At WonderCon, Universal brought out director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) to talk to a few press outlets about his sci-fi action-adventure flick Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, and out in theaters on April 19th. The original tale tells the story of Jack Harper (Cruise), a veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources, after its surface is devastated from decades of war with the alien Scavs, who begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself. The film also stars Olga Kurylenko, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo and Andrea Riseborough.
During this roundtable interview, filmmaker Joseph Kosinski talked about the lessons he learned from making both TRON: Legacy and Oblivion, how Oblivion has 800 visual effects compared to 1,500 for TRON: Legacy, that he’s been thinking about this world for eight years now, the elements of sci-fi that he wanted to bring into the story, that Oblivion in IMAX will be full frame for the entire film, the input that both Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman gave, why he wants to keep exactly what the Scavs are somewhat vague, including an homage to Top Gun, that his favorite format to see the film in is digital IMAX but he also thinks it’s worth checking out in Dolby Atmos (they’re the first film to have mixed in Atmos from scratch), how the film would have been different if he’d made it at Disney like originally planned, and his plans for the Oblivion illustrated novel. He also gave an update about how things are progressing with TRON 3, and said that he has a few different scripts currently in development. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOSEPH KOSINSKI: Well, there are a lot of trinkets on the surface. Jack (Tom Cruise) collects things. In the trailer, you can see the Yankee cap he’s found, and I think you see his record collection. He’s supposed to leave Earth in two weeks. His tour is almost up. But, he has a connection to this planet that he can’t quite explain. These things he finds on the surface, he collects to try to satisfy that need. There’s still a lot of stuff down there for him to pull together.
How much of the movie do you spend exploring that?
KOSINSKI: The first act. In a science fiction movie, the first act is a little longer than it is in most movies because there is so much world building to do. But, the first act is finding out who Jack Harper is, as a person, and understanding the world and the rules of this world and the context. And then, it gets fun because you get to turn it all upside down.
What were the lessons you learned from your first and now your second movie?
KOSINSKI: Wow, so many! And just on the second movie, I’ve learned so much. These two movies have been my film school. I didn’t come up through the film business. I had a different path. But, what I really wanted to do with Oblivion was go in with a script that I felt was really solid and finished. With TRON, we were on such a fast track and there was so much momentum. It was like trying to change the tire on a Formula One car while you’re racing it. That makes movies like this, which are already so complicated, that much harder. So, the goal with this one was to really lock the script down and get something really tight before we ever started shooting anything. I think we achieved that. I’m really happy with the story we’re telling. It doesn’t mean it makes filmmaking easy, but at least I can focus on what I should be focusing on, in post-production.
Is this film less CG heavy than TRON?
KOSINSKI: Definitely! For instance, I think TRON had something like 1,500 visual effects shots and Oblivion has 800, so you’re talking about 700 less visual effects shots. That doesn’t mean it’s a less spectacular-looking world. It means that, on this movie, I really focused on capturing as much in-camera as possible. We used front projection in the Sky Tower and just that technique alone probably saved us 300 or 400 shots. So, there are less visual effects shots, but it’s still a very visual world.
You have the same cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, for both of your movies, and he also did Life of Pi. How did you approach the use of landscape for this film?
KOSINSKI: I have been shooting with Claudio since 2005, for my first commercial that I ever did. I did 15 commercials with him and asked him to do my first feature, and then worked with him again for my second. I haven’t really worked with many other DPs. At this point, he and I have this almost unspoken communication, in terms of what I like and what I want. It just makes it really easy to work together. I think he’s an incredible technician, but he’s also a great artist. I was thrilled that he won the Oscar this year for Pi, which is exactly that – a combination of both technical skills and beautiful artistry. A lot of people don’t even really understand how difficult it is to make a movie like that, from a DP point of view. It’s gorgeous. And even the stuff that’s on blue screen, to light something so that it looks correct when the digital backdrop is put in, is an underappreciated art. I think some people are under the impression that you can simply just shoot it on blue, and then it’s all done in post. But no, you really need to understand the pipeline, from beginning to end, and Claudio understands that. He’s really a master technician.
The visuals really look stunning and beautiful.
KOSINSKI: I was thrilled to be able to go to Iceland to shoot this movie. My touchstone, from the very first treatment, was a beautiful desolation, and I think Iceland captures that. There are no trees. It’s black sand. Some moss clings onto the hills in the summer. It’s so baron, yet so beautiful with the light there, because it’s in the northern hemisphere. The time of year we shot, in June, the sun doesn’t ever set. It just spins on the horizon and it gives you magic hour, which is that beautiful time. In Southern California, that might be 45 minutes long. In Iceland in the summer, we had six or seven hours of it, so we would just shoot and shoot and shoot. Some of our most beautiful shots were done at one in the morning. And then, to put elements of the world we know in that landscape, for me, was something that was really seminal to the story. It was hard to shoot in Iceland, but I’m really proud of the stuff we got there.
In today’s cinema world, it’s really excited to have something new come out, that’s not based on something else. Is this a world that you’ve been thinking about and developing for awhile?
KOSINSKI: Yeah, it’s been almost exactly eight years since I wrote the story. I’ve had eight years to think about this world. Things like the bubble ship and the Sky Tower, and all of those elements, were years in the making. It’s exciting to have it finally come together. I just finished the IMAX version two nights ago. It’s literally just finished. It’s surreal to be done. You’re excited to be at the end, but it’s a little sad because it is the end of the journey.
What elements of sci-fi did you want to bring into it?
KOSINSKI: The story was really influenced by those ‘70s, lonely man, sci-fi stories, like Silent Running, The Omega Man and La Jetée. When I wrote this in 2005, I couldn’t get any work in the commercial business. I really was just writing treatment after treatment and getting rejected. Oblivion was an opportunity for me, as a creative outlet to keep myself from going crazy. But, it’s a very character-driven piece with just three characters. I thought maybe it would be my first movie, but it would have to be done on a really small budget, so I kept it character-driven, much like those old Twilight Zone episodes. They had one set with three characters, but the ideas were always big, and that was the idea here. Obviously, it’s grown into something much bigger, but the core story – the story of Jack Harper and his journey – has remained unchanged, over that period.
Does the IMAX version open up the frame for any scenes?
KOSINSKI: With TRON, I opened it up for 40 minutes of the movie. For Oblivion, I opened it up for the whole movie. So, Oblivion in IMAX will be full frame 1.9 through the whole thing, just because that was the format the chip on the camera was able to shoot. So, I shot the whole thing full frame, but composed for 2.4.0, which will be in the standard version.
Does having a star like Tom Cruise, with all of the experience he has, being a producer himself, make filmmaking any easier?
KOSINSKI: Yeah, absolutely! He’s probably the most experienced person on the set. This is my second movie, but it was in the 30s or somewhere for him. Not only did I learn from him, but also second-hand from a lot of the directors I admire. He’s worked with Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, [Sydney] Pollock – the greats. For me to hear stories about those movies, but also just to hear little tidbits about what it was like to work with those directors, was an amazing experience. As you mentioned, Tom is a great producer himself. He’s got great sense of story. It’s always great to have the perspective of the person who’s playing the character in your film. It was an amazing experience working with him.
Did he talk about Martin Scorsese much?
KOSINSKI: I don’t know if I talked to him much about Scorsese. He’s a big admirer of Paul Newman, so I heard the Newman stories about The Color of Money. I’m always asking him stories about Eyes Wide Shut because Kubrick, to me, was the greatest. Hearing stories about what it was like to work with Stanley is just fascinating.
Was there specific input that Tom Cruise gave you about things he wanted to do with the character, or did he defer to what you had created with this world?
KOSINSKI: Absolutely! When we agreed to do this journey together, a script hadn’t been written. I had probably 40 illustrations of the movie, that illustrated the story from beginning to end, and I had the 18-page treatment that I had written. I pitched him the story, but there was no script yet. So, he went off and shot Mission: Impossible and I went off and did a draft with Bill Monahan and Karl Gajdusek. I think I had two passes at it. And then, he was able to come off of Mission and we basically developed it together, for the three months before we started shooting. He had incredible input. He’s made enough movies that he knows what the pitfalls are and what the audience needs. What I like about Tom is that he watches movies like a guy that buys his own ticket on a Friday night. He doesn’t watch them like a movie star. He really puts himself in the context of a guy going to this movie, knowing nothing about it. So, I found he was great for stepping back and saying, “What does the audience understand here? What do they need to know? What clarify do we need here, so that they’ll enjoy these beats more later?” He was fantastic! He’s really great at that.
We haven’t seen or heard much about the Scavs. That’s been kept vague. Is there an angle to them that you’re trying to hold back?
KOSINSKI: There’s a lot of twists and turns and a lot of mystery in this movie. The tricky thing about a movie with a lot of twists and turns, in the marketing, especially with an original story, is to put enough out there so that people know there’s a real story and so that it feels familiar. Even though people say they want new and original, the truth is that they also want to know what they’re getting. So, the tricky thing with the marketing has been to tease enough of the mystery, but to not give away those twists and turns. I think there’s some quick shots of the Scavs in the trailer. They’re desperate creatures who have been beaten down by the war with humanity, but still exist under the surface and make Jack’s job very dangerous, whenever he goes down there.
What can you say about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s character in the film?
KOSINSKI: I would describe him as a tough warrior who’s been hardened, after years of conflict. He’s a fantastic actor. I really enjoyed working with him. I hadn’t really watched Game of Thrones, until he came in to audition for the part. He’s just an incredible actor, and he brings so much to the role. More than I expected.
Is he playing a villain?
KOSINSKI: I’ll just say it’s a mysterious role. I’d like to leave it at that.
What did Morgan Freeman contribute to his character?
KOSINSKI: Morgan had some really good insight. I brought Morgan in and talked to him about his character. I really wanted to hear his ideas. Even the look of his character was done with Morgan, in collaboration. For the glasses that everyone points out, I had eight pairs of them and Morgan picked out the ones that you see in the film. He knew, once he put those on. It was like, “Oh, my god!” He’s just a bad-ass. So, it was fun to have Morgan involved, early on, building that character.
What can you say about Olga Kurylenko’s character, and the relationship between Jack Harper and Julia?
KOSINSKI: Well, the interesting thing about Olga’s character and her relationship to Jack is that it’s a mystery. There are a lot of mysteries in this film. Even though Jack doesn’t know her, he feels a connection to her. When he finds her in the Odyssey, in that spacecraft that’s crashed nearby, he recognizes her face, but he doesn’t know how. That’s the first mystery that kicks off the last two-thirds of our film. She’s incredible in the movie. She’s just amazing. I’m real excited for people to see her performance in this movie. She’s got a pivotal role and I’m excited for people to see it. I can’t tell you too much about it.
Getting Tom Cruise back into the cockpit, with the bubble ship, did you intentionally make a point of making those flight scenes a big part of the movie?
KOSINSKI: In Oblivion, there is action and adventure, but it’s always in support of the story. This isn’t a video game that’s been retro-fitted to have a story put inside. This is a small character-driven story that we wrapped this action movie around. So, the bubble ship action is definitely there, when it needs to happen. Tom is an aerobatic pilot, so we worked really hard to make the bubble ship scenes as realistic as possible. I was a huge Top Gun fan, as a kid, so people who watch closely are going to see an homage. Look closely. You’ll see a Top Gun shot in there, that I put in, just for those fans. There’s no other movie star in the world that can pull a scene like that off, like he can. It’s generally a serious drama, mystery thriller, but the bubble ship sequence is a little bit of fun.
How would you recommend that people see this film?
KOSINSKI: I’d see it in digital IMAX, and then I think it’s worth checking out in Dolby Atmos, too. We mixed it in Atmos. We’re the first film to mix a movie, from scratch, in Atmos, front to back. I think that’s the other format that’s worth checking out. It’s very unique. All the other Atmos movies that have been out have been mixed in 5.1, and then converted. It’s like converting 2D to 3D. We started our pre-mix in Atmos, in January, so the spacial, the music, the way the bubble ship moves around the room, you’ll notice that it’s so immersive that it can almost be distracting. It’s just a different experience. Digital IMAX is probably my favorite way to see it, and Dolby Atmos would be my second favorite. You can mix IMAX and Atmos. They’re different formats. IMAX sound is its own proprietary thing, which is fantastic. In L.A., I think there’s Atmos at the Arclight Sherman Oaks and at Mann’s Chinese. I don’t know, for sure. It’s only in 100 theaters in the world, so you have to track it down.
How would this movie have been different, if you’d made it at Disney, like you were originally going to?
KOSINSKI: Listen, there’s a lot of stuff in this movie that I couldn’t have done at Disney. Disney knew that, and I knew that. I’m really glad we were able to move it to Universal, and Disney made that transition very, very easy for me. It’s a PG-13 movie, and Disney makes PG-13, but there is a maturity to it. The relationship between these characters is very adult. There’s some sexuality. Certainly, there’s some language and some action that would have probably been too much for the Disney brand. So, I think that the right home for Oblivion was at Universal. As much as I love the Disney people and love working with them, this story probably just wasn’t a good fit for that studio.
Does it feel like there really will be another TRON and that Disney wants that to happen?
KOSINSKI: Yeah, it absolutely does. I think I’m two weeks away from getting the draft. This is a story we’ve been working on since 2009, so that’s four years now. I’m really excited about the idea that we have for it. I think it delivers on the promise that both TRON movies have made. It opens the movie up, in a way that I think is going to give it a much broader appeal. Whereas TRON really, ultimately, in the end, catered most to TRON fans, this idea broadens it some more, in really exciting ways. But, it’s all about the script and making sure that that story is compelling enough to get all of us back together. Those movies are hard to make. It’s a two-and-a-half to three-year journey. So, to go back in there and go back to the Grid, it’s going to have to be a pretty spectacular script. We’ve got a great writer on it, so we’ll see.
Does it have a title that’s not just TRON 3?
KOSINSKI: It has a working title, yeah. TR3N will be our code name. We have an idea, but nothing is set in stone yet. We have some exciting ideas.
Do original films like Inception and Prometheus, and the upcoming Elysium and Interstellar, help when you’re trying to get an original project made?
KOSINSKI: Yeah. The success of Inception and Avatar, which were two massive science fiction movies that were original, make a movie like Oblivion possible. I love both of those movies, and, trust me, I was citing those when I was selling this to the studios to prove that original science fiction can work. You need a big movie star at the center of it, you need a really compelling story and you need to show people something they haven’t seen before. I’m really excited. It seems like there’s a lot of science fiction coming out this year, that I’m excited to see.
What can you say about your plans for the Oblivion comic book?
KOSINSKI: We actually called it an illustrated novel. I wrote the story in 2005, always with the intent of making it into a film. The writers strike happened in 2007, so I couldn’t actually hire a screenwriter to do it. So, my agent introduced me to Radical Comics and we decided, in order to keep the momentum on the project, to develop it as an illustrated novel, if nothing else, to create a pitch kit for the movie, in the end, which is exactly what happened. I went off and made TRON, always working on Oblivion in the background, and by the time TRON was finished, I had this package of materials that described the whole world visually to go along with the story I had written, and we used that to pitch to the studios. Once Oblivion got picked up, I wanted it to be experienced as a film first. After the film comes out, then we’ll see if it makes sense to go back and try to pull the illustrated novel back together, or if it feels like a rearview mirror, in a way. It’s evolved so much, in the years of just making it into a film, so I don’t know. I don’t know if that will ever come out. I don’t know if it’s even relevant anymore.
Would you want to continue exploring the world of Oblivion, in some way?
KOSINSKI: Maybe. We’ve created a world and we’ve created a history, so if there’s a desire from an audience to know more about what happened, before and after our movie, it’s a fun thing to think about.
Both of your films were so long in development. How will you be approaching your next movie?
KOSINSKI: You’ve gotta have a couple balls in the air, so I’ve got a couple scripts being written and I have a couple scripts that we’ve just finished. Once Oblivion is done, I hope to have some interesting option that I’ve been setting the table for, over the last year or two, and then figure out what the next step is. But, I don’t know yet. I don’t know which one is going to be next.
Is the idea of being a working filmmaker now crazy to you?
KOSINSKI: I would say that I would have never imagined it. As a kid, I never really knew that this job existed. I grew up in the Midwest with no connections to the entertainment business, at all. I never knew anyone who knew anyone who worked in the entertainment business. All I knew is that I loved going to movies. So, my journey here has not been wanting to be a director, like Spielberg from age six. My path has been a little different. But in the end, I realize that I’ve ended up in the job that I was always meant to have. I always had these varied interests, but never figured out quite where I fit in. But, directing somehow combines everything I’m interested in, in one job. So, it was inevitable, but I didn’t plan it this way.