Interview: ‘Interstellar’ Co-Writer Jonathan Nolan on ‘Close Encounters,’ Rewrites & More

Interview: 'Interstellar' Co-Writer Jonathan Nolan on 'Close Encounters,' Rewrites & More

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.

It’s a great metaphor for religious experience, with Richard Dreyfuss as the guy who sees…
The seer! You know, it’s funny, it’s very true, but I don’t remember it on that level. What I remember is he’s a shitty parent. But he’s a human being, he’s trying to be a better parent, and what’s beautiful and incredible about that film — and fucked-up and kind of unique — is that it does not end with him re-united with his family. It does not have that kind of happy ending.

It’s a happy ending about a guy who says “goodbye, family! Good Luck!”
The family ditch him —they go off in a station wagon— and he gets in a fuckin’ spaceship and leaves!

He gets to see the stars…
Absolutely!

They get to have Terri Garr.
A hundred percent, and a house somewhere in the Inland Empire. That shit blows your mind as a kid. That film captured something that I thought about a lot. In the preliminaries for putting this film together, before I started working on the script, Steven had Kip Thorne, who’s one of the producers on the film, convene all these amazing people —astronauts and physicists and all these other people in a room. And at one point in the conversation, Steven asked “how many of you would be willing to take a one-way trip to Mars?” They all had families, and a lot of them had kids, but they all raised their hand. And you just thought, “shit.” When I started the film, I was single, or rather, I wasn’t married; my wife and I were dating at the time and didn’t have kids. Now, I have a daughter, and it’s almost impossible to watch on that level.

It went from being this abstract hook …
…to being very real in a way. And my brother did this clever thing along the way where I had written Murphy as a little boy —mainly because of the name— and because I was a happy accident, the third son in my family and not a planned member of the family … I just turned up. And I loved the idea of Murphy’s Law and this “happy accident” kid. But in my draft it was a boy, and my brother, of course, turned Murphy into a little girl. He has a daughter, and now I have a daughter (laughs) and I find it very difficult to engage with that level of the story. It’s very emotional. Movies are a little like space exploration: you just go. We’re lucky now, Chris’ kids are young enough, we’re able to shoot during the summer and his family can come with him. And I’m lucky enough to be working with my wife on a project right now and our daughter was able to come with us for the filming of it. And that’s really what the film is about: we’re all connected as a species, or trapped inside ourselves and disconnected from the other people around us. And it’s this paradoxical thing: we want to explore and achieve and see what’s out there — but we do it at the cost of not being with our families. It’s tricky.

If you’re an explorer, you have to leave somewhere.
There’s a line late in the film, but it’s one Chris likes. There’s often a line that drops into the project late in the process, and this was one of them. I’d never quite figured out what the line would be in my draft, and then I talked about it with Chris and then it dropped into that draft, and it was this idea that humans don’t know how to go anywhere without leaving something behind. And it’s a riff on Newton’s Third Law, but it hopefully has an emotional truth to it as well. At this stage, we literally can’t get anywhere without leaving something behind —but it’s often, sadly, someone we love.

I know your brother tried to get a Howard Hughes bio-pic off the ground that didn’t quite happen, and you both worked on a “The Prisoner” re-launch that wound up not materializing. Are there any other great missed opportunities you’ve had to endure?
Well, I wasn’t involved in Chris’ Hughes project, but it remains one of the very greatest scripts I’ve ever read. It’s astonishing. I think he’s on the record as saying he just took too long writing it, but however long it took, you had Scorsese‘s DiCaprio project (“The Aviator”) in there, and as is often the case in Hollywood, sometimes you get to make ’em and sometimes you don’t. I hope at some point he goes back and makes that, because that was an incredible script.

One final thing: What’s the one piece of science fiction you truly love that people don’t know enough about?
A film?

A film, book, whatever.
Ooh.

Broad spectrum. We have a literate audience.
(Laughs) Readers as opposed to viewers, huh? Well, I fucking love the “Foundation” novels by Isaac Asimov —they’re certainly not unknown, but that’s a set of books I think everyone would benefit from reading. That’s a set of books where the influence they have is just fucking massive; they have many imitators and many have been inspired by them, but go back and read those, and there are some ideas in those that’ll set your fucking hair on fire.

“Interstellar” opens Nov. 7th, Nov. 5 in limited release in selected formats.

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