Brad Bird’s “The Iron Giant,” the box-office failure that became Hollywood’s last great 2D-animated movie, celebrates its 20th anniversary today. Warner Bros. premiered it at the TCL Chinese Theater, where it will screen the cult classic tonight, and Bird still marvels at the unlikely success of his directorial debut, a 1957 Cold War fable about a giant alien robot (Vin Diesel).
“It became a success, in spite of serious obstacles,” said Bird, who went on to win Oscars at Pixar for “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” “It has survived by great word of mouth. That’s incredibly gratifying because it’s not tied to hype or products. It’s just about people discovering the story and being moved by it. It’s a testament to the efforts of an underdog team that made the film.”
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Based on a Ted Hughes novel and initially developed by The Who’s Pete Townshend as an animated musical, Bird latched onto the project with a different vision: “What if a gun had a soul? And that was based on a personal connection, because my sister Susan had died because of gun violence,” he said.
“I wasn’t thinking consciously about it when I proposed the idea, but my feelings about [gun violence] are in the film and it’s dedicated to her at the end,” Bird said. “That was in many ways the hardest part I had to deal with. But the first film came late. I had been trying to direct for a long time, and wasn’t sure I would get to direct again. So I threw everything into it. I knew that the film happened through a fluke confluence of events. It’s like mushrooms only grow if they have the exact, right circumstance.”
“The Iron Giant” came at a time when hand-drawn animation was being overtaken by CG, and Warner Bros. was in the process of shutting down its division after the 1998 failure of “Quest for Camelot.” For Bird, that was a godsend.
“It allowed us to have a weirder idea, and if we could prove that we could do it … and stay on budget … we didn’t have the oversight you normally have on studio films,” he said. “But the fact that we were an underdog team, with a lot of young, new artists that were green, we had to really focus on making each other better. We all pulled together and it was a golden opportunity.
For Bird, that first theatrical experience provided “a wonderful, resilient feeling of camaraderie on the film. It was a hard film to make, and we worked our asses off,” he said. “We did get to make the film the way we wanted it …The Maine setting looks Norman Rockwell-idyllic on the outside, but inside everything is just about to boil over; everyone was scared of the bomb, the Russians, Sputnik — even rock and roll. And it was like going through a war. It showed what people can do when they unify.”
An early test screening scored well, taking everyone by surprise — but ultimately sending the wrong message. “The terrible thing was, when it came time to promote the film, they weren’t paying attention to us,” Bird said. “Warners was intending to put the film on the shelf and wait for a slow spot at some future date and they could slip it out there. And when the film got a huge response at a test screening, they had not laid the groundwork for it. To their credit, they knew they had to delay the release and lay the correct track for it. And I stupidly said, no. I was feeling cocky because the scores were so good, and I said to just put it out there. So they did, and no one knew what the hell it was. I’ll take part ownership in pushing it out into the world too soon as well. They offered to do what was necessary, and I bulldozed them. All the calculations were that if we had $8 million on the opening weekend, word of mouth would carry it the rest of the way. It made $5 million, and we were DOA.”
Bird’s plan was to follow “The Iron Giant” with “The Incredibles,” another hand-drawn movie. But it wasn’t to be until he moved to Pixar. “I went up to Pixar not because I was interested in the technology, but because I loved what they were doing with storytelling,” he said. “I felt that the development of it as a story would be protected. At the time, some of my hand-drawn friends were a little miffed at me for going to the dark side and selling out. I knew several people up there, and wanted to work with Steve Jobs.”
In assessing the state of animation 20 years on, Bird craves more daring originality and less sequels and remakes. “I would love to see studios have a more adventurous attitude,” he said. “We shouldn’t take this valuable time to repeat the same stories or with the same characters over and over again. That’s fine, and it has its place. Certainly, great films continue to be made with familiar characters. I’ve done two sequels [“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “Incredibles 2″]. But they should not be the preponderance of what makes up our diet. ‘Spider-Verse’ introduced a lot of really cool mix-and-match graphical styles in a really interesting way. The more we all do one kind of style, the less interesting it is for the audience. It needs to grow aesthetically. People will support it.”
As for Bird, he’s no longer on staff at Pixar; he’s writing a live-action musical hybrid with 20 minutes of animation (“everything under the sun”) with composer Michael Giacchino. “What interests me most about the musical is the opportunity for stylized storytelling,” he said. “But you have to do it right, and it becomes really interesting to see if you can beat all the problems that musicals have because you’re really without a safety net.”
The director still has an itch for hand-drawn animation and would very much like to finally make “Ray Gunn,” a sci-fi/noir passion project that predates “Iron Giant.” In the meantime, he’s looking forward to Netflix’s Oscar-qualifying “Klaus,” the innovative 2D Santa origin story from director Sergio Pablos (creator of “Despicable Me”). And he hasn’t given up on the live-action “1906,” an epic love story about the San Francisco earthquake. And he’s always interested in doing new work at Pixar, now led by his good friend, Pete Docter (“Soul”).
“I think he’s doing a really good job,” Bird said. “He’s a wonderful director and he’s an incredibly nice guy who everyone likes to work with. He’s gentle and considerate. He loves what Pixar is.”