Christopher Nolan on Interstellar: 'We're going to leave this planet at some point'

Christopher Nolan and members of his cast and filmmaking team gathered in Los Angeles recently to discuss Interstellar.

The director's new sci-fi epic opens on Friday everywhere (after a limited IMAX opening on Wednesday) and comes with some of the highest expectations of the year. Not only is it Nolan's first film since completing the Dark Knight trilogy, but it's perhaps the most ambitious of his career, even more so than his previous sci-fi blockbuster, Inception.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway star as the leaders of a space crew tasked with traveling through a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared near Saturn and find out what happened to 12 previous explorers who vanished through the object. Blight is slowly rendering Earth uninhabitable, and it's hoped that the wormhole is the gateway to another galaxy where a planet capable of supporting human life can be found.

But even if they succeed, the cost to the crew is unfathomable: Years and and perhaps even decades will pass on Earth during their voyage. McConaughey's character doesn't know how old his kids will be when/if he gets back, or if they will even survive at all.

While critics have been mixed on the picture, almost all agree that Interstellar is an ambitious and even visionary work, with Nolan tackling both some of his biggest imagery and most personal emotional themes. The 44-year-old and notoriously press-shy filmmaker, along with McConaughey, Hathaway, co-star Jessica Chastain, screenwriter Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan (Christopher's half-brother) and producer Emma Thomas (Christopher Nolan's wife), assembled at a Los Angeles hotel for a press conference on the film. Here are excerpts from that event ...

Christopher Nolan on what struck him about the first draft of the script that Jonathan wrote:

"It's really about an inevitability. We're going to leave this planet at some point, further than we have. We're going to go beyond the moon. We're going to go to Mars. We all kind of know that on some level, actually. So there's an inevitability to human evolution, of this being the next step, and the idea with this story is to view the Earth as the nest and one day we leave the nest."

Jonathan Nolan on what inspired the original idea:

"I first started thinking about it in 2006, 2007 ... I got to a certain moment when I realized that all those Americans -- all those human beings -- who landed on the moon, did so in between Chris being born and me being born and no one had gone back since. All these Super 8 films that we had grown up watching of rocket launches -- you get to a certain age and you realize that all the speeches about going back are just speeches. We're not going back. And in that moment it felt like the sadness of that was to imagine as a species that we might have peaked -- that if you charted our evolution as a species in terms of altitude, we had peaked in 1973. That was a kind of sad realization: growing up, we were promised jetpacks and we got Instagram."

Christopher Nolan says that the movie is essentially optimistic:

"Really, space exploration to me has always represented the most hopeful and optimistic endeavor that mankind has ever really engaged with. I was certainly struck, when they flew the space shuttle in on the 747 when it came to the Science Center here in L.A., Emma and I were up at Griffith Park with hundreds of people waving flags and watching this thing fly down. It was a very moving moment actually, and a little melancholy at the same time, because what you felt was that sense of that great endeavor -- that great collective endeavor -- the hope, the optimism of that, is something it feels like we're in need of again. I feel very strongly that we're at a point now where we need to start looking out again and exploring our place in the universe more."

Matthew McConaughey on whether he believes space exploration is crucial for humankind:

"It was something I didn't consider as much in the vernacular of thinking about as we evolve. Is the new frontier out there, and if it is, why? I just didn't consider or think about it that much. One of the things I got from this film is that mankind's expectations have to be greater than ourselves, and that ... the further out there we go, the more we find out and learn that it's about you and me, right here. So, it's much more of a tangible idea, attainable thought. In no way am I an expert on it -- I can have conversations about it now that I couldn't have a year ago before getting on this film -- but it's now a much more four-dimensional outlook as far as where we're going, which way to look, what that the new frontier is."

Christopher Nolan on the research his team did for the film:

"We did quite a lot of research before we designed the ships and figured out how we were going to film it. One of our greatest resources was IMAX and their relationship with NASA, because over the last 30 years, the same cameras we used to shoot the film have gone into space -- they've been in low Earth orbit, they've shot the shuttle, the International Space Station, the Hubble and all these things. They have this incredible library of footage. So one of the first things I did was get my DP, the production designer and the visual effects supervisor, and we rented the big IMAX screen at Universal Citywalk and we projected these films all in one day and watched as many of them as we could to immerse ourselves in the detail of it, the feeling of it. [We also got in touch with] Marsha Ivins, who's been to space five times and was a helpful resource for myself and also for the actors. So we tried to get the feeling of the details correct." 

Christopher Nolan on the movie not pushing too hard on an environmental message:

"I don't like to talk about messages in films so much, simply because it's a little more didactic. The reason I'm a filmmaker, really, is to tell stories, and so you hope that they will have resonance for people and for the kinds of things you're talking about. What I really loved about Jonah's original draft -- and we always retained this -- was the idea of blight, the idea of there being an agricultural crisis, which has happened historically if you look at the potato famine and so forth. We combined this with ideas taken very much from Ken Burns' documentary on the Dust Bowl ... But the real point is they're non-specific. We're saying that mankind is being gently nudged off the planet by the Earth itself, and the reason is non-specific because we didn't want to be too didactic or political about it."

Christopher Nolan on whether he will ever make a "small" movie again:

"Well, the fun thing about this film for me was a lot of it was one person in a room, not even two people in a room. A lot of it was extremely intimate. I mean, the scene with Matthew and a lot of the stuff we did with Jessica and NASA was literally just one person talking to a camera, those kind of things. With this sort of film, I get to do both. I get to that and I get to do action-adventure, I get to do those sort of thrilling action set pieces that you try and do in the scale of things. I try not to be particularly self-conscious in my choices, but with this film I felt I had the freedom to try and put a lot of different elements together and try a lot of different things I'm interested in, and in terms of scale, what that resulted in was getting to do huge things and large, outlandish things, and then getting to do very intimate, personal things. For me that was the best of both worlds as a director."

Anne Hathaway on the future of space exploration:

"One of my first experiences was with the memorial that was built for the Challenger. When I was in seventh grade, my class spent the entire school year preparing to launch a spaceship all together. We all had our different jobs that we all had to learn how to do, and we learned the math that you needed, we learned the practical skills that we needed, and I thought that was really cool. And so I think that if you can take a tragedy and find the gold in it and turn it into something positive, that's great, and I'm hoping the suspension of the space program is just that, a suspension, and not the final say in the matter, because I think we need it."

Interstellar is out in IMAX theaters on Wednesday (Nov. 5) and everywhere on Friday (Nov. 7).

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