DVDanger: Building The Iron Giant
Tim McCanlies talks behind-the-scenes of the animated classic
By Richard Whittaker,
12:10PM, Wed. Sep. 7, 2016
There are few American animated features more beloved than The Iron Giant, and this week's release of the deluxe signature edition gives it the Blu-ray fans have awaited. "It's very long delayed," said co-writer and Texas filmmaker Tim McCanlies, but then this film's story has always been about the long reward.
As told by McCanlies and his co-writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), the 1999 animated classic is in many ways the story of a boy and his dog. Only the dog is a massive alien war machine.
Set in the darkest days of the Red Scare, it follows young Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) who tries to hide the metal man (voiced by a then-unknown Vin Diesel) from his mother (Jennifer Aniston), beatnik artist Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), and the evil machinations of Agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald).
The story is an extremely loose adaptation of The Iron Man, British poet laureate Ted Hughes' deeply mythological and profoundly English tale of a monstrous metal creature that, " we Americanized the hell out of," said McCanlies. "But Brad did show it to Ted before he died, and he thought it was lovely. He thought it was very different to his book, obviously, but he was quite happy."
Now the film is a beloved institution, its underlying message of overcoming fear and prejudices (summed up in the Giant's pivotal proclamation that "I am not a gun") installing it in the animated canon. Yet at the time, it was a troubled production, its budget slashed after Warner Bros. previous animated project, Quest for Camelot, tanked at the box office. Then The Iron Giant itself was a box office disappointment, and headed to the discount bin.
Yet that changed when the Annie Awards – the film industry's leading tribute to animation – handed the team 15 nominations in nine categories. On the night, they were up against unbelievably stiff competition, with Disney's Tarzan, Pixar's A Bug's Life, Prince of Egypt and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut all outpacing it at the box office. And yet it won, and won, and won. McCanlies said, "The guy announces, it's a sweep, nine for nine, The Iron Giant win best picture. Allison Abbate, our producer, comes out. She was our den mother, the real day-to-day producer, a really terrific person, and she comes up and starts crying, and says, 'We've been so sad for so long,' and we all started crying."
It was a vindication for Bird, McCanlies, and the entire team, and their strange and beautiful creation. McCanlies said, "It was done in a very counterculture, nobody's watching us, let's see what we can get away with, way."
Austin Chronicle : The adaptation is very much like that of L.A. Confidential, making massive plot and character changes, but keeping absolutely loyal to the spirit of the novel. What was the influence of the book versus that Fifties Americana theme that you used?
Tim McCanlies: Well, Norman Rockwell was Brad's touchstone. We called the town Rockwell. He wanted to make it a real Fifties, Sputnik-paranoia thing, but when we started looking for Rockwell, I suggested Maine. I told him, nobody has ever done seasons in an animated film before that I can think of. It's funny, I saw some site say it takes place in a day or two, and it takes place over months. The seasons change, it goes through spring to summer to fall, then winter, in a dramatic way that echoes the Giant's journey. I told these guys about fall in the Northeast, and Maine seemed so quintessential.
AC: How did you come on board?
TM: I just got a call from Warner Bros. I'd done two or three scripts for them, worked on movies where I did or didn't get credit, and they had actually optioned Second Hand Lions at one point. I had done some rewrites for that, and for whatever reason it didn't get made for them at that time. That was just me as a writer, I wasn't attached as a director at that point. I hadn't directed anything then.
Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was the head of the studio, I was sort of his fair-haired boy, and so one day I just got messengered over a CD of songs that (the Who guitarist) Pete Townsend had written for a rock opera named The Iron Man. He and (Tony Award-winning musical director) Des McAnuff brought it to Warner Bros. feature animation to do an animated feature of it.
This was a project that had been around for a year or two, until Brad came in to meet with Warner Bros. and just from seeing some of the artwork that was done, pitched basically what was their story.
So it was explained to me when I came in to meet with them that they loved Brad's pitch, and they were making Brad's deal, but they expected that to take months. During this time, Brad was unavailable, but they wanted to start work now. So they gave me a three page summary of notes that someone had taken during Brad's pitch, or what they remembered of his pitch, and said, 'Well, OK, we want you to start work.' Hmm, OK, what's Brad going to think about this?
AC: How close was that first draft to Brad's original pitch?
TM: It was pretty good. He had Dean in there, but he didn't really have him doing anything. He wasn't even an artist, he was just a beatnik guy. I came up with the junkyard thing, and making him a junkyard artist.
The biggest reason the pitch didn't work was that in the ending the Giant dies because the U.S. and Russia were throwing nukes at each other over the horizon. It was nuclear war, and the Giant stops it. I said, first off, you can't kill E.T. Let's do an E.T. with the ending, and we bring him back. In the book, he reassembles himself. So I said, let's do that, and that's what got me the job.
I discovered later, I didn't know this at the time, but they were offering it to a few other people, and basically auditioning us. So I got the gig by working out how to bring the Giant back at the end. And let's not have Russia and the U.S. throwing nukes at each other, and that being the enemy. Let's have paranoia be the enemy, which is what Brad's point was, with Sputnik starting all of this, and just have the the Giant save the day in a much smaller, one missile kind of way.
So I wrote a treatment or two, based on what they remembered of Brad's pitch. Finally Brad's deal closed – that was on a Friday, and the following Monday, Brad and I were due to meet and knock out an outline, because on Friday we were due to meet with Des McAnuff and Pete Townsend, the producers, in London.
So I show up to work on Monday, and Brad is glaring at me, going, "Who are you?" Well, I'm the writer Warner Bros. hired to write your movie, buddy. He was, "I wanted to write it by myself, yadda, yadda, yadda," and I was just, "Look, dude, I have done three movies for these guys, and all three got made. I know these guys, I know how they work, I will help you get your movie made." He was, "Oh, OK," and after a day or two of spending 12 hours in a room and comparing our various Hollywood scars – there's always this thing when you're thrust together with someone, it's like the scene in Jaws where they're comparing their scars. Once we got past that, we were firm friends.
I did three or four drafts, basically got it to green light, and then they went through a budget situation. At that point, I had raised some money to direct my first film, Dancer, Texas, so I probably spent six months full-time on it before animation started.
Six months, seven months later I got the money to go off to do Dancer, Texas. So I left about a month before I had to start shooting on that. I went off to West Texas, and about a week later I got this emergency call from the producer, Allison Abbate, that the studio had some notes and I had to come back and do 'em. A week out of shooting my own film, I'm back in L.A., doing another quick rewrite, so that they could turn that flashing green light back to a green light.
Then the bond company found out that a week out of my directing my first film, I was not on set, I was off writing something else, and they hit the roof. But we got 'em the green light, and I went back on my way, back to directing, and Brad was still sending me pages every day. "Dude, I'm busy."
The Iron Giant signature edition (Warner Brothers) is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and ultimate collector's edition now.