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The Thought-Provoking Science Behind “Interstellar”

The concept of time is really about loss. Which is why the emotional space odyssey hits so close to home, says cowriter Jonathan Nolan.

The Thought-Provoking Science Behind “Interstellar”
Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar [Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers Pictures, and Legendary Pictures]

Earth is dying. It’s become little more than a sphere of dust where the only crop that grows–and not for long–is corn. Life on other planets in our solar system is out of the question, but what about planets beyond our galaxy? It’s disaster sci-fi that may call to mind images of space seen before in films, and that’s exactly what the creative team behind Interstellar doesn’t want. What they’re aiming for is the most accurate film depictions of wormholes, black holes, and the theoretical science behind them.

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However, as spellbinding as the space imagery in Interstellar is, it’s certainly not the driving factor: What’s underneath is a latticework of emotional storytelling crafted by director Christopher Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan Nolan. Amid the epic intergalactic traveling, overseen for accuracy by renowned astrophysicist Kip Thorne, beats a simple story of a widowed father (Matthew McConaughey) and his love for his children.

Jonathan Nolan

Jonathan Nolan recently spoke with Fast Company about what it’s like collaborating with his brother, balancing science and storytelling, and why by the time you finish reading this interview you will have proven one his favorite (and daunting) themes.

You’ve worked with your brother before on some big films: The Prestige, Inception, he Batman trilogy. What was it like working on Interstellar?

Every project is different with my brother. This is very different because I was originally hired to write the film by [producer] Lynda Obst and Steven Spielberg. So I spent several years developing the project for Steven, which was an absolute pleasure. But a little like missions in outer space, sometimes these things come to Earth sometimes they don’t. Anything I work on, I’m always pitching it at some point to my brother trying to articulate–he’s been a great sounding board for me over the years and vice-versa. So it felt like the most natural thing in the world when Chris brought his own ideas to it.

What does Christopher bring to the table?

One of the things I love about working with my brother is that there’s a commitment there–an unwavering commitment. From our basement in Illinois when I was three years old to Iceland on a frozen glacier with Matthew McConaughey and Matt Damon in spacesuits–there’s a commitment to the pure spectacle, the pure cinema of it.

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How does your original vision compare to the finished product?

I consider my job as a screenwriter to pack a script with possibilities and ideas–to create a feast for the filmmaker to pick from. In this case, the first drafts of the film contained everything: the future of humanity, alien species, Chinese robots, everything. And it’s the filmmaker’s job, in this case my brother, to whittle that down. That’s the way I approach it. It’s to say, “Here are 15 ideas I think would be fantastic.” You hopefully have a coherent story in there but pack it–10 pounds of shit in a five pound bag–and then allow the filmmaker to pick and choose the pieces they want to hang on to. But the spirit of it always started with this relationship between a guy and his kids.

Astrophysicist Kip Thorne has an executive producer credit for the film. Why was collaborating with him for scientific accuracy so important?

I’m not a big believer in doing too much research–I think you can get lost in it. You can get constrained by it, which I think is a mistake. But if you’ve done your homework, the audience feels it.

Hopefully, this is the case with this film as well. You come up with a rule set and let that be in the background of it. The audience will feel it–they’ll feel you’ve thought about how these things work. And then sometimes, as with this film, you have a concept that they audience has absolutely no reference for–like relativity or time dilation–except for the other films they may have seen on the topic.

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That sounds a bit like Inception!

You kinda have the inverse of the structure here: you have internal activity in Inception, and here you have external ones. You have dilation of time, which is something we talked an awful lot about with Kip and something you have to explain to the audience a bit. But hopefully you explain it in such a way that feels natural and you see the emotional impact of that and are moved by that.

“Time” appears to be a pervasive theme for you.

I’ve always felt that time was one of the great unheralded adversaries in film. This is all what we’re ultimately up against. By the time you and I hang up this phone, we’ll be 12 minutes older, 12 minutes closer to death, 12 minutes closer to being separated from our families and loved ones. It’s the great equalizer–we’re all under its yoke. We don’t really know how it works. It was one of the things I was struck by after years of work with Kip is that we don’t have a fucking clue what time is, why it operates the way it appears to operate in this universe. We just know we’re stuck with it.

Another theme of Interstellar is science pitted against concepts like love, nature, and faith. How did you strike that balance from a storytelling perspective?

It’s a complicated question. One of the things I was struck by trying to understand all the physics in the film was that when Einstein was trying to articulate relativity, he would always put people at the center of it. There’d always be two people: one of them on a train that was about to go the speed of light and the other was on the platform. That’s inherently dramatic. Even with the theory of relativity, it’s about separation, mourning, and loss.

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To me these things are all connected. We’re in the midst of this massive human story and we don’t know what the fuck is going to happen next because of the way time operates in our universe. We’re subjected to events, one after the next. We live in a universe that tends toward entropy, that’s decaying. And we’re an organism that destroys things but also builds them. If you strip everything else away, the thing I was left with from all the time I spent with Kip trying to understand the shape of the universe around us was the sheer unlikeliness of human life. It’s so spectacularly unlikely that life would exist in this universe.

What inspires you creatively?

A lot of it is what I find emotionally compelling–trying to think about that human aspect of the story. It’s not just about the people who go away–it’s about the people who stay behind and their connection to each other. A lot of these films we’ve worked on, one of the things at the center is we’re all alive and connected to each other but we’re trapped in our own little bubbles. It’s that paradoxical relationship between us and the people around us.

You’ve gone from small-budget films like Memento to gigantic blockbusters like Interstellar. What’s that been like for you as a screenwriter?

Film is in an odd moment right now. People are making fewer films but they’re all bigger and bigger and that’s not always a good thing. I miss some of the films that I’m not 100% sure they’d make now, and that’s where we started. It’s a lamentable thing. The flip side of that is some of the films we’ve been able to make are more about the cinema and spectacle of it all. I often want to go to the movies and see something that transports you beyond the infinite.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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