November 12, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

By all rights, Joseph Kosinski should be a nervous wreck. His first feature film, TRON: Legacy, is due in theaters Dec. 17, and the 36-year-old director has literally been living at Skywalker Ranch outside San Francisco in a mad sprint to finish in time. Walt Disney Studios has poured some $170 million and years of careful promotion into this sequel to its 1982 sci-fi film TRON; it is easily the studio’s riskiest gamble since Johnny Depp smeared on guyliner for the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Yet on this bright October day, Kosinski, a former architecture student, calmly sips his soup at one of Skywalker’s many commissaries, taking time to admire the postproduction facility’s folksy Americana aesthetic. After spending hours absorbed in the ”black, glassy minimalism” of his film’s cyber worlds, he says with a chuckle, ”it is pretty surreal to go home to a floral-pattern down comforter [on] an old bed.”

The original TRON concerned a videogame designer named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who gets pulled into a virtual landscape by a tyrannical computer program. The movie grossed just $33 million and was dismissed as a costly, oddball flop. In the years since, though, it’s developed a cult following for its gamer sensibility and breakthrough visual effects, and the studio has been hungry to update the property into a Matrix-like franchise. ”When we set out [to make the new film], we were referencing filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, the Wachowskis, and Christopher Nolan,” says producer Sean Bailey (Gone Baby Gone), who became Disney’s head of production this year. ”We really did want to go out there with some pretty serious ambition.” Perhaps most ambitious of all: Instead of hiring an A-list auteur, Disney decided to bank on Kosinski, an unknown who’d been working for less than a year as a commercial director, creating noteworthy ads for videogames like Gears of War and Halo 3.

When Kosinski met Bailey in the summer of 2007, he had one clear advantage: He spoke fluent computer. Trained as an architect at Columbia University, Kosinski made his first films using the same virtual drafting software employed by Hollywood’s top F/X companies. ”I realized, why spend the next 10 years doing bathroom details for penthouses on the Upper East Side when I can be making my own films?” he says. Watching those shorts (you can see them at josephkosinski.com), you’re struck by how uncannily TRON-like they are. They helped persuade Bailey to bring Kosinski on board with Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz to develop the new TRON‘s story: Flynn’s grown son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), follows his father onto the digital grid, now ruled by his dad’s despotic alter ego, Clu (also played by Bridges, rendered younger Benjamin Button-style). Kosinski had no trouble defining his vision for TRON: Legacy — and doing it at the speed of e-mail. ”On a Friday evening, we’d say, ‘Well, maybe Kevin Flynn lives in a kind of safe house,”’ recalls Bailey. ”Then Saturday morning, we’d receive an e-mail from Joe with a photorealistic rendering of the room. That was fairly common.”

As impressive as Kosinski was as a draftsman, he didn’t get a green light as director until he shot an F/X test reel that doubled as the film’s first teaser trailer, complete with music by the techno duo Daft Punk (who scored the finished film) and, surprisingly, an onscreen appearance by Bridges, who gamely signed on for a day’s worth of shooting. ”I wonder why more movies don’t get made that way,” says Bridges. ”Give the investors more confidence in it.” Disney wound up screening the reel unannounced at Comic-Con in 2008, to a raucous reception from the fanboy throng.

When production began in Vancouver in early 2009, Kosinski brought the same precision and decisiveness he displayed with F/X software to handling his cast of flesh-and-blood actors. ”There were no wishy-washy moments with Joe,” says Olivia Wilde (Fox’s House), who plays the elder Flynn’s mysterious warrior protégée, Quorra. ”I could go to Joe after 17 hours of shooting and say, ‘I don’t really understand the tone of this scene,’ and he could say, ‘Well, let me show you some visuals, let me play you a Daft Punk track, I have it all here.”’ Not that Kosinski wasn’t willing to tweak his vision as filming went on. This past spring, the brain trust at Pixar helped polish the script for additional shoots in June — especially to shore up Sam Flynn’s story line. Thanks to his unique background, Kosinski took the changes in stride. ”Architecture school was a great training ground for knowing how to take notes from the studio,” he says. ”Every week you’re putting your work in front of critics.” He smiles to himself, keenly aware that in just a few weeks, he’ll get that experience on the global stage. ”I’m glad I went there rather than film school, that’s for sure.”

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