‘Innocence of Plot Is the Only Innocence I Have Left’: Sarah Vowell on ‘Incredibles 2’
A lot can change in 14 years. 14 years ago, for example, I was full of youth, energy, and hope. Now I’m like Mr. Incredible after the “15 years later” jump in the first Incredibles, when the formerly exuberant superhero has been transformed into a bleary-eyed office drone with an enormous gut, a thinning hairline, and a creaky back.
It’s been 14 years since we last saw the Incredibles, but thankfully they haven’t lost a step. Pixar’s delightful new sequel, Incredibles 2, picks up immediately where the first film left off, with the super-powered Parr family grappling with threats both external and domestic. For the Parr’s oldest daughter Violet, that means the boy she likes doesn’t even know she exists. And I mean that literally; the government erased his memory after he witnessed the Incredibles’ fight with the Underminer, just one of the many ways Incredibles writer/director Brad Bird turns relatable familial drama into the stuff of superheroes.
As in the original Incredibles, Violet is voiced by author, historian, and This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell, who does another magnificent job of turning Violet’s adolescent fumbling into the stuff of heroism. During our far-too-brief chat last week, I asked her about whether she had any trepidation about returning to one of the most beloved animated movies of the century, what she made of Bird’s choice to continue the story from 14 years ago instead of jumping ahead in time, and learned her favorite Pixar movie.
When you first hear about a sequel to The Incredibles, do you have any hesitation? The first movie is so great and so beloved. Did you ever worry the sequel wouldn’t live up to the original?
No, because I really trust Brad Bird. I spent a few years on the first movie inside of his head. And I know ... I guess the nice way to put it is his penchant for quality control. I know how hard he is on himself and how detail oriented he is, and just how devoted he is to every aspect of storytelling and meaning. So I trust him.
It’s 14 years in our world since The Incredibles, but for the characters just a few minutes have passed between the end of the first movie to the start of Incredibles 2. What did you make of that choice. Would you have been interested in playing an older version of Violet?
I would follow Brad off a cliff. So he had a vision for that, sure. The original Dash had to be replaced, because the original actor [Spencer Fox] grew up and his voice changed. I don’t know if I would be replaced. Maybe Violet is like me and she would sound 12 forever.
I guess I have two things to say about that. One is that in animation time, 14 years ... just in terms of animation production, people work on these films for three to five years. So 14 years really is only three or four movies for them. So that’s not that much time in terms of how much craftsmanship goes into these movies.
The other thing about no time elapsing is Brad has talked about how for these characters, the psychology of the characters and their powers and what they look like is about their ages in life. Each one represents a stage in life. The baby is unpredictable and unformed, like all babies, and his powers reflect that. The 10-year-old boy is just a ball of energy who can’t stop running around and his powers reflect that. The teenage girl is simultaneously wanting to hide, and so he has this power of invisibility, but she also wants to shut out the world and protect herself and her hormonal teenage feelings, and so her other power is force fields. The mom is stretchy, the way mothers are pulled in so many directions. The story of this family is this story of this stage in all of their lives.
Was it hard at all getting back into the mindset of this character 14 years later? Did you have to go back and rewatch the original film?
No, she luckily does sound a lot like me, so I have that going for me. The other thing is, being directed by Brad Bird you’re in the sound booth with him. And everything you’re doing is really immediate. It’s about what is happening in that scene. Where are we? Am I yelling? Is there an explosion? Am I sitting at a table with my parents? Each scene dictates the performance. All of the immediacy and emotion and humor of a moment has to do with what’s going on very specifically at that moment.
Also, the actors don’t get the script ahead of time. So there’s no preparing.
That’s interesting. You walk in not knowing what you’re going to say at all.
Right. Part of that is because of the culture, especially the online culture we live. It’s for moviegoers. The story says secret so the moviegoer can be surprised. And I appreciate that. Innocence of plot is the only innocence I have left.
As a moviegoer, I want to be surprised.
I know that Pixar sometimes makes a whole version of a movie and then discards it as they iron out the kinks of a story. I was wondering if you encountered that on Incredibles 2, maybe recording stuff for scenes or subplots that never wound up in the film.
There were minor tweaks and changes, but not really major ones. I will say the practice itself is so labor intensive. In every aspect, there is a team of people working on every last thing, like what color everything is. The production design in this film is so incredible. The production designer, Ralph Eggleston, and his sense of architecture and the beautiful sketches of the house they live in; there’s a lot of moving parts to this stuff.
I’m a writer, not an actor. And I’ll do 60 drafts of one paragraph but it’s still the same basic idea. And Brad usually has a very clear idea of where a story is going from the beginning.
Pixar fans love to debate which is the studio’s best movie. What is your pick?
I don’t have to choose! I guess ... I really loved Up. I like stories about friendship. A good one to watch with Incredibles 2 would be Inside Out, especially from Violet’s point of view. That’s also about the psychology of a young girl who’s caught between childhood and adulthood.
Incredibles 2 opens in theaters on Friday.
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