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Why Christopher Nolan Used ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ as a Guide for Making ‘Tenet’

The one list of films he made a crew member watch was a group of World War II films for his VFX supervisor, but Leone's epic informed the spirit behind Nolan's work.

"Tenet" Reviews


Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan made an active choice not to show his “Tenet” cast the spy movies that inspired his over-$200 million espionage epic, which is why Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” became an unexpected source of inspiration for the Oscar-nominated director. Nolan was adamant about creating “Tenet” through his own memories of spy movies so that the film would be rooted in his love for the genre and not just rehashing the genre itself. The director tells Total Film magazine that Leone was a mentor for this method.

“I have no idea whether this is true, but I sort of have this idea that if you look at Sergio Leone when he made ‘Once Upon A Time In The West,’ there’s a slight feeling of… I’m not sure he watched any westerns while he was making it,” Nolan said. “It expresses his love for the genre that’s grown over years and years and years. And there’s something so fabulously heightened about the way he then engages with that genre. It’s the distillation of all these things in his past, and his impressions of the genre.”

Nolan continued, “I wanted the crew to dive into this film, in a very unique way, and to not really be influenced by things in a conscious sense, but to just let our love for the genre, and our love for the movies in general, feed into the ways in which we express things.”

One of the only crew members Nolan seems to have given a list of films to watch ahead of the “Tenet” production was special effects supervisor Scott Fisher. In an interview with ICG Magazine, Fisher said the VFX team on “Tenet” looked at “World War II and war documentary footage” only to help push them towards the level of tangibility Nolan wanted out of the action scenes. These films did not shape the story of “Tenet’ but guided the VFX team in maintaining a sense of reality to how objects move while going backward through time.

“[Watching World War II movies and war documentary footage] is where we realized something about what makes stuff look real,” Fisher said. “It isn’t that the CG planes in ‘Red Tails’ looked bad compared to these old movies, but rather what they had the planes doing that made things less convincing some of the time. When you’ve seen real-world objects in motion, your mind develops a default setting for how things behave, whether they are fish or aircraft.”

Warner Bros. is opening “Tenet” in U.S. theaters September 3, but a global rollout for the tentpole starts August 26.

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