Before ‘Tenet’, ‘Interstellar’ was Christopher Nolan’s biggest, most ambitious film. And like all of his movies it is a dense text, layered with surprising backstories, personal history, and Easter Eggs. Here are 11 things you may not know about this movie.
1. THE STORY ORIGINATED WITH A FAMOUS PHYSICIST
Kip Thorne is an American physicist, best known for his work on black holes. He has been called the world’s foremost expert on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and in 2017 he won the Nobel Prize for his work on gravity waves. He is a proper super brain.
In 1997 he worked on the movie ‘Contact’ as a science consultant. This was a proto ‘Interstellar’; trying to add real science to a fictional story (based on a novel by Carl Sagan), about intelligent aliens contacting the Earth.
Kip got a taste for the film industry, and wanted to make another movie. His idea this time was ‘Contact’ in reverse; adding real science to a story about the human exploration of space. He teamed up with producer Lynda Obst, who he met on Contact, and wrote an 8 page story outline, which the pair shopped around Hollywood. It was eventually purchased by Paramount Studios. Thorne would later write a book – ‘The Science of Interstellar’ – about his involvement in the movie.
2. STEVEN SPIELBERG WAS GOING TO DIRECT
Thorne’s story came to the attention of Steven Spielberg, who signed on as director. Who better to make your real-science-space movie than the most commercially successful film maker of all time? Spielberg hired Jonathan Nolan, Chris’ brother, then an up-and-coming Hollywood screenwriter, to develop the screenplay.
Spielberg was then based at Paramount, with his production company Dreamworks, but while the film was in pre-production he moved to Disney. As Paramount owned the rights to Thorne’s story, Spielberg had to drop out. J Nolan then sent his draft script to C Nolan, who joined the project.
3. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT WAS VERY DIFFERENT
Once Christopher Nolan signed up, he re-wrote the screenplay with his brother. And some of the changes were major.
The basic set up remained the same; The Blight, the world slowly dying, the discovery of a wormhole near Saturn and a planned interstellar mission. But, in the original draft, we have not sent any astronauts through the wormhole, just unmanned probes. And, when our intrepid team aboard Endurance go through themselves, they only find one planet, not three; an ice world, similar to the one Matt Damon is trapped on in the final version.
Major change # 1: As our team start to explore the planet, they come across a metal hatch, in the ground. When they clear the snow off it they find it is marked with… a Chinese flag! And when they open the hatch they find… a whole underground world, populated by autonomous Chinese robots! Yes, the Chinese had discovered the wormhole first, and sent a ship through before the US. The Chinese robots are hostile to the astronauts, and they clash.
Major Change # 2: The astronauts escape the ice planet, but are not sure what to do next. Their mission seems ruined; there is only one planet, and it is dominated by unsympathetic robots. But then they discover… a second wormhole! This takes them… outside the universe. They find a mystery base, deserted, that is in some higher dimension outside of time and space.
Major Change # 3: The team eventually get back to earth, using another wormhole, but hundreds of years have passed, and civilization has collapsed. The world is an empty dust bowl, and the space travellers are the last humans.
Major Change # 4: Murph is Cooper’s SON.
After the end of humanity, the story returns closer to the film we know for the last section.
The team decode the black hole info, get the gravity equation, and Cooper sends it back in time to Murph aboard a reprogrammed probe. In the original script, this is the drone that they chase down in the field early on; they capture it, but Murph doesn’t realise till much later that it contains the required gravity info.
4. THE TITLE WAS CHANGED TOO
The working title for Christopher Nolan’s version of the script was ‘Flora’s Letter’.
C. Nolan gave Cooper a daughter, called her Flora, and imagined her writing her father a heartfelt letter, describing how much she missed him while he was in space.
Interestingly, Chris’ own daughter is also named Flora. If you dig into Nolan’s filmography, you will discover his films are full of references to his own life; characters named after his wife, kids and family, and events mirroring things that have happened to him and his brothers.
In the script, Flora would eventually evolve into Murph, and would be re-written as Cooper’s daughter; played in the film by Mackenzie Foy as a child, and Jessica Chastain as an adult.
5. HANS ZIMMER WROTE THE SCORE BEFORE FILMING STARTED
German born composer Hans Zimmer has worked on all of Nolan’s films since ‘Batman Begins’, in 2005. For ‘Interstellar’, Nolan wanted the score before filming started, as he wanted to use the music to help shape the action. This is the reverse of how this usually works, i.e. the composer is given the finished film, and fits music to the visuals.
As the script was unfinished, Nolan only gave Zimmer ‘Flora’s Letter’, and his notes on the story outline. He also asked him to avoid instruments usually associated with space movies; things like electronic music, or big drum beats.
Instead, Zimmer crafted a score featuring lush orchestration, unusual percussion, and a lot of organs; a rich and distinctive series of tracks that is widely regarded as among his best.
6. THE TALKING HEADS ARE REAL DUST BOWL SURVIVORS
At different times in the film, clips are shown of older people talking about the difficulty of farming during The Blight.
In reality, these are actual survivors of the Dust Bowl that ravaged American agriculture in the 1930s. The clips are taken from a Ken Burns directed documentary series, called ‘The Dust Bowl’, which aired on PBS in 2012.
The only actor in these sequences is Ellen Burstyn; see ‘Secret Cameos’, below.
7. REAL CORNFIELDS WERE PLANTED IN OREGON
Chris Nolan is famous for doing things ‘in camera’; he eschews digital effects, and tries to use practical methods instead. He is also famous for an obsessive attention to detail.
In ‘Interstellar’, to emphasize that the Earth is running out of good farmland, and food, Nolan took the production to Oregon, and planted 500 acres of real corn. The crops were panted in the shadow of a mountain range, in an area not usually used for agriculture.
The director was trying to work on an almost subliminal level. Maybe, in some way, we will pick up on the fact that the corn is not meant to be there, even if we do not consciously know this. And then that will add to the end-of-days atmosphere.
As a footnote, when the production wrapped, the corn was harvested, sold, and turned a tidy profit.
8. TARS AND CASE ARE REAL TOO
Nolan’s preference for practical effects is also on display with the movie’s robots, TARS and CASE. In any other movie, these two characters would almost certainly have been CGI, but Nolan actually had the robots built.
Actor Bill Irwin – who also voices TARS – operated them manually onset, manipulating their limbs and moving them around physically. He was later digitally removed from the film to complete the effect.
9. THE BOOKCASE BOOKS ARE SIGNIFICANT
Probably not a huge surprise.
The bookcase where Murph’s ‘ghost’ lives, and where Cooper is later trapped, features a number of books, that were hand picked by the director. These include (with quotes from Nolan):
- ‘Selected Poems’ by T.S.Eliot: “Concepts of time and space at their most complex are sometimes best expressed through art rather than science. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ are as thought-provoking about time as any scientific text.”
- ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King: “A bleak scenario that hammers home the fact that our perspective on momentous events will always be intimate.”
- ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeline L’Engle: “My introduction to the idea of higher dimensions, including the notion of a tesseract.”
- ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Iain Banks: “Once read, never forgotten, a strangely moving, horrible tale of a child and father living in near isolation.”
- ‘Labyrinths’ by Jorge Luis Borges: “The name says it all.”
10. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF FAMOUS ACTORS IN BIT PARTS
‘Interstellar’ has a stacked cast, and is one of those movies where even the one scene parts are delivered by notable actors:
- Timothee Chalamet: Years before he starred in ‘Call Me By Your Name’, Chalamet had a significant early career role playing young Tom, Coop’s son.
- David Oyelowo: The same year he played Martin Luther King jr in a big budget biopic, and garnered critical acclaim and awards attention, Oyelowo also played ‘School Principal’ in one scene here.
- Collette Wolfe: Oyelowo’s acting partner in his one scene is Collette Wolfe, playing Ms. Handley; Wolfe is perhaps best known for playing John Cusack’s sister, in ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’.
- Ellen Burstyn: Academy Award winning legend Ellen Burstyn plays old Murph in the hospital scene, at the end of the film, and pops up briefly as one of the ‘Dust Bowl’ talking heads, mentioned earlier.
- Brooke Smith: Smith is best known for a very famous role much earlier in her career; she plays the woman held captive in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, the ‘it puts the lotion on its skin’ girl. In this she plays the nurse, who ushers Coop in to see old Murph.
In addition, cast and grew snuck some families members in:
- Flora Nolan: Back to Flora again; Nolan’s daughter has a very brief cameo as ‘Girl on the Truck’ (pictured above), the young girl that Jessica Chastain stares at, before she decides to turn around set the corn field on fire.
- Matthew McConaughey’s daughters: Two of his daughters are in the hospital room with old Murph at the end of the movie, as part of the extended Cooper family.
11. IT CONTAINS THE HIGHEST AMOUNT OF 1570 IMAX FILM IN CINEMA HISTORY
1570 is the biggest type of film stock, ever mass produced. It is made by the IMAX Corporation in Japan, specifically to be used in IMAX cameras and projectors. It is hugely expensive, and difficult to use (and approximately 6 times the size of standard 35mm film stock).
About 80% of Interstellar was filmed in 1570, which means the film contains the highest amount of 1570 footage in film history. Which partly explains the film’s incredible look. The production team had to completely rebuild the IMAX cameras to make them more mobile, so they could be used in the film’s remote locations.
This innovation continued on ‘Dunkirk’, and Nolan remains a champion of shooting on film, and large format film, as opposed to digital.