Sure it's an epic science-fiction drama partially filmed using IMAX cameras, with big, sweeping vistas of outer space and thrilling set pieces, but for director and co-writer Christopher Nolan, "Interstellar" is really a family movie. Or at least a movie about a family. "When I first looked at [co-writer and brother] Jonah's draft on Interstellar, it was very clear that at the heart of the story there was this great family relationship," Nolan says. "We found the more we explored the cosmic scale of things and the further out into the universe you went, the more the focus came down to who we are as people and what are the connections between us."
The family in question at the heart of "Interstellar" is the Coopers, led by a dad (Matthew McConaughey) whose promising career as a pilot and an engineer was derailed as environmental calamity made his skills as a farmer more useful to the greater good. A widower and dreamer, Cooper works the heartland with his young children (Timothée Chalamet and Mackenzie Foy) and his father-in-law (John Lithgow).
Maintaining that core theme and focus sometimes meant engaging in a bit of subterfuge with his collaborators. Take, for example, how Nolan first pitched the film to composer Hans Zimmer: "One of the things I did with Hans is I didn’t want him to know what the genre was when he started working," Nolan says. "Before I actually started working on the script, I wrote out a page of what I considered to be the heart of the story — the relationships, the idea of a father having to leave his children — and I gave it to Hans and said, 'Work on that for a day, give me what you've got at the end of the day and that will be the seed to grow the score from. And indeed, the finished score came from that particular creative act. And that, I think, is just an illustration of the approach we all tried to take in terms of keeping this about the humanity and using the exploration of the universe as really a lens through which to view ourselves as human beings."
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And for a director who's tackled amnesia, the landscape of dreams and Gotham City, heading to space (or at least pretending to) was a singular thrill. "Really, space exploration has always represented the most hopeful and optimistic endeavor that mankind has ever really engaged with," Nolan says. The recent retiring of the Space Shuttle Endeavor sticks out in his mind, as he and wife — and producing partner — Emma Thomas watched it arrive in L.A. "We were up at Griffith Park with hundreds of people waving flags and watching this thing fly down," he remembers. "It was a very moving moment and very melancholy as well because what you felt was the sense of that great endeavor, that hope and optimism, is something that I feel we're in need of again. I feel very strongly that we’re at a point now where we need to start looking up again and exploring our place in the universe more."
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick