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Doc Jensen's brave new world: His journey to Tomorrowland

EW’s critic has written about movies for more than a decade. Then, five years ago, he was invited to help write one himself.

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It began with a scoop any film journalist would love to break. Dec. 17, 2010. Damon Lindelof, a creator of Lost, asked me to lunch to discuss a secret movie he was developing for Disney. It would be an original sci-fi adventure for a family audience. It had a code name, “1952,” the year Walt Disney Imagineering launched, but its real title was a word that summed up Disney’s futuristic worldview: Tomorrowland.

But the juiciest part of the scoop was this: Damon wanted me to help him write it. He knew of my passion for sci-fi from my hyperlink-y, theory-heavy Lost recaps. He wanted that same research-steeped creative thinking applied to Tomorrowland. He thought I could help build a rich, deep world and shape a sci-fi story about sci-fi stories, especially the ones that influence and inform our attitudes and perspectives about the future. He thought I could be a screenwriter. After all, I wrote about making movies for a living. Surely I knew something about it. Right? Gulp.

For the first year of our collaboration we kicked around several approaches, but we were always guided by Walt’s original plan for Epcot: an actual “experimental prototype community of tomorrow,” an ever-evolving laboratory to develop ideas that would improve the world. We wondered: What if Walt really had built such a place? What if it still existed? What if someone went on a journey to find it? Eventually, the beats of a script began to fill a bulletin board on colored index cards. A yellow card was given to one of the first images we brainstormed: Our heroine, Casey (Britt Robertson), mysteriously transported to Tomorrowland, would land in a field of wheat. Blue cards were assigned to Frank Walker (George Clooney), a fallen, disillusioned dreamer. 

Damon and I had Brad Bird on the brain to direct from day one. When I imagined the feel of Tomorrowland, I pictured the end of The Iron Giant, the scattered parts of that great big beautiful robot reassembling itself anew. But it would be J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot that brought Brad on board. In 2011 Damon did some work for Brad and J.J. on Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. He started talking up Tomorrowland to Brad, who was keenly interested. Brad began his animation career at Disney and had a passion for Disney futurism. In January 2012 we pitched him our story. Within weeks I was working for the guy who made The Incredibles. Incredible.

Brad arrived at a crucial time. Our first draft had too much plot, too much mythology, too much muchness. Making the film “work” required skills, experience, and talent I didn’t and may never have. Brad worked closely with Damon to find solutions and to improve every element from beginning to end. I thought my time on Tomorrowland was over, but Brad and Damon wanted me to stay and help as much as I could, however I could.

One of my favorite memories was a writers’ retreat at Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch. Here, many ideas were tested and discarded. One that stuck: a fight sequence set inside a comic-book store involving a weapon that froze time. It would be an intricate action ballet full of character, comedy, and real peril. Listening to Brad talk through and act out how he’d direct it was thrilling. I was watching Tomorrowland become a Brad Bird film right before my eyes. 

While Brad was finishing the script with Damon, he was also working with a team of artists to imagine what our city of the future could look like. I remember seeing their work for the first time. I was supposed to give notes, but I was struck speechless. Damon recognized the look. “Sh-t just got real, didn’t it?” he said.

I continued contributing to Tomorrowland, from marketing programs to “expanded-world storytelling,” including some faux commercials for our Blast From the Past store with Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn. I also co-wrote a novel, Before Tomorrowland, a distant prequel to the film filled with the mythology of the secret society responsible for building our city of the future. We shot in Vancouver, Florida, Spain, the Bahamas, and Disneyland, and it was always exciting to visit the set and see the stuff we’d dreamed up become…well, stuff—be it Frank’s farmhouse or the Spectacle, our antique rocket ship. Still, I was an infrequent presence during production due to my desire to be at home with my wife, who was fighting brain cancer. She passed away last June, without ever having seen a moment of the movie.

The Tomorrowland experience was exhilarating and surreal. It was also an illuminating confrontation with my limits. But it has given my family something so valuable: a story, one that encourages us and challenges us to live optimistically amid uncertainty, fear, hurt, and anger. I’m fiercely proud of the movie and grateful for everyone who made it. Now it belongs to you. For the last time, sh-t’s about to get real. I hope you like it. But if you don’t, you can tell me. I can take it. After all, I’m a critic.