Next Stop, Tomorrowland: Brad Bird envisions a complex future in Disney sci-fi fantasy

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"What happened to the future?" Brad Bird asks a Tribeca Film Festival audience in New York City. Tomorrowland, a Disney adventure opening on May 22, may provide an answer, but for the moment the director wants to reminisce about a promised world that never arrived.

"When we were kids, the future always seemed to be bright, better," Bird remembers. "The world was still a dark place, we had the atom bomb, a lot of bad things happening everywhere. But there was an optimism about the future. What changed?"

Bird hashed out the subject with Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of TV's "Lost." Lindelof had the original idea for Tomorrowland, and co-wrote and co-produced the script with the director. The two agreed that the future of 50 years ago looked radically different than today's.

"Back then the attitude was 'We can figure it out,'" Bird says. "That attitude is gone. Today's zeitgeist is doom and gloom, apocalypse sells. If you try to present a rosy picture of the future, you're considered quaint and naive."

Tomorrowland stretches back to the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, specifically the Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. Young John Francis Walker (Thomas Robinson) enters a contest for new inventions with his experimental jetpack. Contest judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie) is forced to point out that the jetpack doesn't work.

"If it doesn't work, it has no purpose at all," Nix tells the disappointed youth. He's not the first one to turn down Walker, who wants to believe that "anything is possible."

The adult Frank Walker (George Clooney) is our introduction to an alternate reality in which all those possible futures came true. But Nix, who rules Tomorrowland, is still suspicious of creativity that doesn't serve a cause. His actions jeopardize the entire world. It's up to Walker and kid genius Casey (Britt Robertson) to find a way to defeat him.

"I don't agree with the idea that we've kind of thrown in the towel on the future," Bird says. "People shouldn't be told that our future is worse than the ones our parents had. But I will admit that you have to do things to change things."

Bird gives a personal example. When he was eleven, he got to meet Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the famous "Nine Old Men" who formed the backbone of Walt Disney's animation department. Hearing that he was interested in animation, "They kind of gave me this look like, 'You're going to lose interest in two weeks, and we'll never see you again.'"

But Bird returned three years later with his own 15-minute animated film. That led to mentoring sessions, followed by courses at the California Institute of Arts, where his classmates included future directors John Lasseter and Tim Burton. Bird then worked for eight seasons as a consultant on "The Simpsons."

"If you slow down on television, you get eaten alive," Bird says, citing the famous "I Love Lucy" routine where Lucille Ball can't keep pace with a conveyor belt of chocolates passing in front of her. "Television forces you to make decisions quickly. That has been great for me in movies."

Despite a limited budget and short schedule, Bird could compete with Disney and DreamWorks for his first feature, The Iron Giant. Using television techniques on Pixar's The Incredibles, he could turn out a movie that was bigger than the studio's previous efforts without costing any more money.

After winning Academy Awards for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird worked on what he planned as his first live-action feature, a historical epic built around the San Francisco Earthquake called 1906. "It was an incredibly rich period in history," he says. "San Francisco was caught between the 19th and 20th centuries. It had gaslights and electric lights, it had horses and cars, it had cinema and yet they were still 'Shanghai-ing' people in bars, slipping them mickeys in their drinks. Thugs would beat you up and you would be on a boat to Shanghai. Legislators made money by selling your services. And if you didn't work, they'd throw you overboard.

"So it's the Wild West and the 20th century at the same time, it's corrupt and beautiful and all this crazy stuff was happening."

Although he still wants to do the project, Bird hasn't found a way to "corral the story into a movie-sized box." Which is why he decided to direct Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, a Tom Cruise vehicle produced by Cruise and J.J. Abrams.

One of the reasons Bird signed on was that there is no "house style" for the Mission: Impossible franchise. Cruise and Abrams also gave the director the freedom to bring his own ideas to the project.

"I had like six things that I wanted to do in a spy movie, and I got to do five of them," he says. "It was still a rough one to go into as my first live-action film. It was like being thrown into the deep end of a very shark-infested pool in terms of how difficult and complicated the set-pieces were."

Bird's entry has been the biggest financial success so far in the series; more important, it showed viewers how good a comedian Cruise could be. Bird devised sequences for the actor that played out like silent comedy.

"One of the things I responded to with Tom when I first met him was his knowledge of movie history. He loved Harold Lloyd's films, for example, so I could use Lloyd as a kind of shortcut with him and he'd know what I was talking about."

The director's influences are wide-ranging, from comedy albums by Jonathan Winters to Disney's animated The Jungle Book. One of his early projects, Ray Gunn, was inspired by the "Peter Gunn" TV series and a B-52s single, "Planet Claire."

Bird also holds onto his ideas. A bit from another planned project, an animated feature based on Will Eisner's comic strip The Spirit, wound up repurposed in The Iron Giant when federal agent Kent Mansley flies into a rage trying to hang up a telephone.

"I got interested in movies in the ’70s when there was a really wide range of films being made," he notes. "You would have Annie Hall competing against Star Wars for Best Picture. Those films could dazzle and entertain you, but when you came out of the theatre, you were still thinking. I like that."

Bird hasn't ruled out a return to animation in the future. "I see certain ideas in certain ways. There was an argument when I was starting in animation, some of the old guys, the more hack-y old guys, would say, 'If you can do it in live action, don't do it in animation.' Which is idiotic, because you're dooming animation to be obsolete.

"Animation is still as relevant as it's ever been. It's for ideas that can benefit from having the essence of them 'turned up.' The Incredibles could have been done as live action, but I saw it as an animated film. Ratatouille could have been done with a little CG rat. For that matter, Tomorrowland could have been done as animation, but I see it as live action."

Of course, making Tomorrowland with real actors gave Bird more problems to deal with. He had to shoot the Flushing World's Fair sequences in Vancouver, for example, re-dressing a location there and relying on special effects to fill out landscapes. The results look seamless thanks to Bird's attention to period detail, like the Greyhound golf carts that shuttle visitors to exhibitions.

For his next project, Bird is considering anything from a western to a musical. "And if you want to talk about what animation should do, animation should do a balls-out horror movie. That's what everybody thought The Black Cauldron was going to be, only it was bad on about 400 different levels."

The director would also consider working in television again, although he confesses that he prefers the big screen. He's also reluctant to address issues like social consciousness in his films.

"I genuinely love popcorn movies," he says. "But I like it when there's a little more to chew on. Still, I shy away from prescribing, 'This is what the world needs through media.' But I do believe storytelling is powerful, and the stories we tell reflect our concerns. Not that they all have to be uplifting, but it's just that the stories I'm drawn to are a little more 'glass half full.' I'm cynical in a way, but underneath I'm an optimist. Kind of jetpack-y."