Filmmaking can be a frustratingly glacial process. From idea to treatment to screenplay to, if you're lucky, greenlight and actual physical production, you're lucky if only five years of your life go whooshing by. This is how Joseph Kosinski can say, without a hint of sarcasm, that OBLIVION's eight-year journey from conception to 3,000-screen studio release was, comparatively speaking, kinda brief. This is just the way things work in Hollywood.
Of course, OBLIVION is only Kosinski's second feature, and his last movie, TRON LEGACY, was the end result of close to two decades' worth of development (much of which transpired without him), so he may have a skewed view of the process. But there's no denying that a great deal of deliberation and effort went into crafting this intimate sci-fi epic about one man's memory-wiped path to enlightenment. OBLIVION always took place in the latter part of the twenty-first century on an Earth ravaged by nuclear warfare in the wake of a massive alien invasion, but the style of storytelling evolved over time. Kosinski took his initial cues from THE TWILIGHT ZONE and the more deliberately paced sci-fi pictures of the '70s, films like THE OMEGA MAN and SILENT RUNNING. When the project first made the rounds as a pitch, it was highly sought after by top-tier screenwriters. Oscar-winner William Monahan got the first shot, and his "poetic" draft was later given more of a defined structure by LAST RESORT creator Karl Gajdusek. Oscar-winner Michael Arndt also spent some time on the screenplay, which, again, should give you an idea of just how coveted this project was. When the guys with trophies want in on your movie, you've got something worth making. And if it's that's special, it's worth taking the time to get it right.
Eight years later, Kosinski seems pleased with the finished film. Stylistically, it's as distinct and polished as TRON LEGACY, but Kosinski has a much tighter grip on the narrative reins this time, which allows him to tell the story in more of a visual manner. With some valuable assistance from M83's electronic score, Kosinski pulls off a number of mesmerizing sequences that recall the wordless, awestruck grandeur of late '70s/early '80s Ridley Scott (M83 definitely studied their Vangelis). You get the sense that Kosinski would like to draw these moments out even more, but when you're making a big studio sci-fi flick starring Tom Cruise, you can't risk losing the audience - at least, not when you're only two movies into your career.
But I desperately want to see Kosinski get that kind of leeway. Given his architectural background and mastery of composition, I'd love to see what would happen if he teamed up with a brainiac screenwriter, shrugged off conventional narrative and made an immersive, large-scale sci-fi film where big ideas were explored with impunity. Kosinski's got the visual skills to pull off something wondrous - which is why I'm particularly intrigued by his collaboration with writer Jon Spaihts on Disney's THE BLACK HOLE remake. While their mandate there will be to make something palatable for all audiences, if they hit it off creatively, they might be able to get Spaihts's unproduced gem PASSENGERS off the ground. If you're a fan of smart science-fiction, you'll want to watch the development of THE BLACK HOLE very closely*.
When I interviewed Kosinski earlier this week, we discussed OBLIVION's development, the functionality of the film's impressive sky tower set, shooting practically and, finally, how he's approaching THE BLACK HOLE. It was a brief chat, and, to be honest, kind of a follow-up to a much longer conversation we had two months ago when I interviewed him for Backstory Magazine. If you want more Kosinski in your life (and some Karl Gajdusek to boot!), download it for your iPad. (If you have one. I don't, so tell me how it looks.)
Mr. Beaks: Now that you've finished this incredibly lengthy process, how do you feel about it?
Joseph Kosinski: Boy, I don't know. That's a big question. It feels great to be done, obviously. To finish something is always a nice feeling. I feel gratified that the end product in many ways stays true to the spirit of the original treatment. As you know, things can really get derailed in the process. There's a lot of steps and a lot of hoops you have to go through to make a movie. I'm proud of that fact. But, yeah, it's nice to be done. There are no more decisions to make. I'm actually working on the Blu-ray, which is the reality of these short release windows now. I'll be at Skywalker all week doing the home mix for the Blu-ray. So I'm really not quite done, but it's wrapping up.
Beaks: Considering how long it took to get this from the treatment stage to the big screen, and how many permutations of the script there were, how did you keep it together. It started with William Monahan's draft, which I've often heard referred to as "poetic", and then you found the structure out of that, and re-drafted and polished. Was this just the way it had to be with OBLIVION?
Kosinski: Yeah, it came together in the way that... probably faster than a lot of films do actually, even though it has been eight years. I think if you traced every film back to the original kernel of its idea, it probably stretches back much further than that. All in, I'd say it's a pretty quick process given the way Hollywood works and the length of development. Even TRON LEGACY, if you really rooted back to the first draft, which was years before I ever got attached to it, it was probably a fifteen-year process or longer - maybe even twenty. I think Steve Lisberger did some drafts in the early '90s. So, yeah, I think it followed a very straightforward and focused path compared to most scripts, which often get thrown out and rewritten from scratch. This one was really just a honing process.
Beaks: Given all the elements you have to deal with on a production of this scale, and I know you tend to be more heavily involved on the tech side than others, how do you stay focused on simply telling the story?
Kosinski: I think that's the essential duty of the director. You can never simply focus on one thing. You've got to always be thinking about everything. That's the nature of the job: to keep all the plates spinning, while also being focused on an end goal. You are able to kind of narrow your sights in certain areas. Before you're shooting, you're able to spend more time focusing on the script, and then, when you're shooting, hopefully you're not working on the script, but focusing on the performances and the mechanics of filmmaking. And then in editorial, you get to focus on story again, but at the same time you've got to be thinking about visual effects and sound and all those other things. I would say story is always the number one focus at each stage of the process, but it's never your sole focus. It's always competing with all the other things that are happening on the movie. But that's what keeps the job interesting: you've always got a lot going on. As long as you know what you want, the job is pretty straightforward. Then it just becomes a question of stamina. How many questions can you answer in a day? How many hours can you stay on your feet? That sort of thing.
Beaks: I want to talk about the sky tower [where Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough reside in the film]. How functional was that set? Given your architectural background, I'm curious as to whether something like that could actually exist.
Kosinski: The whole thing kind of came out of a sketch I did at the same time I wrote that treatment. I've been thinking about that house for eight years. It was one of the initial touchstones of the project, along with the bubble ship. The set itself was extremely functional. We had running water in the bathroom, the shower worked, the pool was there, all the lights. We had a lot of stuff we couldn't show, like a refrigerator stocked with food and a coffee pot that brewed coffee, which was pretty cool - and, actually, you do get a glimpse of that in the movie. So the whole thing really worked. It was a functional residence, and it was built that way because I had scenes in every area of it. It made sense to build that all in one set. It was elevated only ten feet off the stage floor - as opposed to the one in the movie, obviously, which is like 3,000 feet. But the front-screen projection technology, which everybody has seen now on the internet, made it able for me to switch between eight different lighting conditions at the touch of a button. I don't think there was anything in that design that makes it unbuildable, except for the fact that it was 3,000 feet above the ground - which I don't think is impossible. It would probably be impossible to build it like we did on that single spire, but I figured in the year 2077, the materials available would be of enough strength and lightness to pull off a structure like that.
Beaks: So that pool could exist? You could safely swim in it without fear of it busting open?
Kosinski: I think it's possible. I'm waiting for some Russian billionaire to build one now that we've done it in the movie, and for it to show up in some magazine. That was a tricky scene to shoot, but it was an important part of the overall design that I wanted to get in there.
Beaks: Speaking of tricky scenes, one of my favorite moments in the movie is when the drone blasts its way into the sky tower and glides through those drapes. It's an amazing shot, and I couldn't figure out after the fact how much of that was practical as opposed to CG. It certainly looked real.
Kosinski: It's mostly practical. I really wanted to shoot that practically. I knew that in order to make a sequence like that feel real, I had to capture as much of it in-camera as possible. Particularly a drone pushing through drapes on fire: I knew that would be, from a CG point-of-view, crazy expensive and would never look as good as if we could capture it on camera. So we had Drone 109, which is the Terminator-looking one. First of all, it was on a big arm that we were able to push through the curtains, and then it was on a track that we were able to dolly through the space in its pursuit of Jack. That was a half-and-half [in terms of practical and CG], but at least those first key sequences of pushing through the curtain, that was all done on our sky tower set. And we did it last because we didn't know if we were going to burn the sky tower down. Luckily, we didn't.
Beaks: How did you settle on the pace of the film? I know you're a fan of '70s science-fiction, and the way those films unfold in a sort of gradual manner. Did you play around with making this more of a slow burn?
Kosinski: This is probably the shortest, or the short end of the cut. There's a couple of scenes that, if people could've tolerated any more time, I would've put in the movie. You'll see those on the Blu-ray. There's a couple more character-development scenes that I like: one involving Jack and Victoria, one involving Jack and Beech, and one involving Jack alone in the stadium. The stadium scene that's in the film is only half the scene that was shot. But, yeah, I liked the idea of being able to make a film like this, where you could spend some time getting to know your character, and getting to establish a certain tone and pace. I always loved ALIEN because you spend the first thirty or forty minutes trying to figure out what the hell is going on and what these people are doing; it's not until the halfway point that the alien pops out of the chest. I like the idea of being able to set the table in this film. If you want to turn everything upside down, you need to feel like you're on pretty solid ground with your characters and story, or else those reversals won't have as much effect. But when they start coming, I like the idea that they come one after the other in a kind of relentless fashion. It is not what you're used to seeing in a summer movie in terms of pacing. It's a very classically-edited film, and that's the kind of movie I wanted to make.
Beaks: You're working on THE BLACK HOLE. It was recently announced that Christopher Nolan would be making INTERSTELLAR, which, at least on the surface, deals with similar subject matter. How are you approaching these incredibly heady concepts of black holes and wormholes? These are things that, once you delve into them, are incredibly difficult to wrap you head around.
Kosinski: What I like about the concept is that we know so much more about black holes today from a purely scientific view than they did when they made the original film in 1979. The reality of black holes is that the effects on time and space in their vicinity seems like fantasy. It seems like magic. It seems impossible. But the truth is it's all real; it's all based in science and physics, the kind of warping that happens. Being able to use those effects, being able to work off of those in the context of a story is really an exciting idea. Just the notion of a deep space exploration movie grounded in hard science, but still able to deliver an adventure film on that scale is, to me, very exciting. It will be a very, very difficult film to make. It'll probably be harder than either of the first two films I've done, just because of the nature of what you're trying to depict onscreen. But we've got Jon Spaihts on it now, who I think is the perfect mind for it. I'm really excited to see how it develops over the next few months. We just started writing it recently.
Beaks: I love that pairing. If you two can ever get PASSENGERS going, I'd love to see you give that a shot.
Kosinski: Yeah, I love that script. He's just a really brilliant guy, and is the perfect writer for this story. He has an incredible take on it. I'm excited about that, but you never know which script is going to coalesce into something first. At this point, I'm working on a few different things. We'll see which one lands.
OBLIVION hits theaters April 19, 2013. If you've the I highly recommend that you see it in IMAX.
*And now it's being reported that Brian Kirk is attached to direct PASSENGERS. Timing!