Defying Gravity: The Cosmic Corn of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’

Interstellar poster art by Zero


March 13, 2024

By Tim Pelan


I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that
would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars.

—Jorge Luis Borges

Time and gravity. Two forces that exert an enormous physical and psychological influence on humanity. Each pushes and pulls us in ways that only physicists can truly (theoretically) fathom. Yet with enough thrust, we can slip the surly bonds of Earth and leave this small blue marble for the vastness of space. We can’t, however, escape time’s winged arrow. In the strictest Western translation of the Sanskrit text, the Bhagavad Ghita, Vishnu states to the Prince, “I am all powerful time, which destroys all things.” In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper / Coop, a former NASA test pilot, now frustrated farmer on a dustbowl world, must find a habitable planet to save humanity and return home in time to reunite with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain), whom he swore he would see again, and repair that severed bond. Some bemoan an apparent lack of surprise in Nolan’s films, in that he signposts events and twists, then throws their hands up at the apparently baffling and ludicrous climax in this space travel epic. He was dropping breadcrumbs (or corncobs—only corn will grow in the failing soil) right from the start, slick. It’s all leading up to love in the fifth dimension, the drive for connection, and so much more. The beauty of such high-level theoretical physics is that the storymaker can go further than you’d thought. If he chooses to explain (to a degree) what happens to his McConaissance pilot “beyond the infinite” in contrast to Stanley Kubrick’s philosophical head scratching in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that’s because one of the central themes, apart from rekindling the yearning to explore, is the human capacity to love. Time and gravity. To paraphrase a derided phrase from Marvel’s WandaVision, what are these forces, if not love persevering?

Christopher Nolan, with each advance in scale and scope in his films, has become the caretaker generation of his film idols. In a Hollywood of franchises and the lowest common denominator, there is a need for more filmmakers to be as bold. When I first saw Interstellar I was enthralled, gripped, moved, and intrigued, and remain so. It is science seemingly made easy, yet eye-opening. Grounded by human foibles, in space and on a crop-blighted Earth, where teachers have banned old federal textbooks (I thought that was an interesting aside—what is taught elsewhere in the world?) in favour of writing the Apollo Moon missions off as propaganda, designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union (a nice sly wink to the Kubrick conspiracy theory) and keep minds focused on feeding the world.


McConaughey’s Coop (a fitting name for a trammelled traveller) bemoans his and mankind’s lot. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars; now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” His pigeonholed earthbound pilot was originally to wear a battered leather bomber jacket, a la Chuck Yeager; instead he wears a sand-colored Carhartt workhorse jacket, a look which his daughter, as an adult, later unconsciously emulates. While his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck) is content to plough on, his sparky daughter Murph (a brilliant Mackenzie Foy in the earlier section, later Jessica Chastain) shares his love of science. Mysterious signals generated by a gravitational anomaly in her bedroom, manifested in the form of dust mote “fingers” stretching, beckoning, across the floor, lead them to the now underground, top secret NASA (The Nolan Variations author Tom Shone considers this “pure Nolan, a poetic rendition of the Poynting-Robertson drag, by which stardust is pulled into circular orbit by the sun.”). At NASA, Cooper is offered an incredible opportunity, yet impossible wrench—save the human race, or stay with his kids, and watch them choke as the Earth’s oxygen supply dwindles away.

One of the most affecting and awe-inspiring scenes is the difficult attempt Coop makes to square his decision to leave a tearful Murph, before she runs after his pickup as it takes off up the farm’s path, overlaid with a mission countdown and the powerful spacecraft’s takeoff ignition, that thunders into your bootstraps. Coop flips back the rug on the passenger seat, where Murph has stolen away before, half-hoping she is there, maybe. Composer Hans Zimmer’s score, intertwined with the sound design here, is at its most powerful and affecting, rising to a Mahleresque crescendo on the enormous pipe organ of Temple Church in London’s Fleet Street. “Pulling out all the stops” led to the lowest notes ballooning out so much air the windows bulged. The screen erupts in fire, then cuts to silent space. There is no turning back.


Once in space, the crew docks with their home for the trip, The Endurance, named after Shackleton’s Antarctic vessel. This often appears on screen as a tiny, revolving speck against planetary and wormhole / black hole behemoths, much like Carl Sagan’s dandelion craft from TV series Cosmos. Nolan considers it a mere coincidence that the equipment and living space sections grouped in sections of four around a central, centrifugal wheel resemble a watch dial. Yet others have pointed out that the angle of the ship’s “arm” as Cooper later attempts to line up Endurance with Gargantua and drop via a Ranger vessel into and “through” matches the position of the watch hand Murph is left with by her dad, “tapping out” Morse from him in The Tesseract, a fifth-dimensional way station “beyond the infinite.” Coop is coming home, but when…?

Special effects are grounded in model work, large practical sets and craft, locations, and front projection—what the actors see out of their spacecraft window is what we see. Like Kubrick, Nolan chooses to not have sound effects of rockets and so on. Even the robots are utilitarian “machines,” more akin to mobile Monoliths with multiple subdivisions of joints. A thrilling journey through glowing space “debris” is intercut with adult Murph levelling a corn crop to persuade others to safety (If you burn it, they will leave?), recalling the “firefly” effect described by astronaut John Glenn, intercut with aboriginal fire sparks from Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, one of many influences on Nolan’s film.


The team, comprised of NASA Professor Brand’s (Michael Caine) biologist daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and multi-purpose monolithic robots CASE and TARS, are tasked with two plans: either secure one of three habitable planets discovered by the previous “Lazarus” explorers on the other side of a mysterious, miraculous even wormhole, so that Brand Sr. (and latterly Chastain’s grown Murph) can finalise his gravity equation that will enable the remaining population to leave our dusty home; or failing this plan, to begin a new colony with frozen embryos on one of three previously explored planets reachable via the wormhole.

Interstellar didn’t start off as a Christopher Nolan idea. Its genesis was around 2006 at Paramount Pictures under producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. They had both collaborated on Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact, and Thorne was invited to develop a film around his own theories of warped space-time. Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan, or Jonah, began to flesh the concept out. Steven Spielberg was attached to direct until the project fizzled out. During the development, the brothers bounced ideas off each other. Chris swept in when the opportunity arose to meld their ideas with his own. Out came the Chinese mission, multiple black holes, the American probe that returned from the future to start off the quest, a “city” under the ice, the differently explained means to manipulate gravity, and more. It seems quite dense. Christopher Nolan rewrote, collaborating with his brother and with Kip Thorne on just how far he could push his own ideas, “getting it to a place where it was true to his original intentions but also very resonant with things that I’d been wanting to do for a long time.” Their screenplay tacitly balances scientific curiosity and the survival instinct against the power of love as a fundamental part of the human equation. A key quote between Brand and Coop concerns evil in nature—it doesn’t exist; it’s there to be feared sometimes, but as Terrence Malick’s soldier mused in The Thin Red Line, there’s only what we bring into the world. Interstellar’s characters struggle with loneliness, hope, despair, time’s winged arrow, and much more. When the crew, after a devastating loss, makes a decision on which of two promising planets to explore with their remaining resources and discovers Lazarus explorer Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), he confesses that he “juked the stats”—he couldn’t accept dying alone with no human contact of any kind. “I knew that if I just pressed that button, somebody would come and save me.” His world is a literal dead end.


The water planet and the ice planet Nolan confronts us with present us with two human conundrums—the capacity for love and the capacity for betrayal. Relativity is a bitch—choosing to go down to either of these planets is fraught with risk. The water planet has time dilation greater than Kip Thorne had ever seen in physics—Nolan insisted on it. Thorne did a calculation: “if you have a black hole that spins rapidly enough and a planet that is very close to the last stable circular orbit, you could get the time dilation he [Nolan] wanted (eight years). It just amazed me.” Not every day a film expands our knowledge of science in the real world! A few minutes on the surface can equal weeks or months back home. When an accident causes the engines to flood and even more time is lost draining them to escape the next “gargantuan” wave caused by the particular orbital forces, twenty-three years, four months, and eight days have passed, not just on Earth but on the orbiting Endurance. Cooper sits down to check on a bucketload of messages from Tom back home (Murph refused to record any). Along with that earlier countdown up the driveway, this is the most devastating scene in the film.

At first, Coop is proud, happy, and surprised by developments. High school scores, a first love. As Tom appears older, telling of Grandpa passing away, a grandson—Coop can no longer hold back the tears. The screen holds on to his face, like Prometheus lashed to the chair, doomed to have his heart pecked at forever for daring to steal the secret of gravity from the Gods. And then, one more devastating message. It is Murph, shockingly grown, the same age as Coop when he left. “Now would be a really good time for you to come back,” she chokes.


Nolan told Shone, “One of the things in Jonah’s script that he just nailed was this moment, and that scene is just key, the spirit of that. I thought it was something I’d never seen before. It really, really spoke to me. I talked to Matthew about it a lot, and the way he wanted to do it was we filmed all of the messages in advance. I didn’t want to use visual effects to put them in. But what he wanted to do was not see them until he shot the scene and started his close-up. What he was doing was right on the edge of being too real because he was experiencing it in a very real way as a father, and I think one of those takes might’ve actually been beyond it… A lot of people still talk to me about that scene, and the effect it had on them. And it was intended to. I find it very emotional. It’s very much about things that I care about and find emotional.”

Ultimately, this is also a film about the longing for contact, on a human scale. The working title was Flora’s Letter, named for one of Nolan’s children (each other child had been used thus with previous projects. Flora cameos as a child fleeing the dust storm on a flatbed truck). On requesting a score from Hans Zimmer, Nolan presented the project as a precis about a father who leaves on an important job, with two key lines: “I’ll come back,” “When?” and quoting a remark from Zimmer himself on a snowy, silent night in London when he, Nolan, and his wife/Producer Emma Thomas were dining in Piccadilly’s Wolseley restaurant when transport links ground to a halt: “Once your children are born, you can never look at yourself through your eyes any more; you always look at yourself through their eyes.” That line reimagined as Coop’s enigmatic “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” Zimmer presupposed the film would be a drama of interfamily relationships, and in a sense, it still is. Biographer/analyst Tom Shone considers it a “maximalist movie in minimalist mode.” Nolan chose to “start with the emotion, start with the basic heart of the story, then build the mechanics out from that.” He considers Interstellar akin to the blockbusters that existed when he was a boy, intelligent family films that didn’t talk down, that weren’t a mere marketing tie-in or franchise fodder. Classic films such as Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “When I was a kid, these were family films in the best sense, and they were as edgy, incisive and challenging as anything else on the blockbuster spectrum. I wanted to bring that back in some way.”


Time may be the enemy (Nolan literally uses this concept in his next film, Dunkirk), but with quantum physics, time can be manipulated to send the message of the gravity equation solved by mankind’s far future descendants and downloaded by robot companion TARS. Coop literally becomes the ghost in Murph’s room. Transmission achieved, The Tesseract closes in, and Coop finds himself in a space station in orbit around Saturn (where the Wormhole had first appeared). He gets the privilege of meeting his now very elderly daughter (played by Ellen Burstyn), soon to die, but alert, happy, and surrounded by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. An impossible dream. She has made her peace with him, and combined, they saved the human race (amusingly, Coop thinks Cooper Station One is named for him). But he doesn’t belong here. He’s still somewhat of a ghost. The explorer still stirs within him. With a fixed-up TARS, he sets out to find Brand, ground zero for humanity, Point Two on the only truly habitable world beyond the wormhole. The need for connection, combined with wanderlust. Per aspera ad astra.

“We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”
—Carl Sagan

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »



We had grown up in the moment between ‘2001’—which was made before we existed—and ‘Close Encounters.’ Spectacular science fiction. But it felt a little like misanthropy had crept in there a little bit. Maybe we were an unlikely team to tackle something with a more positive take on sci-fi. But there is a bracing optimism to ‘Interstellar’—the next chapter in the human story will be optimism.Jonathan Nolan on Interstellar

The project was originally developed by Lynda Obst. She’s great friends with Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at CalTech, and their dream was to make a science-fiction film where the more outlandish concepts were derived from real-world science. They originally developed the film with Steven Spielberg at Paramount and they hired my brother to come up with a story and a script. He and I talk about everything, whether or not we’re working on it together, so I’d been hearing about it over the four years he worked on it, and I really felt that there was an extraordinary opportunity there to tell a very intimate story of human connection and relationships and contrast it with the cosmic scale of the overall events. So when I had the chance to get involved, I wanted to jump on it because I feel that those kinds of opportunities are very few and far between, where you really see what something could be, in terms of what the balance is between the emotional side of the story and the scale of the thing, the vastness of what the story tries to encompass.Christopher Nolan on Interstellar


A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan’s screenplay for Interstellar [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.




Before Cooper left his daughter to find humanity a new home in space, there were the Lazarus missions. Led by Dr. Mann, this was NASA’s first attempt to locate a hospitable exoplanet. So what happened to Mann on the other side of the wormhole? Sean Gordon Murphy drew the illustrations, and Christopher Nolan wrote the script. It was featured exclusively on Wired Magazine’s main site.




This is where Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper encounters the Tesseract: an artificial construct that allows him to perceive time as a physical dimension. The design and execution was a total collaboration between Nolan, theoretical physicist and exec producer Kip Thorne, the art department led by production designer Nathan Crowley, and VFX studio Double Negative led by co-owner/supervisor Paul Franklin. “We looked at works from Gerhard Richter, who has this technique of scraping the paint across the canvas and leaving these trails, so there’s this sense of a historical record,” Franklin explains. “The other thing I looked at was slit scan photography, and of, course, the Stargate in ‘2001,’ but it goes back a lot further than that.” —Inside the Making of the Spectacular Tesseract in ‘Interstellar’


Read Empire’s original 2014 feature about the making of Interstellar. Originally published in Empire Magazine in November 2014.

~ ~ ~

Christopher Nolan is flying a spaceship. Weighing 12 tons and mounted ten feet off the ground on a complex arrangement of pistons, this truck-sized, bevelled rectangle resembles the design sweet spot between The Dark Knight’s Tumbler, an Empire Strikes Back snowspeeder, a space shuttle and the submersible Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me. Empire stands a safe distance from the craft’s stern, which has at its centre a circular hatch (for docking, we’re told). Its angular nose is directed away from us, towards a smoke machine, an industrial fan and a huge, white curtain which hangs from the rafters of this Sony Pictures Studios sound stage (the same one that housed the Batcave). And hard-mounted on the spaceship’s top port side, like a noisy, boxy carbuncle, is an IMAX camera.

The fair-haired captain of this good ship, which he’s named the Ranger, stands a few metres to its right in jacket, waistcoat and sky-blue shirt. Flanked by his new director of photography, the Dutch-Swedish Hoyte Van Hoytema (long-haired, bearded, clad in goth-black), and his long-serving first assistant director Nilo Otero (who, with his neat sweep of silver hair, sharp suit and ever-present toothpick, could be a Mob-movie consigliere), Nolan positions himself behind a steampunkish control panel: three strips of copper bolted together in a triangle and rod-mounted on a stand.

“Okay, gimbal’s powering up… LET’S STAY CLEAR!” barks Otero, strutting the danger-zone perimeter. “GOING HOT ON THE GIMBAL!”

The motion base beneath the Ranger rumbles into life and Nolan grasps the copper triangle, or “the waldo”. As he twists it and turns it, the huge craft follows its movements, amplified and accompanied by the hissing and puffing of hydraulics. Smoke gusts across the ship’s multi-windowed prow, representing atmosphere that will buffet the craft on screen.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” yells Emma Thomas—producer, Nolan’s other half, and Empire’s tour guide for its one-day Interstellar voyage this mid-November day in Los Angeles. As Nolan, a huge smile illuminating his usually brow-darkened face, pulls back on the waldo and causes his craft to tilt as vertically 
as this rig will allow, we fight the nervous urge to step back. Or cry, “She cannae take it, cap’n!”

“Something to put under the Christmas tree!” Otero grins at us, pick wedged between his teeth. “It’s the biggest electric train set in Hollywood!”

Nolan gives the waldo a good, hard jiggle, and the Ranger shudders and jerks with worrying intensity. A few chunks of its rear undercarriage, actually polystyrene, break away and tumble to the floor. He is not just piloting a ship. He is playing the turbulence. And he’s loving it. “Chris is like a boy with toys,” faux-sighs Thomas, shaking her head. “He is enjoying things far too much.”

Eventually, the waldo is released and the gimbal powers down. Nolan spots Empire and strides over, light-footed, to greet us. “We’re just shooting lots of little pieces that will fit into various spots,” he explains of his day’s work. “This will be one of a series of foreground shots.” This is a very big toy with which to be achieving some ‘little’ shots… “It does give you a sense of power,” Nolan admits, nodding over to the Ranger, which if not life-size, is pretty damn close at 80 per cent scale. More used to VFX-heavy ‘create it in post’ productions with their echoing stages swathed in greenscreen, Empire comments that we’ve honestly never seen anything like this before on a film set.

“That,” says Nolan with a smile, “is because nothing like this has ever been done before!”

There was a time when everybody’s favourite Christopher Nolan rumour would be that he’d direct the next Bond. Then he made Inception. So everyone’s next favourite Nolan rumour, which peaked around two years ago, was that he could be in line to direct the new Star Wars. Even if we all really knew in our hearts it would never happen. Christopher Nolan, old-school-harking master of in-camera techniques and practical effects doing spaceships and robots? Yeah, right…

Then he made Interstellar.

It didn’t begin as a Christopher Nolan project, though. It originated around eight years ago at Paramount Pictures under the guidance of veteran producer Lynda Obst, after theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (with whom she’d collaborated on Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact) had suggested sculpting a motion-picture concept around his own theories concerning “warped space-time”. It was swiftly picked up by Steven Spielberg, who hired Jonathan ‘Jonah’ Nolan—younger brother of Christopher and co-writer of Memento, The Prestige and the Dark Knight trilogy—to transform Thorne’s outline into an exciting narrative that he could direct: Distant Encounters Of A New Kind, if you like.

As Jonah worked on the script over the next four years, his sibling’s awareness of it grew. “My brother’s very discreet,” says Christopher, “but we always use each other as a sounding board, so I was pretty aware of the things he was trying to accomplish.” When Spielberg departed to focus on other projects, Nolan was in prime position to swoop, keen to fuse the Obst/Thorne/Spielberg/Jonah vision with some “very compatible” ideas of his own. Paramount welcomed his approach, and it says something about Nolan’s heft and sheer commerciality that his ‘home’ studio Warner Bros. then weighed in, trading with Paramount its rights to co-finance a South Park movie, the next Friday The 13th and “a to-be-determined A-list Warners property” for a stake in Interstellar. (While Paramount is distributing the film domestically, Warner Bros. is releasing it internationally.)

“I’d been working on a couple of other science-fiction scripts,” Nolan explains, “spec scripts that I hadn’t ever shown anyone.” He took his brother’s screenplay “and rewrote it based on a new set of ideas, getting it to a place where it was true to his original intentions but also very resonant with things that I’d been wanting to do for a long time.” What those things are, the director will not 
say. “I don’t think I can,” he apologises, “because they all point in directions I don’t really want to point viewers before they see the film. Not that the film is full of twists and turns or surprises. It’s very classically constructed, but the freshness of the narrative elements really enhance the movie.”

He does confirm that the first hour, set on a near-future, resource-depleted Earth, inspired by the Dust Bowl of 1930s, Depression-hit America where over-ploughed and arid prairies regularly threw up state-scouring ‘black blizzards’, is “very true to Jonah’s original story”. It’s what comes after—when a team of scientists and pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) head into space via a galactic-shortcutting wormhole to find a new home for humanity—that was most reworked, although both Jonah and Thorne remained involved.

Nolan may not be drawn on details, but he is happy to describe the flavour of his own space odysssey. “It’s not straight action and it’s not straight thriller,” he says carefully. “I do liken it to the blockbusters I grew up with as a kid. A lot of them by Spielberg. I don’t like talking about Spielberg too much because he was the director on the project before me and I don’t want to keep coming back to that, but the truth is, there’s a great spirit to films like Close Encounters and Jaws that I really wanted to try and capture, because I haven’t seen it in a very long time. I mean, J. J. (Abrams) paid great homage to it in Super 8, but it was a very literal homage. We’re trying to do: ‘What would that [kind of] film be now?’ Not in that period, as J. J. did, but now.

“It’s been a really interesting challenge,” he continues. “When you say you’re making a family film, it has all these pejorative connotations that it’ll be somehow soft. But when I was a kid, these were family films in the best sense, and they were as edgy and incisive and challenging as anything else on the blockbuster spectrum. I wanted to bring that back in some way.”

As Emma Thomas shows Empire around Interstellar’s extensive sets, it is hard to contain our childish exhilaration, having grown up with widely televised space shuttle launches and movies ranging from Disney’s The Black Hole to, of course, Kubrick’s 2001. The sheer scale on display here is quite simply jawdropping.

We explore the interior of the Ranger, which intriguingly contains metal, coffin-like cryobeds (the film’s biggest departure from achievable science, confesses Thomas) and swing on 360-degree pivoting seats within the film’s “heavy-lift” craft the Lander. We encounter CASE, one of the story’s two robots (the other’s named TARS), a 200lb, monolith-like black rectangle with a pair of screens embedded in its upper half. And Thomas takes us to the Endurance, the mothership of the “Lazarus” mission, which, in its complete, exterior on-screen form (realised primarily with miniatures crafted at New Deal Studios) is a spinning wheel arranged around a dozen specialised capsules, connected by circular tubeways. Here on the lot, three of those capsules are arranged with the cockpit at the centre, full-sized, on an immense steel see-saw. This pivots in three places so the sets can be tipped as needed, to maintain the illusion of life on the inner rim of a giant, manmade wheel, the centrifugal spin of which creates gravity’s closest substitute for the long-haul crew.

Thomas ushers Empire inside and encourages us to explore. Naturally, we plomp ourselves straight down in the pilot’s seat, which rather quaintly comes topped with a thick, fur comfort mat. Everything around us is scuffed, a bit grimy, dusty and resolutely analogue. We flick metal toggle-switches, jab at buttons, peer at dials and grip and wiggle a joystick like we’re playing The Last Starfighter. This is a graspable future, not a slick, hyperdesigned fantasy of manipulable holographic displays and colossal screens. It is worn-out and cobbled together from existing parts, by a NASA that in Interstellar’s exhausted world has been reduced to an underground organisation.

“It took 20 years to build the Endurance [in the film],” production designer Nathan Crowley explains later. “It’s a real mish-mash of different kinds of technology. You need analogue stuff as well as digital stuff, you need back-up systems and tangible switches. It’s really like a submarine in space. Every inch of space is used, everything has a purpose. We needed to ground it in the ISS (International Space Station) of NASA.” The American space agency was closely consulted throughout to help ensure the film’s extra-planetary scenes had an authenticity that, says Crowley, “allowed us to create a danger. We shouldn’t be in space. We don’t belong there. The story’s about leaving paradise because we’ve destroyed it, and we have to go through space in this tin can. Space travel isn’t, ‘Warp nine please, Mr. Sulu,’ otherwise we’d just press a button and the film would be over in ten minutes. It’s about an uphill struggle and figuring problems as you go.”

Some of those problems must be solved using nothing more hi-tech than graphite and paper; an inch-long pencil nub is Velcroed to the dashboard just below a large window, which looks out onto another great, white sheet. Again: white, not green. Fourteen weeks into a 19-week shoot, and Nolan has somehow avoided utilising a single swatch of greenscreen. Instead, he’s doing something rather more old-fashioned.

“The number of visual effects isn’t significantly greater than, say, The Dark Knight Rises or Inception,” says VFX supervisor Paul Franklin over lunch that day. “But the imagery that we’re creating is very adventurous so it’s pushing us in terms of technique and we’re breaking new ground every day.” The biggest surprise, he’s found, is the way his team at Double Negative’s visualisations of wormholes and other cosmic phenomena, rendered from Thorne’s own computations and thereby scientifically sound, has been brought onto the stage. “What we’re doing is creating the content up front and then on stage we’re using state-of-the-art digital projectors to project this imagery onto those big backings, so the cast have something to look at and to interact with. When you’re saying, ‘There’s a black hole outside your window,’ they look outside and there’s a black hole outside the window, rather than it being a big slab of green.”

Nolan describes it as being “a little bit like old, on-axis front projection”, such as that used by Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull for 2001: A Space Odyssey or by Richard Donner in Superman. His genial DP, Van Hoytema (the cinematographer of Let The Right One In and Her is the first Nolan has worked with since Wally Pfister transcended to directing), describes what they’re doing as “reinstating that technique with modern technology. For Chris and I it became some sort of an epiphany. Projectors now are much more powerful so you can project content that actually illuminates [the sets].” Van Hoytema retooled an IMAX camera so he could carry it around the interiors handheld (“It’s a little heavy but it’s not that bad”). “Basically you’re on a set and outside you have a reality that you totally believe in”—one which also, handily, provided clear reflections on the actors’ visors.

The process has echoes of Alfonso Cuarón’s approach to his own outer-space adventure, Gravity, but Franklin insists there are differences. “Tim (Webber, VFX Supervisor) and Alfonso were creating content up front in order to design the shoot and they were using that to generate the lighting effect,” he says. “But as far as I know, they replaced all the imagery that was in the background with high-quality post-production. We’re actually creating finished shots in-house.” (Nolan has not seen Gravity yet, “Because I was in the middle of making this when it came out. I said this to Alfonso when I had dinner with him after the Oscars night, and he completely got it.”)

“That was fun, man,” is Matthew McConaughey’s summation of the Christopher Nolan space-travel experience when Empire catches up with him some months later. “I’m a 44-year-old getting to be the guy, the pilot, captaining the big, life-sized toys.” The sets are extensive enough that he and co-stars Anne Hathaway (as Amelia Brand, team biologist), Wes Bentley, David Gyasi and Bill Irwin (physically playing both the robots and voicing TARS) could move freely about, or dangle on wires, as Van Hoytema lensed them.

Every ship sequence, says Nolan, was “shot like a documentary that I could cut 15 different ways. We would just go through the whole sequence and shoot the entire thing using the handheld camera. Whether it’s leaving Earth’s orbit, or going through a wormhole or going to a whole different world, the actors have something to react to. They have a reality that’s built.”

“People are gonna see this movie, and they’re gonna go, ‘Oh, there must’ve been so much greenscreen,’” gasps McConaughey. Then he locks eyes with us. “There wasn’t any greenscreen.”

There is another popular blockbuster of a past era which heavily influenced Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Not 2001, although it is referenced. “You can’t pretend 2001 doesn’t exist when you’re making Interstellar,” Nolan tells us. “But the other film I’d have to point to is The Right Stuff. I screened a print of it for the crew before we started, because that’s a film that not enough people have seen on the big screen. It’s an almost perfectly made film. It’s one of the great American movies and people don’t quite realise how great it is—probably because it’s four hours long!”

Nolan drew much from that movie, and not just in technical terms (director Philip Kaufman also used front-projection techniques). “A lot of the charm of that movie is the idea of Chuck Yeager and the American pilot—the way the pilot followed on from the cowboy and took some of that great sense of American spirit with him.” Yeager, played by Sam Shepard in Kaufman’s dramatisation of the nascent U. S. space programme, became the touchstone for Interstellar’s hero, Cooper. When it came to casting him, Nolan says there was only one person who could embody that archetype today. And this was, mind you, before Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective.

“I had seen an early cut of Mud because my friend Aaron Ryder produced it. At the time, people hadn’t yet figured out what a great actor Matthew is. So we raised a few eyebrows when we first brought his name up. But the thing with Matthew is, once you realise what a great actor he is, it’s like a switch being flipped. You can’t get enough of the guy at that point. He’s so perfect for the part and I was in a position where fortunately I had a lot of power to cast who I wanted. And then, thank goodness, his career just went from strength to strength, and he won the Oscar. So I looked like the smartest guy in the room!” Nolan laughs. “But you’d have to credit (Mud director) Jeff Nichols and all these guys who really saw it. Matthew’s a lovely soul. Great spirit, and really fun to work with. But my God, what a fantastic actor.”

Committed, too. Like the other cast members, he not only had to swing on cables for the weightless scenes in those Sony lot sets, but also suffer tough conditions on location. First there were the Nolan-summoned dust storms on the Cooper farmstead location at Okotoks in Alberta, Canada, where the production built its own house and planted entire fields of Malickian corn.

“There were these huge fans, and dust would just chuck in your eyes and your nose and in your ears. It was really gross,” complains Jessica Chastain. (While Nolan has cast her in a key role, she can only tell us she’s “a scientist on Earth.” The secret has since come out, but we will keep it on these pages.)

Then there were the scenes shot in southern Iceland, whose otherworldly landscapes were enlisted to represent two other worlds the Lazarus mission visits: one a lagoon planet, perpetually swept by colossal waves; the other an ice world, where Cooper and his crew find inverted mountain ranges, hanging from the sky like impossibly Olympian stalactites. Nolan decided that, despite their alienness, “the other worlds that are visited in the film should feel as real and as tactile as Earth.”

It wasn’t exactly the most hospitable working environment. And not only, as Thomas puts it, “so cold you worried about your toes falling off.” At one point in mid-September 2013 they were hit by a windstorm so fierce, its 90mph gusts ripped the asphalt off the roads and even stripped the paint off a car that had been abandoned on a verge. The gales shut production down for two days. Well, almost. “We were able to shoot a few things in the lulls,” shrugs Nolan. “Weather never photographs as bad as it feels on the day. I think sometimes the crew and actors get a bit mad, but they all do it anyway. We’d shoot until the safety guys shut us down. I enjoy that kind of filming. It really energises people.”

“We did an action scene on a glacier, man,” McConaughy reports. “That’s where Nolan’s eyes got bluer and his hair got blonder, up there. It’s like the old Nordic side of him came out, man. He was in his element. He got younger on that mountain.”

Did McConaughey get younger?

“I got exhausted. But that was some good, hard work. That’s as much movie production as I’ve ever seen. We got two helicopters flying around at the same time, stuff’s blowing up, people are falling down on the ice, and you’re wearing a spacesuit…”

Anne Hathaway recalls how, thanks to these cumbersome costumes and despite all the care and attention of designer Mary Zophres, even the simple scenes in Iceland presented their challenges. “At that point in filming we hadn’t figured out how to keep the masks defogged, so you’re walking on very real ice in a suit that weighs upwards of 35lbs, with crampons, and you couldn’t see,” says Hathaway. “Which is fine when you were on a wide piece of ice but at one point I was just in the background of a shot, and Chris was like, ‘Anne, can you start halfway up the hill and just walk this ledge?’ And ‘this ledge’ is that big”—she spaces her hands a few feet apart—“and the thing is, it’s Chris, so you just go, ‘Yep! Of course I can!’” She laughs. “So it’s all an exercise in self-meditation and mind control.”

Nolan didn’t just take his cast to Iceland. He took his spaceship, the Ranger, too. “Well, that’s what we built it for,” he says. “If you’re going to bother to go to a location, you’ve got to build the stuff that you can put in that landscape.” As Nathan Crowley explains, they disassembled it, shipped it to Iceland in a 747, reconstructed it and dunked it in the cold briny for the lagoon-world scenes. “We took it out in the sea and dropped it off cranes, and we had landing gear and airlocks on it… It was a big monster.”

“This is the grandest adventure I think any of us will ever see on film,” marvels McConaughey. “This is way beyond going to the moon. It expands way beyond our solar system. This is the biggest film I’ve ever been a part of. This is one of the bigger films anyone’s ever been a part of.”

In early June, Empire rejoins Nolan and Thomas at Dub Stage 9 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where they are two weeks into the sound mix. The film is close to completion, and Nolan invites us to watch a 15-minute segment from the comfort of a large leather sofa situated behind a bridge-of-the-Enterprise array of mixing desks. What we are shown occurs about an hour into the story, but Nolan politely requests that we don’t describe it in any detail. We’ll just say that it is reassuringly impressive, cramming in highly emotional scenes (anchored by a steely McConaughey), snappy humour, one sublime match-cut and, in those moments that present the exterior of the spaceships, something we very rarely experience in mainstream cinema: complete silence. In space, no-one can hear, well, anything.

“We’ve fully embraced that reality,” says Nolan. “When you see the finished film, you’ll see there are some pretty deafening silences.” It’s something he wanted to do on Insomnia, but was 
told that silence on a soundtrack was verboten, like dead air on radio. “People think the projector’s broken. It’s very intense. Just… whoa. Of course, with space it reminds you of the danger. Every time we started putting sound effects in, it felt safer. We’re doing some very radical things on this sound mix. Having made a bunch of films within the Hollywood system now, I can get away with things I never used to get away with.”

It is tempting to see Interstellar as the beginning of a new phase for Nolan. His reputation as a director-with-a-capital-D (like Spielberg) is firmly sealed, while his superhero days are well behind him; he is post-franchise, if you like. Furthermore, each of his previous eight films is propelled by a psychological engine and tends to look inward—none more so than Inception, which transported us to the murkiest depths of inner space. Now he’s looking outward and for the first time taking us beyond Earth, into the future. This is a pure journey film.

“It is. But there are a lot of ways in which its relation to Inception is very strong,” Nolan points out. “It’s almost a mirror image. It sort of expands out in the way Inception contracts inwards. I almost resisted doing the film at first on that basis, because there are a lot of similarities…” Nolan doesn’t list them, but we can suggest a few. Cooper, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, is a widower separated from his children by his responsibilities. He is an expert in a very specialised field, tasked to achieve something, against great odds, with a team of other specialists. There will be absences of gravity (although Interstellar “doesn’t have to deal with a great length of zero gravity,” Nolan says). And different characters will experience the passing of time in different ways (although the director doesn’t want the film to be misperceived as a time-travel movie, even if “time and relativity play a part in the story very clearly”).

“But then,” continues Nolan, “I realised they are completely different movies. And in the end it became interesting to me to look down the other end of the telescope. I’ve very much enjoyed that.”

Whether the IMAX view through that Nolan Hubble takes in extra-terrestrial life, no-one will come even close to saying. Cooper and crew will face a threat on their journey, Emma Thomas confirms, but whether that is internal or external remains unconfirmed. It is a question they’ll be asked many times, we point out: are there are aliens in Interstellar? “Yes,” grins Thomas. “And I do have an answer…” There are no hints of otherworldly cultures or technology, let alone beings, amid all the production art Empire is shown, although we have glimpsed a concept for the final act and it is… mindbending.

Nolan’s frame of self-reference, wide as it is, can’t quite take in our suggestion that Interstellar marks a new era for him as a filmmaker. “Every film you do should be in some way new—a new phase, or a new theme for you,” he reflects. “The way I always put it is: you try and leave yourself certain questions at the end of each film that you try and answer in the next one…”

~ ~ ~



In early spring of 2013, Christopher Nolan and his crew were scouting for locations in Iceland—looking for glaciers that could stand in for the icy wastes of a distant planet in Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. They were on foot, the terrain proving inaccessible by car through freezing rain. The glacier they were heading towards, the sixth or seventh of the day, did not seem to be coming any closer. Finally, after hiking four or five kilometres, they were forced to stop; in front of them stretched an ice-cold lake. There seemed to be no way around it. “We were all gathered around staring at this lake,” the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema recalled, “and Chris took his shoes and socks off and just strode out into the water, going straight towards that gigantic chunk of ice. Everyone was standing around looking at one another. ‘What do we do here?’ Then everybody starts doing the same—peeling off their shoes and socks and wading in. Nobody thinks that he’s crazy, they just go, ‘OK, this is important, this has to be done’.” After the crew had scouted the glacier, which turned out to be too small for Nolan’s purposes, they all walked back, their wet shoes squelching. “He’s a man on a mission,” Hoytema told me. “He assigns all his time and all his effort to serving that mission.” —Christopher Nolan: the man who rebooted the blockbuster


In this 45-minute interview from Studio 360, Christopher Nolan talks sci-fi movie history, futuristic design, and his filmmaking methodology.


A detailed look at the Icelandic locations that stood in for alien landscapes in the film and the challenges and benefits the locations offered.


The space suits: a look at design, form, and function.


Matthew McConaughey narrates a fascinating look at the film’s scientific foundations, the work of consulting scientist Kip Thorne, basic film themes, the science behind the search for planets capable of hosting life, space-time and the theory of relativity, the science of wormholes and black holes, crafting the film’s visuals based on real scientific observation, the birth of the universe, the Dust Bowl and the evolution of dust as a toxin, the likelihood of future dust storms, the prospects of escaping a dying or doomed planet, and the possibilities of colonizing Mars.


This piece looks at the process of simulating the absence of gravity in the film.


A closer look at the film’s mechanical characters, including backstory, design, the blend of practical and digital effects in bringing them to life, the differences in the characters, and the human performances behind the characters.




A brief look at the creative process behind the film’s music. The minidoc offers further details about Nolan and Zimmer’s collaborative process, including the desire to avoid sci-fi genre clichés and to allow Zimmer the freedom to create a largely independent work of art that functions in concert with the film instead of just supporting it. We also get a peek inside London’s Temple Church, home of the massive pipe organ that figures prominently in the music. Nolan explains that he wanted a “feeling of religiosity” in the mix, and, as it turned out, virtuosic organist Roger Sayer was the man to deliver it. —How Interstellar’s Stunning Score Was Made


Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar dispensed of a lot of the musical language that had been so commonplace in his scores before this film. Driven by the desire to create a sound world that he and director Christopher Nolan hadn’t yet explored, Zimmer created music full of soft, introspective sounds: sustained organ melodies and chords, hushed orchestral textures, and transparent, widely-spaced harmony. In this essay, Barnaby Martin looks at how this sound world perfectly captures the isolation and loneliness of space, but he also considers, more significantly, how Hans Zimmer’s music realizes the emotional message that is at the heart of the film.




In an exclusive interview, Interstellar’s visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin describes how he created the black holes and alien worlds of Christopher Nolan’s film.




Designing wormholes, black-holes and other space-time-bending phenomena was a first for production designer Nathan Crowley, who approached Christopher Nolan‘s “Interstellar” like a kid in a candy store. “As a director and designer, we realized that we had to be quite brave here. Something new,” says Crowley, who has twice been Oscar-nominated for Nolan films The Prestige (2006) and The Dark Knight (2008). The architecture devotee suffuses Nolan’s ultra-imaginative space odyssey with innovative spacecraft, planets, robots and the cosmos. Here are four challenges Crowley had to face while making “Interstellar,” in which the filmmakers sought to achieve the most realistic vision of the cosmos ever put to the screen. —How Interstellar’s Nathan Crowley Designed the Ultimate Trip, Through Wormholes & Space-Time




Editors on Editing: Glenn Garland, ACE, talks to Lee Smith, ACE, about editing the film.




In this fantastic SoundWorks Collection video, Interstellar sound designer Richard King discusses his work on the film and his enthusiasm to collaborate with Christopher Nolan.




Shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC, Interstellar is the kind of movie that also qualifies as an event, a big-screen experience that asks viewers to leave the comfort of their homes and enter another world. Director Christopher Nolan has become known for crafting thinking-man’s blockbusters after his successes with the Batman trilogy, Inception and other ambitious productions. The director says he turned to van Hoytema—a Dutch-Swedish cinematographer whose work distinguishes such painterly films as Let the Right One In, The Fighter and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—because “I really responded to the naturalism in Hoyte’s work. And because of my experience with larger-scale films, I wasn’t particularly looking for someone with large-film experience because I could bring that to bear myself.” Van Hoytema spent the months prior to principal photography developing a shared visual language with Nolan while attending rehearsals, gathering references, and watching such films as Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. “We didn’t want to be unnecessarily lyrical or poetic,” says van Hoytema. “The viewer needs to believe that the science behind the story is legit, so we wanted our approach to be matter of fact.” —Cosmic Odyssey, American Cinematographer December 2014

“We shot as much as we could [in Imax],” he says, adding that it made up about 60-70 minutes of the finished film. The rest was shot in anamorphic 35mm. “We wanted the approach to be grounded in reality, not have an obvious aesthetic language, so we didn’t want to made it too neat or slick. We wanted a rough edge to it, very spontaneous.” To do that, a lot was filmed handheld by van Hoytema himself. He adds that he also had “one of Hollywood’s best operators with me, Scott Sakamoto. He did all the brilliant Steadicam.” The handheld work wasn’t an easy choice with Imax cameras, which van Hoytema notes weigh about 70-80 pounds. “While we have a love for that medium, there are limitations. It’s very unflexible, and we wanted to be flexible,” he says, adding that he and his team worked with Imax and even Panavision to reengineer the ergonomics and other features of the camera system to make it more comfortable for handheld use. —‘Interstellar’ Cinematographer Dishes on Joining Christopher Nolan, Shooting in Iceland


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Photographed by Melinda Sue Gordon © Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment, Syncopy. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:

Spread the love