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Brad Bird and Patton Oswalt, Telling a Rat's Tale

Director Brad Bird and actor Patton Oswalt talk about their film Ratatouille.

The new picture, from digital-animation powerhouse Pixar, opens nationwide tomorrow; it's a comedy about a foodie rat who becomes a chef in a top Paris kitchen.

Bird previously directed and wrote The Incredibles and The Iron Giant.

Oswalt, who provides the voice of the leading rat, Remy, is a writer and stand-up comedian. He's also something of a serious foodie himself — which is in part why Bird wanted him to play his furry hero.

This interview first aired on June 28, 2007.

18:48

Other segments from the episode on June 28, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 28, 2007: Interview with Tim Weiner; Interview with Brad Bird and Patton Oswalt; Review of Ruby Elzy's album "Ruby Elzy In Song: Rare Recordings (1935-1942)."

Transcript

DATE June 28, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Tim Weiner discusses book "Legacy of Ashes"
about the CIA

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The illegal operations documented in the CIA files known as "The Family
Jewels" are hardly the only illegal operations in the CIA's 60-year history.
My guest, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner, has written a new history of the
CIA, in which he chronicles many covert, illegal, and misguided operations.
He describes his book "Legacy of Ashes" as "a description of how the most
powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a
first-rate spy service." Weiner has been reading The Family Jewels and
reported on them yesterday in The New York Times. The Family Jewels are a
collection of CIA memos written in response to a 1973 order from then-CIA
director James Schlesinger. After learning about CIA involvement in the
Watergate break-in, Schlesinger ordered CIA employees to report on any
activities the CIA had engaged in since 1959 that were outside of the
authority defined by the CIA's charter. These just declassified papers
document domestic wiretapping operations, failed assassination plots, and
programs spying on anti-war groups and American journalists. Weiner says the
biggest revelation for him in The Family Jewels is how much resistance there
was within the CIA to carrying out orders to spy on Americans.

Mr. TIM WEINER: By '72, '73, '74, the last years of Richard Nixon, the
officers who were commanded to spy on Americans, and specifically to spy on
the anti-war movement--everyone in the spectrum from Another Mother for Peace
to the Black Panthers--they began to rebel. They didn't want to do that, and
they didn't want to--maybe the problem was they didn't want to grow long hair
and beards and, you know, and go tracking leftists around the world because it
wasn't their job. That isn't their job. Their job is to collect foreign
intelligence abroad, not to spy on Americans.

GROSS: Is there a memo within the Family Jewels that you consider to be gold,
you know, something really special for people like you who have studied the
CIA history?

Mr. WEINER: Yeah. There's a couple of pages from one of the most mysterious
people in the history of the CIA, James J. Angleton, who was among many other
things the chief of the counterintelligence staff, the "spy catcher," for 20
years, from 1954 to 1974. Angleton wrote a report on himself, really, in
response to this order from the director of central intelligence to report any
violations of the CIA's charter.

The charter of the CIA, which was written in 1947, is exceedingly vague, but
it's clear on one point: you don't spy on Americans. Your job is overseas.
One of the things that Angleton had done through his 20 years in power was to
help set up secret police abroad in many countries, the CIA and other American
agencies, like USAID, the Agency for International Development, would create,
in some cases, but train, arm, equip the police and military and internal
security forces of Third World countries all over the world. That would serve
two purposes: to fight communism in Ecuador or the Philippines or South Korea
or Bolivia, and also these secret police units would collect intelligence for
the CIA.

Angleton had dropped a dime on himself by reporting that there might be a spot
of bother here; there might be a flap because we brought a bunch of these
foreign secret police into Florida to be trained by the bomb squad of the Dade
County Police in Miami. That, to me, was a moment in time that I was unaware
of. It was news to me.

GROSS: What was the point of bringing them to Miami to be trained by the bomb
squad there?

Mr. WEINER: Well, among them, many things that the secret police of foreign
countries, created by CIA and other US government officers, among the things
they did was counterterrorism. To defuse a bomb. On the other hand, some of
these secret police forces were themselves instruments of terror and they made
bombs. So you could read that either way.

GROSS: You know, I think most of Americans are aware now that, you know, the
CIA helped arm the Mujahideen, the Islamic fighters, against the Soviets who
had invaded Afghanistan. What the CIA didn't realize was that those Islamic
warriors would eventually turn against us. What surprised me in your book is
that this kind of thing of like arming Islamic warriors like goes back to the
Eisenhower era. You write that, "Eisenhower wanted to promote the idea of an
Islamic jihad against godless communism. He said, `We should do everything
possible to stress the holy war aspect.'" So what kind of program did
Eisenhower authorize the CIA to conduct?

Mr. WEINER: The agency saw every Muslim political leader who wouldn't pledge
allegiance to the United States of America as, quote, "a target legally
authorized by statute for CIA political action." And those are the words of
Archie Roosevelt, who was chief of station in Turkey and the cousin of Kim
Roosevelt, who was the czar of the Near East at CIA. So, how do you do that?
Well, you can give them money, and most of the powerful men in the Islamic
world who were allied with the the United States in the '50s and '60s and '70s
took the CIA's cash. Or you can give them guns, and we did that. So they
delivered American guns and American money to King Saud of Saudia Arabia and
King Hussein of Jordan and the president of Lebanon and the president of Iraq,
and these four gentlemen were supposed to be our defense against communism and
Arab nationalism in the Middle East, and that's how things worked. In many
ways, that's how it still works.

GROSS: Now you write that President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy actually
unleashed covert actions with unprecedented intensity. That you say they
launched 163 major covert operations in less than three years. What are some
of the more major but lesser known covert operations that they authorized.

Mr. WEINER: Well, they did it, as John Kennedy would say, "with vigor." Let
me give you a flavor of this by sort of reciting from the Kennedy tapes. Now,
here's a couple of typical weeks in the summer of 1962 in the Kennedy White
House. And we know this because John Kennedy taped these conversations in the
Oval Office and you can listen to them and read them online, and the Miller
Center in Virginia has a number of them. We've just posted one today at The
New York Times that is shocking.

On Monday the 30th of July, 1962, President Kennedy walks into the Oval Office
and he switches on this brand new state-of-the-art taping system he's
installed over the weekend, and the first conversation he ever recorded was a
plot to overthrow the government of Brazil. So that was July 30th.

August 8th, he meets with the director of central intelligence John McCone to
talk about dropping hundreds of Chinese nationalist agents into Mao Tse-Tung's
communist China, and they joke about, `Ooh, what happens if they get shot
down? Maybe a U2 spy plane will get shot down. Ha ha.' Next month's Mao's
forces shot down a U2.

Next day, August 9th, Richard Helms, later the director of central
intelligence, goes to the White House to talk about overthrowing Haiti.

August 10th, John McCone, Robert Kennedy, and Defense Secretary McNamara meet
at the State Department. Now this one isn't recorded on tape but it's on
paper, and they're talking about liquidating people in the Castro regime,
mainly Fidel Castro and his brother Raul.

August 15th, McCone goes back to the White House, this is on tape. `Let's
overthrow the government of Guiana. Good idea!'

August 15th, same day. `Let's figure out how to set up paramilitary forces in
Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand through the CIA. And while we're at it, Iran,
Pakistan, Bolivia, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, and
Venezuela.' `Here's a document about that,' the director of central
intelligence tells the president. `It's very highly classified,' says John
McCone, the CIA chief, `because it tells all about the dirty tricks. Ha, ha.'
They say, `A marvelous collection,' says George Bundy, the national security
adviser. `A marvelous collection or a dictionary of your crimes.' And they
all laugh.

So that's the summer before the Cuban missile crisis, just three weeks.

GROSS: What's the shocking document that you referred to that was posted on
The New York Times Web site?

Mr. WEINER: Oh, more shocking than what I just said?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: A shocking document we posted on the Web site of The New York
Times is a taped conversation with a transcript of President Kennedy and
director of central intelligence John McCone and two intelligence advisers
talking about bugging the national security reporter for The New York Times
Hanson Baldwin, which they did. Presidents and directors of central
intelligence should not bug reporters for The New York Times, in my opinion.
We can irritate them, but they can't wiretap us. Those are the rules.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Tim Weiner. His new book about
the history of the CIA is called "Legacy of Ashes."

More after a broke--a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize winning reporter
Tim Weiner, and his new book is called "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the
CIA."

Now you write that President Johnson was haunted by President Kennedy's covert
operations.

Mr. WEINER: And none more than the effort, the successful effort, to
overthrow the president of South Vietnam, President Diem, which happened three
weeks before JFK was assassinated.

GROSS: Why did that haunt LBJ?

Mr. WEINER: He thought the murder of John Kennedy was divine retribution for
the killing of Diem.

GROSS: He didn't think Diem supporters were directly responsible for it, he
just thought this was divine retribution?

Mr. WEINER: That's what he said. He said it more than once. Look, this was
a horrible event. The United States was trying to defeat communism in
Vietnam, and it decided that the President of South Vietnam was no damn good
and so it backed a coup to get rid of him. And the CIA did not kill Diem, but
it had a very prominent officer in the camp of the generals and the colonels
who overthrew the president of the country that we were trying to support.
And you know, nine coups followed in succession. And we eventually had to
send a half a million troops in, and we lost--what was it?--50-odd thousand
dead, didn't we?

GROSS: Did Kennedy authorize any covert operations to spy on Americans beyond
the journalist who you mentioned?

Mr. WEINER: The spying on Americans really got started in a big way under
President Johnson, and continued under President Nixon. Because LBJ was
convinced as a matter of moral certainty that the anti-war movement in the
United States was being controlled, manipulated, financed by the communists in
Moscow and Beijing. Well, he was wrong about that, but he sicced the CIA on
Americans to find proof of it. They couldn't find any because there was none.

GROSS: What did Helms have to say, who was then the head of the CIA, about
being asked by his president to do something that Helms knew was illegal,
because it goes against the CIA charter to use the CIA to spy on Americans?

Mr. WEINER: He reminded the president of the United States that the CIA was
not supposed to spy on Americans. Richard Helms wrote in his memoir that he
looked the president in the eye and said, you know, `We're not supposed to do
this.' And he says that Johnson told him, `I'm quite aware of that. I want
you to pursue this matter, and I want you to track down the foreign communists
who are in the anti-war movement.' I'm certain that LBJ expressed himself more
pithily than that.

GROSS: So how extensive was the operation?

Mr. WEINER: It wasn't that great a job, frankly, because there wasn't any
evidence to find, but they tried. The CIA is an institution with a military
ethos. If the president of the United States gives you an order, you salute
smartly, go back to your office, and now say, `God Almighty, what do I do
now?' The CIA reported to President Johnson that, `There isn't any evidence,
Mr. President, that the anti-war movement is supported by foreign
communists.' And he sent them back and he sent them back again and he sent
them back again.

Presidents misuse the CIA. Richard Helms, who was director for seven years,
and was probably one of the better, if not the best, among the 19 directors of
central intelligence, said that not one president, with the possible exception
of George H. W. Bush, who after all ran the place for about a year,
understood the first thing about the CIA or its secret operations. The
history of the CIA is in large part a history of presidents who don't know the
first thing about the CIA and who misuse it and abuse it and kick it, and the
one who kicked it hardest was Richard Nixon.

GROSS: You say that the collapse of the CIA as the secret intelligence
service began on the day that Richard Helms left and James Schlesinger
arrived. So what do you mean by that?

Mr. WEINER: By the time Schlesinger left, later in 1973, the secrecy of the
CIA was beginning to break down. Ronald Reagan tried to make the CIA secret
again but he made a huge mistake, which was to put his campaign manager in
charge of the CIA, and that was the wily and devious William J. Casey. They
tried to rebuild the CIA as a really secret operating covert arm of the United
States government. And what did we get? They smuggled missiles to Iran,
skimmed the money off to support the anti-communist guerillas in Central
America, and they got caught, which was a real black eye for the United States
and for the CIA.

GROSS: And that's Iran-Contra that you're talking about.

Mr. WEINER: That I am.

GROSS: What are some of the secret CIA operations that you fear we'll never
really learn enough about because the documents were destroyed?

Mr. WEINER: The mind control experiments conducted in the 1950s. There was
a great fear during the Korean War that communist China, North Korea, and the
Soviets were taking captured American prisoners and turning them into zombies
or robots. There's a movie about this called "The Manchurian Candidate"...

GROSS: Great film.

Mr. WEINER: ...which I recommend to your listeners. And the ethos of the
time, and you had to have been there to understand it was, `If they're doing
it, we have to do it, too. We have to fight fire with fire?' So a number--how
many we'll never know--of programs were created with, you know, with names
like Project Artichoke, to figure out if you could control another human
being's mind. The techniques ranged from hypnosis to heroin, from sensory
deprivation to LSD. In one case, they took a prisoner in the federal
narcotics penitentiary in Kentucky and fed him LSD for 77 consecutive days.
They failed, obviously. I mean, it's very hard to control another human mind.
And anyway, that wasn't their job. Their job was to know other humans' minds,
to know what foreigners were thinking. And the only way to understand what
another man thinks is to talk to him.

GROSS: So the documents from that experiment were destroyed?

Mr. WEINER: One of the things that Richard Helms did when he left office,
after Richard Nixon fired him in a very uncouth way at the end of 1972, was to
clean up his files. And among the files that were cleaned up was the paper
trail of the mind control experiments that he and the director of central
intelligence Allen Dulles had personally approved two decades before in the
early 1950s. Very few of those records survived.

GROSS: The CIA has been so criticized lately, in part because of its reports
that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when it didn't, because of the
secret prisons that it started, and its use of what many people describe as
torture in its interrogation programs. Do you think that this fits in with
the earlier history of the CIA, or do you think that these recent things are
something new in the life of the CIA?

Mr. WEINER: The CIA does what it does, with very few exceptions, because
presidents order it to do those things. The president of the United States
ordered the CIA to use, quote, "special interrogation techniques," unquote.
It's not that the CIA stuck up its hand and said, `Gee, maybe we should
torture these prisoners, you know, and see if we can get some information.'
Presidents need to know what the CIA can and cannot do. This president, the
evidence will be clearer 10, 20, 30 years from now, appears to have pushed the
CIA beyond the limit of its capabilities. Now if presidents want to change
the world, send in the Marines. But if they want to know the world, that is
why the CIA was created 60 years ago. And you cannot undertake covert action
or war without intelligence. We as a nation are, and will remain, a
superpower. What we do is project our power around the world. You cannot do
that without intelligence. It gets you into terrible trouble.

GROSS: Well thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WEINER: Terry, it's a pleasure.

GROSS: Tim Weiner is the author of "The Legacy of Ashes: The History of the
CIA."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Writer and director Brad Bird and comedien Patton
Oswalt discuss film "Ratatouille"

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests are Brad Bird, the writer and director of the new animated film
"Ratatouille," and comedian Patton Oswalt, who does the voice of the main
character, Remy. Remy is a rat whose exquisite sense of smell and taste make
him yearn to be a chef, but a rat would never be accepted in a restaurant, and
Remy's rat family is content to eat garbage and can't comprehend Remy's
passion for fine food.

Brad Bird was not the original director of "Ratatouille." He was called in to
direct and rewrite it after completing his animated film "The Incredibles."
Patton Oswalt co-starred in "The King of Queens" and organized the comedy tour
"The Comedians of Comedy."

Here's a scene from "Ratatouille." with Oswalt as the rat Remy. Remy is
talking to the ghost of the late celebrated chef and restaurant owner Gasteau.
Remy is in the rafters of Gasteau's old restaurant looking down into the
kitchen, where the kitchen porter has accidentally knocked the soup pot from
the stove and is desperately trying to recreate the soup, throwing everything
in sight into the pot.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Actor: (As Gasteau) Now, who is that?

Mr. PATTON OSWALT: (As Remy) Oh, him? He's nobody.

Actor: (As Gasteau) Not nobody. He is part of the kitchen.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) But he's a plongeur or something. He washes dishes or
takes out the garbage. He doesn't cook.

Actor: (As Gasteau) But he could.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) Uh, no.

Actor: (As Gasteau) How do you know? What do I always say? Anyone can cook.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) Well anyone can. That doesn't mean that anyone
should.

Actor: (As Gasteau) Well, that is not stopping him. See?

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) No! No! No, this is terrible! He's ruining the soup
and nobody's noticing. It's your restaurant. Do something!

Actor: (As Gasteau) What can I do? I am a figment of your imagination.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) But he's ruining the soup! We've got to tell someone.
He's...

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of something falling with a clunk)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Did you study rats to help you figure out how Remy should look like
and the other rats?

Mr. BRAD BIRD: Well, he was designed. You know, Yan had supervised the
design with a bunch of talented artists, and so the character looked the way
he looked. But they were kind of moving away from making them ratty, and one
of the changes that I pushed for was making them more ratty. You know,
everybody gets entertained by the notion, you know, a rat wants to become a
gourmet chef, but right after they laugh, they kind of go, `Ugh!' And they
were kind of running away from the `Ugh!' by making the rats like little
humans. All of them were on two legs and their tails had been shortened, and
they were kind of, you know, acting like little humans. And I thought that
was a mistake, because I thought part of the charm of the story is really
believing that they are rats and then pushing past the "Ick" factor and kind
of seeing them as little beings, kind of like Hunchback of Notre Dame, where
your first reaction is kind of `ugh,' and then you kind of move past it.

So we did study rats and I had them rerig the characters, which was a real
time consuming process, because they had all been engineered to be on two
legs, and I had them go kind of backwards. And when we put them on four legs,
having been designed for two, all kinds of bulges happened, and it took quite
a lot of work to get them to look good on four legs. But I think it gives the
story an extra dimension...

GROSS: Yeah, and...

Mr. BIRD: ...because you see the rat choose to be on two legs. You know
what I mean?

GROSS: Right. And like his father and his brother and stuff, they're much
more ratty than Remy is.

Mr. BIRD: Yes. Well and you can kind of gauge where Remy is emotionally,
you know, I mean, and the fact that he kind of has to pretend that he's on
four legs when he's around his dad, you know, kind of because he doesn't want
his--you know, he knows his dad's not going to approve of him walking around
on two. So it just became something that was useful. It was, you know, sort
of a window into his thinking.

GROSS: Well, my guest is Brad Bird, and he wrote and directed the new
animated film "Ratatouille." And let's introduce Patton Oswalt, who is the
voice of the main character, the rat named Remy, who has a brilliant taste for
food and an intuitive knowledge of how to prepare it. So he's this like "Chef
Rat," Little Chef, as he's called in the movie.

Patton, what was your reaction when you got the call saying, `You're perfect
to play a rat.'

Mr. OSWALT: I think my reaction was more--I wasn't even concentrating on,
`I'm going to be a rat,' was that I had gotten a call from Pixar and it was a
Pixar movie being directed by Brad Bird, because I'm such a Pixar fan from
back in the day. I mean, the short films "Luxo Jr." and "Red's Dream," I
would see them at animation festivals, and then I watched all the Pixar films.

Mr. BIRD: You're a nerd, Pat.

Mr. OSWALT: I'm--oh yeah, I'm a huge Pixar nerd, so it's like asking, you
know, a guy--it's like asking some weird "Star Trek" shut-in, `Hey, would you
like to play Kirk's son?' `Excuse me? What? Oh, all right, you know.' You
can't even--I couldn't even get my mind around it that I was doing this.
Luckily, it was a two-year process of doing the voice, so I've been able to
get my footing at this point. You know, if it had been quicker, I would be
the worst guy to promote this movie...

GROSS: Brad...

Mr. OSWALT: ...because I would just be, `I can't believe I met Brad Bird and
we talked and we had sandwiches. OK, so this is weird.' It would be so
pathetic, you wouldn't want to talk to me right now.

GROSS: Brad Bird, did you cast Patton Oswalt and what made you think that his
voice would be perfect for the main rat?

Mr. BIRD: Well, actually, you know, he was talking. I heard this comedy
routine he did, "Black Angus" about Black Angus, and he was so volatile about
food and so passionate and funny about it, you know, it just struck me,
`That's the character.' You know? He's so volatile, but in a good way. I
mean, you know, Patton has very strong opinions about anything and he'll let
you know, and when he loves something, he loooves it, and when he hates
something, he haaates it. And that kind of extreme emotion is perfect for
Remy, you know.

GROSS: Patton, can you do a little bit of the Black Angus bit that Brad Bird
heard you do?

Mr. OSWALT: Yes, it is very early in LA. I'll try to do it with the same
energy that he heard but basically it's about how the commercials for the
Black Angus restaurant. And Black Angus used to be a very friendly
restaurant, where, `Come in and have a steak and have a baked potato. It will
be a good time.' And you go, `That sounds fine.' And then over the past few
years, the commercials have turned into this like gauntlet of threatening food
where it doesn't even look pleasant any more. And there's this--it sounds
like an initiation rite.

(In character) Now at Black Angus we'll start you off with an appetizer
platter featuring five jumbo deep fried gulf shrimp, served with a side of our
butter and cheese cream soup, and 15 of our potato bacon bombs and a big bowl
of pork cracklins, with our cheesy butter sauce.

Mr. BIRD: And what the hell? A couple of corn dogs.

Mr. OSWALT: Exactly! And you're like, you know, `We're each going to split
that.'

(In character) No! You'll each get your own! Then we'll take you to our
mile-long soup and salad bar with our he man five head of iceberg lettuce
salad served in a canoe, with 18 pounds of ranch dressing, and what the heck,
four cheeseburgers.

Like, `Oh man, you know what? I just--how about I'll just get a little mixed
green salad?

(In character) Hey, I'll put on a dress and curtsy before I bring you a mixed
green, buddy.

`Uh, why are you yelling at me?'

And it just keeps--it just never ends. Yeah.

GROSS: Brad Bird, why did that make you think of the refined rat in your
movie?

Mr. BIRD: You know, I don't know. I think it was the passion that I was
responding to more than anything else. The fact that he could get so wound up
about the food, you know, because, you know, Patton also talked about how he
just loves steak, you know? And...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: The weird thing is is that I didn't really grok that Patton was a
foodie. That was just one of many routines that...

Mr. OSWALT: Did you just say grok? You just said...

Mr. BIRD: Hey, that's a Steve Jobs word, by the way.

Mr. OSWALT: You called me a nerd and you said grok?

GROSS: It precedes...

Mr. BIRD: Hey, that's a Steve Jobs word...

GROSS: It precedes Steve Jobs, doesn't it?

Mr. BIRD: ...and I learned it from Steve Jobs.

GROSS: Isn't that from like Vonnegut or something? Is it...

Mr. OSWALT: I think it's Heinlein.

Mr. BIRD: I don't know. Steve used it and..

GROSS: No, oh, it's Heinlein. Robert Heinlein. Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, I just nerded out again!

Mr. BIRD: You outnerded me, yes.

Mr. OSWALT: Like, excuse me, Terry. No, it's Heinlein, not Vonnegut.
Excuse me, no, you're wrong.

Mr. BIRD: Oh yeah. Isn't that Lovecraft? Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Grok.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. No, I actually heard that from Steve Jobs. So, yeah, OK.
So Steve uses that word.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, OK, good.

Mr. BIRD: So now, it's been denerdified. It's now officially cool because
Steve used it.

Mr. OSWALT: Whoo-hoo.

Mr. BIRD: Yes. But I didn't know that he was a foodie. We actually hired
him and he was working before I knew that he was--this is like a major thing
for Patton. If he goes to any town, he scouts out what is the most happening
restaurant in that town...

Mr. OSWALT: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BIRD: ...and he will send you a menu. I mean, he will e-mail you...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...the menu from a great restaurant, and he's e-mailed me a few.
And he'll like say...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...`Order this.'

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, yeah.

Mr. BIRD: And, you know, I mean, he's a major foodie, and that's perfect,
but we didn't know it when we hired him.

GROSS: My guests are Brad Bird, the writer and director of "Ratatouille," and
Patton Oswalt, who does the voice of the main character.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Brad Bird, the writer and director of the new animated
film "Ratatouille," and comedian Patton Oswalt, who does the voice of the main
character, Remy, a rat who wants to be a chef.

So, Patton, did you change your voice at all to play a rat?

Mr. OSWALT: No, they stressed to me--I went in thinking--because I do a lot
of voiceovers so I was like, `OK, I've got to think of a cool character.' And
Brad really stressed to me, `We want your voice. It's the way you talk, it's
the way you get wound up and passionate about stuff.' They also stressed to
me, `It's the nonjudgmental enthusiasm you have,' where I'm never like going,
`Oh, now, is this cool to be into? Should I temper my enthusiasm for this?' I
sort of have that Asperger's syndrome. I'm just going to be into this and I
just kind of shut the rest of the world out, and that's sort of Remy's
strength and predicament, when you think about it.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, he said Asperger.

GROSS: Brad, how did you direct Patton?

Mr. BIRD: A lot of animation directors get behind the glass and the actor is
kind of out there like in a fishbowl, but I always try to be in the room with
them.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, he was--you were really in the room with me, man.

Mr. BIRD: Oh yeah, man. I'm just hovering.

Mr. OSWALT: You were.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. Actually there were beads of sweat dropping on his script,
you know. You can...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: No, but I kind of sit there and hang out in the room. And if we
have trouble with an area, you know, if something was great, I mean, read fine
on the page but doesn't sound good coming out of someone's mouth, then I'll
try to rewrite it on the spot. You know, I'm there with them. I don't want
them to feel alone and kind of alienated. Which the recording sessions can be
that way, if they're out in a room all alone and there's a wall of people
behind the glass and you can't hear them kind of, you know, talking to each
other, I think that's an alienating thing, so I try to hang out with the
actors. And so, you know, I just work with them. I try to tell them where it
is in the movie and what the character is feeling. And sometimes if it's a
physical effect, if they're doing something that's really physical, I'll try
to get them kind of close to that. I mean, we dumped water on Patton and...

Mr. OSWALT: I know.

Mr. BIRD: The poor guy. I mean, he really did give his all for this movie.

GROSS: So...

Mr. OSWALT: You also like--he would grab my arm and he'd yanked me. He
would go, `Just read your line normally.' And I'd start to read it and he
would push me from behind and it would change the reading. He was like a very
friendly Peckinpah, now that I think about it. It was very nice.

And also, he could--the thing about people don't realize about Brad Bird, is
he's--you're a really good voiceover actor, so every scene I was in, the other
lines, he could just kind of summon the other characters so, you know, I
didn't work with any other actors but I certainly worked with their
characters. So if I was getting intimidated by my dad, that was happening in
the studio. He would be reading my dad's lines, really, and they would change
my performance. It was great.

GROSS: Now, you know, the movie kind of is really enamored of wonderful food,
but it also satirizes very pretentious food and pretentious people who are
foodies.

Mr. BIRD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So in your tours of the finest restaurants as research for the movie,
if you could each share one of the most pretentious...

Mr. BIRD: You laugh, Terry.

GROSS: ...food things that you experienced.

Mr. BIRD: Pretentious food things for 20.

Mr. BIRD: I can't think of a specific thing that, I mean, we were at the top
one in Paris at the moment, you know, two years ago that we went. And they
had, you know, a guy for each person at the table. You know, five of them
would descend on your table at once, like a D-Day landing. And they'd go
vum-vum-vum-vum...(makes noise to simulate dishes being set on table). And
you'd get everything at once. You know what I mean? All the dishes would be
landing at the same time, hot. And, you know, the amount of coordination that
it would take to do that is just staggering. And they are that good, which is
why they get three Michelin stars.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BIRD: And, you know, as goofy as it is, we wanted to have that kind of
feeling in the movie, because, you know, the movie is nuts. I mean, it's a
crazy idea. But if you can surround it with believable, you know, observed
truths, you can kind of--that kind of buoys up the movie and makes the fantasy
more believable.

GROSS: Patton, what's one of the most pretentious foodie things that you
witnessed?

Mr. OSWALT: Well, I remember Brad Bird and his wife took me and my wife to
the French Laundry in Yountville...

Mr. BIRD: Yes.

Mr. OSWALT: ...as part of research.

Mr. BIRD: Thomas Keller is a consultant on the film.

Mr. OSWALT: Thomas Keller. Oh, yeah, he designs a very crucial dish in the
movie. But they had--it was a 17-course meal except that my wife and I would
get course A, Brad and his wife got course B, and you would taste and then
pass around, so it was 34-course tasting. And I remember near the end of the
meal--it was almost like, it was like, it was almost like, `Is this a thing
they do in Guantanamo because I'm literally about to--I will tell you--I'll
give you...'

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, they get your guard down.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah. `Just stop, I can't take it anymore.' So it got to the
point where my wife--they brought out pork loin three ways. And it was, of
course, delicious, but my wife like took a little bite of each one and then
she said, `I physically, unless a waiter comes and tamps down the food, like
puts his foot down my throat, I can't eat any more food.' And the waiter gave
this look, like, is there a reason you're not eating this right now?

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, that's what they'll do. That's what they do.

Mr. OSWALT: She goes, `I love it but I'm just so full.' And he looked like
he was about to go back in the kitchen and get stabbed, like they were going
to kill him. He was so upset.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: `Why aren't you eating this?' We're like, `Because you've given
us 25 courses.' There was a salt course. Oh, here, OK, listen to this, Terry.
Here's pretension.

Mr. BIRD: Five different kinds of salt.

Mr. OSWALT: Five different--there was a salt course. Five different kinds
of salt. This was found at a fossil dig in Montana. It dates from the
Jurassic period.

Mr. BIRD: He's not kidding.

Mr. OSWALT: I'm not kidding.

Mr. BIRD: He's not kidding.

Mr. OSWALT: It's a black fossil salt. It was just like, `Is Ashton Kutcher
going to come out and like yell at us?'

Mr. BIRD: `And I'll think you'll be amused by its presumption.' You know.

Mr. OSWALT: `You'll be...'

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, and how about--remember the butter course? It comes from a
single cow...

Mr. BIRD: Yes.

Mr. OSWALT: ...that they own at a...

Mr. BIRD: They...

Mr. OSWALT: And they know the name of the cow. They know...

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: ...the name of the cow. This came from...

Mr. BIRD: They know what it's fed.

Mr. OSWALT: Bossy.

Mr. BIRD: Bossy

Mr. OSWALT: In Vermont.

Mr. BIRD: And we're one of only two...

Mr. OSWALT: It was really...

Mr. BIRD: ...places on earth that can get Bossy. The thing is is that we're
laughing about it but at the same time, you can taste a difference.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, it's ridiculous.

Mr. BIRD: And that's the most ridiculous thing is that the five different
kinds of salt actually do taste different.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh yeah.

Mr. BIRD: And they actually bring different aspects out in the food. I
mean, if you pay attention. On one hand, you're laughing about it because
it's...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...it's obsessive, you know, somebody is super into this and
Keller...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...is as into this as Patton is to comedy...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...and I am into filmmaking. But the truth of the matter is, if
you're paying attention, it actually is a different experience. And the
butter was different. Some of it was sweeter.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh.

Mr. BIRD: And some of it was creamier.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh.

Mr. BIRD: And they were all--it actually was an experience. But just next
time, just a little mercy, that's all.

GROSS: Well, Brad Bird, Patton Oswalt, thank you both so much for talking
with us.

Mr. BIRD: It's been really fun. I love your show, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, thank you.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. Yeah, thanks for having me back. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. It's really been a pleasure talking with you both.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

GROSS: And congratulations on the new film.

Mr. BIRD: Thanks.

Mr. OSWALT: Thank you.

GROSS: Brad Bird wrote and directed the new film "Ratatouille." Patton Oswalt
does the voice of the main character, Remy. Oswalt has a new comedy CD that
will be released new month.

Coming up, a soprano who caught the attention of George Gershwin. Lloyd
Schwartz reviews a new CD of her rare recordings.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Music critic Lloyd Schwartz recommends CD of soprano
Ruby Elzy

TERRY GROSS, host:

Even among lovers of great singing, Ruby Elzy is not a household name. But
classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says she was not only a wonderful singer
but a figure of historic importance. A new biography of her and a collection
of her rare recordings now document her considerable achievement.

(Soundbite of Ruby Elzy singing)

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The story of Ruby Elzy is a powerful example of how
talent can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. One of four children, she
was born, her biographer David Weaver tells us, in abject poverty in a small
town in Mississippi. Her father abandoned the family when Ruby was five, but
she could sing. A visiting professor, astounded by her voice, helped her get
into college, then she got a fellowship to Juilliard.

In 1933, she appeared opposite Paul Robeson in the movie version of Eugene
O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones." When George Gershwin heard her sing, he cast
her in the major role of Serena in his new opera "Porgy and Bess." She made
her Broadway debut in this role in 1935 at the age of 27, and sang the part
more than 800 times on Broadway and on tour. Her future success was all but
guaranteed. She had an extraordinary soprano voice, both pure and searing.
She was good-looking and she could act.

Serena is the woman whose husband is murdered by the villain, Crown, and
Elzy's rendition of "My Man's Gone Now" electrified the audience. She never
made a commercial recording of it, but three of her performances have
survived. Two of them from radio broadcasts. Before "Porgy" opened, Gershwin
took five of the leading players into a recording studio to conduct parts of
the opera with an orchestra. On this rehearsal recording made on August 19th,
1935, here's Gershwin himself introducing and conducting Ruby Elzy in "My
Man's Gone Now."

(Soundbite of Recording)

Mr. GEORGE GERSHWIN: Now we have a song by Ms. Ruby Elzy in the second act,
scene one, called "My Man Is Gone Now." I'm sorry, it's from scene two--scene
two, act one.

Ms. ELZY: (Singing)
My man's gone now
Ain't no use listenin'
For his tired footsteps
Climbin' up the stairs
Ahhhhhh

Old man sorrow's
Come to keep me company
Whisperin' beside me
When I say my prayers
Ahhhhhhh...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: All three of Elzy's surviving performances of "My Man's Gone
Now" are on a remarkable new disc compiled by David Weaver that includes all
20 of her known recordings, the majority of which are spirituals.

(Soundbite of Ruby Elzy song)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: In 1941, Ruby Elzy appeared in another film, "Birth of the
Blues" with Bing Crosby and Mary Martin. She had already made her recital
debut at New York's Town Hall and been invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to sing at
the White House. Her repertoire also included art songs and arias, the most
ambitious of which is probably "Elsa's Dream" from Wagner's opera "Lohengrin."
This stunning performance is from 1937.

(Soundbite of Ruby Elzy singing in foreign language)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: In the 1930s and '40s it would have been impossible for an
African-American singer, however extraordinary, to sing Wagner's lily-white
heroine in a fully staged opera production. But in 1943, Elzy was preparing
the role of Verdi's Ethiopian princess Aida, when she had to have surgery. It
was supposed to be a relatively minor operation, but she died in a Detroit
hospital at the age of 35.

Since her death, she's been largely overlooked, except for Gershwin mavens.
But thanks to her biographer turned record producer David Weaver, no one who
hears this recording could forget her.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the
new CD "Ruby Elzy in Song: Rare Recordings, 1935 to 1942," on the Cambria
label.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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