Damon Lindelof on Why They Cut All the Walt Disney References Out of ‘Tomorrowland’
Damon Lindelof — creator of LOST, producer of the Star Trek films and writer of Prometheus — has taken his fair share of grief over the years; some earned, some unfairly dumped at his feet. To his credit, Lindelof is aware of all this, perhaps hyper-aware. He famously quit Twitter back in October of 2013, a few months after Star Trek fans voted Star Trek Into Darkness the worst Star Trek movie ever made. He's since devoted his time to his new HBO series, The Leftovers, and Tomorrowland, a movie he co-wrote with director Brad Bird.
This should not surprise you considering Lindelof's involvement, but audiences have so far been mixed on Tomorrowland. Some have loved it, others have not. It's a narrative that is not unusual to Damon Lindelof. We sat down to talk with the writer-producer about the film, his feelings on the public perception of his work and why they ultimately decided to cut all the Walt Disney references out of a movie that is very much a Disney film.
What was your reaction when Brad came to you, during pre-production of Tomorrowland, and told you he had been offered Star Wars: Episode 7?
It was in the wind. The only story in the pop culture world at the time was that Star Wars 7 was going to happen and they were looking for a director. There were a lot of rumors that J.J. [Abrams] had passed and [Christopher] Nolan had passed and every single article that I was reading said that Bird was a very likely candidate. So, by the time he called me and said, “This is happening. I have been offered the movie,” I was fully braced for it.
What I said to him was, if it were me or if I were you, I would do Star Wars. I just don’t know how you say no to that. I just had to give him that honest response. That said, I would hate myself for doing it, because basically we worked for about a year-and-a-half to get Tomorrowland going, we got a big movie star [George Clooney], we got a green light from Disney, we're deep into pre-production and if you go and do Star Wars, Tomorrowland is going to end. As a producer, it would be a huge bummer. It’s a little bit like, if my wife said to me, Hey look, “Brad Pitt wants to take me out to dinner.” Yeah. I get it. I don't blame you for going.
Had you then, or would you now, entertain any interest in working in the Star Wars universe?
I can tell you that I’ve had NO conversations with anyone, on a formal or informal level, about working on any Star Wars project. That said, I think that my sense of where we're going to be five years from now is that the Star Wars universe is just as fertile as the Marvel universe. That’s certainly what Disney’s plan is. I would certainly never say never, but right now, whether Tomorrowland succeeds or fails, I’m committed to a space of trying to make something more original. That doesn't come with the intense focus of “Jesus, Lindelof, don't fuck this up too.” If it’s an original piece, I fucked up my own thing, which I've also been accused of, mind you. But, it would be immensely distracting to the fans, for my name to be involved in the franchise at this stage.
Did you ever have any thoughts about Tomorrowland becoming a franchise?
Look, if this movie is successful and they want to make another one, I think there are plenty of other stories to tell in this world. But, our ambition was to make a self-contained movie with a beginning, middle and end. It doesn't set up a trilogy. There's a fair amount of hubris in making a movie that is supposed to launch a franchise. I always feel like, “How did you earn that?” Just make one movie and go from there. With The Fast and the Furious, no one saw that movie and said, “They're gonna make seven of these!” “Vin Diesel is going to leave and come back, that's how fertile this car racing franchise is!” People just wanted more. Some of my favorite films of all time, Close Encounters and Jaws...Jaws never should have had a sequel and thank god Close Encounters didn't. These are standalone films. That's high pie-in-the-sky, but you have to just say you're going to focus on these two hours and that’s it.
Did any of those “other stories” include Walt Disney? It seems like his presence is conspicuously missing from this movie.
There were very explicit references to Walt's involvement in Plus Ultra [the secret society that creates Tomorrowland], and on the DVD you'll see a scene in Blast From the Past where they say explicitly that Walt was a member, and Casey even says, “Like the Tomorrowland in Disneyland?” That prompts them to explain that the theme park was actually a cover for the real Tomorrowland. But, aside from the fact that those scenes are pure exposition that can make you feel like you're sitting through a history lesson, it felt like we were inside a Disney movie and every time we saw Disney get mentioned in it, it was a wink to the audience. Like a meta self-aware thing that took you out. When the characters of the movie have to say the title of the movie. We have to be very discreet about when and how we use the word “Tomorrowland” in this movie. It's not like Bruce Willis ever needs to say “die hard” in those movies.
There were some very specific mentions to Walt in the beginning of the movie at the World’s Fair, because in addition to the Small World ride, Walt brought the Carousel of Progress and the original opening of the movie had the little boy going through that attraction. They also brought the animatronic Lincoln to the World’s Fair. So there was a much more pervasive Disney presence in the film.
You quit Twitter a little over a year ago. Do you still lurk?
No. If I'm feeling like I need to hate myself more than usual, I'll just read the comments on an article where I get mentioned. It simulates the experience.
Is it just a coincidence that you quit Twitter because of negativity, right as you were prepping this movie, which is very much about optimism and positive thinking?
I don’t think it’s a huge surprise to me that Twitter was ultimately a place that made me feel bad. It didn’t just make me feel bad because of what people were saying about me, they were saying bad things about other people too. That’s not just Twitter, that’s human nature. There’s this part of our self that we have to acknowledge where you can't just have a “Best Dressed List” after an awards show, you have to have the “Worst Dressed List” too. The more engaging and interesting part of the presentation is traditionally the disasters. It just speaks to a larger element of us. The popular thinking is that I couldn’t take it anymore. I had been taking it for many years. It’s not like it intensified. I think it was just a matter of it bringing out the worst in me. It became a magnifying lens for all the negativity. And I just felt like it shouldn't be a part of my life anymore.
The hard part is that there were people I followed that brought me endless entertainment and I do miss that part of it. There was certainly a part of me when I first stopped where I thought I could create an alias and just go follow those people. But I felt like it had to be cold turkey, or not at all.
I was surprised to read that you and Brad Bird had met on Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. Do you do a lot of script doctoring?
Brad sort of outed me in that regard. It happens all the time, and on that particular movie, where a writer is called and sometimes it's in the scripting phase right before production, and very often it's after the movie is finished and they're looking to shoot some additional material. So, yeah, I do a fair amount of it, but usually the amount of work is so negligible that I don't feel the need to publicize it. Also, there are people who work on these things for years and years and I come in for two weeks or a month and it's not anything that I have any desire to take credit for.