OscarWrap: Christopher Nolan and ‘Interstellar’ Dream Team Talk Sound, Edit, Design

Matthew McConaughey‘s space ensemble features some of the year’s best below-the-line efforts

Christopher Nolan has a secret.

“You know, this is basically a film about the end of the world,” Nolan told TheWrap of his blockbuster Interstellar. “We don’t advertise it as that so much, because that makes it sound like it’s not necessarily the kind of popcorn movie people want to see during the Christmas season. But it is a film about the end of the world.”

Of course, Interstellar is about more than that. It’s about a space expedition to find a new planet for the human race as Earth is in its death throes. It’s about a father who leaves his daughter and fights to get back to her. It’s about relativity and physics and about the nature of time and space. And it’s about a world in which humanity needs science, and then a world in which science needs humanity.

When I mentioned this last idea to Nolan, he paused. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said, “but that’s quite good, actually. I might steal that.” A shrug. “The film is about that area where abstract science meets organic, human reality. And just as there’s a breakdown between Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics, there’s a breakdown between the scientific and the human—the soul, if you like, or the mind, or whatever you want to call it.”

Nolan, a fan of sci-fi films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Wars, latched onto a script that his brother Jonathan had been developing for Steven Spielberg, and rewrote it, he said, to be “a more stripped-down and symbolic narrative.” Matthew McConaughey plays a former astronaut-turned-farmer at a time when Earth’s crops are failing, one by one; he’s recruited to travel into space looking for a way to save humanity, leaving behind a young girl (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult) who can’t forgive him for abandoning her. The science gets complicated, but the narrative drive is simple, with love playing a larger role than physics.

“With every department on the film, I wanted them to view it as a human narrative, an emotional story first and foremost,” said Nolan, who asked his below-the-line crew to take him on a wild ride. “Every film is different in terms of the balance between tradition and innovation, between narrative and an experiential approach. But when you call a film Interstellar and you’re dealing with a trip through the cosmos, it was very clear that we had to take that very experiential approach.”

So Nolan challenged his crew to make alien worlds feel and sound real, and he challenged composer Hans Zimmer to start with the emotion of the father-daughter relationship, and only then reach for the thunderous sounds of outer-space action. “It’s very much continuing the spirit of what we started on the Dark Knight trilogy, and then in a different way on Inception,” he said.

“On the Dark Knight trilogy, no one was allowed to sit there and go, ‘Well, it’s just a comic book movie.’ On Inception, no one was allowed to say, ‘Well, it’s just a dream.’ You had to find a way to make it work. And in this, we’re never hiding behind genre. We can’t say, ‘Well, it’s science fiction, so if we go to another planet it can just look like a weird visual effect.’”

The film starts at a time when the Earth’s residents are, as one explains, “a caretaker generation,” and contrasts that with the explorers who attempt to save humanity. So as he looks around today, what do he and Thomas see: caretakers, or explorers?

“We’re certainly not caretakers,” said Thomas quickly. “But we’re not explorers either. We’re failing on both fronts, I’d say.”

“I think we are,” agreed Nolan. “But it’s interesting to see all the tech guys start to look outwards. For the last couple of decades, it’s all been about what’s in our living rooms and what’s in our pockets—very inward looking. Inception, I think, was very much a film about looking inward, and to me this is very much the opposite. It’s time to start turning one’s head and looking outward, and I’m very optimistic about where it goes from here.”

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The Sound

Richard King, Sound Designer/Supervising Sound Editor
Gregg Landaker, Re-Recording Mixer
Mark Weingarten, Sound Mixer
Hans Zimmer, Composer

The relationship between the composer and the sound team can be a tricky one, right?

Gregg Landaker: Not with this group. With these guys, it was never a pitched battle at all.
Hans Zimmer: In fact, there were a couple of moments while we were supposed to be recording music in London, where I’d be going, “I’ve got to send this to Richard! He’ll love this!” I was recording in this church, and a thunderstorm started up, and we had the church miked and we sent it to him. And I believe you quite liked …
Richard King: The fireworks.
HZ: Oh, the fireworks were fantastic! There was a fireworks display outside, and it sounded like the Battle of Stalingrad.
RK: And it did make it in there.
HZ: And I believe you liked the air conditioner. We spent a fortune in this really expensive studio just switching the air conditioner on and off, because it had the most amazing sound.

RK: The air conditioner was very good. That found its way in there.

What scene?

Mark Weingarten: Yeah, let’s hear about that.
HZ: I know exactly where it is.
RK: It’s a moment where…
GL: No, don’t give it away!
RK: It’s a very dramatic moment that is probably one of the two or three biggest jumps in the movie. The air conditioner is a component of that sound. I’ll let the audience guess.

What were the particular challenges for each of you?

GL: The challenging one for us as a mix team is that Chris wanted to take people on this ride, and the ride relied a lot on low frequency, whether it be the organ notes or Richard’s spaceship sounds. It had to be in this envelope that didn’t assault the audience, except for the specific spots where it does.
RK: It was great fun to imagine what one would be hearing in these incredible situations, and just try to make the experience as viscerally powerful as I can, without the usual go-to sounds or approaches.
MW: For me, I was out of my comfort zone on the space helmets and stuff, and that was fun to figure out. And then just trying to get production sound without falling off the glaciers.
HZ: For Chris and me, we spent 10 years developing a sound for Batman and then Inception, and it became pretty much the ubiquitous sound for action movies. So we sat down and went, “OK, let’s make a list of the things that we’ve done, and take those off the table.” So there are no action drums. There are no propellant string patterns. The brass never gets to play loud notes, they’re just this beautiful golden sheen. We had to truly find a new vocabulary.

But you started writing music based on a one-page letter that Chris gave you, right? What did it say on that paper?

HZ: Here’s the thing: I’m the only person other than Chris who’s seen it, and I’m keeping it that way. But I’ll tell you exactly what it was – it was a fable about a father and his son. This is where Chris was being sneaky and crafty. I had my son Jake, who’s all about science, so Chris was pushing all those buttons. He said, “If I give you one page and not tell you what the movie’s about, will you give me one day and write whatever comes to you?” I wrote that, and I think it’s actually sort of indicative of how we work. It was on a Sunday, and I finished about 9:30 at night, and I phoned him up and said, “Hey, do you want me to send it over?” And he said, “No no, can I come down?”

I think because it was Sunday night, there’s a casualness. It’s not business hours, it’s personal time. It’s friends spending times together. I played him this thing, and it’s tiny, a musical love letter to my son. And I said to him, “What do you think?” And he paused for a second, and said, “I’d better make the movie now.”

And I said, “Well, what is the movie?” And he started going off about this huge space thing. I said to him, “Hang on, you’re telling me it’s a vast canvas, space travel, and I’ve given you a little bit of piano and organ here.” And he said “Yes, but I now know what the heart of the story is.”

And I think all throughout the making of it, he kept referencing back to that moment, and I think because we had something so small, and so intimate we could always return back to, it sort of gave us license to have these extremes. I think the boldness of the movie is that we can be so silent, and so overwhelming in the next moment.

GL: Chris has to emotionally attach to what you’re doing. And once you hit it, you don’t change it, you don’t try to embellish on it. When Chris says, “I like that scene,” he doesn’t want you to keep playing with it.
RK: It’s a very delicate thing he’s going for – and when he achieves it, he wants it fixed. Once you hit that emotional moment that he wants, that tone that he wants, it’s like catching lightning in a bottle. And you don’t want to try to make it a little better.
HZ: There’s this great German word, I wish you guys had it in English. It’s verschlimmbessern, and it basically means to ruin things through improvement. Endless noodling.

There have been complaints about the sound being too muddy and the dialogue being lost, particularly in IMAX.

GL: Every note, every sound effect, every piece of dialogue was specifically at a certain level. If it was muddy, it was intended to be. If it irritated the audience, it was intended to irritate the audience.
RK: Or to let them open up and just go with the emotion of the moment. Chris didn’t want to tread the same well-worn road. He wanted to give the audience a new, visceral, real experience.
HZ: Let me give you a metaphor, as a musician. When I was a kid, I got dragged to opera every week. You understand every fourth word in La Boheme, but you’re still going to cry, because you’re having an experience. Sometimes to really get the meaning of the words, you need to listen to the tune.

– Steve Pond

"Interstellar" editor Lee Smith

The Edit 

Lee Smith, Editor

What did you think when Chris handed you the script?

Lee Smith: At this level of filmmaking, the scripts are pretty much bulletproof. With Chris’ scripts you normally spend the first few minutes holding your head wondering why you’re not smart enough to understand what you just read.

This is your sixth film with Nolan. What are the advantages to forming a long-lasting partnership?

LS: There’s a definite shorthand. There’s also the safety net of knowing you’re on the same page. You like what they like. It would be a disaster if you were working with someone you had no synchronicity with.

Do you ever clash with Nolan or any of your other frequent collaborators?

LS: We disagree on many and varying things. But I don’t clash, I just put my point of view out there. Once you clash, the shutters come down. I’ll show them something, a cut, and I’ll say what I think once. If they don’t like it, I move on.

What was the trickiest part of Interstellar to edit?

LS: We spent a lot of time on the Tesseract sequence. A lot of time. At a certain point I was terrified of that sequence. But having said that, it kind of worked almost from the get-go. They showed me the Tesseract footage in dailies, and it’s the weirdest shit.

Chris looked at me and asked, “What do you think?”

“What the fuck do you think I think?” I said. “That’s the weirdest shit I’ve ever seen.” You have to laugh.

There were times when I didn’t know what I was looking at, but in Chris’ head he had it mapped out.

Interstellar leans toward practical effects as often as possible. Considering it’s often an editor’s job to pick a performer’s best take, do you see this affecting their performances?

LS: Having practical stuff for the actors is enormously important because they’re in it—they’re seeing wormholes flying at them. They’re literally looking out the window at that, whereas in other films they look out and only see a green screen and some guy yelling, “Look to the left!”
When you work on a Chris Nolan film, it’s not a joy ride. You’re not sipping wine in the South of France. You’re getting wet, you’re cold, or you’re having things thrown at you like dust, shrapnel and fake glass.

With complex collaborations like Interstellar, Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy under your belts, have you urged Chris to try something simple?

LS: I told him I was thinking Tuscany, or the South of France. I said, “I’m thinking something involving a young beautiful couple with wine and a chateau.”
He said, “Think again.” [Laughs] As hard as these films are, they’re the films you remember. These are the films you take to your grave going “Holy shit, I worked on that.”

– Travis Reilly

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 The Visual Effects

Scott Fisher, Special Effects Coordinator
Paul Franklin, Visual Effects Supervisor
Hoyte van Hoytema, Cinematographer

What were your first thoughts when Chris gave you the script?

Scott Fisher: It read great. You knew it would be challenging, but a great film you wanted to be part of. Anything Chris does makes you feel that way.
Hoyte Van HOYTE VAN HOYTEMA: It was scary coming into the production knowing Chris and [Nolan’s longtime cinematographer] Wally [Pfister] had worked together for a few centuries. [Laughs] They’d done very beautiful stuff and I was in awe of their relationship, so when I came in I was scared shitless. I’ve never done a film of this magnitude before, which is at the same time so very intimate.

Chris is notorious for his appreciation of practical effects. How did you manage to use those for a space movie?
PAUL FRANKLIN: Some filmmakers put a green screen outside the window and tell the actor, “Do your best!” But we built large projection screens outside the main Endurance set which were 80 feet high by 300 feet long. We wanted the view to look like it does from the International Space Station, when you see the earth brilliantly lit by daylight. The wormholes, black holes and robots felt about as real as they possibly could, and the actors came to us afterward saying they appreciated seeing these things outside the window.

Sounds like a lot of physics.
PF: [Theoretical physicist/executive producer] Kip Thorne took me through Space Time 101. He explained wormholes, black holes, time dilation.

What about the Tesseract sequence? Was that based at all in reality?
PF: There’s an ambition to be as true as possible with the available information. There are some abstract concepts with the Tesseract, but they’re grounded in cosmology and theoretical physics. The key feature of the Tesseract is that it makes time visible, in the physical dimension.

What about the scenes on Earth with the blight and dust—how did you pull those off?
SF: Researched by watching Ken Burns [documentary ‘The Dust Bowl.’] We did mostly practical effects, as much as we could. We got a dozen fans and as much C-90 [ground-up cardboard] as we could.

How did the cast hold up?
HVH: The weird thing about actors is that they’re not usually getting their hands dirty, but they love interacting with physical things. Most are frustrated sitting in the comfort of the studio and standing in front of a green screen. I’ve never met an actor who doesn’t want to get down and dirty to get into the emotional side of it.

What were your priorities shooting on 70 mm film?
HVH: People always use it for beautiful vistas and to film pretty things, but I used the pristine medium to get down and dirty with it, like with skin tones and sweat and gnarly situations. You’ve never really seen anything like that before.

– TR

The Design

Nathan Crowley, Production Designer
Garry Fettis, Set Decorator
Mary Zophres, Costume Designer

Interstellar is such an ambitious script — where did you even begin?

Nathan Crowley: The way we start films is to put a visual version of the film up on the wall—we’ve done it on every film Chris and I have worked on. It could be anything. [Mary’s] fabric could go on the wall, or all the farmhouse stuff.
Mary Zophres: You see the wall and it guides you. Now I know what I’m doing. Now I know what world I’m in. Now I know where I need to go.
Gary Fettis: When Nathan took me to the wall for the first time to show me the designs, I thought, “This is a gift, this is unbelievable.” But then the jitters set in.

NC: You cannot fit a Chris Nolan film into your head. Only Chris can. So you need portions of it in front of you.

The water and ice planets were filmed on location in Iceland. Was that challenging?

NC: On film the ice planet looks hostile, and that’s because it was. The weather in Iceland took us apart.
MZ: We had to evacuate base camp. We had to move the whole operation to the hotel, including the wardrobe—Matt Damon was getting dressed in the bathroom. [But] it was worth every frozen foot and toe.

What was the trickiest part?

NC: Getting the Ranger out into the water and up in the ice. We were in two feet of water and five miles from the main road. The first time we drove out there, we lost a car in the riverbed; it sunk. Matt’s pod is stuck into the glacier, and that has hydraulics in it. The problem is that when you build a set in a glacier, the wood touches the ice and melts it. So every morning we’d come out and the ice would’ve receded, so we had to build more of the set every day.

How did you work with all the zero gravity shots?

NC: The Endurance was on a special-effects gimbal, but to show zero gravity each of those pods also had to be built vertically. That meant two copies of every set—Gary had to duplicate all of it, every prop he found.

MZ: It was a fucking nightmare. (Laughs) Chris told the studio he’d make Interstellar for the same amount of money he made Inception, so I had a specific budget. We had to make our spacesuits, labor included, for this much money. But ultimately every penny was spent on screen. That’s what I love about Chris—there’s not a lot of bullshit. Everything goes to the film, to what you see up there.

– TR

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