‘Tron: Legacy’ is a heritage moment for Steven Lisberger

Dec. 21, 2010 | 10:08 a.m.

WELCOME TO THE MACHINE: The new Disney film “Tron: Legacy” picks up the story of the 1982 movie “Tron,” which was neither a critical nor a commercial success but somehow still echoes in pop culture as an early signpost of the digital era’s glowing frontier. “Tron” is remembered more for its ideas and images (and its namesake video game) than for its story or characters, and that is a challenge presented to this new film, which stars Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde. Here’s a look at Steven Lisberger and the heritage of “Legacy.”

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"Tron Legacy" producer Steven Lisberger. (Walt Disney Entertprises)

At Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, the power lunches are served in the Rotunda, the swanky, employees-only restaurant that has the Doric columns and frosty hush of a serious museum. On a recent afternoon, most of the eyes in the buttoned-down dining room were fixed on a corner table and a shaggy outsider with a baritone growl and questions about the ravioli special. “I never expected to be here,” said Steven Lisberger, referring to far more than the restaurant. “It’s hard for me to believe this is all happening.”

The happening he was referring to is “Tron: Legacy,” now the No. 1 film in the world after grossing $67 million worldwide in its opening weekend and the glowing property at the center of a massive initiative by Disney that extends to toy aisles, video-game shelves, theme parks and, next year, an animated series on cable television. Lisberger is one of the producers and writers of the new movie but, far more than that, he represents the legacy part of the title. Lisberger wrote and directed the 1982 film “Tron” (which was based on a story he co-created with Bonnie MacBird) and, at age 59, he has staged the most unlikely Hollywood comeback of 2010. It might not even qualify as a comeback considering that the original “Tron” wasn’t exactly a signature success in the first place; the new movie is a sequel to a film that few of today’s moviegoers have seen and most can’t easily find on home video.

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"Tron" from 1982 (Walt Disney Studios)

The fact that Disney invested $170 million in the production of a sequel instead of remake speaks to the fact that the producers and executives looked back on “Tron” more for its prophecy than its profits. (The original’s production budget was $18 million and it made $33 million.) The original “Tron” was the first feature film built around computer-generated animation, and it also became a pivot-point moment for the protean video-game culture of the Ronald Reagan era.

“I saw the 1982 movie by Steven Lisberger with my dad, and the screen looked unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” said Sean Bailey, the driving-force producer behind the film for the last four years and, since January, Disney’s head of production. “I was just wide-eyed at what I saw. Conceptually, what those guys were after in 1982 was so big. There weren’t computers on people’s desks, or cellphones, the Internet was a gleam in someone’s eye. And they were making a movie about what would happen if you lived life as a digital avatar on a system, on a server.”

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Steven Lisberger and Jeff Bridges at after-party for "Tron: Legacy" premiere (Dan Steinberg/AP)

The original film was inspired, Lisberger has said, by the video game Pong. The new film is informed, clearly, by “The Matrix.” Those universes are far removed from each other, but it speaks to the iconography of the original film — the Lightcycles, identity discs and glowing grids — that it can be kept and upgraded for 21st century consumption. Lisberger, who loves nothing more than chewing on technology, culture and social theory, said today’s digital world has found more function than fashion, which might explain the fact that “Tron” imagery has been borrowed for music videos, art, design and parody for years even as the film itself became a curio.

“Digital technology has truly become a lifestyle, not just a tool, but it seems strangely neutral as far as aesthetic; when it was time for the westerns, people looked like cowboys, in the 1960s they looked like hippies but this is much more vague,” Lisberger said. “And now it’s like time has stopped and turned back around and said, ‘Hey, “Tron” had an aesthetic and we could use a little of that and we could use that in how we express who we are and where we are.’ ”

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Garrett Hedlund, Steven Lisberger, Jeff Bridges and Joseph Kosinski on set of "Tron: Legacy" (Walt Disney Studios)

“Tron: Legacy” has gotten mixed reviews for its story (and some harsh comments for the plasticine visages of some CG-crafted characters) but the design and digital vistas of the film have been hailed. That speaks to the work of Joseph Kosinski, who makes his feature-film directorial debut with the movie and is something of a spatial savant with his architectural background (he has been an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation). Kosinski, who came up making television commercials for video games, has a fan’s fondness for Lisberger while the elder filmmaker is clearly in awe of the newcomer’s talents.

“Our story together is the story of two different generations and, in a way, it’s up there on the screen in the movie,” Lisberger said of “Tron: Legacy,” which presents greybeard Jeff Bridges as a cyber-Zen hermit in a computer world and young star Garrett Hedlund as his tech-comfortable son. “It’s pretty trippy if you think about it. I feel like the movie is about me and my own son sometimes; other times it feels like it could be the story of my generation, which had all these big idea and didn’t get any of those big plans done.”

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"Tron: Legacy" (Walt Disney Co.)

Lisberger grew up in Philadelphia and spent the 1970s in Boston, where his animation and hard-drive dreams were far enough away from Hollywood that they didn’t get stepped on. “Nobody else back there did Hollywood stuff, so there was no competition and no one telling us we couldn’t do anything,” he said. When he finally came west to make “Tron” there was plenty of angst in the traditional animation community, and after the film came out the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruled that it couldn’t compete in special-effects categories because Lisberger’s team had “cheated” by using computers.

But there were plenty of up-and-coming Hollywood minds that saw potential in the pixels. Tony Scott dropped by the set to see the work, and Michael Mann phoned to praise the early results of the still-filming movie. Later, John Lasseter of Pixar fame would call “Tron” a turning-point inspiration in his own career. Lisberger says the film never reached the heights he hoped but, sadly, it still represented the peak point in his own career.

“It’s really starting to get to me how long 29 years is,” Lisberger said. “I find myself asking, ‘What have I really done in those 29 years?’ And sometimes I find the answer is, ‘Nothing that competes with “Tron.”  One ends up competing with one’s self whether they want to or not. The trajectory we were on back then, the only way we could have continued was if the movie was a real smash success. The core team could have gone forward. That didn’t happen and Lisberger Studios, we were like a band. We succeeded together and the band broke up. We were so determined to make ‘Tron,’ we didn’t have a plan for afterward. It could have been the start of something but instead it was the finish line. And now it’s back in a way I never expected. Here we are again.”

— Geoff Boucher


tron jeff bridges poster Tron: Legacy is a heritage moment for Steven Lisberger

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2 Responses to ‘Tron: Legacy’ is a heritage moment for Steven Lisberger

  1. Bonnie MacBird says:

    I'm the original writer of this film (credited with story) and tell a different story of TRON's inception. For closer to the truth, read the cover article on TRON in this month's WIRED magazine. Lisberger hired me away from Universal feature films to develop and write this script; he had a title and a look, but no story, characters, or world. I did eight drafts and fourteen treatments before it went to Disney. Many of the ideas were inspired by my work with computer legend Alan Kay (whom I found and hired for Steven…and later married). Lots more to this story.

  2. R.P. says:

    Hello Ms./Mrs. MacBird:

    I've heard about this. Yes, your contribution should be brought to light as well. I'll search the net for a link to that story. Thanks.

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