Nolan’s plan for the digital rollout of “Tenet” was to talk mainly about the home release of his 11th film. But instead, he finds himself blasting his own studio, Warner Bros., for its decision to kick its entire slate of 2021 films to HBO Max. This isn’t about money, he says. Nolan believes the studio is not only making a business mistake in shifting “Dune,” “Matrix X” and 15 other films to the streaming service. It is betraying the filmmakers.
“It’s about what the French call droit moral,” he says in a recent interview from his home in Los Angeles. “Do they own it absolutely, because they paid for it or they financed it? And that is not a purely legalistic question; it’s a question of ethics as well. It’s a question of partnership and collaboration. They did not speak to those filmmakers. They did not consult them about what their plans were for their work. And I felt that somebody needed to point out that that wasn’t the right way to treat those filmmakers.”
He declined to say how the HBO Max decision will impact his long-term relationship with Warner Bros., which declined to comment for this story. In a wide-ranging discussion, he talked about the making of “Tenet,” a mind-bending take on the James Bond films that stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh, as well as his writing process, philosophy on moviemaking, and “The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries and Marvels of Christopher Nolan.” Tom Shone’s just-published book walks Nolan through his catalogue, offering both a technical window into the work and an analysis of how Nolan’s life connects to his films.
(The following interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.)
Q: I don't think people understand, because of how much discussion took place about the theatrical release, that in some ways this is the real release of "Tenet" in the United States. Back in September, hardly any theaters here were actually open for business.
A: With all of the adversity in the world for 2020 affecting people in all kinds of horrendous ways, we were very lucky, very privileged to be able to release the film in parts of the world that managed the virus with appropriate response and then figuring out ways to safely reopen theaters. And the film did what it did with $300 million in those markets, and counting. Which sends a very positive message about the future of exhibition for when things can reopen safely and all the rest. In the United States, we were never able to release the film properly. I say “here” because I’m sitting in Los Angeles, and obviously to not open in your hometown and not be able to market the film because the studio was obviously hoping that Los Angeles and New York would open if the virus receded, which obviously has not happened, did not happen. The reality is, there’s people in the world with real problems. This is a pretty trivial concern about the release of film. But delving more into it, I’m a kid of the home video generation. And so we’ve all, and myself in particular, spent many years working with the studios on technical strategies of how to maximize image and sound quality for presentation, how we get it out there in that form and everything. And the short version of it is, I’m just super excited for people in America, in L.A. and New York in particular, to be able to see the movie.
Q: As I understand it, the idea for "Tenet" emerged 10 years ago?
A: The germ of the idea, the initial image being this idea of the bullet being sucked out of the wall into the barrel of a gun. That’s something I’ve had rattling around for about, gosh, 25 years. I used it in “Memento” in a metaphorical way, a symbolic way to explain . . . to sort of suggest the structure of the script beginning. But I’d always harbored an ambition to construct a story where the characters would deal with that as a physical reality. So, over the years, it’s sort of progressed in dribs and drabs and baby steps forwards, and eventually I realized that the spy genre, the big sort of globe-trotting espionage thriller, was the way I wanted to deal with that.
Q: A bit about process. As you're writing this film, you're writing on a computer or on a typewriter? By hand?
A: I write on a computer and, yeah, I do a lot of note-taking. I do a lot of diagraming stuff before I ever sit down with a computer.
Q: So outlining?
A: An outline is maybe too formal for me. But I’ll tend to draw diagrams of the structure of the story, of the bigger movements of it. And I’ll try, I’ll write a lot of notes about this line of dialogue, just a guide of where I’m going to wind up. And I try to really have a sense of the movie before I sit down to write. And when I write, I write in an intensely linear fashion. . . . I want to always see it from the point of view of the audience; how they’re going to receive the narrative, rather than writing it chronologically, cutting it up and reassembling it. I write from the first image of the film to the last image of the film, and I rewrite as I go.
Q: There's this point in "Tenet" where Washington, as the Protagonist, and Pattinson's Neil are talking about sort of what's in play. Inversion and entropy and Richard Feynman. And Neil says, "Does your head hurt?" I'm also interested in this balance between the complicated and the accessible. I watched "Interstellar" with my 10-year-old and I know you're not making movies for 10-year-olds, but he loved it and immediately wanted to watch again. With "Tenet," he eventually walked away. He just couldn't follow.
A: What I find is people who just watch the movies to be entertained and have a good time, they get the movies and they understand the movies far better than people who fight the movies, who feel they’re in some kind of chess match with the movie while they’re watching it. And the reality is, the reason people get frustrated like that is because it’s not a level playing field. I’ve had 20 years to think about these ideas. So it’s not a level playing field in that sense. It’s not meant to be a chess match between filmmaker and audience. It’s entertainment. It’s a ride you go on and, if done right, there will be aspects to it that will reward a second viewing. When you’re dealing with time and when you’re dealing with these sorts of complexities, you have to be making a film that the second time you watch it would be a different film.
Q: The Tom Shone book reveals a lot about your filmmaking and your life. I imagine you resisted participating in it for years.
A: I first met Tom 20 years ago when he interviewed me for Talk magazine. But over the years he floated this idea to me. And what I actually felt was I hadn’t done enough films, and it wasn’t sort of false modesty or anything like that. . . . I finally had to concede to Tom after “Dunkirk,” I had a body of work. And his pitch to me sort of spoke to me. It was along the lines of: where I work and how my work comes across is something that critics and writers don’t always quite know what to do with. They don’t always quite know how to analyze or speak to commercial success. My films have been successful. So, you know, I’m sort of making these big movies he sees a lot of personal expression in, and I thought that was an interesting area to go into. But I didn’t want to do a conversation about “Inception” or explain whether the spinning top falls over at the end or not — that kind of thing.
Q: In the book, Shone comes up with these excellent little challenges to test out some of the scientific ideas you're exploring.
A: I maintain that the mechanism of time in films is more complicated in what you call a conventional film than in one of my films, where I’m drawing attention to the very sophisticated mechanism of film narrative and its relationship to time and how it handles time. And I gave Tom this whole spiel one day, and then the next time I saw him, he had conducted this experiment where he had taken a romantic comedy, he had taken Sydney Pollack’s “Tootsie,” and he had gathered a focus group and he showed them the film and then asked them to independently write down . . . what’s the time scale of the film you just saw, did it take place over three weeks, a year or two years? I was very pleased to completely back up what I was saying, because it was a wide, very varied set of assessments. And then the discussion that they all had afterward is this incredibly precise and sort of sophisticated discussion about how time works in conventional movies, in movies where we don’t think about time, but how it makes us feel about time. And it’s a great piece of work.
Q: What also got me from that discussion is your referencing of Frank Drebin and "The Naked Gun" and the way it plays with time, which is not a film I thought you'd have at the ready.
A: Well, I mean, yes, people are always surprised when I reference comedy. I guess that speaks to people’s image of who I am or how serious I am or whatever. But it’s interesting, because I read somewhere, not to compare myself to Stanley Kubrick, but “Stripes” was one of his favorite comedies. And the crazy thing is if you watch “Full Metal Jacket” having watched “Stripes” recently . . . the connections and similarities are actually mind-blowing.
Q: To go back to the business side of things, you've been very outspoken about the way this HBO Max decision went down.
A: The studio needed to collaborate with the filmmakers on what was going to happen. They didn’t speak to the filmmakers, they didn’t speak to the theater chains. They didn’t speak to the production partners on the films. That was the reason I was speaking up. As far as the specific strategy of what you would be doing over the entirety of next year, I don’t know why anyone would be making predictions through to December of 2021 on what they should or shouldn’t be doing with the business. That seems a long way out in a fast-changing, dynamic situation.
Q: When "Tenet" was originally released, you got some criticism for the decision to do at least a partial opening in theaters. Looking back, do you wish that could have gone differently?
A: The studio made the decision to release the film in the summer in parts of the world where it was safe to open the film because of the response to the pandemic in those individual countries. And I think they made a good decision. . . . A lot of people got to see the film. A lot of people went back to work and all the rest and were able to safely do that. This country is a different story. But Hollywood filmmaking is a global business. It’s not an American-only business. And I think it’s very important for people to look beyond where they are sitting in the world and look at what’s going on in the rest of the world as well, and be mindful of that.
Q: There were people who seemed to think you could have stopped the studio from the theatrical release at that moment.
A: Of course not. Look at what’s just happened. They’ve just unilaterally shifted their entire distribution pattern on their slate without talking to even the financing partners.
Q: It's probably frustrating. The first time around, you got sucked into this whole idea of "Tenet" being some kind of test case for the covid-era in cinema. Now this HBO Max deal arrives as you head out to promote the DVD.
A: Yes, it certainly would be nice to get back to being able to just put a film out there and promote the film in a more simple way, but the world’s been very complicated for 2020, and there are people dealing with the most appalling circumstances. I honestly just feel very, very lucky to have been working to get to a point where we can now have people in Los Angeles, New York, other places in North America see the film.