Minority Report‘s surprisingly accurate vision of the future got roughed out during an “idea summit” convened by director Steven Spielberg.
The year was 1999, and Steven Spielberg was preparing to turn Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” into a $100 million action movie starring Tom Cruise. There was just one problem: The story was set in the undated future, and the director had no idea what that future should look like. He wanted the world of the movie to be different from our own, but he also wanted to avoid the exaggerated and often dystopian speculation that plagued most science fiction.
Instead, he wanted his film to be a realistic depiction of how things might actually look in 50 years. So Spielberg convened an ad hoc think tank: He invited a small group of the foremost thinkers in science and technology, along with a handful of people involved with the movie, to hang out for a weekend and talk about the future. The script hadn’t been written at that point, yet many of the discussions from that weekend would go on to become visual touchpoints in a movie that turned out to be remarkably prescient: We really do operate computers by gesture, live in a world with self-driving cars, and have police departments that predict crime hot spots. (So far, though, no jetpacks.)
To mark the 10th anniversary of Minority Report‘s June 21 release, Wired spoke to more than a dozen people who were at the so-called “idea summit” that delved deep into the future. As participant Joel Garreau recalls, “I don’t think many of us knew what the fuck we were getting ourselves into.”
Joel Garreau (principal of consulting firm The Garreau Group, in 1999 a reporter at the Washington Post): The number of people who claim to have been part of that think tank would fill Yankee Stadium.
Peter Schwartz (futurist, co-founder of scenario-planning firm Global Business Network): I had worked with [executive producer] Walter Parkes, who was running DreamWorks, on a number of films — first War Games, then Sneakers, then Deep Impact. Walter called me and said, ‘Would you do this again for us?’ But now it’s a bigger deal. The problem was that, if you read the short story, there’s no world. It just takes place in an undefined future.
Neil Gershenfeld (computer scientist, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms): The movie people were shocked that the science people would want to talk to them; the scientists were shocked that the movie people would want to talk to them.
Schwartz: I then had a meeting with [the Spielberg camp] to come up with a kind of initial intellectual agenda. We had everybody read the short story.
Garreau: How often do you get to hang out with Steven Spielberg? We all caved.
Alex McDowell (production designer, Minority Report): It was two full days at the Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica.
Jaron Lanier (computer scientist, virtual reality pioneer): We pretended to be a conference of dental technicians or something boring.
Douglas Coupland (novelist, author of Generation X and Microserfs): We sat around a big U-shaped table like that scene in 2001 — in that conference room on the moon.
Garreau: I don’t think many of us knew what the fuck we were getting ourselves into.
Schwartz: We would ask questions: What about advertising? What about transportation? What about newspapers? What about food?
Stewart Brand (editor of Whole Earth Catalog): They had graphic artists there who could immediately draw things that were being described.
Harald Belker (automotive designer): We were supposed to just watch and listen and see what people had to say.
Coupland: It was a big deal back then to have that real-time feedback.
Schwartz: What about weapons? Surveillance — how did it work? One that moved very quickly was the gesture control of computers. That really began with Jaron. There was pretty quick agreement about what you saw onscreen.
Lanier: We were doing these glove technologies that could be combined with displays. That was totally commonplace during that time as a demo thing — not as a consumer product. My recollection is that I brought in a working one. I could just pack one in the trunk.
Coupland: I put together a whole book for it — a 2080 style book. We were told it was 2080, but then it ended up being 2050.
Shaun Jones (biomedical researcher, first director of DARPA’s Unconventional Coutnermeasures program): They may have actually changed the date while we were there.
Coupland: [Reading from the book] “Domesticated zebras, an eye wash that changes eye color, bamboo bred to grow hexagonally for more structural support …”
“These are some of the brightest people in the country and they’re helping us make a movie.”
Scott Frank (screenwriter, Minority Report): These are some of the brightest people in the country and they’re helping us make a movie. I couldn’t get over it.
Lanier: You could see the relief of the scriptwriters: My god, we’re actually getting to use our brains.
Jones: There was no shortage of megalomania, although there was good reason for it.
McDowell: Neil Gershenfeld had a huge influence on us. He came in and said, “Nothing in my research has ever prompted me to study this, but since you’re asking about pre-cognition, I think I know how to solve it.”
Gershenfeld: I described EPR correlation — Einstein Podolsky Rosen. This is, at heart, the weirdest thing in quantum mechanics: dealing with entanglement. What I suggested was that you would entangle the pre-cogs with the city — that there’s an EPR source and you emit correlated photons and they entangle the brains of the precogs with the city around them as a way to get the perception.
Schwartz: He and Steven riffed back and forth on the scene — which, in fact, was precisely what ended up on screen.
Lanier: There wasn’t a hint of irony in his passion for it. Spielberg was completely there, trying to pass as one of us. And I think succeeding pretty well.
Brand: He is a charming, witty, friendly, open, intellectually curious guy — not at all pompous or self-important. He’s very easy to engage with, and a very likeable person.
Coupland: There was a bit of everyone trying to please the teacher, offering more up-to-date information, but it was very good-natured and highly competitive.
Peter Calthorpe (architect, urban planner): I had a big interest in going there and saying to Spielberg, “Don’t make everything look like a science fiction novel.”
Garreau: They had DC and the Mall with all these high-rises around it. And I’m like, “You don’t understand. Washington is not California with more neckties, and it’s sure as shit not New York.”
McDowell: People from DC were saying that you can’t build anything higher than the Capitol building, and you’ll never be allowed to, even in 50 years’ time. So we moved all of our architecture across the Potomac River and developed a vertical city, although there was a lot of resistance to that from the group.
Garreau: I know you urbanists love to think differently, but dream on. They needed the high-rises for the chase scenes.
Schwartz: Steven wanted to make it very realistic, but there were a couple of things he really wanted that were not realistic. The most obvious was the jet packs. But the director gets what he wants!
McDowell: There was a guy from Darpa who was ultimately the most useful because we were dealing with weaponry and police tactics. He was the kind of guy who would say, “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.”
Jones: At the time I was working for the US government’s science fiction agency, running several programs. I think I was useful because my job wasn’t only to envision the future.
Coupland: [still reading from book] “Bootleg trafficking of white particle board ceiling tiles from the 1990s, swans bred with super-short necks so we don’t feel guilty killing them …”
McDowell: We kept coming across this with the futurists who would say, “Well, you know in 50 years, your pets will be mutants. You’ll be able to do a hybrid between a cat and a dog.” And Steven kept saying, “It’s too sci-fi, the audience will never believe it.”
“Being a futurist was still a viable vocation then.”
John Underkoffler (MIT Media Lab alum, founder of Oblong Industries): A lot of people had very disparate points of view. Remember, it was the late ’90s, just before the bubble burst. Being a futurist was still a viable vocation then.
Jones: I had some chats with Joel Garreau, probably lamenting the lack of adequate alcohol.
Schwartz: Afterward, I took the notes and wrote up what was called The Bible — basically the details of the history of that world. This was something for the art directors, the special effects people, the scriptwriter.
Underkoffler: We always try to imbue every moment, every object, every prop with at least that first level of believability: Could this thing work in principle? In some pieces we went really deep.
Gershenfeld: Once the movie started shooting, there was an amusing moment where people were scurrying around on one of the sets. Spielberg stopped filming to ask what all those people were doing. Nobody had an answer. So there was the quick job of inventing descriptions for what the people were doing.
Schwartz: In the movie, this guy is on the subway and his newspaper goes from one headline to the other. If you look at what’s on before the change, it says, “Mechanical Nano Technology Triumphs.” It’s a little tribute to Eric Drexler, who wasn’t there, but was the real inventor of nano science.
“Ninety-nine percent ended up on the idea room floor.”
Underkoffler: Ninety-nine percent ended up on the idea room floor, stuff like paparazzi ‘bots with cameras that would fly to crime scenes and jostle for access.
Belker: We showed a car to Spielberg and he said, “There are no buttons!” Well, of course not — it’s supposed to be voice activated. “OK, so what will the actor do in the car?” We had to add buttons. You think of everything, but you forget that you’re making a movie.
Garreau: They cherry-picked from a very large amount of weird shit.
Schwartz: The honest truth is that when I talk to people about the film, the thing that they remember is not the plot, it’s the world.
Brand: I dare say some of the people that worked on Kinect at Microsoft saw the film. [Editor's note: Jaron Lanier, as a researcher at Microsoft Labs, worked on the Kinect.]
Calthorpe: When entertainment frames the future, it becomes a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Schwartz: Steven and I talked specifically about creating a new set of vernacular images of the future. Before then, the only images that anybody ever referred to were either Blade Runner or 2001. It was a very dark vision. Our goal was to get on screen a really amazing vision of the future that people would talk about. We achieved that overwhelmingly.
Interviews by Christina Bonnington, Carina Chocano, Elise Craig, Bryan Gardiner, Rachel Swaby and Amber Williams.