Called upon at the 11th hour to turn Pixar

To be honest, I was expecting something of a mess.
Not only is ‘Ratatouille’ the story of a rat who just happens to like the finer foods in life, but the creator and original director of this animated tale found himself being turfed out of the kitchen at something approaching the 11th hour of production. Bad idea, and bad karma – two good reasons this movie might just suck.

So, how come Ratatouille is such a delight? The animation? Superb. The gags? Hilarious. The pathos? Lump in the throat. The life-affirming finale? Life-affirming.

At the press screening I attended, the roomful of international critics actually applauded at the end. And there wasn’t one American among them.

Then again, this is Pixar, and the man behind the camera is Brad Bird, who not only worked on ‘The Simpsons’ for many years, but, when it comes to the big screen, previously gave us both ‘The Iron Giant’ and ‘The Incredibles’. So, you know, I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised.

When I met up with Bird the following morning at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe – yep, we’re in gay Paris, where the movie is set – he’s in a good mood. Unsurprisingly.

Q: A movie that’s getting outrageously good reviews – right now, Rotten Tomatoes has tallied it as a 98% approval rating – which must be something of a relief for you, given that you came in quite late to turn this movie around…

A: Yeah, exactly, relief is the right word, because people say, ‘You must be exhilerated right now’, but the feeling you have after making one of these things is purely one of relief. It’s kinda like running through a war zone. You check yourself, just to make sure you’re not shot, and you’re just so glad that you survived it. So, yeah, relief is the right word. 

Q: It was the summer of 2005, and you were on holidays with your family, basking in the glory of ‘The Incredibles’, when you got a call from Pixar chairman Steve Jobs, followed a day later by calls from his partners, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, all begging you to take over this project. Did it take you a while to say yes, given that it was someone else’s project, and that you only had 18 months to turn it around, as opposed to the traditional 30 months?

A: Yeah, well, certainly it gave me pause, and I think the reason that I ultimately did it was because I have tremendous respect for those guys, and the company is an extremely rare place. Being one of the few people at Pixar who had been really out in the cold climes of Hollywood, I knew what a rare place it was. It’s a place that challenges you but supports you, so, they were in a tough spot. Their resources were spreading thin, and the company was going the independent route.

Ratatouille was the first film that had been greenlit from within. No one really knew what the film was, and they just went for it. So, they had put their own money into it, and everybody was spread out. We had tremendous trouble getting up to one film a year, because we didn’t want the films to suffer. We didn’t want them to suddenly become lame, because we were rushing through the productions. So, all those growing pains made this a real challenge, and this was an idea that was complicated to get right, but I was in a position to help, so, I thought I would do that. Because it’s a rare place, and if I could help, I should help.

Q: You’ve done an incredible job – has the ‘Ratatouille’ creator, and original director, Jan Pinkava, made his peace with his movie being taken out of his hands? I hear he attended the wrap party…

A: Well, I think movies are really hard. There is no formula. Because Pixar has been lucky enough to have several hits in a row, people think that there’s some holy grail, that we’ve discovered some secret formula for making movies that seem to work out, but it’s really because we recognise that there is no formula, and we may fail at any moment. But still, we want to try. We want to try things that might not work out.

Not every film has a smooth road to being done, so, I certainly understand a rocky road. ‘Toy Story 2’ had a rocky road too. It was a good idea, and it did find its way, and I think that everybody is happy that Jan had this brilliant idea, and the movie has arrived.

Q: You mentioned being out in the cold in Hollywood, and you’ve certainly had your own struggles. You made your first animated film when you were 12, and it took you two years…

A: Eleven, and three years.

Q: Close. You later attended CalArts, Room 113, where you first met John Lasseter, and you then both worked at Disney during the shallow period around ‘The Fox And The Hound’, before you moved on to ‘The Simpsons’. Your first feature, 1999’s ‘The Iron Giant’, got a little stiffed by Warners’ marketing department…

A: Let’s give Warner its due though; they gave me my first opportunity to direct a feature film, so, I’ll give them a lot of credit.

Q: A lot of people love that movie, and feel it would have been a much bigger hit if the marketing had been done differently.

A: I think Warner felt animation wasn’t working out for them, and they were closing up shop as we were making it. While that enabled us to make the film that we made, it also made it difficult for us to get it out to the world.

Q: What my long rambling intro was leading up to was, if it wasn’t for ‘The Incredibles’, do you think you might have been Bob Parr, one of life’s pencil-pushers, living the quiet life in the suburbs?

A: You know what was nice, even though ‘The Iron Giant’ wasn’t seen by a lot of people, the people who did see it liked it. I actually got a lot of opportunities in the wake of ‘The Iron Giant’, and they were good opportunities. It was just that I had this one and this one, and they were both great, but Pixar wanted to do my dream project. The other opportunities that I had were good projects, but they were other people’s projects.

Pixar wanted to do what I wanted to do. I reluctantly had to turn those other opportunities, something that was a first for me, but I had to go with the one that was haunting me, which was ‘The Incredibles’.

Q: You’ve got ‘1906’ next, an adaptation of James Delessandro’s book centred around the San Francisco earthquake that saw 300,000 people evacuated from the city, and 5,000 reportedly died. The surprising thing is, it’s going to be live action…

A: Sure, but it’s all film, you know, and I’ll bring tender loving care to it too…

Q: Finally, having a rat as your leading man – were you tempted to change that? Perhaps make him a rogueish hamster?

A: Well, just make him something that wasn’t a rat, but changing it would have been a mistake. It’s the core of the story. Rat in the kitchen works like no other cuckoo in the nest would…