Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is finally hitting theatres as the summer’s one true blockbuster. Ahead of the film’s release, That Shelf’s Jason Gorber joined in a conversation with the Inception and Dunkirk director about his latest time-bending thrill ride. Nolan was also joined by cast members John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Elizabeth Debicki (The Burnt Orange Heresy), Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), and Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther)
Christopher Nolan (CN)
John David Washington (JDW)
Robert Pattinson (RP)
Elizabeth Debicki (ED)
Kenneth Branagh (KB)
Ludwig Goransson (LG)
Where did the idea for Tenet come from?
CN: There are certain images and certain devices in the film that I’ve been thinking about for a long time–decades, really. People who know my earlier work will recognize some of the tropes, like the bullet coming out of the wall and going back into the gun. It’s something that’s portrayed metaphorically in Memento, but here we try to actually make it concrete. This particular script, and the idea of taking the spy genre and really trying to use it as a vehicle for taking the audience on this journey through all of these bizarre concepts of time, I’ve been working on that for about six or seven years.
What do you feel is leading your character forward?
JDW: I personally led with faith and the belief in humankind and the ability for human beings to evolve. I think that he was willing to die for that belief, that central tenet. I imagined him being recruited at an early age because he had that drive and that love for people. He uses that vulnerability as a strength, as a weapon.
Can you talk about the many layers of your character?
RP: There are so many layers that you make part of the character’s consciousness. He’s strangely aware of the layers of his own character, which is quite an unusual thing to play. But yeah, it’s fun. I remember trying to figure it out. [He’s] a very complex and difficult character within a very complex and intricate world. Once I realized that you can play Neil as someone who enjoys the chaotic situation he’s in, that seemed to be the touchstone for the rest. When you see the protagonist trying to deal with this new situation that’s incredibly difficult to deal with, it’s not pleasurable for any of the characters, once you find out the truth of the story, it’s not a great thing to find out. Neil is just one of these people who is like, “Oh, I love this! I love living in a nightmare.” [laughs]
How would you describe your character?
ED: Kat has many contradictions rolled into one. When I first read her on the page, I found such a note of authenticity with how Chris had written the character. I felt like I opened the script up to a woman who was at war with so many pieces of herself. What I also loved was the really complex psychological journey that she goes on through this film. She gets involved with something that she would never otherwise be involved with. It’s a journey of discovery of her own resilience. I also loved that within this genre, we get to see a woman really fight for her own kind of freedom, but also to learn that she has agency within the storyline. She is a woman who finds herself trapped in a situation with her husband but she also understands that it was her own doing. You watch her unravel the pieces of her life that she found herself tethered to and now she’s on this quest for freedom.
What was your expectations about showing up on a Nolan set?
ED: My expectations were full of pressure and terror, which was much more than the reality. The story takes us to really dark places at times, and my character goes into some really dark places as well psychologically. But the experience of making it was actually a joy because of this cast. There were a lot of challenges for me, and I did a lot of things I’d never done before. But Rob and JD and Ken are just the loveliest humans to work with and extremely funny, so I thank them very much for making my life better. Chris is an extraordinary director to work with, really, and the focus, and the space he creates for us as actors to work and push our own boundaries is really a gift.
Can you talk about bringing the villain to life?
KB: It was completely and totally on the page. Christopher created an absolutely extraordinary character. He’s a man who plays fast and loose with his own soul and the consequences for humanity are absolutely appalling. He strikes a devil’s bargain as Chris wrote about it, and it grants him this terrifying power. But it also curses him with this terrifying loneliness. I didn’t have to find any of that–it was all on the page. When I finally saw the film, my character scared me so much! I was watching myself, but really a vessel for this amazing character that Christopher created that I thought was beautifully done and so original. It was a real privilege to have a crack at trying to realize him. Maybe it’s from working on films about time, but Chris seems to change time so that when you do a scene with him, it doesn’t matter whether there are 5000 people in the room. The only thing he seems to be interested in is what you are offering.
JD: I would echo what everybody’s saying for eternity. I’ve never felt so encouraged as an artist to try and fail or whatever–just to try things and to be a bit experimental at times. With all the physical challenges that the film and the character required, I was able to push through because of the people I was working with and because of the environment that was set.
At what stage did the score develop?
LG: I got started very early in the process, some six months before they started shooting the movie. I understood pretty quickly that this was a world that we’ve never seen before and experienced before, so I knew that we needed a different sound and a different quality of music. I started working once a week with Chris writing demos. I would play some sounds and then we dissected the music and picked out what sounded good and what didn’t work. They took off to shoot and I would get an email once every three weeks – “We’re in Tallin; we’re in Mumbai” – from all of these different parts of the world. When they came back from set, Jennifer Lame and Chris started editing the movie. I sat in to see the movie from beginning to end every Friday for 30, 40, 50 times. There are so many levels, and through that process, I was able to really understand what was going and analyze the characters.
How do you prepare for a Nolan film?
JD: We were getting ready for Christopher Nolan university! I was training with the stunt coordinator, George Cottle and company, which was able to inform me a lot about the character. I never really worked that way before, in letting the physicality of the man dictate how I would approach it. That gave me a lot of information about myself personally, like what the feeling would be after learning how to fight like this and how to become a professional neck snapper. That was an interesting process for sure for me.
You’ve worked on this for many years. Did the story significantly change over that time?
CN: I was trying to construct as engaging a spy story as possible, having chosen the genre of the espionage film to embody these ideas of time. That period was spent trying to reconcile the peculiarities of construction that were required in the script to explain and embrace the concepts, while reconciling that with the thrill ride–the relatively straightforward experience for the audience. It was all about reconciling concept and genre.
Were there specific sources you drew upon?
CN: It was quite greater minds than mine have been exploring these ideas for a very long time. I actually take a lot of visual explorations, the work of M.C. Escher, those fantastic prints of the Penrose steps and eternal staircase and things like that. I tend to think in diagrammatic terms when I’m writing, and try and lay out directions of time and how they might fold in on each other and so forth. I’d actually cite Escher as a main inspiration for the script.
Is Kat the kind of character that you seek out?
ED: It’s interesting to talk about strong women because strength takes so many different shapes and wears so many different masks. I find the ‘strong woman’ idea to be quite interesting. With Kat, for instance, there is a strength that becomes obvious in her journey–and credit to Chris really for writing that [into the script] in such a brutally honest way. But I’ve played people who aren’t necessarily strong, I suppose, from the outside and maybe I had to imbue them with that [strength]. It’s very important for me that Kat is who she is in this movie and in this genre. What Chris did with her is actually kind of revolutionary.
Your soundscapes often incorporate interesting instrumentation and vintage equipment. Were there specific “toys” that you used for the drone and deep base elements that you’d like to discuss?
LG: There are a lot of toys, but there are also a lot of organic instruments. I like to take things that you’re familiar with and manipulate them into sounds that you can’t really put your finger on. For example, very early on Chris and I were talking a lot about using the guitar in a different way, so I set off to experiment a lot with the guitar and put it through a bunch of “toys”, or through a bunch of different effects and audio manipulations. A big part of the score is actually guitar soundscapes and ambient sounds. We also use some human sounds from someone breathing into a microphone very heavily – that was Chris’s idea for the antagonist of the movie. Part of his sound is actually Chris breathing through a microphone. I manipulated it, turned around, and made it into this really uncomfortable, raspy sound.
How do you navigate the sounds with your composer?
CN: One of the most important things is that the music be cohesive with the overall sound design of the film. We involved Richard King, who designed the sound for the film, with Ludwig early on so that we all knew where we were heading. Ludwig’s approach is to build the sounds from the ground up so there’s nothing that has specific associations. Everything is fresh. That allows the music to function more in the way that traditional sound design functions in a film where it’s very subliminal. Yes, there’s emotionalism in the music, the droning themes, and the excitement of it, but it also has another effect in terms of its audio characteristics. It informs the DNA of the film, really, and it’s integrated fully. Part of the reason why Ludwig had to start so early is that, when I edit films, I don’t use temp music. I don’t take music from other films or earlier films and put it on to show Ludwig what we want. We actually try and get Ludwig to work on demos and build the sounds, and then edit with those original demos and so that nothing’s gone into the film that isn’t owned by the narrative. That brings the music into a very tight fusion with the overall sound and the feel of the world that we’re trying to create.
Your performance has great depth, leading one to wonder whether he knows he’s the villain of his own story?
KB: Christopher talked to me about the Faustian idea that a man may give up great deal of something very important to them in return for the world’s riches. On one level, it’s greedy, and on the other level, you will have to pay the price for that bargain that you’ve made. I think that that can lead to intense vulnerability, even in the hands of somebody who creates appalling actions and events.
What is your favourite spy movie ever?
CN: The first James Bond film I ever remember going to the cinema to see was The Spy Who Loved Me, with Roger Moore, and that still is a great favourite of mine. I think I was about 7 years old when I saw it. And I went with my dad to the cinema to see it. What I’ve tried to retain from that experience is the feeling of possibility, that you could jump through that screen and go anywhere in the world and see the most amazing things. It had such scale and such possibilities! It was pure escapism with an excellent fantasy component to it as well. There’s a car that turns into a submarine! I spent a lot of my career trying to get back to that feeling and trying to give that feeling to audiences, to take it back to that sense of wonderment about the possibilities of what movies can do and where they can take you.
What does shooting all over the world give to you as a filmmaker?
CN: When you’re trying to create a large scale entertainment, you bump up very rapidly against the limitations of what you can build, or what you can conceive. The real world is large, and so extraordinary, and offers such possibilities. If you can go on location and get out there in it, it works twofold. It’s escapism, allowing the audience to go to the cinema and be taken to places that they would never be able to go to in their ordinary lives, places extremely glamorous or extremely dangerous. That gives tremendous scope to the nature of the escapism and the audience’s engagement. But it also informs the narrative and it informs the stakes of the narrative. We’re dealing with it in Tenet, as in a classic espionage film, as a threat to the entire world. By showing more of the world and more of the people of the world in the film, you’re constantly reminded as an audience member of the scale of the threat.
Tenet opens in theatres August 28.
Watch Jason Gorber’s video review of the film below!