Interview: Director Joseph Kosinski, Producers Steven Lisberger and Sean Bailey on Tron’s Legacy

By  · Published on December 17th, 2010

In 1982, Steven Lisberger gave Tron to the world. It was an ambitious project with visual effects that were unlike anything ever attempted before. The result was a film made for $17 million dollars, a lot at the time, that flopped to a $33 million dollar box office take. For all intents and purposes, that was the end of the road. But here we are, 28 years later with a new Tron that Disney has spent north of $200 million dollars on. Lisberger has handed off the reigns to producer Sean Bailey and a young commercial director named Joseph Kosinski, leaving them with the task of bringing back Tron in a high-resolution way for a new generation of users. When we caught up with the three men at the recent TRON: Legacy press junket for a roundtable discussion, they were eager to talk about the journey of Tron, the technology of Legacy and why the world of cinema has been flooded recently with so many sequels and remakes.

What is your sense of going back to the well to something that is 20 years in your past. Was it joyful to do that?

STEVEN LISBERGER: This is a very ‐ it was a unique adventure to make the first film and the uniqueness of Tron has continued. Uh, this experience, this doesn’t happen to people 28 years later. Uh, just I’m still, you know, running through it my head. I will probably continue to do that you know, for a long time but, uh, I’m happy to say that the uniqueness has continued straight through to the film that is Tron Legacy.

And in a way it seems to 28 years although they are there, they sort of fade away and the one film connects and leads to this film.

I was fascinated by the feast they were having in Flynn’s enclave. Where does food come from in the grid?

JOE KOSINSKI: Well, Kevin Flynn is the ‐ he’s the creator, so in my mind, you know, having just reunited with his son, Kevin wanted to create a Thanksgiving dinner in an effort to try to connect and it’s meant to be kind of a slightly awkward scene as you know, Thanksgiving dinners often are. Uh, but the idea is that he tried to create, in his mind, what he remembered a kind of family dinner to be about. So the creation of all that food is something he did.

SEAN BAILEY: We also talked about in the years of solitude, he had tried to figure out how to approximate some of the pieces of a normal life to keep himself together. He had been in closed isolation for a long time.

STEVEN LISBERGER: If you look at what we’re doing as users we are ‐ have been working very hard since 1980 to simulate or create everything in this world, in that world. We seem to be determined to do that. We aren’t going to stop until every one of us is represented in there and every address, every phone number, every you know ‐ who knows where this is going to end.

When I can’t find the phone at home I wonder why I can’t google it and it’ll tell me where things are in my house. So it’s not just the food. It’s where cyberspace is going is a complete rendering of this reality. Why we want to do that is really the question, why we want to have a copy of this world in there. I like to think it’s because if we ‐ we have one then we can use it to help figure out problems that seem impossible to solve in this world.

Joe, the themes and imagery in the original 1982 work were groundbreaking. Since then we’ve had a number of other films that have broken new ground. I’m thinking of The Matrix dealing with similar scenes. Do you take that into account when you’re deciding how they’re going to look?

JOE KOSINSKI: Well, uh, what we’ve tried to do is we like ‐ we liked the idea of a person that’s seen through the context of a father-son relationship, uh, rather than attacking them head on you know. I didn’t want this to be a movie about the Internet or about technology specifically. The ‐ the ‐ going through it as a ‐ through the eyes of a very unique relationship between a father and his two sons really, his digital son and his biological son. And to me was what made this film really interesting and allowed us to tell a story that I don’t think has been told before.

I mean, that unique relationship could never have been put to film until very recently, uh, at least using the technology we used to bring Clu to life.

Steven, the original Tron enjoyed a slow burn ‐ build when it comes to popularity.

STEVEN LISBERGER: Slow burn is also a good way to put it.

Was there a specific “neener-neener” moment for you, were you could say I told you?

STEVEN LISBERGER: Actually there were several of those but I was alone in the room when it happened. Yeah it is quite a checklist through the years and there’s a bunch that people don’t even know. I mean it’s called Encom but there was no dot com yet so how I ended up with com in there, that’s a surprise. And then the funniest one of course is that we had to get Jeff into the computer world and we did know how to do it so I came up with this harebrained idea that we’d scan him with a laser.

And then to do this film we scanned Jeff with a laser and he goes under the game grid only now it’s in real time. So, yeah, there’s been more of that than I ever thought what actually happened and ‐ but the thing that I think is the most interesting is that we really all became users. You know, when the first film came out, if people came out of the theater and said well what is a user? I’m not sure I want to be a user or I’m not sure I want Disney films to tell me that I’m going to be a user. So, um, that actually happened. We’re all users and we’re all in there now.

Talk about the music in the film. Did you directly work with Daft Punk?

JOE KOSINSKI: Yeah, I mean, shortly after starting to work on this project I found out through kind of mutual friends that they were interested and I knew I was interested having been a fan of their work since you know, the 1990s. So we met for breakfast, Sean, I, and the guys met for breakfast here in LA. This was a full 2007 and we just had this long discussion about movies and score ‐ scores and, and the possibilities of what the score could be.

We talked about Bernard Herrmann and Wendy Carlos and you know the soundtrack to Blade Runner and all our favorite stuff and the desire to create a classic score with classic themes that combined orchestral music with electronic music in a way that hadn’t been done before. And we just ‐ it was pretty ‐ it was apparent very quickly that creatively we were all on the same ‐ of the same mind. So we started on the music very early.

In fact a lot of those tracks that you heard last night film I actually had already finished on set and was able to play. So like the nightclub scene I had those tracks already done and ready so I can play for the cast and play it for everyone to kind of start to feel what the world felt like even back then. I’m really proud of how it turned out.

So, it was an easy choice…

JOSEPH KOSINSKI: Yeah, it made sense you know, you know there aren’t many composers or musical acts that you can put in a world of Tron and would fit in but you know, it’s not a giant leap to put those guys in the nightclub and so it was fun to get them in there. I’m just really happy with how the music turned out. I think it’sreal step forward for them as musicians and I think it’s unexpected and I hope people love it as much as I do.

Joe, what was it like directing the real world scenes with the stunt and the base jump and the motorcycle chase?

JOSEPH KOSINSKI: It was fun you know. The real world stuff was free of a lot of the technology that I had to employ in the world of Tron. So shooting the real world stuff was more like kind of old-fashioned moviemaking unit 2-D cameras and camera cars and night shoots and all that stuff. So I had a blast because that felt like making a real movie. Once we went into the grid [it] got a lot more complicated. It slowed things down. But, for me that real world stuff was a lot of fun.

Do you give up a little bit of control when you’re not on the stage with all your technology?

JOSEPH KOSINSKI: I don’t think so. I put as much effort into that ‐ those real world scenes as they did in the Tron world. I mean all the sets you know —

SEAN BAILEY: Joe never gives up any control.

JOSEPH KOSINSKI: We found great locations in Vancouver. We built some really great stuff you know the fans house on the water and stuff like that. I had a blast working on that stuff and it was a nice balance to the look and feel of Tron. I love that kind of yin yang approach visually of balancing the two worlds against each other.

When you’re directing a film using the technology where there really is a state-of-the-art, it changes constantly, do you have to draw the line somewhere and say don’t bring me any more new ideas?

JOSEPH KOSINSKI: Yeah, man, we had enough going on between the you know the suits, the 3-D cameras and the digital character of Clu, those three things working together were I think, as much as you could kind of throw ‐ as much new technology you could throw at shoots, as I’d ever want. We did employ the latest generation 3-D cameras that had just basically come online a couple weeks before we started shooting.

The suits we had to invent on our own basically on the fly. I mean our first prototypes we had a couple days before we started rolling. And Clu himself is a big experiment as well. I mean the you know, we definitely stand on the shoulders of the technology employed in Benjamin Button but we took it to another level by actually capturing Jeff’s performance on the set rather than him doing it at a different time.

Cause I really wanted him to be able to play Clu in a scene and on set with other actors and all that stuff had never been done before. So when you combine them together, it creates, you know, you said it felt more like national launch controls some days on set.

STEVEN LISBERGER: Yeah, there was definitely a feeling that Joe was in cyberville when he was shooting the live-action. To watch this film be shot and to see all the monitors and how interactive it was, was the exact opposite of the first film where we would just shoot this stuff and we wouldn’t see anything for a long, long time. And the CG we wouldn’t see for months. It was the next-generation. And to see Joe work with it that way was ‐ it was quite an education for me.

SEAN BAILEY: I would add one little thing to that which is a credit to Steve and the team that whatever Joe and our team was confronted with a, do we go forward it or not, do we go for a digital head or do we go for the in camera 3-D, do we go for actually trying to build practical suits, we thought [about] how those guys did it. We thought, “we have to go for it. It’s part of what Tron is. We have to be out there trying things that no one stride before because that’s what they did.”

So dailies become monthlies? [LAUGHTER] Sean put on your presidential production hat. Why are there so many remakes? Why do studios keep making old films again? Is it an economic issue?

SEAN BAILEY: I think there’s a combination of factors. I certainly think there’s a little bit, from a marketing perspective, of well, there may be some built in awareness or brand equity in the title. But I also think of something Steven was saying earlier, I think people underestimate ‐ you know, I saw Tron as a 12-year-old boy with my dad. And so would somebody said “hey what about Tron,” I have a romantic, wonderfulness, nostalgic feeling about it. And to think well, that was really interesting and ’82 and it represented something to me you know of the time of bleeding edge technology, ambitious thinking, deep thematic ideas, to get you excited.

I think it’s just sometimes as simple as a human being in the room and something you said, you know or when I think about 20,000 Leagues and what David Fincher will do with Captain Nemo, that just gets me excited because I have a certain emotional connection to Nemo. And to think about what some of today’s mines and today’s technologies could do with some of those fundamental emotions is just an exciting thing.

How was the screening last night and the experience of watching it with an audience?

JOSEPH KOSINSKI : It was great. You know, you watch when you’re making a movie like this and you’ve watched, watched it 1000 times and heard every line and you end up watching it from a very kind of analytical point of view, it was refreshing to just feel an audience experiencing it for the first time and reacting to those lines that, you’re right, it was a funny line when we wrote it two years ago the we’d almost forgotten. So to hear those laughs and to see that reaction of you know, the cast who hadn’t seen anything come out was really ‐ was really gratifying, really exciting.

Did you expect a great reaction to the digital opening?

JOSEPH KOSINSKI: Yeah, that was ‐ that was an interesting ‐ yeah, that was surprising. The logo got some good oohs and ahhs.

Are you still surprised 28 years later that we’re still talking about this?

STEVEN LISBERGER: Yeah, it’s ‐ but yes and no. I mean this technology has become prevalent and it seems to make sense to get into it and I’m ‐ one thing I’ll say is that I’m very happy that cutting edge technology is in the hands of talented creative people and not just in the hands of you know, geeks and scientist. So it’s ‐ I think that’s part of the power of the first film that artists got their hands on these tools so early on.

TRON: Legacy opens worldwide this Friday.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)