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Christopher Nolan: 'Interstellar' is 'my most aggressive attempt' at a family blockbuster

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The writer-director says his sci-fi drama is inspired by everything from "Star Wars" to Steven Spielberg films to "2001: A Space Odyssey."

“Big Hero 6” may have won the domestic box office contest this weekend, but “Interstellar” is the film that's received the most buzz.

It’s the latest from writer-director Christopher Nolan, arguably the most successful filmmaker working today — especially if you're talking box office returns. “Interstellar” is a sci-fi drama that takes on big themes like the future of mankind in the face of environmental catastrophe.

The film has received considerable attention for the science behind its story. From a mysteriously stable wormhole to extreme variations in space-time, Nolan's movie is steeped in complicated, mind-bending physics.

But when Nolan spoke with The Frame, he said it was actually the family themes in “Interstellar” that attracted him to the project, one that he hopes will bring back the glory days of the classic family blockbuster and inspire its audience to dream big.

Interview Highlights:

On the elements of "Interstellar" that attracted him to the project:

I'm a father myself, so I related to it very strongly, emotionally. I loved the idea of looking at a momentous potential event in humankind's development: the idea that the Earth may be our nest and one day we learn to fly and we move out, discover our place in the universe.

To see such a momentous event through the eyes of a family, through a family relationship, did remind me of the great golden age of blockbusters that I grew up in, reminded me of some of the great work of Spielberg back then, like "Close Encounters," this kind of film that takes on those kinds of issues, but with a very human face.

The more we worked on the film, I think, the more it became about what it is to be a father, a parent, a child — the connections between us. Or what it is to be human, really. I think science fiction's always been a great way of trying to explore those things.

On violence and the notion of a "family film":

The type of film I had in my head with ["Interstellar"] was a family film, and we're in an era now where even when you say "family film," it seems to have some sort of pejorative connotation that it never used to have when I was growing up.

When I was growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, all of the best Hollywood blockbusters were family movies, and it didn't imply anything soft or lacking in them; it just meant they had universal appeal, and I really wanted to try and make something that — without being condescending to the audience or softening its approach — just naturally was a story that the whole family could go and see.

On how some audiences and critics are calling "Interstellar" his most personal film:

I think they don't know me, so how would they know? [laughs] I don't know myself very well, either. Truthfully, with all of my projects, I've tried to put as much of myself into them as possible, but I think that this film perhaps has the most literal connection between a character who is a father and for whom that's such an important thing. That's something that's true in my life, so it's very important to the story, but it's also very important to my life and so there's certainly a tight correspondence there.

Certainly, I've never been a crime fighter or gone wearing a cape climbing over rooftops at night. Not even on Halloween, so, yeah, I think in some ways this is a more personal film for me. It's also personal in the sense that, given my exposure to George Lucas's work in the late '70s and Stanley Kubrick's on the big screen  — "2001" was re-released in the wake of the success of the first "Star Wars," these types of films — the idea that you could take an audience across the universe and really take them on a journey for a couple of hours in that way.

That form of escapism, that form of seeing the potential of what movies could do, that's very personal to me. That's something that really fixed in my brain when I was about seven years old, and with every film I've made I'm trying to get back to that sense of grandeur, I suppose, that sense of possibility. And "Interstellar" is certainly my most aggressive attempt to do that.

On the things that stuck with him from "Star Wars" and "2001: A Space Odyssey":

The first "Star Wars" came out when I was seven years old, and that made an absolutely indelible impression on me. When that succeeded so well, they re-released Kubrick's "2001," and my dad took me to see that film on one of the largest screens in London at that time. And I very strongly remember that experience of the vast imagery, and how it opened up another set of worlds as you sat there in the cinema. The potential of movies has always somehow gone back to that to me.

On "2001: A Space Odyssey" being a film that needs to be felt, not understood, and what that means:

"2001" is a purely cinematic experience. It defies logical analysis, I think, but inspires all kinds of logical debate. It has incredible ambiguity, it has incredible symbolic power; it's a really pure movie. I think that as it applies to "Interstellar," that sentiment would function a little more along the lines of: "Interstellar" has a lot of complicated science to it that you don't need to understand when you first watch the movie. You really need to go along with the emotions of the characters and follow the emotional story of this father whose relationship with his children is tested in such an extreme way. I'm hoping that's a relatable thing for people as it was for me, and that it guides them through the story.

On the role of time in "Interstellar" and why the notion of time is explored in all of his movies:

The nature of the medium itself is such that when you look at films, you look at the film running through the projector with its strange linear form that represents time. To me, there's just such a strong relationship between the way movies make you feel time and the narrative itself, that I find myself sort of irresistibly drawn to addressing that within the text of the movie itself. And I've done that in the past in structural terms — I've used it to emphasize or explore ideas of subjectivity.

"Interstellar" is the first project where I've gotten to actually use time as a story element, strongly. Really, when I look at "Interstellar" now that it's finished, I think if there's an antagonist in the story it is time itself. And that was kind of a fun realization to think that's what we've done with time in this case.

On the notion of exploration not only in everyday life, but also in terms of artistry and creativity:

If you're talking specifically about films, there's a constant tension between getting stuck in a rut, you know, doing what has worked before — I've done sequels before and so forth — and there's a huge tension between trying to give people what you know they love and want enough of, and having to offer them something new. I think the audience particularly is very ruthless in its desire for newness, for freshness in things, and so I do think it's important to keep exploring in movies the same way it's important to keep exploring in life.

On the agenda of "Interstellar," if there is one:

If the movie has an agenda it's really just as simple as saying, It would be amazing to start looking out of the universe again. I grew up in an era when being an astronaut was the pinnacle of a child's aspirations; we were very excited about science fiction, but also science fact, about what was going on in the universe, what our place was in the universe, and when we were going to explore that.

I think over the last few decades that's been lost. Technological development has been extraordinary, but it's all been about communications, it's all been about our phones and our TV sets and what have you. I think it would be amazing to start turning some of that innovation outwards, and that's exactly what's happening if you look at SpaceX and Elon Musk and these guys. I'm very hopeful that is happening within our lifetimes, and we are going to get back out there.

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