Interview: Christopher Nolan on Interstellar
Working on the kind of epic scale needed for his new film is a dream come true, Christopher Nolan tells Alistair Harkness
CHRISTOPHER Nolan,wants to get one thing straight. “I like movies.” This might not sound like an Earth-shattering revelation from the director of The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and now Interstellar. Yet at a time when the narrative possibilities of television are not only luring contemporaries such as David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh to the small screen, but have also provided the star of his new film with the most talked-about role of the year (Matthew McConaughey in True Detective), Nolan, pictured below, is resolute that his love of cinema transcends anything that Netflix or HBO could possibly offer him as a director.
“For me the great thing about movies has always been the large screen/large audience experience. One of my earliest memories of going to the movies was going to see 2001 when I was seven years old and I’ve never forgotten the scale of that experience. I saw my first Imax movie when I was 15 and immediately wanted to make features in that format at that point. So for me, working on this scale has been a long-held dream.”
A sci-fi epic about the race to save humanity in a near-future where the Earth is dying, Interstellar certainly seems like the culmination of a journey he’s been on since that aforementioned exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s space odyssey. For one thing, having first demonstrated the full potential of Imax with The Dark Knight, the new film features 70 minutes’ worth of footage specifically shot in the giant format – the most ever for a movie. For another, the cosmic nature of Interstellar’s plot provides a nifty way to bring things full circle to the big bang moment that sparked his own love of cinema. Indeed, if his films frequently function as metaphors for his own creative process – the backwards narrative of Memento, the misdirection of The Prestige, the lucid dreaming of Inception – then it’s tempting to view the time-altering intergalactic wormhole through which Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut travels in Interstellar as Nolan’s own way of reaching into the past to revisit some of his own formative influences. The cinematic experiences, in other words, that set him on his current mission, striving to convey the sense of big screen awe that he’s always held sacred.
“The first thing that interested me about it actually was that it was about a relationship between a father and his children,” says Nolan. “I’m a father myself so I found that very powerful, but I liked the idea of combining that with this story that speculates on a potential moment in human evolution where mankind would have to reckon with its place in the universe.
“I grew up in the era that was really a Golden Age for the blockbuster with films from people like Spielberg and I always loved how something like Close Encounters addressed the moment when humans would meet aliens, but did it from a family perspective, a very relatable human perspective. I really liked the idea of trying to give today’s audiences some of that form of storytelling.”
This makes sense. Interstellar began life, after all, as a project for Steven Spielberg written by Nolan’s younger brother Jonathan. Nevertheless, the finished film – which Nolan co-wrote with his brother – is unmistakably of a piece with own body of work, the combination of the epic and the intimate as intrinsic to his own self-taught filmmaking style as it is a result of external influences.
When he first started making Super-8 short films as a kid, for instance, he used to splice projected footage of the Apollo missions (purloined from his uncle, who did some work for Nasa) into his home movies to give them some production value.
When he set out to make his debut feature Following, he didn’t let a lack of budget limit his desire to make a modern noir with an ambitious, fractured narrative.
Instead, he took a job stacking shelves at Boots in Piccadilly to fund the production and shot the movie around London at weekends for nine months using borrowed equipment. The scope of his filmmaking ambition was always grand, even when the means of achieving it were necessarily intimate.
That, however, is something that seems to have evolved into a more interesting way of making blockbusters. Despite filming on glaciers in Iceland and on massive sets utilising elaborate props, Matthew McConaughey saw no discernible difference between acting in this and his previous film, The Dallas Buyers Club. “I think that’s a real compliment to the process,” drawls the recent Oscar-winner. “While there’s a much larger scope to the set-pieces and the action, when you’re acting in the film, it felt just as intimate and just as raw and just as natural as most independents like Dallas Buyers Club are forced to feel because you don’t have the time, you don’t have the money.”
“The other great thing about working with Chris,” adds Jessica Chastain, who plays the grown-up version of McConaughey’s scientist daughter, “is that it’s all practical effects. You actually have things to react to as an actor, which is awesome. There’s no green screen. And it moves so quick. We’d do three or four takes to let me get everything I wanted to do out of my system without trying to impose anything on it that wasn’t natural.”
That sense of urgency is reflected in the theme of the movie. But as one of the few A-list filmmakers who refuses to make the switch from celluloid to digital, it also mirrors Nolan’s feelings about the need to preserve film as an option for shooting movies.
“We’re certainly being swamped by digital technology,” sighs Nolan. “It’s not really a question of whether [film] should or shouldn’t have a future; it sort of has to. Even from an archival point of view, the libraries of all the film studios can’t function without it. It’s very important to preserve its place within the filmmaking process. That’s why I’ve been drawing attention to it: for preservation for future generations.”
One more reason, perhaps, while he’ll always love movies.
• Interstellar is on general release