Christopher Nolan appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Wednesday, where he gave a multi-part interview delving into his latest Oscar-nominated film Oppenheimer, as well as some of his most renowned work. During his chat with Colbert, he shared some rare comments about his filmmaking process and personal life.
Colbert made sure to have fun with the director in the cold open, referencing Nolan’s cryptic filmmaking style. “This is going to be straightforward talking. It’s not going to be some sort of existential crisis pondering the nature of the universe or the fate of man,” said the host. “Absolutely,” responded Nolan. “Good, because I was afraid you were going to try one of your, like, multiple-timeline and flash-forward endings and if you did that, I swear—,” joked Colbert, interrupted by an Oppenheimer spoof, featuring him as the film’s titular character. But Nolan cut Colbert’s dramatic moment short by spraying him with a hose. Colbert then chased him down in what turned into a slapstick comedy.
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Speaking about Oppenheimer, Nolan noted that while he’s worked with Cillian Murphy on various films, including Inception and the Batman trilogy, he did not specifically write the biopic with the actor in mind. But once the script was finished and he saw a photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he realized Murphy was the perfect pick.
“I try not to think of actors when I’m writing because I don’t want to limit what the character could be and if you’re thinking of an actor, you’re thinking of something they’ve already done. So trying to deal with real characters—particularly real people, I try to just be pure to that,” Nolan explained. “Then when we are finished, American Prometheus is sitting on my desk and there’s this picture of Oppenheimer with his incredible eyes and that incredible stare. I just was like, ‘Yeah, I know who can do that.'”
Like any Nolan fan, Colbert was also curious about whether the director understood his own movies. “Some people say they don’t understand Tenet. Some people say they don’t understand everything in Tenet, some of it. Do you understand everything in Tenet?,” asked the host. Nolan responded, “You’re not meant to understand everything in Tenet. It’s not all comprehensible. It’s a bit like asking if I know what happens to the spinning top at the end of Inception.” Colbert took this as his chance to ask for clarity on the 2010 film: “Do you know what happens to the spinning top in Inception?” Instead of directly answering Colbert’s question, Nolan gave insight into the intent behind not giving the viewer a straightforward narrative, noting, “I have to have my idea of it for it to be a valid, productive ambiguity, but the point is it’s an ambiguity.”
This didn’t stop Colbert from trying to get answers on his various Tenet theories. This led to Nolan sharing an anecdote on why he doesn’t comment on fan theories anymore.
“I made the mistake years ago and luckily it was before the prevalence of social media. I went to the Venice Film Festival and showed Memento to the first-ever audience who saw it. In the press conference afterwards, they asked me about my interpretation of the ending and I said, ‘Well, the important thing is it’s ambiguous, it’s unknowable, but yeah, what I think is blah, blah, blah,'” recalled Nolan. “My brother Jonathan took me aside after that and said, ‘You can never do that again.'” Jonathan pointed out that viewers want an answer, so if Nolan was looking for the film to be interpreted as ambiguous, he needed to “keep [his] mouth shut.”
One of the most surprising comments Nolan made about his films, however, was the source for his use of the Shephard tone, a sound that creates the illusion of ascending or descending in pitch through the superposition of sine waves, which are separated by octaves. It’s present throughout Nolan’s films, from the Bat Pod’s engine revving in The Dark Knight to the score of The Prestige.
“The first time I encountered [the Shephard tone] was actually in a Beck song [“Lonesome Tears”]. I called my composer David Julyan in on The Prestige [while] I was trying to figure out the sound of anticipation, the sound of magic, because that’s a film about two magicians and a lot of it is about anticipation,” he said. “I heard this song and it just seemed to keep going up and up. I played it for him on the phone and he said, ‘Oh, that’s the Shephard tone.'”
In another segment of the interview, Colbert had Nolan respond to various rumors about himself, including that he does not use email or have a cellphone. “I will carry a pay-as-you-go dumb phone,” Nolan revealed. When Colbert noted that Nolan has a “burner phone” and quipped, “Do you work with cartels?,” the director responded, “I was inspired by The Wire, definitely.”
Nolan also responded to Emily Blunt’s comments about him hating Uggs, which he indicated was partly true. He explained his disdain towards the warm boots, noting that they “can be distracting for the other actors. Even though we’re engaged in this absurd process where this wall is real but there’s lights and there’s a guy with a microphone or whatever, you’re asking the actor to focus in on the reality. And so, everything you can do, like wearing the correct shoes or whatever, not changing your trousers [helps on set].”
Elsewhere in the conversation, Nolan also confirmed that he’s a big fan of the Fast & Furious franchise and has “no guilt” over it. “It’s a tremendous action franchise,” he said. Colbert, who has never seen any of the movies, invited Nolan to join him for a marathon: “I was wondering if you’d want to sit down with me and watch all of them in a row. We did the timing. We’d have to start at 6 a.m. and we’ll be done by midnight.” Nolan was open to it, saying, “Absolutely, anytime,” and was incredulous that the host had never watched the franchise. He suggested that Colbert start with Tokyo Drift and “watch it as its own thing.”
It remains to be seen if Nolan will actually be up for the extensive viewing of the movies with Colbert.
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