After making three beloved animated movies, “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” Brad Bird made a jump to live-action film in a most unexpected way. He didn’t take on a fable populated by wide-eyed children, retired superheroes or talking animals, like his animated features. Instead, Bird directed the fourth film in a wildly popular action-adventure series, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”
The transition, one that surprised many familiar with his work at Pixar, was anything but surprising to Bird. During the time in Bird’s career where he actively developed film projects, more than half of those proposed films were live-action. His most storied project was the repeatedly-stalled “1906,” an epic retelling of the San Francisco earthquake of that year and the police corruption responsible for the subsequent chaos.
After “Ratatouille,” “1906” had stalled out once more at the story stage after years of struggling with a huge budget, and Bird decided he wasn’t going to wait around for his move into live-action. “Suddenly, I had looked up and a couple years had gone by, and there were still significant story challenges on ’1906,’ and I said, ’I can’t keep preparing to make a movie. I’ve got to make a movie,’ ” Bird said.
Enter Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams, two minds behind the third “Mission: Impossible” film. Cruise had met with Bird years before, not long after the release of “The Incredibles,” to talk about films in general, and as Cruise describes in an exclusive clip from the Blu-ray, the prospects of working together. “With Brad, he came to my house, and I said, ’Look, I think you’re a live action director,'” Cruise said. ” ’When you decide to direct live action, I would love to work with you.'”
But it was years before Bird would accept his mission. After the most recent roadblock on ’1906,’ Bird was meeting composer Michael Giacchino at the offices of Bad Robot, Abrams’ production company, when he ran into the super producer. “J.J. kind of said, ’What are you doing?’ I said, ’I’m looking for something.’ And it’s literally that night, I got a text from J.J. at 11 o’clock, that just said, ’Here’s a weird one: Mission?'” Bird said. “That was the entire text. I didn’t know that they were preparing another ’Mission: Impossible.'”
For Bird’s first foray into live-action filmmaking, “Mission: Impossible” seemed like a distinctly un-Bird choice, but where others saw an unlikely pairing, the director saw a challenge. “The film offered a number of opportunities to invent stuff that would be challenging to put on the screen but fun in a popcorn way, a lot of puzzle piece kind of things that were tough to pull off, physically demanding and ambitious on the scale,” Bird said. “I did not approach it cynically at all. I said, ’Hopefully, this is going to justify a lot of popcorn.'”
When Bird had completed the task of actually filming the globe-trotting secret agent thriller, he insisted on approaching even the distribution method with the same mentality. Similar to how Christopher Nolan used IMAX to film portions of “The Dark Knight,” Bird utilized the large format for several key action sequences. For the initial release of “Ghost Protocol,” Bird convinced Paramount to only screen the film in IMAX theaters, a plan he called “counter-intuitive.”
“We knew that our numbers were never going to be big, but what was cool was that everyone who saw it saw it at its best,” Bird said. “They saw it on really large screens with really great sound. I think that that generated word-of-mouth that kept people coming to us for quite a while.”
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” went on to make nearly $700 million at the worldwide box office, a record for the series. Bird saw the box office success as the work of modern day “showmanship.” When it came to marketing his own blockbuster action movie, Bird saw an opportunity to do right by the business he loves and to do it his way.
“I think that we ought to be constantly trying to surprise our audience and not just doing one kind of film,” Bird said. “But I was really happy that we did have legs because that meant when people saw the film, they were enjoying it.”
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” hits Blu-ray and DVD on April 17.
What was your favorite part of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”? Let us know in the comments below and on Twitter!