Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

10 Towering Facts About The Iron Giant

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

When Brad Bird's feature directorial debut hit theaters on August 6, 1999, the film was a critical success. But due to misdirected marketing from Warner Bros., that positive reception didn't carry over into the box office. The Iron Giant would have to wait until the next millennium to achieve its cult status as a modern animated classic. Here are 10 facts worth knowing about the beloved cartoon.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TED HUGHES NOVEL.

Nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes—and his mother, Annie Hughes—both share a name with the British Poet Laureate who wrote the children’s book the film is based on. Published in 1968, Ted Hughes penned The Iron Man to comfort his children after the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath. 

The novel tells the story of a mysterious metal monster who befriends a young boy and becomes the world’s most unlikely hero, but its similarities to the film end there. When Hogarth first encounters the Iron Man in the book, he tricks him by leading him to a covered pit and burying him alive. The robot remains buried for months, eventually digging himself out in time to save the planet from an extraterrestrial invader dubbed the "Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon." The alien later reveals that it had been drawn to the planet by the warfare it witnessed there. The Iron Giant’s anti-war sentiments are slightly more straightforward, with the Giant (spoiler) protecting the world from a nuclear bomb instead of an interstellar dragon.

2. THE SCRIPT RECEIVED PRAISE FROM THE AUTHOR.

Sadly, Hughes passed away a year before the movie was released. He did, however, live long enough to read the script. Despite its departure from the source material, Hughes was impressed. He expressed his approval in a letter to the studio: "I want to tell you how much I like what Brad Bird has done … He’s made a terrific dramatic situation out of the way he’s developed The Iron Giant. I can’t stop thinking about it."

3. IT WAS ORIGINALLY MEANT TO BE A PETE TOWNSHEND MUSICAL.

Before The Iron Man was reimagined as an animated children’s film, it was adapted by The Who guitarist Pete Townshend into a solo concept album of the same name. The 1989 rock opera feature such tracks as "Man Machines," "A Friend Is A Friend," and "I Eat Heavy Metal." In the early '90s, Townshend relaunched his musical concept as an onstage production. This attracted the attention of Warner Bros., and the studio secured the rights with the intention of turning it into an animated musical. 

But Townshend’s rock opera vision never did make it onto the big screen. After Bird signed on to direct, he scrapped the musical numbers and reworked the script, further removing the story from both the rock album and the children’s book it was based on. Townshend remained credited as an executive producer, and after seeing the movie he reportedly commented, "Well, whatever, I got paid."

4. IT WAS BRAD BIRD’S FIRST FEATURE.

As the director of two beloved Pixar films, The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), Bird—a two-time Oscar winner—is considered one of the most respected figures in the animation biz. But it was The Iron Giant that proved his directing chops and instinct for story to John Lasseter and the rest of the Pixar team. 

Before directing his first feature for Warner Bros. animation, Bird got his start at Disney. He sent an animated short to the studio and Disney legend Milt Kahl was so impressed that he took on a teenaged Bird as his protégé. His first animation job was working on The Fox and the Hound (1981), and a few years later he was offered his first shot at writing and directing for the Steven Spielberg series Amazing Stories. Bird really began to receive recognition in the industry after joining The Simpsons. He directed the classic episode “Krusty Gets Busted," which paved the way for him to direct his first feature. For a while that was shaping up to be Ray Gunn, a retro-futuristic film noir inspired by a misunderstanding of a B-52s lyric. He was developing the script for Turner when the studio merged with Warner Bros., and they transferred him to work on an in-development project called The Iron Giant instead.

5. THE TITLE CHARACTER WAS COMPUTER GENERATED.

Despite being considered one of America’s last great traditionally animated films, The Iron Giant’s title character was created entirely with a computer. The creators took careful steps to make sure the Giant blended in seamlessly with the hand-drawn world. They even went so far as to develop a computer program to make the character’s lines wobble slightly, producing a crude, hand-drawn effect. 

6. IT FEATURES A PRE-FAST AND FURIOUS VIN DIESEL.

Before making a name for himself as an action star, Vin Diesel provided his voice to the towering robot in The Iron Giant. Not counting groans and grunts, the Giant utters a grand total of 53 words in the entire film. When Diesel returned to feature voice acting 15 years later for Guardians of the Galaxy, he played Groot, a character whose vocabulary is even more severely limited. 

7. THE DESIGN WAS INSPIRED BY THE ART OF NORMAN ROCKWELL.

The Iron Giant takes place in an idyllic Maine town in the 1950s—a perfect contrast to the themes of McCarthy-era paranoia the film explores. To give the setting more of a wholesome, Americana look, the creators drew inspiration from the art of Edward Hopper, N.C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell. Even the fictional town’s name—Rockwell—is a nod to the iconic American artist. 

8. BRAD BIRD REJECTED THE COMPARISONS TO E.T.

It’s easy to see how a movie about a misunderstood boy who befriends a visitor from outer space, hides him from the government, then says a tearful goodbye following a climactic aerial chase scene would draw comparisons to E.T. CNN’s review mentions the "charming E.T.-like friendship between the boy and the intimidating but apparently benign metal giant," while Roger Ebert said, "Imagine E.T. as a towering metal man, and you have some of the appeal of The Iron Giant." While these comments aren’t exactly negative, Bird apparently didn’t find the comparisons too flattering. He told Salon, "E.T. doesn't go kicking ass. He doesn't make the Army pay. Certainly you risk having your hip credentials taken away if you want to evoke anything sad or genuinely heartfelt."

9. IT INCLUDES CAMEOS FROM TWO DISNEY ANIMATORS.

Though the film was produced by Disney’s historic rival Warner Bros., Bird managed to slip in cameos from two of the studio’s greatest animators. The train workers Kent interviews at the train crash scene are voiced by and modeled after Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Bird’s mentors during his early years at Disney. They also make an appearance at the end of The Incredibles.

10. IT GAINED A CULT FOLLOWING AFTER IT LEFT THEATERS. 

By the time Warner Bros. realized they had something special on their hands with The Iron Giant, it already was too late. The film was criminally under-marketed and performed poorly at the box office as a result. The studio had learned its lesson when it came time to promote the movie’s home video release. They partnered with big-name brands like General Motors, Honey Nut Cheerios, and AOL, and even distributed $2 off coupons at screenings of Pokémon: The First Movie. Then in 2000, the rights to the film were sold to Cartoon Network and TNT. Cartoon Network started airing Iron Giant marathons on Independence Day and Thanksgiving, and as more children (and adults) were introduced to the film it eventually gained a devoted fanbase.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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