Interstellar: How Christopher Nolan’s Space Exploration Movie Achieved Lift-Off


by Dan Jolin |
Updated on

With Tenet now just a matter of days away, Empire Online is celebrating with Nolan Week – looking back at the films of a modern day filmmaking icon. After wrapping up his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan set out on his most ambitious blockbuster yet. Having conquered Gotham and probed the subconscious mind, his next move was to look to the stars. Read Empire’s original 2014 feature about the making of Interstellar.


Interstellar – Empire Magazine feature 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.”

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. – Matthew McConaughey

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.

READ MORE: The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Complete Making Of Nolan's Batman Films

READ MORE: Inception: Making Christopher Nolan's Psychological Action Epic

READ MORE: The Prestige: Inside Nolan's Movie Magic Trick

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...”

Its relation to _Inception_ is very strong. It’s almost a mirror image. It expands out in the way _Inception_ contracts inwards. – Christopher Nolan

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...”

Originally published in Empire Magazine in November 2014.

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