Joseph Kosinski Oblivion

Walking out of Oblivion, you’ll probably have a few questions. Not plot questions, mind you. Director Joseph Kosinski makes what happens in the movie very clear. The questions are more about the director’s process. His mindset. Was Kosinski deliberatly echoing sci-fi films of the past? How much input did uncredited screenwriter Michael Arndt (Star Wars Episode VII) have? How did he pull off some of the film’s seamless visual effects? Did changing studios alter the movie? Is he offended by the Wall-E comparisons? Has he started thinking sequel? And which Disney property is next for the director, Tron 3 or The Black Hole?

Luckily, Kosinski was kind enough to give /Film a few minutes on the Universal Studios Backlot the week before the film’s opening to answer those questions, and a whole lot more. Check it out below.

/Film: I had a lot of fun with Oblivion and watching it, I couldn’t help think of all of the sci-fi of the past. There are so many things in there.

Joseph Kosinski: Yep.

There’s The Matrix, 2001… there are things that I don’t want to spoil from other movies. Now when you were making the movie, were those connections in your head or were they sort of subconscious?

I think they were subconscious. I mean I wrote the story about eight years ago, so I was thinking about the seventies films I grew up with, everything from 2001, Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, Silent Running, Blade Runner, Star Wars. Those were the films that I remember seeing as a kid and the illustrations of guys like Chris Foss and Peter Elson, I don’t know if you are familiar with their illustrations, but I had books of theirs. These kind of beautiful colored maker watercolor images from the seventies that are just wild. I mean you see the images now and… Sci-Fi was in a whole other world in the seventies, pre-Star Wars, pre-Alien, and it kind of changed then and went into the darkness of deep space.

So I like the idea of doing a daylight science fiction film with a kind of Twilight Zone story. You know, a small cast. Hitchcock was a part of that too and just creating this story with these twists and turns, but set against this big landscape. Since I did in 2005, I thought it might be the first film I ever did, so that’s why it was written as a contained smaller story. But as it turned out, I was able to make it on a bigger scale.

So what did you feel like with people saying, “Oh my God, he’s making a live action Wall-E?” And then when you see the movie, the drones kind of look like EVE.

Yeah, obviously I had written the story and I remember seeing Wall-E and… You know what I think it is, is I think Wall-E is also influenced by those seventies sci-fi, these kind of lonely man films that were kind of big then and I think that first thirty minutes of Wall-E is just kind of spectacular filmmaking. No dialog, just telling it purely visually, so I’ll take that comparison any day.

Now before you went to production on this, the film went through a lot of public turmoil. I mean it went from studio to studio. You had different titles…

It was just two studios.

Okay, well “studio to studio.”

Okay.

What was that uncertainty like as you were getting ready to make this? Then what changes were there?

Every film in town goes through that kind of turmoil. Getting a movie made, you hear “no” a hundred times before you hear “yes.” I mean Oblivion is something I’ve been working on for a while, so it’s always a struggle to find the right home for it and get someone to say “yes.” That’s the hardest part of the process. With Disney, it was interesting, because I was doing Tron: Legacy and I was under option to them. So they bought it and then as the project developed and I started building it, it became clear when I kept pitching these elements, that it didn’t quite fit inside the Disney envelope and I think people who see the movie now, it makes sense. So it was kind of that notion of Disney looking at it and going “Whoa” and me saying, “Well, this is what I want to do” and realizing it wasn’t a good fit for the Disney label and it was very kind of them to let me make it at another studio. I mean they could have done what happens to a lot of films where they just get shelved, but my relationship with the studio is great. Sean [Bailey] was my producer on Tron, now he’s the president of the studio. (Laughs) So he let me take it to Universal and make it here.

Speaking of Disney, one of the hottest screenwriters out there is Michael Arndt, who is doing Star Wars. Did he do a rewrite on this? Or a polish or something?

He did. He did a couple of weeks on it, more than a couple of weeks. He spent two or three weeks. Him and Karl Gajdusek are kind of the two screenwriters on the film. Michael also worked on Tron: Legacy, so that’s where I knew him from.

So what sort of elements did he bring that still are in the movie today?

He did a lot of work at every level from structure to story, character…we worked on every aspect of the film. So to kind of pull out and say, “That’s his,” you can’t do that on a film. It’s such a collaborative thing, but you know Tom was attached to the project, so it was kind of working it to fit Tom. It was great. I love Michael. He was at the premiere last night and it was the first time he saw the finished movie. It was really cool.

I love when a studio lets people screw with the logo and you have yours with the Tet. Where did that idea come from? What is the process?

I did it with Disney, too. I don’t know. I like the idea. I really felt like I had a justification in that it kind of establishes… it actually is a little story, because the Earth has been destroyed. It’s being orbited by this object and the Universal logo is a globe, so I was like “How can I show a perfect earth when that’s not the state of the movie?” So thankfully they let me mess it up a little bit.

Obviously the film takes place in the New York area and we see all of this iconic imagery. Watching the movie, I kept wonder how much of it is geographically is accurate? Did you guys map out like “Well if he’s going in this direction, he should see this.” How much did you guys think about that?

I met with a panel of scientists at the beginning of the project to kind of discuss the geography, the climate, the change of what would happen to Earth if you destroyed the Moon and the changing of the tides. The tsunamis, the earthquakes, the shifting of the earth’s plates, the releases of super volcanoes… the landscape would shift around too much that, what we would know today as geography, would be in different positions. So when it came to the localized stuff, like the Empire State Building and 5th Ave, I liked keeping that cohesive. But when it came to… If he’s at New York Public Library, now he’s got to go four blocks left and that kind of stuff. It felt like a level that was not necessary to tell the story.

Right. Now the effects are insane and invisible the entire movie. I mean you know digital effects, but these are really, really good. What is an aspect that people wouldn’t realize was the most difficult? 

I think one that a lot of people don’t realize, or what they assume is, that the Sky Tower is a visual effects sequence with all of the stuff inside the house. That was all captured in camera by using front projection to kind of project the environment around it, which not only gives you the backgrounds, but allows you to light the actors with the environment, which is probably one of the things I’m most proud of, that we were able to technically achieve on this movie.

You’ve made one sequel already. You have another one in development. Did you think about where this could go after this at all?

I think so. I think there’s an interesting story before movie opens, you know? There’s an interesting one there and then there’s the gap years and then there’s the after. I haven’t really thought about it seriously yet, I’m just focused on getting this movie out, but it’s a fun thing to talk about and that’s the kind of thing I wanted people… I wanted this to be a movie that people talked about and discussed and debated afterwards and the whole idea of “What’s next?” is kind of one that the film ends on.

One of my favorite shots of the movie is in the climax, “on the ground” we will say. It’s the long take. Talk about that a little bit. Was that all digital? 

That set was a really cool location we found in New Orleans. It was an old abandoned power plant that we converted into Raven Rock, which is the name of that base. That particular shot I always wanted to do and we thought about flying a mini helicopter, because we did have a mini helicopter with a camera on it to try to achieve it, but ended up doing it all digital. But you would never guess that. I mean that was a Digital Domain shot.

And the action scene where he’s flying the bubble ship against the three drones.

The canyon.

Yes. Insane. Now a big portion of that centers on the bubble ship and how it moves. Talk a bit about… Did you develop the ship first or the action scene first and adapt it for the ship?

We developed he ship first. I mean the bubble ship was something I always had in my mind. I wanted to do a hybrid of a helicopter and a fighter jet and I knew the maneuverability of this thing would allow us to do… Everyone’s seen aerial battle sequences before. I did one in Tron, but I wanted this one to have a choreography, both with the drones and the bubble ship, that was different. We’ve seen Tom do it before in Top Gun, so I wanted to kind of take it to the next level. So the bubble ship was developed first and then when I was in Iceland we found a canyon which was created when the volcano erupted and a lava river cut through a glacier. So when I saw that ice canyon in Iceland, I said, “This is where the aerial battle has to happen.”

All right, cool. And one last thing, which film are we more likely to see first? Is it Black Hole, which has a screenwriter, or is it Tron?

I don’t know. They are both being written. As we speak, Jon Spaiths is writing Black Hole and Jesse Wigutow is writing Tron 3, so both are really fascinating ideas, big ideas, bigger movies than Oblivion. So I don’t know.

Bigger than Oblivion? Oblivion is pretty big.

It actually isn’t. It’s surprisingly… Tron had fifteen or sixteen hundred visual effects shots in it and Oblivion is eight hundred shots, so it’s almost half. Because I was able to do so much in camera. Hopefully it feels like a big movie, which is what I always wanted to do, but we did it… You never get credit for it publicly, but doing movies at a reasonable price compared to the other summer blockbuster films is something that I’m very proud of. We really did this for… It’s an original property. It’s not based on anything known, so you have to stretch it as far as you can. That’s something I’m really happy with.

So whatever script clicks first, that will be what happens first?

I think it’s whatever is most creatively inspiring. If we were to go back with Tron, it’s got to be…. To get the whole band back together it would have to be spectacular. I already said I would want it to be our Empire Strikes Back, and that’s a high bar, so that would be the reason to do it. You just never know which project is going to come to fruition first.

Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is in theaters now.

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