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Q&A with director and cast

Thompson On Hollywood/Indiewire

October 2014

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Before the European premiere of "Interstellar" in London’s Leicester Square, the film’s main cast and director Christopher Nolan assembled for a press conference at the Claridge’s Hotel. Nolan was joined by Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy and his wife, producer Emma Thomas.

Due out next week and attracting reviews thus far that range from tepid to ecstatic, “Interstellar” seems poised to become the huge hit joint backers Paramount and Warner Bros. need it to be to recoup their investment. If “Interstellar” can match or surpass the worldwide success of “Gravity” ($716m) or Nolan’s own “Inception” ($826m), he hopes it will serve as another confidence booster for original storytelling on an epic scale in Hollywood. “The thing you hope for doing an original project that isn’t a sequel, isn’t a franchise, isn’t based on something from another medium, is that if it succeeds, it encourages that type of filmmaking within the studio system. It’s what we tried to do with “Inception” and it would be nice for it to work with this as well.”

Despite its sci-fi roots, “Interstellar” is also Nolan’s most personal film yet, setting an intimate father-daughter story against the backdrop of a dying Earth and mankind’s heroic effort to find a new planetary home in a far off galaxy. The project was originally set up for Steven Spielberg to direct with Jonathan Nolan writing the screenplay; when Christopher Nolan stepped in and reworked the script with his brother, he made a significant change: switching the relationship at the film's heart from father-son to father-daughter. McConaughey's daughter in the film is played in childhood by Mackenzie Foy and, in later scenes due to “Interstellar”'s time-warping narrative, Chastain.

“I liked the idea of combining that story with this story that speculates about a potential moment in human evolution where mankind would have to reckon with its place in the wider universe,” said Nolan, confirming that Spielberg’s presence looms large in “Interstellar.” “I grew up in an era that was the golden age of blockbusters, with films like 'Close Encounters' and the way that addressed the idea of this moment when humans would meet aliens from a family perspective and a very relatable human perspective. I liked the idea of trying to give today’s audiences some sense of that form of storyline.”

Repeating what other actors have said before him, McConaughey praised Nolan’s ability to create an intimate set despite “Interstellar”’s epic scale and budget. “It felt just as raw and natural as most independents are forced to feel because you don’t have the time and you don’t have the money. We had the time and the money but when you’re actually shooting it’s very intimate. I never felt overwhelmed by the scope of the set-pieces. I’ve talked to actors who felt like they got lost in the experiences they had on big action films or films with large sets. But I don’t believe that anyone felt like they were overwhelmed by the massive scale on 'Interstellar.'”

Chastain, a new arrival on the blockbuster scene, echoed McConaughey’s sentiments: “I’ve always been afraid that jumping on a big-budget film, you would lose the relationships in favour of special effects. But the great thing about working with Chris is it’s all practical sets so you actually have things to react to, which is awesome. There’s no green screen, they were chucking dust in my face every day, there was a real cornfield. We would do three or four takes and it was incredible because Chris would just let me get it out of my system without trying to impose on me something that wasn’t natural, and then with a very delicate hand he would come over and say one sentence. Like towards the end he said to me, ‘This is her Zen’ – and with that tiny exquisite note, it would open my performance in a way that I never imagined.”

“Interstellar” marks the first time that Nolan has worked with a cinematographer other than Wally Pfister, in this case Dutchman Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose previous credits include Spike Jonze’s “Her” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and who the filmmaker praised for bringing a “spontaneity and simplicity that you rarely see on such a huge film, particularly in this genre. He was running around in the spaceship grabbing things documentary style. And his command of the IMAX medium is extraordinary. Bringing a handheld intimacy with these enormous cameras – I don’t know how he did it.”

Asked whether he felt compelled to keep flying the flag for IMAX, given that cinemagoing continues to face pressure from other entertainment mediums, Nolan insisted he wasn’t reacting to anything other than his own desires. “For me, the great thing about movies has always been the large audience experience,” he said. “One of my earliest moviegoing memories is going to Leicester Square to see '2001' when I was seven years old and I’ve never forgotten the scale of that experience. I saw my first IMAX film when I was 15 and immediately wanted to make features that way. Working on that scale in the medium is for me just a longheld dream.”

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece and Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” were the two most significant inspirations for Nolan with “Interstellar,” both technically and spiritually (he screened the latter for the crew before the shoot began). Hoytema also introduced him to Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror,” which ended up having an influence on “elemental things in the story to do with wind and dust and water”.

McConaughey was full of admiration for the film's themes and even enjoyed wearing the spacesuit; since several major sequences were shot in Iceland, “I could wear layers underneath and no one would see.” He added: “One of the things that I really take away from this film is that it challenges mankind but it’s also full of faith in mankind and our capacities.” Caine, whose character Dr. Brand is based on renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who conceived the original premise of “Interstellar” that first attracted Spielberg), generated laughs when he was asked about his interest in wormholes. “I’m a very good amateur gardener and I’ve seen quite a lot of wormholes. I didn’t understand what they were until this movie. I know a lot about them now.”

This being Britain, a tabloid-flavored question was bound to arise from the assembled journos and sure enough one asked how the rest of the cast felt about working with Hathaway “because we hear all these stories that everyone hates Anne Hathaway.” “Everyone who says things like that are bullies and jerks,” bristled Chastain, rising to her co-star’s defense. “She’s so nice, so talented, generous, and I hope to work with her again and again and again.” McConaughey echoed the sentiment. “It’s my first time working with her and I thoroughly enjoyed it. She’s a complete professional, fully prepared. My favorite thing she did was variation of takes. She never wanted to repeat her performance from take to take.”

So to what extent, Nolan was asked, should the audience read “Interstellar” as a call to arms regarding the world’s overconsumption and exploitation of its diminishing resources? Or did he intend the message to be more reassuring? After all, “Interstellar”’s tagline is: “The End Of Earth Will Not Be The End Of Us.”

“I think it is a reassuring sentiment,” said Nolan. “The film is optimistic in that it’s saying that mankind is independent of its particular situation. But the film is fiction. It feeds off certain of our worries and concerns that I think are very valid in the world today but really it’s about asking, ‘What is mankind’s place in the universe? Can we exist off this Earth?’ Dramatically, I felt it was important that we had to deal with that out of necessity but I think in real life it would be far better if we don’t arrive at that choice.”
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