How to make an Incredibles sequel - Pixar writer and director Brad Bird tells all
Pixar writer and director Brad Bird tells our film critic how he spent 14 years plotting his sequel to his 2004 superhero spoof
Pity the poor writers and directors charged with making a Pixar sequel. Films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc are so beloved by children and parents that following them up with something less than perfect can be seen as an unforgivable sin. Witness the online venom directed at Finding Dory, a perfectly decent and charming animation that happened to be not quite as good as the original.
Writer/director Brad Bird spent 14 years plotting a sequel to his 2004 superhero spoof The Incredibles, a film so universally acclaimed that he must have pondered the wisdom of attempting to follow it.
"We felt the pressure," he tells me. "We know, if it doesn't work, we will pay for it, and all that. And then you get all the internet stuff, 'you're destroying my childhood'. The best thing to do is turn it off, throw it in the river."
The genesis of Incredibles 2 was a nagging feeling Bird had that there were things he wanted to do with his superhero family the Parrs that the first film hadn't allowed him to.
"There were all these character developments that we began to explore," he says, "that we had notions of flipping upside down as a way of making the characters uncomfortable. On this film, Bob Parr presumes that he's the best choice for any assignment and suddenly they're not going to him, they're going to his wife, and so that was a really interesting thing to do for character animation, it's a complex series of emotions that are kind of warring with each other."
For those of you who didn't catch the original, the Parrs live in an alternate world where superheroes have been ostracised, and are forced to endure the ignominy of pretending to be normal suburbanites while secretly fighting villains. In Incredibles 2, Bob (Craig T Nelson), Helen (Holly Hunter) and their children Violet, Dash and baby Jack-Jack are living in the Superhero Relocation Program when they're contacted by a tech billionaire called Winston Deaver, who loves 'supers' and wants to speed their reintroduction to society by orchestrating a publicity stunt.
Helen will assume her old identity as Elastigirl and begin publicly fighting crime in the city of New Urbem. Which is all very well, but that means Bob, aka Mr Incredible, will have to step up and become a stay-at-home dad, and watch furiously from the sidelines while his wife hogs all the glory. "Your heart goes out to him," Brad says. "He's trying, but it doesn't come easily."
Bird once said he'd only do an Incredibles sequel if it was better than the original, and you'd have to say he's achieved that. Incredibles 2 is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of work, full of wit and invention and jaw-dropping animation. In one particularly memorable sequence, Elastigirl is stretched to snapping point as she attempts to halt a monorail that's speeding unmanned through a city.
"You couldn't have done it that way back in 2004," Brad says. "It's too big, and they change locations a lot in that sequence: all of that has to be built."
Bird and his team's achievements are all the more remarkable when you realise that they were forced to rush the film's production after being bumped ahead of Toy Story 4 in Pixar's demanding schedule. "It was tough," he says, "but I'm not a stranger to that. It happened on the first film, too.
"We were supposed to be after Cars but Incredibles got moved up. And I mean Iron Giant [Bird's critically acclaimed but little-seen 1999 animation] was done under a lot of pressure: they were closing down the division while we were making the film, and we joked that it was like being in steerage on the Titanic and then suddenly being told, you can go into the luxury suite, you're gonna die in two hours but you can smoke cigars and have all the brandy you want!"
Sometimes, though, he admits, time pressures do focus the mind. "There are benefits, and the focusing of the mind and the fact that we can't linger over decisions is in many ways helpful, because it forces you to go with things."
Bird, who started out as an animator with Disney, still likes to storyboard his films as much as possible before shooting starts. But this may be a dying art, because he tells me that some of the younger Pixar animators don't draw any more. "I would say that the majority still can, but a huge percentage learned on the computer and aren't necessarily confident.
"With Incredibles 2 we didn't get to take the storyboards nearly as far as we did on the first film, because we didn't have the time. In a perfect world, yes, you would do a more elaborate storyboard: they're a way to explore ideas cheaply before you've really spent a lot of money - and if you get it right, it becomes very cost effective."
Like all the great Pixar films, Incredibles 2 feels more like a personal, auteurish film than a corporate one, and it's full of touches and references that must refer to Bird's 1960s childhood. Indeed, the theme music reminds one playfully of Bond.
"I loved Disney films when I was a kid, but I also loved James Bond movies. I was the only kid that I knew at that time whose parents allowed them to see them, because they were violent and they were sexy and all this stuff, but my parents didn't seem to mind. I remember seeing Goldfinger when I was a kid, and just being tripped out and thinking this is the greatest thing ever.
"I love that damn film and I've seen it 10 million times, and you know, on this film, we have this cage fight that's very intense, and when we were planning it, people were saying well what kind of thing are you thinking of, and I said check out the train fight in From Russia with Love because it's in a confined space and it's brutal you know. That's a bad-ass fight, and it's desperate, and I wanted some of that feeling."
The worst thing you can say to Bird is that animation isn't for grown-ups. "I always get bent out of shape when Disney sends me out to do press and someone says, 'what's it like to work in a children's medium?' And you can see my neck cords bulging up."
Growing up, TV shows like Rocky & Bullwinkle convinced Bird that you could tackle any subject, no matter how dark, through cartoons. And between 1989 and 1998, he worked as a creative consultant on The Simpsons, helping to develop the show's salty and transgressive visual style.
After making The Incredibles for Pixar in 2004, he was asked to take over the writing and direction of Ratatouille, which was mired in production problems. He completely rewrote and reimagined the charming story of a French sewer rat who dreams of becoming a great chef. But Incredibles 2 might just be Bird's greatest achievement yet.
During its opening weekend in America, the film took almost $200m, the strongest opening ever for an animated film. But that's not the kind of thing that gives Brad a warm and fuzzy glow.
"Both me and John Walker [the film's producer] are almost pathological in shunning that information. Box office is something you can't do anything about, and ultimately it doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the movie, good or bad. There are huge hits that are just awful, and there are wonderful movies that are not successful.
"Obviously, once the smoke clears, we're okay with it, but I think the main feeling we have is relief. It's not victory, it's not 'we vanquished our foes', it's we are still standing and we will get a chance to make another film."
Incredibles 2 is in cinemas from Friday