Oblivion: Interview with Creator Kosinski

It was a dream of Joseph Kosinski’s to turn the 2005 graphic novel “Oblivion” into a screenplay, but the timing wasn’t quite right. The delay would prove fortuitous, however, when Kosinski met Barry Levine and Jesse Berger, cofounders of Radical Studios, several years later.

Together, the men partnered to develop the story into an illustrated graphic novel known in the industry as an “ashcan,” written by ARVID NELSON, illustrated by ANDRÉE WALLIN and art directed by Kosinski, Levine and Radical Studios art director JEREMY BERGER. This would allow them to demonstrate to investors the direction in which they wanted to go with the property.

Kosinski reveals story elements of his graphic novel: “It’s an action-adventure set in the year 2077 after a massive war has left Earth uninhabited and in ruins. The story centers on Jack, a drone repairman who is an integral part of a larger mission. A wonderful mystery, unbeknownst to him, will be the key element to saving what is left of humanity.

”What the director focused upon was the brutal honesty of the story. He adds: “There is a difference between those who ignore the truth and put their blinders on and the people who decide to take the truth head on—regardless of how hard it is to face what it means.”

Kosinski admits that this science-fiction saga was one he’d long been interested in telling. Growing up, he was enamored with such films as The Omega Man, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, books including “Hyperion” and TV shows like The Twilight Zone.

The filmmaker admits that he loved the juxtaposition of a rugged backdrop against the stylish results of imagined future technology. He says: “I have always liked the 1970s sci-fi art by Chris Foss, Peter Elson and Chris Moore and knew that with VFX technology as advanced as it is today, I could combine CGI work and real landscapes seamlessly and create something unique.”

Levine and Berger were inspired by this young director’s vision, and Levine recalls his first reaction to the property: “When I read Joe’s story, I found it to be compelling, original and motivating of human nature and character. Oblivion is a great action-adventure, but at its core is that one character you are rooting for, and that is what makes for a great movie.”

Organically, this illustrated novel became a pitch for the film itself. There was overwhelming support from fans at 2010’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, at which Kosinski was also presenting footage for TRON: Legacy.

Indeed, 30,000 copies of the graphic novel were distributed at the convention from the Radical Studio booth. Recalls Levine: “There was a line of 1,000 people at Comic-Con waiting for Joe to autograph a copy of the Oblivion ashcan. Along with the story, we created a memorable logo and illustrations that got a response from the get-go. It was a feat to take the leap and make this story into a screenplay. It’s an intellectual approach to a high-concept story with great set pieces. No one has seen anything like it before.”

Shortly after the team tested the waters with the property at Comic-Con, Universal Pictures came on board to develop the project with Kosinski, Radical Studios and Chernin Entertainment, and an Oblivion screenplay was in the works. Peter Chernin, the veteran producer who successfully rebooted a storied franchise with his 2011 blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes, brought the lessons learned on that film—one that became the foremost contemporary model of combining heartfelt emotion with exciting, intelligent, speculative fiction.

Chernin explains Oblivion’s draw: “Oblivion’s story connects with people because, though it is an action film, its essence is a movie about a guy trying to discover his humanity. That’s the core, and that is why it is ultimately so satisfying.”

For the feature, Kosinski and Levine were joined by fellow producers Dylan Clark, who had produced Rise of the Planet of the Apes alongside Chernin, and Duncan Henderson, known for maneuvering epic set pieces in films as varied as Master and Commander: The Far
Side of the World and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. With a shooting screenplay by Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn, the filmmakers were finally equipped to begin the massive task that would become the Oblivion production.

Conceptual Design

Clark reflects upon the design and undertaking: “Oblivion had this great visual world that Joe presented. It was something that happened to Earth, but it didn’t look dusty and dreary and dark. It looked vibrant, had a lot of colors and it felt unique. That’s what got us: the conceptual design of this was something we’ve never seen before.”

As his story takes place during the latter part of this century, Kosinski knew he needed a top design team to create a world that was most assuredly futuristic, but believable 60-plus years from current day.

He brought on the key players he had worked with on TRON: Legacy to illustrate his version of this post-apocalyptic world. Henderson knew that his director would be up for the massive challenge, reflecting: “Joe’s a great storyteller.

One of the things that intrigued me to want to do this picture was his original story. It lets an audience follow along in a way where you think you know something and then you discover it doesn’t quite make sense.

The secrets just keep revealing themselves, like you’re peeling back an onion. You discover the story as you go; you get filled in with more facts and get a new picture. It’s one fantastic reveal after another.”