What Will Christopher Nolan Do With His Next Movie?

The secretive filmmaker is keeping the plot of 'Tenet' under lock and key, but there are plenty of clues to dig into.
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Christopher Nolan

It’s only 14 months out from Christopher Nolan’s next film, set to release July 17, 2020, and it’s still shrouded in mystery. On Wednesday, the film was revealed to be titled Tenet, and was described as “an action epic evolving from the world of international espionage.” Beyond the cast and some of the below-the-line crew, almost nothing else is known.

That’s usually the case for the director — actor Robert Pattinson has said he was locked in a room while reading the script. So what's a Nolan enthusiast who wants to know more to do? Here, we dig into Nolan's past  for clues about what to expect from Tenet. Read on for theories that the film is about time-traveling spies.

The secrecy will be maintained until the film opens, and that’s by design.

Fathers play a big role in Nolan films, and it’s the father in him that likes secrecy. “We all want to unwrap our Christmas presents early,” Nolan told the New York Times in 2014 in a profile ahead of Interstellar. “But we all know we’ll be disappointed if we do.”

So even though this new film has a title and a description, it will still remain a mystery, as “Christmas” isn’t until July 17, 2020. “The audience doesn’t know what it wants. It wants to be surprised,” Nolan told IndieWire in 2017 about Dunkirk, echoing a line of dialogue from The Prestige.

This surprise element has even been true of adaptations he's made. The Dark Knight trilogy may have become defining Batman stories, pulling from defining Batman comics, but they were new cinematic ground for the character upon release that would’ve been difficult to see coming from the director of Following, Memento and Insomnia. And The Prestige deeply reworks the structure and mechanisms of the novel, creating a film that might better be described as spiritually related to Christopher Priest’s book rather than as directly adapted.

Interstellar is not an adaptation, but Nolan did jump onto the project after his brother, Jonathan Nolan, had already written a script originally intended for Steven Spielberg to direct. He ended up almost completely reworking the second and third acts. And Dunkirk is based on history, a first for Nolan, but he chose to tell the story using three different time scales.

The promotional material won’t help, either. Interstellar’s trailers avoided footage from the tesseract in the final act, and only waded knee-deep into time dilation plot points. And Dunkirk’s Imax prologue, which was shown ahead of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, played like a scene from the film — but was revealed to be, upon the film’s release, a piece of misdirection, cutting together moments from the first and third acts in service of evoking what the experience of the film would be like rather than what the story was.

It will be massive in scope.

Nolan last made a feature film for under $100 million in 2006 with The Prestige. He has been asked a few times if he’d ever return to a small-scale film, but it sounds like that’d only happen when he runs out of big ideas — which might be never. “I tend to think that if you have the chance to do a big film, you should do it while you can,” Nolan told Hitfix in 2010. “I’m always worried maybe I won’t be able to do a big film again.”

That Tenet is getting an Imax release is telling, but even with that, it might be safe to assume that Nolan could go even bigger. In essence, to quote Inception, “You musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Talking to the New York Times in 2014, Nolan said: “Hollywood, when it functions at its best, has a scope that’s unmatched. In the back of my mind, that scope was always something to aim for — never to the exclusion of other things, just a larger and larger canvas. At the budget level I’m able to work at, I really try to give the audience the most technically compelling experience I can give, with picture and sounds, something they haven’t seen before.”

It’ll likely be a personal film.

Nolan is a director who’s often described as “cold.” And, at least in part, his films certainly do come off as such, for better or for worse. But in looking at his filmography, he’s made more and more outwardly emotional or personal films as time has gone on.

His direct exploration of fatherhood may have started with Batman Begins and The Prestige, but it was the entire crux of Inception. Nolan then examined an emotionally broken Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, before returning to fatherhood with Interstellar. And it was that aspect that he connected with. “The story spoke to me as a father, more than anything,” he told the New York Times in 2014 of Interstellar. “Having children absolutely fine-tunes your sense of time and time passing. There’s a desperate desire to hang on to moments as your kids grow up.”

Dunkirk may not seem emotional or personal on the surface, but a lot of it was inspired by Nolan’s grandfather, who wasn’t at Dunkirk, but was in the Air Force and died during the war. In turn, Nolan’s father was also an inspiration. “There’s always been that strong connection to World War II because it was so much a part of his life and in losing his father at such a young age,” Nolan said in the conversation between him and his brother Jonathan in the published Dunkirk script. “He used to be able to tell almost any airplane going overhead,” Jonathan said, something that Christopher Nolan put “straight into the film.” And Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” played at their father’s funeral — the same piece that Benjamin Wallfisch would conduct a variation of for the ending music of Dunkirk.

Pattinson pointed to how personal Nolan can be when talking about reading the script for the director’s next film in a locked room. "I've been a little wary of doing big movies for years and years, but there's just something about Chris Nolan's stuff,” Pattinson told USA Today in April. “He seems like the only director now who can do what is essentially a very personal, independent movie that has huge scale. I read the script and it's unreal."

So how does this all apply to the description of the film, “an action epic evolving from the world of international espionage”?

Tenet could add a sci-fi element to the spy genre.

Any spy film Nolan does will almost certainly take inspiration from and pay homage to James Bond — a Nolan favorite, a reference point for Inception and a world he might still hope to enter someday. But without the constraints of Bond’s realistic world, a Nolan spy film could receive the same kind of innovative treatment that Inception did. With Nolan, word choice is always very subtle, but very telling. This is not an action epic within the world of international espionage, nor one with international espionage as the backdrop. This an action epic “evolving” from such. Just as the mechanisms of Inception’s dream world were key to the heist film structure, similar mechanisms could be key to Tenet’s spy structure. Previously reported descriptions have suggested that Tenet will deal the time continuum. Could these characters’ spy missions take them hopping through time? Could the spy world have evolved into something incredibly complex with futuristic technological advances?

Nolan is an intense organizer and has a pattern of diagraming his movies so that the story’s architecture makes sense — so much so with Dunkirk that he considered making the film without a script. Whatever mechanisms Nolan has in mind for Tenet, they’ll surely be as architecturally dense as his other work.

Tenet will likely introduce action elements Nolan hasn't used before.

Nolan will also certainly innovate when it comes to, specifically, the action, as that’s what he’s been doing for the past decade.

With The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, Nolan crafted cross-cutting third acts full of action and lacking exposition. With Dunkirk, Nolan applied that approach to the entire film — the overall lack of exposition a particular departure for him — and applied a nonlinear structure that enhanced immersion more than it did story.

There are trails of what might act as inspiration for Nolan were Tenet to be action-heavy, and one of those is George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which Nolan has pointed to as an example of third-act action expanded to an entire film. For Dunkirk, Nolan parted ways with Paul Franklin — his visual effects supervisor on The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar — and worked with Mad Max: Fury Road’s visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson, who will return for Tenet. And the philosophical connection isn’t one-sided, as Miller said in 2015 that Interstellar was close to what the Fury Road director would’ve done with his version of Contact.

However, as Nolan says, he tries to give audiences “something they haven’t seen before,” something “maybe not everybody else can do or has thought to do.” And he has had to continuously adapt and grow in his direction of action due to his use of Imax cameras, meaning that another action film could take it even further.

Time will almost certainly play an important role. 

Finally, it’s all but guaranteed that the film will deal with time. Sources have told THR the film will be a globe-trotting adventure that has shades of the mind-bending nature of Inception but does involve the time continuum.

Nolan has always been interested in time, with his first feature film, Following, having a nonlinear structure, and Memento very quickly becoming famous for its own structure. But while Batman Begins, The Prestige and Dunkirk also weaponize nonlinear structures, Nolan has also shown his interest in time within the stories themselves.

Insomnia is oft-regarded as Nolan’s "least Nolan" film, but the story does, indeed, dive into the psychology of Detective Dormer (Al Pacino), with how the constant daylight distorts his sense of time and how his past mistakes haunt him. And both Inception and Interstellar deal with the elasticity of time, the former within a sci-fi framework and the latter within a scientific framework. And as shown by Nolan’s comments about the aspect of fatherhood in Interstellar, the notion of time can be very personal.

There’s one trope that Nolan hasn’t dealt with when it comes to time, and that’s legitimate time travel to the past. All of his films deal with the past, but the key dramatic hook of that all is how he paints the past as inaccessible, as unchangeable. The visions of the past in Inception are dreams and are not real, and a lot of the conflict lies in the seduction of those faux realities. And the visions of the past in Interstellar show that Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) efforts to change the past are exactly what shaped it as it was happening. If Tenet does deal with time, it will likely deal with the past, and perhaps even allow its characters to inhabit it. But Nolan will also likely come up with a mechanism that draws that hard line: You can’t change the past.

Nolan’s new editor, Jennifer Lame (Manchester by the Sea, Hereditary) has experience with characters struggling with the past. In one of Manchester by the Sea’s most harrowing sequences, Lame cuts back and forth between two important moments. There's Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) learning from a lawyer that his late brother (Kyle Chandler) has named him guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), which would require him to move back to Manchester. And there's the deadly fire that Lee accidentally started that caused him to move away from Manchester.

So, Lame could certainly hone in on Nolan’s interest in time. And the central metaphor of his next film could potentially deal with the same notion of fatherhood and time that Inception and Interstellar did. Both of those films follow fathers, essentially ciphers for Nolan himself, called to duty and spending incredible amounts of time away from their children — with Inception as an (unintentional) metaphor for a filmmaking team. A next step could be a reversal of focus, in that some of the film’s main characters might be ciphers for his children as they’re off on adventures, away from a father figure. Younger actors Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington seem to be the leads. Could recently revealed castmembers Kenneth Branagh or Michael Caine be playing some sort of father figure?

Nolan’s cipher in Interstellar, Cooper, has a line of dialogue — one that was cut at some point in production, but made the published screenplay — that Nolan put in during his rewrites and points to the possibility of Nolan making a film whose main characters represent his children: “Murph, a father looks in his child’s eyes and thinks — maybe it’s them...maybe my child will save the world. And everyone, once a child, wants to look into their own dad’s eyes and know he saw how they saved some little corner of their world. But, usually, by then, the father is gone.”

This ties in to a line that does make it into the film: “I thought they chose me, but they didn’t choose me, they chose her,” Cooper says in the tesseract as he looks down at Murph (Mackenzie Foy). “For what, Cooper?” the robot TARS (Bill Irwin) says. “To save the world!” Cooper responds.

Then, at the end of the screenplay, the cut line returns, repeated by both Cooper and an elderly Murph (Ellen Burstyn). This thread in the film could point to how Nolan might view his storytelling as a potential way to imagine, before he’s gone, the world-saving adventures that his children could have once they’ve grown up. In fact, when it comes to Nolan’s rewrites of Interstellar, he said that he took Jonathan’s script and incorporated some of his own original ideas.

Could some of those original ideas be worked into this new film? Could Tenet be the capper to a spiritual trilogy with Inception and Interstellar? Inception is about obsessive ideas. Interstellar is about a man who can’t let go of the idea of who he thinks he’s meant to be. As for Tenet? Well, the word “tenet” means belief.