Exclusive: Joseph Kosinski Talks OBLIVION, Working with Tom Cruise, Getting M83 to Compose the Score, the Film’s Unique Design, the IMAX Release…
In a small, nondescript office building somewhere in Los Angeles, director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) and his post-production team are working feverishly behind the scenes finishing up his second feature film, Oblivion, for its April 19 release. Tom Cruise stars as one of the last remaining drone repairman stationed on a post-apocalyptic Earth. He works as part of a mission to extract vital resources from the ground following a decades-long war with a threat known as the Scavs. When Cruise’s character rescues a beautiful stranger from a downed spacecraft, events are set in motion that force him to “question everything he knows and puts the fate of humanity in his hands.” Oblivion also stars Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Melissa Leo.
Recently, I got to do an extended interview with Kosinski at his post-production facility. We talked about how he came up with the idea, why they filmed in Louisiana and used the new Sony CineAlta F65 camera, how and why they’re releasing the film a week early in IMAX, why he chose M83 to do the soundtrack (and if it’s all new music), how long was his first cut and what’s the current running time, how he landed Cruise, the costumes and design of the ships, why Disney passed and how it landed at Universal, if things changed on set, and so much more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Before getting to the interview, if you haven’t seen the trailer yet, I’d watch that first. Also, a big thank you to Universal for the cool image of Kosinski on set with the new Sony camera (the full image is at the bottom of this interview)
- They shot the film using the brand new Sony CineAlta F65 camera, which is a 4K camera with an 8K chip so it provides extremely sharp detail. Kosinski tested different frame rates and thought about 3D before deciding on 4K 2D for the film, and Oblivion will be the first film released that was shot on the F65 camera.
- Kosinski had listed M83 as who he wanted to do the soundtrack in the first draft of the script back in 2005.
- M83 is providing an entirely original score for the film, which will be orchestrated by Tron: Legacy’s orchestrator Joe Trapanese.
- The recording of the soundtrack begins in January, and Kosinski thinks that about 80% of the film will be scored.
- The first assembly cut of the film was over three hours, but the first cut he showed to the studio was around two hours and fifteen minutes. He thinks the final cut will be just over two hours long.
- In the marketing of the film, he says that since it’s an original property they want the marketing material to make it feel like the film is familiar, even though it’s a new property.
- In keeping with the uniqueness of the film, Kosinski wanted to make a science-fiction movie that takes place in daytime, and he wanted the hero’s costume to be white.
- The Bubble Ship is a hybrid of a Bell 47 helicopter and a jetfighter.
- Disney’s decision to not move forward with the film was more a concern over the movie’s un-Disney-like content rather than the film’s rating.
- Tom Cruise signed on without a script. He got a hold of a mini pamphlet about the film that was released at Comic-Con, got in touch with Kosinski, and after the pitch meeting he was 100% in.
- Kosinski wanted to make the script was as perfect as possible before they started shooting so that they weren’t rewriting onset, like they were on Tron: Legacy.
Joseph Kosinski: No problem.
You guys filmed in Louisiana.
Was it for tax reasons or because you just wanted to film in Louisiana? What was the motivation there?
Kosinski: Well it was twofold. One was obviously the incentive there is really favorable so you get more movie for your given amount of money, which is always a good thing. And the facilities there at Celtic studios in Baton Rouge, because of the size of the ceilings and the spaces they had there, for what we were going to do we needed lots of vertical space and just massive footprint for some of the sets we were building. It was all one complex with a shop so it ended up being a great facility for us.
You used the Sony CineAlta F65 camera.
Which I believe just came out earlier this year.
Kosinski: Yes, it came off the assembly line a couple weeks before we started shooting.
I’m curious what was the motivation to use that camera as opposed to the ARRI Alexa or the RED Epic?
Kosinski: The F65 is kind of the next generation of the F35 which is what I used on Tron and was really happy with. I’ve always liked Sony, the way it renders color and skin tone. I’ve always felt that Sony has always had the best color. The Alexa is a fantastic camera, but the F65 is a 4K camera with an 8K chip, so it takes an 8K sensor and down samples it to 4k, so you get an extremely sharp 4k and for this movie and the locations we were going to in Iceland detail for me was very important. So I tested all the different cameras I tested different frame rates, thought about 3D, but in the end I decided the 4k 2D was the best format for this movie. And I think we’ll be the first movie out on the F65 because After Earth was also shot with that camera and I think they’re out in the end of the summer.
How soon do you think we’re going to get to the point where a digital camera can do like IMAX resolution? Do you think that’s possible?
Kosinski: Well, I’ve heard people say different things on what the actual resolution of IMAX film is. I think David Keighley over at IMAX has told me it’s 8K, but I think the F65 in 4K is a huge leap forward in resolution. So personally even if I was given the choice, I’ve always shot digital so for me F65 would be my choice now for almost anything. For me it kind of feels like a 65mm, a digital 65mm in terms of its resolution and sharpness.
Which I believe is the first time a full seven days early.
Were you pitched this idea? Did you pitch it? How did that idea come about?
Kosinski: I think it was kind of a simultaneous idea. Tom had a lot of success doing on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol we had a lot of success on Tron: Legacy just in IMAX as a format because of what IMAX offers in terms of brightness, picture quality and sound. Tron: Legacy did a lot of business in IMAX. As a percentage I think one of the highest. So from early on, once IMAX found out what this movie was about, the kind of landscapes and shots we were doing we all liked the idea that IMAX would be the first way to experience the film. I think it’s the best way. And then roll out from there.
One of my favorite scores of the last decade is the Tron: Legacy score.
I’ve listened to it like 5000 times, I mean it’s just ridiculous how much I’ve heard it. I couldn’t believe you got M83 to do this. Clearly you have some really good taste with the music. I’m curious how you managed to get them, was it a challenge? Or did you point to Tron: Legacy and say, “I did this one, too.”
Kosinski: No I had been thinking about M83. I went back and I found my first treatment for Oblivion from 2005 and it had listed in the treatment a soundtrack of M83, Boards of Canada; they were listed back then when they had only done an album or two. So I always felt like Anthony’s music was suited to this story from its very inception. So when it came time to putting this film together, obviously the Tron: Legacy collaboration with Daft Punk worked out as good as I would have ever hoped, I wanted to do something similar in that I’m pulling an artist from outside the movie business to create an original sound for this film. But I didn’t want it to be—Daft Punk’s music wouldn’t make sense for this movie. It had to be an artist whose music fit the themes and story I was trying to tell. And M83’s music I felt was fresh and original, and big and epic, but at the same time emotional and this is a very emotional film and it felt like a good fit. So I talked to him very early and he was finishing up his latest album at the time and I am so excited. I brought in Joe Trapanese, the orchestrator from Tron: Legacy is now the orchestrator on this so it’s very similar arrangement of talent. I’m as excited about what we’re doing musically for this film as I was for Tron.
If I recall, when we spoke on Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk had given you a lot of demos and then you picked out some stuff, has it been a similar process with M83?
Kosinski: It’s been a little different because on Tron the timeframe of that movie from development through shooting through post was three years, so Daft and I got started very early on ideas. So when we were shooting I actually had a dozen tracks or something, demos, but something I could play on set. I don’t know if you were on set, at the End of Line club, I think you were probably there.
Kosinski: We were playing the tracks that were eventually used in that scene. That’s very unusual, I think, to have your score before you shot. Having the music while you’re cutting it was a good thing in many ways and maybe not so good thing in other ways. But that was the process and ended up with a score and a picture which were very interlocked and I think it made sense for that movie. This one was a little different just because we’re moving faster I didn’t have full songs on set in the same way. The development was a little more typical where I had a couple demos while we were shooting, but most of the work’s been done in post. We’re going to be recording everything in January.
Is it going to be all new tracks or will there be any tracks that he’s done in the past?
Kosinski: All new. All original, all new, yeah.
Do you foresee fifteen tracks or do you have an idea of how many there are?
Kosinski: I’m not sure what the count is, but it’s a lot of music. There’s a lot of music in the movie. It’s probably eighty percent scored. I would say the same thing I said for the Daft Punk tracks, some stuff feels like Daft and some stuff you would never guess Daft would do. Some of my favorite tracks from Legacy were tracks that you would never guess in a million years were Daft Punk and I think the same goes for this. Some of the stuff you’re going to hear the M83 in its full glory, screaming out, but at other times it serves the movie as a score should it’s under the surface. So it will be interesting to see what people think.
Kosinski: It was long. We shot a lot on this movie. It’s a complicated movie with a lot of twists and turns, so I came in with more than I needed, which is a better place than having-
Did you break three hours on the assembly?
Kosinski: The assembly was, yeah, it was over three hours. My editor’s assembly, which is essentially everything you shot put together without any kind of editorial, but I think the final cut will be closer to two.
Let’s say your assembly is over three hours, then you start cutting and you start getting to that comfortable length, sometimes that can be around two hours and thirty minutes, two hours and fifteen, was that what you were achieving at first, and then you started bringing it down to two hours?
Kosinski: My first pass through it very quickly got down to two and a half hours, very quickly. I think the first thing I showed the studio was around two hours and fifteen minutes, two hours and twenty. That’s where we just keep working, distilling, focusing. There’s certain narrative threads that you don’t need but you don’t really know until you get into it. You don’t really know what you need and what you don’t until you sit down and watch the whole movie. I think we’ll be closer to just over two hours, which is where we are now and I think that’s where we’re going to stay.
Kosinski: Years out, yeah.
It was unbelievable what they did. One of the things they showed was your raw dailies.
Kosinski: I know, it was insane.
My jaw was on the ground when I was sitting in the theater because he was like, “We just started shooting this.”
Kosinski: Yeah, we were three weeks in and they just cut some dailies together, which was…
I couldn’t believe it.
So I saw footage back then of Tom and Morgan and that room that you show in the trailer. So did you know they were going to do that, and what was your reaction when you heard that?
Kosinski: Yeah, of course they absolutely wouldn’t do that without letting us know. I felt like CinemaCon is unique in that it’s an in-house industry thing so that made me feel better about showing stuff early because it was done in that context. But I understand, it’s an original property and that is unique out there. You’ve got to build awareness early because we don’t have a built in fan base, you know, we’re not Star Trek or Batman or Superman and we’ve got to build from scratch. From a marketing point of view that’s the big challenge, people are always dying for original material, but in order for it to work you’ve got to get the butts in the seats. So how do you do that with an original property?
Kosinski: That’s step one, you get Tom Cruise. Step two, you get Morgan Freeman. And in the marketing of the movie I think they’re going to market in a way that tries to make it feel familiar even though it is a new property. And I think we saw a little bit of that in the trailer. Try to lean in to those trailer tropes so it feels like something that we’ve seen before even if it isn’t.
I’m sure you’ve looked online to see the reaction to the trailer, just to see what the hell people are saying. From what I’ve seen it’s been very, very positive and people are really loving the look of it. I think also with Tron: Legacy, you really nailed the look and it looks like you’ve really nailed the look on Oblivion. I know that’s something you’re very familiar with, the look, talk a little bit about coming up with a unique, original take on the future.
Kosinski: Well, like I said this is something that started in 2005 for me. It was period when I had just moved to Los Angeles and I couldn’t get a job to save myself. The commercial music video industry is very hard to break into, and until you break in, that first job is the hardest thing in the world to get. I spent about a year just writing treatments and bidding on project after project with no success, and in order to keep myself from going insane I wrote this treatment for this small character driven science fiction film that I knew I had to keep contained if it was ever going to be my first movie. So I modeled it thinking back to Omega Man or Silent Running, these very character driven stories that had a small cast of characters but set against an epic backdrop with big ideas. In terms of the look and my vision for it I felt that I wanted to do something that I hadn’t seen in a while, which was a daytime science fiction film. After Alien, which is one of my favorites, science fiction kind of went into a very dark place for a long time and I thought it would be an interesting challenge to bring it into the daylight. So this aesthetic of taking this kind of very clean refined technology set against a rugged backdrop, which ended up being Iceland. For me that juxtaposition of those two looks felt like something that could be very unique. For whatever reason that was something that came to me very clearly and something that we stuck to and that has worked throughout the whole film.
Kosinski: The Bubble Ship.
Talk a little bit about who came up with this design. How many incarnations has it gone through?
Kosinski: Yeah it’s evolved over time. I can show you first image I ever did for this project. I actually have it on my laptop. It’s kind of cool, just to see the genesis.
I apologize to all the people reading this or listening to this and they’re say “F you for not providing the image.”
Kosinski: Yeah, well maybe we can at some point I think there’s probably no harm in it. It looks so elementary now compared to what’s in the trailer.
How much were you personally designing, or really getting in there in terms of designing what we see in the “future” of this movie?
Kosinski: I mean I came up with all the fundamental pieces that are still there; the house, the ship, the location and the cast of characters and the three act narrative. It was all there in that first treatment.
Kosinski: So here you can see the first treatment and it’s so funny to look at now.
That does look like the image in the trailer.
Kosinski: And you’ll see something else you saw in the trailer at the very top of it, you’ll see the ship parked in the background. Here’s the actual story and I don’t want you to read it because I don’t want to spoil anything for you. So you see the very early incarnation of the layout of what this thing was. It was always meant to be hybrid of a Bell 47 helicopter and a jetfighter was kind of the concept. I think I was at MOMA in New York and they have a Bell 47 hanging there and if you look at a Bell 47 next to this you’ll see it feels like the evolution of that classic design.
Talk a little bit about the costumes. Both Tron: Legacy and Oblivion have really unique costumes. Talk a little bit about collaborating to come up with that look, and again to come up with stuff we have not seen before.
Kosinski: Right, well the look of Jack Harper’s costume had to fit the world he was living in; the bubble ship, the sky tower, all had to feel like one consistent aesthetic. I wanted it to feel like everything is connected. It has to feel consistent the technology, the palate and the materials. Jack’s suit, you know, we haven’t seen our science fiction hero in a white suit before I don’t think, that’s a unique look. So that certainly was one of the aesthetic challenges that you have to push through an industry that’s used to having heroes in black. Pick any movie all these palates look the same, so having to switch that on its head was one of the early challenges of pushing this aesthetic through, but that’s what makes something look different you’ve got to change the perception around it a little bit. I worked as hard on the design of the costumes as everything else and had a great costume designer to collaborate with on this movie in Marlene Stewart.
Which I’m actually a fan of because I think too much gets out there now a days.
Kosinski: Absolutely. This movie is a thriller, it’s got a lot of twist and turns and the movie needs to be experienced in the theater. So that’s always the challenge, particularly with a movie like this, how do you say enough to an audience to promise them that there is a story worth coming to see but in doing so don’t give away enough that they see things coming. That’s always a challenge. But it is a thriller, my advice would be if you’re sold on going based on what you’ve seen so far, don’t watch anything else. That’s what I do, once I’m sold I cut it off I don’t look anymore because I find that the experience itself I so much more enjoyable.
I completely concur. Originally there was a bidding war for the property, Disney lands it, they wanted to do it PG, you wanted to do it PG-13, and they let you-
Kosinski: It wasn’t really the ratings; it didn’t come down to something just as simple as PG-13 or PG. I think when the movie comes out it will be very clear as to why it didn’t make sense as a Disney movie. There’s some stuff in the trailer that’s very un-Disney that was always important to me to be in the movie. Obviously I have a great relationship with Disney and all the people over there and it was a totally amicable decision that in order for the movie to be what it wanted to be it didn’t make sense to be there. So we landed at Universal which was a great place for it and now the movie’s kind of able to be what it needs to be. Disney’s clearly in the business of doing giant tentpole movies based on properties that they own. And that’s what they should be doing because they’re great at doing that.
Was it tough to get him? Obviously he’s a big movie star and getting him to commit to something is a big deal. Talk a little bit about that first meeting with him, pitching him the idea, was he sent the script?
Kosinski: There was no script, that’s kind of the amazing thing. I showed the ashcan, which is kind of like a little eight page preview I don’t know if you’ve seen it. The first thing that came out, it was at Comic-Con 2010.
Right, from Radical comics.
Kosinski: Yes. That’s all I had. Obviously I had the whole treatment, but in that little ashcan we just put a little opening chapter that kind of introduced the story and it had like eight pictures in it; just a little teaser pamphlet. The day after I got back from Comic-Con I got a call from his agent that he wanted to meet, that he had seen the ashcan. Somehow he had gotten his hands on it the day after Comic-Con. So we had a meeting out at his hanger and I pitched him the story—there was no script yet—and based on the pitch he signed on.
At the meeting did you get the vibe that he was really interested?
Kosinski: I did. And you don’t know if someone’s really interested or if they’re being friendly because you just spent two hours pitching the whole thing out and they’re like “Yeah, that sounds fantastic,” and then you never hear from them again. That was the first time I had met him, but he was really enthusiastic and we just hit it off immediately as to what the film was really about. I got a call from his agent right after the meeting saying, “No, seriously, normally it doesn’t work this way. Normally there’s a script and there’s a process and everything, but he’s on board a hundred percent.” And he’s been a hundred percent committed to this project since that first meeting every single day and the experience of working with him is the best I’ve had. In my short career of making two movies the experience of working with Tom is at the top. It was unbelievable in every way.
I’ve heard this by the way from every director, that he is fully committed to making it work. Adam Shankman told me that in Rock of Ages Tom dissected every possible move and wanted to know why he had to do certain things. Like he really rehearsed and made sure that it was flawless for his moves. I’m curious what was he like preparing for this role and what did he use, maybe what did you show him or give him as assets to study to get ready to play this role?
Kosinski: Basically we spent a year working on the script. Because like I said he had attached. I got started with Bill Monahan and then Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt developing the script so it was everything I wanted it to be, and I had him and he was a part of that process. My work with him was almost a hundred percent script based. In terms of everything else in the movie, he knew that I was going to make it all happen. So all of our conversations were all a hundred percent script based and going through the scenes and the character and that kind of level of detail to make sure everything lined up so he understood exactly what it is he needed to do for the movie. It was an amazing process. I learned a lot from him. He’s worked with all of my heroes, literally, and just is so knowledgeable and has done so many movies and so many great movies. So through him I was learning from Stanley Kubrick and Michael Mann and Ridley Scott and Sydney Pollack. All that advice and talks they had with him I got to get that second hand and there’s no replacement for that, it was an amazing, amazing opportunity. So I’m really excited about the movie and really proud of it. It was an amazing experience. I would say any director that has a shot at working with Tom, do not hesitate. Go immediately and you will learn, you will be pushed and you will have an experience you will never forget.
Often times when you’re on a film set things change along the way, I’m sure you’ve experienced that. How was that on Oblivion, in terms of here’s the script we started with and here’s what we finished with? How much changed along the way?
Kosinski: Nothing really. I mean, that was the lesson I learned on Legacy. Legacy was the movie where I was learning what the job of director is. That movie was like driving a Formula 1 car and trying to change the tire at the same time, which sometimes happens, and it was a great experience to have. But for Oblivion my one lesson I came out with was I wanted the script locked before we roll one frame. That was the goal and that’s what we did. It makes the whole rest of the process much easier that way.
So you’re trying to say that if you were to make a Tron sequel the script needs to be in that Oblivion position?
Kosinski: Absolutely, no doubt, the whole point of experience is to learn from your past mistakes. So to make the same mistake twice would be stupid. Absolutely, the bar’s been set now and that’s the only way to proceed.