Brad Bird talks ‘Tomorrowland,’ what he sees for the movie’s future and why the film’s protagonist is a young girl

Tomorrowland is a unique film. It’s a big budget, summer action movie. It stars a big, A-List actor (George Clooney, to be specific). It’s mixes science fiction and fast-paced action with heartfelt, family-friendly storytelling. On paper, it has all of the ingredients of a mega-hit, but when it came time for moviegoers to turn out at the box office, something didn’t click. This is not to say that Tomorrowland was a failure; it wasn’t. It grossed around $208 million worldwide, which is amazing, but against a budget of $190 million, perhaps less than Disney was hoping for. Why did Tomorrowland have an only-okay showing at the box office? It’s hard to say, exactly, but I suspect it came down to marketing. The movie is as high on concept as it is on action and comedy. It’s a rich, engaging story, but not one that lends itself perfectly to being summarized by a single poster or 30-second TV spot.

It’s easy to imagine the frustration that the filmmakers, particularly writer/director Brad Bird, must have felt about it. If Bird felt frustrated by the movie’s box office performance, though, he didn’t let it show when I sat down with him to discuss it at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. As we discussed the film — from conception through release — he exuded the same cautious-but-enduring optimism about its future as Tomorrowland’s protagonist, Casey Newton, has for the future of the world. In keeping with film’s theme, Bird prefers to look to the future, when he believes audiences will be able to revisit Tomorrowland with fresh eyes and see it not as a summer blockbuster, but as he says, as a “story among other stories.”

In the present though, Tomorrowland remains an excellent, wildly original film, the kind that’s thought-provoking and rewards repeat viewings. Bird and I discussed how the movie came to be, how Casey came to be its protagonist and what that third-act takedown of dystopian futures was really all about.

HelloGiggles: What went into developing such an original concept because it’s not something we’re seeing a lot of these days?

Brad Bird: [Laughs] Original concepts?

HG: Well, you know what I mean.

BB: We are kind of in the land of sequels, aren’t we?

HG: And not even just sequels, but movies based on comic book characters and other known properties. And Tomorrowland obviously has the name recognition of the park, but it’s not really based on the Disney park experience, per se.

BB: It isn’t. Although some critics would have you believe that it is. More than one person wrote about it like, “Oh, it’s the Tomorrowland ride.” Oh, is there a Tomorrowland ride? Did I miss something? No, what was inspiring to us was the word itself and what that word suggested.

HG: Yeah, and you came to this project after having worked on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, in what was already such an established universe and it seems like coming to this project must have just felt like a blank sheet of paper.

BB: Well, it wasn’t blank when I got involved. Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen had already done some big work on it. But Damon came in, and I wanted to fix some things that were broke in Ghost Protocol and we were fortunate that we were under-budget so they, as long as we didn’t go over budget, we could shoot these extra little fix-its that I wanted to do to Mission Impossible. So Damon helped do the writing of these areas that I wanted to fix, and they were little things, but they were surgical. And, in that time, we had lunch and I asked him what he was working on and he mentioned this idea and we both started talking about how the conception of the future had changed since we were kids and we both wondered why it changed and what drove that. And we both thought that might be a cool thing to kind of put into fable sort of form, but he already had the beginnings of this idea with Jeff Jensen.

HG: Cool. And did the script and story change any when you came on board?

BB: Where did I change it? I don’t know. When I came onto it, I was involved in several discussions with Damon and Jeff and we kind of kicked around where the story could go and Damon did the first draft and then I reacted to the first draft and said here’s what I like, here’s what I see a little differently or whatever, and then it became a process of collaborating from there. We wrestled with a lot of different story problems, and it just went from there. But I think it was just like any film that’s original — you’re just kind of trying to feel your way through the dark and wind up with something you’d want to see.

HG: Definitely. And when in the process did you decide to make the protagonist a young woman, Casey?

BB: Well, Casey was initially conceived as a guy and then Damon threw the idea like, “What if it was a girl?” And we both became more interested in it. It just seemed like it added another layer of interest to it, and it made us lean forward. So we thought, if we’re both leaning forward, that’s a good thing, so let’s go in that direction. So, it was early on, but it wasn’t the initial. In the initial story, Athena was always in there, but Casey was a guy in the very earliest version. But she became a girl very early on. [That character] wasn’t a guy very long.

HG: And did changing Casey’s character and making her a girl change anything else in the story or did the rest move along more or less the same?

BB: No, I think one of the weird things about the movie — and I say, “weird,” but in a good way — is that there is no romantic interest in the movie. You have men and women and there is romance, but it’s between them and their conception of the future. And that was interesting to us and we wondered, we knew that that was gonna make it harder to figure out, but we were intrigued by it.

HG: I actually noticed that about the film, too, and really appreciated it, as an audience member. Like romance is not a driving part of the plot in this movie.

BB: No, and if it is romance, it’s kind of like a puppy love and it’s really, again, about what a guy thought the future was going to be and what it became and feeling betrayed about the future.

HG: Yeah, because the closest thing we get to a romantic storyline is Frank and Athena, but even then, it’s not a romance in the way you would think of in a typical Hollywood way.

BB: Yeah, it’s one of these things that I cringe at even over-explaining it because I don’t want anybody to think that they have to think about it one way, but it was an incredibly tricky relationship to do right and one of the things that I took that I was gratified with, was that nobody discussed it like it was weird. And it truly is a strange relationship. And I think because we walked the line on it fairly, and because we had such great performers, it comes off as a relationship and I was very happy about that. It didn’t hurt that we had George and Raffey.

HG: Who are both amazing.

BB: Who are perfect. But, the fact that people didn’t seem to discuss it that much was surprising to me in a good way. They accepted it.

HG: Yeah, she seems to more represent Tomorrowland and that’s what he’s betrayed by.

BB: Well, it’s what he imagines the future to be, and then he feels betrayed by the future. But again, I don’t want to devolve into film school.

HG: I actually saw an early press screening in Hollywood, and you did a cool intro for the press who were there, just kind of touching lightly on the marketing aspect of this movie, which I think must have been really challenging. I saw the movie and loved it and tried to explain to friends why I loved it, and I had a hard time articulating it.

BB: Yeah, they did not have an easy job. And this is also done in an environment where summers have become a redwood forest of familiar titles and if you enter it with something that’s not a redwood familiar thing, you’re just fighting to get sunlight and get a little bit of interest. And it’s a hard movie to describe. I’m interested in how people will feel about it 10 years from now when all of the market that it was introduced in and all that stuff kind of goes away and it’s just seen as what it is.

And it’s kind of a road movie. I think people thought that it was gonna be two hours in Tomorrowland and it’s more about the destination of Tomorrowland than it is about being there. So, a lot of people were up for whatever we said, and a lot of other people had something in mind that they felt that we didn’t do, or something. So the interesting thing is that over time, seeing how it is when it’s divorced from expectations and you’re just encountering it as this is a story, alongside other stories.

HG: Another thing I thought was really interesting was how directly the film was willing to address, especially in the third act, this idea of how we’ve embraced the idea of a dystopian future, at least as entertainment.

BB: Well and again, it was something that polarized people, which on one level, I’m happy about because we tried to do something different and unusual and I think that’s worth doing. But some people interpreted it as saying you can’t like apocalyptic movies, and it’s like, many of my favorite movies are those apocalyptic movies. I love the Terminator movies and Road Warrior and a lot of those visions of the future are compelling to me. And they’re great stories. But somewhere along that line, that became the only way to see the future and that’s the part where I’m like, you know, I like chocolate ice cream, but I don’t think it’s the only flavor that should be offered.

HG: Right. And did you realize as you were writing that part of the film that people would have that reaction to it and that it would be as polarizing as it was?

BB: I don’t know. We were just kind of trying to make a movie that we would want to see, and for better or worse, that’s what we made. Again though, it’s hard to divorce a movie from its surrounding, initially. And then it kind of goes off its own way and that’s what’s gonna be interesting to see: how it’s taken, just as a story among other stories.

Tomorrowland is available on Blu-ray and DVD today.

(Image via Disney.)