About halfway through Tomorrowland, leading up to a scene in which the Eiffel Tower turns into a rocket ship (which you’ve probably seen in the trailer), George Clooney’s Frank Walker turns to an inquisitive Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and says, “Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed?” Even though screenwriter Damon Lindelof doesn’t remember if he wrote that line or not (he does remember that he was present when the line was written), this sounds like a direct response to his fans and critics alike — after all, Lindelof has been explaining things since the premiere of Lost — coming up on 11 years now. Whether it was questions about Smoke Monsters or Mysterious Island Gods or, later, if Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Kahn in Star Trek Into Darkness… it would be understandable if he’d like us to stop asking him questions. (Of course, this is an intro to a piece in which I ask Lindelof a lot of questions.)
Though, as Lindelof explains, the reason for that line doesn’t exactly fit my own personal narrative that I assigned. And to be fair, at least from my experience (I’ve been covering Lindelof since the Lost days), Lindelof kind of seems to like answering questions. Yes, just like Joss Whedon’s recent exodus, Lindelof famously left Twitter. Even today, it does seem there’s an aspect of it that he misses. So, the truth is probably somewhere in between “Can’t you just be amazed?” and “Ask me anything,” because Lindelof still does like being part of a fanboy community that discusses things (as busy as Lindelof is, he’s never turned down one of my requests for a quote about Star Wars, which I seem to ask him for quite often). But, his work, in particular, always does seem to spark debate.
In Tomorrowland, George Clooney plays Frank Walker, a former golden boy inventor who has become a sort of curmudgeon of late. He meets a young girl named Casey (Robertson), and the two try to get to a magical city in an alternate dimension in an effort to save the world. It’s a movie about optimism, with the underlying theme that there’s just no optimism for the future any longer. I spoke to Lindelof (an admitted Uproxx reader) on Wednesday afternoon by phone to discuss this film that he co-wrote with director Brad Bird, why today’s films always have to be “dark,” and why everything always comes back to The Empire Strikes Back.
This is the first time I’ve interviewed you since Lost.
Are you serious?
You’ve given me approximately 100 Star Wars quotes since then, though.
It turns out, I’m not a bot that just sends out pithy email responses. I live and breathe, Mike.
I’m not convinced of that. I’m talking to you on Skype. You’re just a voice coming out of my computer.
That’s true. You are wise to question my existence.
There’s a line in Tomorrowland that really sticks out for me, when George Clooney is hooking up the machine so they can go to Paris and he says…
“Can’t you just be amazed?”
That sounds like your line.
Honest to God, I don’t remember if that was Bird or myself. I remember that we were together when we wrote that line and we both laughed at it. One of the tropes in movies is that you require explanation, but at a certain point, you need to get out of the scene. The trope is that one character is explaining something and the other character says like, “We don’t have time for this!” And we needed to come up with a better version of “We don’t have time for this,” and that was our solution.
With the amount of questions you’ve had to answer over the last 11 years, it feels like the perfect line for you.
[Laughs] Thank you. I’ll retire now.
You sneaked in another The Empire Strikes Back reference into this movie.
Well, Han Solo in Carbonite makes an appearance.
Yes, using most of the Star Wars characters as weapons. I thought you meant the robot’s hand getting cut off. It’s all about The Empire Strikes Back, Mike. All!
I didn’t catch the subtle reference because I was distracted by the actual Star Wars character in the movie.
Kevin Feige said they had someone’s hand getting cut off in almost every single Marvel movie, as sort of a debt owed to The Empire Strikes Back. I’m honored to be in the club.
The themes of our once-optimistic future, with how we look at the future today, made me feel optimism and depression at the same time. No one today thinks of the future as a good time.
Look, I love those movies, The Hunger Games, can’t wait for Mad Max. I’m down for all of it: Terminator, I watch The Walking Dead. But I was like, “I don’t want to live in that future.” I want to watch it, but I don’t want to live there. And I started kind of feeling like these futures seemed – even though they’re movies — but I kind of go, “We’re not that far off from The Hunger Games.” Skynet feels more and more viable to me with every passing year.
It’s real now.
Yeah, and people say art imitates life, but it’s actually the other way around because art actually becomes sort of an inspiration and jumping off point and it can change the way people think about things. To your point, it was like if we’re going to show an optimistic vision of the future we’ll only believe it if we also tell the audience, “But we blew that, too.” Like, that was the future that never happened. We screwed up because we started thinking the wrong way about it. So, the movie wouldn’t feel authentic, it would feel sort of corny and unearned if we just showed you utopia. You have to blow up dystopia to achieve utopia and that, ultimately, became kind of the arc of the movie. But, my hope is that at least when the final credits rolled, you felt a little bit optimistic.
For the characters in the movie, yes. Not for real life.
Yeah, yeah. Okay. Well, you’ve got to work for it. The moral of the story is dystopia isn’t guaranteed to happen if you make no effort. And if you want a chance at utopia, you have to kind of make it happen.
You mentioned that most movies have a dystopian outlook on our future, but your last movie was Star Trek Into Darkness, one of the few properties that has always had an optimistic outlook on the future.
But I feel like even Star Trek, there was even a sort of sense for the second Star Trek movie where, whatever you want to say about it, we could find, as storytellers, could feel the tug of, “Oh, it’s gotta be darker.” To the point where you even call the movie “Into Darkness,” in order for people to want to see it. No one is going to sign up for banter between Picard and Data anymore. We’ve got to introduce these darker elements and ideas into the movie for it to feel like it’s timely.
Are you sure people don’t want banter between Picard and Data?
I think people might still like that, but filmmakers aren’t allowed to make things like that as much anymore.
I hope you’re right. I think if you look at the top ten movies of the year and the top ten television shows and you try to look for trends that emerge in terms of their commonalities, I think the word “dark” is going to be much more prevalent than “banter” or “humor.” I think it’s a The Walking Dead is this crazy wish fulfillment. “It’s wish fulfillment? What are you talking about? That you are to essentially be eaten by a zombie at any point?” But I think this idea of just kind being able to smash people’s heads in without any consequence, because that’s the world they’re living in, is wish fulfillment. And what does that say about us?
Joss Whedon just left Twitter, and you famously left Twitter a couple of years ago. How has life been post-Twitter?
I’m a much happier person. The reality is, I think there’s a sense out there that I left Twitter because I couldn’t take the criticism, which, certainly, it wasn’t fun being addicted to, listening to what people have to say about you and it’s predominantly negative. The real reason I left, aside from the fact it just took up an extraordinary amount of time, I felt like it brought out the worst in me. If the metric was getting retweets and getting favorites, if I said, “I saw an awesome movie,” I would get like 15 or 20 favorites and 50 retweets. If I said, “This movie was a piece of shit,” then I’d get thousands of retweets and favorites. So, this idea of, “Oh, if I say something negative, I feel much more powerful.” I get a lot more attention. It’s the old light side, dark side of the Force, man. Next thing you know, there were going to be lightning bolts shooting out of my fingertips.
Twitter can be fun, but honestly, I don’t know why someone like yourself or Joss Whedon would want to be on Twitter in the first place. Why subject yourself to that of you don’t have to?
Because it’s fun! And you meet really cool people there and you can enter the public conversation in a way that feels like you really connect. Joss and I — I can’t speak for him at all — but, we are fans. We grew up as fanboys. When you become successful and start making this yourself, part of you doesn’t go away. So, the idea we identify first and foremost as fanboys, we forget we are the targets of the same petard that we have hoisted ourselves upon. I’ve just mixed up like nine different analogies.
I’ll fix it in post.
You can clear it up.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.