Jeff Bridges started off the love fest early in the day at the press junket for TRON: Legacy saying, “They brought Steven Lisberger on and I believe that was essential. He was the godfather of the things, he was the source.” Lisberger, of course, is the writer, director and co-creator of the original 1982 TRON.
As the day went on, everyone from the actors to Disney Production President Sean Bailey to TRON: Legacy‘s director Joseph Kosinski spoke enthusiastically of Lisberger’s involvement in Disney’s tentpole film for Christmas 2010. Quite a comeback for a man whose last film credit was 1989’s little seen Slipstream with Bill Paxton. Before that he directed Hot Pursuit with a young up and comer named John Cusack, a film with a budget so low that according to Lisberger, “We didn’t even have real engines in the boats.”
I’m going to be honest. I like Steven Lisberger. I always have. I met him back in 1984 when I first got out of college and was working for writer/director John Milius. We had just completed a film called Red Dawn and one of the producers, Barry Beckerman, was trying to do a project with Steven. We were a big deal on the MGM lot back then while Lisberger was having a hard time getting anything going in town. People in Hollywood are often very insecure which in turn makes them very afraid to be associated with anyone dubbed a failure. And most people considered the original TRON to be a major failure.
Which is odd, because TRON wasn’t really a failure. It’s true that it didn’t perform as well as Disney had initially hoped, but it did a respectable $33 million at the box office on a budget of $17 million and the film also had significant ancillary income. Something that was rare at the time. (The Tron Arcade Game was wildly popular.) But, as Lisberger recalls, “Unfortunately it came out the same time as that other film with the cute little alien (E.T.) and everything else that year was judged to be a failure.”
And TRON is considered the essential forerunner of the CGI films of today. It is the film that made it possible for many of the technological advances that came later. It was one of the first films to use CGI effects. It was one of the first movies to envision the coming digital world. The themes it explored — man’s interaction with technology, the effects of technology on society, etc. — certainly seem more relevant to subsequent generations than anything that was in Uncommon Valor, Red Dawn or many of the other films that came out at that time.
TRON was so influential, in fact, the gang at Pixar was once interested in developing a sequel to the film. That’s right, the same people who once fought making sequels of their own popular flicks were interested in making a sequel of someone else’s movie. Take that E.T.
When I caught up to Steven the other day, the first question I asked was whether he felt vindicated after all these years and he just played it off. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he responded with the knowing wistfulness before adding, “It would be nice to see this film do well.”
There was no trace of bitterness in Lisberger’s voice. No sense of him wanting to stick it to his earlier detractors. Just a man who was grateful to see his creation continue into the next century.
“The timing on TRON: Legacy feels right even though it’s been 28 years. It’s a generational thing. The hour is getting late for the boomers and we have to decide what it is we want to be remembered for. Its not too late but we are letting the opportunity slip away. We inspired the GenXers and now they are inspiring us. I hope that some of the lost idealism makes it through. But I have every confidence that between the GenXers and my own sons generation the future is in good hands.”
He continued, “The new team made this TRON their own. Legacy is a stand alone movie, it’s inspired by the first TRON but not limited to it in anyway. You can see this one first and then see the ’80s film.”
Asked if his admiration included the young actors on TRON: Legacy, Lisberger replied, “I am amazed at how dedicated and professional Garrett [Hedlund] and Olivia [Wilde] are. For how young they are they take their roles very seriously. Olivia is just as smart as she is beautiful and Garrett is the real deal. I see him in the tradition of Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood.”
As for the filmmakers and talent behind the cameras he added, “One thing I’ll say is that I’m very happy that cutting edge technology is in the hands of talented creative people and not just in the hands of geeks and scientists. I think that’s one of the powers of the first film, artists got their hands on these tools so early on.”
Then and only then did I catch a tinge of something like regret, “Sometimes I do wonder what would have happened had we been able to keep the talented group of people that made TRON together and gone on to make other projects.”
So do we Steve. So do we.