Days of future past are on full display in Disney’s Tomorrowland, the studio’s time-bending, world-building epic and next hopeful blockbuster out May 22. A story of a young, wide-eyed science whiz and the cantankerous genius with whom she teams up to – what else? – save the world, the film presents a visual and visceral feast with not-so-subtle political undertones and intellectual gravitas intended to keep audiences thinking long after the ride is over.
The cast and filmmakers, including stars George Clooney and Britt Robertson, along with writer-producer-director Brad Bird, writer-producer Damon Lindelof and writer Jeff Jensen, joined reporters at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. May 8 for an in-depth, behind-the-scenes discussion of how Tomorrowland is a statement on not only the future of movies, but even mankind.
Lindelof set the tone with a revealing explanation of why he gravitated toward the colorful, gee-whiz elements of Tomorrowland’s decidedly nontraditional dystopia, particularly in the midst of far bleaker and more explosive narratives topping the box office.
“I’ve always been really interested in the future and I kind of feel like all the movies that I’ve been exposed to over the course of the last 20-30 years have shown me a future that I don’t really want to be living in,” the Lost scribe admitted, squeezing in a slight dig toward the Hunger Games and Avengers franchises, along with most recent pop culture behemoth Mad Max: Fury Road. “It’s cool to watch, but teenagers trying to kill other teenagers, or robots eradicating mankind, or, you know, apocalyptic wastelands, albeit populated by Charlize Theron, are all great. What about that other future, and is there a way to tell that story?”
Clooney and his signature charm helped echo Lindelof’s wry levity, but the star also conveyed with earnest detail what Tomorrowland could bring to the summer movie season that’s been arguably missing: hope.
“First and foremost, I think it is a really bold thing for Disney to be willing to do a film that isn’t a sequel and isn’t a comic book, to really invest in a summer film of this sort of ilk,” he began, acknowledging his mere participation as another sign that Tomorrowland takes ample liberty with the conventional tentpole framework.
“Putting me in a summer movie is a very bold thought,” the Oscar winner winked, before launching into a more solemn discussion about why he was inspired by Disney’s latest cinematic vision.
“I just loved the idea of, you know, we live in a world right now where you turn on your television set and it’s rough out there. And it’s not fun. And it can really wear on you after a period of time. And we see generations now feeling as if it’s sort of hopeless, in a way,” Clooney admitted. “What I love about [Tomorrowland] is it sort of speaks to the idea that your future is not preordained and predestined, and that if you’re involved, a single voice can make a difference and I believe in that. I happen to believe in it, and so I loved the theme or the idea that there’s still so much that we can all do to make things better. And I liked it. I thought it was great.”
It wasn’t just the content that caught Clooney’s attention. Lindelof and Bird, both known for their intricate creative strategies and enthusiastic following, approached Clooney for perhaps his first starring role in which leading-man status doesn’t necessarily apply.
“The fun part of it, to me, was when you read the screenplay,” Clooney began. “Although I have to say, just so we’re clear, when Damon and Brad showed up at my house, they said, ‘We’ve got a part that we’ve written for you.’ And then I opened up the description of the character and it’s a 55-year-old has-been, and I’m kind of going, ‘Hang on a minute, which part am I reading for?’”
“It [also] said ‘genius,’ by the way,” quipped Jensen, a comic book writer and Entertainment Weekly critic whose impressively dense Lost reviews caught Lindelof’s eye during the show’s peak popularity. “It said ‘genius.’”
“It said former genius,” Clooney corrected mockingly. “Boy genius, who has gotten bitter in his old age.”
For Jensen, his expertise crafting and analyzing both fantasy and sci-fi made him a natural choice to help deliver Tomorrowland’s own multigenre scope onto the page. However, despite his pedigree, he revealed how the opportunity to explore a whole new element of the storytelling process only illustrated just how much is always left to learn.
“It was definitely a little crazy and humbling,” he confessed. “I mean, it was a lot of fun to work with someone whose storytelling you really admire, and to get in a room with them. And the idea that [Lindelof] pitched to me was just really engaging. We groove on the same stuff, and the whole idea of a movie that kind of riffed on and looked at the different ways that we looked at the future then and now, to research the history of futurism and science fiction, and let that inform a story, that was super-fun … But also, I thought I knew a lot about how movies are made and TV shows are made. And this was a real learning experience in how much I didn’t know.”
Jensen wasn’t the only one who experienced sentimental wonder as a result of Tomorrowland’s nostalgic outlook. Bird recalled vivid childhood memories that spoke to his sincere approach toward the film’s message and merit.
“I grew up and remember the moon landing. I remember how that felt. I was actually in the air when they were about to get out on the surface. We were flying in from Denver, and I was like, ‘I’m going to miss it!’ Fortunately, there were some kinds of technical errors and we landed in the airport. We ran to the nearest TV monitor and there were, like, 400 people just packed in, watching when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. And everybody just went, ‘Whoo!’ That feeling has never left me,” the Incredibles and Iron Giant director gushed, explaining how that experience helped him harness a similar passion on the Tomorrowland set. An especially relevant and poignant shooting location also presented a useful perspective one gains only through the passage of time.
“When we were first planning the movie, Damon and I were at Disney and the space shuttle took its last sort of circle over L.A. And everybody came out and watched it, and there was this weird feeling of pride mixed with great sadness, like we’re not doing that anymore, and why aren’t we?” Bird lamented. “So a chance to shoot at NASA was fantastic, and to be on this launch pad where so many really noble journeys started. And we got to watch a launch from the launch pad, which was one of the coolest moments on the film. It was great to be at NASA. And if this, in any way, encourages NASA people to do more, then I think that would be a great thing.”
As the fresh-faced, millennial yin to Clooney’s grizzled, skeptical yang, Robertson clearly learned to balance her character’s precocious optimism with more worldly insight on and offscreen. The actress explained how her experience working on Tomorrowland inspired her to process the film’s message on a personal level while also learning to understand it on a global one.
“For me, I think NASA also sort of represents a very specific hope, and it sort of ties in with the movie in a symbolic way. NASA represents this unknown, and the human race’s being able to explore the universe and other things that are out there. And I think that’s in line with the movie in terms of theme, you know?” she began, touching upon Tomorrowland’s lofty subtext that yearns for the innocent curiosity of bygone eras while marveling on the technical wizardry of generations ahead. “We’re talking about a movie that’s saying, ‘We don’t know what our future is. It’s not determined for us, and maybe if we go out there and explore the world, maybe if NASA wants to go and see what else is out there, then maybe that will have some helpful part in making our future something to be excited about.’”
“Yeah,” Bird nodded in agreement. “We can spend our energy creating ways to kill each other, or we can do that.”
Clooney continued exploring the subject, drawing parallels between his own upbringing and what today’s children face in the midst of important, yet familiar benchmarks in our continued social evolution. The Tomorrowland tagline asks viewers to “Remember the Future,” and Clooney’s extended pitch served as an extended reminder.
“I actually grew up during the Cold War period. And I always found that although we always thought that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust at some point, everybody was pretty hopeful. … I didn’t ever have that great disappointment in mankind. I always felt like it was going to work out in the end. And I still feel that way,” he declared. “And so what I loved about the film was that it reminds you that young people don’t wake up, they’re not born and start out their lives cynical or angry or bigoted. You have to be taught all of those things. And I watch the world now and think I see really good signs from young people out there. And I feel as if the world will get better. And I’ve always been an optimist. I’ve been a realist, but I’ve been an optimist about it. And I really related to the film because I thought Brad and Damon want to tell a story that’s an entertainment, because first and foremost, it has to be an entertainment. But it is hopeful, and I’ve always felt that way myself.”
Lindelof relayed an anecdote about the final days of Walt Disney’s life that speaks volumes about Tomorrowland as both a concept and mindset. Marginalizing the story’s origin as a mere theme park attraction, Lindelof proposed, does a disservice to the larger idea at its core.
“Some of the very last things that Walt Disney filmed were about this experimental prototype community of tomorrow. He filmed this thing. He thought he was healthy. And like within days, he went into the doctor and learned that he had terminal lung cancer. But one of the last things he shot … he was talking about the park and he said, ‘Yeah, there will be an amusement park kind of like Disneyland, but the whole reason to do it, the main attraction, is this!’ And he pointed to the city and said, ‘It’s going to be an actual place where you can try ideas and we’ll take corporations and we’ll collaborate with them on new ideas, and sell the ideas to the world and try them out.’ And his face lit up when he talked about it,” Lindelof said, his own expression reflecting a similar reaction. “On his deathbed, he was looking up at the ceiling and pointing out how the city would be laid out. The fact that he was, to his last moments, dreaming about this future and making crazy ideas happen, and be real, and accelerate the pace of that, was very moving to me. And if the movie caught even a little bit of that, I think we will have succeeded.”
Tomorrowland hits theaters Friday, May 22, 2015.