Pixar is a tightly knit company full of creative visionaries, but few of them are as versatile as writer-director Brad Bird. After starting his feature film career with the traditionally animated feature The Iron Giant, Bird joined Pixar to direct The Incredibles and Ratatouille. He then moved into the world of live-action filmmaking, directing Tom Cruise in the action film Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and George Clooney in the aspirational science fiction adventure Tomorrowland.
With Incredibles 2, Bird has returned to the animated superhero family of Bob and Helen Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter, respectively) and their three children. This time, Helen’s alter ego Elastigirl gets to take center stage as part of a plan to prove to the world that superheroes should be made legal again. A sinister new villain named Screenslaver has other ideas.
A week before the film opens in theaters, I spoke to Bird on the phone about why he decided it was time to come back to the franchise, his thoughts on the movie’s messages about technology, and why he really isn’t ready to talk about a possible third installment.
It’s been 14 years since the first movie. What made you decide it was time to hang out with the Parrs again?
Well, there was no serious, big “ah-ha” moment. I started tinkering around with [story supervisor] Ted Mathot before Ghost Protocol. Then I went off to do Ghost Protocol, and Ted went on to do another film. I had the idea for the role switch between Bob and Helen when we were promoting the first film. I also knew that the audience knew Jack-Jack had multiple powers, but the Parr family did not. So I knew Jack-Jack was going to play a big role in any new film. And I had several other things I wanted to see in an Incredibles sequel. The raccoon fight we had as an idea for the first film, but there was no place to use it. I always really liked that idea. That was [art consultant] Teddy Newton’s idea, and I loved it.
So I had all those things kind of working, but I didn’t have the superhero plot, the villain plot. Finally, I had an idea while we were shooting Tomorrowland. I had a notion that would be cool and work, and I pitched it to Pixar, and everyone liked it. So the movie got greenlit, and we started moving. We’re getting into the movie, and about five months later, I realized, “This doesn’t work with the core story. It doesn’t play well. It’s too complicated. It’s intricate in a way that’s not helpful.” Then I’m stuck, because I have a release date, and all the machinery is moving, and artists are going, and I’m boned. So I kept rejiggering the superhero villain plot incessantly, and the film kept shifting. And it became even harder to corral, because we got moved up a year, and that made it even more intense. It wasn’t until about a week ago that I was talking to somebody, and I realized that the villain came late [in the process] in the original movie [as well].
The Incredibles was the only [Pixar] movie so far that has come in from the outside. When I came in to Pixar, I had character designs, and I had artwork I had paid for myself, with the style and the story worked out, pretty much. But I had a different villain, and when I started tinkering with it, the idea of an alternate opening popped up. In exploring that alternate opening, I created a new villain. Ultimately, we didn’t go with that opening, but everyone — including myself — found that the villain we had invented for that opening was much more compelling than the villain I had. It wound up being Syndrome [played by Jason Lee]. So the villain came late in the first Incredibles, and the villain and the villain plot came later in this one, as well. Don’t ask me why; it just did.
The first film plays as the story of a man in a midlife crisis who is seeking out the excitement from his youth, but he realizes family is more important. When you invert it with Helen here, it’s as if she’s finally able to show what she can do, when the spotlight is normally hogged by her husband or other male heroes. Were current societal issues on your mind at all?
Oh yeah, no. That idea was an old idea, but I wasn’t thinking about it in political terms. I was thinking about it more like, “Well, this will really mess Bob up.” Helen proclaims who she is at the beginning of the first Incredibles. She says, “Why would I settle down? I’m in here with the big dogs. Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so.” So she was a strong character in the first movie, and she didn’t change at all… I mean, hopefully the character is nuanced and evolves a bit, but she’s not a different person than she was in the first one.
It was more that this would be interesting to have Helen, who — in spite of what she believes in those early interviews in the first film — settles down nicely and is dedicated to her family and committed to it. She has to be coerced into being a superhero again, when Bob would drop everything in a second to do it. But when she is a superhero, she remembers why she loves it. She’s extremely professional and enjoying the fact that that side of her life is coming to the fore again. That is really more, for me, interesting on a character level — for both Bob and Helen. To have Bob realize Jack-Jack’s powers at the worst possible moment, when he’s being put in charge of the kid, just seemed like it would be a blast to animate. That’s really kind of the level I was operating on. It’s just, “This should be fun.”
Screenslaver is interesting because of the ability to control people through TVs and screens. I realize I’m hitting you with a bunch of thematic questions...
Yeah, you’re making the movie sound like heavy lifting! It’s really just a big popcorn film, I think.
But were you interested in exploring how technologies like televisions and smartphones can be disruptive for a family?
Sure, absolutely. I have three boys. Sometimes my wife and I really have to battle to keep video games from encroaching. Because they are everywhere, and they’re time-sucks, and they can have an addictive quality that I think people are really waking up to. That’s not healthy. They pull you away from other things that are maybe more… “nutritious” is not a very good word for it, but more beneficial. So yeah, maybe there’s a little of that. They ended up encroaching sooner or later; our kids wound up with some video games. You can’t really win, but I think because we delayed them enough, they have a little balance in life. This may be fun, but after a couple hours, put it down and do something else. But yeah, screens are everywhere. When I was a kid, we were told we watched too much TV, so that’s also not a super current idea. It’s been around for half a century. Hopefully it works, though.
This movie picks up literally right where the first film left off, and it ends with what could be a similar hook for a sequel. Do you have any story ideas for an Incredibles 3?
I do not. At this moment I have an [IV] drip, and I’m sitting in a bed having just delivered this baby. It was a difficult delivery; it went on for hours. I was screaming. I asked for drugs just to alleviate the pain. But I have normalized, and the doctors think I should be able to leave the hospital soon. But one thing that will send me into cardiac arrest is if you start talking to me about another Incredibles movie right now.