Interstellar is an epic movie about space exploration with promising tag lines like "Go Further." But in reality, the pitch that landed screenwriter Jonathan Nolan the Interstellar gig sprung from his fear that humans had peaked at one flag on the moon. Here's our exclusive interview with Interstellar writer Nolan.
Long before Christopher Nolan was lined up to direct Interstellar, this was originally an idea Steven Spielberg was kicking around in 2006/2007. And when Jonah Nolan was first approached about the project (that would later be directed by his brother, Chris) his pessimistic attitude about the status of our space program turned into the scary future that Interstellar is set in. And the contrast between this post-apocalyptic attitude and the noble astronaut explorers couldn't be sharper.
Some small spoilers ahead, but absolutely nothing major.
I know you worked closely with [theoretical physicist] Kip Thorne on Interstellar. What sort of ideas did you two have for Interstellar that you couldn't execute because they weren't scientifically plausible?
Jonathan Nolan: Oh, lots of conversations. But the lovely thing about Kip is, he's brilliant. And if you ask him to, he can synch up a version of almost anything working. The conversation would go, "Kip can a spaceship go faster than the speed of light?" "No." "Well, what about under foreign circumstances?" "No." "Well what about…?" "No." And then you go away for a couple weeks, and you come back and he says, "Well I figured out a way in which it might be possible." He's just a brilliant, brilliant guy and a true gentleman. And he took a great deal of time walking me through the, sort of, high school physics, which I failed, and college physics, which I never even attempted to pick up. And then landing in this place in which we had a grounded understanding of the sort of real physics behind [Interstellar] as much as possible. Of course we say "real physics," but in reality a wormhole would not exist in our universe without an intercession, some kind of event or alien technology. There are flights of fancy within the film, but the idea really is that each and every moment, as much as possible, the experience should feel grounded and tactile and on that human scale.
I read that you guys had to cut a ton of stuff when you were putting the script together. Was there anything you were bummed you didn't get to include, just because there wasn't enough time?
There's always stuff in every project. The film always benefits from cutting. You know when you were a kid and you did those pictures where you put glue all over the page, and then pour sprinkles all over it and shake it? I feel like my job is to pour all the sprinkles, and my brother's job is to shake it. And then hopefully what's left behind is satisfying to people. I'm just so thrilled after these years of working on the project. Sometimes you work on things, and you're not terribly fussed if it goes to order, or not. This was one of those things that we were so passionate to get the film made.
When people first started talking about this project, and Chris did a talk that I attended, 2001 was referenced along with a lot of golden age scifi blockbusters of the past. So I'm curious what are science fiction films that are coming out today lacking, and what was Interstellar trying to recapture?
That's a good question, it's not that I feel… maybe what's lacking here is we're not children anymore. It may well be that children coming up in these days and watching films are watching with the same sense of wonder that we did as kids. But I don't think anyone has tried… Our film's very different from 2001. 2001 is a masterpiece and one of my very, favorite films. And there's an obvious influence on Interstellar. I think the thing that I miss, from when I was as a kid was that sense of awe and wonder. And certainly when I was hired originally by Steven Spielberg to write the film, it felt like a moment. It was 2006/2007 and we were in prep on The Dark Knight. And it felt in that moment, for a variety of different reasons, that we were at a pessimistic moment.
There was a sense of optimism in those films. And not naiveté. 2001 is a a very sophisticated film by a very sophisticated filmmaker, and a great understanding of the beauty and ugliness of human nature. The most famous film cut in all of film history is between a bone and a flying nuclear satellite. Read the book and dig deep into the film, and you understand you're looking at a weapon that's floating in space in that jump cut. Kubrick was not armed with the sense of ugliness, but kind of looked for the sense of wonder and awe. And I think underneath everything else with that film in particular, and with Spielberg's work in Close Encounters and E.T. is the sense of wonder and the absolute absurdity and unlikeliness of life in the universe. It's a fucking vacuum. Basically everything in the universe would kill us, including the universe itself, and yet, here we are. And that is miraculous. That sense of wonder, and not just at the size and scale and beauty of the universe, but of our own existence in it, is something I was into.
I'm glad you brought that up. I remember when Interstellar was going to be a Jonathan Nolan script directed by Steven Spielberg. How would the Steven Spielberg version of this movie have been different, in terms of tone and in terms of the characters and the focus? Was it still a post-apocalyptic Earth? Was it the same kind of journey?
Chris came with several ideas that he had been working on himself, but the tone of the film is very similar to what either one hit on from the beginning. There was a moment when I pitched this film to Steven, there was a moment… Film, just like everything else, it was a slightly misanthropic moment. We had begun to think of the human animal as something geared more towards destruction. And certainly that's true, but there's another aspect to it as well. The films that I've worked on with my brother, the other projects that I've worked on, hope is not the first thing that springs to mine But for me, I think that's a thread underlining a lot of these films. But this one more explicitly than others, the idea was to be a film about hope.
It sounds like they were basically almost the same set up?
In terms of the characters and the situation of it, yes. Cooper and his family have a very similar jumping-off point. But Chris came on to the script with a lot of ideas about what you would find on the other side of the world.
Speaking of that jumping-off point, why did you guys decide to use actual interviews from the Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl documentary [to start the film]?
That was a flourish that Chris brought to the project, and I thought a brilliant one. When I first started working on the project, Kip brought together a bunch of really, really smart people at Caltech to talk. [He gathered] biologists and astrobiologists to talk about all the many ways in which life could be extinguished from Earth. It was a pretty fucking depressing conversation because you realize you couldn't stop thinking of different ways. And most of the things, and this is what I was struck by, had nothing to do with this. The film isn't on message. The film isn't about an ecological disaster that seems to be looming. It's about a disaster in which we have almost nothing to do with. The larger idea that at some point, if we're judging by the fossil record, it is a certainty that the Earth will get sick of us and shrug us off like a dog shrugging off a tick. And if we have not yet at that point continued to explore. You think of those things in only depressing, apocalyptic terms. But they're not apocalyptic, necessarily. It's like your parents kicking you out of the house. Or a bird leaving the nest. The idea that Earth would begin here at home, and you exist here is, I think, a sad one. As a species, we're geared towards exploration and curiosity. That's one of the things gifted to us to us by natural selection. Certain aspects of a human being are not a good thing. But curiosity and the urge to explore, certainly a paradoxical thing, but I think a positive thing.
On the "faked Apollo mission" moment [from the above clip that was recently released], were these denials to science in reference to anything we're currently dealing with today?
When I pitched on the movie in the first place, I got the gig because Steven Spielberg wanted to do a grounded science fiction exploration film and I came in and said, "Well, apparently it will be 15 minutes long because we're not fucking going. Because we're done." This was 2006/2007; this was before I had met Elon Musk and he and another group of people really got behind the idea of privatizing space exploration. But in that moment, it just felt like, "Well, we're fucking done." We've literally peaked as a species with a little flag on the moon. Can you imagine in a million years when the alien anthropologists turn up they and they find the flag and say, "Fuck they almost made it. They got that far." That's a reality. The reality is we're not going to space anymore. We're done. But no one knows that yet. Americans don't understand that space exploration has been fucking gutted, that there's no money for it anymore. And unless it's a pissing contest with the Russians, we're not interested in going into space. So you had to set it in a moment, in not only is it abundantly clear that we're not going back to space, but it's so depressing and humiliating to imagine that we had this capability and we lost it, that people not refuse to believe that we ever went in the first place—which is depressingly not that hard to imagine.