Christopher Nolan on the Promise and Peril of Technology

Christopher Nolan on the Promise and Peril of Technology

By the time I sat down with Christopher Nolan in his posh hotel suite not far from the White House, I guessed that he was tired of Washington, D.C. The day before, he’d toured the Oval Office and had lunch on Capitol Hill. Later that night, I’d watched him receive an award from the Federation for American Scientists, an organization that counts Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of Nolan’s most recent film, among its founders. Onstage, he’d briefly jousted with Republican Senator Todd Young on the subject of AI regulation. He’d endured a joke, repeated too many times by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, about the subject of his next film—“It’s another biopic: Schumer.”

The award was sitting on an end table next to Nolan, who was dressed in brown slacks, a gray vest, and a navy suit jacket—his Anglo-formality undimmed by decades spent living in Los Angeles. “It’s heavy, and glass, and good for self-defense,” he said of the award, while filling his teacup. I suggested that it may not be the last trophy he receives this winter. Despite an R-rating and a three-hour runtime, Oppenheimer made nearly $1 billion at the box office, and it’s now the odds-on favorite to win Nolan his first Best Picture and Best Director statuettes at the Oscars.

“Don’t jinx me,” he said.

I had come to ask Nolan about technology—both its promise and its perils—as a theme across his filmography. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation, in which we discuss the similarities between Nikola Tesla and Robert Oppenheimer, the techno-optimism of Interstellar, how Inception anticipated the social-media age, and why he hasn’t yet made a film about artificial intelligence.

Ross Andersen: It’s a low science to infer someone’s worldview from their art. But we now have 12 feature films from you, and thinking about them as a whole, it seems to me that one of the reasons you might have been drawn to Robert Oppenheimer’s story is that, like him, you feel quite conflicted about technology.

Christopher Nolan: I think it’s more that the conflict that a lot of us feel about technology is inherently dramatic. I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, which I think is often better referred to as speculative fiction, where you’re looking at particular trends—technological, but also sociological, economic—and where they might go, and exaggerating the present-day moment. There’s a lot of drama to be derived from that, and I’ve certainly enjoyed playing in that field.

I don’t think of The Dark Knight trilogy, for example, as science fiction per se. But it is speculative fiction. The whole thing with Gotham City was to exaggerate a contemporary American city in all sorts of ways that would bring out some of the more dramatic elements. What my brother’s screenplay for that film brought out very strongly was the idea that surveillance could be pursued through cellphones, and that was way ahead of its time. At the time, the idea that you could image an entire city through cellphones was very improbable and exotic. I remember saying to him, “Are people really going to believe that?” Now I think people sort of view that as our reality.

Andersen: I recently watched The Prestige, and it seemed to me that Nikola Tesla, as you portray him in that film, is a kind of a proto-Oppenheimer.

Nolan: Oh yeah, very much so. I don’t know if you know this, but Tesla was, somewhat controversially, credited with coming up with the concept of mutually assured destruction. When he died—by then having succumbed to a form of madness—government officials descended on the hotel room where he was staying and went through his papers. Please fact-check all of this, by the way. It’s been a long time since I looked at the material. As a filmmaker, you sort of glibly give all of these facts, because in Hollywood, it’s all a sales pitch. (Editor’s note: This article has been fact-checked.) It was rumored that he had scribbled down a design for a sort of death ray, and while I don’t think there was any hard science behind it, the concept was that this weapon would be so powerful that if both sides had it, it would end war.

That’s very similar to the conclusions that Oppenheimer came to. When people are that smart, they can find a way to make anything make sense. It seemed to me that he had a notion that until the bomb is used, people won’t really understand it. That’s a pretty extreme rationalization, and Oppenheimer’s story is full of those mental gymnastics. He was a very ethical person, but he also had a brilliantly abstracted philosophical way of looking at everything he was involved with, and that can lead you to pretty strange places.

Andersen: Inception is also about a risky technology that emerges from military research. But instead of a bomb, it’s a dream-sharing technology that compels the main characters to turn inward into mazes of their own creation, so much so that even though they have small children, they have trouble pulling themselves out of those worlds. As our digital worlds evolve and become more transfixing over time, have you seen some resonances with that material?

Nolan: When the film came out, in 2010, the smartphone was exploding in popularity, and some of its inward-looking structure was actually based on the branching mechanisms of the iPod. I’d been using iPods to listen to music, and on the menu screens, you have these branching networks that allow you to go deeper into different catalogs. This was a time when people were first looking at the potential of carrying a whole world in your pocket, the kind of stuff that William Gibson had written about years earlier as pure science fiction. Those sorts of things were starting to become part of people’s everyday lives, and so people started to look at reality differently. They started to think about realities within realities. This was all unwitting, by the way: There’s a tendency to speak about your past work as though everything was planned and intentional. You try to analyze in hindsight what was going on in your head, and what synchronized with the world. But at the time, and as I continue to work, I try to be instinctive and unselfconscious, and open to the things that move me in the world.

Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy on the set of Oppenheimer (Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures)

Andersen: In The Prestige and Inception, the consequences of misusing technology are largely confined to the personal sphere. But in your Batman films, and more recently in Tenet and certainly Oppenheimer, the consequences of technological misuse extend to millions of people, if not all of humanity. What drew you toward these larger stories of planetary or even cosmic scale, as your career has progressed?

Nolan: I’m not sure it’s so much of a progression. Each story has its own reasons for a technology to be contained in a particular scale. Inception is about recursion, so the scale is internal. It’s infinities within infinities. I think Oppenheimer is an interesting case, because what I’ve done there is to take for granted the large scale, the global implications. This is someone whose activities and actions changed the world forever, with the highest stakes possible, and because we all go into the film knowing that, I felt that I could look at the story entirely from his point of view, to try and make it as personal as possible. I was hoping that the effect at the end—when the global implications seep in and you start to see gaps and cracks in his thinking, and his sense of guilt and stress—would be more powerful for not having been discussed or presented earlier in the film. So I think Oppenheimer is a combination of the two things: It’s very personal, but the real-world stakes of the story are sort of undeniable.

Andersen: Interstellar seems like an outlier in your work, with respect to technology. The film’s hero, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), is an engineer who can’t stop reminding us that he’s an engineer. He aches with nostalgia for the Apollo missions. He thinks that humans have turned away from the stars—and the film seems to agree with him. In the end, it’s really science and technology and the exploratory spirit (along with love) that deliver humanity from extinction. Is it right to think of Interstellar as a defense or even celebration of technological ambition, and if so, how does that sit alongside something like Oppenheimer?

Nolan: It very much is that. I don’t want to speak for my brother, who worked on the script for years, but I know that one of the things that fed into it was this experience we had while scouting locations for The Dark Knight in Hong Kong. We both went to see a documentary about the Apollo missions voiced by Tom Hanks. There’s a part about the ridiculous idea that the moon landings were faked, and I think we were both—and Jonah in particular—very struck by how sad it was that the filmmakers felt the need to address such an absurd conspiracy theory, and how that diminished the achievements of everyone involved. This fed very directly into the character of Cooper and his idea that society had started to devalue the spirit of exploration. Now, is that consistent with the other ways in which our work—and my work—has addressed technology? Not necessarily, but at the same time, these films are not didactic. They aren’t intended to convey specific messages about society. They’re just trying to tell great stories.

Andersen: Interstellar also gives us one of Hollywood’s most sublime scientific spectacles with the black hole, Gargantua. In Oppenheimer, we get another one, but now, instead of a morally neutral object, it’s the Trinity atomic-bomb test. How did that difference play into the creative choices you made while shooting?

Nolan: When I was writing the script for Oppenheimer, my initial creative impulse was that the Trinity test needed to be portrayed with as much realism as possible, to put you into the heads of the scientists who were engaged in creating and testing it. If you look at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, there is a very beautifully rendered nuclear explosion that’s done with computer graphics. Paul Franklin and his team did an excellent job, and an enormous amount of research and detail went into it. But the technology of computer graphics is inherently a bit distancing and safe, which worked for that film because Batman has saved the day and the explosion is no longer threatening people. I knew this would need to be different, and I knew that the imagery would have to be beautiful and terrifying at the same time, and I felt very strongly that only real things that are photographed could achieve that. As a filmmaker, you choose the methodology that’s going to give you the appropriate resonance, and the resonance we needed for Trinity was massive threat and hypnotic beauty at the same time.

Andersen: Given your obvious interests in technology and personal identity and the nature of consciousness, it’s curious to me that we don’t yet have a film from you that takes AI as its central subject.

Nolan: Well, my brother has done four seasons of Westworld and five seasons of Person of Interest, which are amazing, prescient explorations of artificial intelligence and the security state and data security. That, and look, I’m a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which in its elemental, Kubrickian simplicity kind of says everything there is to say about artificial intelligence.

Andersen: There’s another scene in Interstellar that is one of the most emotionally gutting sequences in any of your films. As a consequence of gravity’s distortions of time, Cooper has missed decades of his kids’ lives, and he watches all of these video messages that they sent during that period, in sequence, while just shaking and sobbing. It’s a really visceral experience, especially for parents. How did you conceive of the idea for that scene?

Nolan: The wonderful truth is that it was in my brother’s script, and one of the things that made me want to do the film. As a parent, it seemed like such a powerful story moment. It was always the north star of the film, this beautiful sequence—and some of the actual words in the script, the specifics of what was said in the messages, never changed. We filmed McConaughey’s reaction first, in close-up. You never do that in a scene. You start with a wide shot and then warm up. But he hadn’t seen the video messages—we’d filmed them all in advance, so that everything would be there in the moment—and he wanted to give us his first reaction. We shot it twice close-up, and I think I used the second one, because the first one was too raw. Then we shot the monitors, and the wider shots, and put it together.

The last piece of the puzzle was a beautiful piece of music by Hans Zimmer that hadn’t really found a place in the film. I think he literally referred to it as “organ doodle.” My editor, Lee Smith, and I tried playing it just while we were in the room playing a cut, and we both felt that it was devastating. The other thing we did, which I don’t think I’ve done in any of my other films, is to treat the music as a diegetic sound: When the messages stop, the music stops. It almost breaks the fourth wall, and it’s not the sort of thing that I like to do, but it felt perfect and apt for that moment.

Andersen: I’ve heard you express in interviews about Oppenheimer, and in the script of the film itself, this idea that the Manhattan Project was the most important thing that ever happened—and I think I hear a bit of a corrective in that claim. Do you think that, generally speaking, in our popular historical consciousness, science and technology get short shrift?

Nolan: I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. To be completely blunt, I was trying to express why I wanted to make the film and why I think the film is dramatic. But I think the argument that Oppenheimer is the most important man who ever lived because he changed the world forever is pretty hard to refute. The only real argument against it is the “key man of history” argument, which is to say, if not Oppeneimer, it would have been Teller who brought the Manhattan Project to its fruition, but that’s parallel-universe stuff. In our universe, it was Oppenheimer who brought the project to its fruition. He changed the world, and it can never be changed back.

Andersen: I’ve followed your career long enough to know that you keep your projects under wraps until you’re good and ready.

Nolan: Then you’re wasting your last question.

Andersen: Well, it’s a meta-question about where you might go from here. You’ve just done this epic film. It’s three hours long. It contemplates the fate of humanity, and the possibility that we might extinguish ourselves. It seems to me that you can only go smaller from here—although I’m happy to be corrected—and I wonder if that will be a challenge for you?

Nolan: You want every new project to be a challenge, and I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what really gives scale to a film. You can look at it in terms of budget. You can look at it in terms of shooting locations. You can look at it in terms of story. I don’t tend to think in those terms. I don’t think about, “Oh, I’ve done a big one; now I’ll do a small one.” In my kind of work, Oppenheimer was pretty lean; in terms of budget, it was a lot smaller than some of my other films. I try not to be reactive in my choices. To me, it’s really about finding the story that I want to be engaged with in the years it takes to make a film.

Andersen: Has one gripped you?

Nolan: I’m not going to answer that.

Comments are closed.