Brad Bird Chooses to Accept the ‘Mission: Impossible’ Director’s Chair

It's odd to think that a guy who's been working in Hollywood for over 25 years and has two Oscars sitting on his shelf could ever be considered a "newcomer." But that's the case for Brad Bird -- the director of the animated "The Iron Giant," "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" -- who has branched out into directing live action features.

And he didn't just ease into it either. He jumped in headfirst with the big -- and I mean IMAX-sized -- "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." The movie has Tom Cruise returning to the role of IMF superspy Ethan Hunt for a fourth time. He's joined by Simon Pegg, reprising his character from "M:I3," along with newcomers Paula Patton, Josh Holloway, and two-time Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner.

As you can see by the new exclusive photo, this new "Mission" movie looks to be just as explosive as each previous installment. I recently was able to speak to Brad Bird about the film, and he told me how the shot of Cruise as Hunt walking away as the Kremlin explodes behind him kicks off the movie with a bang. Plus, he shared why he decided to make his live-action debut with this movie, and just who came up with the notion of hanging Cruise off the tallest building in the world.

See the full-sized exclusive photo >>

Matt McDaniel: So can you give us a little background on how this photo fits in with the story?

Brad Bird: Well, it's a sort of an event that kicks everything into motion. Without going into too much detail because... the fun of this film -- and any film I supposed — is being surprised. But it forces a situation where Ethan Hunt and his team [are] cutoff from the usual resources, and they have a hell of a problem to deal with and they have to kind of do it on their own. They're a group cutoff and that's what that Ghost Protocol of the title means. Essentially, they don't have any big support from the IMF. They're out on their own.

MM: So I'm assuming it was important for everybody to mix up the way that the previous movies have worked.

BB: I think that in some ways, yes, and in other ways… if one were going to ask, "If you were wanted to do a tent-pole [movie], why did you want to do this one?" The answer would be -- Tom's initial idea with the franchise, which is consistent with this one is that each director of the franchise kind of gets to put a little more of a stamp on it. I mean, the Brian De Palma "Mission" is very different from the John Woo "Mission," which is different from the J.J. [Abrams] "Mission."

And that appealed to me because I kind of had some different things in mind for it and was given the opportunity to do many of them. One of their fun moments when I first got on -- and this thing was moving fast when I jumped aboard -- was, "Do you have anything that you want to see in this spy film?" And I was able to go, "Yeah, I'll come to think of it. There's a few things I can think of," and they embraced them.

So I'm interested to seeing how the audience response to the surprise of some of the things in the movie.

MM: There was sort of a '60s spy movie aesthetic to "The Incredibles." How important was "Mission Impossible" the TV series to you as a kid?

BB: I watched the show many times. I liked it because you're presenting them with the problem and then even though they planned some things, often times, they had to improvise, and that's always fun to see. There are some episodes where they simply came in with the plan and executed it. But in a lot of them, they plan to a point and then something doesn't go the way they want it to and they have to sort of respond to it.

I think that it's sort of an old-fashioned value that we lose sight of the appeal of it and our effort to move things along so quickly now. I think sometimes we forget that the audience really enjoys a lot of those more simple old-fashioned aspects. One thing that I wanted to put in "The Incredibles" was, I said, "Everybody is in such a hurry now. They don't like to have sneaking around scenes." And I said, "I want to have sneaking around scenes." I wanted to spend a little bit of screen time having somebody trying to get into the secret base and figuring out a way in. By that same virtue, I think one of the fun things of the "Mission" films is the problem solving aspect.

MM: So, you shot in Russia, you shot in Dubai, you shot all over the place. What were the challenges about globetrotting like you did?

BB: I think one of the challenges was just we had a tighter schedule and budget than the last "Mission" but we were a bigger film. You're shooting 25 minutes in IMAX, we have some enormous set pieces, and so we had a very sort of ambitious schedule where we had to continually keep moving and really get our shots and go. So I think that there was just the physical challenge of doing that moving at a very brisk speed and having these enormous set pieces.

MM: Who's idea was it to dangle Tom from the highest structure ever built?

BB: I think it was the writers. I'm not absolutely sure. It may have started with J.J. and Tom, but I think it's Josh and Andre -- Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec -- who wrote the screenplay. That idea was in the film when I got involved and I thought it was wonderful. It's the kind of over the top action movie idea that is… attractive because it's hard. [Laughs]

MM: As it is your first live action film, was there ever a moment when you just thought, "It would be so much simpler to draw this."

BB: Yeah. Well, sure, there are a lot of those moments because you don't have to deal with physical reality in animation. But there are other times where you go, "Thank God, I don't have to draw this." [Laughs] Because you can find a cool location and just add a couple of things here and there, and you capitalize on something that was already there.

So I would say between the two, they're both hard, and they're still story-oriented with characters and shot composition and rhythm and color and editing, and it's all film. They're both hard. They're just hard in different ways. The medium of film itself is what interest me. I hoped to do more live action and more animation in the future.

MM: Was there something specific it took from your animation training that you were able to utilize on the live action set?

BB: Well, I think to the fact that the schedule was ambitious, but I was used to pre-visualizing things in my mind. We were able to pre-visualize a couple of sequences, but we kind of had to get moving and we didn't really have a much prep time.

We had prep time for the sequence on the building and we had prep time for a big end sequence. But everything else, we kind of had to hit and run, and I think the fact that I was used to pre-visualizing stuff meant that I could improvise with Robert Elswit, the cameraman, and come up with a visual strategy that made some sense on the spot. I think the fact that I have done storyboards and have had to stage shots and in drawn films and just draw where I want things to be in the frame helped when we got behind the eight ball and had to keep moving.

So I think the pre-planning aspect of animation is very useful on a large-scale movie because your brain is already used to figuring out where things need to go.

MM: And Jeremy Renner is added to the cast --

BB: Yeah, and Simon Pegg and Paula Patton and there's a lot of great world cinema actors from Russia and India. It's a big crazy thing.

MM: And was that the idea from the beginning? That it wasn't going to be just Tom's story, it was going to be a big ensemble?

BB: Well, I think that it still centers around Ethan Hunt. I think that the ensemble is more integral to this story than it usually is -- I think that it was involved in the story. You're just trying to find the best way to tell the story, but it's still very much an Ethan Hunt film… The story is more about this group that's thrust upon him.

So, by that very nature, the story is dictating how much screen time is dedicated to [the supporting cast], and Tom had a blast with that team. Everybody's rhythms are different and yet, they sort of play together really like a string quartet. It was just good stuff; fun to be involved with. I was very blessed as a first time director to have that kind of cast and that kind of crew.

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" will hit theaters on December 21. Watch the teaser trailer for the movie below.