As perhaps the most highly-anticipated movie of the year, Tron: Legacy continues to build interest from longtime fans and newcomers alike thanks to Disney's successful viral marketing campaigns, provocative images, and exciting clips of footage. But none of that effort would make a difference if it weren't for Steven Lisberger, the creator of the 1982 film Tron. Although Lisberger's directorial debut was met with only modest critical acclaim and commercial success, it went on to earn a reputation as a groundbreaking pioneer effort in computer-generated effects, and spawned a loyal legion of fans that have provided a solid foundation for the hopeful success of director Joe Kosinski's forthcoming sequel.
Last summer, Cinematical joined a small group of online and print journalists to visit the set of Tron: Legacy, where we toured sets and talked to various members of the filmmaking team, including Lisberger (read our interview with star Jeff Bridges). Talking in the film's craft services tent, Lisberger talked about returning to the film franchise that he launched almost 30 years ago, and reflected on why he was happy to turn over the reins to a new filmmaker and give his ideas new life for a new generation of film fans.
The number one question I have for you is, why not create this yourself?
Steven Lisberger: That's your number one question? I just want to clarify that's the number one question for you, that's not the number one question. So there's multiple reasons. Not sure these are in the right priority, but after thirty years I don't want to compete with myself. And other issues are technically I am not on the level of Joe Kosinski. Third is that Joe has a network of people that he works with, and if I brought my network in, it would be a little bit like one of those Clint Eastwood movies where all the old guys go to space (laughs). And that's a different movie. Fourth, it's a generational thing, which is that it's almost as if Tron was waiting for you guys who were ten when you saw Tron One, to be forty and have a ten-year-old kid that you could take to Tron and say this is what blew my mind and now I'm going to have it blow your mind. In a weird sort of way, this is the right time to make Tron for that. Also the generation in between, the Gen X-ers and their kids, is now the age of Garrett [Hedlund] and my son Karl, and those people are in their early twenties, and it's the right time for them to see Tron. And then there's this strange symmetry about Jeff [Bridges] being my age and my son being Garrett's age, where my actual life is lining up with the generations in the story of the film. And then there's probably something about the Zodiac and the astrological signs lining up (laughs).
Speaking of generational changes, there has also been aesthetic changes.
Lisberger: Very much so.
Can you talk about those changes?
Lisberger: Oh yeah that's a good one. Because when my generation was thinking about cyberspace it was, you know, the pioneers. It was like, somewhere on the other side of these Rockies is a wonderful land and sure there are problems, but we were idealistic. We didn't have to worry about the reality - if we could just kill the big bad MCP IBM machine, then the Woodstock vibe would take over everything and all will be right. And that was actually sort of true, because Bill Gates ala Tron got his disk into the heart of IBM which was the mainframe, which was MCP and that liberated the PC. So the story of Tron sort of actually came true. One of the reporters yesterday asked me, well, who benefited from all of this the most? And I said, it was Bill Gates, you know. So there was this idealism that we had, and Steven Jobs was the personification of that - you know, "we're all going to have PC's and then we'll all be super cool." So that is totally changed in the years since, in the generational shift. Your generation has the difficult job of trying to figure out how to live and have a life with this technology. You guys have to, instead of one big breakthrough, you guys have to do a million little breakthroughs. It's like this is my iPod, this is my cellphone, this is my network situation, [and] it's a completely different set of challenges. So that is also reflected in the visuals, the amount of reality in the film is as Joe is doing it is pretty intense. And from a story standpoint, it's different too.
Having created this world years ago, how hard is it to let go of what you've done before?
Lisberger: I let go of it in the way that I just described. I think of it as a natural progression, you know, the seasons, the four phases of this world. And it's almost like cyberspace being what it is - a rorschach to whichever generation has to deal with it. And, you know, Disney was into that whole thing originally of making films that would cycle back the next generation. They had that whole plan that the films will be released seven or ten years apart for the next generation. And ideas that they were going to redo Fantasia. Plus I dig this role of being the Obi Wan or the Yoda on this film more than being the guy in the trenches. I mean I can't do what Joe is doing. I cannot work sixteen hours a day staring at twenty-five monitors for most of that time, I can't do it physically. He can, God bless him.
Is your role in the film only on camera?
Lisberger: No, I'm one of the producers and they trust me to be the guy to bounce stuff off of. And we have a great relationship that way. It's like they go forward and I say, you know, watch out for that pitfall [or] if you're going to go that way, you might run into problems here or there. And also I serve a function in terms of trying to inspire them with certain aspects. And it's interesting for me to see how they get it, but then they personalize it in their own way. It goes through a filter. It's not literal. But it's thought out how they say, oh Steve is thinking about something here, and we get it. But then it goes through that same generational shift. It's pretty cool.
When they approached you to do this what was your first reaction?
Lisberger: When I started talking to Disney about the sequel was ten years ago. My son was fourteen years old, he was here yesterday. He's been working in a sort of an advisory capacity on Tron since he was fourteen. And our executive has gone from brown hair to all gray. I've been through many changes in the studio and so has the project, and it gets tricky because ten years ago search engines were one thing and now they're something else. So it's sort of a moving target that you're trying to hit. And but thank Walt. Disney has given these guys their full support, and it's been amazing to see how into it they are.
Talk about your character.
Lisberger: The character in the film or the character in real life? So I'm a bartender at this place, [the] End of the Line Club. And that's just Joe and Sean having fun with me I think. But I have a certain confrontation with Flynn in this club. I end up having to face my own creation. It's all subtext. It's not like I have a scene or anything like that. But it's pretty cool. And I'm digging it, it's good. And then on the film again, I'm the father in law of the grandfather who sits in the backseat and says, why are you taking this exit? It's much quicker if you go the other way. That's what I do.
The original Tron came out when a lot of weird things were going on with Disney. Why do you think this continues to survive while other films from that time do not?
Lisberger: The simple answer to that is it was so incredibly far out. And the problem we had was no one could handle that the cutting edge was coming from Disney Studios. Disney at the time was all about these, you know what it was about. And when the film came out, if you were older than a certain age, you didn't get it, and you just thought Disney was trying to get hip, but they couldn't ever really be hip. And kids who were ten and fifteen were like, wow; they weren't into the whole politics of which studio was releasing which film and, you know, what baggage Disney was carrying at the time. And the fact is it did sort of for a generation define cyberspace. It was the view from the Rocky Mountains looking towards the Pacific Coast, and it imprinted. And we now have sort of a nostalgia for a time when cyberspace was so full of potential, and not so full of spam and porn. And that doesn't go away.
Do you think Disney was deliberately trying to be cutting-edge?
Lisberger: Tom Wilhite, who greenlit the project, was so determined to change their image that it was me who was saying things like, oh I'm going to put this cute little Bit in there - it'll be funny and that'll be a good thing. And that aspect of the studio was like, don't make it too cute now, because this is the one where we're going to roll it out and go the other way. The other reason it resonates is because it actually came true. It came true. I mean Jeff Bridges goes into the scan trailer, gets scanned, and twenty minutes later we sit his low-res image on the game grid. And I say to people, do you get the irony of this, you know. And they are what do you mean. And I say well we made that all up. We just scanned a guy to the laser beam at Lawrence Livermore and he ended up in the game grid. And it was like whoo, you know, we were just [making things up], and now it actually is exactly what happened in the film. And everybody goes, well of course it goes that way, that's what was in Tron, you know.
When you were making Tron did you think you were being ahead of your time, or were you just having fun?
Lisberger: Yes and yes - both of those. We knew we were pushing the limits. We were worried, we didn't know what the movie was going to be like really. We had a vague idea. There were no video monitors. We got the first composited frame with color tests halfway through the live-action shooting. And I looked at it and Richard Taylor said, we're going to burn the naugahyde off their couches with this. The problem was we thought it was going to be just visually too far out. It was going to be like asking people to look at, dare I say it, 75 minutes of art. And that was like, whew, we're going into a troubled land if we go that way.
What the first difference that guys our age who loved the original as kids are going to notice about Tron: Legacy?
Lisberger: That it's 3D. I mean we're doing this thing in 3D. And also that it's going to be like we just res'd the whole thing up a thousand fold.
The world of this one is that much bigger?
Cinematical: No, the actual rendering on it. The feel of it, the texturing - it doesn't have that Pong Land vibe to it anymore - which was good and bad at the time. It reflected the way cyberspace was. Now it's going to be like a modern day, like contemporary-plus, in terms of how much resolution, the texturing, the feel, the style. It's very contemporary. Joe is really good with that stuff.
In the boardroom, they said your original ideas in the first Tron had to be dumbed down because of technology. How has it been on this film?
Lisberger: Well, it wasn't that they were dumbed down. IT worked sort of to our advantage. It was like I was serving drinks at the bar last night and the extras were there, and they were having a conversation with two of these people in front of me. And one girl had seen Tron, and the guy sitting next to her had never seen it but he had read about it. And he said, "oh yeah-yeah-yeah, I read about it. [On this] they did the costumes differently than we're doing them. In the first film they did the costumes, they put all the glow in by computer," he said. And people still think we put that stuff in with computers. They don't get that there were seven hundred people with paintbrushes, you know, sitting there going, I think this looks like a computer made it, what do you think? (laughs) I mean, it worked. The first film was the bridge between analog and digital. There was a lot of black and white photography that was hand-tinted and hand-colored, and then it all went digital and they were mixed and the actual that chasm was crossed. On this film, the analog is bye-bye. It's a digital realm for real.