The stars, writers and director of Tomorrowland assembled for a press conference in Beverly Hills two weeks ago, and GeekDad was there. So was GeekMom, so watch for their coverage as well. Answering questions from the Moderator and audience were writers Jeff Jensen and Damon Lindelof, actors Tim McGraw, Britt Robertson, George Clooney and Raffey Cassidy, as well as director/co-writer/co-producer, Brad Bird.
Damon Lindelof kicked things off by describing how the movie came about.
Damon Lindelof: I was having a meeting, a lunch, with Sean Bailey, who is the president of production at Disney. We were talking about the Marvel movies, of which we’re both fans. He said they had a number of fantasy princess movies in the pipeline at Disney, but just sort of wondered what else a Disney movie should be. I said to him, “I don’t know what it’s about, but I would see a movie called Tomorrowland.” And that was the beginning of this whole adventure. I think that, for me, I’ve always been really interested in the future and I kind of feel like all the movies that I’ve been exposed to over the course of the last 20-30 years have shown me a future that I don’t really want to be living in. it’s cool to watch, but teenagers trying to kill other teenagers, or robots eradicating mankind, or you know, apocalyptic wastelands, albeit populated by Charlize Theron, are all great, but what about that other future, and is there a way to tell that story? And then I was really interested in the history of Disney, the Imagineers, and the theme parks, particularly as it related to the World’s Fairs, and Jeff Jensen, who wrote about Lost extensively and had crazy theories that were much more imaginative than anything we as writers were coming up with. And also, I just felt like tactically speaking, you should just hire critics and turn them over to your side. So if any of you guys have any ideas, I’d love to hear them after the press conference. Jeff and I always had a love for the same stuff. We’re both fanboys, and we started just talking about this idea. And I was able to kind of recruit him and we then went after Mr. Bird, who came on and joined the party.
Moderator: Jeff, did it blow your mind when Damon called and said he wanted you to join this project?
Jeff Jensen: Yeah. It was definitely a little crazy and humbling too. I mean, it was a lot of fun to work with someone whose storytelling you really admire, and to get in a room with them. And the idea that he pitched to me was just really engaging. Yeah, we groove on the same stuff, but the whole idea of a movie that kind of riffed on and looked at the different ways that we looked at the future then and now, to research the history of futurism and science fiction, and let that inform a story, that was super-fun, and to really kind of build out the story. But also, I thought I knew a lot about how movies are made and TV shows are made. And this was a real learning experience in how much I didn’t know.
Damon Lindelof: It’s hard, isn’t it?
Jeff Jensen: It’s very hard, yeah.
Moderator: And Brad, what was most important for you to add to the whole project, once you came on board?
Brad Bird: Oh, I don’t know. I was just happy to be asked to join, you know? I was inspired by the idea and I was an admirer of Damon’s work. And he did a little uncredited work at the very end of Mission [Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol]. And it was a very tight series of things and you had to be very surgical. And Damon was really smart. So I asked what he was doing next during that time, and he mentioned this idea. And I was immediately hooked.
Moderator: Tim, it’s quite a different role for you, compared to some of the other dads that you’ve played. I’m thinking specifically of Friday Night Lights. You’re much more nurturing and supportive here, which is great.
Tim McGraw: That was much more true to life.
Moderator: You have three daughters. It must have felt oddly comfortable to play this part.
McGraw: It did. In fact, I was thinking of the scene where we were shooting in the car, Britt and I. we had a long conversation in the car. We were talking about life and talking about guys. It was pretty reminiscent of some of the conversations that I’ve had with my daughters. In fact, I had to be upset in that scene and I had just been upset with my daughter —
Britt Robertson: Oh really?
Tim McGraw: — the night before about something. There were a lot of parallels for me, for sure, yeah.
Moderator: Britt and Raffey, the dynamics between the two of you in the film are definitely not what you’d expect. How would you two describe the relationship between the two characters?
Robertson: Well, I think Raffey played Mom a lot, especially with George and I, you know? She was constantly just trying to keep us focused and funny enough, that’s how she is in life too. I mean, not intentionally, but she’s so professional and so focused herself, you know. I oftentimes would look over and be like, “Yeah, okay, right, this is what we’re doing. This is what we’re doing.” But we had such fun together and we had such a great time. We spent a lot of time together, just between stunt training and then obviously filming the movie. So I think our dynamic off-screen probably helped a lot of our chemistry on-screen as well.
Moderator: Raffey, were you trying to keep everybody in line?
Raffey Cassidy: Well, I tried my best. I think the relationship between Casey and Athena is quite friendly, because Athena just wants to get Casey and Frank together, to try and save the world.
Robertson: It doesn’t always work out as planned, but sometimes it does.
Moderator: And George, at the heart of this movie is a really big idea, which I think is powerful. You’ve made a lot of bold films in your career, particularly the more political ones. But I think this one is right up there, as far as being quite bold. Do you see it that way?
George Clooney: Putting me in a summer movie is a very bold thought. You know, listen. First and foremost, I think it is a really bold thing for Disney to be willing to do a film that isn’t a sequel and isn’t a comic book, to really invest in a summer film of this ilk. The fun part of it, to me, was when you read the screenplay, although I have to say, just so we’re clear, when Damon and Brad showed up at my house, they said, “We’ve got a part that we’ve written for you.” And then I opened up the description of the character and it’s a 55-year-old has-been, and I’m kind of going, “Hang on a minute, which part am I reading for?”
Jensen: It said genius, by the way. It said genius.
Clooney: It said former genius, boy genius, who has gotten bitter in his old age. I just loved the idea of, you know, we live in a world right now where you turn on your television set and it’s rough out there. And it’s not fun. And it can really wear on you after a period of time. And we see generations now feeling as if it’s sort of hopeless, in a way, and what I love about it is it sort of speaks to the idea that your future is not preordained and predestined, and that if you’re involved, a single voice can make a difference and I believe in that. I happen to believe in it, and so I loved the theme or the idea that, you know, there’s still so much that we can all do to make things better. And I liked it. I thought it was great.
Question: … a question for George Clooney. It picks up somewhat on what you were just talking about. First of all, this is the summer movie with a serious subtext, and you get to be the gruff, grumpy cynic, which I feel I am too. Growing up in the Cold War, that’s who we are. And yet at the same time, you’re searching for hope, and I’m curious if that arc reflects the struggle that you personally have, and whether you relate to that in this particular context of this movie.
Clooney: We have time for one more question. Listen, I actually grew up during the Cold War period. And I always found that although we always thought that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust at some point, everybody was pretty hopeful. There were an awful lot of things going on that you felt you could change. I grew up in an era where the voice, the power of the one, really did feel as if it mattered. You know, we had the riots that are reminiscent of the things we are looking at today, but we had the Civil Rights Movement and we had Vietnam. And we had the Women’s Rights Movements and all those things that you felt you could actually have some part of changing. And actually, if you look at the things that changed in the 1960s and early 1970s, individual voices did make a huge difference. It wasn’t governments doing it, necessarily.
I didn’t ever have that great disappointment in mankind. I always felt like it was going to work out in the end. And I still feel that way. And so what I loved about the film was that it reminds you that, you know, young people don’t wake up, they’re not born and start out their lives cynical, or angry, or bigoted. You have to be taught all of those things. And I watch the world now and think I see really good signs from young people out there. And I feel as if the world will get better. And I’ve always been an optimist. I’ve been a realist, but I’ve been an optimist about it. And I really related to the film because I thought, you know, Brad and Damon want to tell a story that’s an entertainment, because first and foremost, it has to be an entertainment. But it is hopeful, and I’ve always felt that way myself.
Question: This question is for Britt and for Brad. Can you talk a bit, from each of your perspectives, about how NASA played a role in the production, and how that symbolizes the hope of optimism, and how right now, things aren’t as optimistic as necessary? It’s a creative question, not a space travel question.
Robertson: Take that, Brad. You know more about that than I do.
Bird: I grew up and remember the moon landing. I remember how that felt. I was actually in the air when they were about to get out on the surface. We were flying in from Denver, and I was like, “I’m going to miss it!” Fortunately, there were some kinds of technical errors and we landed in the airport. We ran to the nearest TV monitor and there were, like, 400 people just packed in, watching when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. And everybody just went, “Whoo!” That feeling has never left me.
And when we were first planning the movie, Damon and I were at Disney and the space shuttle took its last sort of circle over LA. And everybody came out and watched it, and there was this weird feeling of pride mixed with great sadness, like we’re not doing that anymore, and why aren’t we? So a chance to shoot at NASA was fantastic, and to be on this launchpad were so many really noble journeys started. And we got to watch a launch from the launchpad, which was one of the coolest moments on the film. So it was great to be at NASA. And if this, in any way, encourages NASA people to do more, then I think that would be a great thing. Britt?
Robertson: Yeah. For me, I think NASA also sort of represents a very specific hope, you know, and it sort of ties in with the movie in a sort of symbolic way, you know? NASA represents this unknown, and the human race’s being able to explore the universe and other things that are out there. And I think that’s sort of in line with the movie, in terms of theme, you know? We’re talking about a movie that’s saying, “We don’t know what our future is. It’s not determined for us, and maybe if we go out there and explore the world, maybe if NASA wants to go and see what else is out there, then maybe that will have some helpful part in making our future something to be excited about.”
Bird: Yeah. We can spend our energy creating ways to kill each other, or we can do that.
Brad Bird: I think that’s a lot more interesting, yeah.
Question: So this is a question primarily for Brad, Damon, and Jeff, but if any of you want to answer that would be great. Disney’s great at creating synergy and often we’ve seen how some of their movies tie into attractions in the theme parks. Is there an attraction for Tomorrowland in development, and if there were or isn’t, what kind of attraction would you guys hope that would be, and what elements would it include from the movie?
Robertson: I think they should just update the Carousel of Progress a little bit. You know what I mean?
Bird: Yeah, we had an idea for that. They’re suddenly, in the last act, all the guys are presented with this horrible, “This is what happened! This is what could happen!” The animatronics get horrified. But George is pitching jetpacks. He wants everyone issued one. They can just fly around the park. And now that they serve alcohol in the park, I think that would be a great deal of fun.
Clooney: I also am not thrilled of the idea of people in jetpacks flying over my house.
Bird: We initially wrote George in a sequence with paparazzi robots that attacked his house, but we cut that scene.
Clooney: It was nice.
Question: So in other words, no, there’s nothing planned.
Bird: I think that they are constantly planning things.
Lindelof: We’ll see how the movie does.
Question: This is for Mr. Bird. Going back about NASA, was it shooting pad 39 Alpha or pad 39 Bravo? When you shot the scene, was it before NASA did some changes for the new Mission, or after?
Bird: From that launchpad, we watched them launch the Maven Probe. It happened to time exactly with when we were there, so we watched it together. And that was really cool to watch. But I’m a huge Elon Musk fan, so all hail Elon.
Question: Hi, I have a question for George. Like you asked in the movie, would you like to know your future? And since this coming Sunday is Mother’s Day, do you see yourself as a father in the future?
Question: And coming out, taking your kids to Tomorrowland?
Clooney: I knew you were going to get to it somehow. I didn’t think you’d go the Mother’s Day route to get there. I thought you’d do, “There’s a little kid who’s you as a young boy, does it make you feel like you should have a little boy like that boy, that looks like you sort of, like having a child?” But no, you went, “You know, you have a mother, and most of us have mothers, and wouldn’t you like to be a father somehow?” You can go back and tell everyone you asked the question. But thank you for asking.
Question: Brad has already said the message of the film is to contribute to make a better world for the future, especially for the new generations. What do you do every day, to make this world better? How do you contribute to the world to make it better?
Clooney: What would you do every day?
Cassidy: What would I do every day?
Clooney: To make to the world better, what things would you do?
Cassidy: Well, I’d like to, if I could change something in the world and get rid of any technology or anything, but keep the cool cars and everything. And then, say like in the old-fashioned times when you wrote letters to people, I’d like to do that, but make better things that gets it to them quicker.
McGraw: I agree with that. I have three daughters and to see their faces would be nice. (mimes texting.)
Clooney: It’s amazing. To make the world better?
Robertson: My big thing right now, living in California, is that I’ve turned off my sprinklers. So I mean, I know its small, I know it’s a very small step, but I’m trying to use less water. I’ve been trying to conserve on the water front, and I think it’s important for everyone to kind of take into consideration their community, and the environment wherever they are, and the things that they can do for that specific region. And that’s kind of what I’m doing, but I’ll try other things. If you have any ideas, send them over.
Clooney: I think everybody sort of tries to participate in any way they can. There you are. I think, you know, there’s a funny thing about careers in a strange way, which is as you’re working, you find that as time goes on and as you become more comfortable in your career path, and things are starting to make sense, and it’s not just about trying to work, you’re able to focus on other things and other people, and try to, particularly in this line of work where there’s a lot of attention focused on you, that you don’t really need, you try to just turn that focus and put it on places. You know, I have places, obviously, that matter to me, like in sub-Saharan Africa and places like that, that matter. And I’ve been involved in lots of those things.
And Tim can speak to this too, because there’s an awful lot that we all have to do to participate, and we try to, as much as possible. We’re not policy makers, you know, so what we really need to do is try to shine a light on people who really don’t get light shone upon them. So you know –
McGraw: Well, I think that’s the best way to use, you know, whatever you have, whatever cash you have, as a celebrity. It’s to be a mirror for those sorts of things, to cast a light back on those issues.
Question: Although he’s never directly referenced in the film, it’s obvious that Walt Disney had a great deal of influence on this, the look of the film and some of the themes, because he was a great futurist. So can you talk about the influence of him, and you know, if maybe he was a member of Plus Ultra, anything that you can speak to as far as Walt Disney directly?
Lindelof: I’ll say that I think Brad can probably speak most articulately about the kind of person Walt was, and what an inspirational figure he was, in terms of a lot of the things that everybody up here is talking about, the way that you look at the future and using imagination as a catalyst, pushing against a machinery that says, “That’s naïve, or corny, or idealistic,” and saying, “No, it’s not.”
But specific to the question you asked for the movie, there is a much longer version of this movie, not necessarily a better one, that is much more explicit about Walt’s involvement. But the idea is that it was very explicit about the idea that he was a member of Plus Ultra, and that Disneyland, particularly Tomorrowland and Disneyland, were covers for the actual Tomorrowland. Our feeling was that aside from trying to find that line in any movie when it gets bogged down by exposition and no longer becomes enjoyable to watch, the feeling was that by directly referencing Disney and Disneyland in a movie that is a Disney movie, it just suddenly felt like, “Oh, are we trying to sell tickets to go to the theme park, when the theme park should be selling tickets to go and see Tomorrowland?”
If that part of the story is interesting to you, Jeff actually wrote a book, a piece of fiction, that is out now called Before –
Jensen: Before Tomorrowland. Part of the work that we did in the story brainstorming process was conceiving this huge backstory for the film. And there’s lots of stories within stories. A lot of that informed the book and Walt makes a little cameo in there too. But a lot of Disney really inspired and informed the movie, especially, I think, EPCOT, the whole idea and original idea behind EPCOT, and how that evolved as a sort of laboratory for the future. That was a huge inspiration for the story.
Lindelof: Some of the very last things that Walt Disney filmed were about this Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. He filmed this thing. He thought he was healthy. And like within days, he went in to the doctor and learned that he had terminal lung cancer. But one of the last things he shot, he was talking about Florida and he called it our Florida Project. And he was talking about the park and he said, “Yeah, there will be an amusement park, kind of like Disneyland, but the whole reason to do it, the main attraction, is this!” And he pointed to the city and said, “It’s going to be an actual place that you can try ideas and we’ll take corporations and we’ll collaborate with them on new ideas, and sell the ideas to the world, and try them out.”
And his face lit up when he talked about. The amusement park of it was just like, that’s over on the side, one of those, but the main reason to do it – Which part of it do you think wasn’t done? It’s that part. And it’s understandable, because you needed somebody like Disney as a catalyst to make it happen. But on his deathbed, he was looking up at the ceiling and pointing out how the city would be laid out. and the fact that he was, to his last moments, dreaming about this future and making crazy ideas happen, and be real, and accelerate the pace of that, was very moving to me. And if the movie caught even a little bit of that, I think we will have succeeded.
Question: So it sounds like it was a really fun set to be on, and George, one of your cast members told me specifically that you were doing a little bit of rapping, kind of in between takes. So can you tell me a little bit about your secret rapping skills, and just some of the fun that you guys had on the set?
Jensen: Oh, they’re not secret. His rapping skills are well known.
Clooney: They’re well known. In fact, many of the great rappers today have fashioned their stylings from me.
Jensen: Grand Master G.
Clooney: Exactly. No, I grew up and was 18 when the Sugar Hill Gang hit the scene. And you know, it’s funny because I’m literally at the actual oldest age of anybody who knows those songs, but I do still sing them every once in a while, to entertain the troops when they think, “Gosh, we’re in the water. It’s cold. We’re shooting 14 hours. We’ve been out all night. It’s terrible. What could be worse?” And then I rap.
Moderator: Which sounds like –
Clooney: It sounds like that.