Interstellear: Director Nolan on Space, Humanity, Infinity and Beyond

Humankind has always shaped its destiny by pushing its limits—from the first ships setting sail for the edge of the horizon to the first human steps on the surface of the moon—yet the ultimate frontier remains tantalizingly out of reach. From director/writer/producer Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” hinges on the provocative question of humanity’s place in the stars.

“To me, space exploration represents the absolute extreme of what the human experience is,” Nolan says. “It’s all about trying, in some way, to define what our existence means in terms of the universe.  For a filmmaker, the extraordinary nature of a few select individuals pushing the boundaries of where the human species has ever been or can possibly go opens up an infinite set of possibilities.  I was excited by the prospect of making a film that would take the audience into that experience through the eyes of those first explorers moving outwards into the galaxy—indeed to a whole other galaxy.  That’s as big a journey as you can imagine trying to tell.”

Set in a near-future in which an agricultural crisis has brought the world to its knees, “Interstellar” chronicles a daring mission to pierce the barriers of time and space in a desperate human gamble against extinction. “I’ve always been interested in what the next step in our evolution might be.  If the Earth is a nest, how would we respond when the time comes to leave it?”

Against the limitless canvas of this high-stakes adventure into the stars, Nolan reveals that what ultimately drives the film is the intimate human story at its core. “I feel that the magnitude and grandeur of space is most interesting as a backdrop for exploring relationships, which are so strong and meaningful for us, and how that relates to our place in the universe.”

Central to the film are the relationships within a single family. “In broad terms, ‘Interstellar’ is a spectacular adventure about a journey into the universe,” producer Emma Thomas notes, “but at its heart is an emotional story of a father and his children.  It speaks to the love that exists in families, the notions of duty and sacrifice, and our profound connections to other human beings.”

Matthew McConaughey was taken by the emotional threads that ground the spectacle in human dimensions. “What is amazing to me is that while the excitement of the story lies in its scope—the thrill of adventure and discovery of the unknown—one of my favorite things about Chris Nolan is the heartbeat of humanity he gives to his films,” the actor states.  “No one handles the sheer mass and scale of a world like he does because it always comes off as something personal and intimate.”

Anne Hathaway ties this quality in Nolan’s films to his focus on the human stakes in even the most heroic endeavor. “From the beginning of time, the reach to expand our world or move our civilization forward has always involved great sacrifice by a handful of individuals, who put the greater good over any risk to themselves.  This film really celebrates those who are brave enough to do that.”

Jessica Chastain adds that the film also celebrates the connections that sustain us. “This story is full of longing and heartbreak, but at its core is the beautiful idea that even if love is not something you can hold in your hands, it remains with you across vast distances in time and space.”

Longtime Nolan collaborator Michael Caine observes that the human pulse that runs through “Interstellar” reflects the character of the man at the helm. “In private life, Chris is a family man, and whether he’s making a thriller or a big space adventure, his films are always informed by his essential humanity.”

Nolan confirms that even as he imagined an ambitious leap of faith into the ultimate unknown, the notion of family remained his true north. “‘Interstellar’ is about all kinds of things—who we are, where we’re going—but, for me, it’s about being a father. Putting those ideas foremost in my process gives the story to the film, rather than just enjoying the space elements for space’s sake.”

Co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan admits that the nearly inconceivably dimensions of the universe led them down some fascinating narrative pathways. “The reality of the universe is that while it’s magnificent to look at and inspires a great sense of wonder, it’s cold, airless and vast—so vast that we have no idea how big it really is,” he says.  “So, the effort was to try to take a big idea and ground it as much as possible to give you a real sense for what interstellar space travel would feel like, not only as a tactile experience, but in terms of the emotional toll such a treacherous and isolating journey would have on human beings.”

In their effort to bring space to life with as much truth as the story’s flesh and blood characters, the filmmakers had an invaluable asset in leading theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose work unraveling the most exotic mysteries of the universe formed the scientific backbone of the script. “Kip is an author, educator and one of the world’s most brilliant minds,” states producer Lynda Obst.  “His work detecting gravitational waves has allowed him to peer into the clash of black holes and conceive the great possibilities of wormholes.  These are fascinating concepts to explore in a narrative.”

For Thorne, who is also one of the film’s executive producers, the process was exhilarating. “The story emerged from the fertile minds of the screenwriters, but always within the boundaries of established science or what we can reasonably extrapolate about concepts that are just beyond the frontiers of our knowledge.”

Christopher Nolan relates that Thorne took time to test each narrative idea to ensure it would hold up to scientific scrutiny. “As a truly committed scientist, Kip is constantly aware that everything he’s telling me might be wrong.  The science—particularly at the level that Kip is working—suggests unbelievably strange and fascinating possibilities from a narrative point of view because you’re dealing with a scientist for whom those possibilities are always expanding.  I found that to be an extraordinary creative atmosphere to work in.”

The quest to transform the script into an immersive and vibrant moviegoing experience propelled everyone involved into a wide-ranging and rule-breaking filmmaking adventure that, albeit earthbound, at times mirrored the odyssey they were bringing to life onscreen. “The real focus for me in making this film is to try and put the audience into space,” Nolan affirms, “to put them into the shoes of the astronauts who are exploring these new worlds and new galaxies.  That’s what I’m really excited for—that the audience will get a sense of the spectacle of a great interstellar journey.”