Brad Bird & Ratatouille

Name the guy who directed Shrek? Any of the three. Or Shark Tale, The Wild, Hoodwinked? How about the Best Picture Oscar nominee Beauty and the Beast from 1991? Even for cinĂ©astes, there’s no shame in struggling to recall the names of these talented filmmakers, animation directors rarely get the recognition and acclaim lavished on their live action counterparts, but there are a few exceptions. Matt Groening's bearded face is as well-known as any of his yellow creations. Walt Disney was canny enough to use his looping signature as the company masthead. Chuck Jones, the genius behind the Warner Brothers Loony Tunes, did likewise, filling the screen with his name at the end of the title credits. You might have heard of John Lasseter, who directed Toy Story and Cars. “Brad Bird”, he declares, “is the most talented filmmaker working in all of cinema in America today, animation, live action, whatever”.

Lasseter, media-savvy head of Pixar and producer of their new movie Ratatouille, might be expected to say exactly that, but on the day I met Bird, The New York Times’ powerful critic AO Scott called him ‘the greatest living American filmmaker”. People who know movies, know Brad Bird’s name. A graduate of Cal-Arts prestigious animation department, Bird got his start with Disney before going on to direct episodes of The Simpsons for Fox and making his criminally undervalued feature debut with The Iron Giant in 1999. Over the years, Bird has built up a considerable reputation as a cartoon virtuoso; through his indelible character design, his sparkling writing, his cinematic photography and the instantaneous personality his films acquire. Bird, a tanned Californian who looks exactly like a photograph of himself as a child, takes the compliments with a grin and a shrug. “I’m not the greatest anything, but it’s nice to have people say nice things about you and your work”.

Ratatouille, the story of a rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef, is the first of his film’s that Bird didn’t have a hand in from the start. The Czech animator Jan Pinkava came up with the unique premise and designed the characters but his progress was too slow, even for animation, and Bird took over. I ask him if he had reservations about appropriating another person’s project, and Bird nods his head sincerely. “Of course, yes. Absolutely. I have a lot of respect for Jan, and nobody likes talking over someone else’s ‘baby’. But the film had been in development for a long time and the story wasn’t progressing to the point that it needed to. It was a beautiful looking concept, and everybody at Pixar loved the idea, the world and the collection of character types.” He emphasises the last word with a straightened index finger. “But they were just ‘types’. They were not characters and they needed to be. The film needed to be simplified so that you could follow it and be emotionally engaged by it”. Pinkava left Pixar shortly after Bird took over the film, although the director is at pains to explain that everyone is still friends.

Whatever he did, it worked. Despite trailing in the wake of dozens of digital animated features, Ratatouille has the power to astound; beautiful to look at, brilliantly written and filled with precisely tailored individual moments that are among the best in Pixar’s illustrious repertoire. Bird acknowledges the compliment with a nod, but seems uncomfortable when I bring up the the film's difficult path to completion. He tugs his fingers through his swept-back red hair and groans. “Movies are hard, man! They are not easy things to do and the route to getting a film, any film, realized is not always a clean, easy route. Sometimes it is really tortured and hard.” Bird, clad in the Californian uniform of pressed jeans and a suit jacket, is proud of his results. “I think this is a unique film, and an odd film. Hopefully, odd in a good way. It is an unusual combination of ingredients.”

In the film, Remy (voiced by comic Patton Oswalt) lives with his family in a rubbish tip outside Paris. Blessed with a supernatural nose, Remy tries to get the rest of the pack to eat the best scraps, but they’re only interested in him sniffing out rat poison. When he becomes separated from his family, Remy travels through the sewers of the French capital, arriving underneath a five-star restaurant, and silently befriends a young kitchen porter named Linguini (Lou Romaro). Linguini too dreams of becoming a chef, but he is hopelessly clumsy. The film’s stroke of genius is to have Remy hide under Linguini’s toque and operate the gangling teenager like a marionette. With Remy operating his hands, by pulling on his hair, Linguini becomes a feted cook and the restaurant is saved.

I tell Bird that his screenplay is more complicated and far-reaching than the usual animated fare. “That seems to be the reaction”, he agrees. “It seems to be one of those films that is difficult to sum up in thirty seconds or convey on a poster, not like ‘Superhero Family’, or ‘Missing Fish’”. He is proud of the story, however, and of the efforts he made to ensure the quirkiness of the original idea was maintained in the finished film. “When you’re telling the story, you’re only in control of it about half the time. You have, in your own mind, what you want it to be, but in order to get the most out of a movie, you have to listen to what it wants to be itself. When I was getting towards the end of Ratatouille, all my screenwriter training was telling me, ‘here’s where you amp it up and make it faster and louder’. But when it came down to it, it felt like the movie wanted me to slow down, reflect on events and get contemplative. It became more emotional and romantic. So, I just wrote it that way”.

There is an obvious challenge in the film; somehow making the combination of rats and food appeal to an audience. Bird stops me again with the raised finger. “I get what your saying, but I don’t really spent all that much time thinking about what I think kids are going to like or not like. I think that’s a mistake. I just make a movie that I want to see and hope that kids will be interested. When I was a kid, I didn’t always understand every tiny detail of what was going on in a movie, and that was ok. As long as the film was engaging and had an underlying structure, I was captivated. And it fires your curiosity too, right? I think kids are both smart and curious about the world, and a lot of films treat them as if they were not”.

Regardless of health and safety issues, Ratatouille has all the elements that make up a classic children’s adventure. Remy the rat, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, is a fish out of water. Passionate about food, he follows his dream, overcoming obstacles and challenges to become who he wants to be. I ask Bird about splitting the story, and introducing Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garret), a ghostly mentor that is a figment of the tiny blue rat’s imagination. “Separating Remy from his family allowed me to open up the narrative and let Remy to make this leap into the kitchen with no competition for his attention. That meant also though, that he couldn’t talk to anybody, because he was on his own. So he’s a figment of his imagination. If you’re going to explain complicated things like the workings of a kitchen and the world of restaurants and cuisine to a rat, it becomes very handy for Gusteau to be a guide. Like Jiminy Cricket or Obi Wan Kenobi”.

Later, the film resolves the separation by examining a very grown-up concept, the difficulty in balancing family life and career. Bird, who tells me ‘in a good week’, he works 60 hours at Pixar, empathises with his character. “It’s an issue, sure. Although I’m looking at four months vacation now, it isn’t easy to divide your time between work and home. The challenge is to be in the moment. I can’t say I always succeed, but I am much more aware of when I am disconnected and slap myself out of it". He has a ready-made test market sitting in his living room, that he makes as much use of as he can. “My kids have seen the movie, several times. I use them as a preview audience, and why not? I worry about their reactions, actually. They were down with The Incredibles and Iron Giant because they’re about giant robots and superheroes but when I started talking about Ratatouille and rats and cooking, they were like, ‘er, OK Dad’. The fact that they love it is a significant relief to me”.

Special attention is paid at Pixar to the voice talent that brings their characters to life. The standout in the current cast is the growling, cobwebbed tones of Peter O’Toole. “When I was writing the script, Peter’s was the voice I was hearing in my mind. I was hoping against hope that he would agree to voice the food critic, Anton Ego. I ask him about that character - who looks like a corpse, lives in a coffin shaped room and has a typewriter shaped like a skull - and whether or not his appearance and demeanour had anything to do with the lukewarm critical reaction to Pixar’s last film, Cars. Bird widens his eyes, as if the idea had never occurred to him beforehand, and says, “Nope. The character of Anton is supposed to represent somebody who has become disconnected from what they love, and that they have become so revered and feared that he is caring more about what he says about things, than the things themselves. This is a dangerous thing for a critic, and for an artist, too. If an artist cares more for box office or pleasing the critics or indeed, anything other than the work itself, then they too become disconnected. So, the film in it’s way, is saying, ‘stick with your passions”.


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Mary Horning said...

I've really enjoyed reading your interview with Brad Bird, good insights and well-written, thank you!