Justin Springer may have grown up nowhere near the film industry, but now he’s one of the most talented young producers at Disney. Working on Tron: Legacy, and on a variety of film projects, he’s found a way to smartly combine art, science, and story. We had a chance to ask him a few questions about his background, his interests in making films with real science sprinkled into great plots, and why science is critical to great filmmaking.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I grew up in northeast Kansas, 1500 miles from Los Angeles and a million miles from Hollywood. Both of my parents are Kansas’ natives and we didn’t know a soul in the movie business. However, my Dad loved movies and TV and he shared that with my siblings and me. Every Friday night we would go to the local video store and stock up on new releases and classics alike and devour them throughout the weekend. One of the movies I have the most vivid memory of watching several times as a kid was Tron. It made a big impression on me—both in its visuals and its ideas. So when I got to work on the sequel 28 years later it was a dream.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I considered the possibility of working in film. I was pursuing a business degree but found myself increasingly drawn to literature so I started looking for an intersection point of the two where I might find a real career. One summer, more for the adventure of it than anything else, I moved to LA and took an internship at a boutique literary agency. There I realized that there was a vibrant business operating behind the scenes of all the movies and television shows I grew up watching. It sounds funny, but growing up in Kansas you just don’t think about the business that undergirds these artistic endeavors. Upon having my eyes opened to this, I returned to school the next Fall determined to do everything I could to get back to Los Angeles as soon as possible and land a job in the entertainment industry.
What were your favorite movies/TV shows when you were growing up?
I had the good fortune of growing up in the era of some of the great Amblin-produced films and television shows. My childhood consisted of a continuous loop of E.T., The Goonies, Back To The Future 1-3, Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and, on the later side of things, Jurassic Park. These movies did a lot to form my taste and very much influence the projects I’m attracted to today. Also, the Indiana Jones’ franchise, particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark, also made a big impression. When I was watching that film as a kid, all I knew was that I wanted to be Indiana Jones when I grew up. When I did finally grow up, professionally I came to understand just how perfect the movie is and how high a bar it set for all of us to try to get our projects over ever since.
If you could choose three scientists (living or dead) to have lunch with, who would they be?
Bending time and space, Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein. One day soon I hope, Neil deGrasse Tyson…
Have you always been interested in science? How did you acquire your interest in science?
I have always been interested in science, though I’ve never been particularly good at it. I think it stems from the fact that ever since I was a kid I’ve been fond of asking the questions, “Why?” and “What if…?” and very often the answers to those questions are found in science (or on the other hand made infinitely more complicated…).
When I was 12 years old, I desperately wanted to go to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, but it didn’t pan out. At that point my interest in pursuing science somewhat waned because I realized I probably wasn’t going to be an astronaut, which I naively thought was perhaps the only exciting job a scientist could have. However, as I got older I found myself increasingly fascinated with many facets of science. It was my experiences on Tron: Legacy where I saw how it could relate to my profession and that some of the most amazing artists who are bringing movies to life these days are actually scientists—animators, illustrators, mechanical engineers—and they use sophisticated digital tools to create art. I’ve come to realize there were so many cool jobs in the field of science—not just in entertainment and definitely beyond being an astronaut—and that it could even be a highly artistic profession. I truly believe that those I get to spend time with who have mastered a particular discipline of science and apply it to create entertainment are modern-day magicians!
You’ve participated in a number of Exchange activities. Why did you become involved, and what have you enjoyed most about working with The Exchange?
I first became aware of the Science & Entertainment Exchange when I was working on Tron: Legacy. While the movie was science fiction, we wanted to bring as much reality to the science in the story as possible. Or if couldn’t be real, then we wanted it to at least be credible pseudo-science that seemed to follow basic scientific principles—the laws of physics, etc. The Exchange helped us put together a roundtable of physicists who shared their expertise, debated the possibility for some of the scientific concepts posited in the story, as well as plausible methodology for how they might occur. It was an enlightening (and incredibly entertaining!) session that resulted in a lot of ideas that we actually folded into the movie. Since then, the Exchange has put me in touch with several different scientists who have provided specialized consultation ranging from physics, astronomy and cosmology, and neuroscience on a number of projects that I am currently developing. The organization has always come through, the consultations have always exceeded my expectations, and they’ve always had a significant impact on the development process. Literally one of the first things I do now when I begin work on a new project is think about how I might use The Exchange to bring in an expert opinion to inspire creativity and create a foundation of reality to fictional, often science-fiction, narrative conceit.
What do you think you’ve learned from the scientists you’ve met that’s made you a better filmmaker?
That there are ideas floating around the scientific community that are as imaginative and thought-provoking as anything in speculative fiction; that there are places on our planet, and certainly in our universe, that are as awe-inspiring as anything we could ever make up; that in our own biology and neurology there are occasional anomalies that make possible things we might describe as super powers or even magic. While imagination and “make believe” are always going to be a key ingredient storytelling, we should also continue to find inspiration in the natural world because it produces quite extraordinary things.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Science and art have always had a symbiotic relationship. Technological advancements over the last 120 years have made it possible to tell new types of stories in increasingly realistic ways, while artistic ambitions have pushed inventors and innovators to come up with all sorts of technologies no one had bothered thinking up. And from a storytelling perspective, ideas and discoveries in science have always served as the basis for stories in films and TV shows, while occasionally ideas dreamt up by storytellers have even inspired scientific thinking. As technology continues to a play an increasingly important role in our lives, science and art are only going to get more and more entwined. As such, I think we should each pay a great deal of attention to what the other is doing; we should always be looking for opportunities to advance our own agendas and fulfill our ambitions with the aid of our artistic or scientific counterparts.
Why should film and television projects consider science advising? What is the advantage of using real science in film or television?
Accurate science adds to a layer of believability to the story you’re telling. And that’s the business we are in—getting audiences buy in to the worlds we create and the stories we are telling, as far-fetched as they may sometimes be. The science behind an idea is no different than all the other aspects of the filmmaking process that we work hard to ensure are accurate to create a more believable movie—the costumes and production design have to be region/period accurate, the dialogue and dialects appropriate for the characters, etc. Of course storytelling requires some degree of invention. We can’t be bound by the realities of science because our goal is first and foremost to entertain. And no matter how hard we try, we’re never going to get it completely right anyway. However, there are strong advantages to taking it into consideration and making it an important part of the creative equation. And if nothing else, there are probably some ideas in the truth of the science that’ll be as interesting and entertaining as anything you could make up.
What can you tell us about your current project? Your next project?
I am currently working on a project for Disney about a team of modern-day explorers that travel to the far corners of Earth, across some of her most beautiful yet perilous landscapes, in search of her remaining mysteries, both natural and supernatural. The hope is that with this movie we can upend the misconception that there’s no untouched parts of this planet left to explore, nothing left to discover, and to show that there are places right here on Earth as awe-inspiring as anything we dream up in science-fiction and fantasy. I believe we all have that explorer spirit within us…hopefully we can tap into that with this film.