Jonathan Nolan, Interstellar, and Swinging for the Fences

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There’s going big, and there’s going really big. The Nolan Brothers went really big with Interstellar. Start with the fact that their three main characters were portrayed by the previous two years’ Oscar winners, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, and the greatest actress alive, Jessica Chastain. Then add Oscar winners Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn and Matt Damon, and future Oscar winners David Oyelowo and Casey Affleck. And now go really big—make your film a space epic about the struggle for the survival of the human race, and the struggle for a father and daughter to understand each other. Add some truly stunning visuals and a magnificent Hans Zimmer score. That’s going really big, in a way that few dare to do these days. On the day Interstellar hit Blu-ray and DVD, we had to talk to Jonathan Nolan and find out more.

Paste: One of the things that I love about the films that you write is that I feel that there are not many people around that are either writing or directing films that are unapologetic, uncynical epics. You know, films that are really shooting for the moon. And I feel like you and Chris are doing that, no pun intended. And I’m curious whether is this the kind of movie that you are drawn to as a filmgoer, as well? Or is it just that when you sit down to write something, you get the urge to make it about bigger things? Does that make sense?
Jonathan Nolan: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we’ve been doing this for a while now, and our earlier suspicions have been proved correct—that it is very difficult to make movies. It’s a lot of time and money for all the people involved and so why bother if you’re not going to try to do something meaningful? I think that’s the philosophy that we’ve taken on forward. And I think with this project there was all the more desire to do something that really dealt with the bigger questions of our place in the universe and the next chapter of the human story.

Paste: Yeah, I love that kind of swing-for-the-fences attitude. There’s a group called Over the Rhine that has a great song called “I Don’t Wanna Waste Your Time With Music You Don’t Need” that’s about this very topic.
Nolan: I love that! I’ll have to check it out.

Paste: But going back to what you said at the very end of that answer … there are a couple of very specific antecedents that I’ve noticed. One is Contact, which is also a Linda Obst film, and then obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mostly in the way that they are using outer space as an excuse to ask those questions about who we are and what it all means. So I’m sure that you couldn’t have helped but have those two films in your mind when you were writing. Is that true, and were there other things that you specifically had in mind or noticed the influence of when you were writing?
Nolan: 2001. Absolutely. I had seen Contact, and I mean, start with Carl Sagan. He is a legend, and was close friends with Kip Thorne and Linda and just a most excellent human being. And his spirit was alive in Interstellar. And I think 2001, for me and for Chris as well, was one of the seminal cinematic experiences of our lifetime. Obviously this is a different film, but I think it’s playing in the same space. I think definitely 2001 was the biggest influence here. But all the Spielberg influence is there too; I began the project with Steven Spielberg. Close Encounters for me was a huge influence—one thing that I loved about that film is it had kind of a straightforward presentation of human beings. I think of Roy Neary, the main character, as portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss. You know, he’s not always an admirable human being, but he’s a very relatable human being.

There is a collective dream for us of the next chapter and the question of what does this all add up to, what does it mean? That film also plays with relativistic time travel in the end with the pilots and sailors who are returned to earth, and I remember even as a kid thinking wow, I wonder what happens to those guys? And you know, you just lost 40 years and return to Earth and what happens next? So you know, a lot of influence is from Kubrick and Spielberg. And it was a great pleasure collaborating with Spielberg with even on the earlier incarnations of this film, and then a great pleasure collaborating with Chris on the finished product.

Obviously Interstellar wears its influences on its sleeve, but I think we wanted to contribute our own spin on these questions. And sort of unusually for us, an unusual amount of emphasis on the emotional components of the journey. I think for us in part it was an antidote to the dryness of the science involved. The science is incredibly engaging and exciting, but it’s also vast in scope and scale. When you talk about black holes and neutron stars and, you know, travel across billions of light-years, you need to ground that in a human story.

Paste: As a writer and director myself, my characters actually have an effect on me, much like my actual “friends” in the real world do. And I’m curious, with something as fundamental and ethical as this, if you have noticed any impact from being in the middle of this project for so long and so deeply, on you in your life and your work?
Nolan: Oh, absolutely. Every project is different, and as you know when you get into a new project it’s like a new world that you kind of have to explore and unravel. If it’s a period piece, historical research, something set in the future or like in Interstellar, both set in the future and very specifically in a world governed by science and technology, the research becomes kind of all-consuming. With this project, I have been left with a lifelong appreciation for the work of the scientists and engineers and astronauts who are part of the space program, and I think it’s terribly important work. It’s very easy to get caught up in the mess of affairs here on Earth, and obviously there are lots and lots of problems we have to fix here. But I think it would be a huge mistake to take our eyes off the ball in terms of our dreams of pushing further and further out there into the unknown.

There is on some level a time table that we do not understand—we fool ourselves into thinking that we do, but we don’t. It’s a timetable that we can not conceive of, and it may be the most important thing that we have done as a species to ensure our own survival as a species. Obviously, there is being good custodians of the earth here at home that is critically important. It is also important for us to recognize that whether it is through something that we have done or is through something that is completely beyond our control, if we stay here on Earth inevitably at some point we will perish. So that dream of pushing out into the cosmos is actually a very practical one if you look at it from a long enough time frame.

Paste: Yeah, even on a less specific level, it’s one of the only things we can do that literally there is no end to the possibilities of what we can discover. Stretching our minds in that way is really important. Why don’t I ask you before we go about the physical act of writing for you. I like to ask writers about that. Do you have a favorite time, a favorite place? Instruments to use? Pen and paper? A word processor, typewriter? What does it look like when you’re writing?
Nolan: Never quite the same on any given project. I think it is always different because some of the circumstances are often different. I am not a creature of habit on that level. I do tend to need a good set of headphones and a comfortable chair…which is probably why most of my writing is done on planes.

Paste: Music? Classical music?
Nolan: A lot of film score, a lot of contemporary music, some classical music… a bit of everything.

Paste: Thank you so much for your time!
Nolan: Thank you. It was a pleasure.


Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard
Linklater a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the “Sarasota Film Festival”:www.sarasotafilmfestival.org; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the
podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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