Joseph Kosinski interview: Oblivion, trailers, Tom Cruise and IMAX

With his sci-fi thriller Oblivion out this Friday, we met director Joseph Kosinski to talk about trailers, IMAX, and Tom Cruise...

Director Joseph Kosinski first made his mark with his stylish, effects-heavy commercials for the videogames Halo 3 and Gears Of War. His visual sensibilities were similarly on display in Tron: Legacy, Disney’s lavish, eye-popping reboot of its 1982 cult hit.

Oblivion, although equally striking in terms of visuals, is a rather more personal film for Kosinski. Developed from his own concept, the project was initially envisioned as a much smaller project, before the coup of Tom Cruise and a generous budget (estimated at $120 million) saw it grow in scale.

Yet as well as its familiar sci-fi trappings – futuristic ships, post-war wildernesses and robots – Oblivion is rather more than just another sci-fi action movie. Its core cast, which includes Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman as well as Cruise, is relatively intimate, its central drama surprisingly human. Keen to know more about the story behind the film’s making, and also its influences, we were lucky to enjoy some time to speak to director Joseph Kosinski.  Here’s what he had to say about trailers, internet spoilers, Tom Cruise, and choosing IMAX over 3D…

Congratulations on Oblivion, first of all. I liked the way you kept the sense of mystery going all the way through.

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It’s a slow burn, but once everything starts paying off, yeah, it’s fun.

But that’s quite unusual for a multiplex film, isn’t it?

Yeah. Obviously, the marketing portrays it as a big, science fiction tentpole movie, but there is a lot more to it, as you saw. A lot of twists and turns. It’s a film where you have to pay attention, you have to listen. I always love movies where you watch them and you learn something else. We tried to make a film that has a lot of subtlety and hints and clues throughout it, which you’ll see the next time.

It’s not a typical movie, and that’s what I like about it; it can’t really be defined as one thing. It’s hard, when they ask, “What kind of movie is this?”, I’m always kind of stumped, because I’d say it’s really a mystery thriller that happens to take place in the future, but also happens to have a really strong romantic side, great action; it’s really meant to be a character piece about a guy discovering who he is and what he’s meant to do. 

It’s when we get to the end credits, and we see that, really, the core cast is very small. It’s actually quite an intimate film.

It is, it is. It was actually designed as an intimate film because I wrote it in 2005, and I thought it would be my first film. I made it character-contained and possible to do as a first film, but now, eight years later, it’s obviously grown into something much bigger. But I’m proud that the story of Jack Harper is still the same one I wrote.

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Say, in an alternate universe, you hadn’t been given however much it was to make Oblivion – say you’d been given a quarter of the budget or an eighth of the budget – how different would it have been? How would your approach to it have changed?

Well, we wouldn’t have been able to shoot on location in Iceland, which adds the scale and scope to this film. We would’ve been more compact in our locations, and probably shot in the desert outside Los Angeles, or something. I mean, because I love the story, I still think it would have been a good movie – it just would have been smaller in scope.

I was inspired by movies of the 60s and 70s, and Twilight Zone episodes, where they did a lot with a small budget because the ideas were big. They always somehow felt bigger than they were. Obviously, in this movie, we can be visually big as well, so we can have the best of both worlds.

I detected a small hint of Solaris in here, too.

I think Solaris is the epitome of 70s heavy sci-fi. There’s an element of that, but I wouldn’t want people to think this is Solaris, because it isn’t, clearly. There are elements, in that it’s a film about ideas, and there is a romantic through line that  Solaris has, but it also has commercial moments; it has the action, the spectacle, the pace of a bigger movie. 

It must have been very difficult to put a trailer together without spoiling the plot.

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Marketing’s been a challenge. It is in all movies, and not just with thrillers – you want with every movie to give things away. You want the promise of something. I think people want to know that there’s substance; they do want story in their trailers, they don’t just want images. They want to know there’s a story, and they want to know that there’s a pay-off. But at the same time, they want to be surprised in the cinema, so that’s a tricky thing for the marketing department. Obviously, I have some input on that, but it is a hard thing, especially in an era where there are so many options in entertainment.

There are so many reasons not to go to the cinema, you know? You can watch movies on your phone or your iPad, or get anything you want on your television. You really need to give people a reason to see something on the big screen, and that’s what I wanted to do: create a big screen, IMAX experience for this movie.

Has it been difficult to keep the project under wraps? We saw recently that some plot details leaked for Star Trek Into Darkness…

I know, because everyone is frantically trying to find out information, and then they realise it’s spoiled when they discover it. It’s this weird, sick thing where people are constantly digging for information, but are then upset when they discover it. My attitude is, once I’ve made a decision to see a movie, I cut myself off. I love preserving the surprise for a theatre. I remember as a kid, sitting in a theatre and feeling surprised, because you only had one trailer that you saw in the theatre. You weren’t at home, constantly watching and pausing. So it’s up to ourselves to limit our exposure, and preserve some of the mystery for ourselves, I think.

I’d have thought getting Tom Cruise involved was a big moment for this movie.

It is, absolutely. Particularly with an original story. If I was doing something based on another movie – either a sequel to another movie, or based on a well-known property – it would be a little easier. But then an original story is difficult, and then an original story with a high budget is probably the hardest level.

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Luckily, there’s been some really successful films that have been original. Avatar, obviously, being the ultimate example, so I knew I needed a movie star. A movie star would make this more likely to happen, and also I needed an incredible actor, and with Tom you get both. He’s a big movie star, and I think people forget what a great actor he is. And I was really excited, because I thought this role gave him an opportunity – because there are so many unique scenes – you really need an actor who can pull those off. He is that guy. 

Did have input into developing the character?

Absolutely. He attached himself to the project before I had the script; I had the story and all the images. So I was able to craft the screenplay in a way that fit his interests and his ideas, and they were great ones, because he’s made probably 40 movies. Most of them great films, with my kind of cinematic heroes, from Kubrick to Spielberg to Michael Mann. He worked with guys I admire, so I learned a lot from him through this project.

What about the design angle of the film, which is obviously an important element. How did that come together?

The look of this movie I had in my head from the very beginning. I knew I wanted to make a daylight science fiction film, which I hadn’t seen many in that setting. I knew it was a post-apocalyptic world, but I didn’t want it to be the kind of dusty, dirty Mad Max version. I wanted something that was desolate but beautiful. I’d seen images of Iceland and I thought it was the perfect reference. I had the image in my head of the sky tower and the bubble ship right from the start, and what I love about science fiction is that you get to build a world. That part of the process, for me, was a lot of fun. I love building stuff practically, from the sky tower to the bubble ship to the motorbike. I really love getting into that, and getting down to the details – I think that’s what makes it interesting. Particularly with science fiction, you need to figure things out at that level so it feels real.

When you go outside and shoot a movie, there’s so much detail out in the real world; it’s a world you recognise instantly. But when you’re creating a world, you have to go the extra step to make it feel more real than real. And we did that with the design, but also the way we shot it, to make it feel as in-camera as possible.

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The drones, you built those physically as well?

Yeah. We built the drones, we built the bubble ship, we built the sky tower. Basically everything we could, we built it. And it actually saves money, believe it or not, to build practically. Especially if you’re reusing something a lot, to have it practical, like the bubble ship, they have it on location in Iceland, and to not have to constantly put in a CG version in the shots, it justifies the initial spend.

You shot Tron: Legacy in 3D, and then Oblivion’s in IMAX. What made you choose IMAX over 3D?

It’s the palette and the brightness of the world. Because Oblivion’s a daylight film, I knew that 3D can’t match the brightness of 2D: it’s not even close. It’s like, 2D films are at 14 foot-lamberts, while in IMAX you get 22 foot-lamberts, which is brilliant and bright. In 3D, even in the best theatres, you’ll get four foot-lamberts. You’re talking about something that’s four to five times dimmer. And when your eyes are exposed to that low level of light, your eyes don’t even perceive colour as vividly.

So it felt like, going with an ultra-high-resolution format in 2D for Oblivion made more sense than 3D. 

And Iceland provided those naturally bright environments…

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Yeah. We shot in the summer, so it was 22 hours of daylight, so I could shoot forever. I’m sure that made my producers nervous, but it was hard to resist it, because the light is so beautiful there. We had fun, but it was tough, because you’re in the middle of nowhere. We shot a ridge scene at the beginning of the movie on the top of Earl’s Peak, we lugged all our equipment up there. It looks like Tom Cruise just looking out at the landscape, but there’s 150 crew standing behind him with two cranes that we lugged up there, and it was challenging and dangerous. But I feel the resulting image was worth it – it’s caught in-camera, it’s not on a stage. Actors perform differently when they’re there.

Then you have Claudio Miranda, who recently got the Oscar for Life Of Pi.

He did. I’m so proud and happy for him. I’ve worked with him for seven or eight years now, from my early commercials through Tron: Legacy to this. I was really happy to see him get some recognition. Not only is he an artist, but he’s also super technically savvy, and for the films I work on, that’s really handy.

He’s clearly good at knowing how to integrate a shot with special effects.

He understands the process, and I don’t think people give DPs who can do that enough credit. It’s not about lighting a blue screen and sticking someone in front of it. You have to really understand the whole process to the end, so your practical lighting will fit into the world.  

So for Life Of Pi, all that outdoor lighting was shot in a tank. And they placed all the lighting on the actors, and that’s so key to making the image believable. I was so glad when he got recognition for that. There’s an art to it, and it’s very difficult. You have to be technically savvy and an artist, and he really is both.

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That’s almost a new breed of cinematographer.

Just like directors now have to understand so much technology, and even actors – they have to understand the process as well. When Tom was sitting on that ridge, he had Iceland around him, but he didn’t have all the other elements in the distance. In the bubble ship, when Tom’s flying that thing, you feel like he’s there in every moment, but obviously he wasn’t. He creates that reality because he knows the process. He knows what it’ll become.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know. I literally finished Oblivion a few days ago. So I’m enjoying finally getting it out there and talking to people about it. I’ve been developing a few things in the background, at the script stage. People know about the Tron sequel and The Black Hole [remake]. I’ve got a couple of other things I’m excited about, not all science fiction. So now I finally get to sit down and read, and decide what the next thing is.

Joseph Kosinski, thank you very much.

Oblivion is out now in UK cinemas.

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