To say I’m a fan of Brad Bird is an understatement. I’m a freaking wind machine of Brad Bird’s. The man who brought us The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille made his first live-action feature in 2011 with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the fourth and highest-grossing installment in the action franchise. With the film coming out on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, April 17, Mr. Bird was cool enough to answer some of my questions about the film’s development, including some SPOILER-laden queries about some of the movie’s more unusual story choices, which I nitpicked last December. It turns out that Ghost Protocol was a more difficult production than I had imagined, with many dialogue scenes shot multiple ways to accommodate a screenplay that was being rewritten during production. Bird illuminates me on the development process and even chips in a little update on his dream project, 1906, about the legendary San Francisco earthquake.
CraveOnline: So Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. That did pretty well for you, didn’t it?
Brad Bird: It did alright!
Obviously it was a critical success, made a lot of money… have you been getting a lot more live-action offers?
It’s a good time to be making movies. Yes, it’s been definitely a nice thing. I think that my ideal career would be able to be in a position to do different kinds of things, and this has opened that up.
I’m glad to hear it. I’d like to talk to you a bit about the development process for Ghost Protocol. Was there already a script when you signed on?
Well, there were many scripts, as J.J. [Abrams, producer] told me, but they it was very much in flux. We had set pieces that the film was going to have in there, and the idea that Tom [Cruise] was going to climb the Burj Khalifa, and there was going to be this room switch scene, and there was going to be a fight in a car park, and that Ethan started the movie out in prison, so there were a lot of things in place. But the script was in flux while we developing it and even while we were filming it. It was always in motion, which was a challenge.
What is it like trying to make a movie, starting with not necessarily the story but starting with the action?
All of the action stuff, most of it we shot up front, and then we moved up to sound stages, and that’s where a lot of the connecting tissue was. So when we didn’t have an answer for “Is it this person or that person?” sometimes I would shoot it both ways, and we’d go, “We’ll figure it out when we get to the sound stages.” And so we kept kind of punting the important decisions to when we got inside on sound stages, and that made it hard sometimes to be clear on exactly what we were doing. But I think we were smart about covering our bases, and allowing some options, but it was always an ongoing process and the writers were [there] with us, and kind of laying down tracks in front of this moving train.
There were two interesting story decisions that I thought were made for Ghost Protocol. One, at the end of Mission: Impossible III, Ethan Hunt seems fairly happily married, and in the fourth film, you didn’t only remove Michelle Monaghan’s character from the equation, but you also didn’t replace her with a new love interest.
Was that something you just knew you wanted to begin with? “Oh, he’s married. Leave her out, leave her out, that’s a bad idea?”
Well, we were well into the film thinking that she had been killed, and filmed quite a bit of the film thinking that she wasn’t around, and we just kept thinking that that kind of cast the previous movie in a negative light because it’s kind of like all that stuff that he went through to keep her alive in the last one didn’t ultimately amount to anything. It was kind of like… Simon Pegg mentioned that it was kind of like the feeling that you had about Aliens after seeing Alien 3, where she goes through unbelievable hell to save a couple of people, and then both of them died before the third movie.
Damned good point.
It gives you a different feeling when you go back and look at the second film. It’s like, all this stuff is for naught. Just don’t do it. So we thought about that, and felt like ultimately we didn’t want to kill her character off. And we also recognized that it’s a limiting thing for the franchise to have him be a married man that’s always gotta go home and talk to the wife, you know? I think that Tom was torn between wanting to be free of the story baggage of that and wanting to also respect the people that saw the previous film, and paying it off. And we ultimately came down on the side of the ending that you see in the film, where he can’t be with her but they still do care about each other, and he’s still sort of vigilant about keeping an eye on her.
The other thing that I thought was kind of interesting, unlike, in particular I’d say the last film in the franchise, Ethan Hunt and Michael Nyqvist’s characters are sort of at a distance for most of the screenplay. They don’t have a scene together before the end. What went into that decision to keep the bad guy as the threat, first and foremost?
Yeah, yeah. You know, we had other scenes with Michael and other characters and we just kept… They were not carrying their weight, and so we kept kind of trimming it back, and by the time it gets to Act III it’s just about stopping the conflict. It’s not about them sitting down and… The time was past when they were going to have a conversation. So I sort of look at the fact that the way he enters the movie, for the most part, is as a voice talking to Ethan in the middle of his mission in a very open manner. I thought that was a really creepy moment. I can’t ever say there was a huge, deliberate plan to keep them apart, it’s just kind of how it developed.
Another interesting choice that was made for the film: so much of the spy genre is based on cool, interesting gadgets. This film is based on the failure of technology. Every action sequence, even that bit on the train, is about how, “We have this high-tech technology that reads your retinas… and it’s really inconvenient!”
Right. [Laughs] When I first got involved in the film, J.J. asked me, “Are there any things that you would love to see in a spy movie?” And I listed about five things, and one them was that idea, that I wanted the gadgets to be as unreliable as they are in life, you know? They enjoyed that idea and were very supportive.
Did any of those things on your list not make it into the movie?
Oh, not make into the movie? Yeah, I have one idea that I’m not going to tell you because I’m going to find another way to use it. [Laughs]
One of the ones didn’t make it, and it wasn’t for any reason other than we couldn’t get everything in, but I consider getting five out of six ideas… I can’t complain. They were very good about letting me do whatever I wanted to in the movie. Tom and J.J. were very supportive.
Would you come on for another one, and try to incorporate it next time?
No, I think that one of the things that’s fun about the series is that they always pull in a different director and try to get a different kind of take on the premise. I’d probably be open to looking at it, but I think that part of one of the successes of the franchises is that they’re always reassessing it with a new director. That was one of the things that attracted me to it. It’s not a franchise where it was about dismissing your style in order to get the style of the franchise. It was more about [having] each director influence the franchise. Because whatever you think about the Mission: Impossible films, they don’t look like they were made by the same person. They’re the same premise and the same lead actor and all of that, but they feel like four distinctly different movies, style-wise.
What sort of developments have been made on 1906?
I’ve not cracked it yet. It’s still an idea that I’m attracted to. It’s an incredibly challenging idea to get into a single movie. I don’t think that you can break it up into two, and have 1906 II: The Rebuilding. I think that the challenge is that it’s a very sprawling canvas, and you want to get it all in one film and have it be satisfying and take advantage of all the wonderful things that that idea, that that particular place at that moment in time, has to offer. But it’s a very challenging thing to get to work as a script.
Would you ever think about doing that as an HBO series, something like that, try to milk it?
But then you have to do it for the small screen, and I don’t want it to be on the small screen. I want it to be on the big screen! But you’re right, absolutely, it would be much easier to do as a mini-series.