Films are subjective – what you like, what you don't like, but the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up onscreen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it's the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they've done, I want that effort there – I want that sincerity. And when you don't feel it, that's the only time I feel like I'm wasting my time at the movies.
— Nolan, on sincerity and ambition in filmmaking.
Christopher Jonathan James Nolan
(born 30 July 1970) is a British film director, screenwriter, and producer. He created several of the most successful films of the early 21st century. His nine films have grossed over $4 billion worldwide and garnered a total of 21
Oscar nominations and six awards.
Having made his directorial debut with Following (1998), he gained considerable attention for his second feature, Memento (2000). The acclaim of these independent films afforded Nolan the opportunity to make the big-budget thriller Insomnia (2002), and the more offbeat production The Prestige (2006); both were well-received critically and commercially. He found further popular and critical success with The Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014). Nolan has co-written several of his films with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and runs the production company Syncopy Inc. with his wife Emma Thomas.
His films are rooted in philosophical and sociological concepts and ideas, exploring human morality, the construction of time, and the malleable nature of memory and personal identity. Experimentation with metafictive elements, temporal shifts, elliptical cutting, solipsistic perspectives, nonlinear storytelling and the analogous relationship between the visual language and narrative elements, permeate his entire body of work. Preferring location shooting to studio work, he often uses practical special effects as opposed to computer-generated imagery. He is also a proponent of film, both as a shooting and presentation format.
The protagonists of Nolan's films are usually psychologically damaged, obsessively seeking vengeance for the death of a loved one. They are often driven by philosophical beliefs, and their fate is ambiguous. In many of his films the protagonist and antagonist are mirror images of each other, a point which is made to the protagonist by the antagonist. Through these clashings of ideologies, Nolan highlights the ambivalent nature of truth. His writing style incorporates a number of storytelling techniques such as flashbacks, shifting points of view and unreliable narrators. Scenes are often interrupted by the unconventional editing style of cutting away quickly from the money shot (or nearly cutting off characters' dialogue) and crosscutting several scenes of parallel action to build to a climax. Nolan has also stressed the importance of establishing a clear point of view in his films, and makes frequent use of "the shot that walks into a room behind a character, because ... that takes [the viewer] inside the way that the character enters."
Nolan uses cinéma-vérité techniques (such as hand-held camera work) to convey realism. In an interview at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Nolan explained his emphasis on realism in The Dark Knight trilogy:
"You try and get the audience to invest in cinematic reality. When I talk about reality in these films, it's often misconstrued as a direct reality, but it's really about a cinematic reality."
Nolan prefers shooting on film to digital video, and opposes the use of digital intermediates and digital cinematography, which he feels are less reliable and offer inferior image quality to film. In particular, the director advocates for the use of higher-quality, larger-format film stock such as anamorphic 35 mm, VistaVision, 65 mm and
IMAX. Nolan uses multi-camera for stunts and single-camera for all the dramatic action, from which he will then watch dailies every night; "Shooting single-camera means I've already seen every frame as it's gone through the gate because my attention isn't divided to multi-cameras."
When working with actors, Nolan prefers giving them the time to perform as many takes of a given scene as they want. "I've come to realize that the lighting and camera setups, the technical things, take all the time, but running another take generally only adds a couple of minutes. ... If an actor tells me they can do something more with a scene, I give them the chance, because it's not going to cost that much time. It can't all be about the technical issues." Gary Oldman praised the director for having a calm and relaxed atmosphere on set, adding
"I've never seen him raise his voice to anyone". He also explained that Nolan does not give direction for direction's sake, rather "He lets you have the space to find things in the scene, and if he needs to tweak something he will simply step in and give you a note."
Nolan chooses to minimize the amount of computer-generated imagery for special effects in his films, preferring to use practical effects whenever possible, only using CGI to enhance elements which he has photographed in camera. For instance his films Batman Begins and Inception featured 620 and 500 visual-effects shots, respectively, which is considered minor when compared with contemporary visual-effects epics which may have upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 VFX shots: "I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it's been created from no physical elements and you haven't shot anything, it's going to feel like animation. There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that's how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in".
Nolan shoots the entirety of his films with one unit, rather than using a second unit for action sequences. In that way Nolan keeps his personality and point of view in every aspect of the film. "If I don't need to be directing the shots that go in the movie, why do I need to be there at all? The screen is the same size for every shot ... Many action films embrace a second unit taking on all of the action. For me, that's odd because then why did you want to do an action film?" A famously secretive filmmaker, Nolan is also known for his tight security on scripts, even going as far as telling the actors of The Dark Knight Rises the ending of the film verbally to avoid any leaks and also keeping the Interstellar plot secret from his composer Hans Zimmer.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN - GUARDIAN 5 Nov 2014 - BLOCKBUSTER REBOOTED
In early spring of 2013, Christopher Nolan and his crew were scouting for locations in Iceland – looking for glaciers that could stand in for the icy wastes of a distant planet in Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. They were on foot, the terrain proving inaccessible by car through freezing rain. The glacier they were heading towards, the sixth or seventh of the day, did not seem to be coming any closer. Finally, after hiking four or five
kilometres, they were forced to stop; in front of them stretched an ice-cold lake. There seemed to be no way around it.
“We were all gathered around staring at this lake,” the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema recalled, “and Chris took his shoes and socks off and just strode out into the water, going straight towards that gigantic chunk of ice. Everyone was standing around looking at one another. ‘What do we do here?’ Then everybody starts doing the same – peeling off their shoes and socks and wading in. Nobody thinks that he’s crazy, they just go, ‘OK, this is important, this has to be done’.” After the crew had scouted the glacier, which turned out to be too small for Nolan’s purposes, they all walked back, their wet shoes squelching. “He’s a man on a mission,” Hoytema told me. “He assigns all his time and all his effort to serving that mission.”
Nolan likes to shoot fast. A great believer in the level of creative concentration enforced by the pressures of time and money, he maintains a focused energy on set, starting at 7am and finishing at 7pm, with a break for lunch. “It’s like watching a ballet,” said Brad Grey, the CEO of Paramount. “But it’s very well-dressed ballet.” Visiting the set on a sound stage in Culver City, Los Angeles, early in its four-month production, Grey saw actors strapped into a life-size space capsule, mounted on hydraulic rams which pitched them this way and that; outside their window, a passing star field was projected on to giant wraparound screens, standing 80ft high by 300ft long. Van Hoytema was wearing “the most beautiful tweed suit with a tie on,” Grey recalled, while Nolan stood, sipping from a flask he stored in the deep pockets of his coat.
“It’s how he solves problems,” says Michael Caine, whose role as a scientist in Interstellar makes this his sixth consecutive movie with the director. “I asked him once, ‘is that vodka in there?’ and he said, ‘no, tea’. He’ll drink it all day. He’s made all these millions of dollars but he lives exactly the same way. He still has the same watch he always had, still wears the same clothes.” The first time they met, Nolan came around to the actor’s house in Surrey with a copy of the script for the first film in his Batman trilogy. Caine thought the blond, blue-eyed young man on his doorstep was a messenger.
“My name’s Chris Nolan,” he said, “I’ve got a script for you.”
Caine asked what role Nolan had in mind for him. “I want you to play the butler,” Nolan replied.
“What do I say, ‘Dinner is served?’”
“No. The butler is Bruce Wayne’s stepfather.”
“Well, I’ll read it and get back to you.”
“No, no, can you read it now?” Nolan waited, drinking tea in the actor’s living room, until Caine had finished the script, then he took it away with him.
“He’s very secretive,” Caine said.
Secrecy is less of a fact on a Christopher Nolan production than it is a working method. Caine was allowed to keep his script for Interstellar, but each page of every copy of the script bore his name, so it could be traced back were it to go missing. When a member of the film’s special effects crew tweeted a picture of an Imax camera mounted on the nose cone of a Lear jet, the picture, and the Twitter account, were quickly deleted. One’s first impression upon meeting Nolan is certainly one of wariness. When we met in the lobby at Fotokem, a two-story plate-glass photo lab in Burbank where he was overseeing the final colour correction of the film’s digital print, Nolan gave me a quick handshake, his head lowered, taking me in without quite meeting my eye. He had the slightly bunkered air that usually follows a prolonged spell in the editing room. Interstellar took eight months in post-production – a wrestle. Normally, he said, he lets his first edit run long and then cuts it down. This time around, he realised that approach wouldn’t work. “We’re doing something we’ve never done before,” he said, “You make a film called Interstellar, you have to actually give the audience direct experience of the imagery, the awe, the scale. I had a couple of weeks on the film at the end where it was a little scary.”
Dressed in his trademark blazer, his shirt collar skewed at the raffish angle of a schoolboy late for rugby practice, Nolan did not seem rattled. Rather, he exuded the unshakeable confidence in his own abilities that you might wish for in the pilot of a 747 you’ve just boarded – an equanimity that stands him in great stead with the studio heads he must convince to greenlight his movies. “He comes in, he talks about blowing your mind,” Grey told me, “then he very calmly accomplishes it.” Anne Hathaway, who plays a Nasa scientist in Interstellar, remembered struggling with an important speech about the power of love, and finding herself in “an emotionally-frayed place that was making the whole thing feel, quite frankly, a little ‘actor-y’, quote, unquote,” she said. Nolan came up to her and suggested it would be much more effective if she spoke with “calm certainty” – “as if you were saying something you had known your entire life.”
It’s how Nolan talks about a lot of things: with the calm certainty of things he has known his entire life. Taking his seat at the front of one of the viewing suites at the photo lab, dark but for the glow of the computers manned by the digital colourists behind him, he munched on peanuts, quietly issuing comments as two sets of images were projected on the screen in front of him. On the left was the film’s Imax 70mm print – the format it was shot in – and on the right, the digital print in which it will be screened in the majority of cinemas. The projections were flipped to appear as mirror images of one another, so any slight mismatches in luminescence could be detected and eliminated.
“As if this film weren’t trippy enough,” one of the colourists quipped.
“That’s how they advertised the original 2001,” Nolan said, “The Ultimate Trip.”
The images, showing Matthew McConaughey approaching the event horizon of a black hole, are no less stunning than Kubrick’s, with something of the blurred beauty of a Gerhard Richter painting. The black hole itself was generated using calculations from theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose work inspired the movie, and fed into software developed by Nolan’s effects team using computing power so vast – each frame of film took around 100 hours of machine time – that Thorne, watching the footage for the first time, had new insights into the way light behaves near the event horizon of a black hole, which he plans to explore in a series of papers for scientific journals.
“Is that a flare?” Nolan asked as another sequence came up, this one showing Hathaway on an alien planet at sunset, a halo of light briefly visible at her shoulder.
“We can take that out,” offered Walter Volpatto, the digital colourist who was overseeing the work.
“It’s in-camera,” Nolan declared. “Put your can of bleach away. Can you go back to the hospital scene and do a split screen for the whole sequence? To my eyes it all looks a point brighter.”
Volpatto called up the images, showing McConaughey again, this time entering a hospital room.
“It’s pretty good, I think,” he said.
“That’s always what we strive for in the movie business – pretty good,” Nolan said sarcastically, squinting at the two sets of images.
“We lowered it [the brightness] a whole point the other day, so something is drifting. We’re repeating ourselves.”
“I put them in,” Volpatto reassured him, referring to the changes. “In my experience, a flipped screen will always reveal new differences. Your eye adjusts. You clear away the moss and then you start to see a whole new level.” The implication seemed to be that we were caught in the visual equivalent of Zeno’s paradox: clearing away blemishes only to reveal still more, and so forever on, until such time as you made peace with imperfection.
“In my experience,” Nolan replied, motioning toward the bank of computers that separated his production team from the digital colourists, “people behind this line are full of shit.”
“This is why I prefer film to digital,” Nolan said, turning to me. “It’s a physical object that you create, that you agree upon. The print that I have approved when I take it from here to New York and I put it on a different projector in New York, if it looks too blue, I know the projector has a problem with its mirror or its ball or whatever. Those kind of controls aren’t really possible in the digital realm.”
To the untrained eye there seemed to be no difference between the two images. “I have no reason to lie to you,” Volpatto said, sounding a little miserable.
The atmosphere in the suite rather resembled the air of mistrust that envelops Nolan’s films, epistemological thrillers whose protagonists, gripped by the desire for definitive answers, must negotiate mazy environments in which the truth is always beyond their reach.
“How can you not know?” the magician played by Hugh Jackman in The Prestige demands of his rival, after a magic trick has left his wife dead. But this could be the cry of any of Nolan’s heroes – driven by the need for absolute certainty in worlds where certainty is impossible: Guy Pearce’s amnesia victim in Memento, struggling to remember the clues that will lead him to his wife’s killer, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream thief in Inception, attempting to disentangle five levels of dreams from reality. Nolan has something of the same mixture of obsessiveness and scepticism; his handsome features always appear slightly scrunched, as if by some internal calculus that nags at him until it is resolved.
“You know, when you left yesterday, I felt like I had maybe been a little rude to Walter,” Nolan told me the next day.
“I haven’t worked with him before. He doesn’t know my sense of humour yet. He was trying to please me and I was like, yeah, you’re lying to me. That is my sense of humour. But I went in this morning to finish up, and he said to me, ‘Oh, I looked at the projector, and it was brighter.’ When he analysed it in terms of light output – because he is a very sharp man, Walter – it was exactly one point.”
In other words, Nolan was right.
“Everything in front of him is always under the microscope,” said Nolan’s brother Jonah, with whom he has co-written many of his films, including Interstellar. “He has what Hemingway called sort of a built-in shockproof bullshit detector – that’s very helpful, and it’s also very frustrating sometimes. I can always tell when my brother is excited by something you’re talking about because he goes very quiet. When I pitched him Memento when we were driving cross-country, he got very quiet. I knew I had him.”
Jonah had originally been hired by Steven Spielberg and the producer Linda Obst, in 2007, to turn Kip Thorne’s theories about black holes and wormholes into a movie for Paramount. Eventually Spielberg moved on to other projects, but one evening in 2009, while scouting locations for the final film in the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Jonah told his brother about the script he was working on. Nolan had his own ideas for a movie about interplanetary travel, which he merged with the first and final acts of Jonah’s script. He also brought along Warner Bros, even though the project had been initiated by Paramount. “He doesn’t have a deal with Warner Bros, and it wasn’t like he was obliged to make sure they were a part of it,” Brad Grey said. When he met Nolan to hear the pitch for the script, complete with a potted explanation of relativity – “which for a showbiz guy like me was a little hard to follow”, Grey added – the director said that he wanted Warner Bros to be a part of the deal, as an acknowledgment of the support they had given Nolan after a lone gunman walked into a packed theatre showing The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, killing 12 audience members and injuring 70 others. The studio had closed ranks around the film-maker, pulling him from a European press tour, withholding grosses, and donating money to a charity benefiting the victims. “He felt a real sense of loyalty because of what they had just been through,” Grey said. “When he explained it to me I said yes on the spot.”
The deal that Paramount and Warner Bros negotiated was anomalous to say the least. For the right to distribute Interstellar internationally, Warner Bros traded the rights for two of their franchises, Friday the 13th and South Park, plus “a to-be-determined A-list Warners property”, while its subsidiary, Legendary, agreed to trade Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for a further piece of the pie. To say this disregards the reigning economic logic of modern Hollywood is not quite right – it reverses the normal logic by which Hollywood operates. Franchises are the lifeblood of the studios. For Warner Bros to hand over the rights to two of its well-known properties, representing money in the bank, for the opportunity to take a spin on an original idea – a film with no sequel potential and few merchandising opportunities, based on the dimly understood recesses of quantum physics – speaks both to the value placed by the studios on Nolan, and also the extent to which he has become a franchise unto himself. Like Spielberg and James Cameron before him, Nolan is one of only a handful of film-makers who can walk into a studio with an idea and exit with $200m to make it. Nolan’s movies have grossed more than $3.5bn worldwide, and his last four films have come in under budget. When Interstellar was finished, Nolan returned what he called a “substantial” amount of money to Paramount.
“What he realised very early on was that the moment you give the studios an excuse to come in, you’ve lost it,” said Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and co-producer, who first met him when he was a student at University College London – studying English but spending all his spare time in the basement of the Bloomsbury theatre, hunched over the college’s Steenbeck editing suite, piecing together his first low-budget shorts.
“We watched it happen,” Thomas said. “The moment you go over budget, you’ve lost the creative control than an obsessive director like Chris needs. He’s always been extremely strategic about it.”
The obsession is a reassuring sign of the Auteur At Work; the discipline less so. We expect a little exorbitance from our auteurs, especially those working at this level. But so far, there has been no costly folly on Nolan’s resumé – no 1941 or The Abyss – and this very success renders him suspicious to his critics, who maintain that he is a chilly film-maker, a neatnik showman constructing elaborate puzzles that, once solved, leave little in the way of emotion or life beyond their hermetically sealed borders.
That could change with the release of Interstellar. The first reports from screenings have had audience members – studio heads, journalists, crew-members – leaving the cinema in tears. “People can’t really talk about it when they first get out of the film,” said Thomas, who I met shortly after I too was thunderstruck by Nolan’s epic, emerging blinking from a theatre on the Paramount lot into blinding sunshine. “They need a day or so to process it. And then they call you up.”
“I have been shocked to realise how much more emotional this film is,” Nolan said a day later, when I met him at the officers of his production company, a tan bungalow nestled on the Warner Bros lot amid palm trees and azaleas, just a stone’s throw from Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions. The extreme reaction has taken him aback, he said. “I have spent years of my life thinking only about this film and I mean only this film. The responses where it’s lacking – ‘it’s just a movie and it’s pretty good, I liked it’ – they are the things that kill you. This is my obsession for years, you just pour yourself into it.”
His office features comic art and film posters for his films Memento and The Dark Knight (“Why so serious?”), as well as a bookcase containing copies of Raymond Chandler’s Trouble Is My Business, John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a Stephen King or two and Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s book about the Manson family, Helter Skelter. “I haven’t read any of those books,” Nolan said, upon entering the room to find me examining them. “I don’t use this office very much. I really just use it for meetings.” There was a stamp of impersonality to this, although it seemed to stem less from froideur than the self-dissociation of a smart teenager who has long imagined himself invisible and is disappointed to find himself observed.
It was not my first encounter with Nolan: I met him at the very beginning of his career, in 2000, just before the US release of Memento, which had just come out of Sundance. Sitting in a red banquette at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, Nolan was the picture of the hopeful young film-maker, genuinely pleased to have someone to talk to about his film. He seemed a little nervous about Memento’s reception, and most relaxed when talking about the technicalities of its backwards-running time scheme. The film was shot for a mere $4.5 million, but after three screenings for studio heads in Los Angeles, it was turned down by almost every distributor in town, including the Weinsteins – causing Steven Soderbergh, an early fan of the film, to comment, “When a film like Chris Nolan’s Memento cannot get picked up, to me independent film is over.”
The turnaround came at the Venice film festival, where someone had told Nolan the crowd could be particularly fierce. The film ended rather abruptly, to a black screen, and for a few seconds, there was silence. Nolan had no idea what was about to happen. “I kind of liked that,” he recalled. “I was very frightened, but I felt proud of that emotion.”
The film got a standing ovation, but it was the few seconds of indeterminacy that he found most fascinating. One of Nolan’s favourite words is “counterintuitive”. He seems to collect examples in which straightforward logic is short-circuited, particularly when applied to his own career. “I could point to a lot of things that I’ve done that in retrospect would seem to be logical, but at the time, caused a lot of sleepless nights,” he said, telling me about a moment during the editing of Inception, his 2010 film about a dream heist, when he hit what he calls a “brick wall of exposition”. There was much about the third act of The Dark Knight – a kind of freefall recapitulation of the second – that “shouldn’t have worked,” Nolan said. Such stories seemed to reintroduce a pleasing element of uncertainty into a career which, from the outside at least, seems to represent as much of a safe bet as can be said to exist for
Hollywood right now. The connoisseur of uncertainty has, to his consternation, become a sure thing.
“Over the course of a director’s career there are data points and those data points all count very heavily – a movie, followed by another movie, followed by another movie,” said Alan Horn, the president at Warner Bros who green-lit Nolan’s Batman Begins after a two-hour pitch in which the film-maker laid out his plans for everything from the Batmobile and body armour to the bruises covering Bruce Wayne’s torso. “In Chris’s case, those data points all contributed to drawing a curve that goes straight up.” Horn later visited Nolan on the giant set of Gotham City that Nolan had constructed in Chicago, and remembers noticing, amid all the helicopters and hundreds of extras, that Nolan sat there with “no notes. It was all in his head”.
All of Nolan’s films are, to a lesser or greater degree. If Hollywood has long offered audiences the promise of escape, Nolan’s films nail it down still further: he offers audiences the chance to escape their heads. The name of his production company, Syncopy, is the word for the temporary loss of consciousness caused by loss of oxygen to the brain, and all his films, to some extent, use the tropes of the detective film or heist movie to dramatise the twists and turns of consciousness. “We can’t step outside our own heads,” he told me at Fotokem. “We just can’t. Now, a great film will reveal that the world is way fucking worse than you think it is and you missed it. It should be depressing but the reason it’s not is, we want the world to be more complicated than it is. We don’t want to know the limits of your world. You don’t want to be like Truman in the boat at the end, hitting the sky. What it’s really saying is, there’s more to this place than meets the eye. I make films that are huge endorsements of that idea.”
He noticed something interesting in the studio’s reception to Batman Begins, which he had purposefully given the biggest possible scale, with locations as far flung as the Himalayas and a climax involving the detonation of Gotham. Despite this, what he heard was “Well, is it really big enough?” He realised that scale in movies was itself something of an illusion. For the sequel, The Dark Knight, he actually scaled down from the original, setting the film almost entirely in Gotham, which he then proceeded to open up with storytelling and cinematography modelled on Michael Mann’s Heat, which was set in Los Angeles, but shot in such a way as to make it seem as rangy as the wild west. Nolan’s movie took over a billion dollars. “The Batman movies – that take, that tone – came out of nowhere,” said director Zack Snyder, who first met Nolan on a Warner Bros plane heading to a film industry convention in Las Vegas and leapt at the chance to direct a similarly toned Superman reboot, Man Of Steel – for which he studied, at Nolan’s request, test footage from White Sands, New Mexico, to get a sense of how objects behave at high velocity. When the studio asked if Snyder would add a comedy coda ending, in the style of Marvel, Nolan’s reply was “A real movie wouldn’t do that.”
This is the essence of his appeal. In some ways the success of Nolan’s films rests on the same principle behind the popularity of boutique hotels, lo-fi recording methods, “Glitch” music and Etsy: in the information age, more value, not less, will accrue to precisely those elements that cannot be cut and pasted — secrets, original ideas, plot twists, the integrity of the photographic image. Visually, he is a classicist, preferring to shoot as much “in-camera” as possible, using CGI only when absolutely necessary. No green screens were used during Interstellar, the majority of which was shot with real locations, miniatures, or sets using massive projectors. “It’s actually old film-making craft,” says Quentin Tarantino, one of the directors Nolan called when he heard that Kodak, the last remaining manufacturer of celluloid film, was about to go under. “He’s calling up directors who don’t give a shit, and dealing with their apathy, and trying to explain to them how important it is. I would want to punch them in the fucking face. But being British, he actually rises above all of that and tries to be diplomatic about it. I think it goes very well to the respect that they hold him in. It’s not just a dollars and cents thing. Christopher Nolan would be just as good of a filmmaker as he is, just as a potent filmmaker as he is if he was making movies in 1975. Or, if he was making movies in 1965. I’d like to see Chris Nolan’s version of The Battle of Bulge. That would be fucking awesome.”
At the same time, alongside this dedication to film craft lies the other strand of Nolan’s personality: the sceptic, pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet with carefully planted secrets and second-act twists that allow his movies to build, almost with the inevitability of logical arguments, and sustain their two-to-three hour running times. Online, where deconstruction of Nolan’s films approaches the density of a collapsed star, argument still rages as to the significance of the endings of Memento and Inception. “Part of the appeal of Memento is he’s challenging you in a game to poke holes in the mystery, and the scenario, and the storytelling,” said Tarantino. “As opposed to something like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club where you watch it, and then you want to see it a second time to poke holes in it. He’s actually challenging you to do that. If you find a hole in it that’s almost as much fun as not finding a hole.”
If Nolan’s success has in large part depended on an audience of little Nolans, notepads out, faces scrunched up as they attempt to outwit the master from the front row, the film-maker found himself, as he approached the release of Interstellar, in the unusual position of pivoting towards encouraging a more limbic, left-brained response to his work. The only praise that made him a little uncomfortable was praise for the complexity of his films. “What I’ve found is, people who let my films wash over them – who don’t treat it like a crossword puzzle, or like there is a test afterwards – they get the most out of the film,” he said. “I have done various things in my career, including, with Memento, telling a very simple story in an incredibly complex way. Inception is a very complicated story told in a very complicated way. Interstellar is very upfront about being simple as a story.”The composer Hans Zimmer was at work on his score for Man of Steel when Nolan approached him. “Chris said to me, in his casual way. ‘So, Hans, if I wrote one page of something, didn’t tell you what it was about, just give you one page, would you give me one day of work?’” Zimmer recalled. “‘Whatever you came up with on that one day would be fine.’ I said, ‘Of course, I’d love to.’ One day, an envelope arrived, almost handed to me by Chris. It was on quite thick paper, typewritten, which told me there was no carbon copy. This was truly the original.”
On the paper was a short story, no more than a precis, about a father who leaves his child to do an important job. It contained two lines of dialogue – “I’ll come back” “When?” – and quoted something Zimmer had said a year before, during a long conversation with Nolan and his wife at the Wolesley restaurant in London. It was snowing, central London had ground to a halt, and the three of them were more or less stranded. “There was no movie to be made, there was no movie to discuss, we were talking about our children,” said Zimmer, who has a 15-year-old son. “I said, ‘once your children are born, you can never look at yourself through your eyes any more, you always look at yourself through their eyes.”
He worked on the score for a day and then let Emma Thomas know he was done.
“I said, ‘Do you want me to send it over?’ She goes, ‘Oh, he’s curiously antsy, do you mind if he comes down?’ He got into the car and drove to my studio in Santa Monica and sat down on my couch. I made the usual excuses a composer makes when they play something to somebody for the first time. I played to him, not looking at him, I just stared straight ahead at my copy of the screen and then I turned around and he’s sitting there. I can tell he was moved by it. He said, ‘I suppose I’d better make the movie, now.’ I asked him, ‘Well, yes, but what is the movie?’ And he started describing this huge, epic tale of space and science and humanity, on this epic scale. I’m going, ‘Chris, hang on, I’ve just written this highly personal thing, you know?’ He goes, ‘Yes, but I now know where the heart of the movie is’. Everything about this movie was personal. That’s the other thing, the trick he pulled on me, when I see the movie, it’s a girl. But he wrote about a boy.”
It should come as no surprise that the maker of Memento and Inception – two masterpieces of watchmaker cinema – should have wound up at the door of Albert Einstein, who deduced the postulates of relativity while processing patents for clocks at a Bern patent office. Few, though, could have anticipated the emotional resonance he gets from relativity in the film, as McConaughey and his crew set down on a water planet where every hour spent means a seven-year chunk missed from his daughter’s life back on Earth. To say that Interstellar is Nolan’s most emotional film isn’t exactly accurate. It actually puts the audience through an entirely new species of emotion: a fiendish compound of grief, longing, loss and awe at time’s immensity. This is how love shows up in a Christopher Nolan film.
Researching the script at Cal Tech, where he received informal tutorials in quantum mechanics from Kip Thorne, Jonah Nolan noticed a common theme to the examples used by Einstein to illustrate the special and general theories of relativity. “Almost all the thought experiments he did almost always involved someone on a train, and someone on a train platform, just waving at each other as the train sped by at close to the speed of light,” Jonah said. “There was an inherent sadness to them. Twins removed from one another and placed in big ships and planes, realising that time was being lost.”
The theme held a particular resonance. Their late father, Brendan, was a British advertising copywriter who worked on Madison Avenue for a while – “an actual Mad Man”, Jonah said – before moving to Chicago, where he met their mother, Christina, “and then spent 40 years happily arguing about where to live”. Nolan and his two brothers spent their childhood moving back and forth between London and Chicago. “There was always the fun question of: where is he now?” Jonah recalled. Their father “spent a great deal of time in Africa and a great deal of time in east Asia. I would remember, as a kid, wondering when Dad was coming back, and he’d always come back with gifts or souvenirs and with great stories. I just imagined that’s how it was with everyone with their parents. I remember the excitement of him, that sense of homecoming. And that sense of home being a somewhat portable, a movable feast.”
While Jonah went to high school in the US, his elder brother was sent to Haileybury, the English boarding school whose earliest incarnation was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in Stalky and Co, as the training ground for the British empire’s officer class. England in the early 1980s was a much gloomier place, a land of strikes and Thatcherite cuts, while the US seemed to glow with the promise of Reagan’s “morning in America”. The Nolans’ summers were always spent in Chicago, where Christopher would soak up new movies – Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Top Gun – and then pitch them to the other kids upon his return to London. “Chris was the great herald of Star Wars,” Jonah said. “He had gotten to see it in the US several months early. It was a great privilege, being able to stand in the playground, and articulate all of the exciting things to come. The one-man trailer organisation.”
As far back as Jonah can remember, his brother had a Super-8 movie camera in his hand. Their uncle John worked for General Motors and did some work on the navigation systems for the Apollo missions for Nasa. He would bring back Super-8 films of the Apollo launches, which Christopher would splice into home movies that he shot on his father’s Super-8. “What I wound up doing was filming some of the Apollo Super-8 stuff off the screen and then I would splice it into my humble little movie thinking that maybe they would think that I done the shot,” Nolan said. Visiting him on the set of Interstellar one day, Jonah told his brother, “Of course we’re doing something like this; this was our whole childhood.”
Nolan’s father died in 2009, after a year-long battle with cancer that was diagnosed just as the film-maker was finishing Inception, and as Jonah was starting to write Interstellar. His father’s diagnosis was “very much in my mind,” Jonah said, “the connection that you have with your parents. It was the background to much of it.” Nolan himself sees Interstellar more in terms of his relationship with his own children – Rory, Magnus, Oliver and Flora – all of whom have given him the working titles for the last four of his movies. The Dark Knight was “Rory’s First Kiss”, Inception was “Oliver’s Arrow”, The Dark Knight Rises was “Magnus Rex”, and Interstellar was “Flora’s Letter”. The need to be away from them while filming eats at him. “There is a lot of guilt for that,” he said. “A lot of guilt. The very sadness of saying goodbye to people is a massive expression of the love you feel for them. For me, the film is really about being a father. The sense of your life passing you by and your kids growing up before your eyes. Very much what I felt watching Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an extraordinary film, which is weirdly doing the same thing in a completely different way. We are all engaged in the biggest mystery of all, which is just living through time.”
In early October, Nolan held a special screening of Interstellar for his fellow directors, at the Imax cinema at Universal City. Tarantino was there, as was Paul Thomas Anderson. Nolan was at the door, greeting them as they arrived. “Hey, I heard it’s a time travel movie,” Tarantino said. “Well, you know, it’s not really a time-travel movie, even though everyone is using that as a thing,” Nolan replied. “You just have to see it. You’ll see what I mean.”
Taking his seat, Tarantino had absolutely no idea about what was about to unfold on the screen. “There’s some other real cool directors there,” he told me later. “We’re waiting for the movie to start and it hit me. I realised that it hadn’t been since The Matrix that I was actually that interested in seeing a movie even though I didn’t know what I was going to see.”
After the movie was over, the directors descended on Nolan like a pack of gulls, peppering him with questions for 45 minutes. Anderson thought the movie was “beautiful” and wanted to know about the whys and wherefores of shooting on Imax 70mm. Tarantino, too, was impressed. “It’s been a while since somebody has come out with such a big vision to things,” he told me. “Even the elements, the fact that dust is everywhere, and they’re living in this dust bowl that is just completely enveloping this area of the world. That’s almost something you expect from Tarkovsky or Malick, not a science fiction adventure movie.”
It didn’t work to completely eliminate Nolan’s nerves in the weeks preceding the film’s release. Would the audience be able to follow the science? Would they be able to let go of the science and follow the emotion? Had he got the balance of story and spectacle right? “I’ve always believed that if you want to really try and make a great film, not a good film, but a great film, you have to take a lot of risks,” he told me. “It was very clear to me that if you’re going to make a film called Interstellar, it’s going to have to be something extremely ambitious. You push it in all the possible directions you can. Not for its own sake, but because you know that if you’re going to try to add something to the canon, besides fiction films and all the rest, and live up to the promise of that title and the scale of that title, you really have to go there.”
Whether he had indeed made a great film was not obvious to him, but that alone seemed to satisfy him: he had found one more thing he could reasonably claim uncertainty about.
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