Movies are becoming more like television, and television is becoming more like movies
“It was like walking a tightrope in a windstorm.” That’s how director Brad Bird describes making Tomorrowland, the big-budget road-to-Utopia action film that hit theaters in May. The film follows Casey (Britt Roberston), a brainy teenager on an odyssey toward the dreamlike futureland. “The film was, in some ways, the most difficult I’ve ever worked on,” says Bird now. “You could very easily go, ‘How will the audience know what this is?’ You add a couple lines to explain it, and suddenly the scene is bogged down.”
Tomorrowland arrives on Blu-ray/DVD/OnDemand/etc. on Oct. 13. To celebrate, Bird shared a nifty short scene from the film, featuring Hugh Laurie’s mysterious Nix and a closer look at one aspect of Tomorrowland‘s mysterious titular cityscape. The director — who’s currently working on a sequel to his 2004 superteam masterpiece The Incredibles — also got on the phone to the discuss making the movie, his feelings about Tomorrowland‘s financial failure, and the current state of Hollywood in the franchise era. (Full disclosure: Tomorrowland was co-written by my colleague/occasional podcasting partner, Jeff Jensen.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In this deleted scene, we see Hugh Laurie’s character taking the Mona Lisa and other artwork from around the world. It reminded me of one of my favorite films, John Frankenheimer’s The Train, where the Nazis steal all the great artwork of France.
BRAD BIRD: Written by Walter Bernstein, right?
We just figured, what would an enlightened person do? They would try to at least preserve, as quickly as they can, what they could, using the means at their disposal. There was an arrogance to it, too, which was kind of interesting.
Nix is an interesting character to think about, because we aren’t necessarily told a whole lot about him. What was he planning? Does he have a giant museum just for himself?
I think if you had asked him, he would have seen it as being about future generations, because it’s important. He doesn’t seem to be in any huge hurry to save people. That is us trying to suggest someone who has got a great intellect, but whose empathy needs a little work.
There are a lot of interesting visual reference points within the design of Tomorrowland. You’ve talked a lot about the influence of EPCOT and Walt Disney’s ideas toward the end of his life. Because I’m from the Bay Area, Tomorrowland itself reminded me of a slightly totalitarian version of the Googleplex. Were there any other visual points you really wanted to make?
I feel like a certain segment of the audience might have been disappointed with us, because they thought we were totally in Tomorrowland. We were really a road movie about going to Tomorrowland. What is that expectation? When you get there, are you enlightened? Disappointed? What is your reaction? Because of that, the amount of time that Tomorrowland was on the screen was somewhat limited. We had to make as many points about it as we could without slowing down the narrative.
For every 10 ideas that we had, we could really only do one. The sequence where Casey touches the pin, and you have an uninterrupted long take of Tomorrowland, was very tough to design. Certain ideas could adapt well to that idea of an unbroken take. Some ideas weren’t conducive to that. It was always this thing that was way too big for the size of box we had, and we were always trying to streamline, and get it all in.
Were there any particular visual ideas that definitely didn’t fit into that shot?
We wanted to show that they had control of the weather, having a storm in the atrium of a place, being able to have lightning and rain on a very small scale. Almost done as a piece of decoration. I was just really happy that I was able to get the floating pools in there. That’s an idea that I’ve had since I was a kid.
You’ve talked a lot about wanting to create something that is very original, creating a new fictional world onscreen. This has been a year where certain entries in long-term franchises have made a huge amount of money. Was it frustrating for you that Tomorrowland didn’t get that same reaction?
Of course it was frustrating. It was like accidentally giving a weapons cache to ISIS. [laughs]
How do you mean?
For whatever reason, it didn’t hit the way we wanted it to hit. I didn’t want the studio to be rapped on the nose for doing something original, and then given extra big treats and an air-conditioned suite for repeating old ideas. That seemed to be kind of what happened this summer. I can just say that I hope Christopher Nolan comes up with another Inception, an original idea that rewards the risk-takers.
I’m very grateful to Disney, though, that they supported us in making this film. Because it exists now. With Iron Giant, much was made of the fact that the studio didn’t market it properly, or whatever. But for me, the overriding emotion is I’m grateful to Warner Bros. for giving me the opportunity to make it. Because now it exists, and people can discover it. The movies outlast the criticism of the moment. They exist separate from all that, in time.
People right now can’t believe that 2001 was an object of ridicule by a lot of people. Wizard of Oz wasn’t a hit until the late ’50s, y’know? My favorite Disney animated feature, Pinocchio —which is, adjusted for inflation, one of the most successful movies ever made — was a flop on its original release. So I’m proud of the movie we made. Already, I’m getting a lot of feedback from people who did not see it at the theaters, because it didn’t garner as much critical support as was maybe desired, but who saw it on the plane and were, like, “I love this! I’m sending it to friends.”
We got to tell a story. I’m grateful to the studio for supporting us. We’ll see where it goes from here.
A lot of people talk about originality, but it’s interesting to me that what you’re saying is, to a certain extent, in the text of Tomorrowland. Do you feel like the audience nowadays is freaked out about the possibility of an original thing versus an extension of a previous thing?
I don’t even know. I would really hesitate to be any kind of spokesman on this, because my understanding of it is obviously very limited. [laughs] All I know is that movies are becoming more like television, and television is becoming more like movies. Television is taking the risks, and movies are settling in to Your Favorite Weekly Program.
In a lot of cinemas, they don’t even bother putting up the number anymore. When Harry Potter was coming out, they’d just put “Harry Potter” on the cinema ever two years. Whatever the name of the franchise is, they don’t even bother to delinate that it’s the latest episode. It’s like it’s this week’s episode of a long-running TV show.
So many people this past summer, when they were talking about the biggest film of the year, called it Jurassic Park, not Jurassic World.
Yeah, but look, obviously, I’m not against sequels. I did a sequel and really enjoyed it. I’m doing another one now. Many of my favorite movies are sequels. But I do worry when it’s taking up more than fifty percent of the big-budget bandwidth, the collective bandwidth of Hollywood, it starts to worry me because it means nothing new is getting introduced into the ecosystem. That’s not healthy for the long-term view of film. Every studio should, like an allowance, allow themselves a certain number of franchise things, and then as an investment in the future, try these risky things that are unproven. At one time, Star Wars was a risky venture.
I would hope that our film will pay back and reward Disney’s investment in the long run, and they will continue to make original films as well as the franchises that are a little more pre-sold.
Your name has been linked, somewhat hopefully, to the Star Wars franchise. Every Star Wars fan — which most people on Earth are now — has a character or aspect of the franchise they gravitate towards. Is there a part of the franchise you enjoy the most?
I love the original films. I love all of the characters in the original trilogy. Kathy Kennedy is a very canny producer, and she’s getting some really interesting people to play in that sandbox. Colin Trevorrow, who just did Jurassic World, is directing Episode IX. And I’m just looking forward to seeing what they do.
*NOTE: Walter Bernstein was one of the co-writers of The Train, but actually received no screenplay credit, since at the time he was blacklisted by the studios for his ties to the Communist party.