Interview: 'Oblivion' Director Joseph Kosinski on Sci-Fi Filmmaking
by Alex Billington
April 29, 2013
"It could only be done the way we did it." Now in theaters is Oblivion, the second feature directed by sci-fi filmmaker Joseph Kosinski, who last directed Tron Legacy. Starring Tom Cruise as a drone repairman working on an uninhabitable future Earth, Kosinski created a new technique using LED screens on the set to envision the world and shoot without using CGI. I first met Joe on the set of Tron Legacy and interviewed him back in 2010. After giving his film quite a profile in A New Era of Sci-Fi is Upon Us, I reconnected with him last week for an interview about Oblivion, which was already playing in theaters by the time we talked.
I've been looking forward to talking with Joe and wanted to ask him some of the tougher questions while I had him. I'm not fond of phone interviews, but I did the best to ask him as many more interesting questions in the 15 minutes I had, including slipping in a few extras at the end, one about The Black Hole. I'm a big fan of Kosinski and thoroughly enjoyed both of the movies he has made so far, he does a great job of creating very energetic and visually stunning sci-fi worlds. Our conversation started with my move to New York City.
Joseph Kosinski: I lived in New York almost nine years and then moved to Los Angeles, which made more sense for me. But New York is an amazing city. I loved every minute there. It's fantastic.
Yeah, it's in the film quite a bit. That was actually one of the things that struck me about it.
Kosinski: Yes. That's true. As a former New Yorker, it was fun for me to put in all my favorite New York landmarks. There are some in there that I think only New Yorkers will recognize, like the McGraw-Hill Building and more in the background. I also got to complete the Freedom Tower, which is pretty cool. I was hoping for New Yorkers to see what their skyline is going to look like in 2017.
Exactly. How has this journey been now that it's out in theaters? You've been developing this for years, before Tron, right?
Kosinski: Yeah. The first version of the story I wrote in April of 2005, so it's almost exactly eight years ago. I was always working on it in the background when we were doing Tron [Legacy]. And yea, once I finished Tron, then I had a nice package of imagery I had done with Andre with Radical Studios. Then I was able to kind of pitch it as a film.
What were the most important elements that you wanted to make sure were clear and made it through to the end? What were the key pieces you wanted to be perfect?
Kosinski: A couple months ago I went back and just pulled the original treatment as I was getting close to finishing the movie, just to kind of check back and see how it had evolved. The story is basically the same. You know, this notion of this repairman, this kind of lowly repairman kind of discovering who he is and the kind of man inside of him. It was always the journey of this character, and there was always just a few characters in it. I always wanted it to be that type of story. It's pretty much unchanged. Certainly, when you turn it into a two hour film, you are able to kind of add a lot more detail. But the essential beats of the story are basically unchanged.
The entire world of Oblivion is more detailed than we've seen. I heard you used a process involving screens on set to make it more realistic without having to use CG. Can you explain?
Kosinski: Yeah. After doing Tron [Legacy], which is obviously a movie that took place inside a computer, even though we built a lot of sets for that movie, we were essentially inside for most of it. So for Oblivion I liked the idea of making a science fiction that happened outside in the daylight. I wanted it to feel like it was an in-camera… I wanted everything to be as much in-camera as possible. So that meant going to every location—going to Iceland, going to New York City. And when we did have to shoot on the sky tower, I didn't want to be keying green screen out of all those shots.
So [cinematographer] Claudio [Miranda] and I just developed this advanced front projection system that allowed us to capture everything in camera and not use blue screen and, in the end, create an image that I felt would feel more organic and more real than anything you could ever do with blue screen because of the… you are not using the projection just as a background, but you are using it to actually light your set and your actors. All those shots in the sky tower, we could not have pulled off and look like they do using blue screen. It was really creating… it could only be done the way we did it. I'm really proud of that, because that was obviously a huge technical hurdle to make work. And, in the end, not only does it look better than it would have with blue screen, but it was actually a lot cheaper than having to do all those shots as effects shots. We only have 800 effects shots in this movie, which is half of what most films of this size have.
Kosinski: That's pretty amazing.
Did it turn out exactly the way you wanted or did you have to embellish a bit to complete it?
Kosinski: Almost, no. We kind of budgeted… when we were budgeting the technique, I always assumed I would get about 80% of what I wanted in camera and then I'd have to go to blue screen for 20%, like the real wide shots. In the end, we were able to do, I would say, 99% with projection. And then there were just a couple of shots where maybe you see a mirror or a little piece of the floor peeking out the background but it ended up being basically kind of touch ups. It worked much better than I could have ever anticipated.
That's good to hear. Is this something that you see being used more often in films, they'll start to steal what you guys did?
Kosinski: I think so. I mean, especially since with all the behind the scenes we've basically shown the entire world how to do it. But, yeah. I think when you can show that you can create a higher quality image, capture it in camera, do it cheaper and allow the actors to be kind of more immersed in a world, there is really no downside. The only downside is that you have to know what you want ahead of time. Changing it after the fact would be expensive. So as long as you know what you want, I think it's an incredible method. For television, I think it could be huge, because you are talking about sets that are standing for episode after episode. And when you have that kind of reuse—I mean it's great especially for sets where you are shooting a lot of time on them. I think that could be huge.
So, yeah. I'm actually developing a TV show called Ballistic City [read more here] and that's something I've thought about using for that.
That sounds cool. It sounds sci-fi, too. There's always room for more sci-fi.
Kosinski: Yeah. AMC bought the show. Travis Beacham wrote it, who has Pacific Rim coming out in July. It's an incredible script and really exciting to think about bringing a show like this to television.
I want to ask you a bit of a tougher question now that we're talking. Where do you encounter the most resistance from studios? Is it in the budget, or is it in the scope, or is it in sort of the technical effects that you need to put together?
Kosinski: What do you mean by resistance?
Well, is budget their greatest concern? Are you always working on honing a budget when you're developing at that level?
Kosinski: It depends. At every stage of the process there is a different concern. At the very beginning it's the overall concepts in the story. Once you've got a script, everyone's happy, and you're in pre-production, then it's about… certainly it's about money. How much is this going to cost? Once you're shooting it's about making sure that you are making your days and staying on schedule and getting the footage that you need in a timely fashion. Once you are done shooting and into editing, then it's about editorial things such as pace and performance.
So the notes from the studio or the concern of the studio is always different depending on what stage of the process you are in.
How much freedom do you have as a filmmaker? Would you work better in a situation where you could have complete control in a more indie environment, where funding is there and they believe in every last step of it, versus the studio environment where they're concerned with every last step?
Kosinski: Well, it depends what kind of movies you want to make. The more money a project costs, the more control or the more pressure there is going to be on the filmmaker. So if you want to work in an environment where you have the most freedom, it's better to work, I think, at the lower end of the film budget. If you are going to work on a film that costs $100 million and the studio is going to spend that kind of money, then you are going to carry with that a burden of having more people looking over your shoulder.
There's a tradeoff there. And with projects I've done, I've wanted to do kind of big ideas, so the involvement of the studio comes with that. Obviously, there are certain filmmakers, once you get to a certain point in your career where you've established yourselves, there are filmmakers who get to the point of having final cut. But, that being said, I don't think you ever get to the point where you are never getting notes. So it's part of the job, is learning how to deal with them and learning how to kind of make the movie you want through that process.
I understand. What happened to the early IMAX release that was supposed to happen a week before then got cancelled? What's the story behind that?
Kosinski: I think the story was that they wanted to have the biggest… It was important to have kind of the biggest opening weekend you could. And opening a week early on a couple hundred screens I think, ultimately, in the end, was not the best way to open a big movie like this. So we opened internationally on the 12th and domestically on the 19th. I think, in the end, when you look at our opening weekend, it was the right decision. Obviously, I'd like to get as many weekends on IMAX as possible, but we ended up getting two weekends in IMAX exclusively, which I think is plenty of time for people to see the movie. I think it's the way… It's kind of my preferred way to see the film, so I'd love people to see it that way. But, obviously, after, I think, Iron Man 3 comes out, then we'll only be out in standard screens.
Yea, the IMAX experience is such a unique experience. I was hoping that's what you were pushing - "You need to see it in this way. And for at least the time being, for a week, this is the only way you can see it." That's what I was hoping for initially.
Kosinski: Yeah. I mean if you only had a week I'd be really concerned about it. But I think two weeks in IMAX is enough time for people to find a day to go see the movie, especially during the summer. Pretty soon the films start backing up every single week, so the fact that we got two. And yeah, I made a huge push for IMAX. I think kind of based on the numbers I've seen, a lot of people are going and seeing it in that format.
Obviously you deserve a compliment for the score, once again, with M83. I love the way you bring so many great elements together into one entertaining film, the score in particular elevating everything. My odd question: why do you think it's only you, and Fincher, I guess, who are able to get people like this, this caliber of a band or musician, to come in and score?
Kosinski: First of all, I don't think it's only us. A big reason is it's a much harder way to do it. It's harder to bring in a person, a composer who has never done a film before and work with them on a film score. The learning curve, the process is much longer. There's a lot more iteration. There's a lot more discussion. There's a lot more work to it. It would be much easier to just hire someone who has done a dozen films.
So it's the harder route, I would say, by hiring him. But I felt in both cases that, end in the end, it would result in something that felt more original. And particularly with Oblivion, I wanted it to be a score that sounded different. And I knew Anthony [Gonzalez] and Joe [Trapanese]—by having Anthony in there with Joe it would have that unique flavor to it. So it's a lot more work, but I've been lucky in that, in both cases, I think, at least to my ear, I think it's worked out okay.
Last few questions: do you watch a lot of other modern sci-fi movies?
Kosinski: Now that Oblivion is done I'm looking forward to catching up all of the recent sci-fi flicks I missed in theaters (like Cloud Atlas, Looper, etc). I'll let you know what I think once I check them out…
Will V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. and Maximillian be back in your version of The Black Hole?
Kosinski: Maximillian - definitely.
Thank you to Joe Kosinski for taking the time to speak to me, and to Universal for arranging.
Oblivion, co-written and directed by Joseph Kosinski starring Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough & Olga Kurylenko, was released in theaters on April 19th worldwide. Once you've seen it, tell us what you thought.