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Universal Pictures’ Oblivion is Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to his first feature Tron: Legacy, but the director always intended the sci-fi film to be his debut.
“I wrote the first version of this story about eight years ago,” he told Spinoff Online and other journalists last week. At the time, he expected the film to be a much smaller concept with a much smaller budget. The Sky Tower apartment was the primary set, and much of the action took place off screen. “I never imagined that I’d be able to make it on this scale.”
“It’s the same story I wrote, despite the spectacle of the final product,” Kosinski continued. Instead of a small science fiction thought piece, Oblivion became a major feature with major stars Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, location shoots in New York and Iceland, and full-scale props like the Bubble Ship. In the film, Cruise plays Tom Harper, a drone repairman fixing anti-gravity robotic sentries as the remnants of the human race prepare to leave Earth forever. Although the project grew as it developed into a vehicle for Cruise, it remained a story about Jack’s flight toward redemption.
The drones themselves were inspired by a spy droid from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. “It was the most terrifying thing,” Kosinski said.
“It’s interesting how the news seems to parallel the entertainment business,” he laughed when asked if the drones were a comment on the U.S. military’s use of the controversial aircraft. While it is not a deliberate connection, the director said the film explores man’s relationship with technology. “It’s something we need to be wary of.”
Meanwhile, the drones — sleek and mostly covered in white plastic — are part of the film’s striking sense of style. Coming from a background in industrial design and architecture, Kosinski wanted all the technology on display to feel as though it came from the same “design family.” Utilizing most of the design team from Tron, the distinctive look of everything from the drones to the Sky Tower almost becomes another character in the film. “It makes sense when you see the film,” the director teased.
The post-apocalyptic setting was also part of Kosinski’s initial version, but he looked for a twist on that familiar territory. Inspired by science fiction films of the1960s and ‘70s, he noticed a shift in the ‘80s. “After Alien, science fiction went into a dark place of deep space and dark ships.” With Oblivion, he sought to “bring science fiction back out into the daylight.” Also taking cues from the Planet of the Apes series and The Omega Man, he was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the world we know set against the transformed landscape Iceland provided. “We’ve seen so many green-gray, dusty, brown post-apocalyptic worlds, [I thought] it would be fun to see something with color and brightness,” he said.
Shooting that color and light was director of photography Claudio Miranda, who recently won an Oscar for his work on Life of Pi. “He’s an incredible artist, but he’s also a technician,” Kosinski said of his cinematographer, who also shot Tron: Legacy. As an example, the director explained his desire to shoot the film without the use of blue screen. “On Tron, we talked about how great it would be not to use [it],” he said. Beyond the time and money he could save, the director wanted his actors to be more a part of the sci-fi world around them. On Oblivion, Miranda brought a high-definition front projection process to the production. When shooting scenes in the Sky Tower or the Bubble Ship, the actors can see the setting Kosinski intended. As an added incentive, the reflected light from the projected footage lit the actors with the correct level of interaction. “You get a connection between the actors and the environment that you could never get with blue screen,” he explained, giving credit to Miranda for making the system work.
But that sort of technical prowess is only one aspect of filmmaking. Asked what his favorite moment in the film was, the director mentioned his fondness for the power of a non-dialogue sequence combined with great music. It was a technique used by the late Stanley Kubrick, and Kosinski pointed to a moment in the film in which Jack and his handler Vika (played by Andrea Riseborough) go for a moonlight skinny dip in their elevated glass-bottom pool. “There are a couple of moments in the movie where we get to do that,” he said. “I love to sprinkle a film with moments like that.”
The music of that scene was the work of M83, a band the director discovered with their 2005 album Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. “They were relatively unknown then,” he said. “but I remember listing when I wrote the treatment.” Because Kosinski had a great experience working with Daft Punk on Tron: Legacy, he wanted to find another artist from outside the film business to create the score. “Anthony [Gonzalez of M83] always wanted to do a film score,” he said. “It’s a more complex film than Tron. It’s got so many different types of scenes, but considering that it’s his first film, he did a phenomenal job.”
Another unusual aspect of the film was Kosinski’s decision not to shoot it in 3D or convert it in post-production. According to the director, the 3D process cannot produce the level of brightness he wanted. “I knew I wanted to make this daylight science fiction film,” he explained. “Your eyes react differently at low [light] levels, so you don’t get the saturation.” The darkness of the 3D processes would also leave out much of the color information and detail Kosinski wanted. “I felt by going to 3D, I’d be compromising too much,” he continued. Instead, he was impressed by a new 4K high definition format that captured greater detail which was important for the amount of close-ups, particularly of eyes, in the film. Kosinski mentioned he was getting congratulated around the world for his decision to make a 2D film.
Oblivion opens Friday.