Alone at world's end

Director Joseph Kosinski wrote a script while waiting to make it big in Hollywood. With his storymade into a Tom Cruise film, his star is rising, writes Kavita Daswani

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 3:37pm

Eight years ago, Joseph Kosinski was just one of the many young people who left their hometowns for Los Angeles in a bid to break into the movie business.

In Kosinski's case, he left Iowa to find work in the production of commercials and movie videos. "I had no luck," he recalls. "So to keep myself from going crazy, I wrote this short story of a small, contained, character-driven film about the last man on earth."

Now that "small, contained" film, Oblivion, is poised to become a juggernaut. With a production budget estimated at US$120 million, Tom Cruise as its leading man and Morgan Freeman in a major supporting role, the director-scriptwriter-producer admits he still can't wrap his head around the fact that something he wrote to pass time has become what it has.

While still working on the story for Oblivion, Kosinski was pulled off to direct Tron: Legacy, the 2010 science fiction film starring Jeff Bridges and Olivia Wilde. But by then, he had done enough polishing on Oblivion, including images of futuristic vehicles and architecture. "It was always in the background, and I was developing the story and fleshing it out. When Tron finished, I had a nice package ready."

The script began circulating, Cruise got wind of it and came on board. From then on, all the pieces fell into place.

Oblivion's lead role was tailor-made for the A-list star, Kosinski says. "It's such a good match. That's why [Cruise] was so drawn to it when he first heard the story," the director says. "I was able to use his ideas as well, and it's always great to have the person playing the role to work with beforehand."

Cruise, Kosinski says, was drawn primarily to the story: science fiction and set in 2073 it may be, but the heart of the movie is much more expansive: Cruise's character, Jack Harper, is one of a handful of drone repairmen on earth, a planet nearly bombed into - yes - oblivion by an alien attack 60 years before.

Tasked with retrieving earth's remaining precious resources, Harper commutes to work from his floating sky tower in an ingenious "bubble ship", itself inspired by a helicopter on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

I wanted to make a different kind of sci-fi film, something in the daylight, looking at what it would be like to be the last man on earth
Joseph Kosinski, director

Although romantically involved with Victoria (played by British actress Andrea Riseborough), Harper falls for Julia (Ukrainian-born Olga Kurylenko) after rescuing her when her spacecraft crashes - a woman he "recognises" even though he has never met her before. The mysterious Julia stirs in Harper "something he didn't know was inside of him. There are glimpses of it, and this woman he's never met, and a time he's never seen, but it takes love to make him the man he was meant to be," Kosinski says.

The 38-year-old director's storytelling is informed by his own movie-watching history: he grew up viewing the original Star Wars trilogy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Alien. "I was always drawn to movies that transported me to another time and place," he says. "I wanted to make a different kind of sci-fi film, something in the daylight, looking at what it would be like to be the last man on earth, the one to lock up the shop and say goodbye. The notion of that kind of loneliness was very profound, and I thought it was a great backdrop to the story."

Science fiction fascinates Kosinski. "I knew I didn't quite understand everything that was going on. The kind of stories you can tell in science fiction can break rules, surprise people. It's a way to make us feel small in the scope of things."

Oblivion's cinematographer is Claudio Miranda, a recent Oscar winner for his work on Ang Lee's Life of Pi. "He's really the only director of photography I've ever worked with," Kosinski says. "I started with him in commercials in 2005 when I moved [to LA], and we did 14 commercials together, and then Tron: Legacy. He and I are so in sync. He's extremely technical, and the movies we do are technical. We both love to push the envelope technically as we did on this film. He has an amazing eye and our aesthetic sensibility is so close it's like we don't have to communicate anymore."

Oblivion's visuals are spectacular. The film was shot on the uber hi-tech Sony F65, a camera that produces 4K resolution - that is 4,000 times the definition of even films such as Tron: Legacy. Production was done in Iceland, in the middle of the summer solstice, where 22-hour days are standard, and as a result, Kosinski says, the lighting was unmatched.

"For me, the world [of the movie] was clear," he says. "I wanted to do something in the daylight that I hadn't seen done in a long time." Most science-fiction films, Kosinski says, have a dark look to them. In contrast, Oblivion has an almost entirely white aesthetic.

"The juxtaposition of this film, and Iceland, gives it a really cool look that hadn't been done before," Kosinski says. The lighting they were going for - something filmmakers have about 30 minutes to capture in California - was available to them for several hours a day. "You kind of get this adrenalin where you're tired, although you collapse when you come back home. You rush to catch the light and it lasts for six and seven hours. We shot scenes at 1am with daylight. The landscape there is like nothing I have ever seen before."

All the visual pizzazz aside, Kosinski wanted to focus on the emotional core of the story as well. "It's a very romantic story, about the endurance of true love, and what it is that makes us who we are. It's about a man who discovers there is a hero inside of him that he doesn't know was there. We get to watch him as he goes on this journey of discovery, helped by a mysterious female who drops into his life."

In addition, Kosinski wants to impart the notion that science fiction isn't as far removed as it seems. "Look at the world we live in, the technology we are surrounded by. People are comfortable with it, and it's like we live in a science-fiction movie, all of us, every day, with these devices and the access to information we have.

"It isn't just about gadgets anymore, but about something that's more compelling."

Oblivion opens on Thursday