The plot of Tomorrowland has been closely guarded, so I don’t want to give too much away, even when trying to introduce an interview with its director, Brad Bird. However, I will say that Tomorrowland (which stars George Clooney and Britt Robertson) is not as much a movie about the future, but more about how we used to perceive the future with great optimism, as opposed to now, where there’s a more bleak and dystopian outlook. And Bird makes it clear (in the film and in this interview) that whatever future we get, it’s squarely on our shoulders, and that it’s time to put up or shut up, which is still strangely aggressively optimistic.
Bird — who came to prominence directing the animated films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille — has lately veered into live action film, like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and now Tomorrowland. He recently announced that he’s going to go back to animation and make The Incredibles 2 and we talk to him here about what that might look like.
Also, Bird recently admitted that he had met with Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy (the two go back as far as Batteries Not Included) and something that was Star Wars related was discussed. So I asked Bird if he could pick any Star Wars character to make a movie about – obscure or not – who would it be? Bird answered and somehow picked a character that is immensely popular and obscure at the same time.
(And speaking of Star Wars, a Han Solo in Carbonite prop makes a cameo in a Tomorrowland scene set at a vintage toy store, which is where this conversation with Bird starts.)
From now on, you can officially say you’ve worked with Han Solo.
He’s an active participant.
There you go! He has a heavy presence in the film.
I could spend days in that vintage toy store. I saw Robby the Robot in there. That was an amazing fake store.
That’s good. Yeah, we had fun. But I’ve got to tell you, after awhile, it got to be really grungy in there because the scene is an elaborate scene. And I don’t want to give anything away to your readers, but as the store gets kind of ruined and torn apart, it got more and more decrepit to hang around it. But, it was a really great piece of art direction.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but you and George Clooney’s character, Frank, are about the same age. How much of his outlook comes from you?
Well, Frank’s older than I am.
A little bit, yes. He seems to be around 10 in 1964.
You know, there are definite things that I responded to in the idea of the film. The idea of having this very bright future and feeling sort of disappointed at the general way that the future has gone. And what’s funny about it is that the future is really a concept; by definition, it can’t arrive. It’s always coming. So, being disappointed in the future is an interesting notion because you’re disappointed in something that’s not made yet. But, I think, yeah, there were definite aspects of the film I connected with.
Tomorrowland points out that in the past, people looked forward to the future. Now, there is very little optimism for it.
Well, I actually think the movie comes down on the side of “What are we doing?” We’re in control of it, do you know what I mean? We’re not passengers on this bus, we can be the drivers. And every single day, we collectively create the future and, yet, we’re acting like we have no impact on it whatsoever, and that’s new. And that’s kind of poisonous. And when did it start and why did it start and is there any way to attack that in a sort of fairy tale-like fable story?
Did the entire idea of Tomorrowland come from this poisonous attitude?
Well, not entirely, no. I would say that it kind of springs from what was Walt Disney’s idea of the future, and that was actually not an unusual viewpoint at the time. It generally accepted that the future was going to be brighter, even though there were plenty of bad things going on in the world back then, as there are now. What’s changed is the resignation that people have about what the future can be. And I don’t get it, because we can shape it and if we don’t like the way things are headed, we just need to be very loud and insistent about how we do want it to be. And we have to change the way we interact the world, that’s what’s creating the future of tomorrow.
I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but as a human being living in 2015, it’s easy to get discouraged.
Yeah, but why is that? A part of the reason is, as far as I’m concerned, and something that’s always been true, is that bad news travels a lot better and a lot clearer than good news. But what’s changed is the technology has made the delivery of bad news very, very efficient. Years ago, if some dude flipped out and killed his family, you never heard about it. It never impacted your day. But, nowadays, if somebody does that, you know about it before the bodies are cold. And because bad news sells — and there’s so many ways to collect and distribute bad news — we have a constant barrage of bad news.
I have to admit, I became more of a helicopter parent than my parents were, by far, because of the impression there’s a pervert behind every tree, ready to pounce on my kids – which is not remotely real, by the way! It’s jut that we’ve heard about every disturbed individual on the planet and they’ve been selected and plucked out of all of the billions of occurrences of daily life and delivered to our door in a little basket, every day. So, I think we have to be careful what information we let take hold in our minds and the way it shapes our point of view… people are not so careful about that they put into their minds and they should be. Because that is how you go interpret and interact with the world.
We need to, first and foremost, believe that we have the power to change the future and then proceed from there and say, “What future do we want?” The movie doesn’t say, “Hey, it’s all about dreamers, you just lie down and dream and all the good things will come to you.” It says, “Dreaming is step one, and after that the dream needs action.” And I do believe in that. But let’s not make this movie sound like a big multivitamin — it’s meant, first and foremost, to be a piece of entertainment that is a good time in the movie theater.
With The Incredibles 2, I’ve seen you say that there were a lot of elements in the first film that you couldn’t fit in, and that you can fit them in this second movie. But did you always have a second story in mind or a plan to do a second movie?
No, not at all. Anytime you make a film, you have a lot more ideas than the film can hold. Some of the ideas that you leave along the wayside are great ideas, but they just don’t fit into or serve the main story that you’re headed for. At some point, you just have to decide what your movie is and what it isn’t. A lot of great ideas sometimes get set aside, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t great ideas that work somewhere down the line. So, no, I can’t say that the first thing I wanted to do when I finished The Incredibles was Incredibles 2; no, I have a lot of other ideas that I want to do as well. I will say though, I had several ideas that I thought would be good for a film, and then I had new ones that was kind of a new direction to take the story that these ideas could sort of support. So, I have a lot of things I want to make, and this is just one of them.
You also confirmed that you’ve at least met with Kathleen Kennedy about something that is Star Wars related. If you could pick any Star Wars character, obscure or not, to make a movie about, who would it be? For example, Gregg Mottola tweeted that he’d love to make a Lobot movie.
Oh, I mean Lobot is cool! Anybody who can pull out a Lobot reference goes a few points up in my book. Any Star Wars character that I love? You know, I like the trickster side – it’s not really a new character – but I miss the trickster side of Yoda. Yoda in the prequels got to be a very sober kind of character. And what I loved about him in Empire was that he was a little more of a trickster – you know, someone who basically played the role of another character as part of his deception initially.
Right, he stole Luke’s flashlight and made a fun laughing noise.
I think that’s a very cool thing. So, I would say the trickster side of Yoda.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.