TOMORROWLAND is Brad Bird’s big swing at a blockbuster science-fiction film that engages our wonder in a way that is simple and pure. At its heart, it’s about using your talents to create something utterly amazing, something that sets our hearts and minds racing, something that dares us to do better and be better. Bird is attempting to reignite that post-WWII inventiveness that got us into space, and, eventually, walking on the moon. He’s well aware this is a square notion at a time when hopelessness and snark are the coins of the realm, but he rejects the bleak forecast for humanity that fuels such cynicism. The world is going to hell? How about we tap into our boundless potential as human beings and do something about that?
In the film, the metropolis of Tomorrowland is a hidden playground of pure invention that Bird’s three central characters – Frank Walker (George Clooney), Casey Newton (Britt Robinson) and Athena (Raffey Cassidy) – are desperate to rediscover. Bird and Disney have placed a high premium on audiences sharing this sense of discovery, so I’ll leave out the story details, even though this has made TOMORROWLAND a very difficult film for the studio to sell. It’s a strange predicament: on one hand, viewers are more spoiler-phobic than they’ve ever been, but, on the other, they’ve never wanted to know more. Given that whole plots (even scripts) of major tentpoles have a tendency to leak to the internet a year in advance, it’s a credit to Bird’s devotion to secrecy that very little is known of the film’s plot. But with a film that isn’t directly based on a pre-existing intellectual property, this cuts both ways: yes, audiences don’t know much, but do they know enough to want to find out more?
For me, this question is a no-brainer. Brad Bird has directed three classic animated films (THE IRON GIANT, THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE), and demonstrated great promise as a live-action filmmaker with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL. I will follow him anywhere. That he dropped a reference to THE RIGHT STUFF in TOMORROWLAND’s first teaser only further stoked my excitement. Bird is a first-class storyteller who works complex themes into his entertainments, and, in many ways, TOMORROWLAND is his boldest provocation. When I sat down with Bird at the end of a very long press day in Beverly Hills, I was eager to get his thoughts on the challenges he faced in pulling this unique film together. I was concerned that he’d be worn out, but I don’t think Brad Bird does “worn out”. He was, as ever, an enthusiastic and fascinating interview.
Jeremy Smith: I’m amazed at your resilience.
Brad Bird: I’ll collapse later.
Jeremy: I’m excited to finally get to talk to you about this movie that has perplexed me for a couple of years now.
Bird: Me, too! What were we thinking?
Jeremy: (Laughs) Right from the literal mystery box reveal. I was one of those people who picked through every item, and tried to make sense of it. With that kind of enticement, and getting people intrigued so early, does that set an extra challenge for you? You haven’t started filming yet, but you’re already courting the audience.
Bird: There used to be this old maxim: “The show begins at the sidewalk.” You entice people on the way into the movie theater. It’s sort of a grander version than that. It’s a very loud media landscape now, and everybody’s shouting about “the eighth this”, and “the seventh that”, and “this franchise meets that franchise” – and it’s an easy, quick sell because it’s all stuff people know. Well, if you’re coming out with something new, and you don’t have a shorthand way of selling it to people, you don’t want to just say “I give up!” because all of these tentpoles are grabbing up all of the airspace. You want to find your own patch in the sun. That seems to be as good a way as any, to be quieter and say, “I’ve got a secret.”
Jeremy: It’s a different way of baiting the hook. For me, you’re saying, “Hey, remember this flavor you used to love?”
Bird: That’s right. Or “Have you ever tasted this before?”
Jeremy: There are certain signifiers you use early in the film to achieve this, and the one that resonates the most for me is the pack of Beemans gum.
Bird: THE RIGHT STUFF.
Jeremy: And that’s one of my all-time favorite movies. Evoking that kind of film is great because it’s so unfettered in its optimism. There’s no doubt about the goal. “We’re going to space. We’re going to find a way, and we are 100% going there.” And you’re saying to the audience, “Why don’t we think this way anymore? Why don’t we want to go someplace that seems impossible to reach?” Why is conjuring that emotion important to you, and is it something that’s been occupying your thoughts for a while?
Bird: I didn’t know that it was, but it has been. I think that there’s an unspoken resignation in people now, and I don’t get it. There seems to be a kind of cosmic shrug, or a throwing in of the towel. It’s like, “Are we tired? Why are we tired? We’re still alive! We can still do things!” It used to be that the apocalypse was the rebellion. But now it’s the status quo, and I want to rebel against it. (Laughs)
Jeremy: It’s that cynicism of the late-‘60s and early-‘70s science-fiction, where films like PLANET OF THE APES or SOYLENT GREEN had these gut-punch downer endings.
Bird: (Doing a quite credible Charlton Heston) “People! Soylent Green is people!”
Jeremy: (Laughs) I love that there are items from these films in that nostalgia shop [that Casey visits in the film] – though there’s a lot of stuff in that scene. You’ve got everything from THE BLACK HOLE to—
Bird: There’s a STAR WARS comic book that is actually a Marvel comic!
Jeremy: Yes! And I have those!
Bird: Right, but you’ve got STAR WARS and Marvel mixed up in there. Anyway, I’m getting too cute with you. (Laughs)
Jeremy: Oh, god, I can do this all day. (Laughs) But with this in mind, is there a mode of escapist storytelling that you’re trying to shrug off as well?
Bird: It’s not a dissing of that, because I love it. I love all of the stuff in that comic book shop. I don’t know that much about all of it. I could not last that long with a super geek; I actually haven’t read every issue of FANTASTIC FOUR or SUPERMAN or whatever. But I do love that pop culture stuff, and it seems like that notion gave us permission to go crazy in there in a way that didn’t feel out of place. But whether you notice those references or not, it doesn’t change the scene. If you don’t know a single one of those, that scene should still work. But the fact that she enters that scene, and it goes in a nutty direction is kind of what the film is. I think we’re playing with forms, but we’re combining them in a weird way.
Jeremy: Tonally and structurally, there’s a lot in this film that is not common. It’s different. But one thing that’s in that shop is Gort [from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL].
Bird: I love Gort!
Jeremy: Of course! I think that this film does something similar [to TDTESS] that I also think is right for our time. There’s this direct address to the audience saying, “Look, we’ve got to be serious about this. We are actually facing serious problems.” THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL did this.
Bird: It’s one of the best films of that decade.
Jeremy: And in this, you have Hugh Laurie saying, “We told you, but you didn’t do anything.” That’s a hard thing to pull off, to state something so plainly to the audience. But it’s an important thing to say in a sci-fi/fantasy film right now. How do you strike that balance? Because, boy, that’s precarious.
Bird: It is, and it’s kind of nerve-wracking to be honest, because you’re not sure you’ll be able to pull it off. But I’ve seen people recognize that something is precarious, and then not try. I worked on the first eight seasons of THE SIMPSONS, and I remember there were some scenes that were suddenly heartfelt in the middle of this completely goofy universe. Half of the writers were looking for the exits. They didn’t want to be caught being sincere. They were shying away from it, and wanted to make a cheap joke so they didn’t have to risk failing at that moment. But the other writers were like, “No, man, let’s take the risk. If we fail, so what? At least we tried.” I was with that camp. I thought it was better to try. If you fail, yeah, you’re going to look foolish, but you made a noble try. I’ve always tried to operate that way. There were moments in THE IRON GIANT that were a little more heart-on-your-sleeve, and if you get caught at that, if it doesn’t work or rings false, it hurts. But I think you should try for that stuff, especially if you feel it in your heart. It deserves a chance.
Jeremy: This has been a constant theme throughout your work, as well as what I feel is a sort of intellectual exceptionalism: people who are gifted and truly brilliant should be held up and given every chance to make our world better.
Bird: Well, that was kind of the idea of Tomorrowland. What if there was a place where all of the brakes were gone? There weren’t all of these idiotic politicians, and people trying to score points, and constantly reinventing ways to kill each other. What if all of that were just gone, and you could just go for it? What would that be like, and how much further along would we be? That was a really dazzling notion to me. But still, the film always says that there’s the possibility of setting out with that intent, and losing your way. That’s kind of what happens with Nix (Hugh Laurie). It’s still a great place, but it’s started to go south in a way. It seems under-populated and darker. That shows that a positive future has to be nurtured. You can’t just water it once, and be like, “Why is this plant dying?” You’ve got to keep feeding it.
Jeremy: I saw that as Tomorrowland becoming more insular.
Bird: A gated community.
Jeremy: Right. And they’re not bringing people in because that’s too risky. “Let’s save it for ourselves.”
Bird: You keep it unspoiled, and, in doing so, you spoil it.
Jeremy: This could be a very political concept.
Bird: And I so don’t want it to be perceived that way.
Jeremy: I know.
Bird: I just want people to go in, buy some popcorn and have a nice ride. But if they have a little bit to think about later, that’s not a bad thing.
Jeremy: And yet this film does challenge certain notions of anti-intellectualism and anti-science, this idea that people have stopped trusting science.
Bird: But that’s the part that’s Disney in the best sense. Walt was not an intellectual, and yet his mind was constantly hungry for new things. Even though he was conservative politically, a lot of his stances would be considered liberal now. He totally respected nature. He revered it. When he applied for the land in Florida, and they granted him this huge swath of land that was unprecedented, part of the [agreement] was that he had to meet certain environmental standards. And they realized Disney passed them by 400% because his standards were way higher than theirs. They realized, “Okay, you’ve got this.” (Laughs) That, to me, is what Disney is. It’s not intellectual in the sense that it’s distant. Art is not distant; it’s something that’s familiar and fun. Science is not distant; it’s something that involves all of our lives, and it’s accessible and interesting and fun. The notion that things like art and science are for snobs is a way to create a barrier that is unhealthy for people. It should be considered as part of daily life as breathing is; it should be as familiar as that. Imagination should be encouraged. In my hometown – and I grew up in a nice place – there was this notion that “Yeah, when all of your work is done, maybe you’ll have half-hour where you do a little drawing for yourself. But there’s really no future in art, and you’re crazy for trying to do it.” Fortunately, my parents were not of that ilk. They were like, “Man, go for it! Try it! What the hell? If you fail, you had a neat experience, and you try it again.” That gave me a very open view of the world and possibility, and that’s something that this film very much tries to convey. It shouldn’t be distant. This stuff should be like eating bread and having a little cheese.
This was the official end of our interview, but as I walked out of his hotel room, Bird shouted down the hall at me,“Don’t make it sound like broccoli!” I wouldn’t dream of it. I hate broccoli.
Your ticket to TOMORROWLAND gets punched May 22, 2015.