Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender Tenet is about a war between the future and the present. But even he couldn’t have predicted what would befall the release of his 11th film.
Originally slated to open in July, Tenet was delayed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike every other major motion picture scheduled to open this summer, Tenet actually made it to theaters, arriving in September over Labor Day weekend and ending its worldwide run with over $350 million.
Nolan, 50, has long championed movie theaters and traditional theatrical releases and recently lambasted Warner Bros.’ seismic plan to debut its entire 2021 slate of films on HBO Max and in movie theaters, telling PEOPLE, “it’s not a very rational business decision.”
Below, Nolan dives deep into the inspiration behind Tenet, which stars John David Washington as a secret agent who embarks on a time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III, reveals why he doesn’t own a smartphone and much more.
PEOPLE: How did you deal with the pressure placed on Tenet this summer?
Nolan: Well it’s sort of like swimming out of your depths. At a certain point, if your feet can’t touch the bottom, they can’t touch the bottom. It doesn’t matter how much deeper it gets. That’s kind of what the pressure is like on big-budget tentpole movies. So yes, you feel enormous pressure, but there’s a certain point where all you can do is make the best film you can. We felt a huge responsibility to exhibition to have the film ready so if and when it was safe to open theaters, the studio was able to give them the movie and distribute the movie.
This is an industry. When people talk about the movie business they tend to think about movie stars, highly paid directors and stuff. Really, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people, ordinary people, who work in theaters, who scoop popcorn and sell tickets. Those are the people who put my work out there for decades, and I owe them everything. If we could be there to help them out when they were able to open, I’m very proud to have been a part of that.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner bros. Tenet
You’re interviewed in Tom Shone’s new book, The Nolan Variations, where you say every time you make a movie, you aim to make the best movie ever made. Can you elaborate on how you came to that goal?
He’s describing a conversation I had with him where I was talking to a producer who found that sentiment surprising. My response was, well, it’s really difficult to make films, it’s a hard job. I’ve never tried coal-mining so I can’t say it’s the hardest job, but I find [filmmaking] difficult. It takes years and you have to put so much into it and put so many other aspects of your life on hold when you do it to focus exclusively on it. But to do that without the ambition to do something truly memorable and groundbreaking, to me that’s unthinkable.
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You got to have the ambition. The only time I ever feel I’ve wasted my time in a movie theater is when I don’t feel the people making the film really loved it. Rightly or wrongly, if you feel that sincerity, if you feel that passion, whether you particularly liked the film or not, you respect it and you feel you spent your time well watching it. With every project, I try and only make films that I really passionately believe and really want to see as an audience member.
How hard are you, therefore, on yourself as a filmmaker when you revisit your own work?
You go through phases. The films evolve over time. I think sometimes when you watch the film a couple years after it came out, if you have to remaster it or whatever, sometimes it can be a slightly shocking experience and you remember a lot of things you weren’t able to achieve or you didn’t get right. But then, quite often, you revisit that film a few years even further down the line and you reconnect with it and you see what it is you were trying to do. I’ve always been a fan of sort of trusting the moment and trusting the period in which you make the film. I’m not somebody who ever wanted to revisit my films and tweak them or fix them. You sort of trust the filmmaker you were at the time. But your films do evolve over time and your relationship with them changes over time in interesting ways.
Warner Bros/DC Comics/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock The Dark Knight
Do you have a favorite film of yours?
I have four kids and it’s really the same question as saying which is the favorite of my four kids. No, I don’t have an answer. I don’t have a favorite. You put so much into these movies and they occupy such a specific moment in your life that comparing them is apples to oranges anyway. They’re different beasts, even when you’re talking about sequels. Like when you go from Batman Begins to Dark Knight to Dark Knight Rises. We made those films over 10 years, so my life was changing; I was evolving, changing as a person, all the rest. So they’re different. If you’re being kind to yourself when you revisit them, you judge them on their own terms.
How has filmmaking evolved for you over your 11 movies?
For me, the process has always stayed the same really. I don’t know what I could compare it to. When you’re on set, whether you’re working on something very small, as I started out, or when you’re working on something with enormous numbers of people and special effects and explosions going off and all that stuff, the process is reassuringly familiar. It’s really about, what have I got in the frame? What do I cut to next that will advance that narrative? I love it and I love being engaged with it. The point at which I don’t love it, I would stop doing it. But I very much get the same things that I always got out of it in truth.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Christopher Nolan
In the book, you say Tenet was inspired by an image of bullets coming out of a wall that you dreamed up around 20 years ago. Is that how most of your movies are born?
Sometimes that’s the case. In the case of Tenet, that idea of the bullet sucked back into the barrel of a gun, I put into the beginning of Memento as a metaphorical image, or a symbolic representation and structure of the film. But I always harbored the ambition to realize a story in which the characters would have to deal with the physical reality of that situation. So that one did come from a specific image. I think sometimes when I finish a film and I look back, I realize there are images in the film that I have been carrying around since I was a kid. Quite often, you’re not conscious of them while you’re making the film. You sort of remember, oh yeah, I always wanted to do something like that or have that particular image or something. It often takes you a very long time to come back to that.
The key for me has always been to try not to be too self-conscious. To not try and analyze too much why I want to do something, just look at what the effect of it will be, what the narrative will be and how to do it.
How do you go about retaining these images? Is there a special notebook?
Yeah, I carry a notebook on me and I have dozens and dozens of notebooks over the years that I scribble in. As I get older, particularly as my memory gets worse, I write things down. I don’t assume that I’ll be able to recall those images in years to come. So I do tend to scribble things down more and more as I get older. But yeah, a lot of note-taking, a lot of diagram-drawing, sometimes pictures but mostly words.
Tenet is your biggest film yet. Do you see yourself going back to smaller movies, like Memento, someday?
Filmmaking is filmmaking and whatever scale I find it fascinating. A couple of years ago, I took a break and made a short film. I hadn’t made a short film in a long time, it was one about the animators, the Quay brothers. I made a short about them. I thoroughly enjoyed that. For me, the experience was the same whether you’re working at the smallest level or the biggest level. I think the difference is that while I have the opportunity to make things on a grand scale, that’s a great thing to avail yourself of while you have the opportunity, because I won’t always have that opportunity. Small films are equally satisfying but much easier to marshal the resources for.
Everett Collection Memento
What does Christopher Nolan watch or binge during a pandemic?
You know, a combination of all things. My approach to film history is I don’t rush anything because my feeling is there are only so many truly great movies so I’m not in any rush to get through them all. I tend to ration them out a bit. I’ve been watching some really beautiful films. I just watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, which I’d never seen. I think I got two more Tarkovskys to watch in my life so I’m going to choose my moment carefully, but it was a really moving experience to see that film recently. That’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing when I have the time and the opportunity.
Is it true you don’t own a cell phone or have an email address?
Yeah it is true. It’s true that I don’t have a smartphone. I have a little flip phone that I take with me from time to time. I’m easily distractible so I don’t really want to have access to the internet every time when I’m bored. I do a lot of my best thinking in those kind of in-between moments that people now fill with online activity, so it benefits me. When I’m working, I’m just surrounded by, I mean, everybody’s got a phone. I can’t hide, so I’m very easy to get in touch with when I’m working.
And email, I just have never been particularly interested in communicating with people in that way. I prefer just calling people from a landline. So yeah, I mean, everybody finds their own way to communicate with people and deal with things.
Lastly, have any of your kids expressed interest in following in your footsteps?
Gosh, too early to say really. I wouldn’t want to answer for them but they’re certainly very creative kids and certainly have been raised in that atmosphere. We’ll see.
Tenet is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on Dec. 15.