Did you see Interstellar this weekend? Let's talk about it.
I'm an unabashed Christopher Nolan fan, and while I've written here about Batman Begins, Inception, The Dark Knight, and my favorite film of Nolan's, The Prestige, this is not a review. We don't do reviews in the traditional sense at No Film School because I don't believe it is a filmmaker's job to criticize the work of a peer — not that Nolan is a peer to any of us, as he's operating at his own level — but I often find criticism to be based on assumptions. When a critic attributes a film's shortcomings to the screenwriter, for example, what if unbeknownst to the critic it was heavily rewritten by the director? A DP may have carried a lot of weight for an insecure director. The producers may have had their film re-cut by the studio after audience testing. An uncredited writer may have been responsible for pivotal changes. An editor may have pieced together a heralded performance in the edit room. If you weren't there, you don't know!
Watching a film as a filmmaker is different from watching a film as a critic. We watch the work of other filmmakers to learn from each other, to try to discern what did and didn't work for us (and why), to reflect on our emotional response, and to talk about the story, structure, craft, and meaning of a film. One of the reasons I started this site was to have an elevated conversation about movies — more elevated than what I felt I was able to have with my friends at the time. So let's do that with Interstellar — only if you've already seen it (spoiler alert!). Let's talk about:
1. The first act
As many know, Interstellar was originally developed as a film for Steven Spielberg, and the on-the-nose sentiments in the opening act had me worried that the entire film was going to feel like it was done in a "Nolan does Spielberg" voice. Thankfully, as soon as the characters take off, the film does too. Was it just me? Did the film feel especially uneven, and awkwardly paced (possibly just by trying to cover so much ground) in the first act?
2. The (written) dialogue
Nolan's films generally take place in a heightened reality where every line feels like it was written, as opposed to approximating how people actually speak (as seen in the work of filmmakers like Cassavetes, or any number of "mumblecore" films). To me the lines are often too perfect, in that I feel like I'm listening to Nolan using his characters as mouthpieces to address the themes of the film directly, as opposed to a film like 2001 where you are left to do much more of the interpretation on your own. Would a studio put up nine figures to make a more ambiguous film like 2001 today? No. This is as close as we get, and frankly, I'm surprised that Warner Brothers and Paramount made this film in its current form... but I'm glad they did.
3. The (unheard?) dialogue
I couldn't hear a lot of the dialogue, and reports of this are widespread. Do you buy that it was a creative choice to have the ever-present Hans Zimmer score and/or rumble of spacecraft drown out the dialogue in the mix? Did it detract from your enjoyment of the film?
4. The box office
In the New York Times profile of Nolan, Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes of the director:
His loyalists have consistently and strenuously defended him against critics who claim that although he may be a masterful technician, he’s not a visionary or true auteur. Regardless of the visionary question, however, it’s pretty much impossible to think of a film that grossed more than a billion dollars and is better than “The Dark Knight” — or, to think of it in the way that Nolan prefers, a better film that was seen, so many times over, by so many people.
It’s also hard to see how “Interstellar” won’t make another billion-plus dollars and thus deepen Nolan’s mystique as the one studio director who’s not a studio hack, as the solitary Hollywood icon who somehow does enormous, surprising, profitable things his own way.
Interstellar is undeniably a blockbuster, and was certainly budgeted as such (with a reported budget in the $165-200 million range). But it is also a movie for adults, in an industry currently dominated by "four-quadrant" or kid-oriented films. Look no further than this weekend's box office results, where Interstellar came in at #2 in the U.S., behind Disney's Big Hero 6. Of Nolan's own films, this opening ranks seventh, after The Prestige. While Interstellar doesn't have the franchise recognition of Nolan's Batman films, and should never have been expected to surpass his comic book movies, it also does not seem to have as broad an appeal as his more action-oriented film Inception, his other recent original IP. Will this affect Nolan's ability to get future original IPs off the ground, or at least force him to use slightly lower budgets? We'll see. Thankfully, the rest of the world made Interstellar #1. But the New York Times' assertion that it's "hard to see how “Interstellar” won’t make another billion-plus dollars" may prove to be false. Gravity had a larger opening, and a 3D ticket surcharge to boost it, and has topped out at (an amazing) $716 million.
5. The "franchise unto himself"
Video is no longer available: soundcloud.com/theguardianlongread/christopher-nolan-the-man-who-rebooted-the-blockbuster-by-tom-shone
Warner Brothers has to be happy about the international box office for the film, given how much they gave up to get the rights. From The Guardian's profile (also embedded as audio above):
The deal that Paramount and Warner Bros negotiated was anomalous to say the least. For the right to distribute Interstellar internationally, Warner Bros traded the rights for two of their franchises, Friday the 13th and South Park, plus “a to-be-determined A-list Warners property”, while its subsidiary, Legendary, agreed to trade Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for a further piece of the pie... For Warner Bros to hand over the rights to two of its well-known properties, representing money in the bank, for the opportunity to take a spin on an original idea – a film with no sequel potential and few merchandising opportunities, based on the dimly understood recesses of quantum physics – speaks both to the value placed by the studios on Nolan, and also the extent to which he has become a franchise unto himself.
6. The structure (of space-time)
7. The 70mm (and film in general)
Following our post about where to see Interstellar on 70mm film, I saw it at the Ziegfeld theater in New York City — the last large single-screen theater in Manhattan — projected in 70mm (Lincoln Square's 70mm IMAX presentation, which I'm sure is superior, was sold out). And guess what? The top third of the screen was out of focus for the first ten minutes. My friend went to tell the projectionist and they eventually fixed it, but this should not happen, especially for a single-screen theater. You had one job. And while I've experienced problems in plenty of theaters featuring digital projection as well, anecdotally I have endured a lot more problems and human error for films projected on actual film.
One projection lens error notwithstanding — and I'm sure many will disagree with this — I was not hugely impressed with how the film looked... on film. This is not to say I was not impressed with how the film looked! That's not what I'm saying — what I'm saying is that I don't know that I gained a lot by seeing it on celluloid. This is not to say that 70mm and film in general is not a great format for acquisition, but the last two times I saw a film projected in 70mm I walked away disappointed, per my high expectations (The Master being the other recent release). Maybe I'll have to go to the Lincoln Square screen to see Interstellar a second time, in IMAX, to compare it to Gravity's digital depiction of space — but I do not agree with Quentin Tarantino that digital projection as a travesty, and at this point I would rather see a film on a great 4K digital projector than projected on 35mm film. The problem is, despite a surge in 4K cameras and projectors, most post pipelines and deliverables are still 2K. But that's a problem for another day...
8. The plot holes
9. The brothers' approach to co-writing
I've often wondered what the working relationship is like among the Brothers Nolan, and this THR interview offers some insights into how Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan works:
Jonah, you make movies with your older brother, Christopher Nolan, directing, and your sister-in-law, Emma Thomas, producing. How does that dynamic impact the filmmaking process?
NOLAN There's no politics. No bullshit. You just create. Famously in Hollywood, your friends stab you in the chest. If you can trust the people you collaborate with the most, then hopefully you can reach for that higher level with the material.
What happens when you get rewritten by your brother?
NOLAN It's a conversation. (Laughs.) I grew up with him watching movies, thinking about movies and always understanding movies. I think of film as a director's medium, with no disrespect to the writing aspect of it, but it's f—ing light in a box.
He goes on to talk about their "serial" collaboration, which is to say that Jonah is writing the next film while his brother is off directing the current one, and then he hands off a script and Chris revises it on his own — they are not in the same room co-writing. Chris always does the last pass before going into production.
10. The significance of the ending
Is the ending that we experience in the film what actually happens, or is it the manifestation of what Matt Damon's character, Dr. Mann, foreshadows earlier: that the last thing a dying person sees is their children? Via CinemaBlend:
I think Matthew McConaughey’s character, Cooper, dies after he ejects out of his craft and floats off into outer space. And I think the events that take place after that ejection – including the Morse Code Bookshelf and the "reunion" with Future Murph (Ellen Burstyn) -- are nothing more than manifestations of a death dream… images that are flashing before his eyes as he’s dying, or after he’s already dead.
I just made it through a list of "ten things to discuss" without even talking about the themes of the story, the cinematography, or the cast... but really I just wanted to get the conversation started. TL;DR version: what did you think of Interstellar?