Getting hired to pen the 28-year-later sequel to TRON must be one of the luckiest and also one of the most nerve-wracking writing gigs a writing duo could get. You’re asked to help invent a gigantic franchise, build a unique and detailed world on page, and walk a fine line of avoiding cheese. Light cycles and body-splitting light discs are badass, but if done wrong, they could be total camp. A lot of this deals with execution, but also depends heavily on writing.
Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis are the (very friendly) duo that got this cool, but also seemingly scary gig. A TRON sequel has been talked about for years. A lot of ideas must have been thrown around, but according to Kitsis and Horowitz, they started anew with a fresh story. Both writers are mainly known for their work on Lost, and now they’re putting their mark on features. I talked to both of them on Friday, and they seemed both nervous and excited about the release, and understandably so. Disney has a lot riding on this release. Ever since the film was announced there was a polarized reaction, and that response remains the same.
Both Kitsis and Horowitz talk about the critical response below, as well as building a world on paper, handling the character of TRON, and the writing process in general.
Note: This interview contains what are commonly known as spoilers.
The idea of a TRON 2 has been thrown around for a while now. I know you guys came up with a fresh idea, but did you incorporate or hear about any old concepts?
EK: What’s funny is, we didn’t even know that there had been other drafts. We didn’t know how long they had been trying for. We didn’t know anything. We just came in fresh. Obviously, once we started to meet with Steven Lisberger we knew that he had tried. As far as the other writers that were involved, we never read any of their scripts nor even knew about them until much, much well deep into the process. I think what they were looking for was kind of a new take.
When it comes to writing the world of the Grid, how does that universe read on page?
EK: We’re very lucky in that we got to really develop and write the story along with Joe Kosinski. The first draft may say “We are at the disc games in a colosseum,” but then Joe says he wants these specific type of platforms. With that, we can go back [and make it more detailed]. It was this constant evolution of making everything more descriptive. It’s so overwhelming to create a new world, so the first thing you have to do is think about the emotional spine, which is a son going into this world, created by his father, looking for his father. Then there are certain things you want in it. The first thing, he’s going to be picked up by a recognizer. Then he’s going to be put in the disc games. Slowly the world starts to evolve. Joe, visually, knew exactly what he wanted. It made it a lot easier in the writing process to describe the disc games or the safe house.
And when it comes to the tone, you guys really stray away from campiness. How do you find that non-campy tone in the script stage?
AH: It’s always about treating everything you’re doing with respect. For us, you have to respect the world and take it seriously, but that’s not to say you cant have fun with it. In our approach to this, we came in as fans of TRON and fans of these kinds of movies. We wanted to do something that would be respectful of these kinds of stories and this type of storytelling and to think of these characters as real people who are really experiencing this. The moment you start commenting like, “Oh my God, I’m in a computer,” in an ironic way, is when you run the risk of getting into camp. I think one of the things that happened from the start between Joe Kosinski, Sean Bailey, and everyone was that we were all on the same page of what type of tone we wanted. The tone was to take it seriously, have fun along the way, but really try to respect the world.
EK: One of the things was that we wanted to make the world feel real. That was also a part of it. When you are building a new world, to have your director not only have a strong vision, but also a background in architecture and mechanical engineering, makes your life so much easier [Laughs].
To followup on the camp question, how do you write one-liners? How do you know when you’re not in Episode I territory?
EK: You never know.
AH: The approach for us was to just think about the character and the situation, and how they would react to it. It was important not to think about it like, “Oh, we need a joke or a one-liner here,” but instead to find the character’s genuine reaction to the situation and to put a spin on it, in a way, that it might be fun. It has to be about the situation.
What about writing exposition? How do you avoid, like Adam said about being picked up by the recognizer, spelling everything out?
AH: Here’s the thing, when you think about it in the terms of reality, if you are actually experiencing what Sam is experiencing in the movie, your reaction isn’t going to be, “Wow, I’m in a computer,” but instead, “This really scary thing is coming down on top of me and taking me away.” It’s all real to you. You wouldn’t comment on it, in an ironic way.
And what about plot exposition? Like, can you talk about writing the scene where Kevin Flynn gives the backstory on Clu? There’s a forwardness there, but how do you make it not feel like a pit stop?
EK: That scene was incredibly difficult. You know, at one point, are first draft of that flashback was fifteen pages [Laughs]. It probably would have cost three times the movie.
AH: What was important about that first draft, for all of us as team, was to figure out the mythology and what had happened. Once we settled on it, we had to break it down to something that moves the story forward. It has to be what Sam wants to know, what does Sam need to know, and what Kevin Flynn needs to tell him. Kevin Flynn has a purpose in what he’s telling him. He wants Sam to understand why he has done what he’s done.
EK: And we get an intro to Kevin Flynn. Here’s a man who discovered a world with the most noble intentions of wanting to save the world, and it bit him in the ass and kept him trapped keeping him from his son. Although it feels like he’s spitting out information, he’s also explaining who he was, who he wanted to be, what he never became, and why he left his son. The first question we ask the audience in the beginning is, what happened to Kevin Flynn? If you’re his son, you would wonder if he abandoned you, or if something actually happened to him. As Sam said, he’s either chilling or dead. To us, it was exposition, but hopefully exposition out of character.
The backstory also establishes Clu as kind of a tragic creation.
EK: He’s our favorite character in this. He is tragic. He is the prodigal son who doesn’t understand what he did wrong. He was asked to create the perfect system. What happened is that he has come to symbolize all the ego and hubris that Kevin Flynn once was at that early age, but Kevin has now realized it was all mistake and he’s grown from that. Because of that, Clu is tragic because he doesn’t know what he did wrong.
AH: And he cant change his programing. That was one of our core ideas we started with, which was the idea of having a version of you that was trapped at that younger age. To us, that’s the tragedy of Clu. He is a version of Kevin Flynn that’s trapped and can’t grow beyond that point of programming. He can’t understand all those things we learn as we age and grow. That’s what the ultimate journey is for both Flynns when they have to confront him.