We sat down with Joseph Kosinski, director of Tron Legacy and the new movie Oblivion, along with a handful of other reporters. And he told us that it's getting easier to pitch an original film, in the wake of huge successes like Avatar and Inception. Minor spoilers ahead...
Oblivion, which comes out April 19, features Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, who thinks he's pretty much the last human on Earth after an alien attack. He's taking care of some drones on the planet's surface, and avoiding the scary Scavenger creatures, when he runs into a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) and some subterranean survivors, led by Morgan Freeman. And Cruise flies a bubble ship, which we were able to photograph on the floor of Wondercon!
Kosinski told us:
The success of Inception and Avatar, two massive science fiction movies that were original, make a movie like Oblivion possible. I love both those movies, and trust me, I was citing those when I was selling this to the studios — [proof] that original science fiction can work. You need a big movie star at the center of it. You need a really compelling story. You need to show people they haven't seen before. But yeah, I'm really excited — it seems like there's a lot of science fiction coming out this year that I'm excited to see.
At the same time, Kosinski cautioned, with an original story, you have to work harder to hook people. "Even though people say they want [something] new and original, the truth is, they also want to know what they're getting. So the tricky thing with the marketing [of Oblivion] has been to tease enough of the mystery, but not give away those twists and turns." People want something new, but they also want it to seem familiar in some way.
Kosinski came up with the story for Oblivion eight years ago. Back then, he couldn't get work, even making commercials, and he just wrote treatment after treatment with no success. So to keep himself sane, he wrote a small "character piece" with just three characters, that was very much in a Twilight Zone vein of big ideas but a low budget.
And then, during the 2007 writers' strike, Kosinski worked with Radical Comics to create an "illustrated novel" version that never saw the light of day — but that artwork was essential in pitching the film to studios and getting Tom Cruise on board. Kosinski wants you to experience this story as a movie first, but the comics version might come out at some point.
But even though the final movie has turned into something much bigger than the small indie movie Kosinski originally envisioned, or the comic book he worked on in 2007, he still tried to keep it very character-focused and idea-driven.
When Cruise came on board Oblivion, the movie's script wasn't written yet — Kosinski just had 40 illustrations, plus an 18-page treatment, to show him. And then Kosinski went off and wrote a couple of script drafts with Karl Gadjusek and Michael Arndt. But Cruise had "incredible input" into the film throughout the process, thanks to his experience making dozens of films.
Cruise "watches movies like a guy who buys his own ticket on a Friday night," raved Kosinski. "He doesn't watch like a movie star." He's always thinking about what the audience needs to understand, and how to make things clear enough so they enjoy story beats when they come along.
Tron Legacy and Oblivion have been like film school for Kosinski, who didn't have a background in film originally. With Oblivion, he was determined to have a solid, tight script locked down before he started filming — because with Tron, he was on a "fast track" because the film already had so much momentum. He likens trying to fix the script for Tron Legacy during filming to "trying to change the tire on a Formula One car while you're already racing."
Oblivion only has 800 VFX shots, compared to 1,500 in Tron Legacy. Kosinski was able to avoid a few hundred VFX shots by using front projection instead of CG for the Sky Tower where Cruise reports to his superiors. And in general, the landscape of Iceland does a lot of the work in this film, instead of the computer-generated Game Grid.
Kosinski's longtime Director of Photography, Claudio Miranda, won an Oscar for Life of Pi, and the two men have "almost an unspoken communication" after working together for so long. "He's an incredible technician and a great artist," and Life of Pi was a great combination of skills and artistry. Being able to light something so it looks right against a digital background is an underappreciated skill.
And Kosinski says he wanted "beautiful desolation" for the abandoned Earth, which is littered with relics of human civilization, and Iceland fit perfectly. "There's no trees, [just] some black sand, and some moss clings to the surface." The sun doesn't ever set in June, and the "magic hour" for filming lasts six or seven hours.
Another difference from Tron Legacy: only 40 minutes of that film were in full-width IMAX, whereas all of Oblivion is full-frame, meaning you'll see a lot more of the movie in IMAX theaters.
Kosinski dropped a few hints about the mysteries in the film — like the Scavs are "desperate creatures" who have been "beaten down by the war on humanity." And he said that Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a "tough warrior who has been hardened after years of conflict." Olga Kurylenko's character is someone Jack recognizes immediately when he finds her in a crashed spacecraft, the Odyssey, even though he doesn't know how he knows her. Kurylenko is "incredible in the film," says Kosinski. "I'm really excited for people to see her performance."
We asked how this film would have been different if Kosinski had made it for Disney, as was originally the plan, and he said there's a "lot of stuff that I couldn't have done at Disney" in this film. "Disney knew it, and I knew it, and I'm really glad we were able to move it to Universal, and Disney made it easy." This is a PG-13 movie, and although Disney makes those sometimes, this has some maturity and a very adult relationship between the characters. There's some sexuality, some adult language and some language that would have been "too much for the Disney brand."
Meanwhile, Kosinski says he's about "two weeks away" from getting a new script for Tron 3, which is a story he's been working on since 2009.
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 make it a much broader appeal, whereas Tron [Legacy] in the end, I think catered most to Tron fans. This idea broadens it up some more, in really exciting ways. But it's all about the script, making sure 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, three-year journey. So to go back in there, to go back to the Grid, it's got to be a pretty spectacular script.
And he says there's a working title, but he jokes they're going to call it Tr3n. Also, he says he's also got a couple of other scripts being written that he's going to look at. "I have some interesting options I've been setting the table for. I don't know which one [I'm going to do] yet."