Director Joseph Kosinski on Tron: Legacy and the Limitations of CGI-Created Actors

It's been a very long road for Tron: Legacy to finally make it to the big screen. Rumors of a sequel to the 1982 cult favorite have been circulating on the Internet for about as long as there's been a widely used Internet. The original Tron told the story of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a computer programmer who found himself materialized inside the very computer system that he designed. Even when a trailer for a sequel did materialize (originally titled TR2N) at Comic-Con in 2008 -- as director Joseph Kosinski explains, that was basically his audition tape -- it took two and a half more years before the film was actually put together and released. For Kosinski, today, the wait is finally over.

Joseph Kosinski took a very less traveled path to the occupation of "big budget movie director." Not a film student, but, instead, a graduate architecture student at Columbia, Kosinski took his design skills and created a series of short films using computer generated effects that caught the eye of Hollywood. That landed him here: a first time feature length director with a sitting in a $200 million budget. The sequel to Tron picks up 28 years later: Kevin Flynn (Bridges reprising the role) is missing and his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), enters the computerized world that his father created in an attempt to find him. Movieline spoke to Kosiniski yesterday afternoon about his love for the original Tron, the limitations that led to mixed emotions concerning CGI human beings and what exactly he plans on doing with his remake of The Black Hole.

I was going to ask why you were interested in making a Tron film, but then I realized you were born three weeks before me in Iowa, one state away. So I think I have a pretty good idea why.

The same generation, yeah, absolutely. I remember seeing it as an 8-year-old kid and it blew my mind. It looked like nothing else out there.

It's a strange film to watch as an 8-year-old because it's very pretty, but the story isn't exactly made for someone that age.

Totally. Conceptually it was totally above our head. It was above the head of most people in 1982, that's what make it so great and that's why it didn't connect at that point. Conceptually it was 10, 15 years ahead of its time. But, for an 8-year-old, it looked and sounded like nothing else out there. That's what my impression is and why it stuck in my brain for 28 years.

Before Tron came along, what other movies did you like from that time period?

I was like every other kid. I was obsessed with Star Wars; Raiders of the Lost Ark I think was my favorite movie at that time. That one I really remember just blew my mind. As I got older, I started getting into the work of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. Then David Fincher and all these directors where you see 10 seconds of any movie they worked on and you know instantly it's theirs. I guess that's the kind of work that I was always drawn to.

You attended Columbia Graduate School of Architecture. Was this the plan? To direct Tron?

No, it was certainly never the plan. If you grew up one state away... where are you from originally?

Missouri.

OK, so, you're probably similar to me. You didn't know anyone in the entertainment business as you were growing up. And I didn't, certainly, in Iowa. So I never knew this was an actual career. Movies were just something that you went to on the weekends. They weren't something that you actually worked on for a job. That was never a dream of mine, not in college and not really in architecture school. It wasn't really until I got out of architecture school and was working on my own in New York -- I had a little design studio in Tribeca -- where I started making these short films using technology. These films got noticed and I got contacted by Nike and producers from Los Angeles and I found myself very organically being pulled into this business. I've always had this interest in being both technical and creative, I was studying jazz and mechanical engineering when I was at Stanford, so I've always had those two sides. And filmmaking has proven to be an ultimate combination; I've found the perfect job.

You mentioned Star Wars earlier, it seems like there used to be a direct path to directing films of this genre that, like Lucas, started at someplace like USC. Do you take pride in not adhering to that mold?

I can credit the digital world and the Internet for allowing that to be possible. Because, like I said, I had no connections to this business whatsoever. But I was able to put the short films that I was working on up on my website in New York and that's how it all got noticed. I think it's just a testament to that you don't have to have connections anymore to be noticed. You just have to have a good idea and, if it's good enough, it will get noticed and you can find your way in that way.

With the digital effects that made Jeff Bridges look 20 years younger, the technology will only get better in the future, obviously. We both know, in this film, it looks good at times and other times it's noticeable as an effect. How pleased are you with the final product?

Well, it's a tricky question. I want to first say that I am so proud and happy with all of the hard work from the talented artists that worked on Clu to bring him to life and make him look how he does in this film. I was quoted in the junket as "Not being happy with it." Basically the question was, "Do you think Clu is perfect?" And I said, "no." And then the headline was "Director is not happy with Clu." So I want to start off my answer by saying that I'm really happy with how he turned out. Because I think we were ambitious and we knew that we were being ambitious in trying to do what is basically the hardest thing in visual effects: Create a human being to play opposite real human beings in a 3D film. So, yeah, I totally agree with you. I think some shots work better than others and I think that the technology will continue to evolve so that it will become even better and better. I really feel there are some shots in this film where we are on the far side of the uncanny valley and it's exciting to be pushing it like we did in this movie.

It was a risk, and, like you said, some shots look great and others take you out of it. The human brain is so conditioned to know what a human face is supposed to look like, it's different than some sort of a creature -- it's immediately going to stand out when something doesn't look exactly right. You had to know going in that there was no way it was going to be perfect.

Right, but it was worth it to be able to tell a story that we couldn't tell otherwise. This relationship between Flynn and Clu, who, I felt from a storytelling point of view, was a unique story and was worth kind of going for it in order to tell it.

Speaking of Flynn, he's become a lot more, as he would say, "Zen" in this film. Was that your idea or was that Jeff Bridges' idea to bring that to the character?

Well, first of all, the character of Kevin Flynn in our film has kind of grown out of the character of Kevin Flynn in the first film. If you go back and watch the original Tron, you'll see there's plenty of "Dudeness" in the young Kevin Flynn from 1982 that kind of proceeds The Big Lebowski. I have had a couple of guys ask me, "Why is he acting like The Dude?" I'm like, "He's not, he's acting like Kevin Flynn." There a little bit of Jeff Bridges in The Dude and Kevin Flynn, certainly. As for the Zen thing, absolutely, that's 100 percent Jeff's influence on his character. Jeff is a Buddhist himself and was really interested in bringing some of that to Flynn's character to understand how a man has learned to cope trapped in this prison he's created for himself. And Buddhism seemed to be a way for him to deal with the isolation and sense of nothingness that Kevin Flynn has adopted. That kind of passive resistance is exemplified in a lot of Buddhist teachings, so it made sense for Kevin to be that way and Jeff had a huge part in that.

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