Brad Bird never really liked movie sequels. Then he directed two of the best there’s ever been.
Bird made a name for himself directing two of the most original movies of the last two decades for Pixar, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, before shocking everyone when he followed it up with filming Tom Cruise scale skyscrapers, helming Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the fourth movie in the Ethan Hunt franchise. It became, at the time, the best reviewed, highest grossing installment of the series.
This year, 15 years after The Incredibles changed the game for Pixar, he released a sequel that picks up exactly where the crime-fighting family last left off. The response to the film was ecstatic, and as such the Parr clan is finding itself in the midst of another superhero showdown: facing off against Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for frontrunner status in the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature category.
It's fitting that Bird is back in that conversation with The Incredibles 2, coming 15 years after he first won in the category and amid praise for being the rare superhero sequel to not disappoint fans.
Of course, the sequel was destined for greatness from its green-light. The first Incredibles, one of the only superhero films based on completely original characters, was ahead of its time, but also perfectly timed. The superhero movie boom wasn’t a thing yet, with only two other franchises, Spider-Man and X-Men, existing at the time and, as such, there was no blueprint for an animated comedy in homage to the genre.
Despite the glut of men in capes flooding cineplexes since, few superhero films have been as audacious or as original since. “In fact, I think I’ve seen a few things from our story show up in other people’s superhero movies over the years and I’m like, yeah, I know where you got that,” Bird grins.
The morning we’re talking, it has just been reported what Bird’s next project will be. True to form, it’s not what you might expect: an original movie musical that will feature 20 minutes of animation, with music from frequent collaborator Michael Giacchino. “We’re both equally frightened by it, which makes it very attractive to us,” he grins when I ask him about it.
We also happen to be talking the day before it was announced that former Disney and Pixar head John Lasseter, who officially left the companies in June following an investigation into claims of misconduct, was controversially hired by Skydance Animation. As Lasseter was a mentor and friend of Bird’s, not to mention a major creative force while he made his films with Pixar, we talked about the circumstances behind his exit from the company and how Bird felt about it.
Over the course of an hour together in Manhattan, several hours before Bird is set to accept the award for Best Animated Film at the National Board of Review’s annual gala, we have a wide-ranging conversation, diving back into the origins of The Incredibles and what made it work 15 years ago, what it takes to pull off a successful sequel, the Lasseter saga, and the bleak, but necessary future of original blockbusters.
“The first live-action film I did was huge and complicated and shot on five continents,” he says on the topic of making sure he’s always doing things that scare him. “It was a lot. But I liked the fact that I would really have to roll up my sleeves and dive in.” And that’s precisely what we do.
Suiting Up One of the Greatest Superhero Films Ever
Brad Bird didn’t really know any superhero stories, at least not well, when he began work scripting The Incredibles. So he did the logical thing: He went to a comic book store.
He spent about a half hour there, combing through the inventory only to discover, to his dismay, that it appeared literally every single superpower or superhero character had already been done. “I was thinking I’d have to come up with new powers, like this guy coughs in a way that blows people down,” he says. But that’s when he had his eureka moment. It was the family, not the powers, that was going to be interesting.
“I didn’t have to invent brand-new powers,” he says. “I could just use basic powers and slant them towards the roles in the family that they were addressing.” Men are expected to be strong, so Mr. Incredible would have superhuman strength. Moms are pulled in a million directions at once, so Elastigirl would have stretchable powers. Teenagers are insecure and defensive, so Violet would be able to go invisible and construct force fields. And Dash, a hyperactive handful, could run at super speed.
When it came time to break the story for The Incredibles 2, arrived with the realization that, counter to the trend in most reboots, sequels, and revivals, the action wouldn’t take place 15 years later, but instead almost immediately after the events of the first film.
“I thought that was an unpredictable thing to do,” Bird says. “I thought it was kind of ballsy. And I thought we should be ballsy.”
From the few times he had poked around on the internet over the years, he was aware that people had written snarky fan-fiction imagining what the Parr family had been up to. Dash is 22, hates authority, and rebels against his parents. Bob and Helen are divorced. Violet hates men.
“Darkness is what everybody expects from superheroes now,” Bird says. “That’s why, to me, that was the least edgy. But people are fooled into thinking that is the edgy choice, but it’s everybody’s choice.” When it came to scripting the events of The Incredibles 2, he says, “I wanted to be adventurous.”
With adventure comes vulnerability, of course. What if the big swing misses? Bird, who directed the expensive George Clooney flop Tomorrowland in 2015, knows that feeling. And he actually doesn’t mind it.
“When it doesn’t work out the way that you would want it to, as Tomorrowland didn’t really hit the way Damon Lindelof and I intended it to, it’s hard, but welcome to the club,” he says. “You’re not guaranteed success in anything. What I wouldn’t want to do is just play it safe and do the sort of pre-approved projects that everybody seems to do now?”
He misses when a filmmaker hitting it big meant that they’d be given the freedom to do more original projects, rather than saddled with the next installment of the franchise of the moment. Several times during our conversation he praises Christopher Nolan, who alternated the Dark Knight films with big-risk original projects like The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar.
“If you want to work on a big scale nowadays, basically that means you’re going to a film that has been made many, many times before,” Bird says. “If a movie of a subject fails, they never say, ‘OK, we’re done.’ They say, ‘Time for a reboot.’ When are we going to get past this? Sequels are fine. I’ve done two of them. A lot of great films I love are sequels. But when it starts to be the bulk of what’s being made on that scale, I think there’s something wrong.”
He points out that both of his sequels are sort of exceptions to the rule. The Incredibles 2, for example, is a sequel to his own original film, with its original characters and mythology not based on existing properties. And while most franchises have a house style that studios want observed and maintained—lately the cause for several high-profile firings—the Mission: Impossible movies purposefully hire different visionary directors to make each installment distinct, be it Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Christopher McQuarrie, or himself.
“I think that if you have a chance, if you’re lucky enough to have had a little success, you should maybe try to push it a little bit,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing to do with whatever chips you can rack up.”
Grappling With John Lasseter’s Fall
Last November, Kim Masters published an investigation at The Hollywood Reporter that revealed a pattern of alleged misconduct during his time at Disney/Pixar that included “grabbing, kissing, and making comments about physical attributes.” After directing and co-writing Toy Story, Lasseter rose through the ranks at Pixar and Disney, eventually executive producing five of the seven animated features that have grossed $1 billion at the box office, including The Incredibles 2. During that time, his behavior became well-known enough that, according to Variety, he “had minders who were tasked with reining in his impulses.”
Lasseter took a six-month leave of absence, admitting to “missteps,” and in June Disney announced that he would be leaving the company at the end of the year. On January 9, the day after Bird and I meet, Skydance Animation announced it had hired Lasseter as its new head, a redemption in the #MeToo era that many of the company’s employees questioned at a contentious town hall meeting.
Bird has a hard time talking about the allegations against Lasseter. “These times are not good for nuance,” he says. “You’re either 100 percent for something or you’re 100 against something.”
He tells me a story about Lasseter coming to bat for him when Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs didn’t want to give a movie to the guy “who just did this flop The Iron Giant,” referring to Bird’s 1999 box-office misfire. They were told their script idea for The Incredibles was too much like Spy Kids—“which is beyond me”—and didn’t have enough fantasy elements, “like little blue fish or blue monsters.” Basically, they wanted Lasseter to direct another movie instead.
“John kind of flung his body between us and the executives and said I think these guys are onto something and let’s give them a little more time to develop it,” Bird says. “By the time we finished our story reels, that guy was gone and the reels spoke for themselves. He stuck his neck out in a way that few in Hollywood are willing to.”
“I don’t at all put John in a category with Weinstein,” he continues. “You’re navigating a world where men have acted a certain way for thousands of years. Way too late, but all of a sudden, they’re expected to change that on a dime and it’s necessary and it’s right. But it’s a little bit a gray area. It’s not as hard of a cut as people want to make it. I’m an old friend of John’s and I don’t see him in black and white. I see him as a person like anyone else. He was a person who was very protective of us at a time when we needed it. So my feelings are a little bit more complicated.”
I ask him, aside from the experience of making The Incredibles sequel 15 years after the original, what the experience of talking about it in a different era of media has been like, when he’s been asked about everything from the film’s gender politics to the Lasseter accusations to Tom Cruise’s ties to Scientology.
“Some ways it’s less difficult,” he says. “Some ways it’s more difficult.”
“It’s often like a pendulum,” he continues. “If people had been historically insensitive, the pendulum goes to hypersensitive. I understand where it came from and it’s fine. I just want to go to the other world where people don’t care about this kind of stuff so much. I just mean that once everybody has a fair shot, then it becomes about the work. That’s the place I want to get to. I don’t want people to be singled out because of whatever their particular slant is, or kept from opportunities because of it. I want a place where everybody gets to do everything and it’s now about the work.”
Our time is winding down, so we end the sprawling conversation with the inevitable question: Will there be an Incredibles 3?
I venture that the expectation for another installment is probably more intense now that we’ve been conditioned to seeing superhero movies sequelled into oblivion. “Yes,” he says, “which is exactly why I should do a musical that scares me right now instead.”