Brad Bird on Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Evolving From Animation and Tom Cruise's Fearlessness
When Tom Cruise adapted the Mission: Impossible television series for the screen in the mid-'90s, he made an interesting decision: Instead of branding the spy franchise himself, he would let different directors customize each installment according to their unique strengths and visions. Following three distinct Mission: Impossible takes from Brian De Palma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Brad Bird -- who, before Ghost Protocol, had never helmed a live action feature -- stepped up to the plate for the fourth M:I installment.
Fortunately for Cruise & Co., Bird's knack for storytelling (he wrote all three of the previous films he directed -- The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille), his storyboarding experience and his ability to balance comedic and suspenseful sentiments proved him the perfect pick for the latest Ethan Hunt action adventure, which follows the IMF agent from the bowels of the Kremlin to the highest building in the world...in IMAX.
Movieline sat down with Bird to discuss the director's crossover from animation to live action, his favorite moment in Jaws and the time that Tom Cruise almost gave him a heart attack.
Tom Cruise has a real eye for auteurs, having worked with Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Michael Mann...
Oliver Stone, Cameron Crowe, Ridley Scott...
How does it feel to join those ranks?
Well, I've been a huge fan of Tom's work for a number of years. I met him right after The Incredibles and we got to hang out for a couple of hours. We just talked about film and what we loved about it and what we admired and how much we enjoy the process. And I've known J.J. [Abrams] for much longer than I've known Tom. We had looked for opportunities to work together and the timing never worked out. In this case, I was looking for something to do when [Ghost Protocol] was being discussed. J.J. said, "What about the new Mission?" I said, "There's going to be another Mission?" And then bang, before I knew it, I was on top of the highest building in the world filming Tom Cruise in IMAX.
Tom has had a lot of creative input in this franchise. How did you go about sharing your visions with each other for Ghost Protocol?
I think that one of the things Tom set out to do, which I think is very enlightened for the franchise, is to have each film take on the stamp of the director. I think the reason he decided to do that is because he likes working with directors with specific, pronounced points of view. That's part of what attracted me to this. I thought that was cool because then I'm not trying to fit into someone else's [directing] style. I'm doing what I think would be a cool Mission: Impossible. One of the earliest things J.J. asked me was, "What things would you love to see in a spy movie?" I pitched several things and several of those things ended up in the movie.
Well one of them was the sandstorm. The Burj Khalifa sequence was always in the script and that is one of the things that attracted me to the movie but I was looking for a way to show how unbelievably tall that building is. It's almost twice the height of the Empire State Building. I thought, "What if there is a shot of it sticking out above the clouds and you see Tom climbing on it, with the clouds below?" One of the producers, Jeffrey Chernov, suggested a shamal, which is a giant sandstorm. I thought that shouldn't just be a shot though, that should be a sequence. Then I thought, what if we had a chase scene in a sandstorm, where you can't see anything. It was very challenging to shoot. Dan Bradley, the second unit director, had his work cut out for him getting some of those shots. Tom ran around in that stuff for days.
At the screening, [producer] Bryan Burk mentioned that it was exhausting to watch Tom Cruise give 110 percent every day on set.
Yeah, Tom only has that setting and "off." [Laughs] You can't run like that 24 hours a day so he does stop at some point but he only knows how to push it to its max.
I may have misheard, but I thought that Bryan said Tom's stuntman was afraid of heights. How did that affect production on the Burj Khalifa sequence?
Yeah, that was funny. [The stuntman] still got out there and did some stuff like test the wires. The stuntman was there to work out the kinks of the stunt but when it came time to shoot, 98 percent of the time it was Tom. There are only two shots in the film that Tom didn't do and in both of them, the stuntman ended up getting hurt. The stuntman knew when to say, "Tom shouldn't do this one." Because if he gets really hurt, then we are stuck and have nowhere to go. All of the spectacular shots on the building though, all of the shots that you think couldn't possibly be Tom, are Tom.
That sequence was amazing. At what point during production or post-production did you realize that you really had pulled it off?
I knew we were in pretty good shape when we were first on the building and Tom was getting a feel for some of the equipment. We were out there and we were talking and the sun was setting. We knew Tom had climbed outside with [David Schultz], who is one of the best climbers in the world. He was our climbing consultant. They're out there and I'm talking to someone, kind of forgetting about Tom because he's outside fooling around a little. Suddenly, I hear [Tom Cruise yelling] "Whoooo!" I look up and I see through the windows Tom's body just arcing out over Dubai. Then I hear this huge crashing sound and I feel like I'm having a complete heart attack. Then I hear Tom laughing like crazy and he's laughing because he had a kind of sloppy landing. He's absolutely fearless. The weird thing is, he's having the time of his life. So I thought at that point, "If the star feels like this and is having the time of his life out on that building, this is going to be great -- as long as we don't injure him."
This was your first live action film. How do you think your expertise in animation informed you for Mission: Impossible?
Animation helped me because it teaches you to pre-visualize. You have to imagine what everything is going to be before you realize it. The way I was trained in animation was with hand-drawn animation so, in that instance, you're literally sitting down and drawing everything. I've done storyboarding for films. The idea of pre-visualizing -- I'm wired for that. I think if I had gone from a hand-drawn film, which my first film Iron Giant was, to live action, it would have been a bigger jump than it was to go from Incredibles and Ratatouille, where I'm working in computers and able to move cameras through space and light it as if its a real, physical world. Because I was familiar with that and able to orchestrate shots with the CG camera, it was a pretty comfortable transition. Being able to work with a world-class cinematographer like Robert Elswit certainly helped.
Earlier, you mentioned that Tom really wanted each Mission director to put their own individual stamp on each film. What did you consciously want to bring to Ghost Protocol that the previous three films hadn't explored?
It's hard for me to stand outside of myself and talk about my style in a detached way because I just do what I think what I would like to see and whatever that is, that's my style. If I were going to be general about it though, I would say that there is a playful style to the movie that kind of enjoys the medium a little bit. It's maybe a hair more whimsical without selling out any of the action or suspense. A lot of my favorite movie moments are moments of unexpected humor -- like in Jaws, which is really suspenseful. I love the scene though where Dreyfuss brings in a bottle of wine and Roy Scheider has this giant tumbler. Dreyfuss says, "Do you want to let it breathe a little?" and Scheider basically empties half of the bottle into one glass because the shark has thrown him so much. Having a moment like that in all of the tenseness is what keeps it human. As long as [the joke] is within that world and not winking at the audience, I think that's wonderful. Good drama sometimes makes for great comedy.
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol opens in IMAX and select theaters Friday.
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