Christopher Nolan talks Batman, Kubrick and Space with Dave Calhoun
Time Out meets director Christopher Nolan ahead of the release of his highly anticipated sci-fi thriller Interstellar. Interview by Dave Calhoun
In the movie world Christopher Nolan is the bridge between fanboys and serious film types. He’s the 44-year-old British writer-director who turned comic-book movies on their head with his The Dark Knight trilogy – but who did so without leaving behind the cocksure intelligence and visionary edge of earlier films like Memento and Insomnia. With 2010’s Inception, Nolan showed that big-budget sci-fi could be both smart and popular. Now, with Interstellar, he’s taken that maxim deep into Outer Space with a mind-bending, epic tale that sees Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as two astronauts charged with finding a new planet to house a dwindling human race. We met with Nolan in Los Angeles, where the London-born filmmaker lives with his wife and producer partner Emma Thomas and their four young children.
You’re an old pro at releasing movies in cinemas on the back of enormous hearsay and rumour. Have you got used to it? It never gets any easier. You always feel that if you’ve created a lot of hype then you’ve created unrealistic expectations. The truth is, there’s only one way to sell an enormous film. We’ve spent a huge amount of money. You just have to bang the drum as long as you can, as loud as you can. It’s certainly daunting, but you do the best you can and put it out there.
Your films might be huge, but they’re also family affairs. You produce with your wife Emma Thomas. You write with your brother Jonathan. Do you have to build a wall between family and work? It’s a pretty feeble wall! It’s more of a beaded curtain… It is very difficult not to carry the work home, and Emma is more sensitised to that than I am. And every now and then I have to make the point that we’re able to do what we love. So if it becomes a bit obsessive and bleeds into the home life, it’s not the worst thing in the world. I actually had to drag my kids to work this morning because we didn’t have a babysitter. We were getting in the car and they were moaning about coming, And I said to them, ‘Look, you have to come to work with your mum and dad, just be thankful we’re not coal miners.’
Did you watch Gravity through closed fingers last year as you were already making your own space movie? I sheepishly admitted to Alfonso [Cuarón, the director of Gravity] when I had dinner with him during the awards season last year that I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t seen it. I said to him, ‘I can’t watch another great sci-fi film while I’m trying to do my own thing.’
Your movies show a lot of faith in audiences not being as stupid as some films suggest they might be. Do you feel a responsibility to maintain that? I feel a big responsibility because we’ve been given opportunities that other filmmakers would kill for. So you have to use it for something. I think as long as there’s sincerity in the work and a sincere desire to challenge, I think people will respect that. My attitude to the audience is very simple. I am the audience. We are the audience. And any time there’s any sense in a meeting or in a conversation at a studio of ‘us’ and ‘them’, that’s ridiculous.
With Interstellar, did you know what sort of sci-fi film you definitely didn’t want to make? No, I didn’t actually. But it wasn’t so much thinking about what I didn’t want to do as asserting the credentials of the film we were making. Put it this way: there’s a scene early on in Interstellar when the spaceship is docking with the ring module [another spaceship] and we make a lot of it. There are two types of sci-fi film. The type where those mechanics are difficult and dangerous and you’re in there with the nuts and bolts. And the type where you see the spaceship and then they’re quickly on it and off into warp drive and into the universe. Both are valid, but I needed to let the audience know which journey we were on.
After the success of The Dark Knight films, there’s no end in sight to comic-book movies in our cinemas. Do you ever feel you’ve spawned a monster? Ha! Yeah, I love working in that field and hopefully I’ve added something to it. I know to some extent we encouraged more of it. You don’t want Hollywood to hit saturation point with those things. But then Zack Snyder is now doing his part by bringing Batman and Superman into one film [for 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice], so that limits the number!
So you’re not about to direct a Marvel movie or another DC Comics movie? I think I had a great experience with the superhero genre and got to explore a lot of things, but it was a good decade of my life and I find it hard to imagine returning to it. But never say never.
How much of a part did you play in getting that iconic performance from Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight? I feel very, very proud of being involved in that performance, and it really was a collaboration. But I hesitate to take too much credit for it because Heath really was a self-starter in that regard. We talked a lot about reference points and I tried to free him up with the tone. But he really came up with the goods on that one. I’m very proud to be involved with that.
Do you feel you raised the bar for what a comic-book or superhero movie could be? I would love to think so. It’s not really for me to say, but it was the ambition for the films, definitely. When you work in any genre, you’re looking to transcend it. You don’t make a genre film wanting to make a parody or satire. You’re working in a particular constraint but you’re looking to force that box to be a little wider.
Is there a tone of film or a genre that scares you too much to give it a go? In a funny way I think you gravitate to subject matter when you’re ready – not necessarily completely ready as you want to be scaring yourself and challenging yourself a little bit. So there are all kinds of films that I look at and think, that would be terrifying to do. But maybe that just means you’re not ready for it yet. Interstellar is not a film I could have made ten years ago. It really isn’t. But ten years ago I didn’t want to. You change and grow through making films and getting older.
Where would you say Interstellar sits in relation to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? It’s clearly a huge influence. The shadow of 2001 hangs over anything vaguely in this genre. You’re daunted by it but also inspired it. This is absolutely my attempt to recreate the feeling of going to see that film with my dad when I was seven at the Odeon in London’s Leicester Square when it was re-released. That feeling of otherworldliness. That scale. You can’t make this film pretending 2001 doesn’t exist. You have to embrace it. There’s no way not to. You have to just dive in. Interstellar is in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday.