'Ratatouille' writer chafes at misconceptions

Since Brad Bird is writer-director of three of the best animated films of the past decade, “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” it’s no surprise to hear him extol the virtues of both Warner Bros. toon legend Michael Maltese and “Lawrence of Arabia” scribe Robert Bolt.

Bird, whose own name appears on that shortest of shortlists, that of writers who were Oscar-nominated for their screenwriting on animated features (for “Incredibles”), combines the whimsical genius of Maltese and lofty ambition of Bolt in this year’s awards contender “Ratatouille.” He chafes, however, at any discussion of the greats of animation writing that doesn’t make clear his belief that “good writing is good writing.”

“The whole question of writing for animation is skewed” says Bird, whose next project will be his live-action debut. “There isn’t a giant difference between animation and live action. You need characters, stories, themes. It’s called good storytelling.”

Bird feels misconceptions about the writing of animated features emanate from both sides of the fence — from those who can’t imagine “serious” work from the makers of “cartoons” and from those inside the animated field who can’t imagine that any writer who doesn’t begin as an animator can ever fully embrace the medium.

Bird explains that although he did begin his career in animation, “I write scripts first, before the work gets to the storyboarding stage. But I write with the knowledge of what animation can do.”

Once Bird has made clear that in his view there are no lines separating genres, he expands on the artists he admires in both the animation and live-action camps.

From the Disney canon, Bird cites “Lady and the Tramp” and “Pinocchio” as examples of storytelling with “strong story beats and well-delineated characters.” He also admires Nick Park of “Wallace and Grommit” fame as “an artist with a singular point of view” and “Spirited Away’s” Hayao Miyazaki as “a master of great storytelling.”

And then there are his fellow artists at Pixar, which he calls “the home team.” ” ‘Toy Story’s’ power comes from its talking about death under several layers of action,” says Bird, who sees the film’s “real message (as) ‘Do you use your life or do you prolong it and become entombed?’ ”

And then there’s Maltese. Bird calls him “the King of the Warner Bros. shorts” and says that “95% of the finest days in the Chuck Jones career had Maltese attached.”

On the live-action writing front, Bird rhapsodizes about Bolt’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” which he recalls seeing as a youth and, “Though I didn’t understand it, it overwhelmed me. It told me the world was a much more complex place than I ever imagined.” He also cites Steve Zaillian, Alvin Sargent, Robert Towne and Billy Wilder as “heroes.”

It’s no surprise, however, given Bird’s directorial accomplishments, that he reserves a special place in his pantheon of film talents for one of the directing greats.

“Alfred Hitchcock is the one who taught me that there are people making these movies. I kept seeing these movies that gave me chills, from ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ on through his more famous films, and I kept seeing his names. I thought, ‘Aha, it’s the same guy giving me these chills. And his name is Alfred Hitchcock.’ “

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