Interstellar: Sound of Silence

In science fiction cinema, rocket engines roar and ships audibly clash in the vacuum of space, but with “Interstellar,” Nolan found himself grappling instead with the absence of sound. “Sound doesn’t travel in space, so using any sound effects to portray that environment would betray the reality of it,” he notes.

Working to conceive the film’s soundscapes with sound designer and supervising sound editor Richard King, Nolan found he could use the all-encompassing silence to enhance the human dimension of the journey.  “Visually, we were able to emphasize the claustrophobia of the ships by contrasting that contained environment with the vastness of space outside the windows, and sound too can achieve that effect,” Nolan reveals.  “Every time you cut to these silences, there is a feeling of all the air going out of the room.  It’s a continual reminder that outside these metal walls is a hostile alien environment, and if anything goes wrong, it’s instant death.  So, while it felt somewhat radical to cut to total silence during a movie, it turned out to be quite invigorating.”

This contrast also found its way into the music, composed by Hans Zimmer, making his fifth collaboration with Nolan. “There are times where Hans goes very small and intimate with the music when you would expect it to be big and bombastic, and vice versa,” Nolan affirms, “which is a very natural way to draw the audience’s attention to the scale of what they are looking at, and sometimes that comes with this simple contrast between the human scale and the interstellar scale.”

Among the human notes in the film’s alternately grand and intimate score is a short piece called “Day One,” which was inspired by Nolan’s highly unusual proposition to the acclaimed composer. “Hans is a very important part of my creative team, and in the case of this film, I asked him to write the music before I even started re-writing the script,” Nolan explains.  “I kept him very much in the dark, even about what the genre of the film was.”

The director followed his proposal with an envelope containing a brief, typewritten scene.  Zimmer remembers, “It was this beautiful fable about a father and his relationship with his son, which resonated with me because my own son doesn’t want to be a musician—he has big dreams to become a scientist—so Chris was pushing all the right buttons for me.”

The composer sat down at a piano and tried to evoke the emotions he experienced as a father. Not long after, Nolan came by to hear what he’d come up with.  Zimmer recalls, “I asked him what he thought, and he said, ‘Well, I suppose I had better make the movie now.’  It was only then that he started describing this epic film, and I found it wasn’t a son but a daughter.  But, to him, this tiny, intimate piece about my true experience with my son expressed the heart of the story.  And, in shaping the score, we found that the further the story drifts away from the Earth, the more important it was to come back to that piece and stay connected to those emotions.”

Having spent nearly a decade plumbing the thematic depths of Nolan’s films, the composer wanted to steer clear of any musical expressions he’d explored in the past with the director, and invent a whole new palette for “Interstellar.”  “Chris and I approached the entire scoring process as an adventure,” he says.  “We were just going to go into it with an open mind and see what happened.  So I would not be true to the story if I didn’t widen my gaze.”

Zimmer found a backbone for the score in the earthy yet elevating notes of an organ, an instrument that he considers a triumph of human invention.   “There’s also something very human about the organ because it needs to breathe,” he says.  “On each note, you hear the breath of the exhale, and at its height, there’s so much air being pushed into the room that you feel it in your solar plexus and the windows start rattling.  So, while it’s a complicated piece of technology, it creates sounds with a very primeval and dangerous quality.”

To ascend from its rich sounds, Zimmer conceived a chorus of handmade instruments—woodwinds, strings, piano and brass—that, like the organ, hark back to an age when things were built in an analog, mechanical way, rather than generated digitally. The idea was to enlist gifted musicians who could experiment with their instruments to emulate Earth sounds—a constant reminder of everything Cooper is trying to save but stands to lose.

The forum for these sounds would be the ultimate expression of humanity’s reach from the earthly to the celestial: Temple Church, a functioning 12th century church in the heart of London.   “The whole point of its architecture is to take you to other worlds, and we wanted to use the quality of the space itself to take us on this journey.” From there, Zimmer assembled an orchestra of world-class artists, and encouraged them to personalize the music through their well-worn, often centuries-old instruments.

Following a staggering 45 scoring sessions with Nolan, the music then moved to the mixing stage, where the director worked with Zimmer, King and supervising music editor Alex Gibson to harmonize the sounds with the imagery. Nolan observes, “Hans started with the core emotions of the story and expanded out from there, and I consider the results to be among Hans’s finest work. It’s really an extraordinary score, and very different from anything we’ve ever done together.”

For the composer, too, writing the music in reverse and letting the film itself be the conductor was a revelation. “The music is forever looking beyond the cornfields,” he says.  “It’s looking beyond the predicament of where the characters are, always within the context of love.  At the heart of Cooper’s story is the idea that the farther he goes to try to save the world, the more his physical connection with his children is broken, but his heart—his spiritual connection—gets stronger.”

After a long journey to realize the cinematic potential of Kip Thorne’s scientific ideas, producer Lynda Obst confesses to bursting into tears when Nolan screened the film for the first time. “Chris managed to weave real science into the fabric of the storytelling, yet you understand all of it because it’s expressed through the emotions of the characters,” she marvels.  “All of this while keeping you on the edge of your seat on this rollercoaster ride through space.”

“Everything Chris does—and motivates everyone involved in our films to do—is in service of making each film an entirely new experience for an audience, and I believe never more so than with ‘Interstellar,’” adds Emma Thomas. “For him, it’s a very personal story, but so many of its facets touch on universal themes, from the love of family to the thrill of exploration to what it means to be human.”

“There’s no one else out there who does things the way Christopher does,” says Matthew McConaughey. “He has an original take on everything and works by his instincts completely.  I also believe that he’s constantly letting his reach exceed his grasp.  And when you see this film, you’ll know it’s true because I think it’s by far the most ambitious film that he has ever directed.”

For Nolan, that driving ambition was focused on a single goal. “I want the audience to watch this story unfold on an enormous screen and be transported,” he says.  “On ‘Interstellar,’ I was fortunate to work with an incredible cast and ingenious filmmaking partners.  We were all united in an endeavor to make every moment feel real because the thrill of making a large-scale film about journeying through the stars is taking the audience with us.”