Like most boys born in Hollywood’s orbit in the early 1970s, Christopher Nolan was obsessed with outer space. Star Wars was released when he was seven years old and “changed everything” – for him and for the movie industry. Every birthday in his class was celebrated with another voyage to Tatooine, another daring escape from the Death Star. He must have watched the film a dozen times.
When MGM re-released 2001: A Space Odyssey, he went to see that too. With hindsight, this looks like prescient parents exposing their little auteur to a challenging film, but he says it wasn’t like that. All his friends went to see Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, and on Sunday nights everyone tuned in to Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking science programme Cosmos. “The expense of that, the scale of that, that was all because of Star Wars,” Nolan says. “Everything was about space for years afterwards.”
This included his home movies. Space Wars was a stop motion animation shot on Super 8, with epic ambitions and an all expense spared, Blue Peter production design, its sets made out of clay and flour, egg boxes and toilet rolls. His uncle who worked at NASA, building guidance systems for the Apollo rockets, sent him some launch footage. “I re-filmed them off the screen and cut them in, thinking no-one would notice,” Nolan recalls.
When the trailer for his latest blockbuster, Interstellar, came out, featuring take-off shots consciously framed like those iconic images of the moon mission, one of his childhood collaborators called to say “it’s weird, you’re still making the same film.”
These days, Nolan has stratospheric budgets to play with. It cost around $165 million to make Interstellar – around one third of the price of a Space Shuttle flight. This is an almost failsafe investment: Nolan’s last seven movies have grossed $3.5 billion. Although some critics argue that his films aren’t emotionally engaging, the box office says he can do whatever he likes. And what he wants, more than anything, is to be his generation’s Steven Spielberg.
He would never put it like that, of course. Spielberg is like Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost, watching over Interstellar, reminding Nolan to trust his instincts. He was supposed to direct it himself – the pitch for a movie based on astrophysicist Kip Thorne’s theories about space-time travel had Spielberg’s name at the top, and it was his choice to hire Jonathan Nolan, Christopher’s brother, to write the script. The elder Nolan took over when Spielberg stepped away.
Although he is cautious about how he discusses his fellow director, Nolan admits to being inspired by Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in particular. “A family movie has come to mean an animated film,” he says. “Which is a great shame, because in the golden age of blockbusters that I grew up in, these were movies that an eight-year-old could go and see with grandma and everyone got something out of it.”
Nolan shares Spielberg’s resolutely old school approach. He shoots on film, not digital – “I’ve had a lot of conversations with Steven over the years and he loves film” – and prefers to use in-camera special effects, rather than rely on Computer Generated Imagery in post-production. Interstellar is his attempt to make a 1980s blockbuster for a contemporary audience that has grown accustomed to ever bigger, ever louder digital amazements.
That doesn’t mean there’s no CGI. “We couldn’t really go to space without visual effects,” Nolan says. But there are fewer than half as many computer enhanced shots as in most multiplex movies, and he used no green screen at all. Instead of a uniform backdrop, to be painted over afterwards using graphics software, the stars were projected in high resolution. The audience sees the same galactic panorama as the astronauts.
Interstellar’s spaceships were built as full scale models, giving the actors, led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, a sense of physical confinement and vulnerability. “We built the sets to be like simulators. We put real views outside the windows. The thing would shake when it needed to shake,” Nolan says.
Although this will inevitably draw comparisons with the centrifugal set that Kubrick used to simulate weightlessness – Interstellar is full of small tributes to 2001 – it’s the way Nolan has always worked. A fight scene in Inception, in a hotel hallway where the rules of gravity are suspended, was shot on a tumbling set, with wires and minimal after-effects. When Batman leaps off a building, his cape opens like a parachute because of tiny air tubes in the seams, not digital trickery.
Nolan shoots everything but the most complex action scenes with one camera, in this case using IMAX for the exteriors and 35mm for more confined shots. He keeps takes to a minimum and doesn’t employ a second unit. No matter how big his movies get, they come in under budget and ahead of schedule – a prime reason that an industry determined to go digital tolerates his evangelism for celluloid. “Film is the best imaging format there is,” he says. “It has the highest resolution, the best colour reproduction, no-one is ever going to tell me that digital is better.”
In an attempt to reduce online chatter, his films use work-in-progress titles. The last four have been named after his children: Rory’s First Kiss for the Dark Knight, Oliver’s Arrows for Inception and Magnus Rex for the Dark Knight Rises. Interstellar was slated as Flora’s Letter – the main female character, an inquisitive pre-adolescent played by Mackenzie Foy, is the same age as his daughter.
McConaughey plays her father, Cooper, a space pilot turned farmer in a near future where crops are failing and the struggle to survive has sapped humanity’s ambition. This is as much as Nolan is giving away. When McConaughey was sent the script, the courier waited outside until he’d finished reading it, to take it back. Composer Hans Zimmer received an enigmatic one page note about family and was asked to come up with a theme. At the press event, we are warned three times not to spoil the film’s surprises.
“I don’t think of it as secrecy: I think of it as privacy,” Nolan says. “The idea of being able to rehearse in private for a stage show is not considered unusual. The idea of a magician being able to construct and practice his tricks in private is not considered unusual.”
To fans and critics of his work, this is a familiar analogy. His fourth movie, The Prestige, is a thriller about rival illusionists. Like all of his best films, it is a game, with rules, to be played and deciphered. Nolan delights in tricking us, scattering clues and misdirection, building up to the big reveal like a conjuror. In the final scene, Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, explains why he is prepared to sacrifice for his art, in a speech that could serve as Nolan’s manifesto. “The audience knows the truth: the world is simple,” he says. “It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder. Then you get to see something really special… it was the looks on their faces.”
In lieu of going to film school, Nolan studied English literature at University College in London because it had a 16mm camera he could borrow and a Steenbeck editing table to cut tape on. His first movie, Following, was produced by his spouse Emma Thomas and shot at weekends, with a cast of friends. A noir about a stalker drawn out of his depth, it had a non-linear narrative that showcased Nolan’s skill at constructing puzzles and ensured that if he ran out of money half way through, he would still have a film.Following earned him the chance to make Memento, a thriller starring Guy Pearce as a man with no short term memory trying to find his wife’s killers. Its most distinctive feature, a narrative thread running in reverse, is now seen as a masterstroke, but every American distributor turned the film down, saying it was too confusing. Newmarket Films took the risky decision to distribute it independently, vindicated when it took $25 million at the box office.
Nolan says he knew he’d arrived when Al Pacino, his star in Insomnia, hung up a call for him: “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go – my director’s here.” But it was the Batman trilogy that established him as one of the top directors in Hollywood. In reviving a moribund franchise, he proved that action movies could be dark, uncompromising, over two hours long, and hugely profitable.
Interstellar is his attempt to go one further, or rather one further back, to a time before online games and on-demand home movies, when everybody went to see the same film because cinema promised feats of imagination that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
“Movies still thrill me,” he says. “And as far as my own movies go, when something works the way you intended it to, just in that moment it’s a tremendous thrill.” His success has handed him the keys to what Orson Welles called “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” If the volcanic rocks of Iceland remind him of a distant planet, that’s where he’ll fly his spaceship. If he wants to plant hundreds of acres of corn, then set fire to it, who is to say he shouldn’t.
When Gravity was released, Nolan called Alfonso Cuaron to explain that, because it had so much in common with his own movie, he had decided not to see it. But he did re-watch Close Encounters. “You really felt that Spielberg believed, when he made that film: ‘this is gonna happen one day, let’s address what that would be like.’ And that’s very much what [Interstellar] was for me,’” he says.
On October 14, 2012, the Space Shuttle Endeavour made its final journey, to the California Science Centre. Nolan and his wife went up to Griffith Park, near the Hollywood sign, to watch it arrive. “There were hundreds of people up there with flags, waving, and it was a very moving moment, because you looked at something that represents the peak of our collective endeavour,” he says.
Two crashes in a month, of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX rockets, show how far the private space programme has to go, but Nolan has a nine-year-old’s faith and zeal for exploration. “Getting out there into the universe, it’s absolutely going to happen. I just want it to happen within my lifetime so I can see some of it,” he says.