'Dressed in his trademark blazer, his shirt collar skewed at the raffish angle of a schoolboy late for rugby practice, Nolan did not seem rattled. Rather, he exuded the unshakeable confidence in his own abilities that you might wish for in the pilot of a 747 you’ve just boarded – an equanimity that stands him in great stead with the studio heads he must convince to green-light his movies. “He comes in, he talks about blowing your mind,” Grey told me, “then he very calmly accomplishes it.” Anne Hathaway, who plays a NASA scientist in Interstellar, remembered struggling with an important speech about the power of love, and finding herself in “an emotionally-frayed place that was making the whole thing feel, quite frankly, a little ‘actor-y,’ quote, unquote,” she said. Nolan came up to her and suggested it would be much more effective if she spoke with “calm certainty” – “as if you were saying something you had known your entire life.”
It’s how Nolan talks about a lot of things: with the calm certainty of things he has known his entire life. Taking his seat at the front of one of the viewing suites at the photo lab, dark but for the glow of the computers manned by the digital colourists behind him, he munched on peanuts, quietly issuing comments as two sets of images were projected on the screen in front of him. On the left was the film’s IMAX 70mm print – the format it was shot in – and on the right, the digital print in which it will be screened in the majority of cinemas. The projections were flipped to appear as mirror images of one another, so any slight mismatches in luminescence could be detected and eliminated.
“As if this film weren’t trippy enough,” one of the colourists quipped.
“That's how they advertised the original 2001,” Nolan said, “The Ultimate Trip.”
The images, showing Matthew McConaughey approaching the event horizon of a black hole, are no less stunning than Kubrick’s, with something of the blurred beauty of a Gerhard Richter painting. The black hole itself was generated using calculations from theoretical physicist Kip Throne, whose work inspired the movie, and fed into software developed by Nolan’s effects team using computing power so vast – each frame of film took around 100 hours of machine time – that Thorne, watching the footage for the first time, had new insights into the way light behaves near the event horizon of a black hole, which he plans to explore in a series of papers for the Committee of Theoretical Physicists.
“Is that a flare?" Nolan asked as another sequence came up, this one showing Hathaway on an alien planet at sunset, a halo of light briefly visible at her shoulder.
“We can take that out,” offered Walter Volpatto, the digital colourist who was overseeing the work.
“It’s in-camera,” Nolan declared. “Put your can of bleach away. Can you go back to the hospital scene and do a split screen for the whole sequence. To my eyes it all looks a point brighter."
Volpatto called up the images, showing McConaughey again, this time entering a hospital room. “It’s pretty good, I think,” he said.
“That's always what we strive for in the movie business – pretty good,” Nolan said sarcastically, squinting at the two sets of images. “We lowered it [the brightness] a whole point the other day, so something is drifting. We’re repeating ourselves.”
“I put them in,” Volpatto reassured him, referring to the changes. “In my experience, a flipped screen will always reveal new differences. Your eye adjusts. You clear away the moss and then you start to see a whole new level.”
The implication seemed to be that we were caught in the visual equivalent of Zeno’s paradox: clearing away blemishes only to reveal still more, and so forever on, until such time as you made peace with imperfection. “In my experience,” Nolan replied, motioning toward the bank of computers that separated his production team from the digital colorists, “people behind this line are full of shit.”
“This is why I prefer film to digital,” Nolan said, turning to me. “It’s a physical object that you create, that you agree upon. The print that I have approved when I take it from here to New York and I put it on a different projector in New York, if it looks too blue, I know the projector has a problem with its mirror or its ball or whatever. Those kind of controls aren't really possible in the digital realm.”
“I have no reason to lie to you,” Volpatto said, sounding a little miserable.
To the untrained eye there seemed to be no difference between the two images. The atmosphere in the suite rather resembled the air of mistrust that envelops some of Nolan’s films, epistemological thrillers in which protagonists gripped by the desire, above all, to know, must negotiate mazy environments in which certainty is almost impossible. “How can you not know?” the magician played by Hugh Jackman in The Prestige demands of his rival, after a magic trick has left his wife dead. But this could be the cry of any of Nolan’s heroes – driven by an demand for absolute certainty in worlds where certainty is impossible: Guy Pearce’s amnesia victim in Memento, struggling to remember the clues that will lead him to his wife’s killer, or Leonardo Di Caprio’s dream thief in Inception, attempting to disentangle five levels of dream from reality. Nolan, too, has something of the same mixture of obsessiveness and scepticism, his handsome features always appearing slightly scrunched, as if by some internal calculus that nags at him until it is resolved.
“You know, when you left yesterday, I felt like I had maybe been a little rude to Walter,” he told me the next day. “I haven't worked with him before. He doesn't know my sense of humour yet. He was trying to please me and I was like, yeah, you're lying to me. That is my sense of humour. But I went in this morning to finish up, and he said to me, ‘Oh, I looked at the projector, and it was brighter.’ When he analysed it in terms of light output – because he is a very sharp man, Walter – it was exactly one point.”
In other words, Nolan was right.'