What do Vin Diesel, Sylvia Plath, Gun Control, Pete Townsend, John Alvin, and The Sixth Sense have in common?
They are all connected in some way to cult classic and critical darling The Iron Giant, which was famously successful Pixar exec Brad Bird’s directorial debut, back in 1999. At the time, it was a flop. In fact, after sitting through the film on opening day surrounded by only 6 other people, producer John Walker stood outside an LA theater and offered to buy people tickets to see the film.
While wading through all the wonderful art in the John Alvin art collection, we found original art he created for The Iron Giant movie campaign. Ever since I saw the giant make a dramatic cameo in Ready Player One, the big sweet robot has been more in my thoughts, so it was doubly exciting to find work by John representing the movie, especially since art from the film is so hard to come by. As with some of the best film flops like The Princess Bride, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Blade Runner, and Fight Club, The Iron Giant has grown in popularity and appreciation year after year, as more generations and savvy movie lovers get to see it and fall head over heels with it.
However, as I discovered researching The Iron Giant for this blog, there is much sadness surrounding both the original story and the film. I guess somewhere in the deepest recesses of my collective unconscious mind, I must have sensed it was the perfect film to highlight while our global family is struggling with the sadness and shock of a sweeping pandemic.
The story is based on a book called The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights, by poet Ted Hughes, who wrote it to cheer his children through the loss of their mother Sylvia Plath, who killed herself by sticking her head in an oven, having sealed the room between herself and her children with tape, towels, and cloths. That’s a rather dire start, I’ll admit, but it came from a place of a parent’s desire to comfort, which resonates right now. The book was published in 1968, though for US publication, the name was changed to The Iron Giant so as not to confuse it with the Marvel character.
Vin Diesel was the voice of the title character, and he was hired for the role very early in his acting career, having only been really landed on Hollywood’s radar through playing Private Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan. The Iron Giant also featured the voices of Jennifer Aniston as Hogart Hughes’s mom Annie, Harry Connick Jr. as beatnik Dean McCoppin, and Cloris Leachman as Hogarth’s schoolteacher Mrs. Tensedge.
Pete Townsend took the book and turned it into a musical. This is where it gets awesome. It STARRED NINA SIMONE! (and John Lee Hooker, and Roger Daltrey..) On the strength of stage version mounted in 1993 at The Old Vic, Warner Brothers bought the rights to the story, and that’s how the making of the movie got its beginnings.
Here she is, singing “Fast Food”, one of the songs from the musical:
Here’s a music video with Pete Townshend made for the breakout hit from the musical, A Friend is a Friend:
Since John Alvin had done work for the previous animated film by Warner Brothers, Quest for Camelot, Alvin Studios was brought in early on, to work on logo designs. They are some of the only images from the film out in the world. We are thrilled to have the only John Alvin art from The Iron Giant, all of which, if purchased, comes with an official certificate of authenticity from the estate of John Alvin.
Most of the production art resides, bizarrely, 650 feet under the ground in a salt mine that’s been in existence since the 20s, where Warner Brothers archives many of their films. The art is beautiful. (and you can buy a book on The Art of The Iron Giant HERE.)
One of the many reasons why the film didn’t do well in initial release, is the fact that other surprising films came out at the same time. Both The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project came out at the same time. Still, those films certainly don’t have the obsessive fanbase The Iron Giant has built since 1999.
As to gun violence? When Brad Bird pitched the idea after reading the original book, he said he wanted to make it a bit different, and offered, “What if a gun had a soul?” This came out of mourning. Brad Bird’s sister Susan was shot to death by her estranged husband.
“Maybe because I was still trying to draw together my own pieces after the death of my sister,” he said, “I had an epiphany: What if a thing developed a soul and what if that thing found out that it was designed to kill, but didn’t want to kill? What if a gun had a soul and didn’t want to be a gun?”
About his loss, he said, “When you shoot somebody, you’re not just killing that person. You’re killing a part of all the people that love that person.”
There’s a quote in the movie by Hogarth to his gigantic friend, “It’s bad to kill. Guns kill. And you don’t have to be a gun. You are what you choose to be. You choose.”
Brad Bird dedicated The Iron Giant to her.
The message of the film is about sacrifice, and, as the quote “You are who you choose to be” says, it’s about embracing who you are, not who others wish you to be, or what a hard life, or challenges, (like the ones we are experiencing now!) have allowed you to become. These are all so powerful, given the current state of the world. For most of us, nothing we are doing right now is easy. There are many sacrifices. However, we can go beyond the idea that we are just about money, and power. The world community can show right now that it is more than that. We can show love and compassion to each other.