Brad Bird Talks 'Iron Giant' 10th Anniversary

We get an exclusive chat with Brad Bird about Iron Giant turning 10 this year.

After 10 years, The Iron Giant has firmly established itself as an animated classic. All images © Warner Bros. Feature Animation.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Iron Giant (how time flies!) A week ago, ASIFA hosted a reunion with director Brad Bird and various crew members, so we thought we'd have our own celebration honoring his brilliant feature debut. We start off with an exclusive interview with the Oscar-winning director, followed next week by a crew reminiscence or two.

Bill Desowitz: How did you get involved with Iron Giant and what originally attracted you to the project?

Brad Bird: Iron Giant was brought to Warner Bros. by Pete Townsend of The Who, and Des McAnuff, who directed the stage version of Tommy. They wanted to do an animated musical. Pete had already done a musical adaptation of the original Ted Hughes story (The Iron Man) for the stage play as well as an album based on those songs.

I was at Turner developing Ray Gunn when Warners and Turner merged. Warners had even less interest in Ray Gunn than Turner did, and since there was three months left on my Turner contract, Warners asked me if I was interested in any of the projects they already had in development. They had a ridiculous number of projects "in development," but I picked three to read and one of them was Iron Giant.

I'd read the Ted Hughes book and loved it for its poetic simplicity... but I also had some new ideas of my own on what the film could be about. I'm a huge fan of Pete Townshend's work, but I really didn't see Giant as an animated musical. The meat of the story, to me, was the relationship between this little boy and the Giant. My main problem with the book was that it veered away from that relationship about halfway through, and became a contest between the Giant and this Giant Space Bat flying back and forth to the sun. 

Brad Bird

I came back to Warner Bros., said I was interested in IG, but wanted to a go a different direction with it. Then I asked them: "What if a gun had a soul and didn't want to be a gun?"

That kind of stuck with them, so I went further and pitched them my new storyline. Rather than setting the film in a timeless England, I wanted to set the film in America in 1957-- at the height of the Cold War. I added the beatnik character Dean and the government character Kent Mansley and the army and such-- none of which are in the book.

The Maine setting looks Norman Rockwell idyllic on the outside , but inside everything is just about to boil over; everyone was scared  of the bomb,  the Russians,  Sputnick-- even rock and roll.  This clenched Ward Cleaver smile masking fear (which is really what the Kent character was all about).  It was the perfect environment to drop a 50- foot-tall robot into.

BD: What was it like directing your first feature and working with Warner Bros.? How had all of your previous experiences prepared you -- or not?

BB: Finally getting the chance to direct a feature film after so many years of trying was complete exhilarating. I'd been in the business for quite a while by that point. Many of my prior experiences in movies had been negative, meaning I had worked on several films with bad leadership, so an important part of my education was in learning what not to do.

Almost all of my positive knowledge came though television-- both from directing my first film, Family Dog, and as a consultant on The Simpsons for its first eight seasons. Family Dog taught me how to build a unit and team morale. Working with tight deadlines and brilliant writers on The Simpsons taught me a great deal about identifying story problems quickly and triaging on the fly. These experiences became invaluable on all three feature films that I've made because each project has either had limited resources (Iron Giant),tight schedules (Ratatouille) or massive scope challenges (The Incredibles) that made efficiency vitally important to each film's success. If you can identify untapped talent and build a strong morale where everyone is both pushing and supporting one another, you can create an atmosphere where all are doing their best work.

BD: Talk about this wonderful crew of animators and some of their important contributions.

BB: There are really too many important contributions to give a remotely fair shake to our large and varied crew. The crew ran the gamut from animation veterans like Tony Fucile and Steve Markowski, to wet-behind-the-ears Cal Arts students getting their first chance to work on production, and every level in between. Jeff Lynch did a fantastic job leading the story team, the effects team, the clean-up crew, every single department brought their best game and our learning curve was stratospheric. The crew at the beginning of production was, in general, a bit scruffy and green… but by the end had transformed into a lean, mean, movie-making machine. We were in a tight situation (with Warner's effectively shutting down the division while we were in production) and our hopes for the film were almost unreasonably high, but everyone rose to the challenge in a way that is deeply touching to me.

Iron Giant's story was a balance between paranoid '50s sci-fi and The Yearling.

BD: How difficult was this story to get right, especially since you were trying to convey a particular period along with a fresh take on a universal theme?

BB: The story was challenging because we were trying to blend together an unusual elements; paranoid fifties sci-fi movies with the innocence of something like The Yearling; and do it all in a way that was both fun and emotional. 

BD: Was the spirit of Milt Kahlguiding you at crucial moments?

BB: Milt was an inspiration, mostly in the way he taught me to expect a lot from myself and my crew and then work relentlessly to meet those expectations.

BD: What's your favorite moment and your most exasperating one during the making of the film?

BB:

It's hard to pick a single favorite moment from the making of the film because, for me, the whole ride was a collection of favorite moments. But if I were to name one, I suppose it would be the first time all the lead crew members were packed into the editing room looking the scene where Hogarth tells the Giant about what the soul is. The Giant is trying to process what death is, and he's literally lying on top of scrap metal -- dead machines, and by the end of the scene, he's rolled over on to his back and is looking up at the stars. The film was in rough animation and storyboards, and even with the temporary soundtrack, people in the room were spontaneously crying. It was pivotal; there was an undeniable feeling that we were really tapping into something.

Iron Giant doesn't shy away from issues of life and death.

My most exasperating moment? Again, there were too many to count -- but what springs to mind was Warner's constantly refusing to give us a release date, no matter how many hurdles we successfully cleared. Delaying that decision until we were almost totally finished (when our test screening gave Warner's the highest scores they'd had in 15 years) made it impossible to get awareness for the film going in time, and we were dead on arrival on opening day. By contrast, Disney's Tarzanhad been building awareness for over a year before they opened. Needless to say, my two films since Giant haven't had that problem.

BD: What do you admire most about Iron Giant and why do you think it continues to strike such a resonant chord with audiences?

BB: I don't think it's really like any other animated feature. If you were to ask me which part of the film I enjoyed directing the most, it would be the last 20 minutes, because the mood swings wildly between sad and happy, explosively exhilarating and quietly moving, and seems to do so very efficiently. A lot of films have good set ups, but many fail to close the deal at their conclusion. I'm very proud of the fact that we closed the deal.

I think people connect to the idea that we all have dark and light sides within ourselves and that our lives are defined by which side we act on. WE all have power to affect those around us and that can be either a destructive or an uplifting thing. As Dean and then Hogarth say, "You are who you choose to be."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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