Joseph Kosinski Blends Architecture and Narrative for ‘Oblivion’

By  · Published on April 27th, 2013

With only two films under his belt, director Joseph Kosinski’s architectural background rings loud and clear. From his approach to framing to the elaborate sets, everything feels deliberate. For Kosinski, that purposefulness doesn’t purely derive from painting a shiny picture, but from building character. For his second feature film, Oblivion, the director follows his dissatisfied protagonist, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), through isolating and contrasting settings highlighting his dillema.

Jack’s conflict is what drove Joseph Kosinski to spend the past few years of his life developing the project based on an idea of his own. The TRON: Legacy director wanted to make a character-driven science-fiction film, not a set-piece one. Kosinski’s film isn’t one packed with set pieces, making the movie rest on Jack and Cruise’s shoulders.

Kosinski, despite his busy schedule, made the time to speak with us this week after the film’s successful release. Here’s what he had to say about the heart of the film, his favorite set, and how video games differ heavily from movies.

How has the past week been?

It’s been a crazy three to four weeks of publicity and opening the film. This week has been a nice break, actually. It’s been my first break in seven years, really.

Are you taking this time to relax or do you already have jitters about working on the next project?

A little bit of both. I need to relax, but I still have to open the movie in China and Japan next week. I’m actually working on the Blu-ray right now. I have to do all commentaries and Blu-ray material this week. The work isn’t quite done, but it’s wrapping up.

Is it a packed Blu-ray?

It’s incredibly packed, yeah. Insane. I mean, I think there’s eight behind-the-scenes documentaries, 10 minutes of deleted scenes, and I’m going to do a commentary for the first time. I went to Skywalker for three days last week and remixed the movie just for home video. They’re letting me really polish it up perfect for the release in July or August or whenever [it’s being released].

Did you already record the commentary?

I think I’m going to do that at the end of this week.

How do you feel about commentaries? Do you enjoy them or think the movie should speak for itself?

Personally, I like to listen to commentaries, particularly for directors I admire. When I’ll talk about it, I’ll talk more about the making of the film more than the meaning, because I do agree certain things…there are certain things I would like to leave up to the viewer to decide what it means. In terms of how a movie is made, I think it’s a great way for people interested in filmmaking to learn about the process.

In terms of connecting with an audience, the movie doesn’t move at the breakneck blockbuster pace we’re used to. Did you see Oblivion as taking its time following Jack versus having a set piece with the Bubble Ship every 20 minutes?

Yeah, absolutely. I saw it as a suspense thriller with those great action moments, but only when they were motivated by the story. For me, I conceived it as more of a Twilight Zone episode or a Hitchcock film that happened to take place 60 years in the future.

How was it finding that pace in editing?

It’s something you play with. Like I said, there’s a couple of scenes I trimmed out of the movie you will see on the Blu-ray that do fill out the world and maybe answer a couple questions people might have. Ultimately, in the end, they weren’t necessary to enjoy the movie.

What were some of those scenes?

One scene that I was worried about pulling out was a scene where we established the healing wands Jack pulls out to heal Julia. There was a scene where Jack gets back the first night where we see Vicca heal a bad injury on his leg with that same wand. Tonally, it was a nice little scene between the two of them, but it established that medical device which plays an important role later in the movie. It’s just a two minute scene. You know, we tried the movie without it and I noticed most people had seen enough science-fiction movies they didn’t need me to explain where the futuristic healing device came from. They were familiar with the concept, so I ended up taking it out of the final cut.

There’s another scene in the stadium. The stadium scene had two pieces to it, and the first half of that scene is on the Blu-ray. What else do we got? There was a piece were we see how the Sky Tower is able to rotate and another shot of Bubble Ship which ended up making for cool VFX shots, but we didn’t need them in the end.

That Sky Tower reminded me of a quote of yours. When you started your directorial career, you wanted to explore the lines between architecture, film, and graphics. Do you still try to accomplish that?

Yeah, I think with Oblivion the architecture and graphics are important parts of the storytelling. The graphics in the film are descriptive devices for this world, so that was a huge emphasis. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a video on the web showing the making-of all the graphic sequences with how much work and effort went into it. In science-fiction, that’s a huge part of the storytelling.

That goes for the architecture as well. The Sky Tower…I mean, the contrast between the Sky Tower and Jack’s cabin by the lake really embody the internal struggle he’s going through. The Sky Tower represents the wiped memory of Jack Harper, while the more organic cabin represents the remnants of another life he can’t quite piece together. The settings of the film do embody the state of mind of the main character.

Right. It plays into that theme and Jack’s question of: What is home?

Yeah. I think good science-fiction asks questions everyone can relate to. For me, the question of home is a very fundamental question we think about, where it is we truly feel we belong. That question was an important part of Jack’s character I wanted people to understand.

With two films you’ve had to build worlds. For TRON: Legacy, you had 1500 effects shots. You had 800 for this, right?

Yeah, almost half [of TRON: Legacy].

Did it feel different with less effects work this time around?

Being able to do the Sky Tower the way we did with the front projection was a transformative experience. Not only was it for me, but also the actors. To be able to lookout the Sky Tower and see what the audience sees in the finished film was an incredible experience for Tom. Having done over 40 films, he had never been on a set like that. Not only does it create a better environment for the actors, but it actually looks better than had we done it with blue screen. It’s cheaper too.

The only thing you have to know to make that method work is know what you want ahead of time. You have to make decisions upfront, and if you’re confident doing that, I don’t think there’s any reason why you wouldn’t use that method anytime you could. Overall, the quality image is better than whatever you could do with a blue screen.

I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but the HBO behind-the-scenes feature really showcases that method.

Yeah. It was my favorite set. I’ve only done two movies, but the Sky Tower is now my favorite I’ve ever shot on.

That was a technique Kubrick used, right?

He did. He did something similar on 2001. He couldn’t do moving images, but he projected medium format photographs onto those sequences with the apes in the beginning. Front projection is an old technique, so we just brought it into the 21st Century.

This may be a silly question, but since you were working with Tom Cruise, were there ever days you’d ask about working with Kubrick?

Of course. I mean, I bugged him all the time about it. You know, Tom has worked with almost all my heroes, from Ridley Scott, Michael Man, Steven Spielberg, to Stanely Kubrick. I was always picking his brain and asking for stories. For me, it’s a chance to learn second-hand from those great directors.

One thing that’s clear about Mr. Cruise, from watching interviews or listening to him in commentaries, is that he knows storytelling. Was that obvious when collaborating with him?

Absolutely. What amazes me about Tom is that, even though he’s been a huge movie star for 30 years now, he still watches movies like a guy who buys his ticket on a Saturday night. He really is a film lover, a student of film, and is always learning and studying. We had a lot of discussions in the early days about what type of film we wanted to make. It was just great to work with someone who had that experience. He’s the biggest film geek I’ve ever met.

Before I let you go, I want to ask about video games. In a directors roundtable years ago Zack Snyder complimented you on your Gears of War ad, saying that’s how video game adaptations should be done, while trying to make one into a movie is like adapting a porno into a feature. Do you agree with that?

The reason I go to see movies is I want to see an individual’s point-of-view of that world. A film is a director’s point-of-view of a story, and, to me, that’s very different than a video game, where you are controlling the point-of-view and exploring it on your own. I don’t think one will ever replace the other. I think we get different experiences from each medium. My answer would be: no, video games will never replace movies, and vice-versa. I think they’re separate forms of entertainment. What I think is cool when they influence each other, where they cross-pollinate in a way.

Oblivion is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.