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Joseph Kosinski Talks Oblivion and Tom Cruise

By April 16, 2013

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Tom Cruise and Joseph Kosinski from Oblivion

Director Joseph Kosinski follows up TRON: Legacy with another sci-fi tale: Oblivion. Starring Tom Cruise, Oblivion is set in a future in which the Earth has been destroyed due to decades of war. Cruise plays a drone repairman named Jack Harper who's charged with retrieving resources from the planet. But after rescuing a women who crashed on Earth, Jack discovers that not everything is as it seems...

At the 2013 WonderCon in Anaheim, director Kosinski talked about the Universal Pictures film which is hitting theaters on April 19th. Without giving away any spoilers, Kosinski shared some insight into the world of Oblivion and how collaborative the process was while he was working with Tom Cruise:

What sort of supplies are left in the world of Oblivion?
Joseph Kosinski: "Well, there's a lot of trinkets on the surface. When you see the movie, you'll see Jack collects things. Well, in the trailer you've seen the Yankees cap he found. He's supposed to leave Earth in two weeks. His tour's almost up but he has a connection to this planet he can't quite explain and these things he finds on the surface he collects to try to satisfy that need. I think the latest trailer has his record collection. There's still a lot of stuff left down there for him to pull together."

How much of the movie can you spend exploring that?
Joseph Kosinski: "The first act, which in a science fiction movie, the first act is a little longer maybe than it is in most movies because there is so much world building to do. But the first act is finding out who Jack Harper is as a person, understanding the world, the rules of this world, the context and then it gets fun because you get to turn it all upside down."

What are the lessons you learned from TRON: Legacy?
Joseph Kosinski: "Wow, so many. And just on the second movie what I've learned. These two movies have been my film school because I didn't come up through the film business. I came from kind of a different path. What I really wanted to do with Oblivion was go in with a script that I felt like was really solid and finished. With Tron, we were on such a fast track and there was so much momentum, I describe it as like trying to change the tire on a Formula 1 car while you're racing. That makes movies like this, which are already so complicated, makes them that much harder. The goal with this one was to really lock the script down and get something really tight before we ever started shooting anything. I think we achieved that. I'm really happy with the story we're telling. It doesn't mean it makes filmmaking easy, but at least I can focus on what I should be focusing on in post-production."

Is there less CG than in Tron?
Joseph Kosinski: "Definitely. Tron, for instance, I think Tron had something like 1500 visual effects shots. Oblivion has 800, so you're talking about 700 less VFX shots. Now that doesn't mean it's a less spectacular looking world. It means that on this movie I really focused on capturing as much in camera as possible."

Is this a world you've been mulling over and developing for a while?
Joseph Kosinski: "It's been almost exactly eight years since I wrote the story. I've had eight years to think about this world. Things like the Bubbleship and the Sky Tower, all those elements were years in the making. It's exciting. I just finished the IMAX version two nights ago so it's literally just finished. So, it's surreal to be done. You're excited to be at the end, but it's a little sad because it is the end of a journey."

What elements of sci-fi did you want to bring into Oblivion?
Joseph Kosinski: "The story was really influenced by those '70s lonely man sci-fi things like Silent Running, Omega Man, La Jetee. When I wrote this in 2005 I couldn't even get any work in the commercial business. I really was just writing treatment after treatment and getting rejected. So Oblivion was an opportunity for me, as a creative outlet, to keep myself from going crazy. I wrote it as a character-driven piece with just three characters. I thought maybe it would be my first movie but it would have to be done on a  really small budget so I kept it character-driven, much like those old Twilight Zone episodes. They had one set, three characters but the ideas were always big. That was kind of the idea here. Obviously it's grown into something much bigger, but the core story, the story of Jack Harper, his journey has remained unchanged over that period."

Does IMAX open it up?
Joseph Kosinski: "Yeah, in Tron I opened it up for I think 40 minutes of the movie. For Oblivion I opened it up for the whole movie. So Oblivion in IMAX will be full frame 1.9 through the whole thing, just because that was the format that the chip on the camera is able to shoot, so I shot the whole thing full frame, but composed for 2.40 which will be in the standard version."

Tom Cruise in OblivionDoes having a star like Tom Cruise with all his acting experience and years of producing make filmmaking any easier?
Joseph Kosinski: "Yeah, absolutely. He's probably the most experienced person on the set. This is my second movie. For him it was his, I don't know, 30th? I'd be curious to know. We should count it up. He's got to be in the 30s somewhere. So not only did I learn from him but also secondhand from a lot of the directors I admire. He's worked with Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Pollack, the greats. For me to hear stories about those movies but also just to hear little tidbits of what it was like to work with those directors, for me was an amazing experience. But as you mentioned, Tom is a great producer himself. He's got great sense of story. It's always great to have the perspective of the person who's playing the character in your film. It was an amazing experience working with him."

Does he talk about Martin Scorsese much?
Joseph Kosinski: "I don't know if I talked to him about Scorsese. He's a big admirer of Paul Newman so I heard more the Newman stories about Color of Money. I'm always asking him stories about Eyes Wide Shut because Kubrick to me was the greatest, so hearing stories about what it was like to work with Stanley for me is fascinating."

Did Tom Cruise give you specific character input?
Joseph Kosinski: "Absolutely. When we agreed to do this journey together, a script hadn't been written. I had probably 40 illustrations of the movie that kind of illustrate the story from beginning to end and I had the 18 page treatment that I had written. So I kind of pitched him the story over a couple hours but there was no script yet. So he went off and shot Mission Impossible. I went off and did a draft with Bill Monahan and Karl Gajdusek. Then he was able to come off of Mission and then basically we developed it together for the three months before we started shooting. Yeah, he had incredible input. He's made enough movies. He knows where the pitfalls are, what the audience needs. What I like about Tom is he watches movies like a guy who buys his own ticket on a Friday night. He doesn't watch it like a movie star. He really puts himself in the context of a guy going to this movie knowing nothing about it, so I found he was great for kind of stepping back and saying, "What does the audience understand here? What do they need to know? What clarity do we need here so that they'll enjoy these beats more later?" It was fantastic. He's really great at that.

Is there an angle to 'The Scavs' that you're keeping under wraps?
Joseph Kosinski: "Well, there's a lot of twists and turns. There's a lot of mystery in this movie. The tricky thing with a movie with a lot of twists and turns, in the marketing, especially with an original story, is to put enough out there so people know there's a real story, put enough stuff out there to make it feel familiar, because I think even though people say they want new and original, the truth is they also want to know what they're getting. So the tricky thing with the marketing has been to tease enough of the mystery but to not give away those twists and turns. The Scavs, I think there are even some quick shots of them in the trailer. They're basically on the surface. They're desperate creatures who have been beaten down by the war with humanity but still exist under the surface and make Jack's job very dangerous whenever he goes down."

Can you talk about Nicolaj Coster-Waldau's character?
Joseph Kosinski: "I would describe him as a tough warrior who's been hardened after years of conflict. He's a fantastic actor. I really enjoyed working with him. I hadn't really watched Game of Thrones until he came in to audition for the part. Man, he's an incredible actor. He brings so much to the role, more than I expected. I really enjoyed working with him."

He's sort of a villain in Game of Thrones. Would you say he's playing a villain role here?
Joseph Kosinski: "I'd just say it's a mysterious role. I'd like to leave it at that."

What does your heart tell you about the prospect of another Tron? Does it feel like it could happen?
Joseph Kosinski: "It absolutely does. I'm I think two weeks away from getting the draft. This is a story we've been working on since 2009. What is that, four years now? I'm really excited about the idea we have for it. I think it delivers on the promise that both Tron movies have made. It opens the movie up in a way that I think is going to make it a much broader appeal, whereas Tron was really, ultimately in the end, was really catered most to Tron fans. This idea broadens it up some more in really exciting ways. But it's all about the script. Just making sure that that story is compelling enough to get all of us back together. Those movies are hard to make. It's a two and a half, three year journey, so to go back in there, to go back to The Grid, it's going to have to be a pretty spectacular script and we've got a great writer on it so we'll see."

What do you think about the development of original science fiction projects?
Joseph Kosinski: "I think the success of Inception and Avatar - two original science fiction movies that were original - make a movie like Oblivion possible. I love both those movies and, trust me, I was citing those when I was selling this to studios, that original science fiction can work. You need a big movie star at the center of it; you need a really compelling story. You need to show people something they haven't seen before. But, yeah, I'm really excited. It seems like there's a lot of science fiction coming out this year that I'm excited to see."

Are the flight scenes an homage to Top Gun?
Joseph Kosinski: "In Oblivion there is action and adventure but it's always in support of the story. This isn't a video game that's been retrofitted to have a story put inside. This was a small character-driven story that we wrapped this action movie around. So yeah, the Bubbleship action is definitely there when it needs to happen. Tom's a pilot. He's an aerobatic pilot so we worked really hard to make the Bubbleship scenes as realistic as possible. I was a huge Top Gun fan as a kid so people who watch closely are going to see an homage. Look closely. You'll see a Top Gun shot in there I put in just for those type of fans. Watching him in a scene like that, there's no other movie star in the world that can pull that scene off like he can. It's genuinely a serious drama, mystery, thriller. The Bubbleship sequences are a little bit of fun."

(Photos © Universal Pictures)

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