In a dark suit with an open-collared shirt, Jonathan Nolan is so energized to talk about his new film “Interstellar” that you're legitimately afraid he'll take off into orbit. Credited as a writer on five of his brother Christopher Nolan's nine feature-length films ("Memento," "The Prestige," "The Dark Knight," "The Dark Knight Rises" and now "Interstellar"), Nolan's been busy recently with his own large-scale directing project, a remake of the '70s robots-on-a-rampage thriller "Westworld" for HBO.
Taking time to talk about the ideas of space exploration and human voyages of discovery in "Interstellar" —as well as the brief moment when Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the film, before Christopher Nolan stepped in to not only make the film but re-write the first draft alongside his brother— The Playlist sat down with Nolan in Los Angeles.
We had the pleasure of meeting briefly a couple years ago, and I asked you about my theory that “The Dark Knight” was a riff on "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and you graciously explained how you had never seen that film.
Never seen ‘Liberty Valance.’ And now I just shot a Western... and I still haven't seen "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (laughs).
Now I feel like you're letting the side down. If you're making a list of classic Westerns, it's in the Top Ten, isn't it?
(Laughing) It is! It's one of those things where I'm not meant to see it. I finally sat down to watch it in preparation for "Westworld,"and I watched basically every Western under the sun, and it [‘Valance’] is one of those things that keeps falling through the cracks. I'm not destined to watch it; I don't know why.
It's interesting you mention watching Westerns to get all of the tropes for the purposes of writing a riff on them; I'm wondering if you watched anything for "Interstellar" to get a similar sense of what the story building-blocks might be.
That's a good question. I don't think so? I started working on this project so long ago that I wouldn't trust my memory on the topic; from an early age, we watched an awful lot of films. One of the ironic things about "Interstellar" is that it's the first science fiction project Chris and I have worked on together. But when I was a kid, all I can remember is watching science fiction. "The Empire Strikes Back" —probably the first film I saw in a movie theater; "2001," "Alien," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind": all were hugely influential. So I didn't need to go watch anything...
You had it in your adolescent DNA.
Yeah. I went in to pitch Steven Spielberg this film after I had met with producer Linda Obst, and I was ready. I went in and I was like [claps hands] here's what it is. Ironically, he wanted a film about space exploration that was grounded in good physics and set in a contemporary kind of moment. And I said "if you want a contemporary film grounded in good physics, it's going to be 15 minutes long, because we're not fucking going, we're done, it's over." You know? That ship has sailed.
It would be a lengthy budget meeting and then Congress shutting it down.
Exactly! It'd be a politician making a speech… and then six months later quietly shelving the bill...and then we continue whatever bullshit it is, you know, Facebooking or whatever it is that we're doing. So I was ready, man. I was like "no, you're going to set it in the future, it's going to be about this." I think most people still think they live in a world in which if we wanted to go to the Moon tomorrow, we could go to the Moon tomorrow. And the truth is "uh, no."
We'd need more of a running start than that.
If you want to build that program again, you have to start from scratch. Those guys are all retired.
In terms of starting from scratch, this has been a project you've been carrying around a while; can you even recall the differences between the stuff you had for Mr. Spielberg and the stuff you brought to it during the co-writing process with the other Mr. Nolan?
Readily. Chris brought some of his own ideas, but the spirit of the project is still largely very similar. First and foremost, it's about human beings, about relationships, a guy and his kids. And Steven's best films have always been connected to that emotional core, 'Close Encounters' being one of my favorite films, and that's...just fucking brilliant.