Joseph Kosinski started out studying engineering and architecture. His directorial debut came just three years ago, when Steve Lisberger picked him to helm the hotly anticipated sequel to TRON. The film received mixed reviews, but did well at the box office and even its harshest critics praised the visual innovation that Kosinski brought to the world. His follow-up, Oblivion, retains the same visual grandiosity, now married to an original story. He sat down to talk with the press at a roundtable during the film’s junket, revealing some of the film’s technical wizardry as well as the classic sci-fi movies that influenced it.
Question: How does the finished film compare with what you first envisioned?
Joseph Kosinski: If first wrote this story down about eight years ago. I thought it would be my first movie, so I wrote it with a contained cast. The sky tower was the main setting. It was always the story of drone repairmen Jack Harper, and his journey of redemption. But I never imaged eight years ago that I’d be able to make it on this scale. Going to Iceland and New York City, building some of the incredible sets, getting the cast that I was able to get… it’s been amazing. But in the end, it’s still the original story I wrote. It’s still intact, and I’m very proud of that.
Q: Talk about the decision to get M83 to record the soundtrack.
JK: I remember listening to a song called “Unrecorded.” It was an early song and they were relatively unknown then, but I listened to that track while I was writing this treatment. So when it came time to put the movie together… I had such a great experience working with Daft Punk on TRON: Legacy that I wanted to bring in an artist from outside the film industry to create a film score. Anthony Gonzalez always wanted to do a film score. We met and talked about it. I showed him some imagery and explained the story to him. I introduced him to Joe Trapanese, who orchestrated TRON: Legacy and now joined Anthony as a co-composer. I really wanted to create something that sounded original and different. This is a more complex film than TRON: Legacy in terms of music, because it has so many different types of scenes. Considering that it’s his first film, he did a phenomenal job.
Q: The drones in this world don’t fare too well. Was there a parallel to the recent coverage of drone strikes in the news?
JK: it’s funny how the news sometimes parallels the entertainment industry without anyone knowing it. As I said, I’ve had this notion in mind of eight years, well before the notion of drone strikes was part of the public debate. And yet here it is. I remember watching The Empire Strikes Back as a kid and seeing the drone there. It was the most terrifying depiction of a machine with no soul that I’d seen. I think that was the big inspiration for the drones here. And it was just a good way to showing our relationship with technology, for both good and ill. It’s something we need to keep an eye on, as Jack learns.
Q: Speaking of drones, can you talk more about the design of the film?
JK: My background is in mechanical engineering and industrial design. Then I went to architectural school; I thought I wanted to be an architect. I was always looking for a career that could combine my creative interest with my technical side. Directing films is kind of the perfect combination.
With Oblivion, I wanted it all to feel like the same design family. The bubble ship and sky tower were two elements of the story that I had a very clear image of from the start. I did three images for the original treatment: two were of the bubble ship and the sky tower and one was of the Empire State Building sticking out of the sand. So that was something I had from very early on. I brought the same design team from TRON on, and they fleshed out the details.
Q: With TRON, you had to build on a world that we all knew very well. Here, you get to flesh out a world completely from scratch. How much of a challenge was that?
JK: I was inspired by the science fiction films of the 60s and 70s. I loved The Twilight Zone. I remember seeing Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, La Jetee, and loving them. It felt like in the 1980s after Alien – which is one of the greatest science fiction films of all time – that the genre went very dark. Deep space, dark ships, a lot of shadows. I liked the idea of bringing science fiction back into the daylight. That felt like something we hadn’t seen in a while. That juxtaposition of the world we know buried under these landscapes, but the landscapes being very bright, as an exciting depiction of a world. We’ve seen so many dusty, dark brown post-apocalyptic worlds. Marrying that aesthetic to a different visual sensibility was very exciting to me.
We used something called high-definition front projection instead of the usual blue screen. It let us get rid of the blue screen that we used on TRON: Legacy. We know what we want to see in the background, we just didn’t like the idea of having to put it in post. So for this, we wanted to use either LED walls or projection to create the environment. That’s what we did with the sky tower. Every scene you see in the sky tower is captured in-camera. There’s no blue screen or post-production effects in there. Normally a movie like this would have 1400, 1500 visual effects shots. This one has 800… because we were able to capture all those sky tower images in-camera.
Beyond saving money and time, the reflected light off of that projection lights the scene. So you get a connection between the actors and the environment that you couldn’t get with blue screen. I give all credit to my DP, Claudio Miranda. He came up with all of this and I couldn’t have figured out the logistics without him. I’m glad the Oscars recognized his talent with Life of Pi. That was an amazing shoot.
Q: TRON: Legacy was one of the few films out there that actually benefitted from the 3D treatment. Yet this one was specifically not filmed in 3D. What led to that decision?
JK: I looked at all the formats. I was very familiar with 3D after TRON. I also looked at 48 frames per second and this new format 4K, which was ultimately how we decided to go. 3D is great, but the brightness levels are a fraction of what 2D is. Also, your eyes react differently to 3D. They don’t pick up color in the same way. You just don’t get the saturation, and as I said, I wanted this to be a daylight movie. By going 3D, I thought I’d be compromising too much.
On a personal level, I don’t like having to put on glasses to watch a movie. It’s a hard barrier to get beyond. I thought Avatar did it beautifully; I was lost in that world. But just to be able to sit down and watch a movie… you don’t know how many people have complimented me on not making a movie in 3D!