Brad Bird and Janeane Garofalo on Computer Animation, ‘Mission: Impossible,’ and Imagining the Future

They have some history, Brad Bird and Janeane Garofalo. It goes back about a decade, when the filmmaker was casting voices for his much-anticipated follow-up to The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and he cast her as the tough French chef, Colette. And they met again Friday afternoon, when Garofalo moderated a Tribeca Film Festival “Tribeca Talk” with Bird on the eve of his new film, Tomorrowland. The pair spent an hour watching clips, trading quips, telling stories, and walking through a career that’s spanned from television to film, and from animation to live action.

They began with one of the key moments of his childhood: a visit to the Disney studios at age eleven, as the guest of a friend of a family, a composer occasionally employed by the company. There, he met some of the legendary Disney animators, and “I realized that somebody made these cartoons — they didn’t just happen. Somebody thought about this, deeply.” (Garofalo’s takeaway: “So it’s who ya know? This is the moral of the story: what one needs is parents that are connected, and then this happens.”)

Janeane Garofalo and Brad Bird at the Tribeca Film Festival

But that idea of the humanity behind the form, of the people who make the images, was a recurring one in Friday’s talk — even more so in this age of Pixar and computer-generated animation. “We had to fight the machinery a lot on Incredibles,” he recalled, noting that people think “there’s a button that’s like ‘make movie,’ and they don’t realize that computers, they wanna do everything exactly, they wanna do things cleanly, and evenly, and hopefully geometrically. Not organic. And if you wanna do that, they can do it, no problem, they can spin a cube in space. But if you want to present anything that approximates the natural world, they will fight you every step of the way.”

And in that case, there’s something to be said for just chucking the cartoons and moving to live action — though that transition is trickier than it looks. (Ask WALL-E and John Carter director Andrew Stanton.) And on top of that, he made the transition at the helm of the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible series, an experience he compared to “being thrown in the deep end of a very shark-infested pool.” And though he admits that “you know your slot is to fit in to the other Mission: Impossible films,” the studio’s willingness “to accommodate individual style” made it attractive to him. “And they were very open about saying, ‘If you have anything you’d want to do in a spy movie, we’re wide open to it.’ And I had like six things that I wanted to do in a spy movie, and I got to do five of ‘em.” (Later, when an audience member asked what the sixth one was, Bird refused, pragmatically: “Well, then I’m giving up the idea!”)

Janeane Garofalo and Brad Bird at the Tribeca Film Festival
Bird also showed a clip from his upcoming feature Tomorrowland — what seemed to be a prologue, set at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, where a young protagonist tries to enter his jetpack in an invention contest. And that began a discussion of one of the key themes of the film. “What happened to ‘the future’?” he asked. “When we were kids, the future seemed to be this bright, better thing. And the world was still a dark place back then, there were a lot of bad things happening everywhere. But there was this optimism about the future, and we started going, why did that disappear? Because if you ask people now generally, the point of view is the future’s gonna stink, and that it’s not gonna be good, and we’re probably doomed, and everybody’s kind of resigned to it. And we went, why is that? What changed?… We’re still as in control of our future as we’ve ever been.”

It’s an interesting, and certainly optimistic, point of view to explore, particularly in a cultural moment where the dystopian future movie has become something of a cliché. But he’s also conscious of the fact that he makes mainstream pictures, albeit ones where he hopes to replicate the intellectual experience of the films we grew up on in the 1970s (“I like when there’s a little more to chew on”). So while he’s not out to make message movies, he does have a specific point of view, a way of seeing the world, that’s always in the foreground. “I shy away from prescribing — ‘Well, this is what the world needs right now through the media’ — but I do believe storytelling is powerful. And that the stories we tell each other, in whatever form, reflect what’s going on in our minds. I’m not saying they all have to be uplifting stories; some of my favorite stories have sad endings or dark endings. It’s just that the stories I’m drawn to are a little more glass-half-full.”

Tomorrowland is out May 22. The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 26.