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Christopher Nolan On Why Time Is A Recurring Theme In His Movies


The director Christopher Nolan has spent a lot of time exploring the concept of time. His breakthrough movie "Memento" was a thriller told back to front about a man who had lost his short-term memory. As Nolan's films got bigger and more ambitious, he found different ways to manipulate time in movies like "Inception," "Interstellar" and "Dunkirk." His latest is a globe-trotting spy thriller called "Tenet." Some of the characters and objects in "Tenet" move backwards in time, a process the movie calls inversion. Others move forwards. I began my conversation with Christopher Nolan by asking why he keeps returning to this theme.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: Time is the most cinematic of subjects because before the movie camera came along, human beings had no way of seeing time backwards, slowed down, sped up. And I think that went some way to sort of explain to me why I've been interested in exploring it in movies because I think there's a really productive relationship. And I had this visual notion of a bullet that's in a wall, being sucked out of the wall and into the barrel of the gun it was fired from. And I put the image in "Memento," my early film, as a...

SHAPIRO: Twenty years ago - the year 2000.

NOLAN: Twenty years ago. Now you make me feel old, but yes, 20 years ago.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Sorry.

NOLAN: But I always harbored this desire to create a story in which the characters would have to deal with that as a physical reality. And that eventually grew over the years into "Tenet."

SHAPIRO: It's funny because when I was - I don't know - 6 or 7 years old, my parents had a reel-to-reel camera. And my brothers and I would actually make backwards movies where we would, like, eat a piece of fruit or smash ice or do a somersault and then entertain ourselves by playing it in reverse.

NOLAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And this feels to me like a $200 million version...


NOLAN: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: ...Of that very rudimentary entertainment.

NOLAN: I wouldn't say rudimentary. I'd say fundamental. It's one of the things the camera can do. It can gift us with this look at the world we live in in a completely different way that never existed before the camera came along.

SHAPIRO: OK. So the film has these sequences where you don't just have someone going backwards in time; you have that person interacting with someone going forwards in time. So there's a fight sequence or a chase sequence where one is going beginning to end, and the other is going end to beginning. How on Earth do you make that work?

NOLAN: A lot of planning, a lot of talented people brought early onto the production. I scheduled the fight you're referring to in the film - I scheduled that in the first week because I really wanted to throw everyone into the deep. It's a scene of great complexity, but it's also quite intimate. It's a couple of guys, you know, in a claustrophobic environment. And I knew that as the film progressed, we were going to have to widen out the approach we came up with to achieving these things. We were going to have to widen it out to car chases, plane crashes, armies fighting each other. You know, it just - as it does in the film, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and more expansive.


AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (As Ives) You've been divided into two teams for temporal pincer movement. We're red team, moving forward. In order to distinguish the teams, you'll wear these. Our friends over there, blue team, led by Commander Wheeler, are inverted.

SHAPIRO: Did you actually have to train actors to throw a punch backwards or take a punch backwards, or...

NOLAN: Well, we had to.

SHAPIRO: ...Did you just film it forwards and play it backwards?

NOLAN: No, we had to do everything four different ways, essentially. And so...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NOLAN: The actors - you know, they're learning how to throw a punch backwards. They're also trying to work with the stunt team to determine what an inverted punch against somebody who's not inverted - what effect that has 'cause it's not just straight backwards punch. And so you've got all of these different levels of complexity. And that took months of sort of development. And then the actors coming in - you know, they had to learn how to walk backwards, talk backwards...


NOLAN: ...In Ken Branagh's case, talk backwards with a Russian accent (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Kenneth Branagh does that with a Russian accent. He actually spoke backwards with a Russian accent. That was him just speaking, like...

NOLAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Not modified.


KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Sator) I left it in the car with the firetruck, right? (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I told you that.

BRANAGH: (As Sator) Telling me it was really in the BMW (unintelligible).

NOLAN: You'd have to do an entire interview with Jen Lame, the editor, on that one scene on how difficult it was to edit in terms of the sound, the different versions of the dialogue that are in there, whether they're recorded forwards or backwards. And it was the most complicated thing I've ever been involved with. And that, of course - it runs through in the film. And if you've done your job right, it's just, oh, yeah, that happened, you know?

SHAPIRO: You know, you've talked about how crucial time is to cinema. What is it about you as a person that keeps being drawn to these questions of how we experience time?

NOLAN: What I like to say about my fascination with time is I've always lived in it. And it's a glib response, but there's a truth to it. And as I get older - you know, I turned 50 just before I released the film. And as I get older, as my kids get older, your sense of time changes - that kind of feeling that we all have as we get older of losing things and things slipping away and things moving ahead without us. And there's a tremendous sense, you know, coming into middle age of acceleration of time.

SHAPIRO: It's funny - not to belabor the point, but as you talk about your relationship to time over the course of your life, it occurs to me that "Memento," which you made in the year 2000, is a film where every moment is totally new and totally fresh, which is a very young person approach to time. And this is sort of a very different approach to time, which is, can you go back and undo things that maybe you wish had not been done?

NOLAN: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. Can you root around in the past and, yeah, see things you didn't see the first time or last time or salvage something or, you know, what have you? Yeah. No, I think it is. I think I've always wanted to work on films where you connect with it in a very - as a filmmaker, you connect with it in a sort of personal way, not literally, not biographically or anything like that. That I've never been interested in - but from a sort of emotional point of view of trying to really feel, you know, the world you live in, the things you're worried about losing and playing with that and playing with how the audience could respond to that.

SHAPIRO: I have to confess, when I got to the end of the film, I wasn't totally sure that I understood every moment, beat by beat, point by point. And with a story this intricate, that sort of seems inevitable. Are you OK with that? Do you go into it with an acknowledgement that some people may walk out of the theater being like, wait; so in that scene...

NOLAN: Yeah. The interesting thing is - we dealt with this a lot on "Memento" where, you know, people would say, OK, does everybody understand every aspect of it? And I would say, well, the interesting thing in movies is - looking at the thriller genre in particular - you're not meant to understand every single aspect. You're meant to go on the journey, pass through the maze, understand the things you need to understand. That's the key.

And I felt - right back to "Memento" - people who just come to the movie and want to be entertained - they tend to understand the movies pretty well. People who sort of feel like, oh, I've got to interview the director after I watch it...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NOLAN: But it's - you watch it very differently. And I think, you know, the idea that you'd watch, you know, a large-scale, you know, studio blockbuster or whatever and come out feeling like maybe there are things I didn't understand that I should go back and take a look at or whatever - I think that's kind of fun. The challenge is - my job as a filmmaker is to make sure that the first time you see the movie, you are entertained, and you are gripped. And that you can't lose sight of. And, you know, that's a challenge and something I spend a lot of time wrestling with.

SHAPIRO: Well, Christopher Nolan, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.

NOLAN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: That was Christopher Nolan on his new movie "Tenet," which will be available tomorrow on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.