It's been only four days since 'Tron: Legacy' opened in theaters nationwide, so it's understandable if you haven't seen it but one time thus far. But we also know that that first viewing can be potentially confusing, even if you've seen the original film nine times. So in order to find the answers to some of the burning questions of story and logic that might still be lingering, Cinematical sat down with 'Tron: Legacy' screenwriters Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis for a candid, in-depth conversation about the film.
Please be aware that this is not just a spoiler-heavy interview, it was specifically conducted to break down and clarify the story from start to finish. So if you haven't seen the film yet, this may not be the best place to start reading about 'Tron: Legacy.' That said, hopefully Kitsis and Horowitz' comments will explain some of the stickier points of the plot, and enhance the viewing experience for folks intrigued enough to give it another shot.
When Kevin Flynn tells Sam about the Grid and the events of the original Tron, is he explaining this computer world to his son literally, or does he mean it as some kind of a fable?
Adam Horowitz: He's trying to express to him something that is really difficult for anyone to swallow. He feels that he's on the cusp of this major, major breakthrough, and when he can get it out to the world, he can tell everyone - but he's sort of trying to prime the pump with his son a little bit to get him excited.
Eddie Kitsis: I also think in a way, it's kind of like when you tell your son a bedtime story and he hears certain things for the first time and his mind is blown. He's telling his son about this fantastical world he created and saying, some day you're going to come there with me. And so the son was left with, wow! Is that true? I want to go with my dad. But when his dad never came back it turned into, my dad was crazy. And everyone keeps telling me my father's a genius and my dad's great; but I have one question - why did he leave me?
Horowitz: It is funny - we went through many different iterations of how he would tell this story to his son. But ultimately what we always came back to was that the scene was about a connection between a father and a son. A father who was going to leave and how the son was going to handle that - and what that would mean for him.
Was the inclusion of Dillinger's son in the opening scene something you guys felt was a clever nod to the original movie, or was there some significance or greater meaning to that?
Horowitz: I think that it was something that when we put it in, it felt like it would hopefully play as a nice nod to the first movie, for the fans. And for those who are unfamiliar with the first movie, we felt like the sequence would play hopefully as it does play as Sam is breaking in to do this thing and there is a board that is doing this, but then you put this thing in there, this person for the fans.
Kitsis: But he's the opposite of Sam. He is completely okay with just putting in 12 on the box, you know? But everything is a part of a larger story because we really worked out the mythology. And listen, we come from television, so we don't just think in one episode, we think in series. How is this series going to last five years? What's the next episode. Do we presume that 'Tron' will be successful enough to write a sequel? No. But I know as a fan, if it was and I was asked to do it, I would hope that whoever was one of the writers on a movie I love at least thought about other stories so that it's not like, oh, now what we do? And the truth of the matter is, we're also doing the animated show. So, there's lots of stories in 'Tron' in our minds to tell. You go through the video game, through the animated show, through movies, through the ARG, and we wanted it all to feel of a piece. We wanted everything to feel like it was one giant world so that we would have to talk a lot about stories that would never, never get done, but for that scene, it was really the purpose of showing the anti-Sam.
Horowitz: Another example is like when Quorra and the Solar Sailer is telling Sam about how she came to be with Flynn. We had drafts that we wrote of that and the little answer she gives that were like three pages long. Ultimately you realize that it's just like really great as a writer to have a back story and all this stuff out there that fuels it, but what you need for the movie to understand dramatically is, what she does say to him? But it was important for us to have that kind of mythology of what happens.
Kitsis: And with our partners in this show, Joe Kosinski and Sean Bailey and Justin Springer, the five of us said, we need to know what happened to all of it. We need to know what happened from '82 to '89 and from '89 to now. We need to know what happened in the Grid and we need to know how these things are, and then it just becomes here's the story we're telling. So not all of it goes [in the movie] but it hopefully adds to a rich life, and it's probably something that became more apparent in the second viewing than in the first. The first viewing is so dazzling, just to stare at it; in a weird way to me 'Tron' is like the Radiohead album 'OK Computer.' The first time I heard it I was blown away, but it wasn't until like the second or third listen that I started to just really see it.
Did you guys just use the same pseudoscience that was in the first film to explain how Sam gets inside the computer, or did you come up with something different?
Horowitz: Yeah. I think the idea was that the technology that was cracked by Alan Bradley and Lora back then became this thing that Kevin Flynn ran with and was using to hopefully do great things for the world. And he stuck with that same sort of technology.
In terms of the landscape of the computer world, did Flynn create that world from the outside and then start going into it, or did he go into it and then start building from within?
Horowitz: And he is building it from within and from without, if I'm understanding your question. He creates a world, goes in and sees what it could be, and then creates Clu and a new version of the Alan Bradley program of Tron to build this world from within. And he is going back and forth between worlds, building this world out, until things take a turn with Clu, and then he feels trapped.
Why do the undeveloped "Outland" areas look more organic, instead of maybe more simple and geometric like in the first film?
Horowitz: I think I know what you're getting at. This is something that we've talked about with Joe a lot and he had some great thoughts on an approach to this and he can speak to it even better than we can. But the general idea was like, if you take what a processor from 1982 had, the kind of power that a computer processor had then, and then you take what it has now and you go through the exponential changes in technology in computing power, the representation of reality would reach that kind of level where you would have a system that, inside, you're replicating things that feel more organic. There are weather systems, there are things that are more analogous to what our world is in there, based on the vastly different computer processing power.
Kitsis: And I always loved the idea that he says it's the digital frontier – "it's the last frontier." When you think about the frontier, the frontier was people [who] had to tame the wilderness. People had to go out and create a house and a church and a train station and they had to somehow get mail there, and in a weird way, I feel like the grid is exactly what happens and it's evolving, but in the same respect I feel like because [Flynn] was thrown over by Clu, he never got the chance to really let it all blossom. So I think the grid constantly wants to grow, but when you take out its creator, it stunts its growth.
Horowitz: Right. The grid we're looking at in 'Legacy' is an unfinished project.
Are the programs in this film the same as in the first 'Tron' in the sense that they are a personification of a certain kind of program, or because of that leap in technology are they actual characters?
Horowitz: The programs in the film are programs that had specific functions, but they have been able to transcend their functions. And this is resultant in a few different things. You have the one thing with the "Isos," which is that actual programs are able to generate out of nothingness. But then you have [the idea that] the programs that do exist are evolving. That they are actually developing culture.
Kitsis: In the End of Line Club when Sam walks in and he sees two guards, and the fact that there's two girls on the guards shows the evolution of the programs, whereas in the first movie, it was really literal. I mean, "I'm an accounting program, right? I don't want to go into the grid."
Speaking of the Isos, or isomorphic algorithms, what exactly were they conceived to be, and what are they for the purpose of this film?
Horowitz: For the purpose of the film, we always talked about this idea of evolution and how programs would change and what that could mean. So they become a symbol of something that was created out of the control of Kevin Flynn. That is something new - a new form of life.
Sort of an immaculate conception then?
Horowitz: Well, what we always wanted or what we were trying to find a way to do in the script was to find a way for Kevin Flynn to have created the system and then look at it in a new way and say, this is not what I expected - this has become something else. And I think they became that thing that sort of showed him the system could be something more than he ever thought it could be. And that was the tragedy because Clu said, "Why do you like these new things more than me?" [Flynn] started to realize that was his first hint that it's not about the perfection, it's flaws - that's what makes every human different. That's what makes every human special. And that's when he started to realize, I created something that is evolving in a way that I didn't even see and this is going to be really, really cool. And then he never got to see the caterpillar become a butterfly.
Flynn suggests that the Isos will revolutionize medicine, science, philosophy – "everything." But what are the practical implications of them being brought into the real world?
Horowitz: Well, I think that is exactly the question we want the audience to be asking. And I know that sounds like a dodge and a cop out, but that is exactly what we want; we want you to think at the end of the movie, what does this mean? What can this mean?
Kitsis: What Flynn was thinking when he first got into the grid was it's fun to make kick-ass games - I can ride my light cycle, it's faster, I can jump higher, I can run. And then he said, wait a minute, I'm thinking too small - if I'm I here thinking about games, what would happen if I brought Stephen Hawking in here? What would he do in the sandbox? What would other people do? I could do an entire trial of a cancer [medication] and in two weeks have a 100-year trial. He started to see all the applications of the Grid - this place could become the world's greatest laboratory for the greatest minds. God knows what its potential would be. And Kevin Flynn had that utopian vision of, I want to save the world and maybe this is the laboratory to help me do it. But unfortunately, what he created to help him do it kicked him to the curb.
I was wondering if to some extent the whole sequence with Quorra and her injury and Flynn's ability to pull out that damaged code was something that would somehow translate to his ability to essentially to hack into DNA and actually correct genetic abnormalities?
Horowitz: Those are exactly the kind of implications that we would love to have in there. And again, we don't want to explicate too much in a way, but I think you're very much keying into the kind of things that we were trying to achieve. Because when he's doing that, there is very clearly seems to be a parallel to how you would handle genetic code, and what that could mean is something that was very interesting to us. But sometimes with these kinds of things what you want to do when you are writing is to ask the questions. And you can't always have the answers - and sometimes putting the answers out there isn't what you necessarily want to do. What you want to do is hopefully have people look at these things and think about 'what ifs,' and that can be exciting and get you thinking.
Does Clu control Rinzler? Or how is their relationship meant to be interpreted, given his transformation later?
Horowitz: [Clu] repurposed Tron into Rinzler, and that's the key difference between Clu and Kevin Flynn - Kevin Flynn could create, Clu could repurpose. All Clu can do is destroy or repurpose, and what he did with Rinzler was, he took Tron and repurposed him. Can he completely control him? No. But I think the idea for us was that the way we wanted to play it is he forgot who he was. It's almost like amnesia. But there was a core to his programming so deep that when he first sees the blood trickle and he says, "User," that's like the first step of like that really core program reawakening.
Kitsis: But when he gets face-to-face with Kevin Flynn is when it slowly starts to come back. So because Kevin was off the Grid and he was hiding for so many cycles, as we say, he never had the opportunity.
In terms of the time cycles, is the passing of time, for lack of a better reference, like 'Inception' where like one minute in the real world is like 10 minutes in the computer world?
Horowitz: Yes. There is a very complicated mathematical formula that we worked on to make it work. And we went back and forth because we had versions where Eddie and I, math is not necessarily our strong suit, where we would have Kevin Flynn was in there for 28,000 years.
Kitsis: It sounded great in the script - it's like one cycle equals eight hours, but we were like, oh, so he's been in there for a million years?
Horowitz: We worked it out with Joe and we call them microcycles and there are divisions. And I think it's something like, a microcycle is like eight hours or we sort of basically we figured it out. But the concept is when you're in the grid, your time is working at a different rate than it is out here.
Kitsis: It is very similar to 'Inception' in that weeks can pass, but only an hour has passed in the real world.
How did you determine it would be possible for a computer program to be manifested in the real world?
Horowitz: That was always one of the big ideas that we were playing with in the story, which was, if the original asks a question of "can we be inside," then it almost seems to follow that we wanted to ask the question "can something from there be outside?" And that's kind of what led to that.
Well, did you guys have to spend any time figuring out how a computer program could physically materialize?
Horowitz: We did. We did talk about the idea of what is being reconstituted. There is stuff that you can see in the frame, carbon molecules that are attached to the laser, that are what you are being transferred into and then how that's being turned into energy and then it's a data. And then the question becomes, how is that reverse process working? And in our mind, there was a logic to how on the one hand you can take a corporeal being and turn them into this kind of data, and then we can have a reversal process by taking the data then and say, okay, can't we then reconstitute that into some form of man?
Kitsis: And what we decided was, well yes, but it has to merge with the user, in the sense that the only way to get out is with a user disc - and therefore not even Sam's, but the Creator's disc.
So to some extent, it's like Quorra kind of literally uses his matter to become herself.
Horowitz: Well, what we don't want to be saying is that she's Kevin Flynn. And she's not. But that there was a one-for-one trade that essentially happened.
In the first movie, Flynn can exert some influence over the computer world. What was the process of developing that for this movie in terms of what he actually can control and why?
Kitsis: Well, you know firstly, we didn't want to make him Flynn the magician. You see the moments where he puts his hand down in End of Line club and that affects things in a way, and at the end, he does the reintegration. But what we didn't want him to do was just be a magical guy that can all of a sudden be "I need a tank!" So Joe was great with this, and he wanted the Grid to be as real as possible. So Kevin was able to build things, but obviously that was taken over by Clu. And Clu was not able to do those things, which is why he needed Kevin's disc. So he was the creator of the world, but at the same time, he's not Gandalf.
At the end of the movie we end up with a sort of empowered, more mature Sam character. Notwithstanding the father/son story, was there an impulse at all that was either imposed on you or that you thought it was important to make the transition from Kevin Flynn being this older person and then finding like a sort of new generation of people that could continue this mythology?
Kitsis: Quite truthfully, that was our very first idea when we pitched it - here was a kid whose father is basically Steve Jobs meets Bill Gates meets John Lennon. You've lost your mom and you've lost your father and now you grow up and no matter where you go, there's somebody telling you, "Well I love your dad, dude. Your dad changed my life. Your dad is awesome." And you're thinking, what if my dad left me, and he's not awesome? And how do you compete with a father who's John Lennon, who's Steve Jobs and created Apple? Well, the best way to not fail is to not try. And we had to have Sam go through this - meet his father, see what his father was trying to do and in a weird way realize that his father never abandoned him so that Sam could say, okay, I need to be my own man. Because I've been living in the shadow of this guy and I didn't know who this guy was. And it wasn't until he actually got to spend time with that guy that he realized that, okay, I have to man up now, and I have to try.
At the same time, his manifestation of trying to become his own man is kind of immature - to go to the End of Line club by himself.
Kitsis: Sure, yeah. Well, the way that we looked at that scene was that my father asked what college I went to when I dropped out, and the only thing I could tell him was I have a dog. So you know what? He doesn't want to fight and I'm a little headstrong, but maybe if I kind of get out there, shut Clu down and save him, he'll realize I'm good. And then what happens is, the father was like, you don't have to do all of this. I already know you're good, man! You don't have to do that. I don't have to believe it, you have to believe it. And that's what I think Kevin Flynn kind of lays down to him. And the scene where Kevin Flynn [and Sam are reunited], Kevin Flynn abruptly leaves his son. He goes out on the balcony and you're like, that's really weird. And the reason is because he's sitting out there and he knows that Clu brought his son in and now his son is trapped like him. So although he never thought he would be able to see his son again and tell him he loves him, by the same respect he has now doomed his son, as well as himself. And that's why he says to his son, "We have to stay here because the risks are too great." So there's a sadness when his son gets in, because he feels like, "I've ruined his life too." I think that is one of those second viewing things, because if you said it out loud, it might have seemed silly, but that was our intention when we were writing it.
What does it mean when Flynn says, "I'm going to go knock on the sky?"
Kitsis: One of the things that we were lucky enough to do was to get to work with Jeff Bridges, and one of the very first things Jeff did was he handed us a bunch of books on Buddhism. And Adam and I read a line about knocking on the sky and listening to the sound. It's just kind of meditating. It's just kind of a way to say, I'm just basically going to try and focus, and search within myself to open myself up to listen to something that I'm not maybe thinking about.
Horowitz: Because what's happening with Kevin Flynn at that point is that he has gone against everything that he had thought that he should do. And it's sort of his lesson which he kind of gives to Sam later which is that some things are worth the risk. What he was doing was all logical and made sense in terms of staying there and staying out of danger, [but] it's what he was giving up by doing that. His son shows him that, so now it's worth the risk to do that. So at this point in the movie, when they're on the Solar Sailer, he has to think about how his whole sort of way of thinking is changing, which is going to allow him then in the final sequence to say, we're going to make that run for the border.
Kitsis: And it's sort of a new philosophy he has; it's that Zen thing, which is the best action is no action. The man who knows everything knows nothing. It's kind of like that - it's kind of a Flynnism.
Two scenes in the film evoke similar scenes in 'Batman Begins,' with Quorra's vehicle, and in 'Star Wars,' with the turret battle in the back of the light jet. I don't know whether you were influenced by them or not, but is it possible now to make a science fiction story, or tell any story, that doesn't in some way reference a previously existing text?
Horowitz: Well this is a very good example of how the process worked with us.
Kitsis: Yeah we said dune buggy because we wanted something that could go in the Outlands, and that could fit two people.
Horowitz: So we're writing the scheme of the scene for us was about, okay, Quorra's got to break him out of the games and then take him off grid and then be able to get him to Flynn. So we wrote the light buggy, is what we called it, and then Joe came back with the Light Runner and the design for what it would look like, how it would operate and all that.
Kitsis: But it was never like, oh let's do something from 'Batman,' it was literally like, what would be great would be that Flynn had designed a vehicle that could go off road where the others couldn't that could come in and save him. As far as the turret at the end, that is literally subconscious because when we were writing it, it was, well, Quorra's flying, Flynn is a Buddhist, Sam needs to fight back. So we would have a gun. And then when you see the turret scene, you're like oh, is it 'Star Wars?' Well, look at our office. You're sitting next to a Boba Fett head. There was a scene that Adam and I wrote in 'Lost' where it was Season One and Jin and Michael were working together to do the raft. And Jin speaks complete Korean, he does not have any English at this point, and they're arguing and they're fighting and then we wrote the scene and David loved it and Carlton loved it and we were great. And then we looked at it and we go, Oh my god. It's the Chewie- Han Solo scene from 'Empire' where they both understand each other's language and they're fighting. 'Star Wars' was the first movie for the two of us that really blew our minds and inspired us, and we came out here to do that. And that scene, is it a rip off of 'Star Wars?' We didn't mean for it to be, it's subconscious. Yes, he grabs a turret, but if it was a World War II film, nobody would say, oh, they're ripping off 'Star Wars,' they'd say, oh, he's in a gunfight.
Horowitz: There are cases where the nods are completely intentional and that are meant to be. That's not one of them. As Eddie said, that was literally a case of a subconscious thing at least for us in the writing of it. And it really came from that place of character, which is like, Sam is not going to take action in this sequence and do something heroic. And you know, did we see Star Wars one time too many? Maybe.
Kitsis: I don't know. I mean, I guess the truth is probably everything we do has some Star Wars DNA in it and we didn't – it's subconscious. That one was literally a character thing of here are three people now who are united into a purpose. But you've got to ask Joe because when Joe directed it, he's also a huge Star Wars fan, so he might say like, oh yeah, I don't know.
When you are creating something now, I don't know if you could even know, but can you create something totally original that would not have some influence?
Horowitz: I don't know what's totally original and what isn't. I can't even presume to judge that. All that we can do as storytellers is try to tell the kind of story that excites us that's about something that's interesting for us to explore. And we keep going back to it, but of us it was like, when we first were given the opportunity to pitch an idea for this movie, the idea about exploring a father-son relationship with a twist where there's two versions of the father got us excited as writers and said, this is the way we're going to approach the movie. All the other stuff then becomes about execution of this idea, expanding it out and getting into all the other kind of themes and interesting questions about this world and all that stuff that you can explore.
Kitsis: We're all doing the hero's journey. You know, we're all going back to Campbell, but it's just how you're doing it.