Mission Live-Action: Brad Bird makes spectacular transition from the world of animation


It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a bird—Brad Bird, although you won’t really recognize him from his current Exhibit A. The Oscar-winning master animator of The Incredibles and Ratatouille has set aside his childish, cartoonish ways and, at age 54, become a people person, moving full-throttle into some spectacular, mind-blowing live-action directing with Paramount’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.

The same finite timing and meticulous attention to detail that brought life to his animation hold him in good stead for the action market, which, some argue, couldn’t be more cartoony in its over-the-top, sweat-and-swagger heroics. In Bird’s view, drawing is just a short leap away from drawing you in—which every picture should do.

“It’s still the same language,” he points out. “In the process of making the decisions you have to make when you do any film, you’re still dealing with shots. You’re still dealing with the orchestration of shots, the rhythm of shots, the orchestration of color, how music works, what sounds you use, the absence of sound. Everything is still dependent on connecting with the characters and finding ways to represent what they are thinking and feeling from moment to moment and drawing the audience into the experience. Why are some people successful at doing it consistently, and other people are not? Why is Hitchcock able to get a chill going up your spine right when he wants to, and other people are not? The minute you start paying attention to that stuff, it becomes really intriguing, because some filmmakers, just like some painters or photographers or book authors, are able to draw you in.”

What prompted him to hang a sharp right into a new genre? “I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time,” he admits. “The minute you have to start to speak, you begin noticing other people are absolutely fluent. The act of making animated films made me very aware of all the brilliant live-action films that were being made and have been made during these last hundred years when the medium has been around.”

Bird’s bow as a man(ipulator) of action couldn’t be more conspicuous, complicated or eleventh-hour. His mission, which he decided to accept, was to return the film franchise back to the former glory of its exciting first installment, Brian De Palma’s 1996 launch. Subsequent sequels—by John Woo in 2000 and by J.J. Abrams in 2006—lost steam, creditability and audience interest along the way, and Bird’s arrival with a full load of helium and humor brings the series up to breakneck speed.

“One of the things that attracted me to this project and series of films,” Bird readily concedes, “was that Tom Cruise was determined to have the stamp of its director, so the previous Mission films are very distinct from one another, stylistically.”

When last seen in M:I 3, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt was settling down to domestic bliss with a wife (Michelle Monaghan). When discovered in M:I 4, he is in a Russian prison keeping his mojo alive a la Steve McQueen in The Great Escape by bouncing a ball off his cell wall. Enter a mini-Impossible Missions Force SWAT-team (made up of technie/gadget geek Simon Pegg and a newly recruited beauty-spot, Paula Patton) to free him to foil a terrorist plot. When the unit’s initial failed attempt leaves the Kremlin in rubble, the IMF agency makes good its long-promised rule of disavowing all knowledge of them—Ghost Protocol, it’s called here—and the team must press on, unaided and unauthorized, to recapture stolen Russian nuclear launch codes before San Francisco is destroyed. A tightly wound intelligence analyst (Jeremy Renner) throws in with the team, and they’re off to some outlandish, hair-raising, world-saving scrapes in Dubai and Mumbai.

“The only people who were cast when I got involved were, obviously, Tom Cruise—and Simon Pegg,” recalls Bird. “Simon had a very small part in the previous Mission: Impossible and a very short amount of screen time, but everyone who saw it remembers Simon. That was one more reason to do it: I’m a huge Simon Pegg fan.”

Ving Rhames, a major player in the three previous Missions, tags in at the tail end when the smoke clears, keeping his record intact. “It gave us a little continuity with the other films. There’s one other little story overlap with the previous film, but we don’t want to say too much about that in advance and let it be a surprise.”

The new cast recruits have been prestigiously chosen: Patton was the compassionate schoolteacher in Precious; Renner was the loose-cannon bank robber in The Town; Michael Nyqvist, here a rampaging Russkie making waves, was the reporter in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and Anil Kapoor, a rich lech panting after Patton, was the TV host in Slumdog Millionaire. Here, all hands mesh harmoniously.

Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec’s script for Installment Four is a clothesline on which set-pieces of action can be hanged, sometimes bunched together and overlapped. Two sequences of peril are often juggled together, jumping back and forth simultaneously. “It was very difficult, challenging stuff, but that’s part of what made it so fun,” says Bird. “When you have people collaborating with you who are not only really good at what they do but also really enjoy the medium of film, it just becomes a delight. You go into it not knowing, ‘Are we going to be able to pull this off or not?’ It’s fun to figure it out with other creative people—a joy, like playing in a sandbox.”

If Bird had his modest way, he would write off his live-action triumph as “a kind of perfect storm of events. I was just happy and blessed to be there at the right time.”

First of these happy accidents came from Abrams, who helmed No. 3 and, with Cruise and Bryan Burk, produced No. 4. He and Burk were in Dubai, promoting Star Trek and checking the local exotica. “This city’s so cinematic,” they concurred.

Abrams passed his notion on to Bird, who ran with it for a touchdown, scoring one of the most breathtaking action sequences of all time. “When Tom came to J.J. a year later and said, ‘Let’s do another Mission: Impossible,’ J. J. said, ‘I know what one of the things should be: Ethan Hunt climbing the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.’ The fact that I happened on that set-piece and that we got the people of Dubai to give us this incredible access to the building itself so we could physically shoot on it, and to have a star who is completely psyched to put himself through the hardship of doing the stunt himself—it was just a series of things that had to happen perfectly and did. I’m just happy I got to be there and be a part of it.”

Played to the max on an IMAX screen, the scene shows Cruise a quarter of a mile in the air scaling the side of the building with suction gloves. “When we first discussed the idea,” Bird recalls, “we thought we were going to do it mostly with special effects, but in discussing filming in Dubai, it slowly dawned on us that we were going to be on the actual building. When someone is as willing as Tom is to do his own stunts, our eyes started getting bigger and bigger, and we started going, ‘Well, let’s shoot this whole sequence on the building—as much as we possibly can.’

“Then, it became ‘What is the most spectacular way to shoot?’ Well, let’s shoot it in IMAX so that we can see incredible detail and, when we project it, project it on really enormous screens so that it feels like the audience is right there. Again, it was like this thing where everything had to happen right. We had to have unbelievable access and cooperation from the people of Dubai, which we got, and we had a star who was willing to be suspended by a very thin wire about a mile in the air.”

Getting a perspective on the phenomenal height of the Burj Khalifa led Bird to another white-knuckle sequence. “There’s this chase in a sandstorm that I brought to the film that they indulged me on. I wanted to visually show how unbelievably tall this building is. You can’t really grasp it. It’s almost twice the height of the Empire State Building. I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I have clouds and I have it sticking out of the clouds,’ and then Jeffrey Chernov, one of the producers, said to me, ‘It shouldn’t be a cloud, it should be a samiel.’ I said, ‘What’s a samiel?’ He said, ‘It’s a sandstorm that occurs in that part of the world.’ I thought, ‘It shouldn’t be for just a shot. It should be a whole chase sequence. What would happen?’ I was inspired by a scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest that broke all the rules. Usually, you put suspense in darkness where you can’t see very far, and then put it in claustrophobic spaces. Hitchcock put it in a cornfield in the middle of the day—a bright, sunny day with an infinite field of view—and made a great scene out of it. I thought, ‘What if you had a chase sequence in the middle of the day with unbelievably limited visibility?’”

As the script was being written, Abrams asked Bird if there were scenes he would love to see in a spy movie, allowing the director to more or less place his order. “I had a number of things I wanted to see, and most of them I managed to get into the movie. One of them, tonally, was from one of my favorite action movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has an enjoyment of its own movie-ness that I always loved—the fact that it had a sense of humor about itself but not at the expense of the intensity of the action. That flavor is definitely something I was interested in seeing in this film.”

Considering his background as an animator and his affection for Hitchcock, it’s not surprising that Bird was sorely tempted to storyboard the whole film—but, alas, time was not on his side. “I thought that I would be able to pre-visualize a lot more than I did, but the schedule was so aggressive. We didn’t have a lot of prep time. I was only able to do two and a half sequences. The rest of them I had to kinda wing.”

Cruise’s dangling dalliance with the Burj Khalifa, of course, got the full storyboard treatment. “That was definitely one of them. We had to know exactly where each camera position was going to be because each one of them was an incredible logistical effort to get to happen because we were filming on the actual building.”

Having had the best of both worlds, Bird is comfortable straddling animation and live action. “It doesn’t matter to me which medium. They’re both great. The most important thing is the story you’re trying to tell. Then, when you figure out which story you’re most excited to tell, you figure out which medium is best to tell it in.

“If I’m lucky enough, I’d love to work in both mediums and just do it on a film-by-film basis of what medium is best to tell a given story. I just love the language of film, whether it’s live-action or animation. It’s all storytelling on film.”

Bird is still undecided which way he’ll go next. “I have a film that I’ve been working on for a while, called 1906—and I have some ideas that are animated, and other ideas that are not. Hopefully, one of them will cohere, and we’ll be on the road again…”