Interstellar: Kip Thorne and Jonathan Nolan Talk Science Behind the Movie

Jonah Nolan and Kip Thorne relaunch Interstellar at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We were there...

Interstellar (2014)

The long drive through the hills around Pasadena, California to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory ends at a security gate and a guard who waves you through to an unassuming parking lot surrounded by the beautiful, leafy campus of the California Institute of Technology. Walk a short distance to the main visitor center, however, and your mind is blown immediately: as soon as you enter the main meeting room, the first thing you see is a full-sized model of Voyager 1, the unmanned spacecraft launched nearly four decades ago that is currently making its way out of the solar system and into the vast void beyond.

For a nerd and a sci-fi buff (Voyager also figured, you may recall, in the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), the sight of Voyager is surreal and a little dizzying — not the least because this room and the one next to it also contains recreations of ships from across NASA’s entire history of unmanned space exploration, from Galileo to the Mars rover Curiosity to Dawn, the craft investigating the dwarf planet Ceres. It’s a perfect setting, in other words, for an event promoting the arrival on Blu-ray and DVD of Interstellar, filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s science fiction behemoth that dazzled audiences when it came out last November.

Interstellar is about a last-ditch mission (led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway) to travel through a mysterious wormhole that has materialized near Saturn and find an Earth-like planet in another galaxy, where humankind can escape a catastrophic environmental blight that will soon render our home world uninhabitable. Quantum physics, massive black holes, distant planets and structures that exist outside time and space are all part of the complex story (which was scripted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) which, in typical Nolan fashion, is built on a foundation of real science provided by famed astrophysicist (and executive producer) Kip Thorne.

Thorne is featured heavily on the Blu-ray bonus features, which include a 50-minute documentary on the science of the film as its centerpiece. The McConaughey-narrated doc touches on the concepts behind the film’s plot, the visualization of concepts such as wormholes and supermassive black holes, and the broader questions of what we must do to survive as a species and whether it will be possible for humankind to voyage to different worlds and perhaps even through time. The other major bonus feature is a two-hour-plus documentary on the making of the film itself, broken up into 14 segments that cover everything from the story’s genesis to the special effects to the production design to the thematic spine of the film.

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At JPL, meanwhile, Kip Thorne, along with Jonathan (Jonah) Nolan, is on hand to discuss Interstellar with selected journalists as well as participate in a Q&A session hosted by noted Caltech physicist Sean Carroll. But before we get to that, JPL researchers take us on a tour that first stops at a lab where we watch scientists working on constructing a new braking/delivery system to make sure that spacecraft like Curiosity land safely on planetary surfaces. It’s oddly thrilling to see the crew working on real, full-sized machines that will one day launch into space.

Then we head to the main control room, bathed in blue glowing lights and dominated by video screens showing information being received in real time from the many spacecraft we currently have exploring various parts of the solar system and beyond. Yes, we are still receiving data from both Voyager missions as they break the thin membrane of our solar system and enter the space between the stars. It’s truly awe-inspiring (at least if you’re a space geek) to see the telemetry scrolling across the video screens and realizing it’s coming from vehicles that are exploring other worlds or leaving our little corner of the galactic neighborhood behind.

The passion and enthusiasm evident from the employees here is infectious, and one can’t help but marvel at how far we’ve actually gotten — and how much farther we have to go. But the thirst for exploration and the inevitable fact that we have to eventually get off Earth if we want to survive is a tremendous part of what drives the narrative of Interstellar and is very much part of the fabric of the ongoing research going on here at JPL.

When I finally sit down with Jonathan Nolan and Kip Thorne, I ask them what it’s like to come to JPL – for Thorne, who has worked here, and for Nolan, who probably read about the place as a kid. “I’ve been based at Caltech most of the time since 1958 and the JPL is just such a fabulous technological resource,” says Thorne. “There are fabulous things done here that provide a foundation for the science that we do. So I’m always inspired when I come up here.”

Nolan agrees, saying it’s very much like being a kid in a candy store. “Absolutely. This was the dream, when I started working on the project almost 10 years ago now. Part of my interest in it was rooted in a nostalgia for the achievements of NASA in the 1960s and ’70s, which — from the perspective of 2006 — felt firmly like they were in our rearview mirror. I’m feeling a little more optimistic about things these days, and to be back here in one of the temples of not just a moment in history but an ongoing pursuit for humanity is pretty special.”

Thorne and Nolan worked on Interstellar, together and apart, for almost a decade (it started life in 2006 as a treatment by Thorne and producer Linda Obst for Steven Spielberg to direct) and both say the experience of making the movie has changed them. “What I really learned from it is what a joy it is to collaborate with Jonah and others who are highly creative and brilliant but aren’t scientists,” says Thorne. “I’m changed in the sense that I have realized for the first time how much value you can get from a non-scientist (laugh). Brainstorming the ideas that we came up with together, and that I developed with (Jonah’s) brother, was just so exciting to me.”

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“One of the pleasures of being a screenwriter is that every job, if you’re lucky, gives you a different world to try to explore and then build,” remarks Nolan. “This one intersected with interests of my own over the years, and the opportunity to collaborate with a legend like Kip and really steep myself in the science and the ideas and really try to wrap my head around them and understand just how vast and strange and beautiful our universe is was absolutely a life-changing experience, in terms of how I view our place in history and the universe.”

Nolan, who has got his re-imagining of Westworld coming up for HBO (for whom he is also reportedly working on an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation), says he intends to apply the scientific rigor and way of thinking he learned from working with Thorne on Interstellar to all his genre-related projects, adding, “The experience of collaborating with Kip and trying to start with the known science and step from that — building a firm foundation for these things and then asking more speculative questions is an approach that I’ll take with me going forward, absolutely.”

It’s clear that Interstellar has been a very personal project for both Nolan the screenwriter and Thorne the physicist, and it’s understandable that talking about a movie that deals with humanity’s future, while sitting in a place that is dedicated to making that future possible, leads us to wonder whether the human race can take the steps forward into space that the movie so eloquently visualizes. “The first thing that needs to happen is a recommitment to the future of the human race in space,” says Thorne when asked what is needed to make the voyage of Interstellar a reality. “A recommitment to going beyond the Earth and to carrying human colonies to Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. I think it’s the commitment that’s been lacking.”

Nolan adds in an almost reverent tone, “I hope we all live to see it.” If the minds behind Interstellar and the dedicated and tireless visionaries working at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have anything to do with it, we just might.

Interstellar is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.

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For more on the science of Interstellar, go to Interstellar: Bite-Size Science

Here are video excerpts from the Q&A session featuring Kip Thorne and Jonathan Nolan, moderated by Sean Carroll, which took place at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: