Interview with TRON’s Bonnie MacBird

Bonnie MacBird is the co-writer to the 1982’s “TRON”.  Media Mikes had a chance to about working on the film and her feelings on the continuation of the series.

Mike Gencarelli: Some of the ideas and technology in “TRON” is way ahead of its time, tell us about working on the script?
Bonnie MacBird: Originally, pre-Tron, Steven and I worked together on a spec script for Universal called Lightning for Jennings Lang. Steven had an animation company in Boston and had developed a cool special effect for lightning. We had a fun time working on this, and felt that our strengths were complementary. He had done a TV ad for a radio station featuring a backlit, neon character who looked a bit like the Michelin Man and whom he called “Tron” and approached me to write a movie in which Tron was a video game warrior. That was the extent of the idea when he moved his company to Los Angeles, and I left my story exec job at Universal to come over to the new Venice digs of Lisberger Studios and write and co-produce a film called “Tron” with Steven. I was tasked with creating a script that would showcase these elements. But there was no story, and no characters, except I would have to create one named Tron who looked like this radio ad character. In addition to developing a personality and character needs for this figure, my first contribution was to create Flynn, as I felt you needed a real life character to interact with Tron inside of the computer. The parallels with both Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland were immediately apparent. I had recently seen Robin Williams in a small comedy club while covering theatre for Universal and had tried to get him a deal at Uni. I wasn’t successful but he hit big shortly after with Mork and Mindy. Robin was in my mind as Flynn when I created this character. But we also needed a new and wonderful world, one that had not been seen. Steven and his key animators including the super talented Bill Kroyer and Roger Allers (both of whom- went on to direct) studied video games and the arcade culture, developing the look/feel of the movie, early on coming up with light cycles and “the grid”. They would feed these drawings and pencil tests to me, asking me to integrate the visuals into the script. It was a lot of fun at that time. I enjoyed working with the animators very much and set up a weekly improv session led by a talented actor/improviser, which both built community and fostered ideas between us. In addition to character work, which is I think my strongest asset as a writer, I knew that when you create a “world” in science fiction or fantasy, this world must be consistent in order to suspend disbelief, things must work in a way that is recognizable and orderly, so that story logic is preserved. In all the great franchises, Lord of the Ring, Harry Potter, and all the great science fiction of the Golden Age (Heinlein, etc.) this is clearly true. I wanted the computer world to be based on what is really inside a computer and to have its own inner logic. I should mention that I was already a bit of a computer geek going into this project. As a kid I was tantalized by an introduction to basic logic and programming from an innovative experiment that Patrick Suppes had put into a few grade schools in the Bay Area. And at Stanford, I studied computer programming with the legendary Donald Knuth… and my master’s thesis in film was a documentary called “Teaching Children to Read Using a Talking Computer”. At Universal, I had tried to get the Story Department to put all their coverage on the computer (there was no “online” then, except at Universities) and computers had not yet taken hold. This was considered a very novel and somewhat threatening idea and was rejected at the time with the comment “soon they will be making the choices for us.” Ha. So, I was already steeped in the tech culture of the time. Meanwhile, back to Tron research. At the time, there was exactly ONE computer store in all of Los Angeles, a tacky little storefront on a side street in Santa Monica. I found it and Steven and went there. It was mostly homebrew kits but they had a few books and I picked up one called COMPUTER LIB by Ted Nelson (a visionary himself!) and read about Alan Kay. I set up a research trip to Northern California in and around my alma mater. The Stanford AI project was partly the model for some of physical detail in the first TRON. Steven and I met with several scientists, and the last interview of the day was Alan Kay, then still at Xerox Parc. Some readers may recognize this name. It was Alan’s group that inspired Steve Jobs to envision what was to become the Mac. Alan’s group is credited for developing object-oriented programming and the first implementation of the graphical user interface that is the face of personal computing today. Alan even coined the term “personal computer”. So this visit was really to the mother lode. And way ahead of the curve. People had not even heard of this stuff yet. It was a big deal for all of us. Alan talked for close to four hours about computers, education, music, early childhood, theatre, storytelling, science, psychology, learning, artificial intelligence, programming, science fiction, biology, humanism, evolution, Bach, Buckminster Fuller, philosophy, neurology, aesthetics, and the future, the future, and the future. Steven and I had our minds blown. On the plane on the way back, I knew that we had to have a character based on Alan Kay and I set out to write him….and to hire Alan as the technical consultant on our film. Alan said yes and he and I began weekly meetings about the script, as I integrated what he taught me about how computers really work and the future of the internet and personal computing…. Into the world in which video games were a part. So conceptually, from very early on, I thought of the computer world as a vast arena, divided into different lands, or quadrants, of which the video game arena was one. The video game warriors generally stayed put “in their games” while other stuff went on elsewhere. But Tron… would not. I always felt it was important to intercut with the real world, and to have someone in the real world with whom to identify, and the character based on Alan Kay became the creator of Tron. The notion of “agents” or mini AI programs which learn your preferences and methods and work for you inside the computer, was gaining traction, though known only to a few techies then. Tron was originally a very smartly programmed video game character, whom Alan was gradually training or teaching to have far more complex functioning. But there were wrinkles in the process. As Tron became more and more of an AI (artificial intelligence) program, he became more and more human and began to develop free will. This was both a blessing and a curse, it would make Tron an eventual hero, but it would also get him into trouble. A classic sidekick character, the Bit, was similarly ambitious – he wanted to be more than a mere yes/no binary bit, he wanted to be a program. So all this factored into the original story and created a secondary theme of the dangers of hubris. Flynn was the fish out of water, the reluctant hero, who fell in accidentally and was sucked into the battle of good and evil almost by chance… later becoming the kind of hero he never thought he’d be in the process. There’s more to the story, but to sum it up, I did eight drafts of the script and something like fourteen outlines. One of my later drafts is the one Disney bought, but there were eight sets of writers after me. The credits went to arbitration and the WGA awarded me credit. I’m thankful to them for their fair and detailed process, and later served on several arbitration committees for them myself. As a side note, the real life Alan Kay and I enjoyed working together and became good friends during Tron. A few years later we married, and are still married today!

MG: After selling the script to Disney, did you have any involvement during the production of “TRON”?
BMB: I did not. I was offered to be associate producer but instead opted to carry on with other projects.

MG: What did you do following the sale of your script to Disney?
BMB: The sale of my script bought me some time to spec write my next script, and also to produce and direct a stage musical comedy – HOT ROLES – which had a successful Los Angeles run and great reviews. I had a good agent, and all of my spec scripts and treatments were sold and optioned, sometimes repeatedly (especially one called “SECRET MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE” about a science fiction writer who is believed to have special powers by his fans.) I wrote an afterschool special for Disney that was a casualty of a regime change. And many more scripts. And so I made an excellent living as a screenwriter for many years following. However whether a movie is made or not is out of the hands of the writer. It’s quite possible to be successful as a screenwriter without being produced. Not as satisfying, of course! On the other hand, I consider myself a writer in the larger sense, and I also wrote many other kinds of things (have had seven plays produced, wrote and directed two musicals on stage) and ran a production company for ten years which won three Emmys and eleven Cine Golden Eagles for documentary and scripted work. I am a songwriter as well. Prior to Tron I was Ned Tanen’s story development executive for four years at Universal.

MG: What would you say your biggest challenge was co-writing “TRON”?
BMBIt was not an easy collaboration. In my view Steven always worked as a producer with me as writer, giving me verbal and occasionally lists of notes or props/sets he wanted “in the script”. It’s been my experience in four years in development that these are story notes, and making things work is the actual writing. The contribution to me was initially in set design, character design, and action sequences that Steven and the animators would like included. For close to two years I worked on the script, creating the story and character of Flynn, who falls into the machine, and his journey to stop the MCP’s plan, and to escape the computer. Alan was another creation of mine based on Alan Kay, as described above. However the original tone of the film was a bit different, for Flynn I had Robin Williams in mind (see above). So Flynn in my versions was a bit more of a wild man, originally a pizza delivery boy with probably a touch of ADD and a slightly wackier quality. For the record, I loved Jeff Bridges in the role, and because I later read every draft of the film, I noticed that he adlibbed back in some of the humor I was going for originally but was excised in later drafts by other writers. I think he is an actor with astonishing talent and instincts and he sensed that if a guy falls into a computer, a sense of the absurd is needed. Guessing of course on this, but his work was superb. Also, our purpose in working with Alan Kay was to lay in real science underneath and humor on top. Steven gradually drew the movie into a more serious tone with quasi religious overtones while the actual science stuff which I spent a lot of time embedding and which I still think would have delightfully resonated with then and today’s tech audience, was pretty much completely omitted. There were larger themes in the early drafts including the folly of hubris, and the dangers of mindless bit streaming or going along with the status quo. But Steven (who was originally on board with this concept) and I eventually had creative differences. His input in the form of notes was at the beginning both helpful and inspiring, but later became “now add a pirate ship and make this work” and we found it increasingly difficult to communicate. He’s always been enormously visually talented and has a sense of great moment but it was never a co-writing situation. Repeatedly I found myself insisting on motivating and supporting the terrific action sequences with strong character and story logic. But the effects took precedence and Steven began to steer the tone into a different place. He was on a different path at that point and our differences grew. The few fans who are aware of this early form of the script are divided on what “would have been better”. But to them I would say hindsight is easy, creating is hard.

MG: How do you feel that “TRON: Legacy” continued the story you co-created?
BMB: The characters of Flynn, Alan and Clu were all in my original script. Light cycles of course, although those were Steven’s invention. Perhaps more importantly, in Legacy, Flynn still had a rebellious streak and Alan was still trying to take the high road with computers, and was thwarted by corporate interests.

MG: Do you have any involvement writing the upcoming TV series, “TRON: Uprising”?
BMB: I am waiting by the phone.

MG: Tell us what you are doing now?
BMB: Funny that you found me at my computer minutes after writing me. I have to own up. Computer geeks are my peeps and I kind of am one. I’m writing a thriller TV pilot set in the high tech world. Additionally I write songs with a partner, teach screenwriting at UCLA Extension, serve on the board of Stanford Alumni in Entertainment and run private writing workshops. And I never tire of hearing that TRON inspired young scientists, programmers, and writers.



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