Christopher Nolan injects his sci-fi with soul

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A: Well, tremendously. I went a lot to the old Edens Theater, which sat between freeways and had this extraordinary modernist rounded design. I distinctly remember seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" there.

Q: And I remember seeing "Schindler's List" there a decade later. Spielbergs, a decade apart.

A: And there you go. But OK: There was also the Evanston I & II. And there was the Old Orchard theaters in Skokie. I remember all the names of the movie theaters back then. They definitely made a huge impression.

Q: Also, technically, you made your first movies in Evanston.

A: Technically (laughs) … that would be true. In the wake of "Star Wars," I made the imaginatively titled "Space Wars" with some Evanston friends. Those were my early years! I would shoot outside in the snow, because, post-"Empire Strikes Back," which had all those great ice-planet scenes, we would want to shoot in the snow, which got pretty extraordinary in Chicago. Then, inside, we would shoot on a pingpong table in my basement, throwing a lot of flour across (the table) when we wanted to shoot the big, epic wide shots.

Q: Obviously, "2001: A Space Odyssey" was another Evanston benchmark for you.

A: Very much so. But I saw it for the first time slightly before Evanston. When "Star Wars" came out in '77, "2001" was rereleased, and I saw it with my father at the Odeon Leicester Square in London, then saw it again in Evanston a year later. Pre-home video, theaters would show older movies more often. It was very much a film I would go to with friends and argue. We didn't understand it. But we loved it. I understand it better now than I did then, but even then I knew instinctively I wasn't supposed to get "2001" in a literal narrative sense. I knew it was about the experience. The thing is, as people get older and see more films, they want movies to fit established patterns. When movies don't do that, it can be frustrating, I suppose.

Q: Do you expect everyone to get everything in "Interstellar" right away?

A: I expect everyone to understand what they need to. I tried to root the narrative in dramatic tension and human emotion, and I feel if the audience allows themselves to be guided by that, they will understand everything they need (to know) about the film. There is more complexity there, of course. Far more important to me is that you just enjoy it. But there are layers in there if people are interested and want to revisit it some day.

Q: OK, for instance, The film has this underlying, interesting conversation running through it, somewhat overtly at times, about the need for science to be both rational and relate to people emotionally. Which is what many scientists and astrophysicists and astronomers themselves want.

A: I am very interested in where the reality of what it means to be human meets scientific abstraction, where our lives are reduced to physical rules of the universe. But the scientific method hits its limit, I think, with issues of the soul. It's a fascinating area that science is going to have to develop a language to deal with. I could be wrong, but science needs to cross a threshold and explain why a monkey typing infinitely would never type the works of Shakespeare. It can't really explain yet what we instinctively know will never happen.

Q: But there's also the problem of what we'll believe, right? You have this moment in the film where a schoolteacher says everyone understands NASA faked the moon landing. It's this great tiny nod to a future where science and engineering have less of a place in everyday thinking; Accomplishment and optimism has met American paranoia. NASA itself is an underground society. You're half-American, half-British. Did that split give you a little perspective on that skepticism?

A: It may. It's a solid point. I don't know. It was certainly a side to my upbringing. But I liked that (the moon landing) was an event of monumental significance, and that it related a little to Hollywood filmmaking. (For decades, "2001" director Stanley Kubrick was dogged by rumors that he helped NASA fake the 1969 moon shot.) People sometimes want to know what part of my filmmaking is British and which part is Hollywood. And I always find myself saying Hollywood is not an American thing, it's an international language. When I was living in England, we would watch Hollywood films, with a powerful sense of how universal its ideas are.

Q: How much of "Interstellar" springs from your preteen years in Illinois?

A: Well, definitely the corn does! No, actually, a couple of very disparate Midwestern elements do come into play. No. 1, the fields of corn, absolutely. I was only half-kidding on that. The other one is Imax film. The first time I saw one was at the Museum of Science and Industry, which, actually, was an Omnimax film. It was the great documentary about volcanoes, "Ring of Fire." And it was thrilling. I immediately decided that one day, if I ever could, I would make a narrative feature in that format. Also, the theme park outside of Chicago, Six Flags Great America, had an Imax screen and would play this film about flying, "To Fly!" A friend took me to see it, and he nudged me: Every time the camera (attached to) the plane tipped, if you looked at the audience, they were all tipping in the same direction. That, right there, is a powerful medium.

Q: There's also the Midwestern-ness of the Dust Bowl imagery in "Interstellar," particularly the talking-head interviews you have of older people presumably recalling some future Dust Bowl. But these people don't seem like actors. They seem to be talking about the Dust Bowl from the 1930s.

A: They are talking about the 1930s, actually. I haven't been advertising this; you want audiences to invest in the reality of the film as they see it. But those people are from the Ken Burns documentary "The Dust Bowl." That film is a devastating six hours. So I called Ken about using some of the people in it recounting their real experiences. I thought it was extraordinary that, even in making this science-fiction film about the end of the world, I was finding in Ken's film that there was nothing fanciful about our imagery. In fact, our images were toned down from what's in his documentary. Real dust clouds in 1930s were too extraordinary for our film! But I loved the idea of grounding ourselves and dealing with a future while relating it to our past. I don't want audiences to dismiss us as speculation. I want it to feel like reality, yesterday's and tomorrow's.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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