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March 18, 2010  |  permalink

A Q&A with TRON creator Steven Lisberger

(In honor of the new trailer for Tron Legacy, the nearly thirty-years-in-the-making sequel to Tron, I’m posting my interview with Tron creator/director Steven Lisberger from April 1999, conducted during the inaugural Roger Ebert Film Festival, when a screening of Tron closed the show. Even then, there was talk of a sequel, but it took another decade for it to come to fruitition, and once again, Lisberger—whom Disney once hoped would be its in-house George Lucas directing its own answer to Star Wars—has been marginalized. If the “reboot” of the Tron franchise succeeds, you’ll know whose idea it was back in 1983.)

(UPDATE: For a more up-to-date interview, Harry Jenkins caught up with Lisberger only a few weeks ago. Read his after you read mine to see what’s changed in the last eleven years.)

GREG LINDSAY: I’ve been thinking about The Matrix lately. The Matrix is the first successful cyberpunk film since Blade Runner and Tron. Which means you created the matrix; you created cyberspace a year before Gibson did (in Neuromancer, published in 1984), so one could say he ripped you off. But where did you get the inspiration for cyberspace?

STEVEN LISBERGER: Gibson never ripped me off. The problem that they have is that they think Gibson invented the word “cyberspace.” And we intentionally in 1980 were discussing using the word “cyberspace.” And we decided that it would be interpreted as a Hollywood brain movie. Because “cyber” back then meant anything with brains in it. So, I said, “Look, this is already alienating enough; if we call this ‘cyber-’ space people are going to say ‘This is a horror brain movie.’” So we chose not to use the word “cyberspace” in the script at all and now I have to read how the word didn’t exist until Gibson came up with it.

GL: So where did the idea for Tron come from?

SL: The progression is: Steve Lisberger has an animation studio; Steve Lisberger has friends who are developing computer animation; He keeps track of them from the late ‘70s on, seeing what they’re capable of; one of the principal companies is Magi; one of the other companies is the New York Institute of Technology out on Long Island; where Alvi Ray Smith[?] and Ed [something], who ran Pixar—they’re working with Dr. Schorr[?} out there, and then what I’m interested in is animation. And then what happens is, I look at the Pong game, I say to myself “That’s interesting,” and then what happens is I have an animator named John Norton[?] who’s my left hand man and I say to him “Look, we should try to draw a character out of light because I’m interested in backlit animation. Backlit animation means exposing light through cels and photographing direct light into the lens instead of reflected light. So then what happens is he draws this character out of backlit stuff and he’s like a warrior. We came up with the idea of him throwing a frisbe or disk, and it’s a five-second test. And I say, “Oh, that’s good, we’ve got an electronic warrior.” And then I look at the Pong game, and I say to myself, “Here’s the Pong game, there’s the arena—I’ve always been a sucker for Spartacus—and I say you’ve got an electronic warrior in this environment. Then I meet the computer guys whom I’m getting to know and who I’ve met a couple times, and I start saying “Tell the story of these guys.” And at the time, those guys are really interested in overcoming the IBM uber-company. The mainframe. And personal computers don’t exist and the Internet is the Arpanet—run by the Defense Department—and I start thinking and I meet Gary Guimos[?], who worked with a computer company called Triple Eye[?] and I think these guys are pioneers and these guys are warriors and all these wonderful things come together, and it should be done with computers. And my mother was an artist, and my father ran a factory, and these two things come together and I spend a couple of years writing a script and doing the tests, and it was not such a mystery to me. What was a mystery is that people turned out to take the film so literally. That they actually said “In this movie, they make you _small_. And they put you inside a wire and put you on a computer chip. It never occurred to me that someone would take it so literally. And I guess that was the early resistance to PCs and computer stuff. And so that’s the history. That’s as good a history as anybody’s got.

GL: What do you think of the idea of cyberspace, of creating a representational environment to interact with computers. You refer to the idea of “virtual reality” as “virtually ridiculous.” Why?

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SL: You’re referring to the notion that there’s an alternate space? It is impossible to avoid the notion of balance and function in this universe—mentally, physical, or any plane. And if you you are going to become that extreme in some sort of intellectual abstractive environment, you better have something to counterbalance that out. So you had better be spending time in the Spring walking through the park, and be able to understand, “This is a park. This is beautiful, those are statues, they all have meaning, this park was laid out so there are certain views. It’s like everything has been thought out. That is the history of western civilization, and the people who built this park believed in this park—they loved western civilization. This computer technology is something that’s come about—like television, like airplanes—after the people who founded western civilization, and it’s a problem. It’s a problem because we’re trying to apply the pioneer spirit to it. We’re having a really hard time. The fundamental problem with the whole notion of cyberspace is anonymity. The question is: Can you have a culture and a society that makes such excessive use of anonymity? To some people, anonymity means an incredible amount of power. If you were some hacker who knew everything, anonymity is a weapon. If you’re just some regular schmuck, anonymity can be a problem because eventually, if you spend enough time being anonymous, you’re going to get screwed up! People have a hard enough time being themselves, let alone being a cypher of themselves.

GL: What about the idea that Sherry Turkle has put forth, that anonymity can be empowering because we create a multiplicity of selves that can reach fruition online?

SL: Yeah, that’s great . . . if you’re capable of doing it.

GL: What are your feeling in general toward computers? Because Tron is filled with mixed messages. Flynn is a hacker who gets sucked into this mess because he’s sticking his nose in someone else’s system, but then there’s the ending, with the liberation of all these computer systems. Tron must be what the Department of Justice’s lawyers watch when they come home from the Microsoft trial.

SL: Well, it was IBM. It was a different world. You young guys don’t know what Bill Gates went through when he took on IBM. He beat IBM by becoming IBM. It was a Trojan Horse. Before that, we thought that IBM was forever. You have no conception of how we’re all amazed. We were thinking IBM’s forever. I’m going to spend the rest of my life, this technology’s going to advance, and it’s just going to be (in a robotic voice) “IBM. IBM. IBM. Mainframes.” And then, the Trojan Horse and the magic bullet. Bill Gates is . . . Flynn. And it was his disk, with his software. Tron was the combination of those two that went into the Master Control and rewrote the software. And then IBM came down.

And every Jungian metaphor in that film is intentional. Every sinGLe one, okay? The disks are mandala symbols of the process of individuation. The users are the perfect self. The question is whether we are capable of becoming our perfect selves. The electronic world is the subconscious, the unconscious. The real world is the conscious world. It goes on and on and on.

GL: Are you personally very spiritual? Are you very Christian?

SL: Two answers: [Latin phrase]. Whether you call him or not, God is there.” I believe that. I don’t believe that any religion over another one has a direct line. And I believe whether they chant or ring bells or say whatever they say or show whatever they show—those are all celebrations of his existence, but he’s there whether you call him or not. So I’m spiritual in that sense. And is that spiritual? If so, then I’m spiritual. Modern society invented religion so it could avoid true spirituality. Because bascially, a lot of religion is—talk about a videogame!—and endless amount of technical problems which occupy the mind when it really should be focusing on the non-technical, the spiritual aspects of life. But since those are so deep and amorphous, we placate ourselves by giving them little names.

GL: Is Tron an explicitly spiritual allegory?

SL: It’s spiritual in many ways. My parents died when I was fairly young. When I was a teenager. And I was an only child. Tron is a very personal film for me on one level, which is Flynn goes to the aid of Tron and Yori, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I know it now—they are metaphors for my parents, symbols of my parents, and I relate to the Flynn character. I’d be interested in what other people who have lost their parents think of the movie Tron. I’m curious. I think as people get older and they lose one of their parents to the world of death, they relate to Tron better than people who haven’t lost anyone. I’d be curious in 20 years, when a generation has lost a bunch of its parents, whether those people relate to Tron even more stronglyy.

GL: When I watched it for the first time as an adult, it struck me as an overwhelmingly Christian allegory. Flynn is a messiah figure, Clu is crucified at the beginning of the film, and the users—it’s a film about religious persecution.

SL: Yes, yes, yes. It’s all that too. My father was a German Jew. And my mother’s side of the family put him in a concentration camp. It’s like the Civil War. Half my family put the other half in concentration camps. And then they had the power to get them out. My grandfather was one of the few people who was ever put into Dachau, and because my grandmother pulled certain connections, she got him out. And he was such a loyal German, they got him out for a month, and he actually thought “Well, I’ll go back in when the month is over.” And my grandmother had to say “No, dummy, you’re going to America,” and she missed the train with my mother. And they were one day from getting out. But he got out. So all of that persecution stuff ran big in my family. Really big. And the heaviest thing I can about that stuff, is that you can’t make a Nazi. You’ve got to grow a Nazi. There’s no force on earth that’s powerful enough to turn a person overnight into something that evil. You have to grow them from seedlings. And the way you do it is on a steady diet of desensitization and immorality, lack of values and etc. etc. And Americans don’t realize that’s what the movie Cabaret is about. That for 15, 20 years before the Nazis, got into power, what was happening was a generation growing up taught to be insensitive. And to be conformist, to not accept true individuality, to not understand art, culture, history and to not accept but dogma and doctrine. And it was all done in the name of sophistication. If you complained and said “Isn’t this out of hand now?” people said “Oh, you’re just not sophisticated.” And what was then the media used that argument all the time. And people went along with it. And so, that went on and on and on and they had a generation that was ready to be called upon to do the devil’s work.

GL: How do you feel about Tron now? Do you feel resentful because it was never appreciated in its time?

SL: It’s so obvious now what’s happening. Isn’t it obvious? That if you do some kind of work like this, that it has to at first be ignored. And it has to go through what it’s going through, and then . . . this is not a mystery. This is just that people can’t believe that life is this cliched. It’s just amazing that it really takes this long. Life is long.

GL: Do you feel like the mad genius on the battlements, do you feel like you’ve been cast out of the pantheon you should be in?

SL: NO! This is what I have to go through. There wouldn’t be this if I wasn’t going through it. This is the road. It’s clear. It’s not a mystery. If there was anything else but this it wouldn’t be what it has to be. I mean I’m sort of fatalistic, that’s what Jim Cameron said to me, but this is just getting pretty obvious now. Even to me. I mean, here’s an article from The Hollywood Reporter—four Disney classics headed to El Capitan. I’m in there with Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure ISLand) and Mary Poppins. I’m supposed to be dead! I’m lucky I’m alive! I am lucky I am alive. I’m not worried by the fact that I didn’t get what I want—that I’m not Jim Cameron, that I’m not George Lucas, that I don’t have a $100 million. I’m really happy I’m alive. If I didn’t know this game as well as I did, I’d be dead. Just to go through that park today with my friend Bob and my wife calls me. I’m happy to be alive. This is plenty for me. And to tell you the truth, it’s probably going to get more intense now, not less intense. Nobody was talking about Tron for years. They were trying to eliminate it. You know, people like Rex Reed who were on the wrong side of it.

It’s hip to have a laptop. You weren’t an adult when Tron came out. It was stupid hip to put down technology and say (with a snotty accent) “Oh, I’ll never get a computer.” All those people were on the wrong side of the street. When Tron came out, they thought Tronwas the enemy. They didn’t realize that was an opportunity. Caring artists worked really hard on Tron. They tried to make it a really cool place. And people didn’t want it and so what did they get? They got what came afterwards. I have no regrets. I tried. It was pretty unique then. Cyberspace was just Moebius and Mead, Carl Jung and cyberdelic ‘60s. I thought all that stuff was cool. That’s all it was. It was just that. There was nothing else. There was information, but there was no visualization in cyberspace.

And then Larry Smarr yesterday . . .

[Editor’s note. At a panel on computers and film the day before, I asked the panel why photorealism and not a stylized world like Tron was the Holy Grail of special effects. Larry Smarr, the director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, commented to the effect that just as painting had gone through a super-realist phase, so would special effects.)

He says to me “Cyberspace can’t be visualized.” That’s what the man said to me. How can he say that?

GL: To you, of all people.

SL: (Laughs). And he’s the technology guy. And you asked that key question—“Why does it have to look real?” And he says, he goes into this rap about realistic painting. That was the biggest crock of shit I ever heard in my entire life. I studied painting my whole life. My family has three generations of painters, I went to School and Museum of Fine Arts. Painting was never real in the past. Never. He’s doing all those painters a huge discredit. When people look at a Rembrandt and say “That’s so real”—it’s do beyond real! There’s a whole selective processes going into that of all sorts of nuances that aren’t real at all. Light levels and textures—that stuff’s all surreal but at a micro level. He just doesn’t know enough painting to know that. That’s like somebody looking at his supercomputer and saying “It’s just a giant adding machine.” And certainly an argument can be made that it is. If he can say, I’m never going to get in an art discussion with that man. I never got out of a speeding ticket; I’ll never win this argument. I like the guy a lot, don’t get me wrong. And I’d like to work with him, and I’ve worked with guys like that. See, Alan Kay, who’s a good friend of Larry’s, the reason he’s a computer genius that’s really unique is that his background is in music. And Larry hasn’t studied enough music because Alan is constantly drawing analogies between software engineering and music. Alan’s character in Tron is named after him. Bill Clinton and Al Gore called him to the White House four years ago and asked him what they should about the Internet. And he said “I’m off the Internet. And I will not go back on the Internet until people learn to have manners.” That’s all he told them.

GL: What are larger implications of living in a world where the geeks like Larry Smarr are overseeing the evolution of technology?

SL: That’s just the new pragmatism. You know, America cycles between pragmatism and idealism. And it gets too idealistic and it counterbalances by becoming too pragmatic, and we’re in a pragmatic phase. The pendulum will swing back. It’ll go too far this way and create havoc and people are going to say “All this pragmatism isn’t going to work.” And so the pendulum will swing back the other way. So I don’t worry about it. You’re not going to change it.

GL: Lets talk some more about the democratization of film technology. Yesterday, you strongly objected to Smarr’s assertion that new and cheaper technology would lead to a golden age of new filmmakers.

SL: I don’t believe in all of this egalitarian art crap. I come from a different background entirely, which is that very people are truly creative and that basically, artists make art then die. And that’s a true artist—a person willing to reduce his life to that: “I make art, and then I die.” And the rest of these people aren’t doing it that way. They’re saying “I want to make art, and I want to make a lot of money and I want to do a thing here and a thing there…” Those aren’t artists. Art doesn’t get made that way. Art gets made by people who are willing to die for art. Devote their lives to it. I love this rap that Larry came up with: (mocking) “If there’s 8,000 people, and each one can make a movie at home, the odds are that one of them is going to be a great filmmaker.” Poor Larry.

GL: Well, the response to that is the independent film argument. The studio system is more concerned about making money, etc., etc., etc..

SL: I can quote Raymond Chandler. “There’s more talent buried in Hollywood than any other city on earth.” The end.

GL: Are you being literal or figurative?

SL: You’re smart enough to interpret that word in numerous ways which are appropriate.

GL: What about the promise of new media? What about interactive storytelling? Do you believe that it has a future and has power?

SL: I believe it has a future, I believe it has power and I believe there is no way in hell that I am the one qualified to take that on. That belongs to the next Steve Lisberger, not me. If I tried to tackle that, it would kill me. That belongs to somebody who’s got the youth and the energy, who can take six shots to the abdomen and not know he’s been shot.

GL: What’s the difference between the reverie state of watching film at 24 frames per second and what capabilities are you going to have to do interactivity—to engross the viewer and yet keep them thinking.

SL: I think that interactive cyberspace is in an awkward phase—growing pains—and this is a transitional time and I think it reflects the difficulties of the transitional time and once the millennium has passed, things are going to be easier and better for things like that. They’ll start to find their way. So I think that somewhere there might be something going on that’s really brilliant, but I don’t think it will manifest until we get to 2001, 2002. People are just too jittery right now. Nothing can really take root for the next two to three years. They’re not secure at all right now.

GL: Have you seen anything in the field of interactive that really excites you? That made you say “This might be it.”

SL: I think the medium is not powerful enough yet. You can go out to a park and look at something carved out of stone and it’s just much more powerful than the ephemeral nature of the digital. Things are powerful in the creative field as they relate to the eternal. Something that an Indian makes from an animal whose species he thinks lives forever. And Shakespeare’s around forever and Bach’s around forever. And you look at these games and you just know this is disposable. We are basically look at styrofoam cups that have mutated into software. If something happens where one of these games starts to reflect a certain eternal nature then I guess it will be something like art. And then it will be worthy of contemplation. But I’m not going to contemplate a styrofoam cup.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, and speaker. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company, author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. He is also a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute — where he is director of the Emergent Cities Project — a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and a research affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI).

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