Interview: Steve Lisberger on the World of TRON

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The complex digital world glimpsed in 1982’s groundbreaking film TRON offered tantalizing hints of two distinct, but rapidly converging, future environments – the fictional one that Kevin Flynn inhabits and, in a sense, the real-world one that we all live in now. Director Steve Lisberger was the visionary at the other end of the camera – and the computer – for the original film, and he provided continuity as a producer and consultant for TRON: Legacy, which debuts on Blu-ray and DVD April 5. Lisberger provided ComingSoon.net with a look at both TRON’s past and its future.

CS: This is such a rare thing, to have a movie build in an audience over that long a period of time before you get to the sequel. Can you talk about when you knew that there was more life to ‘TRON’ than its original theatrical release?
Steve Lisberger: There have been moments over the years that took me by surprise, when I would suddenly realize, ‘Wow – There are more TRON fans and they’re more intense than I thought.’ One of them was at Roger Ebert’s film festival in Urbana, where we ran ‘TRON’ at a 1800-seat theatre there, and they were lined up hours before. Now, granted, it’s the last university that has a supercomputer division. But the intensity that was at that screening really made me think this generation has grown up seeing ‘TRON’ when they were young. And they haven’t forgotten it. I’ve had a couple of those moments. People have said to me over the years, ‘I got into video game design,’ or, ‘I got into software,’ Or, ‘I got into computers or film or CG animation because I saw your film.’ And I’ve come to the conclusion, and other people have said this years before me, that you think you’re going to change the world back when you do what it is that you do. But what you do is your change gets in the head of the next generation when they’re young and they grow up with it. And to them it’s part of life. And they implement it. And that’s really the lesson I’ve learned.

CS: What was your vision for ‘TRON’ back in the day? Did you see it as a franchise, potentially, back then?
Lisberger: We were so into making that movie, and I was pretty much a complete Hollywood outsider, that we were not thinking about sequels or other projects. And all the time we were making that film we always felt it was going to be highly experimental. And instead of feeling less so when we were in the middle of production we realized it was going to be more radical than we thought. Each week we went further into this process of backlighting every frame, 20 exposures, hand tinting this, using computer animation. ‘TRON’ was the original mashup. We were putting things that had never been put together, together. With no idea what it was going to, other than our artistic visions, we had phenomenally talented people. We really didn’t know exactly what the finished product was going to look like. Because you could only make that look happen by going through the whole process. And then there was the issue of how they would affect an audience when it was 75 minutes of the electronic world. And there were terrifying moments. And we took a great deal of solace from the fact that Disney was the studio that made ‘Fantasia’ and some of the old-timers working there used to come up to me and say, ‘This feels like it used to feel when Walt was here. People think that Walt was always so sure which direction to go, but the studio was running as fast as it could go, had the pedal to the metal when Walt was there.’ And he said, ‘This feels like that.’ And I thought, ‘Well, we’re at the right place, even if we don’t really pull this off. We’re making in roads that have to get done.’ But then we were really, I think all of us working on the picture, were amazed that it came together as well as it did in the time we had which was really short. I mean we had nine months of postproduction back then. And basically we really only had seven or eight, because back then they had to make prints which took six weeks. And on ‘TRON: Legacy’ the postproduction period was 18 months. So they took twice as long on the new ‘TRON’ than we had on the first one. I mean, people don’t remember how funky it was. We had computer animation going on at three or four different companies. The only way to get those images to me was they took Polaroids of the monitors and mailed the Polaroids to me. And I would look at the Polaroids and call them and say, ‘I think the light cycles need this or this or this.’ The biggest computer we had on the whole movie was 256K. That was it. I mean, you have more computing power on your cell phone than we had on the whole first movie.

CS: ‘TRON’ now has a future: It’s a property that I’m sure is going to be well-mined. So what can you say about what’s ahead for the franchise?
Lisberger: There’s the series and have you seen ElecTRONica at Disneyland? It’s really pretty cool. It ran during the summer every night. And now it runs on the weekends. And ‘TRON’ as an environment, I think, works really well as an interactive environment in real time. The series will come out this fall. And then there’s discussions about what all the possibilities might be, where to go, and that’s going to be an ongoing process. And it will be up to the users at Disney to determine what the programs are going to do.

CS: Do you think that any ‘TRON’ project always needs to be pushing the envelope forward on the technology as far as it can?
Lisberger: Yeah, I think so. It just comes with the territory. There’s something about if you use computers to render conventional imagery, guns, weapons, war, dinosaurs, what have you, it seems like you’re slaving the computers to do something that makes us feel like, ‘Yeah, carry my water and chop my wood.’ But if you give the computers free reign to go ahead and imagine what the world might be like in a digital mind, it’s almost like you’re saying, ‘All right, I’m letting you run. This better be good. Blow my mind now.’

CS: And it seems more relevant than ever. Do you feel that the story possibilities about the digital world and the life of avatars are almost at saturation?
Lisberger: It’s tricky in a way, because what was so foreign in the first film is now so much a part of us that there’s plusses and minuses to that. There’s almost a sense now that the original electronic landscape of the Grid is like a Western. It’s where a certain metaphorical simplicity can express what’s going on. But it’s funny to think that the world of ‘TRON’ is now a simplification of reality, rather than a complication of reality.

CS: What’s your favorite element as far as the techie side of the home video release?
Lisberger: I’m really intrigued by the whole interactive capability where you can just pull at the recognizer and 360 them and start seeing the storyboards. And as far as I’m concerned you can’t have too much depth. I would love it if you could just go into TRON’s face and go anywhere you wanted and see anything you wanted. So the more interactive the better.

CS: Do you have other projects outside of the world of ‘TRON’ that you’re developing right now?
Lisberger: Yeah, I won’t tell you what the subject matter is, but I’m rewriting a script, which I’ve gotten back after all these years. And it’s a script I wrote in 1995. And I originally wrote it, actually, for Coppola. And now I’ve got it and I’m rewriting it. And I sit there and I say, ‘Who wrote this? This isn’t working.’ And it’s me when I look at the cover. I’m surprised. It’s like doing a remodel and then finding out if you tear this down the whole other side of the house will collapse. So I’m sort of shocked at how facile I was at covering up some structural flaws with tricky dialogue. Paying the price for that now.

CS: And some of your established properties that you might be working on?
Lisberger: Yeah, I’m working on that and then I have a project called ‘Topeka,’ which is an ‘Inception’-like mind-bender. And that script is making the rounds right now.

CS: Speaking of ‘Inception,’ how much did that change the game for the way you think about the future of your projects?
Lisberger: Yeah, I wish it would change the game even more, because I can’t be one to complain about too many sequels and remakes when it’s been great for me that the disc of ‘TRON’ got held overhead again. But I wish the success of ‘Inception’ would encourage the studios to make more original properties.

CS: Can you give me a sense of where the series is going to take the ‘TRON’ world?
Lisberger: I think that certainly Olivia Wilde’s, well, the whole- what happened to the ISOs is a fundamental part of that series. And I think that it’s got a great look. I love the 3D with the 2D combination, and Elijah Wood. So I’m not involved with it on a day-to-day basis. But it looks pretty cool.

CS: And do you essentially have all your actors forever now, digitally? Can you always kind of tap?
Lisberger: Yeah, that’s an interesting question isn’t it? We’re rapidly getting to that point. But I think Clu works great as being a synthetic entity within the story structure. But I don’t see us replacing actors. There’s a magic there that I think will always be beyond the ability to digitize it.