Brad Bird, writer/director of The Incredibles (and formerly of The Simpsons), was too young to remember moving away from his hometown of Kalispell, but he does remember frequent summer vacations at his grandparents’ place on Flathead Lake. It’s been a pleasant journey from the crib in Kalispell to the Hollywood spotlight for Bird, the creative force behind Pixar’s latest hit The Incredibles, a computer-animated spy-comedy about a suburban family of superheros-in-hiding who must return to their comic book-style heroics to save the world.
The Independent spoke with Bird Friday, Feb. 25, two days prior to the Academy Awards ceremony where Bird was nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” and “Best Animated Feature” for The Incredibles. Though he didn’t pick up the screenplay trophy, Bird did accept the Oscar for “Best Animated Feature,” as he did at the Annie Awards—the animation industry’s own Oscars—earlier this year.
Despite a long absence, Bird doesn’t appear to have forgotten the Treasure State, as evidenced by the fact that the time Bird spent getting ice cream in Eddie’s Rexall as a boy in Polson made enough of an impression on the filmmaker for the scoop shop to pop up in Bird’s first feature film, The Iron Giant, which received critical acclaim even though it didn’t have the box office punch of The Incredibles.
“It doesn’t look exactly like Eddie’s Rexall, but that was what was in my mind,” says Bird, whose grandfather was once president of Montana Power in Butte.
Today Bird finds himself riding the rising tide of animation’s increasing respectability: For the second year in a row, an animation writer has received a nomination for “Best Screenplay.” (Last year Andrew Stanton was nominated for Pixar’s Finding Nemo.)
“I think slowly but surely people are starting to realize that the important aspects of an animated film are the same as the important aspects of any film, which is, ‘Do you connect with the characters’ and ‘Are you wrapped up in the story’ and ‘Is it both surprising and logical?’” Bird says. “You know, if some of the best storytelling is happening in animation, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be considered on an equal footing with any other film.”
Bird’s first feature film work was on the script for the 1987 sci-fi family comedy *batteries not included, but he says very little of his work actually made it into the film after rewrites. Bird feels more attachment to The Simpsons, for which he wrote and occasionally directed during the beloved series’ first eight seasons.
“There were some people in the very early stage, before it went on the air, who thought, ‘Aww, that’s it, you know? Thirteen and out.’ Which meant you do your 13 episodes that you’re contracted for and you’re done with it and nobody will ever see it again,” Bird says of the formative days of The Simpsons. “But I was not one of those people. I wrote a letter to [producer] Jim Brooks saying, ‘If the world likes it half as much as I do, this is going to be a big hit.’ So I was very gratified that it was a hit because I thought it was smart and funny and it assumed that the audience was smart rather than stupid, which I think so much entertainment does—assumes that the audience has very low intellect, that is. I like the fact that as goofy as The Simpsons can sometimes be, and we’re not above some pretty low jokes, the show is a very smart show and ultimately, underneath it all, a very moral show, in spite of what people think of the coarseness on the surface sometimes. It’s really, in its own abstract way, about being human and being alive. So I’m very, very pleased to have been a part of that show. I thought it was groundbreaking.”
Not “dumbing down” animated content is a hallmark of Bird’s creative philosophy, and that ideology clearly makes its presence felt in The Incredibles, a PG-rated animated film that, Bird says, contains some jokes that his own kids probably won’t understand for another 10 years.
“Bugs Bunny, contrary to what a lot of people might think, was not made for children,” Bird says. “It was made for the adults who were going to see the latest Bogart movie and they had seven minutes of comedy before it. So they were made to be sophisticated and funny to grownups. I think that if you make something funny to grownups, the trickle-down theory will work very well. If you aim something at kids, you’ll be surprised that kids don’t even like it most of the time. That’s a mistake that a lot of people who work in animation make—they talk down to their audience and they make films that they themselves would not sit down and watch. Do you think anyone in their right mind wants to watch Poofy the Bear when they’re in their 30s? I mean, to me that’s completely cynical and I think kids even feel that cynicism once they get above the age of 3 and they’re beyond looking at colors and music. Then they can feel it when they’re being talked down to, and I have no respect for that kind of entertainment, and I steer my kids clear of it. I’d much rather have them watch an old Buster Keaton film.”
Bird plans to continue bridging the age gap via animation with future projects, but he’s tight-lipped about what comes next.
“There’s nothing I can talk about,” he says. “I will say that out of the 15 or 20 ideas for films that I have, two of them take place in Montana, so I would love to get a chance to research Montana and come up there and spend some time because there’s nothing better than the Big Sky country.”