Christopher Nolan
Photo by Dave J Hogan

Christopher Nolan: “I did not intend any message”

Short Profile

Name: Christopher Edward Nolan
DOB: 30 July 1970
Place of birth: Westminster, London, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Christopher Nolan's new film, Oppenheimer, is in theaters now.

Mr. Nolan, from Interstellar to The Prestige, Tenet, and now Oppenheimer, many of your films have an element of science to them. Why is that?

I think my initial interest in physics, in science and the universe and so forth, is from when I grew up. I grew up in the late seventies and when I was a young child, George Lucas’ first Star Wars came out, and science-fiction was something that really fired up the imagination. And because of that, a lot of the presentation of science — in particular, programs like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos — very much tried to tap into our interest in science fiction. It was something that stuck with me, and it was something I applied very much to films like Interstellar, where I worked with Kip Thorne, the Nobel Prize winning scientist. It showed us the dramatic possibilities, that looking at the universe from a scientific perspective could be very, very engaging.

Kip Thorne also worked with you on Tenet, right?

Kip once again helped me with that, yes, in terms of where that needed to tie into the laws of physics and so forth. With Tenet, I think I had moved on to much more of a science-fiction mindset than with Interstellar, and then in Oppenheimer, we are looking at scientists working in the 1920s, who are reappraising the very fabric of our world, they are visualizing it in completely revolutionary terms. And so you see science in that moment as analogous to the most dramatic revolutionary thought, almost to magic, they are visualizing the world in ways that nobody else can really understand. And to this day, quantum physics has not been fully reconciled with classical physics.

“Structure is an inseparable element. I don’t start writing a script until I am firmly in control of the structure of the piece, it is not imposed after the fact.”

It is still very much a mystery.

One of the great mysteries, exactly. And so when you think of it in storytelling terms, Oppenheimer is very explicit about the idea that young Oppenheimer trying to visualize quantum theory, trying to build on Einstein’s discoveries, he’s really looking into the dull matter, everything around us. And he’s seeing energy in energy waves so there is a sort of almost mystical, magical component to that. And that’s very dramatic, that’s very inherently I think relatable to an audience in terms of genre. They don’t have to understand it, they just have to feel this sense of revolutionary excitement, almost like a wizard or a magician or whatever, that he was feeling at the time. And so I think for me really where science has come into my work, it’s really about the dramatic possibilities.

How do those dramatic possibilities work in tandem with the storytelling techniques you know and love, like your non-linear approach?

I would say that I use the structure that is appropriate for the story I want to tell. In the case of Oppenheimer, you are trying to give the audience the experience of an entire life, a concentrated experience of the myriad aspects of this person’s existence. And the only way to do that effectively, in my opinion, rather than adhering to the conventional structure of a biopic, is to really view things in a more prismatic way; where you are seeing different aspects of his life at different times and you are contrasting them against each other to give the audience a feeling about who this character is and how they have developed over time.

So the structure of the film is an essential part of the narrative?

It is an inseparable element. I don’t start writing a script until I am firmly in control of the structure of the piece, it is not imposed after the fact. I think of all of the forms of storytelling, cinema is the one perhaps with the most conservative outlook and structure! No one really tends to question a novelist’s approach to structure or a playwright’s in the same way, and I think that’s because of the influence of television over the years, I think there’s been a push towards linear storytelling because it suited the television format very well. But those of us working in a post-home video age, where audiences have access to films in a different way, they could watch DVDs and so forth, you could stop and start the film, we have been able to use more sophisticated chronological structures depending on what’s best for the story we are telling.

It seems like that might impact the way you shoot your films, but apparently Oppenheimer  was shot in only 57 days.

I think the pace was certainly fast, but it had the right energy for the piece. We are always constrained by budget and the marshaling of resources and we had a lot of very large scale things to pull off in this film, we had to build the town of Los Alamos from scratch, things like that. So the schedule to some extent is dictated by circumstance. But I actually found that working fast, more the way I had on my earlier, smaller films, created a sense of energy; actors could come to set with great preparation and real authority because they researched their characters. These are real life people so they know everything about these people, and come to set as experts. And so we would allow the drama, the excitement of these individuals coming together to dictate the shooting. And that felt absolutely right for this project and that works best at speed.

Is that at odds with your other films?

I mean, of course there are some films where you are breaking things down into very small parts and so the actors are having to work within those constraints. This felt like a film that had to be led first and foremost by the energy of the people involved and so you wanted them to be able to really run into a scene and really be able to go through the entire thing and lead the camera to where it needed to be.

“When I am writing scripts, I try to be very disciplined and not think about actors. If you are writing to an actor, you are imagining things they have already done. It is very important to write the character in a pure way.”

I guess you had to choose your cast wisely — not every actor would or could be up for that kind of challenge.

When I am writing scripts, I try to be very disciplined and not think about actors. If you are writing to an actor, you are imagining things they have already done. So I think a script stage is very important to write the character in a more pure way, particularly in the case of a real life figure like Oppenheimer, you are able to write with the real historical person in mind and not think at all about how this is going to come to life and who you are going to get to play the part. But then once I finish the script, I sort of knew who can do this role. My friend Cillian [Murphy] who I have worked with for 20 years, I’d known since I very first worked with him, I screen tested him for Batman on Batman Begins. It was very clear to me that he was one of the great talents, one of the greatest actors. And so this made complete sense to me.

In what way?

Well, what I am looking for in the performance, which is what I tried to put in the script, is intense subjectivity. I really want the audience to experience the events of the film through Oppenheimer’s eyes, I want them to be in his head, rather than creating a judgment of him. And so for me, the end of the film is about having developed an understanding of who he is, perhaps why he did some of the things he did, finishing that story and then the resonance of the story is finished, I think it should leave you with some troubling questions. There are some things that you perhaps reassess about what you have seen and what you have experienced.

So there’s no message you’re trying to send out with this particular work?

I think to be too specific about a message, or feeling that we had the answers to these difficult questions, I don’t think that’s what dramatic features and cinema thrives on. I think they thrive on ambiguity and complexity and I want to view his story as a Rorschach test, as something that people will interpret in their own way. That’s what attracted me to this story in the first place was the complexity of it, the difficult questions that it asks. So, no, I did not intend any specific message. We are not making a documentary or advocacy. I think that cinema does not work well when it’s didactic, when it’s telling people what to think — I think audiences are naturally resistant to that.