What’s Bigger than an Event Film? “Tenet” might just Be

September 3, 2020

Christopher Nolan movies are always events. 

Larger-than-life, action-packed, ideas-driven and (mostly) original, they're created to be big screen spectacles that awe mass audiences and drive hefty returns. For Nolan to say that his latest, " Tenet," a palindromic global spy thriller starring John David Washington, is his most ambitious is no small thing. Add the fact that it's the first major Hollywood film in the COVID-era to open in U.S. cinemas in almost six months and you can understand why even "event film" feels too small for "Tenet."

In the best of times releasing a film is exciting and tense. But now? 

"This is a very heightened experience for all of us," Nolan said.

It is a film that has been brewing in Nolan's mind, in some ways, for decades. It started with an image of a bullet being sucked back into the gun. He toyed with the symbolic concept in "Memento," but always wanted to make it more concrete. Over the next 20 years, Nolan and his producer and wife Emma Thomas would see their films amass nearly $4.8 billion at the box office. And with each new one, they challenged themselves to go further.

With a starry ensemble including Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh and, naturally, Michael Caine, "Tenet" takes audiences to Tallinn, Estonia, Italy's Amalfi Coast, England, Oslo, Denmark, Mumbai and Southern California's Mojave Desert as Washington's character, The Protagonist, tries to save the world. Seven international locations is a massive undertaking for any film, but in each one there was a big action set piece to accomplish. 

"I think back to where we were even 10 years ago and one or two of the set pieces in 'Tenet' could have probably been the climax of one of those earlier movies," Thomas laughed. 

To give a sense of its scale, consider the 747 jumbo jet crash sequence. Everyone assumed at the beginning that the grandiose concept would be accomplished with computer graphics and miniatures.

"But as we looked into it, the team became convinced that the most efficient way to do it, even from a financial point of view, the sensible way to do it was to buy a 747 and crash it," Nolan said. "It sounds bizarre to say sensible, but it actually wound up getting us what we wanted on screen at a reasonable cost." 

There is very little CG in the film at all, which Nolan is particularly proud of. His cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema would often hoist the massive IMAX camera on his shoulder and shoot the actors and stunt performers, including Washington and Pattinson bungee-jumping up the side of a building in Mumbai. 

Part of the reason Nolan can push the action is that he relies on teams he's used before. For the water sequences, Nolan called on a marine unit he used in "Dunkirk." For the car chases, he brought back the man who flipped the Joker truck in "The Dark Knight."

"You want to feel a little overwhelmed," Nolan said. "And you want a team around you who can pull off what you're asking."

Thomas also noted that Nolan pushes the narrative more than he has before. "Tenet" challenges audiences to think about concepts like inversion and entropy. He said it does for the spy genre what "Inception" did for the heist genre. 

If that's a little heady to process, it's OK. One of his characters advises The Protagonist not to try to understand it, but to feel it. It's what Nolan recommends too. 

"The film is intended as an entertainment. It's a thrill ride, first and foremost," Nolan said. "You really want them to just sit back, enjoy the ride. It's a spy story. It's a familiar genre. So there are plenty of ways in for the audience to just have a great time at the movies. If there's stuff beyond that that people want to kind of puzzle, whether that resonates or, you know, lingers on in the mind once you've seen the film, hopefully that's a bonus." 

Thomas is still discovering new nuances even after seeing it, "more times than I choose to count." While editing and finishing the film, they watched it from beginning to end every Friday to check that any changes made worked. 

"The more you come to understand the way things are working in the film, the more you see," she said. 

The only way to do so for the foreseeable future is on the big screen. And after months of uncertainty, "Tenet" is actually opening in theaters. Warner Bros. started its roll out internationally to promising returns this weekend and in limited screenings in the U.S., where theaters are open, before rolling out wider Thursday. 

Washington said submitting again to the big screen was a "great escape."

"You do forget about everything for those two and a half hours," Washington said. "You forget about what's happening."

Nolan is "very pleased" with Warner Bros.' innovative release plan that is allowing for a slow, patient and safe roll out. He also said it's "completely understandable and completely fine" if some audiences aren't yet ready to rush back to the theater. The $200 million picture will likely be playing for a long time as the entertainment industry finds its footing again.

Not only does the slow roll out remind him of seeing movies as a kid, when he could see "Star Wars" in Ohio at his grandmother's in the summer, and then again when it opened in England at Christmastime, but it also might be more gratifying than headlines about record opening weekends.

"From an emotional point of view, it's become tougher and tougher for filmmakers who spent years and years working on something and, even in success, it's done in the culture within three weeks," he said. "I think in some ways for the people who've made the film, it might actually feel more complete when all is said and done."


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