Interview: Jonathan Nolan Breaks Down the Grand Design of Interstellar


Director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, hitting theaters this week, began as the brainchild of the helmer’s younger brother, Jonathan Nolan. Jonathan, whose short story inspired Christopher’s breakout hit Memento, has also provided the screenplays for The Prestige and both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. In a new interview with, Nolan reveals some of the surprising inspirations behind the new sci-fi odyssey and shares the thematic link that ties Interstellar to his upcoming “Westworld” series, coming soon to HBO.

CS: You’ve worked with your brother on several films and, as is the case with “Interstellar,” there seems to be a recurring theme of time displacement or altered perceptions of time.
Jonathan Nolan:
Sure. I mean, one of the things that interested me first and foremost with the project is the relativistic experience of time and human beings being kind of subjected to that. And the emotional aspect of that. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” ends with the spaceship lands and Richard Dreyfuss’ character best on, but a bunch of pilots and sailors from the 1940s get off. You kind of wanted to know what happened next. It was like, “Where did those guys go?” So I had always been interested in that idea and it just seemed so emotional. These voyages across great distances of space and time, they take us away from the people we love. The idea that we’d experience time different from them is just fascinating to me.

CS: I know Steven Spielberg has said that, when he looks back, he has a hard time identifying with that ending now in the sense that Neary gives up his family.
Well, he had kids at that point. Steven asked the question when we were researching for the film — before I ever came on board the project — It was a transcript of a conversation with Kip Thorne and some scientists and physicists and astronauts about space travel and he asked, “How many of you would be willing to go to Mars on a one-way trip?” They all said yes! You think, “That’s f–ing crazy.” That’s what’s the film is about. The film is about this warring, paradoxical nature we have as human begins who have been crafted by natural section over millions of years to be curious and ambitious. Seeking. Striving. We have been crafted by disaster to push out to the utmost horizon to find out what’s on the other side of it. That’s in our nature. What’s also in our nature is a profound love and connection to our children and our communities. Those two things are very much at conflict with one another at certain moments. I don’t have an answer for it. It’s a mystery.

CS: This was in development while “Man of Steel” was shooting and it seems it and “Interstellar” share some of the same thematic DNA.
Well, I started working on the project in 2006 or 2007. When I originally pitched it to Steven, he wanted to do a contemporary space exploration film rooted in good science. I said, “Well, if you wanted to do a contemporary space exploration film rooted in good science, it would be 15 minutes long and it wouldn’t go f–ing anywhere. The bill would get held up in the appropriations committee. We don’t go to space anymore. We’re done. That certainly seemed to be the case in 2007, but the average member of the public doesn’t think in those terms. It’s like, “Oh yeah, we still go to space. We can go to the moon. We went to the moon.” But we’re not going back to the moon and there’s a very real chance that we’ll never go back to the moon. This is a one-off if we’re not careful. That would be desperately sad. People don’t understand that about this moment. You had to set in a future. In the future. One where it’s abundantly clear that we can’t go back into space. It’s much clearer now, that that was an aspect out ourselves that we’re not looking to repeat. It’s set in this agrarian kind of – I remember trying to explain to Steven what I wanted to do. He was like, “Oh, like the sixties!” That was kind of the idea. Not a disastrous, post-apocalyptic America, but one in which things had changed and we sort of hit slightly tougher times. People had returned to the land. A lot of people, myself included, consider that to a be good thing, but we lost some things along the way. Our ability to do the big ticket items. Space exploration. Massive science advances. If you read history, this is the cycle. It’s very hard for an American of our age to imagine that next year that progress won’t continue on. If you look at the last 2,000 years and human civilization, things come and go. Just because we went to the moon doesn’t mean we’re going back to the moon. So the film had to be set in that kind of agrarian future to hammer that home.

CS: You also have with “Interstellar” a robot that’s not quite like any we’ve seen on the screen before.
That was all Chris. In my draft, the robots were the boring ones that you’ve already seen in other movies. What I was interested in was the psychology of the robots. The idea that they would be be built in our image. That they’d have a sense of humor. Their personalities would be designed to sort of put us at ease and to accept them. It’s sort of a cheat in getting a character people are going to invest in. You like a character with a sense of humor. If it’s robot with a sense of humor, you’re more likely to like the robot.

CS: Do those ideas get through to “Westworld” as well?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m fascinated by artificial intelligence. I’ve now worked on several projects that feature it. I just felt like I was scratching the surface with that when J.J. [Abrams] called about “Westworld.” My wife and I are working on that and we’re very, very excited about it.

CS: It seems like, in a lot of ways, you’re the more openly “fanboy” between you two.
Sure! I mean, I’m a little brother, so you get that. We grew up watching a lot of movies and having a lot of conversations about a lot of movies. We both kind of grew up fanboys of that culture. My brother gave me a copy of “Batman: Year One” for my 14th birthday. It was kind of a big deal for me. So we’ve always been fanboys. I’m maybe a little more straightforward about it.

CS: How does that fanboy side react now that you’re able to look at all of these properties from a potentially creative perspective?
It’s great. I mean, you’ve gotta turn around and pinch yourself sometimes. My earliest memories are making little Super 8 films – or watching my brother make stop motion space spectaculars. It was nice to be on set with a giant spaceship. It struck me as odd that it had taken us so long to get there.

CS: I know “2001” has come up a lot as far as inspiration goes, but is there a film that people might not suspect was an influence on “Interstellar”?
That’s a good question, but it’s hard to unpack. There’s a lot tucked away in there. I love the film “The Natural” an awful lot. I think there’s something in the baseball analogies tucked in there. Baseball, to me, is still the most iconic of American sports. Some of the imagery connects to that a little bit, I suspect. The idea of that character’s journey.

CS: Do you find that, when you’re tackling a project, you like to impress yourself in that genre or does that become something to avoid?
It depends on what genre. For “Westworld,” we watched a lot of Westerns. Growing up I watched a lot of science fiction but, because this one is so driven by ideas, you don’t want to feel too constrained or hemmed in. There are so many brilliant filmmakers who have made so many brilliant science fiction films over the years that, if I had gone back and watched them all, I’d have just said, “F– it, we don’t need to make it.” But I hadn’t quite seen this movie before.

CS: What is your and your brother’s role moving forward with the DC Universe?
I love those guys and my brother was involved in ‘Man of Steel’ with Zack [Snyder] and David [Goyer], but I kind of feel like that chapter for us is closed. To be continued somewhere farther down the line? Maybe.

Interstellar is now showing in select theaters and opens everywhere this Friday, November 7.