How Brad Bird Steered Incredibles 2 Through ‘Complete Chaos’

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Incredibles 2 tests its superheroic characters in all sorts of challenging ways, but behind the scenes of Pixar’s new sequel, the stakes were even more dramatic. Brad Bird directed the first Incredibles for Pixar back in 2004, but the sequel was a long time coming, as Bird began to work primarily in live action, directing Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland. When Bird finally decided to knuckle down and make The Incredibles 2, Pixar eagerly announced a 2019 release date, but after the company had to delay Toy Story 4, Bird and his crew were up against the clock to deliver Incredibles 2 a whole year ahead of schedule so that Pixar would have something to release this summer.

Remarkably, they pulled it off, and Incredibles 2 is earning “just as fun as the first” raves from critics. Perhaps now, after a leisurely development process and a breakneck production schedule, Bird can finally relax. Vulture caught up with the filmmaker and his producers Nicole Grindle and John Walker last week to find out how they beat the odds.

When a year was lopped off the production schedule, how did you make it work?

Brad Bird: The first thing we had to eliminate was reassurance. You do a lot of stuff to prepare for [internal] screenings that are obsolete the moment you have them, but they’re still there to reassure everybody that you’re doing well and that things make sense and you’re making progress. You put all this work into those screenings so that people won’t slow down your process or make you rethink something, and that had to go. Every moment had to be spent making the actual movie.

John Walker: It was complete chaos for three years. Our jobs became a lot about making sure people would believe it would be fine.

Brad Bird: These guys protected me very well from not having to hear that because it doesn’t help me with my job. Making a movie is like you’re behind the wheel and you’re driving through the obstacle course and the pedal is down and you can’t break. It’s already hard, and what the studio [executives] can be if they’re not careful is the person next to you going, “AHHHH! AHHHH! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? TURN LEFT! NO, THE OTHER LEFT!” And it doesn’t help. It’s never gonna help us get there.

How did it compare to the production of the first Incredibles?

Bird: We had lots of time on that, and John and I were coming off The Iron Giant, which was another one of these panicked freight trains that was going off the rails. So on Incredibles, it felt like, “Wow, sit back, have a cigar and try the brandy, I hear it’s fabulous!” It was luxurious on the first film, but even then, we were supposed to come out after Cars and our reels came together before Cars’ did, so we got moved up in the same way that Incredibles 2 was supposed to be after Toy Story 4 and we moved up on this one, too.

Walker: We spent two years on the first film just boarding the first few acts. And those story reels were beautiful. Man, they were gorgeous.

Nicole Grindle: Lots of reassurance there.

Walker: We hadn’t even attempted the third act at that point. It took us two years to even do that.

Bird: Well, we had the third act, but we didn’t show it. We actually advertised it like a sequel: “Stay tuned for Act 3,” right at the end of Act 2. And at the end of seeing the first complete screening of all three acts, Steve Jobs said, “Why don’t we just release the storyboards?” Because they were really polished reels. We did not have that luxury on this one. It was uncomfortable, but it was the only way to get that movie done at that quality level in that amount of time.

Grindle: We would grab scenes: “Can we get this one done now? We can? Okay, let’s go make it!”

And yet the movie works, and its pieces fit together just so. You’d never know the production process was rushed.

Bird: Because we had an amazing crew. We had a great crew on the first one, but Pixar is much bigger now, and in addition to all the Incredibles animators from the first film who have gotten 14 years’ more experience, we have all these new talents from all over the world that have come to Pixar since. If you know what you want, this crew can absolutely get it for you, and really beautifully.

So how different would the movie be if you’d had that extra year?

Bird: I don’t know. I think there’s a quantifiable advantage to everyone having the focus of fear, you know?

Grindle: It’s great inspiration.

Bird: You hear stories about mothers being able to lift cars off their kid, and that adrenaline kicked in for the whole crew. Also, for me personally, the training that I got in TV really helped: You couldn’t linger too long over decisions, because you’d fall an episode behind.

The villain in Incredibles 2, the Screenslaver, has a monologue about how we’ve all become too addicted to our phones, that we are now passive and easily controlled. Tell me how you hit upon that as something to explore. 

Bird: It was kind of based on technology being a barrier to development rather than an aid, and the persuasiveness of screens. But you know, the criticism that we stare too long at our screens did not begin now. When I was a kid, it was, “You’re spending too much time watching TV.” It’s easier to sit and watch TV than it is to get up and read a book.

Grindle: It makes you passive.

Bird: Which is not to say TV is bad. There’s some great TV, but it’s kind of like dessert: It’s good to have once in a while, but you can’t eat it all day or you’re gonna get really fat and probably die.

When I was listening to some of what was said in that monologue, I thought, “Well, he’s not wrong.”

Bird: No, he’s not!

Grindle: It’s a very sympathetic position.

Walker: And I like his idea that superheroes are making people weak. You need to rely on yourself.

Bird: It’s a little bit libertarian, that idea.

The movie is packed with those little details, where something that goes by in a flash could really launch a whole conversation. For example, Elastigirl is dismayed when she’s given a revamped supersuit that tones down her colors. It’s almost this offhand comment about how dark and gritty some superhero movies have become.

Bird: The unhipness of optimism! You know, I always noticed that in art school, that grief was considered more profound than happiness. But why? Break it down into something like acting: Comedy is super hard to do well, and yet every year, it’s dismissed by the Oscars. A great comedy like The Big Lebowski will never win Best Picture, you know? If it happens, it’s a fluke, once in a billion years … but if you’re playing an alcoholic with a harelip and a limp and financial problems, have we got an award for you! I just reject that notion that grief is more profound than joy.

How did you feel about your creation, the Iron Giant, appearing in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One?

Bird: Well, Steven gave me my first opportunities to write and direct and even to act. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers and I’ve studied his work a lot, so to me, it was just an honor to have my character show up in one of his films.

When he came to you, did you have any input on how the Iron Giant would be used?

Bird: Oh, he didn’t come to me. Apparently, you don’t know Mr. Spielberg’s work: He doesn’t need to check with anybody! [Laughs.]

When did you find out about it, then?

Bird: I found out while it was in production. I was flattered, and surprised because I thought he would be in it for just a shot or two, and he’s in a lot of it. So that was an honor. Anything that gets people to go back and see that film, we love it.

Walker: We’ve been working on Iron Giant for 20 years.

Bird: Without pay! Seriously.

Walker: “We want some new toys, better call Brad and John! We want two new scenes! Oh, we’re gonna do a Blu-ray! You guys are onboard, right?” And we always do it.

Bird: And the reason is, we had a really hard but good time making that movie, and we just want people to see it.

I know you just finished Incredibles 2, so you probably don’t want to hear journalists ask you about Incredibles 3

Bird: And you just answered your own question! You’re good.

… but what I’m curious about is how you originally managed to fend off those sequel questions for over a decade. Not many filmmakers have the luxury of making a sequel at their own pace, on their own terms. 

Bird: Really, what you’re talking about is that Pixar was cool enough to say, “When you’re ready, we’re ready.” And really, that doesn’t happen at all. That’s why Pixar is a good place to make a movie.

How do you feel about whether John Lasseter should come back to the company? [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted the day before Disney announced that former Pixar head Lasseter, who had been on a months-long sabbatical after allegations of misconduct, would leave the company at the end of the year.]

Bird: Well, it’s so far above my pay grade. I’ve noticed that everything is binary these days, that there’s no gray area or subtlety in questions or answers, and if you answer a question in one way, you must 100 percent believe that and we hate you! I just don’t want to get into it. John is an old friend, and when Disney originally didn’t want to make the first movie, John flung his body between us and Disney long enough for us to make the story reels to convince them. The Incredibles wouldn’t have been made at Disney if it were not for John, and that means a lot to us. And he had a lot of smart input on this movie, too.

Grindle: Absolutely.

Bird: So I wish John the best, whichever way it goes. We know no more than you do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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