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Tuesday, August 05, 2003


Interview with Brad Bird:

Q: How do you begin a story or approach a story in regards to plot, characters, and structure? What is your process?

A: No two stories are alike and therefore the journey of making any two stories is not the same. The [Ray Gunn] idea began while listening to a song that sounded like Peter Gunn, the theme song from the private detective show that Henry Mancini did. It starts out sounding like the B52's Planet Claire. My thought process when I first heard it was, this sounds like Peter Gunn and I thought, no, no it sounds like Ray Gunn because it's kind of futuristic. So then I started thinking Ray Gunn, that's cool. What would Ray Gunn be? Well, he's a private detective but it's the future. What would it be like if you made a film that was set in the future as seen from the 1930's? And then I started developing the story from there but that happened just listening to a song.
There are other times when you start with the ending. You might think, wow, a great ending would be [your idea] and you work backwards from the ending.
Then there are times where you think about character. First you think about the personality and then you think about what kind of situation would bring out this personality and you invent the story around that. To me stories are like snowflakes; no two are alike.

Q: It starts with one spark of your imagination and the rest just builds around that?

A: Yeah, it's kind of a series of decisions that you're constantly adding to and subtracting from, and you're always taking your best guess at to what it means. The majority of the time your guesses are wrong and you keep plucking stuff away; it's a series of adding and subtracting. Ultimately you end up with all the additions and subtractions equaling a story.
Some things seem vitally important when you start developing a story. For instance, there may be one scene that seems to be the most important at an early stage, but later on you find other scenes carry the same amount of weight as the one you thought of as indispensable, and you suddenly realize the story has outgrown that scene’s usefulness. It's weird because when you started, that scene may have been the reason that you did the film. But even as the film grows and changes, sometimes--not always--the first important thoughts stay in the film. Sometimes that scene ends up not being the point of the film. The film goes somewhere else and that scene you were used to thinking of as one of the corners of the building is now meaningless; it doesn't hold any weight at all. And you have to be awake to that; you cling to it and the scene may not be supported.
There are things that I threw out of Iron Giant that I loved and hung onto almost to ...the movie was clearly telling me I didn't need these scenes and I was like NO, you must have this scene because I want to see it! It's wonderful to be selfish about that but sometimes you have to cut off a pinky so the patient can survive.

Q: Along the same lines would be character development. Can a character grow from an idea alone?

A: Yes, those two things compliment each other. You try to find situations that bring out the most in a character and you're also trying to find a character that makes the most out of a given situation. For a while I was working on *Curious George and it became almost a film school problem-solving exercise. Here you have this thin book-- there's really not a lot to it-- it's charming but...who is the man in the yellow hat really? He's just a guy in a yellow hat. He doesn't have any personality or even a reason for being. So now you have to make this an hour-and-a-half, two hour-long movie. What do you do to make it interesting?
I started with the idea of curiosity, what is the opposite of curiosity? It's a guy who feels like he's figured it out; he's got everything solved, his life is going the way he thinks it should go, he's with the woman he thinks he should be with. And then you put a monkey that represents curiosity in there--because he's somebody who's not curious. You force him to deal with unpredictable stuff and if you force unpredictability upon a guy who's totally predictable--one of the first scenes I wrote for the movie was him coming into a restaurant to order and the waitress giving him crap because he orders the same thing every morning and he doesn't want to change it even though they have lots of other items on the menu. So he's a guy who's dictated by routine and then you put him together with something that's never does anything twice and it's completely running wild. That's a situation that you can build from. What kind of woman would that guy choose? And what kind of family would that woman have? You keep adding to the world.

* Curios George was a screenplay Brad wrote for a live action film. They opted to make it an animated movie and his script was never used.

Q: What do you think are the main differences between storytelling for a feature film and storytelling for television?

A: Ultimately it's the same thing but a better, or more relevant, question might be "what is the length of the piece?" There's not much difference between a two-hour TV movie and a Feature Film in terms of the story, art and characters. One is made for the small screen--there will be commercial breaks and you'll have to pick where the breaks should be had so they don’t disrupt the rhythm. It's the equivalent of a page-turner--like a Michael Crichton book--the last thing in a chapter is something like ‘and then he opened the door and was shocked by what he saw' and then you have to read the next page. That's what they do before a commercial break so the audience stays with you. The movies are filled with those moments; you just don't have commercials.

The bigger difference is between telling a story in a half hour, telling it in an hour and telling it in two hours. The rhythms become exponentially more complicated with the amount of time. A seven-minute cartoon usually is pretty simple, or a short film. Usually simplicity is the key. You get it to a half-hour and the rhythms become a little more complicated. You actually have the three-act structure but the acts are very simple. You get to hour-and-a-half, two-hour movies and it's much harder to figure out the rhythms.
When a rhythm is off, often times the solutions are more difficult to find. Sometimes an act will feel like it's too long and it may not be too long; it may be that the stuff before it isn't adequately setting it up but it feels too long because you don't know certain things you need to know in order to recognize it. In other words the problem is not always where it seems to be, where you find yourself fidgeting or something like that. It isn't always that the problem is the place where you start to feel the problem. The problem might be in Act I--there is a scene in the movie The Incredibles where two characters are having a fight and everyone found the scene harsh because a man and woman were fighting and the man was much bigger than the woman. So they kept saying, “You have to change the dialogue.” I kept looking at the dialogue going, “No, that's exactly what I want to say. “ I found out that there was a physical solution to the problem; if I had the woman not look like she was backing down from the fight, suddenly the problem evaporated and I didn't change one word of the dialogue.
Sometimes the problem is not where people think it is. Everyone was telling me the dialogue is too harsh there, but what was harsh was the characters physicality. If I changed that, then with the same dialogue and the same exact recording, it was fine. So it becomes: the larger the problem is, the more elusive the problem solving is.

Q: What in your opinion are the limitations in storytelling?

A: They mostly have to do with two things, one is length--you cannot spend as much time in movies as you can with written word--you know two hours is a short length to tell a story. Gone With the Wind is--I don't know how many pages long--and the movie is a long movie but at four hours they're leaving out a lot. So one of the main things is length. A lot of people are getting into doing things for television so they can tell longer stories in more detail. But the biggest problem--not limitation, problem--movies have that books don't in terms of story, is internal thoughts. Being able to deviate from the story line to tell a detail. You know Faulkner would sometimes stop and start describing the door for maybe a page or two and in a movie if you stop to describe the door people would think you were insane. You also can't do internal thoughts very well. You can do a voiceover but you still have to keep those--people generally frown on them because if you don't do them well their a really cheap device--you have to keep them very short. You can't go on and on and on, and ‘remember last Tuesday?’ and all this stuff. The problem is creating action, showing things instead of telling them, figuring out ways to show things and not tell them.

Q: Did you have a mentor? If yes, who was it and how did this person most influence your life/career.

A: I would say I've had several mentors and they were all different and they weren't all in art. One of them was a football coach I had. He was kind of a hippy and football is very sort of military. You know you do this, here's your formation and your objective is this and blah, blah, blah. This guy was a hippy who had a van with a bed in the back of it and I didn't ask but he was probably firing up at night.
He had an absolutely Zen approach to football which worked tremendously well for me. I had an unbelievably great season and it was because this guy thought outside of the box. He saw my natural stance was something besides the academically correct stance and instead of forcing me into the academic stance he looked at me and asked "What if you did this?" He made my natural way of doing it more effective.
That is something I've tried to bring into filmmaking as far as working with talent. Rather than forcing everyone to do it one-way, I try to look at what is working about what their doing and then how to make that more effective. I learn from that, too.

Another mentor was a Disney Master Animator named Milt Kahl. He is one of Disney's “nine old men” and he was known as being a very difficult, opinionated, vocal, cantankerous, egotistical, impossible guy and I got along great with him and have tremendous respect for him. He treated me seriously at an age where very few adults do. He taught me to set my standards really, really high and then not let go until I got close to them.
Another mentor was a drawing teacher in high school. His theory was that if something was working but it was a little out of control, to just let it happen. Again, he didn't force too much order into it; it was all about letting life pop up.
My mom was also tremendously supportive, not a mentor in the classical teaching a trade sense.

One of the most important things is having high standards and also understanding that things pop up--don't be blind to them, things that are unplanned pop up. Embrace unpredictability rather than fight it.

Isn't this what I keep repeating to people all the time? So why is that I am always so good at giving advices but never apply them to myself? Wow...

I am glad I did not chicken out on this... look at the results... I've had my own half an hour mentor... and although I never spoke to him I feel as if he knew I needed a boost or something... this is such a coincidence!

So it is true, after all, that nothing is not impossible if you really put yourself to it... I got it: Impossible is not English!!! hehehehe