In Brad Bird's sci-fi fantasy Tomorrowland, the heroes are at odds. On one side, you've got Frank Walker (played by George Clooney), a reclusive inventor who's lost his zest for life and is now counting down the days until modern civilization destroys itself. If Frank had his way, he'd live out the rest of his life alone, but an optimistic young woman named Casey (Britt Robertson) has other plans for them: She believes that the world can change for the better if Frank and a mysterious robot-girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), can help her reach Tomorrowland, an alternate dimension full of gleaming technological advances like jet packs and rocket ships that may also contain the cure for our cultural apathy. These are heady notions to build a summer movie around, and recently in Los Angeles, I met up with Clooney, Bird, and Tomorrowland's co-writer Damon Lindelof to discuss them in a wide-ranging conversation that also touched on female representation in movies, the perils of social media, and jerks.
George, one of the most unusual things about this movie is the fact that you’re in it. Over the last 15 years of your career, you’ve only made two summer movies. Are you being offered studio blockbusters all the time that you’re just not responding to?
George Clooney: Well, I got a good taste of it in my mouth doing Batman and Robin. "Gosh, I'm so good at this, why don't I keep doing them?" [Laughs.] You know, it's never really been my thing. Even something like Gravity was a very different kind of film, where I wasn't carrying the bulk of the weight, and that wasn’t even a summer film …
… although it performed like one.
Clooney: It did perform like one. But other than that, it hasn't really been in my wheelhouse, quite honestly. I've been offered a few of them, but I didn't think I was the right guy for those jobs. But I have to say that Tomorrowland didn't feel like a summer movie. When you read it, you go, "Wait, Disney's gonna do a summer movie that isn't a sequel and isn't based on a comic book?" It's a very brave thing to do, and I liked the idea that it looked at the world in a much more optimistic way. I thought, Well, if these guys want to take a spin at that, it seems really great. I will also say, they came to my house.
Brad Bird: Uninvited.
Clooney: And they said something that still strikes me today. They said that they'd written it with me in mind, and then you read the very first description of Frank Walker and it says, "crusty old man." And I'm going, "Wait a minute, what the hell?"
Bird: The "crusty" part was Damon's.
Damon Lindelof: I like the crust!
There are three lead characters in Tomorrowland, and two of them are female ... if we're counting the robot.
Clooney: And I'm the robot. [Laughs.]
I bring this up because it's rare to have a big summer sci-fi movie where the female characters share plenty of scenes all on their own.
Bird: There was one point where Britt's character was a guy, and we very quickly bailed on it.
Lindelof: It felt very ordinary. There is a completely false perception of, "Well, our main character is interested in space travel, so it's gotta be a boy," but the first time I said, "Well, what if it was a young girl …"
Bird: All of a sudden I was leaning forward.
Lindelof: It just felt like it was exactly right for us. I also think that if you have a female lead, people suddenly go, "Oh, there has to be a romantic entanglement." Like, if you're doing Hunger Games, it's not enough that you're dropped into an arena and everyone's trying to kill you — there has to be not one, but two romantic entanglements! So Brad and I thought, What if she doesn't get distracted by romantic entanglements? What if her "romance" is with the future?
Clooney: It would be awfully odd in this film for her to stop and say, "Hey there, pal. You have beautiful blue eyes."
Bird: Thank God you got me to cut that scene. [Laughs.]
Lindelof: It'll be nice in 10 or 15 years for this not to be a thing anymore. I think we're now in this post–Hunger Games, post-Twilight, post-Insurgent era where these movies make tons of money, you don't even think twice about it, and they're great characters. But for us, it was always more interesting — particularly the energy for Frank to be pulled along, kicking and screaming, by these two young women.
There's a provocative idea at the heart of this film that we’ve lost our collective optimism, that the sense of doom and gloom about our planet has had the effect of paralyzing the populace instead of galvanizing it. How did that become something you wanted to explore?
Bird: When I was first talking to Damon about it, I said that the world has been a rough place forever, but there seemed to have been this accepted idea that the future was going to be better. Certainly, in the '60s, things were not rosy — the Cold War was on, there was civil upheaval, assassinations — but the idea that we would figure it out in the future was not considered crazy. And then somewhere along the line, it disappeared, and [pessimism] became the accepted view. Damon and I were trying to figure out when did this happen and why, and could we make a sort of fable around that topic?
So how do you wake people up and get them optimistic and engaged about the future? George, as a political activist, this must be something you think about all the time.
Clooney: Sure. The truth of the matter is that I think most people do the best they can to get involved. I was raised believing that was part of your responsibility, and with the success I've had, I think you have to work even harder at it. I would suggest I've had a high percentage of failure, but it doesn't mean you don't try. Darfur was a horrible disaster, and then in late 2008, 2009, we had some success with it, and now it's blowing up again as we continue to work on it. It doesn't mean that you don't keep plugging away. You want to be able to say, "What did you do during that period of time? Did you just sit back and not participate?" I think that would be the shameful thing.
Do you think social media contributes to our pessimism? Joss Whedon was so tired of dealing with the snark that he quit Twitter, saying, “I don’t really think I need to visit You Suck Land anymore.” Damon, you’ve had your own contentious relationship with Twitter trolls.
Lindelof: George was there at a pivotal time in terms of my own engagement with social media. We would literally stand there at Video Village as I checked Twitter, and I felt like he was my AA sponsor.
Clooney: I wasn't trying to convince him to quit …
Bird: … He was asking him why. "Why do you feel the need to do this? Because you're spending energy on it."
Clooney: It was hurting him.
There is a positive use for that platform to promote bottom-up activism, but at the same time, Twitter can be a rough place.
Lindelof: Ultimately, I think it's a lens for the other thing George was talking about: There's this great thing in all of us where we want to hope, we want to believe. But then what happens? We saw that hope with Obama's first election … and then, with the second election, the cynicism sets in. We all want to be activated, but when you face the pragmatic realities of what George was talking about, where now you're starting to fail sometimes, it's so easy to default back to cynicism. Which isn't to say that you have to love everything — obviously, we have to open ourselves up to some level of criticism. But when we all took this on, people were saying, "You can't make an original movie anymore, and you certainly can't make an interesting Disney movie. If you make a Disney movie named Tomorrowland, it's gotta have Space Mountain, and you basically have to sell tickets to the amusement park.”
Bird: And it has a Disney connection, but its more about Walt Disney's own view of what the future could be. It's more ethereal. It's not, "Two people get on Space Mountain and then they're trapped on the ride for two hours!"
Lindelof: Now, I don't want to start a war, but as a self-identified fanboy, I think that with this movie, it's gonna be really hard for fanboys to say, "I really enjoyed this movie. It made me feel good." God forbid you tweeted something like that! What would happen to you? You'd lose your readership! "You sold out!"
Clooney: Listen, we're at sort of a cynical time in society. Don't ever read comments on anything! People can live anonymously, and I honestly think that when they were talking about freedom of speech in 1787, the theory was that you had to own your speech. It had to belong to you, and you actually had to take some responsibility for it. Now you can just sit alone and say horrible things, and it becomes fashionable to be shitty to people. Now people will come up to me, thinking they're keeping it real, and they say, "I hated you in that last movie!" And I'll look at them and go, "Well, I think those extra 20 pounds look good on you." It's become a much more cynical time, a time when people think its fun to only be negative.
Bird: Like there's an invisible laugh track that's digging on their snarky comment.
Clooney: And that's not gonna be how I function. I'm not gonna function in that world, where negativity is going to be the centerpiece. I'm going to look to the better angels and have a better life because of it.
See, George, I figured that because you didn't go online, you'd be insulated from that. But nowadays, have you got people coming up to you on the street, making accusations like, "You only got married so you could run for president"?
Clooney: Oh, that happens all the time. Listen, I was raised in Kentucky as a liberal Democrat. Imagine how my life has been. [Laughs.] For years, though, it wasn't such a bad thing, because Republicans and Democrats weren't so polarized; we are now very polarized, and it creates this environment where people feel like they can come up to me and say that. But if I stick my neck out politically, then I'll take a punch in the nose for that. If I go to a fund-raiser for the president and people don't like Obama and wanna say something, that's a fair deal. It's the other part of it that bothers me, when the very personal things come out. You'll have the Daily Mail running stories saying that my wife is Druze — which she is not, and they've printed stories before saying she wasn't — and because she's married someone who is not Druze, that should result in the death of the bride. That's just fomenting religious hatred and, quite honestly, putting a target on my wife's back. I respond to that because I find that to be evil. They apologized, and I didn't accept it.
So why do you think our collective outlook become so negative? Tomorrowland suggests that maybe the media played a part.
Lindelof: We tried to make that kind of a stealth MacGuffin in the movie — the idea of, what if something is actually responsible for this attitude? — but if you're hovering at 30,000 feet and looking down on it, as opposed to saying it's the media's fault, we point the finger firmly at ourselves.
Clooney: Look, I'm the son of a newsman. I grew up around it. Twenty-four-hour news doesn't mean you're getting more news … it just means you're getting the same news, more. The whole idea of news in general is that it has to be put in perspective. I remember once, with my father, there were seven skinheads in Cincinnati protesting something. He goes down and they're all yelling everything you could possibly yell in Fountain Square, so he covers it, and then he goes up to the 30th floor of the Carew Tower, the tallest building in Cincinnati, and he takes a shot pointing down of these seven little people in a town of 300,000, as if to say, This is actually how much this matters to us. Perspective is everything.
At the same time, Tomorrowland strongly espouses the notion that a single person’s will can change the world.
Clooney: The beauty of what this film is talking about is that we start to feel as if the future is inevitable, and having grown up in a generation where the individual felt like a participant in the future — during the civil-rights movement, the women's-rights movement — I was told that I could make a difference. We were taught to be involved, and that's been weeded out of us a little bit.
Bird: Yesterday, we were talking to some journalists who said, "So the message of the story is that you need to dream, right?" And I was like, "Well, no."
Lindelof: We are firmly anti-dream! [Laughs.]
Bird: No, but that's step one. Step one is you dream, and step two is you actually do something about it. You give force to the dream.
Clooney: I just want to say, Kyle, you've been doing these interviews for a lot of summer movies. And this is a very different sort of conversation than you have for most summer movies, isn't it?