Interstellar: Geography, Farmhouses, Black Blizzards

Farming in Calgary, Canada

Before reaching out for the stars, “Interstellar” opens on solid ground—in the heartland of America, where small communities of farmers plant vast fields of corn.  This notion was key in scouting for the homestead where Cooper lives with his children and father-in-law, a trail that led the filmmakers to the Okotoks region, just south of the city of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada.”

“We wanted to have a real visual cue that corn was being farmed somewhere that it probably shouldn’t be, and Calgary was perfect in that respect,” Nolan states. “It’s such a grand landscape, with gentle rolling hills leading up to the Canadian Rockies.”

Nolan’s desire for total reality in the visual texture of the film precluded shooting a separate farmhouse, corn field and mountain and compositing them together digitally. Rather, he wanted to establish a true sense of place, which meant starting with the blank canvas of the ideal landscape, then conjuring the rest from scratch.

This monumental effort jump-started one of the production’s many races against the clock: to piece together locations, then time the four-month shooting schedule to the camera-readiness of each set. “We shot this film virtually in sequence, so the months leading up to the shoot were very interesting, to say the least,” Emma Thomas recalls with a laugh.  “The big challenge in Canada was that we would be growing corn in a place where corn isn’t usually grown—for very good reason, as it turns out.  So, we had an enormous amount to do in a fairly short prep period.  The good news for us was that the corn in the film doesn’t need to look like it’s thriving because the whole idea is that the Earth isn’t doing so well.”

Amid a flurry of internet research on weather and growth patterns and conversations with Canada’s Department of Agriculture, the filmmakers and production designer Nathan Crowley hopped on a plane to Calgary and drove to the town of Longview to meet a rancher named Rick Sears, whose sprawling property checked all the boxes. “We came to a rolling field where a stream rose up to a flat area, and beyond that were the mountains,” Crowley recalls, “It was truly stunning.”

And just like that, Nolan and company found themselves in the corn business, securing the rancher’s help to build a road to the location and seed 500 acres. The production had just under six months to grow it to its full height, during which time a front of cold weather and devastating floods moved through Calgary.  In the final weeks, however, the sun came out, the corn shot up the final few feet, and by the time the main unit arrived to shoot, the entire tableau looked as if it had always been there.

Timeless Architecture Inspired by Painter Andrew Wyeth.

Nolan envisioned Cooper’s family homestead as contemporary but not futuristic, with timeless architecture inspired by the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. “Cooper is a man out of time,” Crowley describes.  “He’s from the past and is living in a gritty, visceral, post-technical world.  So, doing any kind of futuristic architecture wasn’t a choice—it had to be grounded, like he is.”

Crowley designed the house to look like a family had lived within its walls for generations, then enlisted his art department to build it with all the aesthetic and structural integrity of a real home, save for the plumbing. Since it was the first location on the shooting schedule, the race was on to complete it in just 10 weeks, and, says Crowley, “The corn was already growing, so there was no Plan B.”

Because the farmhouse was conceived as an interior/exterior set, Crowley collaborated with van Hoytema on the layout, with an emphasis on real textures, natural light and real views. “For Cooper, the farmhouse is so much about memory, and for us, it’s the engine for understanding him,” van Hoytema observes.  “So, we wanted to shoot it in a way that felt tactile and give it familiarity and texture. We weren’t there to take in the landscape; we were there to follow these people around, and what was so beautiful about Nathan’s designs is that you experience his set as a real place. Nathan’s design was so good at incorporating the beautiful natural Alberta light that one could often just pick up the camera and start shooting.”

“The farmhouse is such an important character in the film,” Nolan says. “It needed to feel like an authentic family home, very practical and utilitarian.  There were certain aspects of the color, tone and texture woven into its design for aesthetic reasons, but it really felt like it had been laid out according to the demands of that landscape and the people that lived and farmed there.  It had a good sense of history, and it was a nice place to be, actually.”

Black Blizzards

But the bucolic setting is layered over with a constant reminder of the times in which Cooper and his family are living.  While the space travel in “Interstellar” reflects what might be possible in the future, the filmmakers looked back to the Depression era for inspiration on the human trauma that sparks the film’s journey—America’s Dust Bowl.  Nolan had recently viewed documentarian Ken Burns’s PBS series on the worst man-made ecological disaster in North American history, when a mass “plough-up” of the topsoil across the nation’s farmland transformed its prairies into vast deserts, resulting in colossal “black blizzards” that choked the air and threw millions of people into diaspora and famine.  Burns’s heartrending footage and interviews with Dust Bowl survivors and eye-witnesses had a profound effect on Nolan, and, ultimately, on the film itself.

“Over the six hours it took to watch the documentary, it struck me that the imagery Ken had uncovered was much more extraordinary than anything you’d see in a science fiction film,” the director observes. “Indeed, some of it was so hard to believe it seemed too fanciful for science fiction.  We wound up actually incorporating some elements straight into the fabric of the film because I wanted to underscore the idea that this sort of thing really can happen.  People lived through it, and their children lived through it, to tell these extraordinary stories in Ken’s film.”

In addition to incorporating true accounts from the original documentary, Nolan wove in original testimonies from those who are living through the events of “Interstellar.” In these, we see the legendary Ellen Burstyn.  “The ideas that Chris is grappling with in the story are fascinating to me,” Burstyn reflects.  “There’s a lot to think about in terms of our relationship with this planet.  It’s a compelling portrayal of a planet that’s running out of food, and the people that are still trying to live normal lives in this atmosphere of constant dust.”

Dust Storms

The dust storms of “Interstellar” rise full-bodied over the horizon, worm into every crack and blanket every surface of Cooper’s world.  Nolan knew he could never achieve a great enough degree of grit and immersion through CGI, so he turned to special effects coordinator Scott Fisher for ideas.  Fisher’s answer was C-90—a nontoxic, biodegradable material made from ground-up cardboard that is safe enough to be used as filler in certain processed foods and lightweight enough to achieve the hovering effect Nolan sought.

“With Chris, everything has to be practical and tangible,” says Jonathan Nolan. “So, if you find yourself standing in a massive, fake corn field, beside a beautiful but totally fake farmhouse in the middle of a completely fake dust storm, that’s when you know you’re on a Chris Nolan movie.”

The dust also had a dramatic effect on the quality and pitch of the light, which allowed the filmmakers to hew closely to the visions they’d witnessed in Burns’s documentary. “We really tried to capture how it must have felt to cope with these walls of darkness that fell upon the farms and the people,” van Hoytema notes.

With Fisher using colossal fans to cloud the air with C-90, the IMAX camera had to be protected with specially created plastic coverings, and the actors found themselves encased in a thick layer of the material after each day on set. Casey Affleck recalls, “You opened your mouth to speak and instantly the whole thing filled with dust.  But there’s Chris, our fearless leader, walking around with no mask or goggles, with his hair looking great, so I didn’t want to complain too much about the dust,” he smiles.

The fields of corn had a more forceful presence than dust to contend with in sequences of Cooper’s pick-up truck cutting a swath through the rows in hot pursuit of a wayward Indian-made drone. The drone itself was designed by Crowley, then fabricated in the form of a full-size prop that couldn’t fly, and a 1/3-scale radio-controlled drone with a 15-foot wingspan that could, which was piloted by professional R.C. pilot Larry Jolly.

Giving chase on the ground is Cooper’s truck—a new 2014 Dodge aged by art department to look like he’d kept it going for years. The truck serves as the locus for the heart-pounding sequence, and Nolan wanted the IMAX camera close to the actors as the truck drives through the high corn at speeds up to 70 miles-per-hour.

Fisher, van Hoytema and stunt coordinator George Cottle got together to brainstorm ideas for how to both accomplish the chase safely and capture it all on camera with the energy Nolan sought. Cottle recalls, “Chris wanted the actors, not stunt performers, to be driving this speeding truck as it chases the drone, so we knew the chase sequence was going to be tricky because the visibility is so tough in this high corn.”

Rather than towing the truck from a camera car, the team leveraged a “pod rig” system—a roll cage mounted to the truck’s roof where a stunt driver operates the vehicle’s controls—that would keep McConaughey at the wheel, Chalamet and Foy beside him, and the cameras wherever Nolan wanted them. Cottle recalls, “With the pod rig, the actors inside the car were deep in the corn, but the driver operating the truck from the roof had great visibility, so it was 100% safe and a fantastic way to get the shots we needed for the chase.”

While Cooper is ostensibly chasing the drone to repurpose its engine for his farm combines, the moment he catches sight of it soaring through the air, the camera takes flight for the first time—a visual cue for the change that is coming to Cooper’s world.