Christopher Nolan Breaks Silence on 'Interstellar' Sound (Exclusive)

Christopher Nolan Horizontal - H 2014
AP Images

Christopher Nolan Horizontal - H 2014

“I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it's the right approach for this experiential film,” Christopher Nolan said, speaking for the first time in detail about the use of sound in his new film Interstellar.

Describing his approach to the movie’s sound mix as “adventurous and creative,” Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview Friday, “Many of the filmmakers I’ve admired over the years have used sound in bold and adventurous ways. I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I  try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound.”

Since the movie’s opening on Nov. 5, some viewers have complained about the movie’s sound, claiming some key dialogue is difficult to hear and raising questions about whether it is the fault of the sound mix or the sound systems in some of the theaters where the film is playing. But Nolan said the movie’s sound is exactly as he intended and he praised theaters for presenting it correctly.

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Nolan — who said he is a fierce believer that “sound is as important as picture” — said that he likes to hear how his movies sound in actual theaters. “Usually [I visit] six or seven. I like to hear it out where people are going to see it, not just in the cocoon of the dub stage. That is something I have done for years, because everything we are doing is intended to communicate something to the audience."

“The theaters I have been at have been doing a terrific job in terms of presenting the film in the way I intended,” he continued. “Broadly speaking, there is no question when you mix a film in an unconventional way as this, you’re bound to catch some people off guard, but hopefully people can appreciate the experience for what it’s intended to be.” To check out how Interstellar is playing, Nolan said he has visited the TCL Chinese Imax Theatre and the Arclight Cinemas Dome in Hollywood and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York.

Nolan attributed Interstellar’s sound to “very tight teamwork” among composer Hans Zimmer, re-recording mixers Gary Rizzo and Gregg Landaker and sound designer Richard King. “We made carefully considered creative decisions,” he said. “There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is. It’s not that nobody has ever done these things before, but it's a little unconventional for a Hollywood movie.”

As one example, he cited the scene during which Matthew McConaughey is driving through a cornfield — something Nolan actually did, riding in the back of a car while filming point of view shots. “It’s incredibly loud … exhilarating and slightly frightening,” he laughed as he described his experience. “I was very keen to try and give the audience the experience and the chaotic feeling with the sound.”

“The idea is to experience the journey the character is going on,” he said. “[For instance] the experience of being in the cockpit is you hear the creaking [of the spacecraft]; it’s a very scary sound. We wanted to be true to the experience of space travel. We wanted to emphasize those intimate elements.”

Nolan added, “I also love the quality of the sounds Richard got inside the truck. It’s echoed later in the film, with one of the key spaceship scenes. To me, there’s something very frightening about feeling the environment affecting the vehicle or the capsule you are in — whether it’s sand and dust hitting the windows of the truck you are in or the atmospherical forces while you are traveling in a space capsule.”

The director called the scene in which characters are driving through a massive dust storm “really fun," elaborating, “I love sound cuts that play with point of view (in this case, the sound of the dust hitting the car, as heard from both outside and inside the truck). When the camera cuts outside the car, the sound cuts with it. You have that feeling of the elements barraging you — and you’re out there in it."

Nolan used other elements to delineate the different planets visited, not just with picture, but with sound. “We wanted to avoid the traditional layering of sound. We wanted to distinguish the worlds based on very intimate, recognizable sounds. The water planet was a lot of splashing. In contrast the ice planet had the crunch of the glaciers," he said.

In another scene. Michael Caine’s character talks with Jessica Chastain’s character from his hospital bed. Said Nolan, “The creative intent there is to be truthful to the situation — an elderly man dying and saying something somewhat unexpected. We are following the emotional state of Jessica’s character as she starts to understand what he’s been saying. Information is communicated in various different ways over the next few scenes. That’s the way I like to work; I don't like to hang everything on one particular line. I like to follow the experience of the character.”

Underscoring the considerable thought that went into the movie's sound, Nolan concluded, “We mixed for months and months and we talked about everything. We must have mixed this film over six months. It was a continuous, organic process and discussion.”