Few filmmakers are aware that they're making history when they start working on a new project, it's forgivable if Steven Lisberger already had a clue (no pun intended) about his film's impact when he incorporated computer-generated images into the narrative of 1982's 'Tron.' 28 years later and thousands of effects-driven films later, Disney is reviving Lisberger's ideas for 'Tron: Legacy,' and putting another would-be ground-breaker at the helm: Joe Kosinski, a first-time director who made a name for himself in not just the commercial, but architectural (!) worlds. The film opens on December 17, and after an arduous and unique production, Kosinski is at long last staring at the end of the film's two and a half year journey to completion - to say nothing of the actual legacy that the film will go on to enjoy.
Cinematical recently sat down with Kosinski at the Los Angeles press day for 'Tron: Legacy.' In addition to talking about the film's inspirational debut at Comic-Con three years ago and its serpentine, singular development process, Kosinski revealed the lessons learned while working on the film, and hinted at how soon we might hear what's next for him as a director.
One of the things you have talked about is the importance of the proof-of-concept clip you produced for Comic-Con. How much do you think that sort of reintroduction to audiences is or can be an accurate barometer for its larger commercial success?
Joe Kosinski: I don't know. I think people are still trying to figure that out. I mean, there are cases where, like, 'District 9,' which played really well at Comic-Con. That translated; that's just a great film that did very well. But there are some cases of movies that played very big at Comic-Con that for whatever reason haven't caught on, maybe that are a little too narrowly focused. So I don't think the success of non-success of anything at Comic-Con is a sure anything. But I think I'd rather have a movies that plays well there than doesn't, and so far at the past couple of Comic-Cons, the crowd has been really receptive to the stuff we've shown. So we'll see if it translates to anything beyond that.
Did that demonstrate anything to you as you started to work on the movie?
Kosinski: You mean the reaction at Comic-Con? It just solidified stuff to me that I already knew. I mean, at that first Comic-Con where I showed that VFX test kind of unannounced, the first time that Jeff Bridges appeared on the screen, people erupted into applause, and that just affirmed to me how right the decision was to bring him back. Because it's hard to imagine this movie without him at the center; you need something grounding, in the same way that Obi Wan in 'Star Wars,' there was his great actor at the middle of the film that when he spoke, you believed everything he said. Jeff is kind of that character for us, and then we were lucky enough to have him play two characters, this interesting different character of Clu, and then watching him play against himself, you start to appreciate just how talented he is and how watchable he is and how good he is. So the Jeff Bridges of it all was people love him and I'm glad he was in the movie.
The opening scenes of the movie in the real world have a grid-like, geometric feel. Was there any sort of intentional effort – or you can take credit for it now – to make a visual transition from the first film to the second, or the angularity of the real world to the contours of the computer world?
Kosinski: Yeah, definitely. There was this really cool stuff that Steven [Lisberger] did in the first movie where he drew a parallel between the lights of the grid and the lights of the city, so that really kind of inspired that opening sequence where you see the two lines of light start battling like a light cycle grid and start to form a virtual city. I also saw it as an opportunity to kind of take us from the '80s up to 2010 in one shot. So there was definitely some inspiration in the opening, in the tilt up to the logo, and spinning through the logo, because that's all elements of the original 'Tron' sequence. But just the way I shot the film, with the way Encom Tower and that whole break-in sequence [looks], I wanted to put people in the mindset of the grid; I wanted to start to establish the way that this movie is going to look and feel from the start. So I'm glad you caught onto that.
Since the project was announced, there's been a lot of discussion of your pedigree with visuals and architecture. What sort of lessons did you learn through making this in terms of combining your expertise with maybe the more emotional aspects of the characters and story?
Kosinski: For me, the writing of the script, the development of the characters, the working with the actors for me was the most creatively exciting part of the process, because you don't get that opportunity in the world of commercials or short films to really dive into characters like you do in a film. So for me that was the most exciting part of the process, and getting to do that with an actor like Jeff Bridges or Michael Sheen, these guys who have made lots of movies, I learned so much from them just by working with them. So for me that was my favorite part of the process, and unfortunately, the reality of directing a movie like this is that's one percent of the process now. You spend so much time pitching the movie, selling the movie, getting the movie greenlit and doing the production design that shooting the movie with actors is just one tiny sliver of it. That being said, it's almost the most important part of the job, but I just wish there was more of it in a movie like this.
How difficult was it to facilitate a sense of pure imagination with the actors? They're working in an environment with few props and maybe not even a camera.
Kosinski: Well, that's the job of the director. Obviously I tried to build as many sets as possible, so for those scenes at the safe house, the End of Line club, I wanted to build as much as possible so they didn't have to imagine there – they could see it. And I think it pays off in those dramatic scenes to have real sets. But yeah, when you get into scenes where you couldn't possibly build what you want to see, whether it's the disc game or the light cycles or the rectifier; I mean, these are not spaces that can be physically built, so you have to go to a more digital method. And for those, it's the job of the director to provide as much information to the actors as possible, whether it's storyboards, pre-vis, concept art, music, rehearsals; I did everything I could so that by the time we got onto set that day, Jeff knew in his mind when he gave that Clu speech, in his mind he saw the thousand troops, and he saw the rectifier around him, because I had laid it out for him. But good actors, they have great imaginations, and in his mind he was there giving that speech – and you feel it when Clu gives that speech. You feel the passion, and it was fun to watch, to see him really go for it.
How difficult or easy was it to have firmly defined rules about the logistics and technology of the world, but also to incorporate the ideas and spirituality into the film as a whole?
Kosinski: This wasn't one of those projects where there was a script and I got to sit down to read it and then build off of it. I mean, there was no script; when we built that VFX test, there was no script. We built the test first, which was supposed to get the look, feel, tone of the world, put Jeff in it, and hint at this narrative of this diametric opposition of these two characters. But once the fans ignited and Disney saw this potential, we had to get down and write it, and it was a very collaborative process between Sean Bailey, myself, Justin Springer, and the writers. It was an intense, yearlong process of building the script along with the visuals, along with Jeff's input and his interests, and building this whole world together. Along with the score; I mean, it was a really unique process. It didn't start with a script. Everything was built together, and it was kind of a crazy process, but it affords some opportunities that you wouldn't have in a normal process, and for a movie like 'Tron,' it makes a lot of sense. What writer is going to go down and write this movie in the way it ended up? It really has to be done in conjunction with the visuals.
Was there a core set of rules, even if it was just internally?
Kosinksi: Yeah, I think from the start, the guys knew I wasn't interested in any sort of internet movie, and I wasn't interested in technospeak or references to the internet or technology. I didn't want something that was going to be dated a year later. I told them I wanted it to be like a western once we got inside; I didn't want there to be teleportation or phone calls or radios. It had to be physical once you got inside. So once we established that grounded rule set, then we started figuring out how do we tell this father-son story in the most interesting way possible.
While this was being made there were a lot of discussions about what your next project would be. But at what point have you been able to think about what that actually would be?
Kosinski: You know, the main focus has been just getting this done. I have been able to get just into development a couple of projects, which are being written right now – they're in the script stages. So once we get this movie out there and take some time off at Christmas, maybe next year we'll start to figure out what's next.