'TRON: Legacy' and 'Lost' writers discuss rebooting the sci-fi landmark and their new TV projects
Image Credit: DisneyFor most of Lost’s six seasons, the writing team of Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis played a pivotal role in plotting the adventures of Jack Shephard and castaway company as they struggled to find redemption on a mysterious, light-imbued island that roamed the grid of reality. But for the final three years of producing the now-concluded drama, the scribes were moonlighting in another luminous, down-the-rabbit-hole fantasyland, endeavoring to bring it — or rather, re-introduce it — to the masses. That ambition reached fruition last weekend when Disney’s TRON: Legacy opened in theaters and scored a solid $44 million at the box office. The film –- directed by highly touted commercial helmer Joseph Kosinski and starring Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, and Jeff Bridges in two lookalike roles — figures to be one of the biggest attractions of the holiday weekend. Think of it as the season’s coolest Christmas light display.
For Horowitz, 39 and from New York, and Kitsis, 39 and from Minneapolis, TRON: Legacy marks the beginning of major new phase of their Hollywood lives, one certainly made possible by the success of Lost. They’re also writing the script for Universal Pictures’ Ouija, an adventure/fantasy due in 2012 (and inspired by the Hasbro board game) that the scribes describe as “Indiana Jones with spirits.” Given that the game doesn’t come with any backstory, Horowitz and Kitsis have been energized by the assignment of essentially developing a rich, deep mythology from a very simple and spooky premise that evokes a lot of possibilities. “It’s [a] board that talks to the dead. We thought: Cool,” says Kitsis. “It’s not Jumanji, it’s not Witchboard — it’s a big adventure movie with a genre twist.” The writers are also writing a pilot for ABC Studios based on an idea they’ve nurtured for seven years entitled Once Upon A Time. “It doesn’t just deal with fairy tales,” says Horowitz, “but it uses fairy tales as a jumping off point for a big, broad approach to mythological storytelling.” Horowitz and Kitsis say the potential ongoing series that could come from their pilot script would be similar to Lost in that it would take advantage of a diverse cast to tell a variety of different stories in different genres. Says Kitsis: “This is the kind of storytelling we love, where there are no rules, and we can do anything we want.”
With TRON: Legacy, the writers got to indulge and explore a different kind of creative passion: Their long-abiding fandom of the original TRON, released in 1982, starring Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner and directed by Steven Lisberger. Horowitz recalls coming home from the film dazzled by its then-novel vision of a wonderland inside a computer. “Today, each of us has a personal relationship with computers. We have computers in our homes, in our cars, in our phones,” says Horowitz. “But in 1982, computers were still very much a new thing and weren’t yet de-mystified. I remember coming home from TRON and [I] went to my parents and asked them for a computer. They said: ‘Yeah, those are 40 grand, no way.’ Times have changed.”
“The movie has always stayed with us,” says Kitsis, who met Horowitz during their college days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “One of our first jobs was Popular [the acclaimed, short-lived high school dramedy created by Glee’s Ryan Murphy], and we wrote an episode that had a subplot that involved one of the guys getting grounded, which sucked for him because all he and his friend wanted was to go to the New Beverly theater in Los Angeles to see a special screening of TRON with Bruce Boxleitner. One of the highlights of our TRON: Legacy experience was meeting Bruce and telling him: ‘You were an actual subplot on Popular.’”
In 2007, when the opportunity came their way to relaunch the Tron franchise, the scribes jumped at it. They say they wanted to make a movie that expanded upon the established world of TRON, not invalidate it, while making it accessible to newbies. “We didn’t want to take the movie that we loved as kids and say, ‘That didn’t happen, we’re going to redo it,’” says Kitsis. The movie, set 20 years after the original TRON, envisions the legacy of Bridges’ Kevin Flynn, an idealistic computer whiz who’s convinced the bleeding-edge innovations of his vast, living, evolving virtual reality (“The Grid”) can make the world a better place. (“Steve Jobs-meets-Bill Gates-meets-John Lennon” is how Kitsis/Horowitz thought of him.) The new film establishes that Flynn went mysteriously missing shortly after the death of his wife, leaving his child to be raised by the boy’s grandparents. Now all grown up, Sam (Hedlund) has inherited a controlling chunk of the company his father once ran, ENCOM, but wants nothing to do with it — unless it’s to subvert the interest of its greedy board of directors, who wish to exploit Kevin’s innovations for maximum profit as opposed to following through on the founder’s more utopian ambitions. Things change when Sam receives a message via somewhat outdated technology from the era before text-messaging — a page! — that leads him to the old videogame arcade his father owned, and to a life-changing revelation: Kevin Flynn has been trapped for decades within The Grid, a world that he has only ever known as a bedtime story his father told him as a child. The “bedtime story” idea, brought to life in the film’s opening sequence, was part of the writers’ original pitch, as was the father-son relationship focus — a theme they explored for years in Lost. (FYI, Lost fans should keep their eyes peeled for an appearance by The Numbers that was snuck into TRON: Legacy — not by the writers, but by an f/x artist who was a big Lost fan. However, the reference to Jules Verne’s novel Mysterious Island? Credit Kitsis, a big fan of the book. Joop!)
Horowitz and Kitsis also pitched the idea that Jeff Bridges’ Flynn would be opposed by the very program that he created to help him manage and perfect The Grid: Clu, which resembles a forever young version of Flynn himself. “You know how you look back on your younger self and say, ‘Oh, man, that guy thought he knew everything, but he really knew nothing’? Our idea with Clu was: What if that younger guy was real and alive and he wanted to kill you?” (Yes, there is a role for “TRON” himself, the heroic security program embodied by Boxleitner in the first TRON — but elaborating on him would be a major spoiler.) Bridges himself loved the idea of revisiting TRON from two different character perspectives, and Horowitz and Kitsis say the star contributed much to the characterization of Flynn as a sanguine Zen master — part Neo from The Matrix, part The Dude from The Big Lebowski madeover — by suggesting they draw from various Buddhist texts.
Also important to Team TRON — the writers; director Kosinski; and producers Sean Bailey and Justin Springer — was getting the blessing of Tron creator, Steven Lisberger. Kitsis says they were nervous. “If 20 years from now I heard that someone wanted come in and do a new version of Lost, I don’t know how I would feel about that,” says the writer. “But he was like, ‘Great, come into my sandbox.’ He is Flynn. He has a son that is the same age as Sam in the movie. He was like, ‘You wrote my story.’ It was like we had tapped into something he was feeling without even realizing it.”
Often in filmmaking endeavors, writers pitch an approach, go off and write a script, then disappear from the process after a rewrite or two. Horowitz and Kitsis had a different experience with their first major movie job. After pitching their take on TRON, the scribes worked collaboratively with Kosinski, Bailey, and Springer to develop the script and remained a vital part of the creative process throughout production. It was a smart way to tackle the project, say the writers, especially since so much of TRON is the visual experience of The Grid; the writers admit that the prospect of conjuring The Grid themselves, making it feel like a real, tangible, “visitable” place, was rather intimidating. “Building the world on paper felt like a daunting task. Its very nature — a world that exists within a computer — defies basic screenwriting conventions. Are you writing ‘Interior’ or ‘Exterior’?” says Horowitz. “We had to approach the world from the perspective of character, using Kevin Flynn as an organizing principle, and focus on the emotional relationship from father and son and their reconciliation, which brings profound turns in their respective individual lives.” After a weekend brainstorming retreat with Kosinski and the producers, Horowitz and Kitsis began writing pages, embracing Kosinski’s articulation of the film’s universal theme: “Finding a human connection in a digital world.” They would share pages of their work with Kosinski as they wrote, which would, in turn, inspire Kosinski to come up with ideas that he would feed back to the writers, who would then incorporate them into the script. Horowitz and Kitsis did all of this while working their day jobs at Lost — and continued laboring on the TRON franchise after their work on Lost wrapped up this past spring, producing pages for some additional shooting and developing an animated series spin-off that will launch next summer. “It was a dream job,” says Kitsis of the TRON experience. “Not only were we writing something we loved, something we never thought we’d get to do, but we got to work on it with a great group of people in a collaborative fashion. We came from TV; we learned to write scripts by working with a group of people sitting around a white board coming up with a big idea. It made for a pretty smooth, fitting transition from Lost.”