They say we don’t go to outer space anymore. But Christopher Nolan is doing a pretty good job of faking it.
It’s October 2013, and we are on the set of code name Flora’s Letter, a.k.a. Interstellar, an epic sci-fi adventure that represents the beginning of the director’s post-Batman life. Working on the same soundstage where he once built a dank batty cave for Christian Bale to skulk in, the British-American helmer has constructed a starship to take Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway across the universe to find salvation for the human race. On screen that ship, the Endurance, will be composed of 12 interlocking pods. Right now it’s only three pods resting at a slant on a mammoth steel gimbal tilted at a 30-degree angle. It resembles a seesaw for giants.
Walking up into the narrow interior — designed from galleys, jump seats, and control panels salvaged from junked airplanes — is like trying to keep your balance inside a mystery-shack tilt-house. Look through the small double-paned windows, and what you see, projected on a large black floor-to-ceiling curtain, is a vertiginous swirl of stars, which is exactly what you would see if you were inside an actual spacecraft swiftly spinning to generate 1g of gravity. Another director would have hung bluescreens and then animated space in postproduction. Nolan, zealous about verisimilitude, loathes bluescreen the way the Amish loathe zippers. (There’s a robot aboard the ship, too. But nobody talks about TARS.)
At the heart of this sophisticated filmmaking machine, Nolan stands with a portable video monitor hanging from his neck, chasing authenticity of a deeper kind. He radiates strong, quiet authority and wears his signature business-casual outfit: dress shirt sans tie, khakis, and a sports jacket with deep pockets. Inside, you’ll find pens, notebooks, and a flask of Earl Grey, no milk. (”My assistant director once referred to it as a magician’s coat,” Nolan says.) He’s shooting a close-up of Hathaway, who plays a scientist named Brand, confessing a secret that will change the course of the story.
Interstellar (rated PG-13, out wide Nov. 7) tracks a group of spacefarers tasked with finding a new home for humankind before an ecoapocalypse wipes us out. Led by McConaughey’s Cooper, a widower who has left behind two children to pilot the mission, the four-person crew (which also includes Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi) traverse a mysterious wormhole near Saturn and reach a set of planets, but they can’t visit them all. Which way to go? Brand’s revelation will help decide the matter, and it takes the form of a soliloquy about — of all things — the nature of love as an unquantifiable, higher dimensional force.
It’s a risky move for Brand and a risky beat for the movie; the speech could easily veer sentimental or incredible. But after a few takes and a few gentle words from Nolan, Hathaway satisfies her director and the production moves on. ”I was a little lost in that scene,” she admits later. ”I started playing the scene like she had been bottling it up for a long time, and Chris said there is more power in underplaying. And of course he was absolutely right.”
For Nolan, Brand’s speech expresses much of his vision for Interstellar. ”What happens when scientists bump up against these things that defy easy characterization and analysis — things like love?” Nolan says. ”We are at an interesting moment where science realizes it has to begin addressing abstractions and human elements, and I wanted to get that in the film. It also speaks to the heart of the movie and the dilemma facing our characters. You have an intellectual commitment to duty, you know you are doing the right thing, but you have your emotional response to these things, too. How do you weigh them? These felt like interesting questions, and I wanted the audience to ask them consciously. You have a choice: You leave these things as subtext, or you try to bring them to the foreground, so the audience can be plugged into the themes that interest you, be part of that ride.”