The Iris Interview: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and Emma Thomas talk about working on Interstellar

Interstellar

Out today on Blu-Ray and DVD in Australia, Director/Writer/Producer Christopher Nolan, Writer Jonathan Nolan and Producer Emma Thomas sat down to talk about their epic space film Interstellar, following our chat last week with the cast.

Interstellar is a big space adventure, but a substantive portion of the film is a very intimate family drama, and I’m curious if you see blending the two to be a way of rooting this space odyssey literally in the dirt of Earth?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  I don’t think of it as two separate things.  When I first looked at Jonah’s [Jonathan Nolan] draft on Interstellar, it was very clear that at the heart of the story, there was this great set of characters; this great family relationship.  And we found that the more you explore the cosmic scale of things, the further out into the universe you went, the more the focus came down to who we are as people and what are the connections between us.

Just to speak to the creative approach we were all taking, when it came to [Composer] Hans Zimmer’s involvement in the music, one of the things I did with Hans is I didn’t want him to know what the genre was when he started working.  So, before I actually started working on the script, I wrote out a page of what I considered to be the heart of the story—the relationships, the idea of a father having to leave his children.  I gave it to Hans and said, ‘Work on that for a day and give me what you’ve got at the end of the day, and that’ll be the seed from which we can grow the score.’  And, indeed, the finished score came from that particular creative act.

I think that is just an illustration of the approach we all tried to take in terms of keeping this film about the humanity and using the exploration of the universe as really a lens through which to view ourselves as human beings, I suppose.

JONATHAN NOLAN:  Yeah, just to build on that, we are our only instrument for understanding the universe.  You have to ground it in human beings.  The first step in writing this film was trying to understand some of the science behind it.  That’s where we started.  First up was trying to understand relativity, because I felt like it would be an interesting story element.

What I was struck by is that if you read Einstein, he’s a fascinating figure who didn’t have instruments that he used.  He didn’t use telescopes; he used his mind to try to understand the universe.  You’d read these thought experiments that he’d come up with, and it was always two people on a train or twin brothers, one in a spaceship.

And if you read enough of these, you begin to realize the common element for all of these thought experiments that Einstein did to understand the nature of the massive scale of the universe around us; there were always people at the heart of all of them.  There were all these relationships; there was a sense of melancholy or longing or sorrow:  one person in a train at the speed of light.

So, as Chris suggested, the idea is that if you want to explore these bigger questions, you have to move proportionally in the opposite direction in terms of making sure it’s grounded in the human experience.

When you were writing the script, where did you find the hope and optimism that runs through it?  Where was all that rooted in?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  To me, space exploration has always represented the most hopeful and optimistic endeavor that mankind is ever really engaged with.  And I think I was certainly struck when they flew the space shuttle in on the 747 on its way to the California Science Center here in L.A.  Emma and I were up at Griffith Park with hundreds of people, who were waving flags and watching this thing fly down.

It was a very moving moment, actually, and a little melancholy at the same time, because what you felt was that sense of that great collective endeavor—the hope and optimism of that—that feels like something we’re in need of again.  I feel very strongly that we’re at a point now where we need to start looking out again and exploring our place in the universe more.

For the screenwriters, what was the initial idea or the inception of what we now see on the screen?  And for the producers and cast, what was your first encounter with the material?

JONATHAN NOLAN:  The inception of the project for me began in 2006 or 2007, when I first started thinking about it.  I was struck in that moment by what it felt like to be growing up in this age and lucky enough to be growing up in this country at this moment in time.  There’s a line about this in the film—‘It feels like every day is Christmas.’  There’s some remarkable technology.

There was a certain moment when I realized that all those human beings who landed on the moon did so in between Chris being born and me being born, and no one has gone back since.  We grew up watching all these Super 8 films of rocket launches.  You get to a certain age and you realize all the speeches about going back, they’re speeches.  There’s no money there.  We’re not going back.

In that moment, it felt like the melancholy or the sadness of that was to imagine that as a species, we might have peaked.  If you charted our evolution as a species in terms of altitude, we peaked in 1973.  That was kind of a sad realization for me.  I mean, look, you’re growing up; you’re promised jet packs and we get Instagram.  [Laughs]  Kind of a bum deal, I think.  So, I was rooted in this kind of optimism of what’s the next moment in which we start to journey once again?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  I was born in 1970, actually, Jonah, for the record.  [Laughs]  But, for me, the inception of it was talking to Jonah about the script he was working on.  We always bounce ideas off each other, and it just sounded incredibly exciting.  What it was that got me is the way Jonah originally explained it to me:  it’s really about an inevitability.  I mean, we’re going to leave this planet at some point, and travel farther than we have.  We’re going to go beyond the moon; we’re going to go to Mars.  We all know that on some level, I think, actually.

So, there’s an inevitability to human evolution, of this being the next step, and the idea that within this story, you could view the Earth as the nest, and one day we leave the nest.   And that, to me, seemed like a massive thing that hadn’t been addressed in movies.  That’s the kind of opportunity you’re looking for.

EMMA THOMAS:  Yeah, we were familiar with the project from when Jonah was writing it and we were not involved.  But I think that the thing that really excited me about the notion of this script was that, first of all, I thought it would be an enormous amount of fun to make a movie that heads out into space, which was something that we had never done before.  But I loved the fact that this is a project that deals with the excitement and adventure of space travel, but, at the same time, has a very intimate story and I find it very much relatable as a parent, and, frankly, just as a human being.

I love the big ideas in the script and the big questions that it posed.  On the face of it, you would think that a film or a story about us having to leave the Earth would be a sort of depressing one, but the thing that Jonah’s draft had and Chris continued with is the idea that there’s a real hope to it.  There’s a real sense of what we have as human beings that is unlike any other species, which is this resourcefulness and sense of adventure and resilience.  And I found that to be an incredibly exciting proposition.

There is a lot of mind-bending science in this film, which you explored with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne.  How important was it for you to get it right or as close to right as you can get something like a black hole or wormholes?  

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  Well, Jonah spent a long time working with Kip Thorne, who’s an executive producer on the project.  He’s a great resource in terms of knowing everything there is to know about the real physics of what’s theorized and what’s known about those sorts of issues.

I had the advantage of coming to the project late and being able to look at what these guys had done, and a lot of my contribution was stripping things out, because they’d put in all these incredible mind-blowing ideas, but I felt that it was more than I could absorb as an audience member.  So I spent a lot of time in my work on the script sort of choosing what I thought were the most emotive, the most sort of tactile of these ideas, and things I could really grab a hold of.

Then I found working with Kip to be very liberating, because it wasn’t so much restraint as, ‘Well, science says you can’t do this.’  It was more an exploration of ideas with him, ‘Well, okay, what’s plausible?  Where could we go here?  Where could we go there?’  I found it very, very exciting to work with him on that.

Were there any environmental themes you wanted to explore in the story, in terms of the blight that affects the crops on Earth in the film?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  Well, I don’t like to talk about messages so much with films, simply because it’s a little more didactic.  I mean, the reason I’m a filmmaker, really, is to tell stories.  So you hope that they will have resonance with people.  But what I really loved about Jonah’s original draft, and we always retained it, was the idea of blight, the idea of there being an agricultural crisis, which has happened historically, if you look at the potato famine and so forth.

We combined this with ideas taken very much from Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl.  I spoke to Ken at great length and we availed ourselves of his resources.  What struck me about the Dust Bowl is it was a manmade environmental crisis, but one where the imagery, the effect of it, was so outlandish, we actually had to sort of tone it down for what we put in the film.

The real point is that it’s non-specific.  We’re saying that in our story, mankind is being gently nudged off the planet by the Earth itself.  And the reason it’s non-specific is that we didn’t want to be too didactic or political about it.  That’s not really the point.  For me, it goes back to something Emma said earlier, which is my excitement about the project was addressing a potentially extremely negative idea that is out there in the sense of the planet having had enough of us and gently suggesting we go somewhere else—but that being a great opportunity, and an exciting adventure to be on.  That’s something I found very winning about that.

What are your beliefs on there being life somewhere far beyond Earth?

EMMA THOMAS:  Well, I’m going to say that, for me, I have no idea what’s out there, but I will say that if you’ve ever looked on the NASA website, they have this genius thing where they show a picture every day.  I think it’s called the Picture of the Day, something clever like that.  [Laughs]  But one of the pictures that they showed, which I just found to be absolutely incredible, was taken from, I think, somewhere near Saturn and it was of the Earth.  And it was this tiny little blue dot.  It’s absolutely incredible to look at that and think, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s us!’  And it’s not even taken from that far away, realistically, when you think about the relative distances we’re talking about when we’re talking about our universe.

I mean, when you look at the stars in the sky and they all look like that, there has to be something else out there.  There has to be.  How could there not be?  I don’t know.  That’s what I felt anyway.

Chris, you’ve had so many successful, amazing movies.  What do you look for in a next project?  

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  For my part, I look for a great story.  What I found in Jonah’s draft was a very relatable situation, a great opportunity to challenge myself as a filmmaker in terms of various technical issues, but also emotional issues.  I’m a father myself and I related to the character as a father and wanted to really push that in the telling of the story.  I couldn’t tell you any more specifically than that what I look for.  I look for something that just grabs me and holds me emotionally.

Chris, can you tell us about that incredible scene when Cooper breaks down in tears?  

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  Well, it’s worth pointing something out; I don’t know whether Matthew would want me to reveal it or not, but I will.  [Laughs]  He felt very strongly that he wanted to come to it absolutely fresh, not know what he was going to see, because we had it all ready to go.  The first take would be the one to use, and the technical demands that placed on the crew were pretty significant.  So, we all had to be very ready and all the rest, and we were.  So, we shot it.

We then went on and did subsequent takes, but what’s in the film is the first take.  What’s in the film is the initial first reaction.  And it’s one of those moments you get to do in film where you get to drop the theatric out in the office and you get to tap something very raw, very human, very personal, and very, very intimate.  And, you know, there were a lot of very ‘manly-man’ tears in dailies that next day.  It really was an extraordinary thing to be involved with.  I mean, everybody knows what an incredible actor he is, but it was really electrifying to see.

For Emma and Chris, how long was your first cut versus what people are seeing on screen?  Were there any deleted scenes that came really close to making the final cut?

CHRISTOPHER 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.  So, I try and weed out anything that I think really isn’t absolutely necessary.  My process is usually to take the longer cut—and I actually can’t remember what the very first cut we screened for ourselves was—but usually it winds up being, I don’t know, half-an-hour shorter or twenty minutes shorter.

For me, that’s usually a process of just compressing what’s there rather than pulling out whole elements.  So, I don’t think there are any deleted scenes.

EMMA THOMAS:  No.

Chris, since The Dark Knight Rises, it seems like you’ve been working on bigger and bigger canvases with each film.  Is that something you feel most comfortable with now?  Can you imagine yourself going back to two people in a room, do you feel most comfortable on a big screen arena?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  Well, the fun thing about this film, for me, was that a lot of it was one person in a room, not even two people in a room.  A lot of it was extremely intimate—the scene we were just talking about of Matthew and some of the stuff we did with Jessica, which is literally just one person talking.  With this sort of film, I get to do both.  I get to do that and I get to do action adventure—the thrilling action set pieces that you try and do in the scale of things.

So, I try not to be particularly self-conscious in my choices, but with this film I felt I had the freedom to try and put a lot of different elements together and try out a lot of different things that I’m interested in.  In terms of scale, what that resulted in was getting to do huge things and large, outlandish things.  And then getting to do very, very intimate, personal things.  For me as a director, that’s sort of the best of both worlds.

 Chris, did you do a lot of research with NASA before making this film to ensure it would be grounded in technology that exists now?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  Well, we did quite a lot of research before we designed the ships, and before we figured out how we were going to film it.  One of our greatest resources was IMAX and their relationship with NASA because, over the last 30 years, the same cameras we used to shoot the film have gone into space.  They’ve been in low Earth orbit; they’ve shot the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, the repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope, all these things, and they have this incredible library of footage, these great films that filmmakers like Toni Myers have put together.

So, one of the first things I did was I got the director of photography, production designer and the visual effects supervisor, and we rented the big IMAX screen at Universal CityWalk and projected these films all in one day and watched as many of them as we could to immerse ourselves in the detail of it, the feeling of it.  We had a lot of good conversations with Toni Myers, actually, and she put us in touch with Marsha Ivins, who’s been to space five times and was a helpful resource for myself and also for the actors.

So, yeah, we tried to get the feeling of the detail correct.  We tried to get the appropriate textures of what this kind of spacecraft would need to be, that weird tension between the physical intimacy of a spaceship and the fragile nature of the industrial quality of it.  And then the cosmic scale of where it’s going.  We tried to always play that.  And we were certainly very happy when Marsha came to visit the set and seemed quite impressed with the way we put it together.  It felt quite credible to her, and that was a bit of a sigh of relief.

During the script process, what was the hardest nut to crack?  What was the thing that you argued about the most in getting to the final script?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:  Every collaboration I’ve had with Jonah on a script has been different, because of our different circumstances and how we work together.  This one was very unique in that he worked for a very long time on it without me involved, and then he got very busy doing other things.  So I said, ‘Look, can I take this and combine it with some other ideas I’ve been working on?’  It was a bit more along the lines of him going, ‘Okay, take a shot, see what you do.’  Then I showed him what I’d done and, luckily, he seemed reasonably happy with it.

So, it was a different kind of collaboration for us.  And I think I got to reap the benefits of many years of research and development on his end.  I got to come in with a fresh pair of eyes and sort of make it my own, which is a fun thing to be able to do.  Hopefully he’s happy with the finished product.  I don’t remember any big arguments, because he was off doing other things.

JONATHAN NOLAN:  Very happy.  [Laughs]

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Interstellar is available on DVD and Blu-Ray in Australia today.