BRAD BIRD Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
October 17, 2004
In the Disney/Pixar animated feature The Incredibles, a family of superheroes shelves their powers in the wake of a public backlash and assumes the identity of normal, everyday people. Father Bob, mother Helen, daughter Violet, and son Dash all manage to slip into the mediocrity of suburban life, but when a new, villainous threat emerges, they are eventually forced out of hiding and back into action.
In this interview, writer/director Brad Bird talks about the making of The Incredibles. In addition to writing the story and directing the movie, Brad also provides the voice of the comical Edna Mode, a pint-sized scientist who provides the titular heroes with fashion and gadgetry.
MEDIA: How did you end up doing the voice for the show-stealing Edna Mode? (Great character, by the way.)
BRAD: Oh, thank you. We do temporary versions of the film where we're figuring out how things are staged and how they're paced. And we do story reels and take temporary music and hack it together. And we cast, within the building of Pixar, people that kind of get in the ballpark of the voices that we want. Sometimes those voices stick. The babysitter in the film is one of our animators. The government guy was one of the designers of Woody for Toy Story. He's been at Pixar a long time. He's an old animation veteran that's been around, and he was just perfect, so sometimes they stick. And I guess that was the case on this one. It wasn't my idea to keep it in!
So you tried to cast someone else for Edna?
Yeah, and one actress that we went out to who I adore kept asking me to read the line again. And then she was listening to it, and eventually she said, "I think you kind of got a beat on it, maybe you should just do it." And then it was like, "What? No! I'm not respectable! You're respectable!"
How did you come up with this interesting, quirky character?
She was my most fun character to write. Any day that I was writing her, I was one happy camper. The idea was that superheroes always have these flamboyant costumes, and nobody explains who designs them. Every once in a while there would be a half-hearted attempt where they'd show some muscle-bound guy sewing in the basement. And I never really bought it that suddenly this guy had an interest in fashion, you know? So I thought if you had a world populated with superheroes like we do, that somebody would be designing this stuff. And she couldn't just be a designer, she would also have to be half scientist, sort of the technical whiz that outfits the hero in an action movie. "If you press this, it's a lighter, but it's also a rocket!"
What was the inspiration for that outrageously funny voice?
The reason the accent was sort of half Japanese and half German was they're two small countries that have amazing design and amazing technology. You think about the best cameras or cars or anything, they're German and Japanese. So that was just the goal. And they're small countries that have a big impact, so she's a tiny character that dominates the room when she gets into it. We tried to make her house huge and she's tiny, but she fills it, you know? I remember years and years and years ago, I met Bette Midler, and I was shocked at how small she was. Because when she's onscreen, she absolutely dominates the screen. And it just struck me how much personality was in this small body.
In your previous film, The Iron Giant, you went further with the main characters in terms of story development. Did you intentionally cut back on that in The Incredibles so there was more time for action sequences?
Well, I went further because we had fewer characters in Iron Giant. It was really more about the boy and the giant than it was anything else. So it was a smaller movie in that sense. You know, while it maybe didn't make the money that we wanted it to make, anytime people see it, they tend to recommend it to other people. I think the wrong thing to do is just go, "Oh, they liked this last time, I've got to check off every box that the last film did." I think that you have to look at whatever film you're doing and say, "What is the best version of that thing?" Spielberg could do something like Schindler's List and then turn around and do something like Raiders of the Lost Ark. And they're both good movies, but what each film wants to be are two different things. So I think that I just looked at them as different stories.
How many years ago did you first get the idea for the story of The Incredibles?
Twelve, actually. The reason I know is the baby in the movie is named after my middle son, Jack. And when he was a toddler, we called him Jack-Jack. And he's twelve. Often times you have an idea and it's only the kernel, and you sit with it a while and then you add a little something to it. You don't really know when it started. That's the only way I know. Otherwise, I'd go, "I don't know, sometime in the '90s."
When did Pixar come into the picture?
In 2000. They had been talking with me about coming up there since Bug's Life. And we had just kept talking because I really admired their films. And when I finished Iron Giant, I knew that this was the movie that I wanted to do next, and I pitched it to them and they got it immediately and said, "When do we start?" So it was great.
How many children do you have?
I have three boys.
What did they think of The Incredibles when they first saw it?
Oh, they were just going crazy. I was smart enough to not show them very much for years, which was not easy. But what I liked was that the 16 year old was as into it as the 9 year old. And the danger in animation is that once they hit teenaged years, "It's not cool, dad!" Well, I didn't hurt any of my Simpsons street cred with this film. He was like, "Yeah dad, that was awesome!" So I felt good because all of them were into it.
Did your personal life find its way into the script while you were writing it?
At the time, I was struggling to get movies off the ground. I could always get on the runway, but I wouldn't get them cleared for takeoff. And it was very frustrating. And I felt like these wonderful, magical things that films are are often times grounded for the most dull and bureaucratic reasons. And so it reminded me of Bob in InsuraCare. He can do these magical things, but if you force him underground and give him a crappy job, he's going to get fat and kind of bald and unhappy. And so I think that I was going through anxiety of not getting the opportunity and worrying if I ever would. And at the same time, I had a new family and where do you put your time? If I dedicated the time necessary to make it in the film industry, would I be selling my family short? And if I was a really good dad, would I ever make it in the movies? And I think without being conscious of it, that anxiety filled the film...balancing meaningful work and family.
Is The Incredibles loaded with references to other movies?
They aren't overt references. I don't believe in directly quoting other movies. I think that's a very limited thing to do. It's kind of like a cheap laugh. I think that if you can make something that feels like something but isn't anything specifically, then that's more fun. I mean, Raiders of the Lost Ark feels like the old serials from the '30s. Spy Smasher and Don Winslow of the Navy and stuff like that. But it's done with a bravado and with much better writing and direction, and felt like a brand new thing even though the guy with the weapon that travels the world is kind of an archetype character. In this, I was kind of inspired by all the sort of pulp things that I had liked as a kid.
What was the inspiration for the title characters?
The goal was to make the family based on archetypes. If you're going to have superheroes and it's a family, what are the family archetypes? The dad is always expected to be strong, so I made him really strong. Moms are always pulled in a thousand different directions, so I had her stretch. Teenagers in general and teenage women in particular are self-conscious and kind of defensive when they're going through that point between being a kid and being an adult, so they're like, "Don't look at me!" So she's invisible and has force fields. 10 year old boys are hyperactive energy balls that ricochet off the walls, so I had him have super speed. And babies are unrealized potential. So that was kind of what drove me to do it that way.
Mr. Incredible has blonde hair, Mrs. Incredible has brown hair, and their daughter Violet has jet black hair. What's the deal with that? Are we supposed to think she dyed it?
[jokingly] No, it's a recessive gene. We will be creating the genealogy on the website someday. Stay tuned. It's a very complicated genealogy.
Why did you want Sarah Vowell for the voice of Violet?
I was a fan of Sarah's from This American Life. I love that show, I think it's a weekly miracle. And I just happened to be listening to it while we were getting around to casting voices, and I heard her talk about her father firing off this cannon or something. And it just sounded exactly like Violet. I went, "Wow, she's Violet!" It turns out she had been asked before to do voices and had always turned it down. And her agent was like, "She doesn't do this. She's a serious writer and she wouldn't do this, so don't waste your time!" But somehow we managed to get through to her and she was, [Sarah Vowell impression] "This is the kind of out of the box thinking that Pixar is known for." So she loved it and we had a great time. And she knocked it out of the park as far as I'm concerned.
Did you get a lot of your first choices for the other lead voices as well?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Why Craig T. Nelson for Mr. Incredible?
Well, Craig has a deep voice that you could easily believe coming out of a hero, and yet it sounds like the guy next door. It also sounds--and I can't explain it, I just know it when I hear it--like somebody who's played sports. It just sounds like a guy who has used his body. I don't know what it is. I played sports, and I'm like, [snaps fingers] "Yeah, there's a guy who's played sports." And I asked him, and it turns out he played football in college. I mean, he was good. He just has that sound. He's also a fantastic actor, he's good at improv, he's got comic timing that is just impeccable.
And why Holly Hunter for Mrs. Incredible?
Holly, I think, is one of the finest actresses in the world. She has a vulnerability that is right there, but you go past that vulnerability, she has a core that is tough as nails.
John Ratzenberger has been in every Pixar film to date. Did they encourage you to put him in The Incredibles?
That's sort of a Pixar tradition and quite frankly, I was going to rebel against it because I just felt, "Well, that's a Pixar tradition, that's not my tradition. And maybe I don't want to do that!" And then I started going, "Jeez, every film they've done has been a success, do I really want to change this?" And then we came up with the perfect thing for him because it's not the kind of thing that you typically associate with John Ratzenberger. I don't think somebody would recognize his voice. So I think that's kind of subversive and sneaky, and yet maintains the tradition.
Did you shape the characters to the voices, as was done for Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo?
Well, I wouldn't say that they shaped the character for the voice, because when Andrew was writing it, he was picturing Ellen DeGeneres. He saw an episode of her show where, in the course of a single line, she changed her mind about five times. And he said, "That's exactly what I want." And when he went to her, he said, "I have to admit, if you say no, I'm pretty much screwed."
Did Craig and your other actors have a lot of room for improvisation?
Well, I wrote what he says. I didn't just have a bunch of suggestions and then hope that something would happen. But there are times where you write something that looks great on a page, and it doesn't sound right coming out of somebody's mouth. So we'll change stuff on the spot. But I'm usually there with a pen. So sure, there was collaboration. There always is with an actor. And Craig is wonderful. Loose, ready to go anywhere you want to go. And Sam Jackson is simply one of the greatest actors on the planet right now, and I had a blast because I've admired his work so long. And Jason Lee...I'm a big Jason Lee fan, and I thought he knocked that character out of the park. And I don't think most people would think of him for that kind of character. So I'm really happy with the voices in the film and very blessed that I got to work with them.
Do you want to do a sequel to The Incredibles?
I think there's a tendency that any movie that's a hit is suddenly considered a franchise, which I think is ridiculous. I think some movies lend themselves to continuing, and others don't. I don't think the world needs Jaws 2, but I think the world was very happy to get Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather II or Road Warrior or Goldfinger, and there's been a number of good ones. And I'm glad they were made. I think that if you do a film with the original filmmakers and those original filmmakers believe that they can equal or better the one that everyone likes, then let's go. But it would have to be that. I think there was a moment of truth that Pixar went through as a company--this is before I got there--where they were headed direct to video on Toy Story 2. But it didn't come together, and rather than just doing something that they didn't believe in, they stopped, tore it down, started over from scratch, put their guys in Toy Story in charge of it, and they killed themselves to make it the best possible movie they could, because they loved the characters and did not want the characters to be in anything less than the first film. And I think you could make a case that Toy Story 2 is even better than Toy Story. So I think that was a defining moment for the studio because they said, "We're not going to put the Pixar name on anything that isn't Pixar quality." And I think that's how you build trust with an audience.
Are there a lot of differences between the finished film and what you originally wrote, or is this the film you always wanted to make?
It's exactly the movie I want to make. I got to make the movie I wanted to make with Iron Giant, too, so I'm a very lucky guy. The outline is pretty much the outline that I came to them with, with the one exception of the villain. The villain changed in the course of the process. I had a different opening at one point that was not the original opening that I had in my treatment. And I needed a character to invade the house, and I created this Syndrome guy. And everybody liked Syndrome better than the villain that I had. So he got to live, and the other villain got booted into the wings and it went from there. But otherwise, it's pretty much the same story arc that I came to Pixar with. And the rest is just the usual process of making a movie where you're trying to strengthen some things or make something clearer.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
I wish I could say something incredibly witty, but I think it's flying. I've had about five or six flying dreams in my life and I'm always incredibly depressed when I wake up and realize it's not real. They're very detailed and it's kind of like swimming, but with much more speed.