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Brad Bird Looks to the Optimistic Future of ‘Tomorrowland’

by  in Movie News Comment
Brad Bird Looks to the Optimistic Future of ‘Tomorrowland’

In Disney’s “Tomorrowland,” an optimistic teen discovers a special pin that leads her to another world, a place of innovation, advanced technology and forward-thinking scientists.

Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy, the sci-fi adventure is director Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof’s tribute to the hopefulness of the Space Age and Walt Disney’s positive vision of the future.

With “Tomorrowland” debuting this week on Blu-ray and DVD, it was only fitting that SPINOFF spoke with Bird a mere stroll away from Disneyland, where he addressed his history with the theme park, Walt Disney’s connections to the film, and the importance of taking responsibility for making a difference.

Spinoff: Everyone’s Disney story is different. What was your first experience going to a Disney theme park?

Brad Bird: It was here [Disneyland], and I was a kid. My family went here. I grew up in Oregon, so we were on the West Coast, but coming down here was a big trip. It was great, and it’s very hard to not carry some of that wonder of your first visit with you in every successive visit. You know how if you hear a certain song during a certain time, that song becomes embedded in the time, and all you need is a little bit of that? It’s very easy to remember those first experiences because for a kid, you can’t believe that so many different places exist in one place. A lot of care was put into making it a seamless experience, where you can move from Frontierland to Fantasyland, and there are no architectural bumps along the way. They slowly let architectural elements of one land fade out while another land is fading in, but it’s done with absolute control over shapes and color, so the experience of moving from one land to the other is almost like a dream, where you can’t quite pick out where the one experience ended.

The fact that Disney got artists and builders to be able to make this place is really amazing. Cynics would say, “Well, it’s this big, artificial experience,” and you go, “Look, a book is an artificial experience. A poem is an artificial experience,” you know? It’s something that suggests something. I don’t think Walt’s goal was money when he made it, and when he opened Disneyland, he made things very reasonably priced because he wanted a lot of people to experience it. The whole thing that fueled him was having something in his mind and being able to make it happen, and I think he was perpetually delighted and challenged by the unfinished aspect of Disneyland, how you could always be changing it and re-imagining it. I think one of the things that connects with this movie is his last, big dream that he never really got to realize, which was EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, where he wanted to address the problems of the future, but in a creative way. It’s kind of like artists and entrepreneurs versus the negative version of the future you know. How can you shape something new and better.

It’s a different path. That ties into Walt’s vision of continually improving things and one of the messages of “Tomorrowland” — that you have to keep looking ahead.

Right. It’s not a reactive future. It’s taking control of the wheel and guiding the future instead of letting the future happen to you, and that was part of the idea behind the movie – there is another future besides the one that is constantly being reinforced, which is this negative vision of the future.

It’s a living thing, the future. There’s a line that I always loved from “The Empire Strikes Back,” where Luke asks Yoda if Leia and Han will die. Yoda says, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” I thought that’s a simple, but deep, thing to say, because every decision that everyone makes, large and small, every single day, shapes what tomorrow is. If you were to look at the future, it wouldn’t be one thing, it would be this fluid thing. The funny thing is I know very little about this other stuff, but from what little I do know, it seems to me that some of Einstein’s earliest ideas and what people are saying about quantum physics now and chaos theory and all of that stuff – it seems to reiterate those sort of mythic ideas that the future is always in motion and that one, simple, little shift can — you know the thing, a flap of a butterfly’s wings can create rain somewhere else on the planet — that has to be the vision of the future. Because of that, we can’t be passive about the future and say, “Oh, well, there’s nothing I can do.”

You can do something right now, [even if it’s] small. And if everyone did something small, there would probably be a very big change.

We see that positive attitude in the film, but some people still came away from “Tomorrowland” thinking it was cynical. Why do you think that is?

If you want to go to the “Star Wars” analogy again, in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Yoda says, “Go into the cave,” and then Luke says, “What’s in there?” Then Yoda says, “Only what you take with you.” And what does Luke do? Luke puts on the weapon, which brings forth the conflict that he seems to be arming for. So, what that says – and I’m not saying this as some “Star Wars” geek thing – I’m just saying that “Star Wars” is a new mythology, and myths discuss these ideas, and they’re discussed in abstract, poetic ways. Kind of the language of dreams, which is what movies are. So, you’re trying to add to that dialogue, and I think that very much takes into account that the future is how you step toward it. Do you step toward it defensively and with dread? Or, do you say, “There are challenges there, but also opportunities, and I’m heading for the opportunities, and I’m ready to meet the challenges.”

I think a weird thing that happened in the response to the movie, which couldn’t have been more polarized, is that some people interpreted Damon and I as being anti-apocalyptic movies. The thing is a lot of our favorite movies are those kind of movies. You know, I love “Road Warrior,” I love “Terminator 2.” I enjoy a lot of those stories. But there starts to be a point where it’s the only vision of the future that’s presented, and that’s what I take issue with. I think there’s room for other visions of the future. In terms of where the species is going, going forward, we need to fix ourself on a positive future and then take steps every day toward that. And that’s what “Tomorrowland” is. When you touch the pin, you’re given a vision of the future that you’re then, hopefully, prompted to pursue.

 

The primary optimist in the film is not someone you’d expect. Was it an intentional decision to have this character bring everyone along for the journey, unlikely as it may be?

I’m still reluctant to talk about it because so many people haven’t seen it. But I’ll discuss it in this way: One of my favorite Disney animated films “Pinocchio.” In that movie, this toy is imbued with life, but it also views life from the perspective of somebody who’s new to it. In this film, I sort of imagine that character as a Stradivarius – a creation of joy, an empathetic creation, one who was introduced with empathetic flaws and questions, and one whose mission was totally to support the positive people. That seemed to me to be a good thing to add to the mythology that’s out there. There seemed to be interesting areas to pursue with that character, and we were so lucky to find Raffey Cassidy. She was the perfect person who came along at the perfect time.

The thing that she radiates is positivism. If you just meet her, she doesn’t have a pessimistic bone in her body. We needed somebody who could convey positivism also with wisdom. When we were casting the role, we were looking for people who felt like old souls, but if they could do that, they had this weary quality to them. They were 11 going on 47. And she comes in, and the room lightens up as if she’s a light coming into the room. What we needed then to work on with her is the, “I’ve been around, I’ve seen a lot of things, and yet I’m still optimistic.” She did it beautifully, but that was the part that wasn’t natural. Her optimism is absolutely in her DNA.

You have “The Iron Giant” coming back to theaters and a sequel to “The Incredibles” on the horizon, but do you have any more live-action films on your plate in the future?

Oh, yeah. I have at least three that I’m actively working on.

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