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Brad Bird enters live-action fray with ‘Mission Impossible 4’

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — Brad Bird has made some of the more brilliant and thrilling animated movies of the past two decades, if not of all time. He pushed the boundaries of feature animation with “The Iron Giant,” and won best-animated-feature Oscars with “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” merging commercial and critical success. But Bird scorns complacency, quoting Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford University: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

(PHOTO: Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.)

Now Bird is dreaming bigger, navigating a new high-stakes testing ground. His live-action directing debut is the stunt-heavy mega-budget Tom Cruise adventure “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” opening Friday.

The production traveled to locations in Russia, the Czech Republic, Canada, the United States and Dubai, where Cruise rappels down the face of the towering Burj Khalifa skyscraper. Surprisingly, Bird said dangling one of the world’s top stars from the world’s tallest building isn’t so different from directing computer-generated cartoon characters.

“It’s all shots and storytelling,” Bird said. While live-action films are using more of the techniques of digital animation, he knew that going on location and “actually, physically” hanging Cruise a quarter-mile above the city would give viewers a visceral thrill that could be captured no other way.

The “Mission: Impossible” franchise offered Bird considerable latitude. Cruise, who also produces the films, has hired a different director for each of its four installments. In this outing, Cruise’s team includes returning co-star Simon Pegg and newcomers Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton playing colleagues unknown to each other and cut off from official support. Without a fixed blueprint to follow, Bird said, he was free to chart his own path, giving his chapter a more playful feel and a hero who is extraordinarily skilled yet still human.

“I liked the fact that each one had different vibes to them. Tom wanted each film to have the flavor of its director, and that’s one of the things that attracted me.” Some of Bird’s favorite films are action movies laced with humor “and not T-shirt lines that are meant to be quoted later. Not wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor, either, but stuff that comes out of character.”

Bird loves “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he said, “because it has this wonderful balance between the energy and pace and peril of the action sequences and the way you’re continually engaged by the character of Indiana Jones. You like him and there’s a wit to the way he’s presented. I could say the same for the first ‘Die Hard’ movie. There’s a lot of humor in it, but it never comes at the expense of the action.”

One such moment comes when Cruise’s superspy, Ethan Hunt, is informed he’ll have to climb across the sheer glass face of the Burj tower aided only by some glue gloves. Time is running out, but there’s a cut to Cruise’s thunderstruck expression and a beat of hesitation before he tackles the stunt.

“I really hate it when action stars think they look cool by blithely facing danger and acting mildly bored,” Bird said. “Roger Moore’s James Bond always looked like he was between saunas. Sean Connery was clearly a tough guy, but he’d get in these action scenes and you’d see his life flash before his eyes. That made you invest in the character because he became real.”

The “Mission: Impossible” stunt sequences presented Bird with challenges like nothing he’d ever faced. “The sequence on the Burj was so logistically complex to pull off. Not just to be up there with our actor but also filming it in Imax,” whose special 70mm cameras are huge, heavy and noisy. “We definitely made it about as hard as we could make it and still manage to survive and tell the tale.”

The biggest bonus from directing live action, Bird said, is spontaneity. “I like being able to throw something at an actor right before the camera goes on and see something happen. Then you have something magic that happened that one time only. There’s a scene in the film between Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg that was done all in one take where they threw each other curves and responded to the curves, and it was this incredibly alive moment. That’s the kind of thing you can’t have happen the same way in animation.”

He holds both in equal esteem, but Bird said that in the movie industry, directing live action is “taken more seriously. For a long time, animation has been seen as the kids’ table.” He noted that no maker of animated films has ever been nominated for best director. “The animated film Oscar is wonderful, but it tends to separate animation from the rest of movies. I was honored to be nominated for best original screenplay a couple of times because I was competing against all films, not just with animated films. I like being in the larger pond.”

While his new film will certainly open the door to a live-action directing career for Bird, he says he plans to remain active in Pixar as part of the creative oversight committee. “I’m not there as much, obviously, but I’m still keeping my hand in. It’s an amazing company, a mutually supportive team of really talented people, and I love those guys.”

©2011 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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