Interview: Tron Legacy's Cutting-Edge Director Joseph Kosinski
by Alex Billington
December 16, 2010
No matter what happens this weekend he's going to be known forever as the man who brought back Tron 28 years later. Not only did he bring back Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, he created a stunning new world, just like Steve Lisberger did in 1982, then he brought on Daft Punk for a score unlike anything we've ever heard. His name is Joseph Kosinski (above) and believe it or not, this 36-year-old filmmaker is directing his first feature-length film, and it's called Tron Legacy. After three years of waiting, I finally got to speak with Joe, as he's known, on phone about all things Tron Legacy. This is a good one guys, you must read on!
I remember first hearing about this guy, Joseph Kosinski, after Comic-Con 2008 when his first test trailer was unveiled. Who was he? How did a first-time filmmaker direct something that looks this amazing? Well, its now been three years and tomorrow Kosinski's first giant leap into Hollywood finally hits theaters. It's awesome, I've seen it, twice, and it still amazes me seeing the mesmerizing, beautiful, digitally badass world that Kosinski created. It was an honor to talk with him and I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone else thinks of Tron Legacy this weekend. Without further ado, let's get into my interview with Joseph Kosinski.
So how's it going? You're on a big tour, right?
Joe: I am. I just got back from a two week around the world trip, and now I'm up in San Francisco.
Cool. I want to start, actually, at the very beginning and ask, how did all this begin? At what point in your life did you say, "I'm going to make the sequel to Tron, and this is what it's going to look like"?
Joe: Well, it started with a meeting I had with Sean Bailey, a producer on the movie, over three years ago — the summer of 2007. And it was just a general meeting, just the two of us talking, and it was very casual. He said Disney's been kicking around the idea of Tron for 10 or 15 years. He's like, "What would your approach be?"
And I said I'd be interested in… I hadn't seen the movie in a long time; I saw it as a kid. I remembered how distinctive the look, and the feel, and the style, and the spirit of the original film was, that was something I wanted to preserve. I wanted to embrace that look and not try to complete something completely different. Like, you know, not kinda compete with the mainstreams, but go back and embrace that original film and figure out a way to evolve it forward; evolve it forward 28 years with the idea that this world has been sitting on a server for 28 years, disconnected from the rest of the world. And I wanted to make the place feel real. I wanted it to feel like we took these 3D cameras into this world and shot it from the inside. So, you know, I made a test clip for the studio, and that was kind of the first step.
Do you have a background in tech? Are you a computer nerd, so to say? What is your passion for the Tron world? Where does that all come from?
Joe: You know, yeah, I had a pet Commodore in 1982 which I had to program in Basic.
Joe: So that's where it started. But more than that, it was reading books and seeing movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Blade Runner, and 2001 as a kid and loving the idea of kind of going to this other universe. And I think the ambition of this film was to try to make a film, in my mind, the way that Tron did in 1982.
Yeah. What kind of ideas did you originally have from the start that you knew you needed to stick with all the way through? Was it 3D from the start? Was it get Bridges back?
Joe: It was all of those things. It was, first of all, Jeff Bridges, continuing that story and getting him on board, shooting a true 3D film shot with 3D cameras and finished in true 3D, none of this conversion. And this was two years before Avatar came out, so this isn't something like… This is something that was conceived to be 3D from the very beginning.
And once we started talking story, this idea of CLU was fascinating, and this idea of being able to tell a story that no one had told before. And this relationship between a character and a version of himself at 35 was, to me, a new type of story and felt like a great reason to kind of be ambitious in terms of the technology and try to push it further than it had been pushed before.
In opposition to that question then, what are the biggest changes you guys have made since the original point of development? What are the biggest evolutions you've seen in your development process?
Joe: Well I think, you know, at some point we had to scale the story down a little bit. I mean, I think we tried to be ambitious. We created a giant story, and probably, we had more story than we could fit in a two hour film. So at some point we had to kind of scale it down and make sure that the father/son story wasn't getting overrun with all these other big ideas we had.
So, you know, it's been an iterative process, but I think in the end I'm glad we made those tweaks and kind of made sure that the father/son story was at the core of this film.
Did Disney give you guys complete freedom to create the world, and every story beat, and all the characters? How much did Disney let you guys go wherever you wanted, so to say?
Joe: Yeah, they were extremely supporting from the very beginning. From the beginning, they said, "We want you to push Disney with this movie." So I felt like I had the freedom to kind of push it visually, push it sonically, you know, push the story. And at no point did I feel kind of restricted by the Disney brand.
Everyone always talks about how they're trying to be family oriented, and yet Tron Legacy is a darker film for not only lighting and technical reasons, but just for more… it's not the kind of typical Disney story we think of, which I think is why everyone comes up with a question like that or has that in their mind when they're thinking about this. But, at the same time, you still, as you said, created a world that is exactly what you wanted to deliver in the end.
Joe: Yeah. I mean I think the fact that… You know, we did promise them a father/son story at the heart of it, so I think that's what makes this a Disney film, is it's a film about human relationships even though it's set in this kind of dark, fantastical kind of world.
One of my favorite parts is just the design of every different element, from the costumes, which everyone talks about, to the vehicle design, to the set design. To start, where were the inspirations from all of this coming from? Was it just pulling together a creative team that has a lot of great ideas to help create all of this? How did all of this come from nothing into what it is? How did the light cycle evolve and so on?
Joe: Well, it was a tremendous amount of work. I spent a year and a half designing this film before we even shot anything. You know, it started with my memories of the first film. I sat there with Steve Lisberger and he showed me all the original sketches from the first film that Syd Mead and Moebius did.
And yeah, my background is in design -- for me, the challenge of creating this world from scratch is one of the things that I really loved about the opportunity. I got to pull together my dream team of designers from all over the world, people from outside the film business. I had an excellent product designer in Darren Gilford who also comes from a design background, an automobile design background.
So yeah, I got to assemble this incredible team, and I got them all to start thinking one mind. The whole world's been created by Kevin Flynn, so for me, they'd be creating an entire world. You know, costumes, architecture, vehicles. All feeling like they had to come from the hand of one man, to me, was an incredible challenge and something I really enjoyed about the process.
Did you get any input from Bridges or anyone else from the original besides Steve Lisberger?
Joe: Yeah. Bridges was part of the script process in developing the character of Flynn from the very beginning. So there's a lot of Jeff's ideas in Flynn's character.
I want to talk a bit about this being your first feature film, your use of practical effects versus digital effects, and green screen and CG, and how.. I think what everyone says about Tron is how we have a completely digital computer world, yet a lot of it is built practically — the costumes with the light and the sets.
I was on the set in Vancouver and you had an entire club. And the only thing missing was the world outside the windows, basically, which is something rare for this world. Can you talk about your balance between those and where you determined it was necessary to go full-scale?
Joe: Yeah, I mean for me it was important that this world feel as real as possible. So I wanted to build everything that we could possibly build, and I also wanted to make sure the actors had as much to work with as possible. You know, I wanted them to feel surrounded by the grid. I didn't want this to a blue screen movie.
So I built as much as I could. And obviously, there's sequences where you can't build anything, like the light cycles or a lot of the disc course. I mean those are just locations that you could never film at 1000… You know, there's nowhere on Earth you can go to shoot scenes like that. So hopefully the line between what's real and what isn't is blurred and people aren't able to kind of… to them it all feels real. That was the goal.
If I can ask, what are your thoughts on 3D moving forward? It's sort of a big topic of debate with Avatar's success and moving forward from this point with Tron. Do you think we'll see more of it? Is the key to being shot correctly like the way you guys have done? What are your thoughts on 3D?
Joe: Yeah, well I think it makes sense for certain films. I hope that people appreciate the fact that we shot this film in 3D and finished it in 3D and it's at true 3D movie. There's no conversion. I think for films that take you to another world, or for films that require the most immersive experience possible, I think 3D makes a lot of sense. I don't think it makes sense for every movie. But I do hope the people who decide to make a 3D film that they do it properly and in the highest quality way possible, like we did with this one.
Great. [laughs] That's what I want, too.! Let's hope that everyone does that.
Joe: Yeah, yeah. We'll see.
Well thank you for your time. I really appreciate it. I'm glad I got to talk to you.
Joe: Thanks Alex.
Thank you to Disney and Joseph Kosinski for arranging the interview, I'm very glad I got to talk with him and I'm excited for Tron Legacy to hit theaters. Be sure to see it this weekend!
Above: Garrett Hedlund, Steve Lisberger, Jeff Bridges and Joseph Kosinski on the set.