feels like a bit of an outlier. By the time he came to Pixar, he’d already created “The Iron Giant” at Warner Bros., and after completing “The Incredibles” in 2004 he moved right on to “Ratatouille,” transforming that troubled production into another runaway critical and commercial success for the company he still calls home. His “Mission: Impossible” sequel, “Ghost Protocol,” proved that he was as capable a director of live action as animation, but now he’s back with the long-awaited animated sequel “Incredibles 2,” which quite literally picks up where its predecessor left off, but incorporates a decade and a half of filmmaking experience into the process of bringing that story to life.

At a recent press day for “Incredibles 2,” Bird sat down with Moviebill to discuss what took him so long to revisit these characters, what its story is really about for him, as well as a few of the lessons he learned from older films, both animated and live-action, that he brought to bear on the highly anticipated sequel.

What is “Incredibles 2” about for you? What did you feel was driving these characters now, with a story that takes place months after the events of the first movie?

Brad Bird: I think it begins with the family in a more secure place in terms of being superheroes again. I think the kids have a taste of it that they hadn’t in the first film, and now they kind of don’t want to go back. I think Bob is still determined; I think he still feels like it is right around the corner and ready to happen. The events at the beginning of the movie seem to make it more distant than ever. They don’t have a house, the program shut down and they’re kind of screwed, so I think the firm feeling of acceptance that ended the first movie is immediately put into doubt at the beginning of this one. When the opportunity presents itself through Helen instead of Bob is difficult for Bob to swallow because he cannot seem to believe that he is not the solution. That right there made me interested in the idea. And I think it’s like a golf shot — if you hit the ball right it will land in a good place, but if you’re off a little bit out here you will be really off out there.

What sort of challenge was it to find new obstacles for these characters to face when there’s only been a short amount of time since the events of the last film?

Bird: [At] the beginning of the film, you see that things don’t go right — so that’s an interesting place to start. If I stopped the last movie at the end when they start getting ready for the Underminer and asked, “Are they going to get the Underminer?” everyone would go, “Sure! And as a family!” We have them go up against it and it doesn’t go that way. So that’s our mission, I think — to be consistent with the world, tone and characters of the first film, but to go left when everybody thinks we are going to go right and see what happens.

Was it tough to find new dramatic challenges for them?

Bird: Well, yes, but in the sense that every film is tough. When I did “Mission: Impossible” there were three other “Mission: Impossible” movies before mine, and there was a TV show that did a lot of episodes and had certain plots, and you’re still going, what would be exciting this time? So yeah, it’s a challenge, absolutely, but it’s not a challenge that is strange to movies. The audience has seen a lot of films, too, so you have to say, what would surprise me if I were in the theater? and go from there.

In the first film, and even in the scenes that we saw from “2,” there is a lot of philosophical discussion about heroism and doing good. How difficult is it to build that debate over the dinner table into actually what happens dramatically?

Bird: They are obviously cartoons, they’re caricatures — very extreme caricatures — but I think that part of getting people to connect with them is to make what they feel, feel real, coherent and make sense from where they come from. One of the most fun aspects about a table scene is that everyone reacts to that one moment differently — the fact Violet starts the scene by trying to dictate how Dash sits at the table tells you that she’s the older sister, and his frowniness tells you about their relationship, yet it’s not an unloving thing. We have Bob and Helen disagree — they clearly think of things differently, and yet they have to have a united front in front of the kids. All that is real stuff and it’s put into this candy flavored concoction that is not real at all, but that makes it interesting for us. It’s not simply a brightly covered goodie.

You mentioned “Mission: Impossible.” What lessons did you learn from working in live action that you have been able to bring back to animation?

Bird: The main thing is you just do another movie. It’s not so much learning about what getting up at five in the morning and standing in the cold teaches me about animation — except that it’s more comfortable. The story challenges are in many ways the same. [For example, there was] a fight scene in “Incredibles 2” that we wanted to have some credibility to where it feels a little more dangerous than the regular animated movie. I had Rob Alonzo, who was on the stunt teams of both “Mission: Impossible” and “Tomorrowland” come in and spend a couple of days with the animators and talk about techniques with fighting and how to put it on screen in a way that’s got some bite to it. That was an example of cross pollinating between the two, but storytelling is storytelling, and I think the mediums are more similar than they are different.

The first movie preceded what has become a deluge of superhero movies. Do you feel like as a consequence of audiences becoming more familiar with superhero stories and action that there were things you had to acknowledge or tweak in terms of the execution of the second story?

Bird: I’ve observed that the way people will handle sequels is often misguided. They sometimes try to amp up — if there were 10 explosions in the first one then the second one will have 20, or if there were 10 people that died then they are going to have 100 in the new one — and that’s never the solution. The solution is always starting from scratch and trusting in your characters and finding out how they would respond to the situation. If they are good, interesting characters and you have good, creative collaborators then that’s terra firma, that’s where you want to be. I think all of the best sequels that have been done are movies where they sat back and trusted their characters and don’t try to bombard the sugar content.

Ralph Eggleston and the guys on the production team said that you direct the animators in a way they haven’t seen anybody else do. What is your guiding principle as a ringleader and director of this enormous group that you feel allows you to get the great results that you have?

Bird: I animated first at about age 11, and I was lucky enough to be mentored by a lot of the Disney masters at an early age. They got me very excited about thinking of these things in a very thorough way. I have also had bad experiences as an animator, where I have had scenes to do and they are not well thought out or well written. I always said to myself that if I ever get to be king, I am never going to give someone an uninteresting scene; I’m always going to give them something that gives them something to do, something that asks something of them, something that makes them stop and think, and not something that they can phone in. So when I get down into animation, I am in this mode because I find it a process that is still magical to me. The fact that it is not real, and yet if you succeed at it people think of the characters as real — that to me is a magic trick that can’t really be explained, and I’m still in awe of it when they do their magic. I’m not only a coach, I’m like the best fan. I’ve got my hot dog, beer, I’ve got a flag, and a giant foam hand and I’m just going, go, go, go animators! I love animation.

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