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‘The Essentials’ According to Brad Bird

On the eve of his debut co-hosting TCM’s classic film series, the two-time Oscar-winning director discusses his love of movies and the differences between big and small screen viewing experiences. 

With the recent announcement that two-time Oscar-winning director, screenwriter, animator, and voice actor Brad Bird will join The Essentials, TCM’s popular franchise showcasing “must-see” classic films, the show revealed its bold choice to bring one of animation’s great talents into people’s home every Saturday night to talk about old, non-animated movies. Bird of course is best known for his Oscar-winning films The Incredibles and Ratatouille, his Oscar-nominated Incredibles 2, and his beloved animated feature directing debut, The Iron Giant, as well as his live-action films Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland. With a long and distinguished career spent primarily in animated film and TV, Bird is a “giant” in our industry; he brings a keen eye and unique creative perspective to the long-running series that celebrates some of the most famous and well-respected films ever made.

In all the years AWN has covered Bird, he’s always discussed his animated projects in the broader context of “filmmaking;” he’s as likely to reference a classic film as an animated film when talking about scene composition, camera angles, and production design. Consequently, it made perfect sense that Bird was chosen to join host Ben Mankiewicz on the new season of The Essentials; he’s a great student of the medium, and the 20 classic film he’s chosen represent the work of well-known filmmakers, all linked by the more “visual” filmmaking style they embraced.  

I recently spoke to Bird about his choices for the show, the seeming lack of auteur-driven animation at the big studios, and the continuing shift of sophisticated storytelling to the small screen in support of the explosive growth of streaming media.

Click here to find Bird’s selection of 20 classic films. And if you get the chance, the new season of TCM’s The Essentials premieres tomorrow, May 2 at 8 p.m. (ET).

Dan Sarto: In all the times we’ve spoken, you’ve always discussed your work within the greater context of “filmmaking,” which very few people I interview really do. You frequently illustrate your ideas with references to non-animated films.  It’s a unique perspective.

Brad Bird: Oh, well, thank you. That's the medium we're in, you know?

DS: True. But you’re clearly a student of film, which makes you such a great choice for this TCM Essentials season.

BB: Well, let's get people addicted with these films, then.

DS: In addition to being a live-action director, of course, you’re an actor, writer, artist, animator, and animation director. When you look at classic films, what hat are you normally wearing? Can you just watch a film like a normal member of the audience?

BB: I'm just an audience member. It’s like the guy who loves sports…you just enjoy every aspect of the game. The first time I see a movie, I'm just an audience, and to me, that’s a very special moment because you start putting on your thinking cap the more you see a film. The thing about all the movies we're mentioning here is that they're very re-seeable, in a way. I’m a little different, I think, from most people. I view movies, great movies anyway, like listening to a song. You hear it once, that doesn't mean you're not going to really enjoy hearing it again. There's a rhythm to a great movie that is almost musical in nature. The way images fall, the way one image leads into another, how fast the images come, how slowly they come. Do they melt into each other or are they shot at you like a machine gun?

All of that, to me, makes the art form just endlessly enjoyable. The fact that movies stimulate at the same time so many parts of why I like art…you're getting the visual component, you're getting the sound of actors' voices and their performances, and you're getting photography and color. It's like a salad bar of the art. Movies are the only art that has every other art in them, which is why I love them. And the great movies, to me, seeing them and knowing what they are, doesn't diminish the pleasure of seeing them again at all.

DS: Very few animation directors get the change to move into live-action, certainly not in the big way you did with Mission Impossible. I remember when that was first announced, I said to myself, “Okay, this is gonna be good!” All the MI films have been good, but there was no doubt you’d inject needed humor and cohesive narrative into the storytelling. And you did.

BB: Well, I got a really a wonderful offer for that because they said to me, “Are there any things that you've always wanted to see in a spy film?” And I said, “Sure.” And they said, “Well, anything that you've really wanted to see in a spy film, here's your chance.” That kind of offer is catnip to anybody who wants to make a film. I had seven things I wanted to do, and I got to do six of them. And I wasn't refused on the last one; we just couldn't get it to fit into the story. But the fact that they were welcoming, playing with it that much, was really great.

DS: As far as your 20 classic movie selections, I’ve watched many of them, and you’ve chosen really excellent films.

BB: Thanks. Some of them I was worried might be a little bit too familiar. You always want to do the offbeat choice. At one point I said, “I should do The Apartment, but I'm not going to. I'm going to do Ace in the Hole. I picked that one because I thought, “Everybody's seen Sunset Boulevard, everybody's seen The Apartment. How about if I pick a Billy Wilder film that's really nasty but still great?" So, I picked that one just because I thought most people wouldn't have seen it, and it's a really great, really dark movie. So, I tried to mix it up a little bit. I had a great time. And Ben Mankiewicz knows a ton about this stuff, so he's fun to talk to.

DS: How tough was it to come up with your list of classic films?

BB: Well, there were certain limitations. They basically said we can try for any film, but you can't get a Disney film because Disney doesn't let go of those. So, you tend to stay within the Turner Classics library, though you can request things outside of it, and they have a decent chance at getting it. But their library itself is so vast. I mean, it's all of Warner Bros., it's all of MGM. It's a wide bunch of films; I had no problem picking out a lot of great films because the library I had to choose from was so enormous. But if I were choosing from all movies, there'd be some Disney animation in there for sure. So, there are some restrictions, but not many. It was easy to come up with 20 film that I love.

DS: As you look at your 20 choices, is there any common thread they all have?

BB: I would say, in general, great movies must always have a visual component. Like a director that I respect very much, but don't have a lot of his films because they aren't visual to me, is George Cukor. Now, he is a terrific director. There's no denying that. But he shot things in a very clean but not that visual way, and he didn't conceive of things too often in a visual way. So, I tend to like the David Leans and the Vincent Minnellis and people who use the photography of a film, the visual presentation, as one of their biggest brush strokes. So, I would say that one component, with a few exceptions, is that the films are largely visual.

DS: We’ve spoken about this before with specific reference to big studio animated features. It feels like the big animated films are driven by directing committees rather than a single auteur. You routinely see two, sometimes three directors. You're considered an auteur in the filmmaking space, certainly the animation space…is it harder for directors today to get the creative control they need to make “their” film, compared to great directors in the past like Kubrick and Hitchcock?

BB: Well, in animation it’s harder, and the reasons why, that would be a whole other discussion. I think that Walt Disney looms over the animation landscape in terms of the effect that he had on the medium. When he made films, and they're very much his films, he was the producer. It was the age when the producer was the most significant person. Directors kind of asserted themselves gradually over time. Disney knew what to push for and he understood storytelling better than almost anyone. And he found people that were great at directing and then directed them.

Pixar has recently made a name for itself obviously, but Disney is by far and away the most successful over the long history of animation. And they have had some wonderful directors. But, Disney kind of set the style for everyone, and that was very much management driven. I don't know why animation isn't more filmmaker-driven, but that was one of the things that attracted me to Pixar; I felt like it was more filmmaker-driven up there. And I think that's what made Pixar have the impact that it did, especially when it was starting out; their films were filmmaker driven.

DS: With so much content being made for every screen other than the one inside a theatre, does great cinema need to be made for the big screen?

BB: Well, I don't know. I mean, obviously, that's the ultimate way to view a movie, but that said, I discovered a lot of great films on television along with everyone else. I never saw The Wizard of Oz in the theater until much later. And in fact, we had a black and white television the first time I saw it; I didn't know that Oz was in color until we got a color television.

DS: Me too. And I watched it every year it played on CBS.

BB: And then I was blown away by the fact that Oz was in color. But the things that separate movies, ultimately, from every other way to watch entertainment, that hasn’t changed since movies began…it’s not sound, it's not any technology, no amount of resolution or anything like that. It's the size of the screen and the fact that you're sharing it with strangers in the dark, that you are gathering with a onetime only audience. That group of people will probably never gather again for a single movie, and you are experiencing this dream-like vision together with strangers and reacting to it in real-time. You have no ability to stop it and pause it or take a phone call or be distracted. You sit down, the lights dim, and you are in. And if you have to leave to go to the bathroom and you miss a little bit of the story, you have to ask the person next to you in a very quiet whisper, “What did I miss?” And the fact that that it isn't stoppable, you can't split your attention with 20 other things like you do at home, especially these days. In a theatre is the ultimate way to watch a movie.

That said, a lot of my first experiences with the greatest movies were on television. And this may date me a little bit, but they used to play movies late at night. I know they do now, but they play everything all the time now, so that’s not what I'm talking about. I remember stumbling across Vertigo and seeing it for the first time late one night, and then it went away for 20 years for some legal rights reason. But I had seen it. But when it came back to theatres with a 70 mm print made from the VistaVision negative, it was spectacular. But I remember the first time I got baited with that hook was on television, late at night, watching it alone, sitting on my couch and being completely riveted. So, I can't poopoo watching these things on smaller screens because it's not always possible to see something on a big screen. But I will always say that the best way to see a movie is on a giant screen uninterrupted with strangers in the dark. That's the way to see a movie, at its best.

DS: As far as the small screen, with the explosion of digital streaming, so many wonderful storytellers have kind of shifted from film into episodic storytelling of four, six, or eight hour chunks where they can tell their stories in much greater detail.

BB: Yeah. That's nothing but good because there are a lot of stories that can’t be adequately condensed into a two-hour box. And sometimes, you have to make a movie longer, like The Godfather or Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. But, a lot of these stories are too intricate to be squeezed down. And that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be made in this medium. So, the fact that somebody can tell an eight-hour story and have the resources to do it well, I think that’s a wonderful thing. Some of the best storytelling that's been done in the last 10 years has been shows like Breaking Bad, which I thought was just marvelous and would not be as marvelous if it were just a movie. It's a great story to sit down and watch in order.

And the funny thing was that I was shooting Tomorrowland up in Vancouver, when Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad, was having his rock star battle finale. It was between the second to last and last episode, and he had come up to a film festival where they basically interviewed him on stage. They showed an episode of Breaking Bad in this gigantic theatre; it was a really nice theatre where Lawrence of Arabia had originally shown. It had a large capacity. And the audience was packed. They responded to that episode of Breaking Bad like it was a great movie. I mean, to see a really great episode of that show, which was so well made that it looked good on the big screen, and have an audience reacting like that…it just demonstrated the huge power of seeing movies on a big screen with a lot of other people. When you have that many people reacting at once, it has its own energy, and I don't want to ever see that disappear.

But I would also say that being able to tell longer stories for streaming with movie level quality is a nice development. And filmmakers, I think, really welcome it, because a lot of these books, or stories that are imagined, can't be reduced.

DS: Might you look at something for the small screen at some point?

BB: Yeah. I'm always up for something that's interesting if there's something cool to do. Absolutely I would do it. Got to find the right thing though.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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