Fresh from the success of last year's Cars, the latest film from the talented folks at Pixar Animation Studios is Ratatouille, the unlikely story of a rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a great chef in a 5-star Parisian restaurant. Being a rodent in a restaurant obviously has its own unique problems, but Remy isn't about to let prejudice and pest control get in his way and once he forms an alliance with a lowly kitchen assistant named Linguini he is soon turning the snooty world of haute cuisine upside down.
The ultimate rat-out-of-water tale, the hilarious, delightfully inventive Ratatouille is directed by Brad Bird, who wrote and directed another of Pixar's seemingly unstoppable string of hits, the superhero adventure The Incredibles. Bird began work on his first animated film when he was 11 and his other credits include the award-winning The Iron Giant.
Here, in an interview conducted at the Pixar Studios, which are just outside San Francisco, Bird talks about what he learned from Han Solo and how he made a rat lovable.
Q: The makers of Finding Nemo went scuba diving. The animators on Cars went to racetracks. Did you do your research for Ratatouille in sewers?
A: I'd love to tell you that I spent weeks and weeks hanging out in sewers [laughs] but the truth of the matter is that I relied on some documentaries, especially a very funny one that was made by a friend of mine named Mark Lewis. We also had rats here in the studio. We didn't have the wild ones because they are kind of creepy and look like they could take you out to the alley and beat you up, but we had some lab rats which are fluffy and nice and we just watched them lots and lots. I love the way they smell everything around them and take in their surroundings through their noses. In film logic at least it's not much of a stretch of the imagination to think that an animal that experiences the world through its nose might want to become a cook.
Q: Do you work the same way when you create rats as you do with superheroes?
A: Superheroes in hiding or rats who want to cook, you're just playing pretend. Filmmaking is simply a high-tech version of being a little kid and imagining anything you want to, no matter how fantastic. A black person came up to me after a screening of The Incredibles and said, "Who wrote Frozone?" So I told him that it was me and that I wrote the whole movie, and he went "Yeah, but who wrote Frozone?" He couldn't believe that I could write a convincing black superhero, but I'm not a small half-German, half-Japanese women either [laughs] and I also wrote E, the fashion guru in The Incredibles. All you're doing when you're making a movie is putting on different hats and saying, "Well, how would the girl feel at this point and how would the guy feel at this point and how would the rat feel at this point?" Animation in particular is a fantastic medium because you can have as many goofy ideas as you want and you get to put them all up there on the screen.
Q: Remy, the hero of your Ratatouille, is of course a rat and rats aren't usually thought of as very cuddly. Do you actually like rats?
A: Animation has a long history of empathizing with animals of all shapes and sizes and in my fantasy world I definitely like rats because they only want to get along with us humans. Do I like rats in the real world? Every animal has a place in the grand scheme of things and rats are very resilient creatures, so I think they deserve some respect for that.
Q: Did you worry when you began work on the film that the audience might go, "Yuck! A rat!"?
A: People have this aversion to rats but I didn't think you could get around it by not having the rats involved in ratty behavior. Instead I thought we should just go with all the things that people recognize and know about rats and then move the audience past that. There's a moment at the very beginning of the film where we see Remy with a cookbook in his hand and there's a freeze frame on him and from what he says he's clearly a little bit apologetic about being a rat. So it's like he's acknowledging, "Yeah, I'm a rat and I know you may have a problem with that."
Q: That's still a big leap to a rat being lovable, isn't it?
A: Yes, but acknowledging the discomfort is the first step. If you ever watch a fat comedian or somebody that's maybe super-short or super-tall, the best comedians get that out of the way right away. Like a fat comedian will come out and spend the first minute or two of their routine talking about the fact that they're fat. You can see the audience relax and go, "Okay, he knows he's fat and now I can enjoy the routine," rather than going, "Lordy he's fat and I can't think about anything else." It's about acknowledging the elephant in the room or in our case, the rat in the room. So we have a shot that's like, "Yeah, I know what you think," which is the quintessential rat nightmare: this scary creature with glowing eyes and fangs hunched over like a villain in a silent movie. Then there's a shot with a whole bunch of rats running around and they're not quite as creepy, but there's still a lot of them, so you're still not sure. But then you follow them up to this compost heap and suddenly they're out in the sun and there's this nice little piece of pastry with one bite out of it and a rat is picking that up and being very delicate about it and smelling it and not looking frightening at all. So hopefully, if we've done our job right, we've taken you from "Yuck! Rats!" to, you know, maybe these guys aren't so bad and maybe we can sympathize with this rat.
Q: There were lovable sharks in Finding Nemo, so why not lovable rats, right?
A: Exactly! And I think part of the enjoyment of any film fantasy is making you buy something unbelievable by finding some clever way of making you believe it. I always loved that moment in The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo gets in the Millennium Falcon and he starts it up and actually hits the wall. So even though it's a spaceship and it flies faster than the speed of light, which is way beyond anything that we know, it's still got aspects of your or my crappy car about it. We all know about kicking something broken-down to get it to go, so suddenly the unbelievable becomes very familiar. There's the same moment in Cinderella where the Fairy Godmother starts waving her wand around and there's no pixie dust coming out of it so she takes it and slaps it a few times and then the pixie dust starts to flow. It suddenly makes a wand an everyday thing.
Q: Like most animated films, Ratatouille has been a long time in the making. Has it changed much along the way?
A: I only came on board later in the production process, but the premise was always great, the look was great, the cast of characters was great, and none of that ever really changed. The challenge was always pulling all these elements together into a great story, but that's the challenge on any film, not letting anything get in the way of the story. It's always the story that matters most.
Q: Remy is a great and classic film character: the plucky hero who's determined to follow his dream. Do you have other favorite characters in the film?
A: I like Auguste Gusteau, who is Remy's culinary hero and the one human in the film who can talk to rats. Gusteau is like Remy's Jiminy Cricket or his Obi-Wan Kenobi and I think he's a really fun character. I also like Skinner, who's a comic villain. He's a bit like Salieri in Amadeus or Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies because he doesn't understand why this person who he thinks of as incompetent is always getting the better of him.
Q: Finally, how do you think the French are going to feel about a film about a rat in a French kitchen?
A: I think the French have a sense of humor just like everyone else and can enjoy a good comedy. I mean, Ratatouille isn't a documentary; it's a fun hour and a half or so at the movies. Just buy some popcorn on the way in and have a good time! This movie goes really, really well with popcorn.
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