Christopher Nolan Uncut: On ‘Interstellar,’ Ben Affleck’s Batman, and the Future of Mankind
The visionary filmmaker opens up about his sci-fi epic, the biggest threats to humanity, and why he’d be too terrified to direct a ‘Star Wars’ film.
Christopher Nolan is the most powerful and uncompromising filmmaker in Hollywood; a man that saturates his grand, DeMille-sized productions with indie ingenuity and soul. He challenged traditional storytelling techniques with his oblique thriller Memento, and revolutionized the superhero film with his dark, demented Batman trilogy, elevating it to pop art.
Interstellar, a space odyssey shot in eye-catching IMAX 70mm, could be considered the third film in his Memento Mori trilogy—a study of ephemerality and mortality that started with Memento and continued with his exploration of the subconscious, Inception. It’s set in a near future where mankind has been reduced to a simple, agrarian society. The only fertile crop is corn, and our days are numbered. A former astronaut-turned-farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), comes out of retirement to lead a space mission through a wormhole to an alternate galaxy to find an inhabitable planet to colonize. To do so, however, he must leave his son and daughter behind.
In a wide-ranging talk, The Daily Beast spoke to Christopher Nolan about his inspirations, his thoughts about helming a Star Wars or Bond film, and how he created his most ambitious movie yet.
One of the things that came to mind when I saw Interstellar was your first film, Doodlebug. That short also dealt with multiple dimensions. What fascinates you about interdimensionality?
It might be unusual in movies, but it’s very well established in other media. I’m very inspired by the prints of M.C. Escher and the interesting connection-point or blurring of boundaries between art and science, and art and mathematics. I’m thinking of his Penrose steps illustrations that inspired Inception. Also, the writing of Jorge Borges, the great Argentinian writer, wrote all kinds of incredible short stories that dealt with paradox. But I feel like films are uniquely suited towards addressing paradox, recursiveness, and worlds-within-worlds.
Have you always wanted to make a space epic?
Very much so. I first saw Star Wars in 1977 when I was 7 years old, and I’ve never forgotten the incredible nature of that experience—the possibility of the screen opening up, sucking you in, and taking you to a different galaxy. In light of the success and weight of that movie, they re-released Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and my father took me to see it on one of the biggest screens in London in Leicester Square, and that was also a seminal experience. I was in awe of the scale of it, the escapist possibilities of it, and the sense of adventure and ability to take the audience across the universe. It definitely stuck in the back of my mind that if I were ever given the chance to give an audience of today that experience, I’d have to try and do that.
You mentioned Star Wars, and J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens is coming out. Were you interested in directing that film? And were you approached?
I’m pretty excited to see what J.J. is going to do with that. I’m excited to see that he’s shooting on film and actually built the Millennium Falcon. As far as whether or not I would have ever done it, the truth is I think I’d be afraid to touch it! He’s boldly going where he went before in Star Trek, and it takes colossal balls. I’m a lot more comfortable trying to do my own thing than carrying the weight and expectation of the entire world—particularly 40-somethings like me who live and die with each new bit of information about Star Wars. But I’m very excited to see what he does.
The all-American, Dust Bowl setting of Interstellar on a farm in the Midwest—was that inspired by Clark Kent’s upbringing in Man of Steel, which you produced?
It was. That all-American iconography has always been so potent in the Superman myth. It was in this script before I came to the project—he was developing the script for Steven Spielberg to direct, originally—and I think the Americana had worked its way in there. I certainly found it very helpful when I realized we were going to have to grow our own corn. I phoned Zack [Snyder] and said, “Well how much did you grow?” and he told me they grew 300 acres and that it cost X amount, so we grew about 500 acres of corn and actually sold it and ended up making a profit off it!
Kip Thorne served as an executive producer on the film and helped hash out a lot of the science. In a strange coincidence, the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything opened the same weekend as Interstellar. Did you also consult Kip’s good pal Hawking for Interstellar?
No, it was all Kip. And a lot of Hawking’s work, via Kip, informs the film. He’s one of the great minds when it comes to black holes. But Stephen Hawking did come to the premiere in London and I got to meet him for the second time. He watched the film and when I was introducing the film I saw him and Kip in the audience and made a joke that, “If this audience doesn’t understand the science of the film, I can’t really say to the studio, ‘Oh, well, they just don’t get it!’” Did Hawking give you any feedback on the film?
He seemed to enjoy the film very much. I was reluctant to ask anything too specific, because I felt like I would be asking for trouble!
People online have been attempting to poke holes in the science of Interstellar. Do you find that literalness a bit silly? This is a movie, after all.
To be honest, I haven’t read whatever holes people are trying to poke so I can speak to the validity of it. My films are always held to a weirdly high standard for those issues that isn’t applied to everybody else’s films—which I’m fine with. People are always accusing my films of having plot holes, and I’m very aware of the plot holes in my films and very aware of when people spot them, but they generally don’t. But what were some science issues people had with the film? That was Kip’s domain.
One thing I see being brought up is the time dilation on the planet that they land, where one hour equals seven years (or a factor of 60,000), and to get that time dilation you’d have to be literally skimming the surface of the black hole.
Like “a basketball on the rim,” which is a phrase we use! That’s completely accurate, so there’s no hole there at all. Those issues are all buttoned-up, and Kip has a book on the science of the film about what’s real, and what’s speculation—because much of it is, of course, speculation. There have been a bunch of knee-jerk tweets by people who’ve only seen the film once, but to really take on the science of the film, you’re going to need to sit down with the film for a bit and probably also read Kip’s book. I know where we cheated in the way you have to cheat in movies, and I’ve made Kip aware of those things.
You’re one of the few—perhaps the only—filmmaker in Hollywood who could make a $165 million original film. Do you feel there’s a lot of sequelitis going on in Hollywood? There are precious few large-scale, ambitious, original works.
I think that Hollywood has always had and will always have tension between the desire to do something original and fresh, and the fear of alienating an audience and the commerce of it all. When you look at big budgets, it’s rare that filmmakers get the opportunity to pursue their passion and do something original, so when I get the chance, as I have a couple of times, I really get the chance to use that opportunity because it’s an opportunity that a lot of other filmmakers would kill for. I feel a huge responsibility to go out there and do my best.
How worried are you for our future, and what do you feel are the biggest threats towards our future?
I’m very worried about our future in a lot of ways. I think nuclear weapons are still an enormous threat and tend not to get talked about very much. There are obviously massive environmentalism issues that need to be addressed. But I am an optimist, and I think this film is very optimistic. When you look at the world these characters are living in in the beginning, it’s not a post-apocalyptic Mad Max scenario. It’s bucolic, agrarian, and a simple way of life, and people are coping. When you look at people all over the world and what they have to deal with, society copes very well, and human beings are good at coming together and making the best out of situations. I worry about things, but at the same time, I have a lot of faith in people coming together to solve problems.
Elon Musk recently came out and said that artificial intelligence is our “biggest existential threat”—even more so than nuclear weapons. Is this a major concern of yours?
I haven’t given it much thought beyond its science-fiction implications, and my longtime DP Wally Pfister directed a film called Transcendence this year that very much took that on, and it got really under your skin and made it very frightening in that regard. It is a scary issue. What’s really scary is when you have someone like Elon who knows as much as he does and he’s scared about it. That scares me greatly!
Every year there are these massive NASA budget cuts, and it’s looking like we’re going to see more in 2015. Was Interstellar also your way of promoting space exploration, and sort of taking us all back to the wonderment and patriotism associated with space travel that so many felt in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
There are very few collective human endeavors as positive as the space program was—and can be. Even the idea that these days people haven’t just given up on space exploration, they’ve given up on the idea of government, frankly! People are so cynical about collective human endeavor. I went up on top of the hill to Griffith Park with my wife to watch them fly the space shuttle over L.A. on the back of a 747, and there were thousands of people there with American flags, and it was all very emotional and very moving because you were looking at something entirely positive that we had all done together. There are not many examples of that in our world. The human desire for knowledge and exploration is an absolute good, and we need to follow that instinct.
What about the concept of colonization of other planets? I know every time Newt Gingrich brings it up he gets roundly mocked for it, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched that we’d actually have to go that route in the future.
I don’t think it’s as far-fetched as we’d like it to be. The idea that mankind will have to reckon with our place in the universe is absolutely inevitable; it’s just a question of what the time-scale is. I’d much rather in real life have that reckoning come about through choice and that human desire for curiosity and expansion in a very positive way rather than it does in the film—as a very dire necessity.
I grew up with the Burton/Keaton Batman films, but then you converted me. Is there any way you’d return to direct another superhero film, or is that chapter done with?
I worked on it for a long time—almost 10 years—and had an incredible experience. It was totally fulfilling, so I’m done with that part of my life. But it was really thrilling.
When the Edward Snowden/NSA reveal happened, did you have a “holy crap” moment where you realized just how prescient The Dark Knight was?
Well, no! It was a fascinating thing because my brother worked on the first draft of the screenplay and put all that stuff in, and since then he’s created a television program called Person of Interest that deals with those issues very much. When he first pitched it to me for The Dark Knight, I liked the thematic idea, but I found it possibly a little far-fetched. He would talk me through and explain to me why he thought it wasn’t far-fetched, and he turned out to be absolutely right in a way that is frankly terrifying.
I understand you were influential in casting Ben Affleck as Batman in Dawn of Justice, and there was a lot of skepticism on behalf of the Internet—as is its wont—when Affleck was first cast. Why did you feel he was the right guy for the role?
I’m only involved in that project in an advisory capacity as an executive producer, so I’m not involved in the day-to-day. When they told me that Ben was interested in doing it, I thought, “How thrilling!” This is the guy who just won Best Picture as a director and as an actor, and I thought it would be a great thing that he’d be willing to do this. I think the guy is incredibly talented and I’m very excited to see what Zack and Ben do together.
I’ve heard that you’re a big fan of the Bond films, and I think it would be great to see you direct one of those.
I love James Bond and I’ve talked with the producers over the years, but nothing’s ever worked out. They do a great job—they don’t need me right now, and Sam [Mendes] is an extraordinary talent. I will absolutely be first in line to see the next Bond film as I have been for all of them.
One of the more fascinating projects I read about that never came to fruition was your Howard Hughes biopic starring Jim Carrey. How devastating was it to have to scrap that when The Aviator went into production, and do you think you’d ever revisit it?
I was definitely like, "Fuck!" I think it’s the best script I’ve ever written, and I had a really wonderful experience writing it. Yeah, it was a frustrating experience that the other movie got going. Will I revisit it? I have no idea. I really don’t think about what I’m going to do next until I’m completely finished, and for the next couple of weeks I’m still all about Interstellar. I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, but I wrote it a long time ago.
Do you have other scripts like the Hughes biopic buried in the filing cabinet that you’re keen on revisiting? I couldn’t possibly comment on that. [Laughs] There’s stuff in there, but whether or not I want to revisit it I haven’t thought about. I usually dig out my old scripts in between movies and see if anything sparks there, and sometimes you get a chance to finish it, like Inception, and sometimes you don’t.
Are we going to see you on a Virgin Galactic or SpaceX flight in the future?
I would love to go to space and I’m very excited that there are people dedicated themselves and their lives to try and get us back out there. It makes me very hopeful that, in my lifetime, space travel will become a more commonplace thing and something that I’d be able to try.
I thought Matthew was excellent in Interstellar. I think it’s a perception problem but, much like the acting in Spielberg and Kubrick films, I don’t think the actors seem to get enough credit for the performances in your films, and perhaps it has to do with the scale of the production.
Oh, I feel absolutely the same way. The technique of the film can overshadow the performances to some degree, but I wouldn’t want to emphasize it too much because I want these great actors to keep working with me! Leo’s performance in Inception was extraordinary, and he didn’t get nearly enough credit for that and what it meant for the film—exactly the same way Guy Pearce carried Memento, and opened it up to audiences in a unique way. A very overlooked performance. I’m hoping audiences don’t overlook Matthew’s performance in the same way. It’s hard for me to make any claims about the film, but as far as what he’s done, it’s mind-blowing.
What’s it like collaborating with your brother, Jonathan, on screenplays like Interstellar? He does his first draft, and then you make a pass at it, and then is there head-butting after?
No, not really. We tend to work pretty individually, and it works differently on every film. Sometimes, it’s something I’ve given him that I’ve read or written, and other times it’s the other way around. It’s different every time, and that’s what keeps it interesting. But there’s no political agenda and no bullshit, so it’s really fun. In the case of Interstellar, he’d been working on it for a number of years for Steven Spielberg to direct, and when it became available to me, I combined it with a script I’d been working on for a number of years—in the back of the filing cabinet, as it were—and I took it and ran with it. I hope he feels that I was able to get to the heart of what he was trying to do in the first place.