Joseph Kosinski looks like he was designed in a computer. His face is all sharp, clean angles; his hair cropped into a perfect part; his tall, lean figure adorned with un-fussy, nondescript attire. Even his speaking voice is kept at a calming, narrowly modulated tone of intelligent assurance. Of course he started his career as an architect.
An alum of Columbia University’s architecture program, Kosinski took his fluency with digital design tools and fashioned himself into a filmmaker, first in a series of short films, then as a director of ads for Halo 3 and BMW, and finally making his feature debut with 2010’s TRON: Legacy. All of them carry a distinctive Kosinski-ness, a futuristic outlook matched with a sleek, modern aesthetic.
That sensibility has been given a perfect platform (literally and figuratively) in Oblivion, Kosinski’s latest sci-fi film (out this weekend). The film follows a pair of humans (played by Tom Cruise and W.E.’s Andrea Riseborough) tasked with overseeing what’s left of Earth after a devastating alien war — and they do so from atop a towering home that is arguably the coolest high-rise apartment in the history of American cinema.
As is usually the case with Kosinski, it all started with an image. “I wrote this short treatment for a film about eight years ago,” he tells BuzzFeed. “And when I did that, I created three key images on my own.”
Along with the “Bubble Ship” Cruise’s character uses to travel the landscape, and an arresting shot of the top of the Empire State Building sticking out of an expanse of black sand, Kosinski drafted what became known as the “Sky Tower.”
“I built the initial 3-D sketch models of the Sky Tower,” says Koskinski. “A very simple model compared to what ends up in the film, but the basic concept of it was there from the very beginning. That’s how it all started.”
For the 38-year-old director, noodling around with sophisticated three-dimensional modeling software is just how he shakes his ideas out of his head. “In architecture school, I became very fluent in working that way,” he says. “For me, it’s almost like a sketchpad. It allows me to actually shade [the structure] and light it. It’s not photo-real, but it’s enough to see the idea.”
While it is rare for a director to have such a detailed hand in the design of his film’s sets, Kosinski is clear he still needed his film’s production design team to make those initial designs a reality. “I don’t try to poke my nose into everything, but I respect the process,” he says. “It’s important to a director to make sure the design is going to allow me to tell the story I want to tell, so I make sure that the set’s going to work for all the scenes and it’s going to allow me to block out the action and put the camera wherever I want. My production designer, Darren Gilford, I worked with him on Tron, and he’s used to me sitting down and marking up blueprints and changing dimensions when we need to, but always for good reason.”
Kosinski does hope, however, that he knows where to draw the line. “If a director’s worried about the panel gaps or the light spacing on a bridge on the set,” he says with a chuckle, “he’s probably not doing his job in terms of keeping a balanced approach to the film as a whole.”
The set designs in both Oblivion and TRON: Legacy were both driven in part by the respective film’s larger stories and their need for a certain aesthetic unity. But there is no escaping their Kosinski-ness, either. “I just loved the architecture of architects like Mies van der Rohe,” says the director, “whose famous saying was ‘Less is more.’ He also said, ‘God is in the details.’ I think those are two things that stick with me in my approach to design.”
Asked if all this design work makes Kosinski miss being an architect, the director doesn’t hesitate. “No, not at all,” he says. “With these two films, the amount of sets I’ve been able to build — I’ve done just as much, if not more, than a lot of the guys I went to school with. I get to be an architect, but I also get to tell these stories at the same time. You’d never be able to build the Sky Tower [in real life]. It’s not physically possible at this point in time, so you get to be a little bit more of a dreamer.”
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