8:45am PT by Scott Feinberg
Christopher Nolan on 'Interstellar' Critics, Making Original Films and Shunning Cellphones and Email (Q&A)
A version of this story appears in the The Hollywood Reporter's January awards issue.
Christopher Nolan is responsible for many of the most critically and/or commercially successful films of the 21st century: Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and, in 2014, the epic interplanetary/interdimensional sci-fi drama Interstellar, which he co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and directed alongside his longtime producer and wife of 17 years, Emma Thomas.
The much discussed and debated Interstellar cost $165 million to make and has thus far grossed more than $650 million worldwide, making it the only title among 2014’s top 10 worldwide earners that is not a remake, sequel, reboot or adaptation, but rather an entirely original film, something that is increasingly rare among the output of the big studios. While some have taken issue with elements of its plot and sound mixing, many — including more than a few of Nolan's most distinguished fellow filmmakers — have applauded the rare ambition and skill that it took to get it made at all.
The 44-year-old London-born filmmaker — who garnered best original screenplay Oscar noms for Memento (with his brother) and Inception but, rather shockingly, has never been nominated for the best director Oscar — recently granted The Hollywood Reporter an in-depth interview in his Hollywood production office, surrounded by posters of and memorabilia from his films. He discussed his inspirations, thoughts on working with actors, his take on criticisms that his films are “cold,” his objectives for Interstellar, and his hopes for the future and much more.
Did you go to the movies when you were a kid, and if you did, were there films or filmmakers that you were especially fond of?
I went to the movies a lot as a kid. That first Star Wars, that George Lucas directed, came out in 1977 when I was 7 years old. It made a huge impression on me, in terms of the scope of it and the idea that you could create an entirely different experience for the audience, literally any world, more than one world, a whole different galaxy. They also rereleased [Stanley] Kubrick’s 2001 when I was 7, so I got to see that on a huge screen, and it was really a thrilling experience. I don’t remember being remotely concerned about what it meant or whether it was elusive or confusing (laughs); I just remember the visceral nature of seeing spaceships, seeing other worlds and being taken to other dimensions. That experience was huge for me.
When did it first occur to you to try filmmaking? And when did you first realize that it was something that you wanted to do long-term?
Well, I mean, right around that time. I’d already started playing around with my dad’s Super 8 camera, making little war films and stuff. And then, after Star Wars, my films all became space films. I think when I was about 12 or 13, I want to say, I started to begin to identify with the idea of the director as the sort of controlling force, or the closest analogy to what I was doing on my Super 8 camera, you know, just making images and putting them together. I remember being very struck by Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner and noticing or sort of analyzing the fact that I liked [Scott's] Alien, as well — two totally different films, different actors, different stories, really, but the same mind behind them. And that’s what I was sort of focused on, the idea of the director and how the director could have a controlling effect on the creative side of the film that’s indefinable, but important and something you kind of feel. And then I got into writing because no one’s going to give you a script to direct when you’re starting out, so, I started writing, just for myself, just to be able to direct things. And I grew to like that part of it, as well.
How did your parents respond to the news that their son wanted to become a filmmaker? A lot of young filmmakers get grief for it because it seems like a far-fetched proposition …
No, my parents were supportive. My dad worked in advertising — he was a creative director — and my mom was an English teacher. I think they were thrilled that I was interested in doing something creative and they lent me their camera — which you know, I wound up breaking. (Laughs.) I strapped it to the bottom of a car and bottomed out, smashing it, which my dad wasn’t very happy about. When I think about how young I was, it was pretty nice of them to lend me their expensive Super 8 camera! They were very, very encouraging and one Christmas they got me an editing machine, the basic Editola, it was called — a reel-to-reel editing machine so I could start splicing together films. No, they could not have been more supportive.
When you went off to college, did you major in something related to filmmaking or just continue to pursue it recreationally?
No, I studied English — English literature — at UCL [University College London] in London, but there was a film society there, and my wife — and producer — and I got involved with the college film society and ran the film society for a couple of years. It was a very fun environment because they had 16 mm equipment. They had video equipment, as well — that was the sort of the TV society, we were film. It was in the basement of the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, and we were able to show 35 mm films there to the student body, and the proceeds from that would pay for the running of the society, would pay for 16 mm production. So I wasn’t doing courses or anything — it was totally a student-run thing that we were able to do, and I think that was kind of the fun of it. There was no discipline whatsoever. It was literally just access to equipment and other like-minded people, you know?
I know that your wife has played a very important role in all of your work since you met her. How did you two first meet? And did you bond over film?
We met on the first day of college. We were in the same dormitory building and just met socially. And because I wanted to get into films and was making a film, I got her involved in the film society, and she sort of took it over and ran with it. Then she wound up working in the film industry — after college, she went to work for Working Title Films. So that’s how we met, a long time ago.
"Producer" can mean so many things. What has her role been on your films, going back pretty much to your first, I believe?
Yeah, she’s done everything with me. The role of producer is hard to pin down, as you say, and it’s different on different things. She gets involved with everything — she's my closest confidante in the creative process, she's the person I show things to first and she's really involved in every aspect of the logistics of the thing. It’s not a relationship where she’s there simply to make things easy for me or whatever. We work together on all aspects, so it’s more that she tries to suggest to me how what I’m doing might be accomplished practically. Because we’ve gotten on together from the 16 mm days — from, you know, mixing sound together on 16 mm mag machines and stuff — she knows more about how films are made than anyone. It’s not something that she makes a big deal of or trumpets — people wouldn’t necessarily be aware of it at all — but she knows everything about how films are made, which is very useful to me because I don’t have to spend time explaining these things to her. She’s very in tune with what our methodology is going to be and how it has to work. Particularly on the big films — they’re very complicated mechanisms, and people therefore tend to specialize, producers tend to specialize, on one aspect or the other. The fun thing about starting in independent film is you have to know everything about everything — you just do — as a producer, and she does, so she is an incredible resource from that point of view. And from a creative point of view, working with her is very much the same as working with my brother, actually: You’re working with people who are family and there’s no agenda to anything they say. When you’re having a creative discussion, argument or a conflict, you know that everything from that person is coming from a completely sincere place — it’s just what they believe — and that frees you up to accept the input and to engage. As a director in the studio system, working in the commercial world of filmmaking, you have to pick your fights; you have to choose when you’re open to input, but you also have to show strong leadership. It’s a tricky balance. And you wind up dealing with a lot of people who — either it’s just their job to give you notes and they’re ticking boxes, or they’re trying to prove something in some other realm, or whatever, and they’re mixed in with that. You also meet some very genuine, very intelligent people who will give you great notes. And it’s tricky to navigate when to listen and when to say, “No, I know what I’m doing.” The great thing about working with Emma and working with Jonah is they’re always there to just give me totally unfiltered input about what it is we’re doing.
You mentioned that you come from the indie world. How did your first feature, the indie Following, come about? And is that what led you to come to Hollywood?
Following is a film we shot on 16 mm in black-and-white with a group of friends. We would shoot every Saturday. I worked out that I could pay, out of my own money, for about 10 minutes of footage each Saturday, for a certain number of Saturdays, spread over a year. We only did one or two takes, and we would have a 70-minute film at the end. So we spent a year doing that, and it took a long time to finish, but as I was finishing the edit Emma had the opportunity to come to Los Angeles for Working Title and move here. And I had American citizenship, so it seemed like a great idea to come out here and see if we could take our first film on the festival circuit, because there’s such a great set of North American film festivals. So we moved out here. I started working as a script reader, she was working for Working Title, and we started sending tapes of the film out to festivals. In the end, we got accepted to the San Francisco Film Festival, and that was sort of the beginning of it for us. We took the film from San Francisco to Toronto to Slamdance. We got distribution through a company called Zeitgeist. And, at the same time, I’d been writing the script for Memento. The timing was great because very often, if you can get a little bit of attention, a little bit of success on the festival circuit, people say, “Well, what would you want to do next?” And the tricky thing is, if you don’t have a specific thing, you can’t capitalize on that moment. I already had the script done so it was like, “Well, this is what I’m going to do.”
At that point, when you were generating great interest from other people for the first time, what was your own idea of success for the future? What were your greatest aspirations for what would follow?
It’s tough to remember. I think probably, in the back of my mind, there was always this sense that I wanted to do something as big as those films I’d seen when I was a kid, but it certainly wasn’t a conscious aspiration. When I was going around the festival circuit with Following, very often people would refer to my film as "a calling card film," and I found that very frustrating. My comment at the time was, “If you want to make a calling card, you go to Kinkos. You don’t spend three years of your life putting a film together.” The act of making that film was "filmmaking," to me, and it was as valid and still is as valid as everything I do today. And I try and encourage young people starting out to really value the experience they’re going through on the smallest scale of production because it’s filmmaking. If you want to be a filmmaker, make a film and enjoy it; don’t be thinking about what’s the next thing, the thing after that. And I’m really pretty true to that, pretty sincere about that — and now that I’ve done huge films, I can say with absolute certainty it’s completely correct. It’s like, making those films was exactly the same as making the big films. Except it’s better paid making the big films. (Laughs.)
People sometimes forget that when Memento came out, you were just 30 …
Yeah, it dribbled out slowly over about two years, but I think I was 30 when it first was released.
Now, I get that filmmaking is filmmaking no matter the scale, but it must have felt somewhat different, on that film, having a multimillion dollar budget for the first time …
Very different. People will often ask me about taking on Batman or whatever, but the truth is that the biggest leap I ever made in my career was from Following to Memento. It was from working with friends, spending my own money, and then risking our time and effort, to spending millions of dollars of somebody else’s money and having a proper crew there with trucks and trailers and all sorts of things going on. And even though it was a very small film by Hollywood standards — it was about three-and-a-half million plus financing charges and things, three-and-a-half or four million — to me it felt absolutely enormous and the pressure was huge. The shoot was very quick. It was 25-and-a-half days, and that made it manageable because the pressure was enormous, but it was five weeks, and then you’re in the edit suite dealing with a different kind of pressure, and we had to cut the film in five weeks, as well — it was non-DGA, we didn’t get the DGA card. So, it was a crazy, very high pressure situation. But I had Emma with me and John was actually working as a PA on the film, so he was around, which was nice. And our executive producer was Aaron Ryder, who Emma had been with at Working Title; he was a great friend and was able to take all of the pressure off me and help me through that experience.
Were you and Jonathan always very close? It seems like you guys couldn’t be closer now …
We have a very close relationship. But he’s six years younger than me, so you go through phases. At different times in our lives we’ve been far apart and close together and whatever. But I roped him in pretty early on because I could see what a great writer he was, and I put him to work and dragged him to Hollywood and he’s just done amazingly well, which is really, really thrilling. It’s great to be able to work closely with him. We disagree all the time — I mean, brothers do, and that’s probably the fun of it — but the creative disagreements are always from a sincere place and that makes it very manageable, because when you work with talented people and they have a different point of view it makes you either justify what you really want or you figure out that they’re right and you change what you’re doing and it makes what you’re doing better. So it’s been a very, very productive thing. But he’s a very busy man — I can barely get him on the phone anymore! (Laughs.)
After Memento, before you did a movie with a very big budget, you did Insomnia. Was that sort of a test, do you think?
Well, it was a very logical next step for me, to a big studio movie — I suppose you wouldn’t call it a big studio movie, you’d call it a medium-sized, but for me it was a very big studio movie, working with big movie stars, with a considerably larger budget, ten times Memento's. So it was another step up or a step forward, I should say — in scale, it was a step up — and it was a very valuable experience for me. I think too few filmmakers are being offered that chance these days. When people look at what I did with the Batman franchise, for example, they say, “Well, the guy did this little indie film and then went and did that.” And it’s like, no, I did a medium-sized studio film, where I certainly felt a lot of pressure, unquestionably, but I did not feel the pressure that you feel when you take on a beloved character in a huge franchise, you know? So I had agreeable timing and I was able to build my relationship with the studio [Warner Bros.] through that film and learn how to deal with the pressures of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. It was a very valuable experience for me and very fortunate, I think, in the way the timing worked for me, because when we finished Memento we couldn’t sell it anywhere — we showed it to every distributor in town and they all passed, apart from Paramount Classics, who were interested but wouldn’t offer enough money for it. So, we were completely high and dry. I was able to get meetings with studios and stuff because every time we screened it, somebody would kind of "get it," somebody would see that there was something in the filmmaking, whatever, so I was able to keep trying to push my career forward, as well, while the film sort of sat there in limbo. And so I was already signed up with Warners to do Insomnia by the time Memento kind of had its moment and that was great. I’ve had a lot of fortunate things happen to me, but that was one of the most fortunate because I wasn’t put in the position of everybody saying, “Oh, you’ve done this very different, extreme thing. What are you going to do next? How do you top that?” I wasn’t in that position at all because I was already making another film that was a relatively straightforward studio thriller, which I loved doing and poured myself into, and it was a great experience. I mean, to work with Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank? Just extraordinary talents. It’s one of my favorite experiences that I’ve had, and I’m very proud of the film — but it didn’t have to be as much my own "personal" film. Hillary Seitz wrote it and it was a remake of another movie. It fit into a genre that the studio was very comfortable with at that time — I mean, it’s not a genre that gets played as much now; I think we were about the last cop movie made in the studio system, actually, but we had a lot of fun doing it — and I met a lot of great people. It was really terrific and I treasure that experience. I think it was incredibly important to me.
Was a Batman film something that you had long had a desire to tackle? And was there something specific that you wanted to bring to it?
Yeah. It came to me in a very interesting way, which was my agent, Dan Aloni, called and said, “It seems unlikely you’d be interested in this, but Warners is sort of casting around for what they would do with Batman.” It had reached the end of its last sort of life, if you’d like. And at the time, nobody used the term "reboot" — that didn’t exist — so it was really a question of, "What would you do with this?" I said, “Well, actually, that is something I’m interested in,” because one of the great films that I am very influenced by that we haven’t talked about was Dick Donner’s Superman — 1978, that came out. It made a huge impression on me. I can remember the trailers for it, I can remember about Superman the movie, all of that. And it was very clear to me that however brilliant — and it was very brilliant — Tim Burton’s take on Batman was in 1989, and it was obviously a worldwide smash, it wasn’t that sort of origin story, it wasn’t that real-world kind of epic movie; it was very Tim Burton, a very idiosyncratic, gothic kind of masterpiece. But it left this interesting gap in pop-culture, which is you know, you had Superman in 1978, but they never did the sort of 1978 Batman, where you see the origin story, where the world is pretty much the world we live in but there’s this extraordinary figure there, which is what worked so well in Dick Donner’s Superman film. And so I was able to get in the studio and say, “Well, that’s what I would do with it.” I don’t even know who was first banging around the term "reboot" or whatever, but it was after Batman Begins, so we didn’t have any kind of reference for that idea of kind of resetting a franchise. It was more a thing of, "Nobody’s ever made this origin story in this way and treated it as a piece of action filmmaking, a sort of contemporary action blockbuster."
Grounded in realism …
Grounded in realism — grounded in heightened realism, grounded in the degree of realism that we expected at the time from, you know, our action movies, Jerry Bruckheimer action movies and things, that would have realistic textures, you know? So, "OK, let’s do that." What I loved about Superman was the way New York felt like New York, or rather Metropolis felt like New York. Metropolis felt like a city you could recognize — and then there was this guy flying through the streets. "That’s amazing, so let’s do that for Batman, and let’s start by putting together an amazing cast," which is what they had done with that film, but which I hadn’t seen done since — they had everybody from [Marlon Brando] to Glenn Ford, playing Superman's dad, you know, it was an incredible cast. So we started putting together this amazing cast based around Christian [Bale], who seemed perfect for Batman, but bringing him Sir Michael Caine and Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman and Tom Wilkinson. It was just incredible.
At that time, were you thinking, “I’m signing myself up for multiple films”?
No, not at all. I only had a deal to do the one film. When I first spoke about the project with [screenwriter] David Goyer, I think we said, "I guess if it was successful. …" At the time, everybody thought in terms of trilogies, which I guess they probably don’t anymore because they split the third film into two. (Laughs.) But at the time, The Matrix guys were doing their sequels, everything was about trilogies, "What’s the trilogy?!" And we didn’t want to answer that question. Privately, ourselves, we started to put together a vague idea of where a second and third film were going, and then I immediately shot them down. I was like, “You know what? You’ve got to put everything into the one movie and just try and make a great movie because you may not get this chance again.” And then, when it succeeded, we were able to think about, "OK, what would we do in a sequel?" We were able to adapt and grow with the way the public perceived the films and with what the films became, as opposed to trying to plan ahead, you know, five years, six years or whatever. And we were given the time by the studio to let them fall, so three years between that movie and Dark Knight and four years between Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises, you know?
It’s kind of amazing that even within those relatively short periods between the Batman films, you made The Prestige and Inception. Were those projects that you had wanted to make for quite a while, as well?
Yeah. If you’re really trying to grow and nurture a franchise, the thing that used to be understood, that I think now is a little harder to carve out with the studio because of the pressures they have, is you need time. And that doesn’t mean necessarily even working full-time on it itself; it means time to throw some ideas together and then let them sit, go off and do something else, come back and see what still feels right and everything. Ironically, I think it was very valuable to making a coherent trilogy, because you were really able to get a sense of what each film had become to the audience before you then moved the story forward.
How did you become involved with Interstellar? And what was it that you hoped to say through it?
The project was originally developed by Lynda Obst. She’s great friends with Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at Cal Tech, and their dream was to make a science-fiction film where the more outlandish concepts were derived from real-world science. They originally developed the film with Steven Spielberg at Paramount and they hired my brother to come up with a story and a script. He and I talk about everything, whether or not we’re working on it together, so I’d been hearing about it over the four years he worked on it, and I really felt that there was an extraordinary opportunity there to tell a very intimate story of human connection and relationships and contrast it with the cosmic scale of the overall events. So when I had the chance to get involved, I wanted to jump on it because I feel that those kinds of opportunities are very few and far between, where you really see what something could be, in terms of what the balance is between the emotional side of the story and the scale of the thing, the vastness of what the story tries to encompass.
While your films have always been very well received, critically and commercially, some have suggested that emotion is sometimes overwhelmed by spectacle in them. Is that a fair criticism? And was Interstellar an attempt to rebut that?
No, not at all. I try not to be reactive in what I'm doing. It's not as hard to keep your reactions in proportion as you might think, and the reason for that is because yes, a bad review or a particular criticism will make you angry, and you'll be happy when somebody says they like the film — but you get both reactions to every film, no matter who you are, and it's the same movie! (Laughs.) So there’s a very natural kind of perspective that comes in about other people’s responses, which is they’re very, very subjective, just as mine are to a lot of movies I watch, so, you don’t want to be reactive to that. The reality is, I started reading a few years ago that my films have been cold or whatever. I mean, I can tell you when we screened Inception for people, they’d come out crying; when we screened The Dark Knight Rises, people would come out in tears and the studio guys would be wiping their eyes. We’ve always had very emotional responses to the films, right back to Memento. I think Guy Pearce’s performance in that film is extremely moving; my work is very technical, very precise, possibly cold, but he gives it this emotional center that affected people and it would not have been a success without that. I think Interstellar is just more obviously personal and more obviously about emotion than my other films, so yes, it absolutely comes to the forefront, but it's because that's what the story is about entirely. I mean, it's literally about connections between human beings and what they might mean if we look at them from a different perspective. So no, I try not to be reactive in what I do.
You can’t please everybody …
No. As a filmmaker, you know, no matter how positive things seem, you always notice the bad reviews, you always notice that the things people love are the same things other people hate, so you can’t react to that. To me, it’s all about doing what you believe in.
A number of your films — Inception, the Batman trilogy and certainly Interstellar — feature big casts of great actors, several of whom you've worked with repeatedly. How do you go about working with actors?
I love working with actors and I love developing a relationship with actors so that you can work with them more than once, as I have with various actors — Michael, particularly, and Christian, as well. I think what I learned, particularly on Insomnia with Al Pacino, is that there’s a level of mystery to what actors do. There is a mystical quality to what they do in those moments where they transcend good technical acting and do something that’s beyond that. What I realize is I have a great appreciation for that, so even though I don’t understand it, I can’t do it myself, I’m not an actor and I don’t know much about acting, I’m very capable of tapping into that and observing it and knowing, I think, how to create conditions that will allow that to happen. I find what actors do to be very mysterious and, therefore, very compelling. I guess it’s the most fascinating part in what I get to do, actually, just to enable that, in a way.
It seems like aside from Christopher Nolan movies, everything that comes out of the big studios is a sequel, remake or adaptation of something. Why is it so hard for original films to get made?
Because it's a business and these films have to be paid for — they’re expensive, collective endeavors. Inevitably, the industry goes through cycles of leaning towards particular types of entertainment and, at times, it’s been more about original ideas and, at other times, it’s more about franchise properties. I’ve worked in both and had a great time working in both, so I wouldn’t criticize one or the other. I think it’s always a challenge, making original films. We’re certainly in an era right now where in the business — I don’t want to personalize it to the studios, because it’s not really any one person’s fault — the idea of what a big film is, like a blockbuster, tends towards the known IP [intellectual property], you know, whether it’s a book or a comic book character or whatever, something that people sort of already know. And, you know, that will change over time and will run its course, but right now, that’s what’s sort of driving where the biggest money is spent. But I have found the studios to always be receptive to innovation and novelty. They have a responsibility to reach wider audiences and pay for movies, but nobody understands better than the people running the studios how much the audience needs new and original entertainment in movies — they completely get that — so it’s about finding the right thing at the right time that you could put together. We were very fortunate with Inception that we were able to do it right after the big success of The Dark Knight — there was a lot of trust in me, I was able to convince Leo [DiCaprio] to do the movie and, you know, he carries an enormous amount of weight with audiences and so forth. So it’s about being in the right place at the right time with the right original idea, because originality for its own sake is never going to please anybody anywhere.
A few questions that can be probably answered in a sentence or two: To begin with, is it true that you do not have an email address or a cellphone?
It is true.
How can that be? Somebody who can do such technologically amazing things not having the most basic …
Well, I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing. I just couldn’t be bothered about it. As far as the cellphone goes, it’s like that whole thing about "in New York City, you’re never more than two feet from a rat" — I’m never two feet from a cellphone. I mean, we’ll be on a scout with 10 people and all of them have phones, so it’s very easy to get in touch with me when people need to. When I started in this business, not many people had cellphones, I didn’t have one, I never bothered to get one and I’ve been very fortunate to be working continuously, so there’s always someone around me who can tap me on the shoulder and hand me a phone if they need to. I actually really like not having one because it gives me time to think. You know, when you have a smartphone and you have 10 minutes to spare, you go on it and you start looking at stuff.
What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process? Preproduction, production, postproduction, something else?
I really like the whole spread of it and the variety of it. I think if I had to choose, I would say sound mixing — I would think that’s the most fun there is.
What was your reaction to some of the criticism about the sound of Interstellar?
You know, it’s a beautifully mixed film and the guys did an incredible job. When it comes to blockbusters, I think people are a little more conservative about the expectation of how the sound should be balanced. And I’m fortunate that I’m free to be able to do it as I I see fit and really experiment with it and push those boundaries. It’s a fun thing to do.
What is the biggest misconception about you held by people who don’t know you?
I couldn’t — I don’t know. I have no idea, to be honest. I don’t know what people think about me. (Laughs,)
Even from articles or things, you don't feel that you’ve been misunderstood in some way?
Not significantly, truthfully. I mean, I’m always — well, I think I answered this earlier: people saying that I make cold films. I think people perhaps aren’t aware of the subjectivity of that assessment, which is often true of the way people watch films in general. But when you show somebody a film that makes a certain amount of people cry and other people say it’s cold, you’re like, “Well, clearly that’s what you’re bringing to the film.” That’s not really about me, that’s about the films. About me, I couldn’t tell you.
Inversely, what is the thing that you wish people who don’t know you knew about you? Is there something that you would like people to know about you?
No, I don’t want people to know anything about me. I mean, I’m not being facetious. The more you know about somebody who makes the films, the less you can just watch the movies — that’s my feeling — which is why doing these things [interviews] always feels a bit like — (laughs) I mean, you have to do a certain amount of promotion for the film, you have to put yourself out there, but I actually don’t want people to have me in mind at all when they’re watching the films, genuinely.
For over a decade, you have worked exclusively on big budget, big studio movies. Would you ever again make a $9 million, performance-driven, effects-free indie like Memento?
Yeah, definitely. To me, it’s all about story, you know? As far as “effects-free” goes, we only have 600 effects shots in Interstellar; there are probably fewer effects shots in the movie than half the films at Sundance! (Laughs.) And, as far as “performance-driven,” I don’t think you could make a more performance-driven film than Interstellar because performance is everything. So, to me, it’s about the scale of what’s required for the story you want to tell. I'm certainly not driven by the scale of the story but, you know, driven by how it grabs me. It might be small, it might be big.
Why does it matter if a film is seen on film versus digitally?
Why does it matter? Well, it matters if the filmmaker’s preference is for the film to be seen on film. That is of absolute paramount importance. There isn’t anybody telling the filmmaker they have to show it digitally as opposed to on film. And that’s the underlying principle that’s a stake. It’s important if the filmmaker says it’s important.
Why is it important to you?
Why is it important to me? Because, it’s got considerably better color reproduction and higher resolution when well projected. I think that people have in their minds, when they think of film projection, bad film projection — which isn’t great, it’s certainly true. But the highest quality film projection, you know, to my eye — and even in technical terms — exceeds anything digital projection is capable of. I think that, as far as standardizing the industry goes, then obviously digital is a powerful logistical tool for doing that and for keeping a consistent level of quality. But I don’t see any reason we need to standardize. I mean, yes, it’s cheaper. But the music industry doesn’t standardize. No other industry standardizes. You know, Broadway plays don’t standardize — you build the set you need and you configure the theater how you want it. We’ve had massive success on this film [Interstellar] with the theaters where we went in and literally put a projector in the booth and said, “OK, for the run of this movie, this is how we’re going to do it,” you know, whether it was the 70 mm in the Chinese or 70 mm at the Cinerama Dome or whatever — those screens did incredibly well for us. People see it as an old-fashioned mentality, but it’s not. It’s about putting on a show for the audience in the venues where we can put on something special, something extraordinary. Yes, it requires money to do that, but if you can do it, why not? If it can pay for itself, why not?
I know you said you don’t like to talk too much about yourself, but can I ask you to share one not-terribly-revealing thing. What do you do for fun and pleasure when you’re not involved with a movie?
I like spending times with my kids, really. That’s the whole point to it.
You’re not like, a golfer or a swimmer or something like that?
I wouldn’t want to go into detail with that.
OK, OK …
I’m not a golfer or a swimmer.
What other filmmaker’s career trajectory would you hope that the remainder of yours resembles?
Well, there are so many great filmmakers. I mean, I would love to keep working as late in my career as some of the great filmmakers — John Huston. I think Stanley Kubrick had a wonderful ability to make very personal films within the studio system as long as he wanted, which I think most filmmakers crave. And I think if you look at what Steven Spielberg’s been able to do — and carries his own being at the absolute forefront of what movies are — I mean, what a wonderful thing to be able to keep doing that? Or Clint Eastwood, you know? I mean, there are so many great examples of filmmakers who are as interesting to people today as they were when they had their first massive hit. I mean, that, I think, is probably your ultimate aspiration: keep trying to do great work.
What is your favorite 2014 film not named Interstellar?
(Laughs.) Well, I don't know whether I should answer that or not because I haven’t seen everything. I’m not able to really see movies while I’m working. I've just finished working, so I haven’t caught up with everything. I will say that Boyhood, [Richard] Linklater’s film is an extraordinary movie, I mean, there’s no question.
Finally, many years from now, when people are looking back at this era, what do you hope they will say when they talk about Christopher Nolan’s films?
(Pauses for several seconds to think.) I’d like them to say that they were always ambitious, you know, always trying to do something with the most sincere intentions and really trying to be ambitious. I think that’s all you can hope for. As far as whether they’re any good or not, obviously, I hope people like them (laughs) — but that’s sort of impossible to say, really.