“Before Tomorrowland” is a prequel project for the Walt Disney Studios film “Tomorrowland,” which opened in theaters this weekend. A 310-page novel, written by Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case, is followed by a 20-page comic book by Jensen and Case and the story told within all 330 pages unlocks a place of unfathomable science and technology and the famous people behind it.
Jensen and Case, who provided illustrations for the novel part of “Before Tomorrowland” and art and ‘cover’ for the comic book within the book, previously collaborated on “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story,” which was published by Dark Horse Comics in 2011.
In “Before Tomorrowland,” the year is 1939 and a secret society of extraordinary geniuses known as Plus Ultra — which over the course of its existence has included the likes of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison — prepares to share an incredible discovery with the world. But when a young boy, visiting New York City with his mother, picks up a comic book and a pair of 3D glasses, panels not popping off the page quickly become the least of his worries.
CBR News connected with Jensen and Case about world-building the past, present and future of “Tomorrowland” in the 50 years between the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
The creative team, which worked closely with Bird and Lindelof on “Before Tomorrowland,” also teased the difficulties that super-geniuses might experience during collaborative efforts even when humanity’s future is a deciding factor and that even billionaire Howard Hughes has a limit on how much he is willing to spend.
CBR News: Film studios and production companies love movie tie-ins like toys, video games and books. And Disney, with properties like Star Wars and Marvel, are the kings. Why was “Before Tomorrowland” — a novel and comic book about events that happen before a movie that the world hadn’t even seen yet — the right choice for supplementing the success and future success of “Tomorrowland?”
Jeff Jensen: When I started working with Damon [Lindelof] on the story for “Tomorrowland,” we were building a pretty big world — and one that had a long history. There were more days that we were using backstory for our story than the actual story for the movie. That was a real source of fun for us but figuring out the world was important to forming the story that we wanted to tell.
We were doing a lot of world-building as we say in this business and a lot of mythology creation and we knew that only a fraction of it would be explicitly expressed in the movie. It would be steeped in the DNA of the movie but we wouldn’t be able to tell every single beat of the 120-year history of the events that led to our film.
We had all of this stuff that was informed and expanded and enriched even more so when Brad Bird came aboard as writer/director. And we always thought it would be cool to get some of this backstory and mythology out there for fans of “Tomorrowland” or people that would become fans of “Tomorrowland” after seeing the movie. At the same time, we didn’t want to create anything that would be required reading in order to appreciate the film.
One of the ideas that we always had from the beginning was making some kind of comic book. And as we were really gearing up for production, and my active service for writing script and story for the movie was pretty much over and I was segueing into franchise management stuff, we started really exploring some of this content and as it happened, Disney Publishing reached out to us and wanted to know if there were some unique opportunities where they could work with the filmmakers to create something out-of-the-box. And this dovetailed completely with our ambitions so I shared a document with Disney Publishing that had all of this backstory for our film that was actually expressed in the form of smaller stories like in 1939, there was an adventure against the backdrop of the World’s Fair in New York City involving Plus Ultra and there were lots of other stories too.
We talked about a number of different forms that these stories could take. We talked about a graphic novel. We talked about novel. We talked about a hybrid like “Hugo Cabret” and ultimately we settled on this book, which is a novel that would feature illustrations and a comic book insert that would be important to the novel.
In transitioning between the novel and the comic book, which is physically present in the back section of the book, there are 3D glasses which can be punched out by readers to use to properly enjoy the comic. Sadly, you can’t really do that but for the purpose of the comic book and the story, they would have been readily available. Hollywood has fallen in love with 3D the last five to seven years but why was including a 3D element important to “Before Tomorrowland?”
Jensen: In our mythology, Plus Ultra has a love for culture and pop culture and using pop culture to advance its goals but also for sophisticated technology, so while I’m pretty sure that 3D glasses weren’t really around in 1939, Plus Ultra had them and they wanted to get that technology out there for people to use with their comic but also to use as a means for this very modern notion of augmented reality. I’m firmly convinced that in the future, cities will completely offer their citizens glasses and people will be able to walk around the city, looking through these glasses, seeing them as they should be not as they are.
Jonathan Case: And for our story, when the characters get their hands on the comic book, they actually also get real 3D glasses, and when they put them on, it transforms the world around them into a vision of the future of what the future could be. It is designed as a way to launch ordinary people into the futurist thinking and get them onboard — it’s basically a piece of propaganda — with this vision of what Plus Ultra is doing and wants to do in the world with their technologies and their ideals.
Jensen: In the story, Plus Ultra wants to reveal a huge secret to the world — a secret that they have been sitting on for approximately 30 years. And there are multiple reasons why they want to do this. First and foremost, we are coming out of the late twenties and early thirties, in which we have had a global great depression. And people had a very pessimistic orientation about the future and Plus Ultra had a secret that they could share with humanity that they felt could really supercharge cultural optimism and pull people out of this great depression. They also needed some money. [Laughs] At the time that our novel is set, Howard Hughes is footing the bill for what they’re doing and he’s tired of wasting his fortune on this stuff and he needs to make some money. This secret that they want to share with the world is both something that they think is both something that is for a greater good but also is going to launch a money making scheme. The comic book ends up factoring into this very elaborate marketing campaign for introducing this secret to the world.
Ostensibly, people are led to believe that you use the 3D glasses to read the comic but they find out quickly that it doesn’t really work to read the comic. It isn’t until they look to the outside world and New York City through these glasses that they realize these glasses actually give people eyes to see the future.
Case: And in the story, one of the characters, this boy that we follow, sits in the category of the disillusioned and he’s one of the people that gets the comic book with his mother and the glasses don’t work for him. It’s allegorical but it’s also just practical for him. He is the character that we’re journeying with who might not be able to grasp this hopeful future that other people want to put upon on him for good reasons and bad reasons.
And what we’ve seen in the trailers and clips from “Tomorrowland,” this hopeful future might be a bit more than just a virtual reality. It might be something quite real, right?
Jensen: At this point in Plus Ultra’s history, they don’t really have an idea yet to build a great city of the future — a model metropolis for the world. The secret that they’re sitting on is where they might build such a place and that, in and of itself, is an extraordinary world-changing revelation. What they are really showing people, at this point in “Before Tomorrowland,” is see what we can do. And the type of future we can build. It isn’t per se teasing people about a place that currently exists at this point in Plus Ultra history but teases what could be possible. It’s in the movie, “Tomorrowland,” that we really explore that place.
You mentioned Howard Hughes as a financial supporter of Plus Ultra but this secret organization also includes Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein and dozens of other historic characters. Who or what is Plus Ultra?
Jensen: The idea that we were going for was that there is a secret society of movers and shakers, industrialists and engineers, artists and visionaries, dreamers and schemers that grew out of this original meeting between Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne, Thomas Edison and Gustave Eiffel at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. From that point forward, their ranks expanded to include a lot of very famous people everyone from Albert Einstein and Madame Curie to filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Orson Welles and writers like H.G. Wells. We have fun with an almost “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” but it’s real people. And this is not an easy alliance of geniuses. These people rarely play well with each other. And in fact, the history of Plus Ultra is this constant rise and fall of this group. People come together that have no business coming together but do so for a great project, make some progress, completely fall apart and then the group reconstitutes itself with new people.
“Before Tomorrowland” is available now from Disney Publishing.
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