1906: What Could've Been Pixar's First Live-Action Movie - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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1906: What Could've Been Pixar's First Live-Action Movie

When Pixar didn't feel the earth move.
Throughout the course of the company's lifetime, Pixar's name has gone hand-in-hand with quality CGI animation, thanks to their impressive collection of feature-length movies and short-films produced within the medium. But 15 years ago they had plans to move into live-action productions, and if it hadn't of been for a protracted period of development hell we may have seen their first efforts arriving about a decade back. Here we explore just what the film was and why it didn't come to pass.

Pixar had begun life as a part of the Lucasfilm team, working on CGI effects for movies including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where they created the Genesis Effect. So they'd had history of working within the live-action format, and indeed continued to on occasions once they branched out into their own independent company. In recent years they worked on a sequence combining live-action and animation for Mary Poppins Returns, but it wasn't just animation they turned their hand to within this field. For instance, Pixar was brought on board to fine tune the script for 2011's The Muppets. However, 2005 would see them commit to a much more elaborate live-action project based upon the novel 1906, written by James Dalessandro.
Although not published until 2004, Dalessandro had pitched a 38-page outline and six finished chapters to a variety of Hollywood movie studios back in 1998. The idea for the film, and subsequent novel, was to be based upon events surrounding the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, and titled after the event. Dalessandro's story was one of corruption, romance, revenge, rescue, and murder, based on then-recently uncovered facts that changed the understanding of what actually occurred in the weeks and days before and after the earthquake of April 18th 1906.

Set within Gilded Age-era San Francisco; from the opulent mansions on Nob Hill to the gambling, prostitution and crime-ridden Barbary Coast, to the arrival of Enrico Caruso and the San Francisco Metropolitan Opera. The central plot of 1906 circles around the ongoing battles between political and cultural factions before the earthquake, and even as the city burns afterwards. Sounds just like a Pixar film, doesn't it?

Er, no! Which is why neither Pixar was not even approached at the time, but many other studios were, including Walt Disney productions, but in July 1998 a bidding war for the screenrights was won by Warner Brothers Pictures. Film producer Len Amato wanted Dalessandro to write at least three drafts. After completing these drafts and a variety of other minor rewrites, Dalessandro returned to penning the actual novel, which was published in 2004.
With Dalessandro's screenplay completed, Amato estimated that 1906 would need a budget of at least $200 million to successfully adapt it for the screen. Too rich, at the time, for Warner Bros. alone, so they agreed a financial partnership deal with Walt Disney Pictures to co-finance this film, along with the eventual 2006 release The Prestige. Unlike The Prestige, Pixar was invited to be joint-partners on the deal for 1906. The idea being that even though this would be a live-action film with real actors and shot traditionally on location and sound stages, areas of the production would have to be created with CGI effects - not at all unlike 90% of Hollywood's big budget movies today. Pixar would work on the process of combining the two in the most natural, real-life way, and be hands-on with all aspects of the project.
How hands-on? Well, fresh from success with The Incredibles, Brad Bird was approached to direct the live-action film. Interested, Bird began re-working the screenplay himself, but paused his work on the project after being approached by Pixar management to direct and co-write the 2007 animated film Ratatouille. Once that film was completed and released, Bird officially signed-up to direct the 1906 project in March 2008. A joint live-action venture with Warners, Disney and Pixar was quite some prospect, and the announcement was greeted with much anticipation.

At this time Warner Bros. reserved every sound-studios available on their Burbank lot for the production, and it seemed full steam ahead on the project. However, later in the spring of 2008, Warner Bros. quietly released the reservations while Brad Bird continued rewriting the screenplay in order to lessen the massive scope of the story. All went quiet for the best part of a year until MTV News reported that Bird had been scouting locations. Information from Dalessandro indicated that the film would likely be shot in Vancouver, New Zealand or Australia.
In 2011, whilst promoting Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocal, Bird was asked outright about the film project and what was happening. He confirmed it was still an active project for him but there were issues with narrowing the scope of such a manner as to be true to the story within the constraints of practical film length.
"I don’t know. It’s all about getting the story to work, and the canvas is so big on it that it’s easy to bust down its movie-sized walls and go rampaging throughout the countryside. The problem has always been scaling it and containing it in a movie-sized length. It’s really a movie that wants to be a miniseries. But if you did it as a miniseries, then you’d have to do it for the small screen, and the story demands to be told on a big screen. So we’re still working on it."
In February 2012, it was revealed that a further rewrite of Dalessandro's script had been completed by Michael Hirst, and Brad Bird was now rewriting it yet again. But just two months later the annoucement came that Disney and Pixar had both left the project, which is now in limbo at Warner Bros. Pictures.

But just because the two studios departed, this did not mean that Brad Bird said goodbye to 1906, as even as recently as June 2018 Bird mentioned the possibility of adapting the book as an amalgam of a TV series and a live-action feature film, with the series providing the meat of the story; the political and cultural factions of the day, leading up to a full-length live-action feature film set on the day of the earthquake itself.

If 1906 ever does come to the screen, big or small, it likely won't be a Pixar project anymore. But once upon a time it was an active concern for the animation studio who were looking to make the move into live-action features.

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