Tomorrowland offers an engaging counterpoint to the Future Will Suck assumptions that have come to dominate sci-fi cinema from Blade Runner to Elysium and Interstellar. Instead, director Brad Bird infuses this PG-rated Disney spectacle with the kind of heart, humor and optimism that made his Oscar-winning animated features The Incredibles and Ratatouille so endearing–and successful.
Opening May 22, Tomorrowland follows a science-minded teenager, Casey (Britt Robertson), who glimpses a shiny futuristic city, courtesy of a 1964 World’s Fair souvenir pin, then joins cranky inventor Frank (George Clooney), stern 11-year old Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and sardonic futurist Nix (Hugh Laurie) on a quest to save the earth from self-destructing.
Bird wrote the movie with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, no stranger to worst-case scenarios from his script work on Prometheus, World War Z and HBO’s The Leftovers. “l loved talking to Damon about what happened to our vision of the future,” says Bird. “Why was it optimistic for a hundred years or more, and then suddenly over the last 20 or 30 years, it gradually turns dark? It’s as if we’re all passengers on a bus that we don’t want to be on instead of being in control of the bus.”
Speaking last week from his Bay Area home, Bird talked about the challenge of creating a city–and a story–that champions the bright vistas of Tomorrowland.
Signing on for Tomorrowland, which takes its name from a 1955 Disneyland attraction, Bird needed to devise an original, ever-evolving city of the future. “It’s funny because for this flashback in his first draft, Damon writes that Young Frank steps out into THE MOST AMAZING CITY YOU’VE EVER SEEN,” says Bird. “And it’s like, ‘Oh great, it’s really easy to type that, thanks pal! Because now I have to figure out what that is!’ So the notion of the city of the future was there, but like any big canvas story idea, a lot of development went into what we saw and how we saw it.”
Working with production designer Scott Chambliss (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Bird crafted a three-act portrait of urban futurism. At the 1964 World’s Fair, mid-century modernism takes flight when Young Frank sports a DIY jet pack cobbled together from an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner. “I love Electrolux,” Bird says. “The name is cool and it’s a beautiful piece of design like the Airstream trailer–practical but also inviting. I love that kind of design. When I go to New York and see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection, it’s like a a rejuvenator of your soul, whether it’s the Eames chair or anything designed by the Bauhaus guys like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. It was really fun to work on that version of the future with Scott Chambliss, who’s also a lover of timeless design.”
Avant garde architect Santiago Calatrava‘s ultra-sleek City of Arts and Sciences in Spain forms the backdrop for one of the movie’s most arresting sequences. “I made a decision early on to film Casey’s first visit to Tomorrowland in one take without a cut because I wanted it to feel like everything was happening at once,” Bird explains. “If you look in this direction, that’s fascinating, but you can’t look too long at it, because then you’ll miss some other thing, and why is the pin counting down, and do I have a limited time here and I better pay attention to this and AAARRGH! then it’s gone. I wanted to put the audience in the position of our lead character who’s trying to drink it all in at once.”
Bird’s attention to visual detail extended to a wheat field in central Canada planted seven months in advance of filming. “Damon had this wonderful thing in his initial pitch to me about Casey touching a pin and being suddenly being in this field of wheat,” Bird says. “People tried to scout fields close to where we were already filming in British Columbia but at some point you have to say, ‘This is what I imagine, and these fields are not that.”
Bird and his team hired farmers in Alberta’s Hutterite community to grow golden brown winter grain matched exactly to the hue he envisioned in his head. “We timed production to film the field right at its height, and I think it looks wonderful on the screen,” he says.
One of Tomorrowland’s most affecting story lines borrows much of its pathos from one of Bird’s favorite movies: Pinocchio. “In Damon’s original script I especially related to the Pinocchio aspect of the Athena character,” Bird says. “Not to give too much away, but Pinocchio is my favorite Disney animated feature and my favorite live action Disney film is Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In some distant way, Tomorrowland is sort of a blend of those two in that it has this darkness yet there’s also a sense of hope. Both in 20,000 Leagues and in Tomorrowland, you’ve got this wrestling match between your intellect and your heart.”
“Each movie is a creature with its own character,” says Bird. “They feel as individualistic as kids or pets. Some movies are sort of easygoing, some are more excitable and others are a little more finicky. Tomorrowland was definitely the most finicky I’ve ever worked on in terms of finding the right tone. We bumped into a lot of furniture and broke a few lamps along the way.”
Bird incorporated suggestions from filmmaker/actor Clooney when he did Tomorrowland re-shoots to ensure a consistent tone. He also wrestled with the film’s sprawling narrative. As he told a preview audience earlier this month, “We’re the odd tentpole movie this summer in that we’re kind of this science-fiction action mystery road movie thing.”
Bird elaborates, “It was really easy to give too much information and it was really easy to give not enough information. It’s like trying to balance a playing card on one side: it’s always flopping over one way or the other. Tomorrowland has a lot of heady ideas but you’re in trouble if you explain these ideas in a complicated fashion because then the audience will never get them. It’s easy to be obscure. The trick is finding a series of simple statements that add up to a mosaic with little bit of complexity.”
Tomorrowland gives the earth-is-doomed argument plenty of screen time, but Bird clearly sides with his activist heroine Casey. He says, “With me, there’s a thin veneer of cynicism, and if you scratch it, you find the optimist underneath. I’ve always admired Walt Disney’s take on the future and the idea that, rather than being oppressive and scary, the future is this exciting blank canvas of possibility.”
In the movie’s title sequence. Bird put his drawing skills to work in order to underscore that perspective. “I designed the logo at the beginning of the film so the word ‘Tomorrow’ is set just over the horizon,” he says.”That’s the way I think of tomorrow, as being fresh like dawn and full of promise. And that’s the spirit this movie is supposed to have.”