I'd like to say that my obsession with Tron started with test footage for Tron: Legacy that debuted at Comic-Con three years ago. (For some reason, that seems vaguely reasonable for an otherwise well-adjusted film critic/ entertainment journalist.) But the truth is that I have been a fan of Tron since some time in the early 1980s, when its oversized white Disney clamshell box stared back at me from a video-store shelf, promising a weird, unforgettable journey behind (and beyond) the screen of my favorite video games. Perhaps needless to say, a chance encounter with Tron creator Steven Lisberger via a mutual friend – a year or so before the follow-up was announced – ranked high among my favorite moments of personal fandom, at least until I was able to go to the actual set of Legacy and interview him at length.
Cinematical was offered the chance to speak with Lisberger again at this year's Comic-Con, and I was only too happy to take that particular assignment. In addition to talking about his role as "the Obi Wan" of Tron: Legacy, the talented Tron creator reflected on the opportunities and repercussions of creating this digital world, and most excitingly, revealed one particular part of the original he is happy to see more fully realized in its forthcoming follow-up.
Cinematical: One of the things you said at the Comic-con panel was that when you made the original Tron, you were able to be a dreamer without having to worry about the ramifications of that dream. Tron: Legacy obviously deals with that to a certain extent, but when do you feel like a creator has to start considering the ramifications of what they create, if ever?
Steven Lisberger: There are many levels here that all speak to the same problem, which is that we're all users now, but the goal is to stay a user and not become a program. And now that we know who we are, we've taken control from the MCP and how does one make the most of being a user? I think the trick is you don't want to treat other people as just information; I think the system breaks down if users don't treat other users like users - if they [don't] make that transition to saying, you know, romance is really messy. Wouldn't it be more convenient if I could just point and click? That gets into this idea that if you're going to be developing a doppelganger to the real world in cyberspace, it can't be an end to itself. You can't just tunnel away from reality indefinitely.
The goal has to be kept in mind that if you're going to create a simulation of this world, at least make it something that is going to shed light on this world, so that what you learn there you can apply here to close the loop. If it all becomes an end to itself, then not only does one treat people like information, but then one treats the world like information, and the world isn't just information. Whether it's love or the Gulfstream, it's a mystery, and more and more I think we're getting this feeling like, wow, some of this stuff is going to stay a mystery, and we're not sure whether we like that. So we're like, let's go into cyberspace where everything is finite; it's maybe confusing at times but it is at the end finite. It's not infinite, and we have to avoid it being an end to itself. Technology has to come back and be something that we use for a more enlightened purpose than just making more technology.
Cinematical: Since this follow-up was itself going to push the envelop technologically, what sort of discussions were there to make sure that the technology and the conceptual complexity of Tron: Legacy did not overwhelm the characters, the story or the emotional content of the film?
Lisberger: Sean Bailey has been masterful about orchestrating this, and I'd like to say that Sean puts elements together better than The Last Airbender did. That's a joke (laughs). He's been very in touch with the human component of this and the cast is masterful at conveying these things, and Joe has been really in touch with all of that. We've been really aware from the beginning that the heart of this movie had to be in the right place, and I think that it is, and I think that story is such a good metaphor – what do you do when you find out your dad was Obi Wan, not Darth Vader? That has its own challenges. And the basic mechanism for these stories and the process is always the same – whoever gives the most wins.
And the villains in life and in Hollywood movies, they're trying to take, and the heroes are trying to give. And if the heroes can give one more time than the villain can take, he wins. When I worked on this film, you worry that you're not going to be able to give enough, that you're going to get exhausted in the giving category, and as long as you feel you can keep giving, you know you're in the win column. I think of this Obi Wan role that I'm doing, I think it's been really rewarding. I'm there for them to push off against, I'm there as a sounding board, I'm there for them to sort of break glass in case of emergency, and it's closer actually to the role I actually envisioned myself being in all of those years ago. I don't really relate to the hired-gun director who rides into town with a black hat on a black horse, directs and then leaves. I really like more of the studio environment, the more collaborative process, and I think it's better suited to me.
Cinematical: As they're wrapping me, were there any things that conceptually or technically from the original movie that you wanted to, if not correct, then take the opportunity to more fully realize in Tron: Legacy?
Lisberger: Yes, and I've never mentioned this to anyone. I just thought of it: hair. We could not put hair in the first movie because we couldn't technically matte it. People think, well, why does everyone have a helmet on all of the time? It was a technical problem; otherwise there would have been plenty of scenes where they had hair. But I am envious of their ability to matte characters in, I am envious of their precision in terms of – they have no idea how funky, I keep telling Joe [Kosinski] and Sean. It's a cliché, the old guy going, "you don't know back in the day how funky it was!" But it was seriously funky. It was so funky, I went up to Pixar and we showed both Trons up there, and when I would tell them stories about this, I might as well have been talking about the Wright Brothers.