What Disney is hoping to do with Tron: Legacy is something akin to what Michael Bay has accomplished with the Transformers movies — conjuring a megabudget, modern-day franchise from a distinctly eighties property — but aside from his technical savvy and permission to play with studio money, Tron director Joseph Kosinski couldn’t be further from outlandish tentpole helmers like Bay. Trim, polite, and well-spoken, Kosinski (who graduated from Columbia with a degree in architecture and cut his teeth in commercials) saves his flash for the movie screen, and the effects-laden Tron is a flashy feature debut, indeed. Almost two weeks ago, after Kosinski showed the finished film to an audience for the first time, Vulture sat down with him to discuss filmic frontiers beyond 3-D, Pixar’s late-in-the-game notes, and Kosinski’s surprisingly honest assessment of the movie’s boldest special effect (a digitally de-aged, computer-animated Jeff Bridges as the villainous Clu).
Did you enjoy screening the completed film last night?
Yeah, I mean, I just finished it on Wednesday. I’m still on a high from finishing the movie!
You’ve been working on the film since forever. This is the sort of years-spanning commitment you usually only find with animated movies.
It is. It’s a three-and-a-half-year commitment to do a movie like this. It is a little insane how long it takes.
The movie starts in 2-D and becomes 3-D once the hero, Sam, finally enters the computer-animated world. Is that your hat tip to The Wizard of Oz?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s using the power of 3-D in a way that’s story-driven, so the idea of going 3-D when Sam looks up at that Recognizer, to me, that was a great opportunity to take it to the next level. If you go see the movie in IMAX, when he sees that Recognizer, the frame goes into a larger format and the top and bottom bars come off the screen. It becomes another level to take it to, which is cool.
It kind of freaks me out, though, that in a generation or two, people might look at the 2-D segment of the movie like we now look at —
— the black-and-white segment of The Wizard of Oz! You wonder if kids growing up these days are going to accept 2-D, right? If they grow up knowing 3-D’s out there …
Well, has it hit you yet that you’re very likely to make all your future films in 3-D?
You know, it’s a choice based on the project. I don’t think every movie should be made in 3-D, and it should depend on whether it’s one of these films that’s more immersive or needs to be taken to another world. I’m interested in other formats. There’s a new 4K format coming out which is four times the resolution. There’s a new format coming out that’s 48 Hertz, which is, instead of 24 frames per second, it’s 48 frames per second, so you get smoother motion.
Are those easily integrated into the projection systems that theaters use right now?
Yeah, these formats can work in current projectors, and in the future, you can even combine them with 3-D. There’s all sorts of interesting things to look at that I’m interested in as well.
Is it difficult to choreograph an action scene when the environment is virtually monochrome, like it is in the world of Tron? There’s a certain lack of objects or colors you can use to orient the audience between cuts.
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes the disorientation is good, like during the disc game when I wanted to reverse gravity on the board. The idea of shooting it upside-down, I thought there’s something cool about that because Sam Flynn is kind of disoriented by this world as well and trying to get his bearings. In other cases, like the light-cycle battle where you’re talking about ten motorcycles racing on a multidimensional grid, I had to do a lot of storyboarding and pre-viz to make that sequence even make sense. It was like four-dimensional chess, trying to block those things out.
Let’s talk about aging down Jeff Bridges: What’s the hardest part of that?
Did it work for you?
I gotta admit, at first, the mouth was an issue for me.
You’re talking about the first scene, [where the de-aged Bridges tells a] bedtime story?
But then as the movie goes on …
In the Grid it works better because that world is so fantastical.
Yeah. I feel like … um, honestly I feel like Clu, I don’t think he’s at 100 percent in 100 percent of the shots. But I feel like there’s a couple glimpses in there, especially during Clu’s speech in the Rectifier, [that] I’m really happy with. For a moment, you buy this thing as a real character, which to me is exciting. I just don’t think that’s been done before.
Did that freak you out? You hadn’t even made a feature-length movie before, and you were already trying to push this technology farther than it ever had been pushed.
The first Tron set that bar, right? Everyone has to admit that it pushed the bar conceptually and technically in a way that hadn’t been done before, so we knew that if we were going to do another one, even if we failed, we had to try. We had to go for it, and it was a scary place to be, but I’m really proud with how far we pushed it.
Everyone who worked on this movie says you’re very unflappable and even-keeled. Did you ever freak out? I mean, this was a megabudget production.
I’m trying to think if I ever actually freaked out. I think I caused people to freak out, definitely. But you can’t lose control when you’ve got something this big going — there are just so many things going on simultaneously. Maybe now that the movie’s over, maybe now I can have a private freak-out session alone.
It was reported that Pixar helped out with advice for your pickups and reshoots, but I’ve found that Disney is very skittish to talk about that. To me, though, it only helps the reputation of the picture to know that Pixar was involved creatively.
Absolutely. I’d be more worried if a filmmaker watched the rough cut of his movie and said, “You know what? I think it’s perfect. Could not be improved.”
What kind of insights did you get from Pixar?
It was interesting, because we knew we had a week in June after Jeff finished True Grit to do some additional stuff that we wanted to do anyway — we had a whole plan set in place. While we were waiting four months for him to finish that movie, the opportunity came up to go screen it for the brain trust at Pixar. This is a process that they do on their own movies, twelve to fifteen times over the course of the thing.
And sometimes they take the movie apart completely.
Oh yeah. They’ve taken their films apart and rebuilt them, and that’s a process that I’m very used to, having come from architecture school: We would put our work up every single week and just get it torn apart by critics, and then you’d go back and fix it. For me, I was very comfortable with the process, and it was great. We went up there for a day, showed it to their key people, had a nice two-hour roundtable where we told them what we wanted to improve, and they had some suggestions. Little nips, tucks, tweaks. We incorporated some of their ideas into the shoot we did in June and even though it only amounts to a couple minutes of stuff, it’s those little adjustments that I think help bring the story to the next level.
This may make you one of the few filmmakers who actually doesn’t mind getting studio notes.
Listen, whatever makes the movie better. That’s the attitude you have to have.