Interview with Brad Bird, the writer-director of "Incredibles" and the man who saved "Ratatouille" and made it what it is.

All Brad Bird wanted to do was take a vacation. Riding a light-speed rocket to animation stardom, the writer-director had witnessed critical adulation but box office failure with his brilliant cold war cartoon “The Iron Giant,” then gone on to joyously hoist the golden statuette at the Oscars when his hit science fiction action-comedy “The Incredibles” was voted Best Animated Feature Film.

Settling in at Pixar Studios, he became known as the go-to guy for anyone wanting notes concerning upcoming projects. But before he could get any well-deserved R&R, producer Brad Lewis did indeed go to him. Trouble had started brewing well into production of a film that would eventually be called “Ratatouille,” the tale of Remy, a rat in France who is a food connoisseur with dreams of becoming a master chef.

“The movie was conceived of almost six years ago, with another director,” Lewis says. “And Pixar committed to it. But it got to a place where we were not finding the spine of the story that made the film work. We needed to go to a story craftsman and veteran filmmaker that could pull this together.”
That man was Bird, who replaced the director, scrapped the script and started from scratch, devised ways to use existing sets, kept some voice actors, got some new ones and finished the film in a whirlwind 18 months.
Although Bird coaxed excellent voice performances out of his actors — Remy is played by Patton Oswalt (“The King of Queens”); Colette, the only female in a busy restaurant kitchen, is played by Janeane Garofalo; others include Peter O’Toole as a snobbish food critic and Ian Holm as a nasty head chef — he’s just as thrilled with the work of his dazzlingly talented animation team.
“I think you’ll find even in the dialogue scenes, if you turn off the dialogue, you can tell very much what’s going on in the character’s minds, even when they’re conflicted, because the animators really dig deep,” Bird says. “I don’t think people pay enough attention to the performances by the animators.”
Like every great Disney film, this one relies on multiple story planes and something for all ages. It’s about family relationships and dreams coming true and a little bit of romance. There’s high comedy, wild escapades, a few scenes of peril and, in this case, food — lots of food.
And though the premise — of a rat secretly becoming a star chef — is, according to Bird, “completely absurd,” the film maintains an air of reality.
“If you’re going to do a completely absurd premise, shouldn’t you try to make it as convincing as possible?” reasons Bird, concerning the authenticity of the busy kitchen. “And it’s not something that I knew much about, so I really counted on a lot of other people. I would say, ‘I don’t know what they would be serving here, somebody please help me out.’ One of the people on our team had studied to be a gourmet cook and had taken several years of serious cooking school and worked in restaurants, so we relied on him and others within Pixar who knew about food.”
With the insightful Bird writing the script, the film is also filled with a range of emotions. Early on in the story, Remy pulls away from his large family, the rest of whom would rather eat scraps in the streets than do their own cooking. Remy shows that he’s different when he stands up on two legs.
“I felt that it was a physical barometer of somebody trying to move into a different way of being,” explains Bird of that sequence. “Remy is questioning the common knowledge of rats that you walk on all fours. It doesn’t work for him. He doesn’t like handling food after walking on his hands. He doesn’t like constantly stopping to wash his hands before picking something up. It’s a practical matter to him. But it’s also a way to physicalize his desire to move into another arena — to become more human. But it’s also something he has to hide. His brother says, ‘If Dad sees you walking like that, he’s not gonna like it.’ It’s like he was attempting to be the enemy.”
There’s no doubt that Bird is deliriously happy with the work he does, even with all of the accompanying challenges.
“You’re so close to it, and you’re focused on the problems,” he says of the complicated computer animation process. “If everything’s working great but that one thing in Act Two, then you forget all about what’s working nicely and you go after the thing in Act Two. You’re focused on the fires that need to he put out, the things that need to be gotten right, that aren’t quite there.”
Yet he’s quick to admit that there are also all kinds of little victories. He mentions a sequence in which Remy, clutching onto a big cookbook, is swept through a torrent of water in a sewer.
“You have to animate the camera angles, and even the character and the book, before you have the water, because the water is a simulation,” he says. “And once you have the water simulation and the water doesn’t do exactly what you want it to do, you have to then change the animation of the book to fit the water. So you’re only seeing pieces of it down the line, and making your best guesses. But when you get it all together, and it’s lit and you have the sound and everything, there’s this (he makes a wooshing sound), then you go, ‘Wow! That’s cool! Did we do that?’ ”
Now that the film is done, Bird, who also has the title of executive consultant for “The Simpsons” TV show on his resume, will put the art of animation aside for a while. His next film will be the live-action drama “1906,” about the San Francisco earthquake, based on the novel by James Dalessandro.
“I’ll get started on it as soon as I get done with the vacation I was on when I got pulled off to do ‘Ratatouille,’ ” Bird says with a sigh. “I’m going to take that vacation.”

“Ratatouille” is rated G and opens on June 29.
Ed Symkus can be reached at