The story of how Jeff Jensen came to be a writer and executive producer on Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is the stuff of which all aspiring screenwriters' dreams are made. Many of you may be familiar with Jensen's work at Entertainment Weekly where he built up a loyal following for his lengthy and delightfully nerdy Lost recaps. One of those followers was executive producer Damon Lindelof and over the years a friendship was formed that eventually led to Jensen's proverbial big screen debut.
We recently sat down with Jensen to learn more about his specific contributions to Tomorrowland and to get his take on this True Hollywood tale, one that involves chills, thrills, Disney futurism, George Clooney and getting to go on a "writing retreat" with Bird and Lindelof held up at Lucasfilm.
Where did the partnership with Damon actually begin?
After Lost was over, over the years interviewing him, spending time with him, we definitely knew that we had a lot of common interests but yes, there was always this divide between what I was doing and what he was doing - not only for journalistic reasons, but I loved the puzzle challenge of Lost so I didn't want any clues. I liked my own interface of theorizing about the show right? After Lost was over, we just became friends. And I was like, "I'm never going to write about you again." What I remember vividly is that we had a lunch in that October or November of 2010 in which he hinted that he was working on something and talking about something with Disney. He didn't tell me anything other than, "I think you would like it." And then he said, "If I needed any help on it, would you be interested in talking to me about it?" I was like "No." [joking]. I said, "Sure! What is it?"
Then it went away and then I remember right before Christmas vacation in 2010 he called me and said, "We've got to get together when you get back because I'm ready to talk to you about this thing" and so we had lunch in early 2011 at Houston's at Century City Mall when it was there and he spelled out to me a lot about the conversations he'd been having at Disney, about futurism and science fiction and specifically the theme of Tomorrowland and what would a contemporary, modern, Disney family film for kids that was science fiction-oriented, what would that be like? He had a lot of questions about Disney futurism, Disney history, what we could pull from there to inform that, but also about science fiction in general, the history of futurist thought. One of my assignments very early on was to do all this research and tell him what I found interesting and then we'll start talking about it and see if it inspires story. It did, and from there it inspired ongoing meetings over a large part of 2011 brainstorming a story and then Brad got involved.
When does the money topic come up - I know you're friends and I'm not asking how much you get paid, but when does it happen that he says, "Alright, you need to get paid for this?"
The idea was that Damon had a producing relationship with Disney - I'm sure money was involved there, I don't know what - Damon was very much like, "We're not going to pitch a story unless we have a story" so we came up with a story pretty quickly after working together. It was like Valentine's Day week when we pitched it, they liked it and then they worked on a deal, obviously I'm a beginning screenwriter and Damon is a successful screenwriter but at that point a deal gets done and after that Disney was like, "Okay, we love the idea of a story." And we said, "We do too."
When did the executive producer credit happen?
Oh sorry, let me back up. When you get paid is when you actually start writing the script. We took a really long time, we took all of 2011 working without being paid. Once we got the story down it really took Brad's involvement in early 2012 to hammer it out even more and then we were on the clock writing. Once you're on the clock, then you start getting paid.
We had the story so down over a year and a half, a lot of the writing of that first draft took place over a month in my spare time [in-between his work at Entertainment Weekly] .
So where does the executive producer credit come in?
Where I earned that credit, after breaking the story and writing the first draft, there were other things that I did on the movie. For example, I produced a lot of viral stuff. Blast from the Past, the comic book store, we produced a commercial for Blast From the Past. We shot a piece with Hugh Laurie called "The World of Tomorrowland Science Hour" which is what would happen if [Laurie's character] David hosted a kid's science show in the '60s so we shot the pilot for that. I participated in a lot of the marketing and basically became the errand boy. Brad and Damon would say, "We need a scene for this part of the movie, go" "We need an idea for this" "A name for that, go" so that's how that credit came to be.
When you see the finished film now, what scenes or particular something has your stamp on it?
I recognize a lot of what we brainstormed onscreen, everything from individual characters from Frank [Clooney] to Athena [played by scene-stealing newcomer Raffey Cassidy] or Casey [Britt Robertson], I recognize those. Hugo and Ursula Gernsback [played by Keegan Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn] were favorites of mine. Besides that, parts I recognize of my own I see scenes like when Casey's in school and being inundated with all the dystopian stuff from teachers, I contributed to that. A lot of the Gernsback stuff early on, anything that is mythology, because that soon became my area of expertise that they would come to me for. If they needed some sort of historical world-building, where a city from the future came from, where was the secret society that built it.
One thing I'm very proud of, little things like when Casey walks into Blast From the Past and you hear, "That's one small step for man…" that was mine [laughs]. I can't really stress enough, there was us cooking up the story and then there was Brad moving into this, making it a Brad Bird movie and entering the writing process and really making the script work and come alive and then finding huge chunks of the story, how to marry the themes of the movie with the mission of the movie at the end, making the whole thing work on a script level, on an everything-part level, that was Brad.
Was it always in mind to have more female protagonists than male?
Yes. Casey was always in the movie, Athena was always in the movie, as they are, who they are. The only thing that changed over time was that we had this idea at first that there would be multiple protagonists so Casey wouldn't be the only one getting a pin, there might be others around the world and then they would have to find each other and then go on the journey of the movie. That was always the concept from the beginning, the more we brainstormed we realized that we had a 200-page screenplay and the first act of introducing everyone was going to be the first hour of the film and that was just not viable, so it was really Brad's encouraging too, "I think you can have one protagonist." We just liked Casey best. We imagined other characters but we thought we've seen stories like that before but we didn't feel like we'd seen a character like Casey go through that adventure and it was a smart idea.
I love that she is not overly feminine or forced. She's pretty real.
I like that too, that she's an aspirational figure in terms of who she is and what she wants to be, I like that she's also not typical of female protagonists these days, there is a natural admirable tendency to express empowerment through violence, the kick-ass heroine. I like those characters but she's different, she's refreshing to me.
I'm sure there were many nerdy digressions you went on, brainstorming with people like Damon and Brad, I saw a mention in the press notes about how the one thing that bothered Brad about the original Star Wars is that the lightsaber light doesn't reflect on the actors' faces, which I think is amazing, but was there one nerdy tangent, as part of the delight in being involved?
[Laughs] There were a lot. We would go on a lot of tangents about Breaking Bad, because that was engaging us at the time. We talked a lot about Star Wars, my favorite geeky tangent that we went on and also informed the movie was, after Brad came aboard Damon, Brad and I had a writing retreat up at Lucasfilm. They have these bungalows up there for filmmakers and we were in the Sergei Eisenstein room, so there was down the rabbit hole of Russian cinema then afterward that night we went to dinner then back to Brad's house and he has this really cool screening room and we watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We talked a lot about Close Encounters, the journey of that film and the discovery of that film and how that can maybe inform our own narrative structure.
I felt, especially when Brad got involved, that all of our tangents fed into an informed [discussion]. Oh I'll tell you something, during that writer's retreat one thing I remember vividly was I believe that Vulture was doing one of those bracket game concepts of "what is the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years," every morning we would begin by debating their debates and who should win, so that was fun.
Tomorrowland opens in theaters May 22, 2015.