Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, And Emma Thomas Talk ‘Interstellar,’ Research, Collaborative Process, And More

interstellar christopher nolan

Christopher Nolan is no ordinary filmmaker.  His ability to make films like The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Trilogy bigger and bolder, and other large scale titles continue to wow audiences, and Interstellar will be no different.  Though I have already shared my thoughts on the film, the one thing everyone can agree on is that the film is visually jaw dropping.  Then watching it in 70mm makes it even more awe-inspiring.  So much so you actually would think that the space travel seen, the worlds the film explores, and other set pieces are real.

During the Interstellar press conference, film director Christopher Nolan, co-writer Jonathan Nolan, and producer Emma Thomas talked about creating a family drama in a sci-fi film, the months of research that went into building the science of the film, the collaborative process within the family, working with the cast of the film, if there is life on other planets, and more.  Hit the jump to check it out.

This movie might be a film without the space exploration, there is an intimate family drama within this film, so I am curious, did you see the blend of two separate ideas being turned into a space odyssey?

Christopher Nolan: I don’t think of it as much as two separate things as just a realization when I first looked at Jonas’ (Jonathan Nolan) draft on Interstellar, it was very clear that the heart is the story that there was a great set of characters – the script found the relationship, and we found that the more you explore the cosmic scheme of things, he further out the universe you went. The more focus came down to who we are as people, the connections between us. I mean just to speak to the creative approach we were taking to Hans Zimmer’s involvement in music. One of the things I did with Hans was what the genre was. Before I actually was working on the script, I wrote out a page of what I considered what was the heart of the story, the relationships, the idea of a father having to leave his child, his children. And I have it to Hans and said “give me what you got.” The finished score came from that particular creative… And from that it’s just an illustration of keeping this about the humanity and using the exploration of e universe as a lens to view in ourselves as human beings.

Jonathan Nolan: Just building on that, we are only interested in understanding the universe. You have to ground it. The first step in writing this film is trying to understand some of the science behind it. The first step was trying to understand relativity, because I felt that it would really be important and an interesting story. What I was struck by was reading Einstein’s fascinating figure who didn’t have any instruments or didn’t use telescopes, he used his mind to try to understand the universe. You read these thought experiments he come up with, it was always “two people in a train,” or “twin brothers, one in a spaceship,” and you read enough of these you get a common element from all these experiments Einstein didn’t understand the nature of the massive universe around us. They were always people. Various relationships in a sense of melancholy or longing or sorrow; one person in a train at the speed of light, and as Chris suggested, if you want to explore these bigger questions you have move proportionally in the opposite direction to make sure it is grounded and a new experience.

For a science fiction movie, Interstellar as a lot of hope, where was all that hope rooted in?

Nolan: “[It is] the most optimistic endeavor that mankind has engaged in,” he said. “I was certainly struck when they flew the space shuttle on the 747 into the Science Center here in LA. Emma [Thomas] and I went up to Griffith Park with hundreds of people waving flags watching this thing fly down, and it was a very moving moment, actually. It was also a bit melancholy because that sense of that great collective endeavor is something that feels like we’re in need of again. I feel very strongly that we’re at a point where we need to start looking up again and exploring our place in the universe.

What was your reaction to the material, and how did it come about to being what it is now?

Nolan: The Inception of the project for me began in 2006/2007. I was struck in that moment for a variety of reasons, lucky enough to be growing up in this country, this moment in time, if feels like “everyday is Christmas.” There’s some remarkable technology, there’s something remarkable thing. All those Americans who landed on the moon, did so between Chris being born and me being born, and Nolan has gone back since and seen all these Super 8 films we grew up watching of rocket launches, and you hear all these speeches of we’re not going back, in that moment it felt like the melancholy or the sadness of that was to imagine that we as a species have peaked. If you charted our evolution in terms of altitude, we kind of peaked at 1973. That was kind of a sad realization. I mean look we brought up jet packs and Instagram.

Nolan: For me the inception of it came from Jonah and the script he was working on. He was working on it with Steven Spielberg at the time. We were bouncing off ideas off each other, and it sounded incredibly exciting, and what it was that got me was the way that Jonah explained it to me. It is really about an inevitability, we are going to leave this planet at some point, further than we have, we are going to Mars, we know that on some level. So there is an inevitability to human evolution, the idea of this being the next step. With this story, you could view earth as the nest, and one day we have to leave the nest. And that to me seemed like a massive thing that hadn’t been addressed in movies.

Emma Thomas: It would be an enormous amount of fun to make a movie that heads off into space, which is something we have never done before. I love the fact that this project deals with that sort of excitement, and adventure of space travel, but at the same time has an intimate story, and is very much relatable, that I find as a parent, and frankly as a human being. I love the big question it poses, and on the face of it might seem to be somewhat depressing. On the face of it, a film about us having to leave Earth is a depressing film, but the thing that Jonah’s script had was there was a real hope to it, and a real sense of what we have as humanity, unlike any other species, is the resourcefulness and sense of adventure and resilience, and I found that to be an incredible proposition.

What did it take for you to get this film right or as close to being right as possible when dealing with wormholes, time travel, and other science things to get it as right as possible?

Nolan: Jonah worked with Kip Throne, who is an executive producer on the project, who is a great resource in terms of knowing everything there is know about the real physics or what is theorized and what’s the real issues. Along my contribution to straighten things out, because they put in all these mind-blowing ideas, and it was more than I can absorb as an audience member. So I put in a lot time in my work choosing what I thought was the most emotive, things I could really grab a hold of. I found the work to be very liberating, because it wasn’t so much of what science couldn’t do, it was more about exploration of ideas, what’s plausible, where can we go from here.

What were you looking at in terms of the message?

Nolan: I don’t like talking about message so much with films because it is a little more redactive. The reason that I am a filmmaker is to tell a story. So you hope it will have resonance with people, and for the kinds of things you are talking about, but what I really loved about Jonah’s original draft was the idea of blight, the idea of this being an agricultural crisis. Which just happened historically if you look at the potato famines. We combined this with ideas taken from Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl, and we spoke to Ken at great length, and his resources, because what struck me about the dust bowl is it was a man-made environmental crisis, but one where the imagery and the effect of it was so outmanaged we actually had to tone it down for the film. But the real point is that they’re non-specific, that what we are saying in our story, mankind is being gently nudged off the earth itself, and the reason is nonspecific. We didn’t want to be too political, but that is not really the point, for me, my excitement about the project was addressing the extremely negative idea of the earth has had enough of us. Gently suggesting we go somewhere else.

What is your opinion on life on other planets?

Thomas: For me, I don’t know what’s out there. I don’t know if you visit the NASA website, but there is genius thing where they show a picture everyday, I think it’s called Picture of the Day. One of the pictures they showed, which I expanded which was taken from Saturn, was a tiny blue dot. It was absolutely incredible to think that’s us. And it is not even being taken from far away realistically when you think about it realistically, when talking about distances, and it made me feel, like “oh my gosh.” When you look at the stars in the sky, they all look like that, there has to be something out there, how could there not be.

What do you look for in a script before you make a movie out of it?

Nolan: For my part, I look for a good story. What I find generally is a very relatable situation, a great opportunity to challenge myself as a filmmaker in various technical issues, but also emotional issues. I’m a father myself, i relate to the character as a father, I wanted to push that in terms of the story. I couldn’t tell you any more specifically than that. It just grabs me emotionally.

How long was the first cut versus what we see, and if we will see any deleted scenes from that first cut?

Nolan: I don’t think there are any deleted scenes. I don’t really deal in deleted scenes, I think probably because I write the last draft myself before I go to the floor. I try and weed out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. So preference is to take the longer cut. I actually don’t remember our very first cut, but usually it winds up being half an hour, 20 minutes shorter. For me the process of compressing what’s there, rather than falling on all elements.

Christopher, you’re used to working on these big canvases, could you go back and do smaller films?
Nolan: The fun thing for me was a lot of it was just one person, not even two people in a room, a lot of it was extremely intimate. With this film I get to do both, I get to do action and adventure, I get to do the sort of thrilling action set pieces that you try to do on the scale of things. And so I try not to be particularly subconscious in my choices but with this film I felt I had the freedom to try a lot of different elements together, and try out a lot of different things that I am interested in, and in terms of scale what that resulted in getting to do huge things, large outlandish things, and then getting to do very very intimate personal things for me that that I look forward to as a director.

Matthew felt very strongly that he wanted to come to rehearsing fresh, not know what he was going to see, because we had it all ready to go, and the first take would be the to use. The technical demands on the crew are pretty significant. We were ready, we shot it. We went on and did subsequent takes, but what’s in the film is the first take, what’s in the film is the first reaction. It’s one of those moments you get to do in film, you get to have something very raw, very human, very personal, very very intimate. There were a lot of very manly man tears, and it was an extraordinary thing to be involved with, and I just think – I mean I know that everybody knows what an incredible actor he is, but it was really electrifying to see.

What kind of research did you guys work on before you started building the ships, heading off into space, etc.?
Nolan: We did quite a lot of research before we designed the ships before we started filming. One of our greatest resources was IMAX, and their relationship with NASA, because over the last 30 years, they have the same cameras we used to shoot the film. They have gone into space, they’ve been in lower orbit, they’ve shot the shuttle, they’ve shot the International Space Station, repairs on the Hubble [Telescope], they have this incredible lively footage these incredible films from filmmakers like Tony Myers put together. One of the first things we got was a DP, a designer, a visual effects supervisor, and we rented the big IMAX screen and projected these films all in one day, and watched as them as many as we could to immerse ourselves in the detail of it. Tony Myers was a helpful resource for myself and the actors. We tried to get the feeling of all the details correct. We tried to get to appropriate textures of what kind of spacecraft it would need to be, that weird tension between the physical intimacy of the spaceship, and the fragile nature of the industrial quality of it, and the cosmic scale of where it’s going. We also tried to play that.

Chris and Jonah, you two have worked together on many projects, what was the one thing you two disagreed on the most during the creative process?

Nolan: Every collaboration I’ve had with Jonah on script has been different because of the different circumstances, how we work together. This one was very different, he worked a very long time on it, without me involved. And then he got very busy doing The Dark Knight Rises, and I said look, kinda take this and combine it with other ideas we’ve been working on. So it was a bit more on the lines of him going “okay, take a shot, see what you do with it,” and I’ve showed him what I’ve done, and he seemed reasonably happy. So it was a different kind of collaboration for us, I think I got to reap the benefits of many years of research and development on his end, and I got to come in with a fresh pair of eyes, make it my own, which is fun thing to be able to do.

Interstellar opens in theaters tomorrow.

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