Tron: Legacy: An interview with director Joseph Kosinski

As part of Den Of Geek’s recent visit to Digital Domain in LA, we got to meet the director of Tron Legacy, Joseph Kosinski for a chat about his forthcoming film…

Outside, it was a blazing hot day in California. But inside the offices of Digital Domain, the effects studio putting the finishing touches to the forthcoming Tron: Legacy, it was air conditioned and cool.

For Joseph Kosinski, taking on Tron: Legacy is surely a trial by fire – a seasoned director of commercials for such well-known brands as Nike and videogames Halo and Gears Of War, this belated follow-up to Steven Lisberger’s groundbreaking 80s original is his first feature, a sprawling epic of special effects, expensive costumes and vast sets.

But if Kosinski’s feeling any pressure, he certainly doesn’t show it. As we settled down for a brief chat with the director, he seemed relaxed and as cool as the air con, clearly enthusiastic about the movie he was in the process of finishing, but anxious not to give too much away…

The footage I’ve seen so far looks amazing.

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Even the rough stuff we showed?

Even the rough stuff.

Oh good. Because it’s always hard for a director to let them show that kind of stuff out of our editing bay before we’ve finished the effects and sound and everything.

I suppose it’s getting that creative distance after working on it for so long, too.

Yeah, it’s three years in. But I know on a movie like this, it’s all about the final polish. It’s all about the final sound mix, it’s all about finishing all those effects. But Disney felt it was important to show at least a little sneak peek to you guys so you could see some hint of what’s coming.

But I had to make sure we didn’t give any of the really good stuff away, just give you a hint.

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I was going to say that you seem too have played your cards quite close to your chest – we’ve seen nothing of Tron himself, for example…

[Enigmatic smile] Hmm.

So I assume that’s intentional, that you don’t want to reveal any of that too soon?

It’s all about experiencing stuff in the theatre. So for me, you know, I don’t want to show anything until the movie comes out, but obviously, Disney’s not going to let that happen. It’s important to market the film and get the right message out about it, you know?

Because I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what the movie is, because it’s Tron and because Tron is a videogame. You know, people out there think it’s just a videogame movie, and it’s important to get the message out that this isn’t just a videogame movie, and that it has a story at its centre that everyone can relate to, so it should play to a broader audience than a narrow tech-geek film can.

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As your first feature, did you feel a weight of expectation when taking on a name like Tron?

I feel like every director, no matter what scale you’re working on, feels pressure to make something great and true to their vision. I felt pressure on every short film I worked on, and every commercial I worked on. So this is just on a much bigger scale, and working with many more people. And obviously there’s the innovation of that first film, like the title itself promises something new and different, so there’s a pressure for us to do that.

In the footage we saw today, the safe house looks very like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Was that an intentional Kubrick reference?

2001 was a hugely influential film. For me, the design of the safe house was Kevin Flynn trying to create some semblance of the real world in Tron, which is why he selected the fireplace and the bed and the table with food, and all that stuff.

Even though he only has access to Tron materials, he’s trying to create some semblance of what real life is like, so it made sense to me that he’d have these little touches of the real world there, but each one would be ‘Tronified’ in terms of their materiality and texture.

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Did you come up with the visuals ideas before the story, or vice versa?

It was very much a parallel process. The way we made this film was very different from most. In most films, you write the script then work on the visuals, but in this case, we knew that Tron is unique, and you can’t just write a script separate from the world itself.

Which is one of the main reasons I did that short test footage for the studio before we had a script, to establish a look a feel and tone of the world, to not only show the studio how it would look, but also show the writers what the look and feel of the movie was going to be like, so they could write to that tone. I think it’s a smart way to do a movie like this.

Once you had the premise – the triangle between these characters – did you then look around to see where the technology could take that story? Did it help you creatively?

David Fincher was in production on Benjamin Button at the time, and he had shown me what they were doing on that movie. Once I saw they were taking Brad Pitt to 70 years old, I knew it was possible to take Jeff Bridges back in time using the same technology.

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Once Benjamin Button was finished, I hired the same special effects supervisor, Ed Barber and his team to do that, because it’s only recently that it’s become possible to do that. Without Benjamin Button, I don’t think we’d have been able to do what we’ve done in this movie.

I feel like the legacy of Tron, the original Tron, is that it pushed the boundaries in completely different ways, so we felt we had to do something similar with our movie.

When creating Clu with the digital technology that you’ve used, was it a worry that he wouldn’t look convincing enough?

There’s nothing more difficult than creating a human being. If you’re creating some sort of creature other than a human being, you don’t have the same standard you’re being held to. It’s our biggest challenge on the movie, and we’ve set the bar very high. But I think, when you see Clu in the context of the film, it’ll work well.

I was reading the other day that, in the original film, one minute of footage took two months to complete. Has making Tron: Legacy been similarly painstaking?

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Gosh, I don’t know. Obviously, there’s thousands of man hours put into every second of this movie, for sure. Everything had to be designed from scratch, then built and shot or digitally built and then rendered and tweaked, so yeah, every second has had so many thousands of man hours, I can’t imagine.

And the fact that we’re doing it in 3D means that every shot has to be done twice – once you finish a shot, then you have to do it again for the other eye, because we’re not doing any conversion in this film, this is a true 3D movie.

The original Tron pushed numerous technical boundaries. What boundaries do you think Legacy has pushed?

Hopefully, storytelling. That’s the most important thing, for me – that we’re telling a story that couldn’t be told before. That triangle between Flynn, Sam and Clu, is a relationship you could only do in a movie like this. That’s what I’m most interested in pushing.

You’ve done promos for Gears Of War and Halo, of course – do you see this as just an extension of those?

Maybe in terms of the technology we used, yeah. Definitely a lot of my commercial experience played into how we made this movie, because there’s so much technology. Commercials are a great test bed for new technology, so I think my commercial experience definitely helped with the technique, but instead of selling a product you’re telling a story, so it’s a different goal. But it definitely played a role.

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The original Tron was directed by Steve Lisberger, who’s co-producer on Legacy. What was his capacity? Was he involved from an early stage?

He was great. We describe him as a kind of Obi Wan Kenobi, you know? If you’ve talked to him or heard him talk, he has these big, broad ideas of what Tron means, which is always nice to have around. It’s obviously great to have the creator of the whole world attached to the project, so my relationship was fantastic, really great.

And Jeff Bridges as well, it’s interesting to get him back to a character so long after the first film. Where’s his character gone, do you think?

Kevin Flynn, we remember him as this genius programmer from the 80s, he’s been trapped inside this world he’s created for 20 years. And in the world of Tron that ends up being – the multiplier is 50 to one – so for Flynn it’s been a thousand years that he’s been trapped inside this system. And that time has had an effect on his personality – he’s not quite the same man that we saw in the first film.

So the idea is, hopefully, the arrival of his son will bring back some of that spirit that we all love from the first film.

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Joseph Kosinski, thank you very much!

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