When TRON landed in theaters in 1982, audiences were blown away by its special effects depicting the future of gaming and an interconnected network of machines, even if the film never became a certified blockbuster. In the years since its release, movie magic might have made a number of advancements, but TRON's unique aesthetic allowed it to build a powerful following and demand for a follow-up adventure. In 2010, filmmaker Joseph Kosinski answered that call by delivering audiences TRON: Legacy, a film which not only saw the embrace of the original film's groundbreaking effects, but also the thematic concepts of its narrative, which included star Jeff Bridges' return to "The Grid."
Between the film's effects, score, and relevant themes, Legacy captured the attention of audiences and, while it might not have been one of the top-grossing films of the year, fans continue to discover and connect with it, thanks in large part to Kosinski's ambition with the project.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Kosinski to discuss making the film, its growing cult following, and what the future might hold for the franchise.
Header photo courtesy of Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images/Disney
ComicBook.com: Before we dive too deep into TRON, you grew up in the small town of Marshalltown, Iowa, do you get interviewed by a lot of people who have also been to Marshalltown?
Joseph Kosinski: Only when I'm interviewed by my hometown paper, the Times-Republican. Why have you been to Marshalltown?
I drove there from Chicago to see a band from there, Modern Life Is War, who held their final show in the Marshalltown Moose Lodge. I had no idea how small the town was until I actually got there.
Six hours to Chicago, I know that drive very well. I had a great experience growing up there and I wish I could get back more often. It's a great place to visit, great place to grow up.
I wish I got to spend more time and point out more local hotspots to you.
I was going to say, hopefully you grabbed a Maid-Rite burger when you were there, but maybe you missed that. When I miss home, that's what I'm craving, is a Maid-Rite. That's amazing that you've been there, not many people have.
I just wanted to start with at least one question you probably don't get asked a lot.
No, you're absolutely right.
Growing up in Marshalltown, was TRON a favorite film of yours that you knew you always wanted to pursue in Hollywood or did your connection to Legacy come later?
TRON wasn't something that I was like obsessed with or a super fan of. I remember when it came out, I remember how unique and strange it was as a film. And how even then, I think everyone understood that whoever created or thought it up, how forward-thinking it was to imagine this world inside the computer. That is taken for granted now in that we all are very comfortable living in cyberspace. At that time, it was quite a far-out idea.
What I remembered about it was just the look, the feel, the sound, it was so unique. I guess it was 2007 when I had a general meeting where the producer of [Legacy], Sean Bailey, brought the idea up of how to reboot the idea of TRON in 2000. But it eventually came out in 2010. I had a flashback image of that impression as a young kid seeing it. And that was what, with TRON: Legacy, I tried to stay true to, was to create that same sort of film that is odd and distinct and unique and looks and sounds like nothing else, as opposed to something that felt very hyper contemporary and dealt with the internet.
I was more interested in imagining what the world of TRON would have evolved into on its own as this self-contained, sealed universe. That's where the whole concept came from, and then this Heart of Darkness narrative to find Kevin Flynn felt like the right story to get us into that world. I don't know if you remember how it all came about, but the first thing I did was I created a trailer for the movie that didn't exist. That was my pitch to the studio, was that little three-minute teaser, which hinted at the narrative in the world and what it would look and feel like and sound like.
And that's how I got the job, basically, was making that. Because I hadn't done a movie before that. I was just getting started in my commercial career at that point. I had only moved to L.A. two years before and it took me a year to even get my first commercial, so I was just getting started. I had just made a Gears of War short, and I think a commercial for Halo 3, and I had taken that meeting with Sean Bailey. With those two spots on my reel, I basically said, "Let me make this [teaser] for this movie as a way to convince the decision-makers that we could make something really cool out of this." That was our approach.prevnext
Well Jeff, like you said, was the first piece of the puzzle and amazingly I got him to participate in that teaser trailer. So before we had a script, I basically just pitched him on the idea of what the movie could be and asked him if he'd be a part of the teaser because he's so central. He was so central to the first one and we wanted to build this one around him and, amazingly, he agreed to do it, which now I look back and am amazed that an actor would sign on to be a part of a pitch video, essentially, for a movie. But he did, and he really made it.
I remember when we showed that thing at Comic-Con, the moment Jeff's face came on the screen it was pretty electric. I have to thank Jeff, really, for agreeing to be a part of it as a pitch and then obviously going on to be in the movie. Comic-Con was such a big turning point for that movie, because once we showed the teaser at Comic-Con and got the response that we did, that's when the studio really got serious about making it. Then we went into a traditional studio casting process, which was reading every young actor in Hollywood, many who have gone on to become huge movie stars.
In 2008, we were reading everybody. Garrett and Olivia went through the process and got to the point where they were screen-tested and made it into the finalists. Then it basically came down to them throwing the gauntlet to the decision-makers over at Disney to get the role. They both did an incredible job, so I feel very fortunate to have gotten to work with them at the beginning of their careers. The movie, when you look at TRON: Legacy, it's amazing how inexperienced all of us were, in every department.
Not only me, but Sean Bailey was a young producer, Daft Punk had never done a film score before. Garrett and Olivia had been in mostly television or very small movies before that. All of my department heads, my production designer, my art department was pulled from architecture schools and automobile designers. It was such a young, inexperienced crew at every level, which amazes me that Disney let us do it that way. But at the same time, it's what I think makes the movie look and feel the way it does. I think it was a real positive thing for the movie because we were all just so excited to be on it and be making it, and getting that opportunity.
And then you got to have people like Jeff and Michael Sheen anchor the film.
Luckily we had Jeff and Michael and a couple of rock-solid veterans in the center to hold it all together. You absolutely need that and couldn't have done it without them. But around them, it was pretty inexperienced, and I mean that in a really positive way.prevnext
Cillian Murphy Cameo
Early on in the film, we see Cillian Murphy as Ed Dillinger, Jr. and he goes uncredited. You've previously spoken about how that character was set to play a bigger part of a potential sequel, but how specifically did he get enlisted to play the character?
That character, Ed Dillinger, Jr., actually was added late. A year after we shot the movie, we did an additional week of photography in, I want to say the summer of 2010, where we added the ENCOM break-in sequence at the beginning of the movie. So that board meeting that Cillian Murphy is seen in, Sam breaking into the ENCOM server room, I'm trying to think what else we added. It was the board room and Sam breaking in, and we filled out Sam's break-in. It was always there, but those sections of the opening of the movie to flesh it out more were done a year later. So Cillian was added into the movie as the last step.
As I remember, he was a fan of TRON, which is why we got him to do basically one day on the movie to tie in the Dillinger aspect, which was a big part of the first one. Getting him to play the son of a Dillinger was definitely a coup. We shot that in downtown L.A., I remember, on the top floor of think what was then the AT&T building. Now it's something else. Luckily, he was a fan and was amazing to work with and just came in and crushed it in a one-night shoot. At the same time, he created a really interesting character that could be developed into something further down the road, if Disney wants to continue the TRON narrative as a feature or some other format in the future.prevnext
With it being your first feature, what would you say were the biggest challenges you faced on set? Were there times when, given the property and the production budget, where you felt like you were in over your head?
Well, the good thing about being naive is you don't know how naive you are. It was good that I didn't understand what I was taking on as I was diving in head first. We were so ambitious in the approach of how we were going to make it. I was determined to shoot it in 3D for real, not convert it, but shoot with real 3D cameras. I was determined to shoot as much of it in-camera as possible. So rather than shooting on blue screen, [we were] building sets, building costumes that actually were illuminated with LED strips and battery packs. I was determined to create a young version of Jeff Bridges digitally that could actually be a character in the film, and how to accomplish that. There were so many things that we were determined to accomplish with this movie. Any one of those would be a challenge on a film, but doing all of those things simultaneously was, they just compound each other.
From first-generation 3D cameras to the lit suits, which had like eight minutes or 10 minutes of battery life. One actor's suit would go out and you'd have to change a battery, and then you'd start shooting and another suit would go out. Because it was my first one, I didn't know how much I was biting off. I think that's, again, another reason why it was a good thing, because I think TRON demands to be something ambitious like that, just like Steven Lisberger's original one was.
What they did is insane on the first movie with the hand-traced rotoscoping of every frame. It's crazy, but it's what makes TRON look like TRON and all those choices on Legacy were what make Legacy look and feel like it does. I'm glad we did it and I was obviously very lucky to have it. I feel very lucky for it to be my first film. Even though the experience was really challenging and hard, and we shot the whole thing, I think, in like 65 days. Looking back, I just have good memories of the experience and the support of the studio was pretty astonishing for a first-timer. I really got to do everything I wanted to do on that movie. I don't ever take that for granted. That was quite a leap of faith they took and it was great. Those are really good memories of the whole process.prevnext
Just as effective as the film's visual is its score from Daft Punk, which perfectly personifies the world of TRON. You've expressed before that they were very motivated to secure this opportunity, so what was the process of them first getting involved?
I was a huge fan of theirs. I would put their, I think Homework was the album in the late '90s, I remember in architecture school with my headphones on late at night, sitting in front of the computer with that album blasting in my head. I was a huge fan of theirs when, it's been, what, 13 years now since this all started? But as I remember it, I was working, I was in early prep on the movie and a music supervisor or their manager, someone reached out to me and suggested it or threw it out as an option and I instantly said they would be perfect. We arranged to meet and they are very hard guys to pin down. The fact that they even agreed to meet with me, now I realize, was them being very interested.
We met at the 101 Cafe in Los Angeles over a pancake breakfast. And it was very clear that the guys, both of them, and I had the exact same vision for a soundtrack that would combine electronic music and orchestra in a way that hadn't been done before. And that was the sound of TRON. I think I showed them the teaser I had done, which, the music for the teaser was not done with them. That was something I did with a young composer that was working in Hans Zimmer's shop at the time, but it had hints of this blend of electronics and orchestra in it. They were leaning in hard and they took meetings all over Los Angeles. At first we thought, well maybe we combine them with a well-known composer because they've never done a film score before. So they took meetings all around town and talked to a lot of composers.
And at the end of the day, they came and said, "You know what? I think we can do this by ourselves. We feel really confident we can do it alone. We just want a great orchestrator to work with." So they found Joe Trapanese, who's a young composer that, I'm not sure how they found him, but they proposed him as the orchestrator, which I was on board with. We started working on the music while I was prepping the movie, so it was this amazing thing where I had tracks, I had elements of the soundtrack while I was shooting the movie. I would play the album on set while we were setting up shots and stuff. It just set the tone and mood and I just really remember that.
I just remember playing them that soundtrack on the set of the safe house, which was Kevin Flynn's house with the up-lit floor and everyone in their costumes. I just remember sitting there with Olivia and Garrett and it was just a great vibe. It was so nice to have that music early on. It just doesn't happen very often while you're making a movie.
The process of making the film reminds me of George Lucas' stories about Star Wars: A New Hope, and how all of these specific decisions or setbacks could have derailed the film, only for those things to define it.
It all came together in a really beautiful way with a lot of hard work and a lot of late nights, and a lot of problem-solving every step of the way. Someday we'll find the right way to release the outtakes from TRON: Legacy, because it'll just blow people's minds to see how much we were dealing with behind the scenes to get that movie made. You're right, at the end, it all pays off and hopefully we made something unique and different. That was our goal. That was our intent.prevnext
Speaking of Star Wars, when Solo: A Star Wars Story came out in 2018, it was considered a disappointment because it "only" made $400 million. Some have said Legacy was a "disappointment," despite it making $400 million worldwide back in 2010. Do you remember feeling any sense of the film not living up to expectations?
The whole idea of expectations are really ... it's a hard thing in movies because I didn't have any expectations. The first TRON, I think, was not a box office smash. Like you said, it was more of a cult classic. So I didn't have expectations. At the time, I was happy with how the movie performed. I think Disney was, as well. Sure, in the post-Avatar world, after Avatar made whatever billions of dollars in 2009, I think maybe people thought that was going to become the norm. But back in 2010, there just wasn't ... China hadn't really come online as a giant cinema source of revenue like it is now and has been lately. I remember, me personally, not being disappointed with the performance, but I do remember being curious about the perception and the reporting at the time of not being as much as it should have been.
I want the movies I work on to be successful and I want the studio and all the investors to get all their money back. But I really am interested in how movies are perceived. It really is the 10-year test. That's really the sign of, I think, a successful movie. Is it something that people go back to? I don't know if TRON: Legacy has become that. I don't know how you gauge that, but it's a movie I'm very proud of and had a great experience making, and taught me so much. So for me, it was a huge success in my mind.prevnext
You and other members of the cast and crew have expressed interest in the planned sequel, TRON: Ascension, but have you seen any more momentum on that film since Disney+ launched and fans could watch the first two films and the animated TRON: Uprising?
There's always been an interest since Legacy. There's always been talk and murmuring of doing another and continuing the story. I was in China a few years ago and saw them building the TRON ride in Shanghai, which, apparently, is pretty amazing, which I would love to experience at some point. I think TRON, it's still a nice jewel in the crown of Disney IP, and I think there are fans and people petitioning and pushing to continue it inside the halls of Disney, so I think it could happen. Like anything, it just needs the right confluence of ... it's all about timing and the right elements and everything's got to come together for a movie to happen. I think it's possible and I think it's worthy of it. I think there's enough in the franchise and the ideas, and the fact that it is so unique and nothing else looks or sounds like it, that TRON the story. There is, I think, a future for the franchise and I hope they keep making them.
And the 30-year wait between films was definitely worth it and allowed the visual effects to really be leaps and bounds above the original. I think of the original The Matrix in 1999 being revolutionary, and then the two sequels didn't push things forward as dramatically as the first one, so we might have to wait 30 years for another TRON to emerge to embrace revolutionary effects.
I think I agree with you. Whenever a TRON comes out it needs to push the envelope in some way, or in every way. That's a fundamental requirement of a TRON movie, is it needs to be ambitious on a filmmaking level and hopefully on a narrative level, and the ideas behind it. Steven Lisberger's ideas for the first movie were so ahead of their time. I think it's imperative that that be a part of any TRON movie. You're right. I don't ever see TRON being something where you pump one out every two years. You just can't. They're too hard to make. It's got to be a passion project and it's got to really be reaching for something different and innovative and ambitious, because that's in the DNA of it. So I agree with you.prevnext
Top Gun Update
Your latest film, Top Gun: Maverick, was set to land in theaters in July but the coronavirus pandemic has delayed its release until December. Do those extra months mean you'll be using that time to explore new things for the film?
We are sticking to our schedule and finishing the movie just as if it were coming out on its original release date. Luckily, I'm in the home stretch of post-production where, despite all the restrictions on how you can work now, I'm able to continue doing my job and finish the movie. Which is pretty amazing. If I were in any other phase of the project, it would be hard to do that. But because I'm in the tail end of post, I'm able to do everything I need to, to finish it. So we're sticking to it and sticking to our schedule and finishing the movie and then just holding it for six months. Which is such an interesting thing to do, but it's the right decision because this is a movie that people need to see on the big screen. And if there's no big screen, then you don't want to release this movie. We want this to be a shared experience on the biggest screen possible.
You gave audiences a TRON sequel 30 years after the original, and now a Top Gun sequel almost 40 years after the original; are there any other properties that you grew up obsessed with that you'd like to deliver a sequel to?
Gosh, I don't know. I think two '80s movies, it's like half of my film output has been bringing an '80s movie back. No, I don't. I can't think of anything else that I'd like to do that way. I'm really looking to try to do something different with each of my choices in the near future. I have a Western I'm looking at, I have a dark comedy I'm looking at, so I'm just trying to mix it up and not do the same thing twice. Just to keep it interesting from a stretch different muscles and try different things.
TRON and TRON: Legacy are now streaming on Disney+. Top Gun: Maverick is set to hit theaters on December 23rd.prev