Tomorrowland: Director Brad Bird’s Concept and Clooney

tomorrowland_posterTomorrowland was created by Walt Disney as a section of Disneyland in 1955, at a time when Americans imagined an optimistic future.

But over the years, the public’s view of the future grew dark.  Comments the film’s director, Brad Bird, “Any time that there is an empty canvas, there are two ways to look at it; one is emptiness and the other one is wide open to possibility.  And that’s how I like to look at the future—wide open to possibility.  It is a view that has fallen out of favor in terms of looking at the future.”

This shift in thinking also intrigued writer-producer Damon Lindelof, so when he began to synthesize the story for “Tomorrowland,” he looked for what Tomorrowland meant and how it could be represented in a storyline. “I really wanted to recapture that earlier optimism,” comments Lindelof.

 

Brad Bird’s new, riveting mystery adventure, Tomorrowland, stars Oscar winner George Clooney.  Clooney plays Frank, a former boy-genius jaded by disillusionment, bound by a shared destiny with Casey (Britt Robertson), a bright, optimistic teen bursting with scientific curiosity.  Together they embark on a dangerous mission to unearth the secrets of a mysterious place somewhere in time and space known only as “Tomorrowland.”  What they do there changes the world—and them—forever.

The story of “Tomorrowland” started with a box labeled “1952,” supposedly discovered by accident in the Disney Studios archive. The mystery box contained all sorts of fascinating models and blueprints, photographs and letters related to the inception of Tomorrowland and the 1964 World’s Fair. Lindelof was excited by the find and recalls, “I began to imagine that the contents of the box were a guide to a secret story that nobody knew.  But if so, what would that story be? And the most obvious answer to me was that there really was a place called Tomorrowland that was not a theme park but existed somewhere in the real world.”

tomorrowland_1_clooneyLindelof  began to develop the story by researching the history of Disney and its originator, which led to research on the company’s involvement in the 1964 World’s Fair. “Walt Disney was a futurist in that real mid-century modernist sense,” says Lindelof. “He was very optimistic. He believed that technology held the key to building a better world. He also believed in technology as a means of creating great entertainment. For the 1964 World’s Fair, the Walt Disney Company created three rides, the It’s a Small World ride being the one we remember most. Though quaint by today’s standards, back in 1964, Carousel of Progress and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln were revolutionary in how they used robotics and ride technology to create a thematically rich experience.”

tomorrowland_3_clooney_robertsonLindelof adds, “And there was also an underlying radical optimism. This was 1964, the world had just flirted with thermonuclear catastrophe as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the song ‘It’s a Small World’ was written in response to a world that had walked right up to the brink of nuclear war but had pulled back and was now pining to recognize that we don’t have to destroy ourselves. The lyrics—“It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears”—touched on that anxiety. Given how it just seems so cute and sentimental today, I found it fascinating that the ride was encoded with that real-world angst. There was a radical political message in there and a very idealistic one too.”

The success of the World’s Fair allowed Disney to raise funds for his next great project, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or Epcot. Disney’s vision was for a model city that would be an ongoing experiment in urban development and organization; it was to be a real Tomorrowland where technology wed urban planning to create an optimal living environment. Walt Disney died, however, before Epcot could be built, and the Disney Company decided it did not want to run a city without his input. The model community concept was modified to become a large “permanent World’s Fair” instead, with two small residential districts for employees and their immediate family members. The park still exists today in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

tomorrowland_4_robertson“Walt Disney was constantly innovating,” says director Brad Bird in admiration. “He was never afraid to be the first to do something. He was among the very first in animation to introduce sound and color. ‘Fantasia’ had stereophonic sound fifteen years before anyone else did. When he started working on Disneyland everyone thought he was insane. Disney was forever jumping out of planes and then improvising a parachute on the way down. He was excited about things like space travel; all you have to do is look at those specials he did with Ward Kimball in the late fifties to see that Walt was really excited about the idea of progress. He had a massive curiosity and Tomorrowland, the World’s Fair, Epcot, they all represent that.”

Bird adds, “One of Disney’s quotes was, ‘I don’t make movies to make money; I make money to make movies.’ Was he a perfect guy? No. But when you look at how much he accomplished in his lifetime it’s just staggering. So I view him as an innovator. He had a very proactive and positive view of the future. I like to think that this film is something that he would enjoy.”

When Lindelof’s research was complete, he approached Jeff Jensen to help further develop the story. “When I was doing ‘Lost,’” says Lindelof, “Jeff was working as a journalist for Entertainment Weekly. He had this amazingly imaginative brain. He would watch ‘Lost’ every week and come up with these crazy theories that were so inventive that I often found myself wishing that I had been smart enough to make the show about what Jeff thought the show was about. So he was exactly the guy I needed to help me cook up a fictional story that connected all the items I found in the box.”

“’Tomorrowland’ is a quintessential Disney movie,” says executive producer Jeff Jensen, who is credited with story by with Bird & Lindelof. “ It is steeped in the values of Walt Disney: you’re going to see some amazing special effects and very innovative storytelling. And we’ve tried to remain true to the spirit embodied in places like Tomorrowland and Epcot—places Walt imagined would constantly develop new ideas for the future. Walt and his work was constantly changing, constantly evolving because in his mind the future was never fixed; the future is a project that is never done.”

Lindelof and Jensen wrote a detailed story draft, then Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof went out for lunch and, according to Lindelof, “It turned out that Brad knew quite a bit about Walt Disney and the hook was in. Brad and I started writing together from that point on.”

It is true that writer/director Brad Bird is no stranger to the world of Disney and it isn’t just from working on his previous films. When he was 11, Bird developed an interest in animation and visited the Disney Studios. Over the course of three years he finished a 15-minute animated film that came to the attention of Disney Animation, who offered to assign a mentor—the famous Master Animator Milt Kahl—to the then 14 year old. Bird stayed with a family friend in Los Angeles to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime offer.

Commenting on the story for “Tomorrowland,” Bird says, “It’s a very untraditional story and the protagonists are atypical. It’s a chance to do to work on a grand scale but do something that hopefully will be very surprising. It embodies both aspects of the future—the scary and the wondrous—both of which are somewhat unknowable, so it’s an interesting ride.”