Brad Bird on Not Killing Tom Cruise While Making ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’

Director Brad Bird makes a tremendous leap from animation (some little movies you may have heard of like ‘The Incredibles’) to live-action with ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.’ It’s nearly as big as a leap as his leading man, Tom Cruise, makes in the film — part of a breath-stopping swing on the world’s tallest building as he attempts to get back to safety with a rope that’s far too short. Considering that was Cruise doing his own stunts, that it was all being shot in IMAX, with helicopters, while dozens of tourists looked on might have given even a seasoned pro a heart attack, but Bird told us he actually pushed Cruise to go faster.

For your first live-action movie, you decided to shoot it in IMAX, film in locations all over the world and have death-defying stunts. So, just a little movie.
[Laughs] It actually wasn’t that pre-thought-out. I was actually working on another film called ‘1906,’ which is also big and complicated, and the story is just very challenging to pull together. And then the opportunity arose to jump onto this. I’d known J.J. [Abrams] for a long time and I met Tom right after ‘The Incredibles.’ One element that I shared with both of those guys is not only a tremendous respect for their talent and their work, but we all really love the medium of film. When we talk, we can talk about it until our eyes are glazing over. We enjoy it so much that a chance to work with both of them on the same project was really fun.

Were you worried at all about killing your leading man in the showpiece stunt on the Burj Khalifa?
The sequence that we shot on the Burj Khalifa … the sheer number of pieces to that puzzle were staggering. Tom is hanging from a helicopter that could only stay up in the air for half an hour and the IMAX cameras can only shoot for a couple of minutes and if they run out of film, there’s no room to reload, so they have to fly back to base. And there’s a deck about halfway up and the tourists there look up and they see Tom Cruise hanging on the building above them and they’re shooting video and saying “Oh, hi, Tom,” and Tom’s just straining and every muscle in his body is quaking and he’s starting to lose blood in his legs.

Tom’s on a wire and he has to run to the side of the building and then he has to hold on and while they were doing it, the helicopter drifted and I saw a better angle for the second part of the shot. So I said, “Wait a second! Go back to that position you were in!” And Tom’s like holding on the side of the building and he’s like, “Are we ready?” and he’s just straining his muscles. And the stunt guys are like, “Hang on a second longer, Tom, we’re just changing the camera position.” And meanwhile, Tom’s hanging onto the building and the tourists are filming and it’s madness, absolute madness, but I think it resulted in a pretty cool sequence.

It’s a very cool sequence. So you got no complaints from Tom about being pushed to the limit?
The shot where he runs down the side of the Burj, he did it and they were being a little conservative and I said, “Can you go a little faster,” and Tom’s like, “Yeah, let’s go a little faster,” I said, “OK, I think we got it.” But Tom could hear it in my voice that I hadn’t gotten what I wanted, so he was like, “What is it?” So, I asked [meekly], “Can you go a little faster?” And he said, “You bet.” So we did it and that’s the one that’s in the film — he’s racing down the side of the building.

Which one of you was pushing harder to be more extreme, you or Tom?
We equally like things pushed, but certainly if you want to push it, Tom is your guy.

Did it ever hit you that Tom could easily plummet to his death if something went wrong?
Everybody was in the frame of mind of just focusing on doing their job the best they could. That said, when I went back to the hotel that night and we’d gotten some of these amazing shots, at about 3 in the morning, my eyes snapped open and I sat up and went “Hooh!” I realized if anything happens to Tom, we’ve got no movie.

But in the moment, the adrenaline was flowing…
Oh yeah. I was just intent on getting the camera into the right spot and not on losing blood flow to Tom’s legs. [Laughs]

Was the goal for the fourth film to make it bigger than the the others?
Yeah, I think we were all attracted to the idea of these set pieces. But the weird thing is … this is the biggest ‘Mission: Impossible,’ but I was really inspired by the last ‘Mission: Impossible,’ which got more emotional and got into smaller moments. So I would say, hopefully, it’s got some of the biggest ‘Mission: Impossible’ moments but also some of the smallest ‘Mission: Impossible’ moments in terms of character stuff. Hopefully there’s everything under the sun.

Producer Bryan Burk said you’d made a decision to “punch up” the humor on this one.
I wouldn’t say I’d “decided.” I felt like … a movie that I absolutely love is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and to me, there’s a wonderful balance between humor and genuine suspense and action. And the humor doesn’t cut any of the genuine adrenaline that the rest of the movie has. I hate movies where they kind of wink at you. There’s a couple of exceptions, ‘Airplane’ being one of them, where the whole movie is one big wink. I think you have to invest yourself in the moment. The humor in a movie like ‘Raiders’ comes out of real situations and it comes out of character and that, to me, is the best possible blend of those things. If you’re going to have a popcorn movie, you can’t do any better than ‘Raiders.’

Some of those famous lines, Harrison Ford famously improvised. Were you open to letting your actors riff like that?
Why would you have those guys, like Simon Pegg, if you weren’t? Many moments in the film, people just popped out with [a line] on the spot. Everyone was very good about doing what was written, but they also knew that I was up for deviations. Sometimes I asked for things, or I’d change a line on the spot. Sometimes they’d say something spontaneously. One of the things people ask me is “What’s the difference between live action and animation?” and spontaneity that can happen in a live-action film but it’s very difficult if not impossible in animation. The whole medium is about pre-planning. So that was fun for me, absolutely. I loved that.

So nothing they did ever threw you?
No, no. I took classes in acting to better understand how to talk to actors.

Before this?
Years ago, before I did my animated films. I know what that kind of stuff is. And in my animated film, I improv’d with soundtracks. Usually, I’ll write things on the spot or just say, “Oh, what if we change this?” Renner came up with a lot of lines that actually would up in the film.

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