In Disney’s Tomorrowland, everyday citizens, blessed with overactive imaginations, are plucked from the humdrum reality of everyday life and whisked to a magical, futuristic world where anything is possible. The same could be said of Jeff Jensen, a writer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, who was called upon to help create Tomorrowland alongside some genuine filmmaking luminaries: co-writer/producer Damon Lindelof (whose influential show Lost Jensen recapped obsessively) and co-writer/director Brad Bird (creator of genuine masterpieces like Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol).
The way Jensen tells it, he was asked to do some background research for the project, about a plucky teenage girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) who teams up with grizzled inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney) and mysterious young girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to travel to a glittery utopia just outside the realm of everyday life. Jensen researched Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company, the goals of Walt’s original EPCOT project, and futurism from the past and today. He had done so much research, in fact, that he was given a story by credit to go along with his executive producer role and wound up writing an entire prequel book called Before Tomorrowland (with Jonathan Case, Jensen’s collaborator on the lauded graphic novel Green River Killer: A True Detective Story). Anything is possible, right?
We sat down and chatted with Jensen about how he came aboard the project, what happened to Casey’s mom, what he hopes audiences get out of the movie, and what his plans for Tomorrowland in the theme park would be.
Where did this idea initially come from?
Damon started speaking with the executives at Disney, over on the movie side, in the fall of 2010 after Lost was over and they started talking about an idea of what a modern Disney movie would look like, especially a science fiction-themed movie. And Damon was very engaged and galvanized by Tomorrowland as a theme, as a word, like what would a movie called Tomorrowland be like? As he was ready to engage that work, he wanted to know a lot of things: he wanted to know about the history of the Walt Disney Company, he wanted to know the history of Tomorrowland and where that came from, he wanted the history of EPCOT. He wanted to know the history of futurism and how that evolved in all sorts of ways in the 20th century. And he knew me from my Lost work and that I not only recapped Lost but I brought in a lot of research and projected a lot of things onto that story and he knew me and that I was interested in all of those themes. So he asked me if I’d be interested in working with him, doing a lot of that research and bringing it into the room with him, talking about it and letting that research inspire story ideas. That’s how the conversation began. And out of that story ideas began to flow.
Were you a Disney freak before all of this started?
I was fascinated by Disney as a cultural institution, mostly because it’s so very different from any other Hollywood studio. It’s a culture in and of itself. But I would say no. I was not a Disney freak. I was generally aware of how significant it was to American culture but researching the company, you can’t really tell the story of American culture in the 20th century without talking about the Walt Disney Company. That’s how intrinsically integrated Disney is into the fabric of popular culture of the 20th century. I knew that generally but really sank into that doing the work.
What surprised you the most during this research period?
It’s hard to say. I think Walt’s work with the World’s Fairs was really interesting to me. But the thing that really blew me away was his original plans for EPCOT, what that was really all about, and what he aspired to do, and what a crazy thing it is for a major corporation to invest in that idea and what a wonderful idea it represented. It was wondering what that would have been like if he had been able to execute that idea. That part of Disney history, the original plans of EPCOT, was illuminating and really interesting to read about.
You took this research to Damon and formulated a story idea, but you also took this and created something else: your book, Before Tomorrowland. Can you talk about how the two complement each other?
Well, it was good to know the history, even if it was to make the decision to not use any of it. We came up with a history and let it inform ideas in the movie. I’ll give you a really good example where that came in handy: we had a real problem, storytelling wise, with getting characters from point A to B in a short amount of time. Like how do we get them from upstate New York to Paris? But knowing the history of Plus Ultra and knowing that they had been this secret society that had been around in 100 years and had all of this hidden infrastructure all around the world, we could pull from that and say, “Well they had this means of transportation called wire transfer,” the cable-based teleportation idea. That was a great example of how creating backstory solves storytelling problems. That kind of philosophy was why we needed this really thought out and locked in place. And we weren’t content to just have it be a page of backstory. We created this whole history of Plus Ultra from 1889 to 1964 and we came up with ideas for events along the way but we wondered if we could turn each of those events in Plus Ultra into a story in and of itself. That’s how Before Tomorrowland comes about.
Do you know the entire history of Tomorrowland? Because we don’t really know what went wrong after Clooney’s character got kicked out.
I think what the movie presents or is trying to present is the idea that when they started creating this city of the future in a parallel dimension in 1964, it was with the intention of sharing this city with the world by a specific date, which was 1984. And they were going to let people know about it and bring people in and share it with the world. But what we try to suggest is that there was a tortured history from ’64 to ’84 and the major turning point was that they invented something they shouldn’t have, which was a device that could see into the future. They fell into temptation and looked into the future to see if Tomorrowland would make the world a better place, and what they saw as uncertainty. I think their thinking was, What happened? Was it because we gave the world Tomorrowland and it didn’t work? Did we not give the world Tomorrowland and it didn’t work? So I always looked at it like they got spooked by what they saw and they lost their nerve and there was a disagreement over where to go from there. Ultimately the faction that said, “We need to study this problem. Let’s withhold Tomorrowland from the world until we solve the problem of the world and get some certainty about the future” won. There were a lot of people that disagreed with that and one of them was George Clooney’s character. And by that point Nix had amassed a lot of power and anybody who disagreed with Nix got kicked out.
When Tomorrowland was first announced it was positioned as the beginning of a franchise. Have you talked about where it could go?
I think we liked the idea of introducing a world and telling a complete, thematic story. I think that the movie leaves some questions unanswered and some possibilities for more storytelling. I think it would be great to tell more story but we haven’t talked about what those stories could be.
Do you know where Casey’s mom is?
I think that if I were you I’d go back and look at that scene where Tim McGraw is in bed and Casey sneaks in to get the pin from his bedside table. You might look to see if there’s somebody else in that bed.
Brad has talked about how he wants the movie to inform what Tomorrowland is in the Parks. What would your dream version of Tomorrowland look like?
I’m not smart enough to do the Imagineers’ job. I think when you look at the history of Tomorrowland in the theme parks, it’s one of the most difficult parts of those theme parks to flesh out and figure out because the future is always changing. You always run the risk of looking dated ten years from now, which is part of the reason why Disney settled on this retro futurism because it’s timeless. I would love to see Tomorrowland embrace the idea of being a miniature World’s Fair. I think you get some of that at EPCOT in Walt Disney World, but I also envision some rides that take into account the future health of the world. So for example we have this awesome ride at Tomorrowland right now that I love called Autopia. It would be great to see a new version of that ride that embraced what the vehicles of the future looked like. I would love to see an updating of that.
After years of generating some amazing theories for Lost, is there some validation in creating something that will generate its own outlandish theories?
First and foremost, I just want people to go and have a really good time and secondly, I really hope that people are engaged by themes of the movie and find that interesting. To think about notions of the future, how we look at the future now versus how we looked at the future then and find some relevancy now. I hope they’re galvanized and engaged by some protagonists that we don’t get enough of in the movies, like a teenage girl teaming up with a 12-year-old girl to save the world. I really hope audiences can be energized by its points of difference and being engaged by that. And secondarily, if it’s good enough to capture your imagination and you project your own theories onto everything, that’s fantastic! That would be awesome.
Tomorrowland is now playing in theaters. Have you seen it yet?