It’s been a big year for Joseph Kosinski. As the director of Top Gun: Maverick, Kosinski is responsible for 2022’s biggest hit to date, but the movie was supposed to arrive in theaters much earlier. Scheduled for release in 2019, it was delayed first by the natural difficulties of shooting a high-flying action film then by COVID-19. (Audiences and critics have almost unanimously agreed it was worth the wait.) After completing Maverick, Kosinski took on the tense, darkly funny, smaller-scaled Spiderhead, an adaptation of the George Saunders story “Escape from Spiderhead,” scripted by the Zombieland and Deadpool team of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and premiering on Netflix this week.
Shot in Australia at the height of the pandemic, the film stars Miles Teller as Jeff, a patient at Spiderhead, a high-tech penitentiary that pipes in ’70s and ’80s soft rock favorites from Chuck Mangione and the Doobie Brothers. Spiderhead’s inmates are given comfort and a certain amount of freedom provided they participate in some cutting edge pharmaceutical experiments involving mood- and behavior-altering drugs administered by the charismatic-but-cracked prison head Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). Jurnee Smollett co-stars as Lizzy, a fellow inmate with whom Jeff has fallen in love.
But Kosinski’s 2022 has been a long time coming in other ways, too. He’s still under-the radar in many ways—as much as you can describe the director of high-profile, big budget films as such. Kosinski made his feature debut with Tron: Legacy, an ultra-stylish, years-later sequel to Tron whose reputation was tepid upon its 2010 release, but has only grown since. The same can be said for 2013’s Oblivion, an adaptation of Kosinki’s own graphic novel that served as his first collaboration with Tom Cruise. Kosinski followed Oblivion in 2017 with Only the Brave, a fact-based firefighting drama based on a GQ piece that won warm reviews (while performing modestly at the box office). It’s an impressive track record, but one that has yet to make Kosinski a household name. That seems destined to change however, particularly given his next project: a still-untitled Formula 1 film starring Brad Pitt. Kosinski spoke via phone about the philosophical issues at the heart of Spiderhead, the pleasures of watching Hemsworth play a bad guy, and mixing big stars with big machinery.
I really like the look of Spiderhead prison, which is equal parts comforting and creepy. What steps did you take to strike that balance?
Well, I started the whole project by putting together a book of influences, which I hadn’t done for a film before. I put one together because I knew the Spiderhead was a character in this story in itself. So what the Spiderhead looked and felt like was an important thing to have a strong grasp on early. I was inspired by university libraries that I remember sitting in, when I went to school. Often, at least the schools I went to, they were built in the 1970s, when brutalism, which is that kind of heavy, concrete style of architecture, was very much in vogue. So they’re almost like bunkers.
That was the idea I had in my head, but then on the inside, making it very comfortable and safe, almost like a very high-end rehab facility. But it had to be a penitentiary. It was a challenge to figure out how to make a building with no windows feel pleasant. So the solution was to bring natural light in through the ceiling. There’s skylights all throughout Spiderhead. So you get those shafts of sunlight raking on the walls and you have this kind of airy sense, but at the same time, because there are no windows, there’s also that sense of claustrophobia. It’s that kind of duality of oppression yet comfort. That was the feeling we were going for.
You have a background in architecture, right?
My undergrad degree was in engineering and design. I went to architecture school for graduate school and it was in my third year of architecture school that I started making short films. And that’s kind of when I took this different path.
Did you also begin working on graphic novels around the same time?
When I moved to L.A., to kind of try to start a career in commercials and music videos, I, like most people, struggled my first year. It actually took me about 15 months to get my first real job and out of kind of creative frustration, I wrote and created Oblivion on my own during that time and developed it as a graphic novel when the WGA went on strike in 2007. And so that’s how Oblivion came to be.
Getting back to Spiderhead, I was also struck by the way the architecture kind of is in lockstep with the light rock soundtrack as well. What was the thought behind the song selection in this film?
It’s the same idea that’s behind the architecture. Abnesti is trying to create this air of relaxation and safety in a penitentiary system. In addition to controlling the environment, the other thing he could control is the soundtrack to this world. It was kind of inspired by a trip to the dentist’s office. We’ve all been there, sitting in the chair, waiting for various instruments to be inflicted on you while listening to Christopher Cross or Crosby, Stills & Nash, over the little speaker in the ceiling to kind of counteract the unpleasantness of the reality that’s going on. Also, Abnesti doesn’t have… He’s not aware of all the social cues and what’s exactly appropriate at every time. There are sociopathic tendencies that he has, and it felt like [the songs] also kind of served the character and the kind of mood we were trying to build.
Abnesti’s a fascinating character because he’s such an alpha male, but also this deeply troubled and needy person. What was Hemsworth’s approach to that character?
Listen, the role of Abnesti is a high wire act for any actor. And if you don’t commit completely to the role, I feel like the whole movie falls on its face. So it was daunting for any actor to look at this character and figure out how to bring it to life. I was thrilled when… Let me start by saying I liked, and all the producers really liked, the idea of casting someone in the role who hadn’t done anything like this before. Because part of the fun of the movie is watching this personality and to kind of start to figure out who this person is. And if it’s an actor that you’ve seen do these types of roles before, I think it’s not as intriguing.
Chris was someone who I had met maybe 10 years ago. Just watching his career, it’s clear he had the [necessary] comic timing. You’ve seen it whether it’s in the Marvel movies or even him hosting Saturday Night Live. But you just never know if they’re interested in branching this far out away from what they typically do. When we sent Chris the script, I was thrilled that he responded almost immediately and was just up for the incredible challenge that this role would give him. And he just immersed himself completely, it’s a different accent, completely different character playing against every expectation that I think people have for him at this point in his career. It glues the whole thing together.
Was it daunting to tackle a George Saunders story which is so dense with ideas and trying to squeeze all that into an audience-friendly suspense film?
I mean, if you read the short story, I don’t know if anyone other than Wernick and Reese, who wrote the screenplay, would say this would make a great film. I read their script first and was just struck that the character of Abnesti was spectacular. The tone of the film, the mixture of psychological thriller crossed with dark comedy with social commentary kind of pervading the entire thing. I just hadn’t read anything like it. And, they deserve a lot of credit for taking a story that you can read in about 10 minutes and expanding it into a three-act story. They had to introduce some new characters. They created Lizzy, who’s very important in Jeff’s journey through the film. And they deserve credit for figuring out exactly how to adapt it. George was also very helpful, particularly at the end of the film, when I was trying to figure out how to wrap it up thematically. George wrote that voiceover for Jeff at the end of the film, which kind of puts it in his point of view and neatly summarizes what we wanted the film to say.
It must have been really tough to stay true to the themes of that story and not make the most depressing movie ever, too.
Yeah, you can’t end the film the way the short story does, but my feeling is it has to translate for different mediums. And if you want to make a short film that ends the way the short story does, then it’ll be a very, very small film that would be cool, but wouldn’t get the reach that something like this is able to do.
Abnesti ends up making an almost persuasive case at times. You spent a long time immersed in the ideas of this film. Did you find yourself vacillating about how much you agreed or if you agreed with him at all on any point?
Chris said from the very beginning that bad guys don’t realize they’re bad. And it’s important that Abnesti believes that he truly is doing the right thing. Obviously a line gets crossed at some point. And that’s where he crosses over from protagonist to antagonist, let’s say. But it was very important to present the notion that he truly believes what he’s doing is right, until obviously it goes too far.
It was only about halfway through watching this that it struck me that this isn’t necessarily a futuristic film.
That’s why I describe it as pseudo sci-fi, because really, I don’t think there’s any technology in this film that doesn’t exist already. Maybe, who knows if Darkenfloxx and Laffodil [two drugs in the film] are real compounds out there, but I certainly think they could be. And this notion of our reliance on technology to make us feel better about ourselves or improve ourselves is something I think we all deal with every day. Even though it’s not putting drugs in our system, it’s certainly feeding ideas and emotions and communications. It’s all right there in the palm of a hand.
You made this in the midst of COVID, which seems weirdly appropriate. Did you find that experience reflecting back the themes of the movie in any way?
Certainly, we shot this film in Australia in the kind of darkest part of the pandemic and that required all of us going over there to spend 15 days in strict quarantine. So we all got to be prisoners of sorts for over two weeks leading up to the shooting of the film. And I found myself in a very small hotel room, but in prep, on a movie. It was important that I continue working nonstop. And one of the things I did was have the art department build me a scale model of the Spiderhead facility that was something like four feet by three feet. I had it delivered to my room and I had it sitting in the room with me for 15 day. It was built to extraordinary detail. Every piece of furniture and many figures of the characters were in it. And at some point, about day 11, I found myself like Jack Torrance, staring down at the hedge maze, watching the movie play out. And it was a very kind of surreal experience, but appropriate for making this film, for sure.
You made this after Top Gun Maverick, which was delayed, but it was always destined to be a big theatrical release. Does working on a film for a streaming service change the way you approach it, knowing where it’s going to be seen?
When it came to the making of the film, it didn’t affect anything in terms of my style of filmmaking. It’s not like I framed for television versus the big screen. But it’s a much different scale film. This is a 40-day shoot, which is by far the shortest schedule I’ve ever done for a film, but I really enjoyed the change in scale from something like Top Gun, which is 135 days and years of work. The constraints of this schedule were… It’s fun for me because it’s all problem solving. And it’s obviously a much more intimate, introspective film. So it suited that. And I don’t know if this film gets made if it had to go through the theatrical release gauntlet, for what constitutes a movie you see in the theater these days.
It’s a very different bar [than a theatrical release] where you have your opening, you have your two weeks to make a case and then it’s gone. That suits itself to giant marketing campaigns and existing IP and educating the audience and building something that has to be seen on the biggest screen possible. This is a story, I think, that suits itself to the streaming model and being available to 200 million people on Friday where it can be discovered. And so I think it’s not about theatrical versus streaming. It’s about the right story for the right medium.
You’ve been in the deep end since you started making features. Does scaling down appeal to you?
I like the rhythm of big to small. And small is a relative term, I understand, because even the small movies are large. But I like that rhythm of going from something bigger and grand and complex and a huge challenge to something that’s a bit more intimate and then maybe tonally or dramatically less mainstream, because I think it’s important to kind of flex different muscles and try different things out, especially for me. I’m five movies in and learning from everyone. I can’t imagine going back-to-back on one of these big films, I just think the small ones are an opportunity to recharge and try something different.
Back to bigger films, I don’t know if you can talk about the Formula 1 film that you’re working on, but in some ways you’re kind of introducing Formula 1 to a broader audience in America, is that part of the appeal?
I’ve always wanted to make a racing film. And, over the last couple years I’ve watched as Formula One has made inroads in the United States. Obviously the Austin Grand Prix was the first part of that. But the show on Netflix, Formula 1: Drive to Survive, is definitely introducing people to the inner workings of the sport. So this year, or I should say last year with the battle between Lewis [Hamilton] and Max [Verstappen] getting so much attention, it felt like the right time for me to kind of go out there and pitch my idea for how you could tell a story that takes place in this world and make a really global film. So luckily I was able to find a home for this story. We’re just in the early stages now, but it’s very exciting. When you talk about going small to big, yeah, this one’s definitely a big one.
You seem to have become the go-to person for movies with big stars and big machines at this point.
It’s not a bad way to work. And I think it just suits my background and interests and I love the problem solving of it. I love figuring out how to shoot something and how to get something in camera. Obviously that’s how we shot Top Gun, with the cooperation of the Navy. And, for me, it’s going to be fun to figure out, cooperating with Formula 1 as a sport, how to do the same for that.