Exclusive: The secret of Brad Bird’s ‘Tomorrowland’ is not what you think

Secrecy in Hollywood is a tricky thing.

When you’re dealing with a collaborative art form, you have many people involved and at times, you have so many people involved that there is no way to keep them all locked down and on message, and things leak.  I’ve been the beneficiary of those leaks many times over the years, and I’ve had filmmakers ask me if there is any way to keep things from getting out.  There are ways to do it, but it can be tricky.

One of the most difficult points in the process to keep protected is casting because there is information that gets sent out to agencies, and in many cases, the entire script is also sent.  I’ve gotten some of my best scoops from friends at different agencies, and there are certain films that I put on a list to let those friends know that something is a priority. Sometimes you end up with a story because you’ve been chasing it, and sometimes things just fall into your hands.  It’s a very strange process, all things considered.

I remember when I broke the first information anywhere about “Cloverfield,” before anyone was even aware there was a project called “Cloverfield.”  I didn’t realize at the time just how secretive everything was going to be on that film, and I’m not sure the first source I had on the film had any idea it was meant to be quite such a secret.  By the time I was told how close they wanted to play everything to the vest, I’d already put up a piece that not only told you what the teaser trailer would show, but that the film was going to be a found-footage giant monster movie. 

I laid it out pretty plainly in that first article, and then the infamous teaser trailer arrived, and suddenly people started speculating about what the film was going to be.  And despite me having given the game away up front, people began to speculate, and speculation was eventually misreported as fact, and for months, I just sort of marveled at how invested people got in information that was never right.  People argued over every single little clue, especially things that turned out to have nothing to do with anything.  Until the day I die, I’ll never understand how a certain percentage of people managed to convince themselves that “Cloverfield” was an elaborate cover story for a “Voltron” movie.

What I’ve noticed in the sixteen or so years that I’ve been doing this online is that when people accept misinformation as truth, they tend to get very angry when the eventual film does not match up with that misinformation.  People get angry when fake spoilers turn out not to be true because they’ve had time to get attached to the untrue rumors, and if that sounds crazy, that’s because it sort of is crazy.  And yet, when you’ve got angry fans, it doesn’t really matter how or why they ended up that way.

Disney obviously wants “Tomorrowland” to be a major tentpole movie, and I think the notion of Brad Bird directing with Damon Lindelof writing is very promising.  The whole “mystery box” set-up that they’ve been playing out in the media is fun, but now that people are starting to publish detailed pieces about what they think the box represents, they’re getting into that territory where expectations are being established, and people may be setting themselves up for another moment where they end up sitting in a theater opening day and, for reasons that seem perfectly rational to them, get angry that they didn’t just see “Voltron.”

I liked Jim Hill’s guess about “Tomorrowland.”  It made sense, it built off of real Disney lore, and it seemed to fit neatly into concerns that both Bird and Lindelof have dealt with in other work.  But if what I just read about the film is true, Jim Hill’s theory is a million miles away from what the film is actually about.  In fact, there’s been nothing that I’ve seen anyone guess that remotely seems to connect to what they’re actually doing…

… unless they’re lying.  And that is possible.

After all, as I mentioned, I’ve told several filmmakers over the years that the moment they lose control of information is when they send out either scripts or detailed break-downs for the purposes of casting.  That sort of thing goes out fairly wide, and even if agencies try to keep things locked down, there are a lot of eyes on those documents.

If I were making something uber-secret in that climate, I would send out break-downs that ask for the right kind of actor for casting while offering up story and character details that are absolutely inaccurate.  That way, they’ll see the right actors, but if anything leaks, it’s misinformation and nothing is ruined.

Do I know for sure if this is the “real” logline description for “Tomorrowland”?  Nope.  But what I do know is that this is the official description that’s being used to help assemble a cast, and it offers the first concrete plot ideas for what we’ll see when “Tomorrowland” arrives in theaters in 2014.

“A teenage girl, a genius middle-aged man (who was kicked out of Tomorrowland) and a pre-pubescent girl robot attempt to get to and unravel what happened to Tomorrowland, which exists in an alternative dimension, in order to save Earth.”

See what I mean?  That’s not at all what I expected.

The “Tomorrowland” that they keep referring to in this break-down appears to be a place where science has blown past the world we live in, and when Frank Walker was a young man, he first encountered the promise of Tomorrowland at the 1964 World’s Fair.  David Nix was there, showing off his own work, and he told Walker to come back when he was older and his inventions actually worked.  A girl named Athena saw great promise in 11-year-old Frank, though, and she snuck him into Tomorrowland.  Eventually, Frank was discovered by Nix and thrown out, but not before learning that the girl he loved, Athena, was actually a robot.

By the time we meet Frank in the film, he’s much older, and George Clooney is set to play the part.  Nix is the role that Hugh Laurie is signed for, and by the point the main story of the film kicks in, Nix has been the mayor of Tomorrowland for many years, and he’s become rotten, corrupt.  Athena, unchanged since Frank was a young man, plays a key role in the film, and the hero is a girl named Casey who has a quick scientific mind that becomes important as the story unfolds.  Nix is a guy who values technical accomplishment over creative thinking, and when he throws Frank out of Tomorrowland, he’s not alone.  Every creative thinker is banished, allowing Nix to focus purely on aesthetics and technical advancement for its own sake.

There’s interdimensional travel, human-looking robots, and a quest for revenge on the part of Frank.  He is a bitter adult, and the film is not just about Casey’s adventure, but also about Frank rediscovering the kid he used to be.  It sounds like young Frank actually plays a decent-sized role in the film, so we may see both timelines play out to some extent.

So… if this is in fact a description of “Tomorrowland,” what do you think?  And before you respond, try not to compare this to the Jim Hill story, which was based on nothing but speculation.  It is patently unfair to say, “Well, I thought it was better when it was about UFOs,” because it has never been about UFOs.  Even so, I’m curious to see how many people get upset because suddenly this is about something totally different than they originally thought.

It’s a hard spot for any filmmaker to be in, having their material picked through this early, and in a case like this, just the names involved have raised expectations dramatically.  It would be brilliant of them to make sure that all story details stay secret by building an elaborate cover story, but I suspect that’s not what is going on here.  I think this is our first real look at what “Tomorrowland” is all about, and I do love the idea of a place where the best version of Walt Disney’s dream of a world where imagination and creativity are unfettered has been realized, only to be corrupted over time.  Right now, one of the things that Disney is working on as a studio is making sure that Walt Disney remains a central part of the iconography of the studio that bears his name, and celebrating his passion for the future in a big adventure movie is a really smart way of doing that.

If anyone out there has that issue of “Amazing Stories” from August 1928, I’d love to know if there are any stories in there about alternate dimensions.  Everyone kept pointing out that the first “Buck Rogers” story was published in that issue, but I don’t think that’s the clue.  I want to know if there was anything in that issue that might suggest how characters from our world get to Tomorrowland, and what it is that they might expect to see when they get there.

So tell me… if you spend months speculating about a film and the film ends up having nothing to do with what you’ve had bouncing around in your head, do you end up disappointed even though no one ever promised that other version to you?  Or do you just treat speculation as a fun part of the process without taking it seriously?  And what do you think now that you’ve heard some details about “Tomorrowland”?  Are you ready to take a trip there?

If so, “Tomorrowland” arrives in theaters December 19, 2014.