Steven Lisberger interview: the legacy of Tron

As both Tron and Tron: Legacy arrive on DVD and Blu-ray, we bring you an interview with the original’s director, Steven Lisberger...

Last autumn, Den Of Geek was lucky enough to be invited over to Los Angeles to meet some of the cast and crew behind Tron: Legacy, which was then in its final stages of post-production.

One of the people we were most excited to meet was Steven Lisberger, the director of the original Tron, the 1982 movie that did so much to further the use of computer graphics in movies. In a brief yet illuminating round table interview, we got to talk to Lisberger about his role as producer on Tron: Legacy, the making of the original film, and its Blu-ray reissue…

The simplicity of the original Tron had a real charm to it. Is it a worry that, by returning to the concept after so long with Tron: Legacy, you could lose some of the original’s appeal?

It’s a different situation. I’m not George Lucas and this isn’t Skywalker. I’m not Spielberg, and this isn’t DreamWorks. I’m not Lasseter, and this isn’t Pixar. Those guys have their own empires and I don’t.

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What I created was a film, and it inspired a generation, and they’ve made it theirs. I’m actually humbled and sort of overjoyed at how into it they are. It seems correct, if their sensibilities are really based on loving the material and a deep affection for it, that they should be able to make it theirs.

I don’t have a problem that the light bikes make curved turns. Whatever those special feelings of nostalgia that one had for the first film, sure some of those sensibilities will be offended in the second film. But they have to be, you know?

Hopefully, there’ll be more Tron films, and hopefully, your kids can say to you, “You guys should have kept this from the past.” That’s just human nature. This evolution, as long as it’s done with the right spirit and the right attitude, I think it’s going to be a positive thing.

How long was the idea of a remake in your mind, as opposed to doing a follow-up?

It’s changed over the years. Obviously, Tron: Legacy is its own stand-alone film, but it went through six administrations at Disney, over the years. I interacted with all of them, to a certain degree, and sometimes they seemed to be really interested in pursuing this, and at other times, they didn’t.

One time, I went into the studio and got notes back from an intern. [laughs] Frankly, I didn’t get this movie made. It was Sean Bailey and Joe Kosinski, through their efforts, that got this film greenlit.

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And after those twenty-five years I felt like I had run the ultimate marathon, and it wasn’t on the cards for me to say, “Yeah, let’s make another Tron” so much as it was, “Here’s what I feel and know about Tron. God bless, good luck and God’s speed. I’m there to help you any way I can.”

I sort of think that, if my old group and I had made the next Tron, it would have been a little bit like that Clint Eastwood movie where he and Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner go back into space!

I mentioned earlier [in a prior interview, linked below] about the original Tron being like The Wizard Of Oz. Do you feel that Legacy has captured that same spirit of the first film?

I think there’s something spiritual and mythic about a relationship when one part of that relationship looks up at the other one and thinks they’re greater than they really are. Like the Programs did to the Users, and like a son or daughter does to a parent.

And it forces that person to try to live up to that expectation. There’s something magical about that for me, and this film has captured that in two relationships. Clu, Flynn’s cyber-son, is basically saying, “I did everything I could for you, and yet you loved that real world kid more than me. You don’t even really know him.”

So, Clu did look up to Flynn, and now is really chagrined that Flynn is putting his allegiance in a completely other direction than technology. And at the same time, the son has had to live with the fact that his father is the ultimate User, User One, the creator, the man who is a legend. But [Sam] doesn’t even know him.

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What happens is, in order for their relationship to work, he has to get to know his father as a man, not a legend, because you can’t personally love a legend. And Flynn has to learn what kind of man his son is.

So, it’s those dynamics that make me think about that original relationship, where Tron was trying to communicate with his User, Alan, and when the Programs had the creator Flynn among them, and thought, “Well, everything’s fine now, because he can do anything.” And he would say to them, “I hate to break it to you, but the Users aren’t as great as you think we are.”

That does get back to the Wizard Of Oz sensibility, and that’s some of my favourite stuff.

You mentioned George Lucas just now. Would you ever consider going back and altering the original Tron, as he did with his Star Wars movies?

The funny thing is, I know more about filmmaking now than I did then, but if I had known a lot more, I wouldn’t have made that movie back then. The head of the studio who greenlit the picture was 29. I was 29. And he told me in the years since, “If I was really experienced, I’d have said no to Tron, and I’m glad I didn’t have more experience.”

In a way, you had to be young, and you had to believe you could accomplish the impossible to make a film like that. So, of course, I look back at it, and I’ve written countless screenplays since then, and I say to myself, “Oh, I’ve got a great line for right here!”, or, “Wouldn’t it be good, if…”

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But at the same time, I realise that it was the fact that I was a complete outsider to Hollywood that made me be audacious enough to think the film could actually be made. So, yeah, you know, there’s that story of Monet caught in the Louvre touching up a painting.

And I actually did some of that, because I remastered the film digitally. I got to go through it and change some of the colours subtly, and some of the exposures, and take out some of the mistakes that only I saw, but bugged me for years.

Because when I made the film, there wasn’t the ability to constantly change and tweak these scenes. We were way behind schedule, and it was so difficult that, when these scenes came in, so many had to be put in the film with no changes.

It was amazing to be able to do that. It was a dream come true. And the funny part of it is that the software we used, we have these digital vector lines that let you circle certain areas and determine which areas you want to enhance or change. But when these cursors were put over the original Tron image, you lost them. You couldn’t see them, because they looked like they were just a part of the actual design.

So, that was like dying and going to cinema heaven, where you get to fix mistakes that have been bothering you for decades.

But you wouldn’t change anything narrative-wise?

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I think I probably would have tried to tackle the love sequence. We basically ran out of time and it was dicey, so I cut it. It wasn’t that long, but I’d probably do that. I’d probably add a close-up of Flynn going down and up the beam of MCP, and I’ve actually said, “We have a young digital Jeff Bridges! We got him now! And we have a young digital Bruce Boxleitner! Why don’t we go back and add those close-ups to the first film?”

And the studio says, “Nope. It’s a classic. You’re not going to touch it.” But one is tempted, and I suppose if you are George Lucas and – wasn’t it Spielberg who took all the guns of E.T. and replaced them with walkie-talkies? It’s pretty funny.

That’s art, though, isn’t it? It’s never meant to be perfect.

Sure, yeah. It’s only Clu that’s perfect! You have to keep forward. That’s the challenge. To respect the past, but not relive it.

Why did you describe Clu as Flynn’s son? I always thought of him as being an alter-ego.

I’m using the word ‘son’ loosely. He’s a creation. He’s not Flynn’s son. He’s more in line with the original film, with Tron and Alan. But it’s like a Cain and Abel rivalry between the two of them.

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Is it fair to describe this new Clu as the villain of Tron: Legacy, or is that just the way it comes across in the footage we’ve seen?

He is definitely a major problem. [laughs] It’s interesting for Jeff Bridges to have to see himself as the young actor, and he gets to play scenes with himself as who he is now and who he once was.

In a way, isn’t that playing to the fact that, for an actor like Jeff, he has to be, to a certain degree, haunted a little bit by who he once was, the young movie star, compared to who he is now.

So, I think it’s particularly touching to see these scenes with Jeff playing against that young version of himself.

With this film called Tron: Legacy, the original film has a real legacy of its own. I spoke to the director of Enter The Void and he said he was directly inspired by Tron when making that film. Do you see the legacy of Tron everywhere, as a lasting influence?

I’m humbled and really pleased to hear that it has influenced so many creative people. And it has inspired so many people who are technically oriented to pursue careers in computers.

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I was talking to Daft Punk, and it was really sweet, because they said Tron inspired them when they were young, and now they play this wonderful music for me, so the gift has come back. They inspire me.

So, yeah, it’s really an amazing thing to realise you’ve had this effect on people, and that you’ve brought something into the world that is a positive. It’s difficult to bring anything into the world, let alone something that has a positive or meaningful legacy.

Steven Lisberger, thank you very much.

Tron and Tron: Legacy will be available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 18th April, and can be pre-ordered at the Den Of Geek Store.

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