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How Architect-Turned-Director Joseph Kosinski Built ‘Spiderhead’ and ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

The filmmaker takes TheWrap inside his journey from the ”Top Gun“ sequel to the Netflix thriller

This is the summer of Joseph Kosinski.

The filmmaker started the season with a bang, as “Top Gun: Maverick,” his long-awaited sequel to Tom Cruise and Tony Scott’s 1986 classic, finally hit theaters (it was completed in the summer of 2020) and was a runaway smash. And now his winning streak continues with “Spiderhead,” a sleek, sci-fi-tinged thriller that features maybe the single greatest Chris Hemsworth performance ever, which just premiered on Netflix.

When TheWrap spoke to Kosinski, he was in his newly remodeled home theater. He said he had spent the end of “Top Gun: Maverick’s” post-production working on the movie in his kitchen, which is incredible given the film’s you-must-see-it-in-a-theater hugeness. For “Spiderhead,” he had the theater finished – with its dark, angled walls it looks like one of the expansive, carefully diagrammed spaces highlighted in so many of his films (what critic Bilge Ebiri referred to as his “vast, lonely worlds”). “I was able to do a lot of work out of here,” Kosinski said of his home theater.

Kosinski pitched his take on “Top Gun: Maverick” to Cruise while Cruise was filming “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” He visited the set with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, gave him his take on the material (including the Dark Star cold open, where Maverick pilots a top-secret plane) and told him that the movie shouldn’t be called “Top Gun 2.” Instead, should be called “Top Gun: Maverick.” That was five years ago.

But how is he feeling now?

“I’m so relieved,” Kosinski said. “The pressure of following up something that we all loved and held dear. And to have it connect with audiences in a way that definitely exceeded my expectations has just been really gratifying and I’m just happy. And I’m really proud of everyone who worked on it because it was a lot of work, a lot of effort. And we did some stuff that was pretty intense and it looks like it’s paying off.” Since talking with Kosinski, “Top Gun: Maverick” has eclipsed $900 million at the worldwide box office and is the second most successful movie Paramount has ever released (after “Titanic,” which is technically a Fox co-production).

When we suggested that making a movie like “Top Gun: Maverick” might be like childbirth — the second it’s out in the world you forget the pain it took to get there — Kosinski marveled that Christopher McQuarrie, a producer and writer on “Top Gun: Maverick,” is making back-to-back “Mission: Impossible” movies (the first, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One,” is out next summer). Still, another trip in the cockpit isn’t out of the question. “Obviously for me in working with Tom, you can do things on a movie with him you can’t do with anyone else,” Kosinski said. “If we can come up with a story to collaborate on, that would be dream come true.”

As it turns out, “Spiderhead” is connected to the “Mission: Impossible” franchise as well.

Kosinski was given the script for the movie, written by “Deadpool” screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick from a George Saunders story that originally appeared in the New Yorker, before he had even made “Top Gun: Maverick.” When Cruise broke his ankle on the set of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” in August 2017, the star told Kosinski to make “Spiderhead” during the downtime. “He was like, ‘Just shoot it, and then I’ll be ready.’ But it got so close, I didn’t want to risk pushing ‘Top Gun’ anymore,” Kosinski explained. “I walked away from it, which was hard to do because I just thought it was a very unique, special project that for me was a really interesting directorial challenge.” When “Top Gun: Maverick” was done, Kosinski was relieved that “it was still there.” Fate arranged for him to do both.

“We were in the heart of the pandemic, and it, to me, felt like something that we could do, given the restrictions at the time and because of the small ensemble nature of it. It really is almost like a stage play set in this one facility, and I felt like we could pull it off,” Kosinski explained. They moved the production to Australia, during “the darkest part of the pandemic” in late 2020. “We were able to do it safely and tell a really unique story that I think is just important for me creatively and I think for the movie business in general, to have such a nice wide range of stories and tones,” Kosinski said. “For me, this is something that I just hadn’t read anything else like it, which is what was part of the draw.”

Kosinski admitted that the contained nature of “Spiderhead” was part of its appeal, after shooting something as massive and unwieldy (the very definition of uncontained) as “Top Gun: Maverick.” “I like the rhythm of big to small, and small being a relative term I understand,” Kosinski said. “Top Gun: Maverick” shot for 135 days. “Spiderhead” shot for 40, in a handful of stages and locations. “I thought that was a really unique challenge, not only for me but also for the actors that would be fun to try to do.”

This challenge extended not just to Kosinski and his crew, which includes regulars like cinematographer Claudio Miranda, but to the performers as well, which include Kosinski regular Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett and Hemsworth, as a pharmaceutical administer testing new drugs on criminals confined to Spiderhead. “Wernick and Reese’s writing in this character of Abnesti, I just found this fascinating sociopath, who’s both charming and charismatic and funny but also morally questionable,” Kosinski said. “And having Chris, someone who’s known for being a leading man in these big action movies, to be able to show something totally different was also an exciting challenge for me and for him. And I couldn’t be more thrilled with what he was able to do with it. I just think it’s a really special performance.”

It’s a performance that has been mostly obscured by the film’s marketing, which presents “Spiderhead” as a straightforward thriller, one without the odd contours and tonal loop-de-loops of the actual film.

“It’s one of those things where I think that’s the right way to go, because it really is a movie where you want to experience that over the course of watching it and see it play out. And I think the more you try to promise that from the beginning, you don’t want people walking in waiting for it. I want them to see Chris slowly unravel and reveal this character.” Kosinski admits that “it’s a challenging movie to talk about and to market.” But Netflix is the perfect home for it, even if you aren’t equipped with a Kosinski-approved home theater. “It might be a movie that just needs to be discovered and talked about, more of a word-of-mouth thing, which is fine. It’s not a movie that has two weekends to collect as much money as possible before it disappears. It can have more of a slow burn run, which it’ll be interesting.”

One of Hemsworth’s quirks is that he blasts ‘70s and ‘80s am radio pop hits through the facility (a strain of music commonly referred to today as “yacht rock”) – the Doobie Brothers, Hall & Oates, George Benson, Supertramp and the like. The playlist was developed during the scripting process and inspired by an instance in Kosinski’s life. “I remember having this moment in a dentist’s office, we’ve all been there, where you’re laying in the chair and you’re about to get your tooth drilled out,” Kosinski said. “And all of a sudden, Christopher Cross comes over the little speaker in the ceiling. And it’s this idea of the dentist’s office trying to create this sense of calm and relaxation, like you should be on a beach. Yet you’re going through a very unpleasant physical experience. And to me, I thought that would be a great tool for Abnesti to try to create the ambiance of a high-end rehab or almost a vacation-like vibe in this exotic setting in order to mask the true nature of what’s going on inside and underneath.” And what’s going on is, admittedly, horrific.

We talked about Teller’s mullet (“it was trying to draw a distinction between Abnesti and Jeff and showing that they came from completely different worlds, backgrounds, but at the same time, have a lot in common because there is this bond between these two very different people”) and frequent Kosinski collaborator Joseph Trapanese’s score, which had to play in between the yacht rock jams and stand out all its own (“It’s so unique and distinct and it blends a kind of avant-garde orchestral component”). Kosinski also discussed why he thinks “Spiderhead” isn’t a sci-fi story at all. “I don’t really think about this film as sci-fi just because I feel like there’s nothing in it that couldn’t exist,” Kosinski said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it does exist and someone’s trying to do it.”

Not that sci-fi is ever far from Kosinski’s mind.

In 2010, Kosinski made his debut with “Tron: Legacy,” a bold and visionary adventure with an all-time score by Daft Punk (assisted by Trapanese). It was a movie that could have played on IMAX 3D screens at the same time as appearing as a video art installation in any major gallery or museum. Kosinski recently caught flak for saying that Disney wouldn’t make “Tron: Legacy” today (and, indeed, Kosinski toiled away on a sequel in 2014 and 2015 that Disney ultimately canceled). “What I said was we made ‘Tron: Legacy’ before they owned Star Wars or Marvel,” Kosinski said. “I think that’s a big reason why we were able to do that movie because at that point, Disney had nothing else in that space. I was really able to push the envelope and do something really unique and different and a little bit experimental.”

Kosinski also worked on a remake of live-action Disney sci-fi oddity “The Black Hole” with “Dune” screenwriter Jon Spaihts, which was undone by their script’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” Still, Kosinski would love to work with Disney again and still yearns to figure out a viable take on “The Black Hole.” “I still feel like that movie is one of the most unique that Disney’s ever made, the original I mean. It’s wild,” Kosinski said. “The idea of a journey to a black hole is still one of those things that is very intriguing because it’s not science fiction. They really exist, and all the effects that happen around them are real physics. So there is a great story to be told about that journey. I just, at this point, I haven’t figured out what that would be for me yet.”

spiderhead-chris-hemsworth
Netflix

Sci-fi, even more grounded sci-fi like “Spiderhead,” still speaks to Kosinski’s sensibilities and history. Kosinski comes from a background in architecture and design and “sci-fi gives you a lot of opportunity to create a world.” (Kosinski attended Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and studied under postmodern legend Robert A.M. Stern. Before “Tron: Legacy,” he was an adjunct professor.)

The architecture of “Spiderhead” is just as striking as anything in “Tron: Legacy” or “Oblivion,” his existential 2013 epic that also starred Cruise. The facility is all sharp angles; its inherent prison-ness only discernable by the brutalist exteriors and the poured concrete, the surfaces that can easily be hosed down if splattered with blood or smeared with excrement. Inside, it is discerningly plush, a place you would want to spend time in (like Jennifer Connelly’s homey beachfront abode in “Top Gun: Maverick”). It’s only sinister in a certain light.

It’s this architecture – not only of the physical spaces the characters inhabit but in the way that Kosinski frames things geometrically and in the symmetry between character and theme, narrative motivation and a willingness to simply be – that ultimately defines all of Kosinski’s work.

He was drawn early on to the work of Stanley Kubrick and “The Shining,” where the Overlook Hotel felt like a character in the story. “When the architecture is specific and you treat it that way, it creates a film that feels very much in its own kind of hermetically sealed universe that to me sucks you into the space of the film, and it becomes very immersive,” Kosinski said. “And I think I’m always drawn to that.”

From a compositional standpoint, his almost mathematically controlled frames have always been important. “I find I get a lot of pleasure out of setting the frame and trying to make the most of every moment, regardless if it’s an insert or a wide shot, never let any shot go to waste because you have this opportunity to create something special, so try to do that at every moment,” Kosinski said. “From a process point of view, I do feel like there’s a lot of parallels between architecture and filmmaking. The script and the blueprint are related. The role of an architect and having to create a building.”

Another key way that architecture and film are related, whether it’s a sprawling action epic like “Top Gun: Maverick” or an intimate character study like “Spiderhead,” is that it takes a whole team of extremely talented people to build something. “The more that you can engage and motivate your team who are all there to help you, the more you can accomplish 1,000 times more than you could by yourself. I think there are a lot of parallels between the two professions,” Kosinski said.

Where Kosinski became frustrated with architecture was that, whether you’re building a home or a private building, only a handful of people will ever see it. “Film is such a medium that travels so widely that it can be shared with everyone, and everyone can have the same experience regardless of where you are,” Kosinski said. “I think that was the draw for me to move into film.”

The two projects that Kosinski built this year have been seen by countless viewers the world over, already, whether it’s an IMAX-sized sequel you have to experience in a theater or a more intimate thriller that you can dial up on your living room Samsung. And no matter which film you watch, the views are spectacular.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is in theaters now and “Spiderhead” is streaming on Netflix.

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