Interview: Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz on Building ‘TRON: Legacy’

By  · Published on December 22nd, 2010

Getting hired to pen the 28-year-later sequel to TRON must be one of the luckiest and also one of the most nerve-wracking writing gigs a writing duo could get. You’re asked to help invent a gigantic franchise, build a unique and detailed world on page, and walk a fine line of avoiding cheese. Light cycles and body-splitting light discs are badass, but if done wrong, they could be total camp. A lot of this deals with execution, but also depends heavily on writing.

Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis are the (very friendly) duo that got this cool, but also seemingly scary gig. A TRON sequel has been talked about for years. A lot of ideas must have been thrown around, but according to Kitsis and Horowitz, they started anew with a fresh story. Both writers are mainly known for their work on Lost, and now they’re putting their mark on features. I talked to both of them on Friday, and they seemed both nervous and excited about the release, and understandably so. Disney has a lot riding on this release. Ever since the film was announced there was a polarized reaction, and that response remains the same.

Both Kitsis and Horowitz talk about the critical response below, as well as building a world on paper, handling the character of TRON, and the writing process in general.

Note: This interview contains what are commonly known as spoilers.

The idea of a TRON 2 has been thrown around for a while now. I know you guys came up with a fresh idea, but did you incorporate or hear about any old concepts?

EK: What’s funny is, we didn’t even know that there had been other drafts. We didn’t know how long they had been trying for. We didn’t know anything. We just came in fresh. Obviously, once we started to meet with Steven Lisberger we knew that he had tried. As far as the other writers that were involved, we never read any of their scripts nor even knew about them until much, much well deep into the process. I think what they were looking for was kind of a new take.

When it comes to writing the world of the Grid, how does that universe read on page?

EK: We’re very lucky in that we got to really develop and write the story along with Joe Kosinski. The first draft may say “We are at the disc games in a colosseum,” but then Joe says he wants these specific type of platforms. With that, we can go back [and make it more detailed]. It was this constant evolution of making everything more descriptive. It’s so overwhelming to create a new world, so the first thing you have to do is think about the emotional spine, which is a son going into this world, created by his father, looking for his father. Then there are certain things you want in it. The first thing, he’s going to be picked up by a recognizer. Then he’s going to be put in the disc games. Slowly the world starts to evolve. Joe, visually, knew exactly what he wanted. It made it a lot easier in the writing process to describe the disc games or the safe house.

And when it comes to the tone, you guys really stray away from campiness. How do you find that non-campy tone in the script stage?

AH: It’s always about treating everything you’re doing with respect. For us, you have to respect the world and take it seriously, but that’s not to say you cant have fun with it. In our approach to this, we came in as fans of TRON and fans of these kinds of movies. We wanted to do something that would be respectful of these kinds of stories and this type of storytelling and to think of these characters as real people who are really experiencing this. The moment you start commenting like, “Oh my God, I’m in a computer,” in an ironic way, is when you run the risk of getting into camp. I think one of the things that happened from the start between Joe Kosinski, Sean Bailey, and everyone was that we were all on the same page of what type of tone we wanted. The tone was to take it seriously, have fun along the way, but really try to respect the world.

EK: One of the things was that we wanted to make the world feel real. That was also a part of it. When you are building a new world, to have your director not only have a strong vision, but also a background in architecture and mechanical engineering, makes your life so much easier [Laughs].

To followup on the camp question, how do you write one-liners? How do you know when you’re not in Episode I territory?

EK: You never know.

AH: The approach for us was to just think about the character and the situation, and how they would react to it. It was important not to think about it like, “Oh, we need a joke or a one-liner here,” but instead to find the character’s genuine reaction to the situation and to put a spin on it, in a way, that it might be fun. It has to be about the situation.

What about writing exposition? How do you avoid, like Adam said about being picked up by the recognizer, spelling everything out?

AH: Here’s the thing, when you think about it in the terms of reality, if you are actually experiencing what Sam is experiencing in the movie, your reaction isn’t going to be, “Wow, I’m in a computer,” but instead, “This really scary thing is coming down on top of me and taking me away.” It’s all real to you. You wouldn’t comment on it, in an ironic way.

And what about plot exposition? Like, can you talk about writing the scene where Kevin Flynn gives the backstory on Clu? There’s a forwardness there, but how do you make it not feel like a pit stop?

EK: That scene was incredibly difficult. You know, at one point, are first draft of that flashback was fifteen pages [Laughs]. It probably would have cost three times the movie.

AH: What was important about that first draft, for all of us as team, was to figure out the mythology and what had happened. Once we settled on it, we had to break it down to something that moves the story forward. It has to be what Sam wants to know, what does Sam need to know, and what Kevin Flynn needs to tell him. Kevin Flynn has a purpose in what he’s telling him. He wants Sam to understand why he has done what he’s done.

EK: And we get an intro to Kevin Flynn. Here’s a man who discovered a world with the most noble intentions of wanting to save the world, and it bit him in the ass and kept him trapped keeping him from his son. Although it feels like he’s spitting out information, he’s also explaining who he was, who he wanted to be, what he never became, and why he left his son. The first question we ask the audience in the beginning is, what happened to Kevin Flynn? If you’re his son, you would wonder if he abandoned you, or if something actually happened to him. As Sam said, he’s either chilling or dead. To us, it was exposition, but hopefully exposition out of character.

The backstory also establishes Clu as kind of a tragic creation.

EK: He’s our favorite character in this. He is tragic. He is the prodigal son who doesn’t understand what he did wrong. He was asked to create the perfect system. What happened is that he has come to symbolize all the ego and hubris that Kevin Flynn once was at that early age, but Kevin has now realized it was all mistake and he’s grown from that. Because of that, Clu is tragic because he doesn’t know what he did wrong.

AH: And he cant change his programing. That was one of our core ideas we started with, which was the idea of having a version of you that was trapped at that younger age. To us, that’s the tragedy of Clu. He is a version of Kevin Flynn that’s trapped and can’t grow beyond that point of programming. He can’t understand all those things we learn as we age and grow. That’s what the ultimate journey is for both Flynns when they have to confront him.

Stakes are obviously important for a film like this, so can you talk about coming up with Clu’s plan and introducing it more so in the third act?

EK: Well, we actually kind of thread it through, but it becomes a bigger threat at the end. In a weird way, it’s also a part of that tragedy. “Father said, you and I are going to change the world together,” but then he started to like these ISOs more than him. Clu starts to realize, why can’t I go out there? He’s asked to create the perfect system, and he realizes that it extends further than the Grid.

AH: It also ties into the moment at the end of the movie when Flynn and Clu are on the bridge, and Clu asks, “Why?” Clu said he did everything he could and Flynn says he programmed him not knowing what he knows now. He’s now betrayed Clu, because Sam is his son. In a lot of ways, the realization that Clu has there is that system extends beyond the world he knows. He knows there’s another part of Flynn that’s out there. The only way for Clu to come to terms with that is by looking at it by what is and what isn’t perfection. The only way he can deal with the fact Kevin Flynn is choosing something else is to see it as a mistake, and a mistake he has to change.

And can you talk a bit about your approach to Sam Flynn?

EK: Well, what we thought about when we first sat down was that, Adam and I always wanted to do a father-son story. We thought, what if your father was Steve Jobs meets Bill Gates meets John Lennon? He’s this towering, huge icon that left you. You don’t know if he abandoned you, but your whole life people keep coming up to you saying how great your father is and how he changed your life. First, you’re not sure what you think about him. Two, how do you live up to that? Well, the best way to not fail is to not try, and we thought that was how Sam Fylnn was going to be. Instead of thinking about topping his father he says, “Fuck it. I’m going to reject it all. I’m not going to try, so then I cant fell.” It’s like, Kevin Flynn built buildings, and Sam jumped off those buildings.

AH: It’s a complicated relationship that Sam has with his father. It’s very difficult for him to have his father absent for all those years and thinking about whether or not he abandoned him. There’s a justification as to why Kevin Flynn is in the Grid, how he’s really just waiting there and not playing a game. That hurts Sam, and he wants to take a risk to give him his own father a lesson. Sam even says some things are worth the risk.

What was the decision behind not having Quorra be a love interest for Sam? Was it because her childlike nature?

AH: You know, it would have been a really long to go. In one two-hour movie to take a character as constructed that you buy it as love interest…

EK: I think Adam and I have to credit a lot of that to Olivia. She had really strong ideas for Quorra and she just brought such a fresh take to it. There’s a childlike innocence to her. In a weird way, she’s like a female Pinocchio. She’s a program that wants to be real girl. She’s a warrior and all these things, but she’s so, “What’s the sun like?” [Laughs] That quality makes her so charming and endearing, and Olivia really brought that. We would really start to write towards that. We always envisioned the idea of that Pinocchio-like story.

Well, could they also actually be together? Technically, she’s not human.

EK: Well, you know, who knows what happened on the other side of the Grid? [Laughs]

AH: I mean, that is one of the questions we would love for people to think about.

Maybe Sam has a tech fetish, so it could work.

EK: [Laughs] Yeah, maybe. It’s also a case of, what’s real and not real? She exhibits more humanity than a lot of humans I know.

When it comes to the film’s set up, the film takes its time to get to the Grid. Can you talk about not rushing there, but also delivering early on what the true selling point of the film is?

EK: In a lot of ways, Adam and I thought you really had to earn going down the rabbit hole. You really want to set up who Sam Flynn is, what the world is, and what his state of mind is. I think there was, we didn’t want to rush into it. We wanted to take our time. For me, that’s a lot of fun in the movie where he pulls up to Flynn’s arcade, and that’s one of my favorite parts of the whole movie. At that point, you understand Sam. You know why he’s there. You know what he’s thinking about.

In the opening of the movie, his father said we’ll go to the arcade and try to beat the old man’s score. After that, when he walks in there, you get the sense he probably hasn’t been there since and that this is a place that he loved. Now, it’s a place that reminds him his father is gone. He’s there thinking it’s stupid, but then boom! He comes into that world. For us, it was really important to learn who Sam was before his journey. It was to take everybody on the ride with us.

And how about handling the character of Tron?

AH: That was a tricky thing. What we were trying to do was to take what became of the Grid in the aftermath of a horrific event, which was Clu’s takeover. For us, Tron became a symbol of the corruption and the repurposing Clu endeavored to move onto all the programs in there. Ultimately, Tron’s redemption in the movie could help symbolize the turning of the tide against Clu. When he sees that little drop of blood and says “user,” it’s him being awoken. Tron’s function was to fight for the users. When the users come back, no matter how much they did to him, that part of him couldn’t have been completely destroyed.

I saw someone compare him to Darth Maul, what do you think of that comparison?

AH: I remember Darth Maul getting chopped in two, and not being a good guy who gets redemption. I like to think they’re very different characters.

EK: I think people look for things, and if you look hard enough, you can say that “Sam is this” or “that is that.” For us, Tron was this partner. It was Clu, Tron and Flynn, and they were going to change the world. Clu could not handle the betrayal of his father, Kevin Flynn. Because of that, he got rid of the ISOs. Instead of destroying Tron, which would have been easier, he did the one thing that would probably hurt Flynn the most: turn Tron to the other side. That’s where that came from. That’s the character journey he went on. In a lot of ways, that’s the undercurrent of that story. As we said, Clu cannot create programs, but only repurpose them. It’s Tron fighting against his own repurposing.

Would you say there’s any intentional Star Wars homages in the film?

AH: I’d say that, we all have a lot of influences we draw upon.

EK: To say that none of us were inspired by Star Wars would be a lie. We all went to see it as children. We’re all in this business because it was one of the very first movies to inspire us on a level that was profound, just as TRON did. I don’t think any of us consciously said, “We’re going to make this scene look like Star Wars.” Star Wars was a huge influence on me. The Beatles were a huge influence on me [Laughs], you know? All of that gets into your DNA. Sometimes, maybe it comes out, or maybe it doesn’t. No one in this movie had the intention of, “This scene is going to rip-off Star Wars.”

Yeah, and I don’t mean to imply that.

EK: No, no, no.

AH: And look, as writers and as filmmakers, we all draw on inspiration from a lot of different places. In the way it comes out is really subconscious, and you’re not aware of it, or sometimes you are. You know, what makes you creative person is how you take the things that inspired you and make them your own.

I’d also imagine while writing certain character or story beats in the “hero’s journey” story that similarities naturally come up.

AH: Well, the hero’s journey is as old as stories. So yeah, are there certain beats that are played out over and over? Of course. For us, the challenge is always taking those beats and telling them in a way that’s fresh and relevant to the story you’re trying to tell or what you’re trying to say.

I’m guessing you guys pay attention a lot to online buzz, and I’d say that the film has gotten a pretty divisive reaction. Were you guys expecting this type of response?

AH: I would say that after six years of Lost, we’re used to that.

EK: But it still really, really hurts [Laughs]. Here’s the thing, we tried really hard and all of us worked really hard for three years to create something. We are very proud of it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, so it is not for us to say what they should think. We hope that the audience likes it. I mean, everything we’ve ever worked on has always been divisive. Everyday someone comes up to me and says, “Oh, you worked on Lost? I love the ending.” You know, I don’t really know. Adam?

AH: Yeah, you try not to let the reaction affect you. You know the reaction is going to be across the board for everything and you just gotta know you did your best work. As long as we can say we’re proud of it, that’s hopefully good enough. We’re obviously always thinking about the fans, because we are fans. That’s how we approached this. We understand there’s going to be people who feel different ways about different things, but that’s how these things work.

Obviously, it’s unfortunate that a film like this brings out a certain level of cynicism, but how do you differentiate those cynical responses versus, say, genuine criticisms?

EK: You know, I don’t know. We got into a business where the business entertaining people, which means we’ve opened ourselves up for criticism, both good and bad. We knew that when we became writers. This movie or Lost or anything else we’ve worked on has been no different. We know that some people will like what we do and that some people will hate what we do. Some people will be cynical and all we can say is this: for three years we put our heart and our souls into this movie. Joe Kosinski has not slept in three years. We’re very proud of what we did. It’s up to people whether or not they like it, and that’s all we can do.

AH: It’s a high-cost problem to have your movie criticized. We’re incredibly humbled by the whole experience of having this movie out there for people to take as they will.

TRON: Legacy is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.