Decoding ‘TRON: Legacy’ With Writers Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis

While working on the cult series Lost, screenwriters Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis established themselves as masters of the cliffhanger, always taking care to leave just enough questions unanswered at the end of each episode to make viewers pine for the next mind-bending installment. It’s a fine recipe for serialized television, but does it translate to film? Upon seeing their feature film debut, TRON: Legacy, I had more than a few questions in mind, some of which couldn’t wait for a sequel to be resolved. What happened to Cillian Murphy’s evil ascot-clad character? How did Kevin Flynn morph into a digital Jeff Lebowski? And what use do computer programs have for dance clubs?

Horowitz and Kitsis were gracious enough to entertain some of these (admittedly trivial) queries when I sat down with them recently for an exclusive interview:

One aspect of TRON: Legacy that surprised me was Jeff Bridges’ Zen-inflected take on the elder Kevin Flynn. I know you guys worked extensively with Jeff in the development stage. What was that process like?

Adam Horowitz: It was fantastic.

Edward Kitsis: At first it was frightening, because we came into this as huge fans of Jeff Bridges. The idea that got us the job was there’s two Jeff Bridges in this movie. That’s how much we loved him. We were like, you can’t just have one; two would be awesome. A younger version. And obviously we had the emotional ramifications of that. But he was so cool and he had so many great thoughts. I remember when we were up in Vancouver the week before we were shooting. Jeff would come and knock on our door and say, “Hey man, I just had some thoughts about this scene,” and he would sit down and we were like this is great. This is just the coolest thing. And there’s that part of you – I’m from Minnesota and I’d step back and go, “I don’t know how I got here, but this is the greatest moment of my life.”

AH: And the more we time we got to spend with him, the more it helped us write him. He would seep into what we were writing, and then he would bring stuff. He would come up with lines.

EK: There was the phrase in the movie, “We were jamming, man.” That’s just Jeff, just something he would say in a story. But then you start putting it in, because he’s just so good.

I imagine some of the more Lebowski-esque dialogue came from Jeff, right? I can’t imagine you guys wrote, “Radical, man!” in the script.

EK: Actually, it’s funny because you are right, but that is one that we did write. “Knock on the sky, listen to the sound,” that was one we wrote. But then there’s ones that he would come up with that were far better, but we just want to credit for them anyways. Why not take credit for his brilliance? He’s not around.

With its combination of visual splendor, metaphysical discourses, and The Dude, this film has the potential to be the ultimate stoner movie.

AH: God willing. [Laughs]

Did that thought occur to you guys during the writing process?

AH: Not once! [Laughs]

EK: Listen, we wrote a family film for everybody. If it is visually spectacular … hopefully it’s like when you watch Oz and it comes into color. But to be fair, people that are stoners, it doesn’t take a lot for them to get stoned and experience anything. Going to the drycleaners could be an excuse.

AH: It’s like when we were kids. We were very young when the first TRON came out. And when we saw it, we were far to young for anything like that, but the experience of seeing the movie was mind altering and opening, in terms of the possibilities, and if we can even approach a tiny bit of what that movie was able to do for us, we would be thrilled.

EK: You wanna blow people’s minds. That’s absolutely what you want to do.

How important was it for you that technological elements story, especially those involving the Grid and its evolution, have a sound theoretical basis? Did you guys ruminate over those questions a lot?

AH: I think that we took as a jumping off point the idea of Moore’s Law — which is the way technology will advance at an incredible rate — to give us the leeway to hypothesize what would be possible and then to allow us to say that because of that, we can fall within a realm of if not reality, possibility. And then to treat the world as its own world, with its own rules and with its own logic that dictates it, but without getting caught up in technological terms. We didn’t want things to sound fake, like we were just making up gibberish.

EK: We didn’t want to write an internet movie that would be dated in two years. To us, the world of the Grid is its own world the way that Oz is its own world and Pandora is its own world, and we wanted to honor that. But as Adam said, we do want to start with the possibilities of what technology could be.

AH: One of our first things we were thinking about when we were really digging into the script was the idea of Kevin Flynn looking at the programs in the world and seeing them having evolved and having culture and having interactions.

EK: … having a club, having a DJ …

AH: … and so that notion, that these programs would be evolving, was a very important early point for development.

But you inevitably have to sidestep certain things for the sake of the narrative flow, right? You can’t bother to explain everything – like how the body of Garrett Hedlund’s character could be absorbed into the Grid, for example – otherwise, you just become mired in exposition, like Inception.

AH: We’ve talked for hours and hours and days and days about how it could work and what it would be based in. And Joe can speak to this even better than we can in terms of the technological basis for the reality of going into the computer. But the truth is we’re making this leap to say there is this other world, which is why we’ve always treated it as its own world. You’re going into Oz, you’re going into Pandora, you’re going into another place.

But everything has to make sense to guys, even if it doesn’t end up in the script, right?

EK: Oh yes. And by the way, Joe mapped out the Grid, so we knew when we were writing the script which way we were moving when we were moving towards. The portal is over here; we’re heading this way. There’s a map of it. As much as it is its own world and we’re making it up, there is a spine that we’re following. It is a roadmap.

What’s it like to go from a show like Lost, where story is paramount, to a film like TRON: Legacy, where – like it or not – the spectacle takes precedent, where you have to make room for things like 10-minute lightcycle battles?

EK: We approached this the way we approached a Lost episode. Lost episodes had action in them – you still had the raft launch and people running and smoke monsters grabbing you, but it all came from character. For us what was important was we knew with Joe Kosinski the visuals were going to blow people out of their mind. We had to uphold our end on the story. For us that’s what was important. We were telling a father and son story in a special world. The disc games and all of that have a purpose through character. Because to us Sam going into the Grid is finding out about his dad, someone he hasn’t seen in 20 years.

After seeing the film, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to two characters whose arcs seemed unresolved: Edward Dillinger, played by Cillian Murphy, and Tron. Murphy’s character in particular appeared as if his role may have initially been larger. Are you saving them for sequels?

AH: In storytelling, no story is never really closed. Audiences may say they want it; I don’t think they really do.

EK: We come from television, so we think about what’s the next episode. That’s just naturally how we go. I feel like … did we leave ourselves room open to tell stories that weren’t told? Probably. Hopefully. But we definitely think we completed this story.

After seeing the film in its final incarnation, have you found opportunities to expand the story that didn’t occur to you before?

AH: It’s this weird organic process, where in success the story really does start to tell you what it wants to be. Once you get it to certain point, it actually starts to reject ideas and accept them. It’s a weird thing to talk about it as its own entity, but it really does.

We tried very hard to build a deep mythology for the world of TRON, but we also had to tell a story that was very focused and we didn’t want it to meander all over the place. Hopefully, at the edges of the frame in the story, there is a lot going on and we’ve hopefully given us the ability to explore those stories in things like TRON: Uprising, or graphic novels or video games or whatever other platform there may be.

TRON: Legacy is now playing in theaters everywhere.