It’s difficult to determine the more nerve-wracking scenario for director Joseph Kosinski: Helming a much-anticipated sequel to “Tron” for Disney as his first feature, or following it up with an original, $120 million sci-fi concept with Tom Cruise in the lead. The movie, about the last man on Earth whose life is forever changed when a spaceship containing a mysterious woman crash lands, launching him into an unexpected adventure, has already opened overseas to big audiences.
Ambition is clearly never waning for the architect-turned-filmmaker, and with “Oblivion” set to hit theaters stateside this week, we sat down with him to discuss the film’s long journey to the screen, in-camera special effects, and his relationship with Disney the entire time.
You first wrote “Oblivion” as a short story, which then turned into a graphic novel. What has been the biggest difference from that initial germ of an idea to now?
Well, the story of Jack Harper has always been there, and his emotional throughline has too. The short story was only 12 pages, so the film is so much more fleshed out in terms of specificity. And I played with different openings and endings to the story, but it’s always been a piece about Jack, Julia, and Victoria, and Jack having his world turned upside down.
So in terms of the visual look, the influences like architect Mies van der Rohe have always been there as well.
Oh, yes. Mies, he has two favorite sayings: “Less is more,” which when it comes to design I firmly believe in, and the other is “God is in the details.” That one deals not only in the notion of building the set, but also every aspect of the film, from story to character to props — understanding the world so well that you know what’s around every corner. And I think an audience can sense a world that’s completely figured out, versus one that’s only what you’re seeing on screen.
Did you meld advice like that from other directors, such as [early mentor] David Fincher?
David was really instrumental more when I first got to Los Angeles. He really loved my stuff, and actually helped me get my first commercial job, which was the “Gears of War” [“Mad World” spot] I did. David really went to bat for me and helped me get that. Not only did he help me there, but he’s also just a good sounding board for ideas.
Any good tips this time around?
No, you know I haven’t even shown him the film yet; I wanted him to see it fully finished, and I’m really excited for when he does.
“Oblivion” started out at Disney, where attempts were made to shape the film into a PG-rated result. Could you ever imagine a PG version of the film, or was it always PG-13?
I knew it had to be PG-13. I think that when you see the movie, you see that it doesn’t quite fit within the Disney brand. I always saw some Hitchcock in it — a “Shadow of a Doubt” or “Vertigo.” I loved how he was able to make these thrillers but there was also this incredibly twisted romance at the core.
But I have a great relationship with Disney, and it was one of those things where we both looked at the project, and I said, “I don’t know if I can make the Disney version of this movie” and they agreed. So they let me make it with Universal, which was a pretty generous thing of them to do.
After Daft Punk and M83, which French electronic artist are you leaning toward approaching for your next film?
[Laughs] Man, I don’t know, there’s something about the French and their music that I love, and I’ve had two great experiences now. I don’t know — I’ll have to see what up-and-coming French electronic artists are doing great music in the next few years.
You signed Anthony Gonzalez up for the film before his double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming dropped, is that right?
I met with Anthony right after “Tron: Legacy” opened, so it was January 2011, and I think he was just starting Hurry Up when I talked to him about this project. I’ve been following him for a long time; I was listening to Dead Cities, Red Seas, Lost Ghosts in 2005 when I wrote the film’s original treatment.
So M83 was always in the DNA of the film as well?
Yeah, I remember that song, “Unrecorded,” listening to that too while I was writing. So his music has been there from the very beginning, which is why I’m thrilled to have him.
Did you ever approach any other artists?
I talked to Boards of Canada, Ulrich Schnauss, William Orbit — I talked to a lot of really cool bands for, but Anthony was in Los Angeles and the timing kind of matched up perfectly.
In bringing the story to the screen, did you always think in these epic, largely effects-driven terms?
I always wanted to tell a story in a big landscape, but I didn’t want it to be an “effects” picture. I wanted it to be an “in-camera” film; you know, most films of this size might have 1500, 1600 visual effects shots — maybe even 2000. This film only has 800 shots — half the effects of a movie like “Tron: Legacy.” Because we were able to do so much in-camera, from the Sky Tower set to shooting in Iceland, I wanted really to make my version of “Lawrence of Arabia:” on-location whenever humanly possible.
ILM Creative Director Dennis Muren recently spoke about special effects in film, and commented that they “aren’t special anymore.” Where do you see your work in this regard, and in the overall sense of the industry?
Visual effects have got to support the story. The innovation I’m most proud of on this movie is our Sky Tower set. Normally it would be done with blue screen and you’d just fill in the outside, but what we did was take an old technique that Stanley Kubrick used on “2001”: front projection. We updated it by making ultra-high definition video surrounding the Sky Tower, and not only does that create an in-camera effect, but it lights the set and I think it affects the actors’ performances, when they’re seeing the same thing the audience will.
So for me, it’s not about doing more, more, more. It’s really about re-thinking how we can innovate visual effects and doing them a completely different way, even if it means taking old techniques and updating them for the 21st century.
Speaking of the camera, you shot “Oblivion” on the Sony Cinealta F65, fresh off the assembly line. You hear horror stories of type of decision — Steven Soderbergh using the prototype Red camera on “Che,” for instance. Did you have any similar issues?
We had no camera issues for this movie, and for a first-generation model, it’s pretty amazing. I shot with the first version of the F23, and I shot with the first version of the F25 for “Tron.” So I know Sony’s reliability, and it is legendary — they came out of the news camera business, where these things have to really endure rigorous fieldwork.
I’ve always loved the color reproduction that they give, and when I saw the resolution on this camera, I knew I had to have it for places like Iceland, so I grabbed the first ones I could get. Hopefully people will see the film on the biggest screen they can, and see what it’s capable of.
“Oblivion” opens this Friday, April 19th.