A Scientist in Hollywood

By Kip Thorne

The Science of Interstellar book cover
Photo: W. W. Norton & Co.

Kip Thorne

[Excerpts from Kip Thorne’s book The Science of Interstellar, published by WW Norton (2014) to accompany Christopher Nolan’s movie Interstellar.]

I never imagined myself helping create a movie. I never coveted a presence in Hollywood, beyond a vicarious one, through [my good friend and Hollywood producer Lynda Obst’s] adventures. But working with Lynda appealed to me, and her ideas involved wormholes, an astrophysics concept I had pioneered. So she easily lured me into brainstorming with her.

During the next four months [from October 2005], over a few dinners and emails and phone calls, we formulated a rough vision for the film. It included wormholes, black holes, and gravitational waves, a universe with five dimensions, and human encounters with higher-dimensional creatures.

But most important to me was our vision for a blockbuster movie grounded from the outset in real science. Science at and just beyond the frontiers of human knowledge. A film in which the director, screenwriters, and producers respect the science, take inspiration from it, and weave it into the movie’s fabric, thoroughly and compellingly. A film that gives the audience a taste of the wondrous things that the laws of physics can and might create in our universe, and the great things humans can achieve by mastering the physical laws. A film that inspires many in the audience to go learn about the science, and perhaps even pursue careers in science.

Nine years later, Interstellar is achieving all we envisioned. But the path from there to here has been a bit like the “Perils of Pauline,” with many a spot where our dream could have collapsed. We acquired and then lost the legendary director Steven Spielberg. We acquired a superb young screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan, and then lost him twice, at crucial stages, for many months each. The movie sat in limbo, directorless, for two and a half years. Then, wondrously, it was resurrected and transformed in the hands of [Christopher] Nolan, the greatest director of his young generation. …

Steven Spielberg, the Initial Director
… At our meeting, I suggested to Steven and Lynda two guidelines for the science of Interstellar:
  1. Nothing in the film will violate firmly established laws of physics, or our firmly established knowledge of the universe.
  2. Speculations (often wild) about ill-understood physical laws and the universe will spring from real science, from ideas that at least some “respectable” scientists regard as possible.

Steven seemed to buy in, and then accepted Lynda’s proposal to convene a group of scientists to brainstorm with us, an Interstellar Science Workshop.

The workshop was on June 2, 2006 at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in a conference room down the hall from my office.

It was an eight-hour, free-wheeling, intoxicating discussion among fourteen scientists (astrobiologists, planetary scientists, theoretical physicists, cosmologists, psychologists, and a space-policy expert) plus Lynda, Steven, and Steven’s father Arnold, and me. We emerged, exhausted but exhilarated, with a plethora of new ideas and objections to our old ideas. Stimuli for Lynda and me, as we revised and expanded our treatment [our description of the movie’s venue, characters and story].

It took us six months due to our other commitments, but by January 2007 our treatment had grown to thirty-seven pages, plus sixteen pages about the science of Interstellar.

Jonathan Nolan, the Screenwriter
In parallel, Lynda and Steven were interviewing potential screenwriters. It was a long process that ultimately converged on Jonathan Nolan, a thirty-one-year-old who had co-authored (with his brother Christopher) just two screenplays, The Prestige and The Dark Knight, both big hits.

Jonathan, or Jonah as his friends call him, had little knowledge of science, but he was brilliant and curious and eager to learn. He spent many months devouring books about all the science relevant to Interstellar and asking probing questions. And he brought to our film big new ideas that Steven, Lynda, and I embraced. ….

By November 2007, Jonah, Lynda, Steven, and I had agreed on the structure for a radically revised story based on Lynda’s and my original treatment, Jonah’s big ideas, and the many other ideas that arose from our discussions — and Jonah was deep into writing. Then, on November 5, 2007, the Writers Guild of America called a strike. Jonah was forbidden to continue writing, and disappeared.

I panicked. Will all our hard work, all our dreams, be for naught? I asked Lynda. She counseled patience, but was clearly very upset. She vividly tells the story of the strike in scene 6 of her book Sleepless in Hollywood. The scene is titled “The Catastrophe.”

The strike lasted three months. On February 12, 2007 when it ended, Jonah returned to writing and to intense discussions with Lynda and me. Over the next sixteen months, he produced a long, detailed outline for the screenplay, and then three successive drafts of the screenplay itself. ...

Then on June 9, 2008 with Jonah deep into draft 4, I got an email from Lynda: “We have a Steven deal problem. I’m into it.” But it was not soluble. Spielberg and Paramount could not reach an agreement for the next phase of Interstellar, and Lynda couldn’t broker a solution. Suddenly we had no director.

Interstellar was going to be very expensive, Steven and Lynda had independently told me. There were very few directors with whom Paramount would entrust a movie of this magnitude. I envisioned Interstellar in limbo, dying a slow death. I was devastated. So was Lynda, at first. But she is a superb problem solver. ...

Christopher Nolan, the Director and Screenwriter
... Only thirteen days after Lynda’s we-have-a-Steven-deal-problem e-mail, I opened my e-mail queue to find a euphoric follow-on message: “Great talk with Emma Thomas ...” Emma is Christopher Nolan’s wife/producer and collaborator on all his movies. She and Christopher were interested. Lynda was tremulous with excitement. Jonah called and told her, “This is the best possible outcome.” But the deal, for many reasons, would not be finalized for two and a half years, though we were fairly certain Christopher and Emma were committed. …
[In December 2012 Christopher Nolan signed on to rewrite the screenplay and direct the movie, and he met with Thorne a few weeks later.]

As we talked, it became clear that Chris knew a remarkable amount of relevant science and had deep intuition about it. His intuition was occasionally off the mark, but usually right on. And he was tremendously curious. Our conversations often diverged from Interstellar to some irrelevant science issue that fascinated him.

In that first meeting, I laid on Chris my proposed science guidelines: Nothing will violate firmly established laws of physics; speculations will all spring from science. He seemed positively inclined, but told me that if I didn’t like what he did with the science, I didn’t have to defend him in public. That shook me up a bit. But with the movie now in postproduction, I’m impressed how well he followed those guidelines, while making sure they didn’t get in the way of making a great movie.

Chris’s ideas occasionally seemed to violate my guidelines but, amazingly, I almost always found a way to make them work, scientifically. Only once did I fail miserably. In response, after several discussions over a two-week period, Chris backed off and took that bit of the film in another direction.

So in the end I have no qualms about defending what Chris did with the science. On the contrary, I’m enthusiastic! He turned into reality Lynda’s and my dream of a blockbuster movie with foundations of real science, and with real science woven throughout its fabric.

In the hands of Jonah and Chris, Interstellar’s story changed enormously. It resembles Lynda’s and my treatment only in broadest brushstrokes. It is so much better! And as for the science ideas: They are not all mine by any means. Chris brought remarkable science ideas of his own to the film, ideas that my physicist colleagues will assume were mine, ideas that I said to myself, when I saw them, “Why didn’t I think of that?” And remarkable ideas arose from my discussions with Chris, with Jonah, and with Lynda.

Paul Franklin, Oliver James, Eugénie von Tunzelmann: The Visual-Effects Team
One day in mid-May 2013 Chris phoned me. He wanted to send a guy named Paul Franklin [Interstellar’s visual effects supervisor] over to my home to discuss the computer graphics for Interstellar. Paul came the next day, and we spent a delightful two hours brainstorming in my home office. He was modest in demeanor, by contrast with Chris’s forcefulness. He was brilliant. He showed a deep knowledge of the relevant science, despite having majored in the arts in college. …

In a video conference a few weeks later, Paul introduced me to the London-based leaders of his Interstellar visual-effects team. Most relevant to me were Oliver James, the chief scientist who would write computer code underlying the visual effects; and Eugénie von Tunzelmann, who led the artistic team that would take Oliver’s computer code and add extensive artistic twists to produce compelling images for the movie.

Oliver and Eugénie were the first people with physics training that I had met on Interstellar. Oliver has a degree in optics and atomic physics, and knows the technical details of Einstein’s special relativity. Eugénie is an engineer, trained at Oxford, with a focus on data engineering and computer science. They speak my language.

You cannot imagine how ecstatic I was when Oliver sent me his initial film clips. For the first time ever — and before any other scientist — I saw in ultrahigh definition what a fast-spinning black hole looks like. What it does, visually, to its environment.

Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain
On July 18, [2013] two weeks before filming was to begin, I received an email from Matthew McConaughey, who plays Cooper: “per Interstellar,” he wrote, “I’d like to ask you some questions and ... If you are around L.A. area, in person is preferable. Lemme know please, thanks, in process, mcConaughey.” …

… It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable conversations I’ve had in a long time! We wandered from the laws of physics, especially quantum physics, to religion and mysticism, to the science of Interstellar, to our families and especially our children, to our philosophies of life, to how we each get inspirations, how our minds work, how we make discoveries. I left, two hours later, in a state of euphoria.

The next email, a few weeks later, was from Anne Hathaway, who plays Amelia Brand. “Hi Kip! I hope this e-mail finds you well. ... Emma Thomas passed along your email in case I had any questions. Well, the subject matter is pretty dense so I have a few! ... Would we be able to chat? Thank you very much, Annie.”

We talked by phone, as our schedules couldn’t be meshed for an in-person meeting. She described herself as a bit of a physics geek, and said that her character, Brand, is expected to know the physics cold — and then she launched into a series of surprisingly technical physics questions: What is the relationship of time to gravity? Why do we think there might be higher dimensions? What is the current status of research on quantum gravity? Are there any experimental tests of quantum gravity? ... Only at the end did she let us wander off subject, to music, in fact. She played trumpet in high school; I played sax and clarinet. …

On another occasion, I wrote dozens of equations and diagrams on Professor Brand’s blackboards, and watched as Chris filmed in the Professor’s office with Michael Caine as the Professor and Jessica Chastain as Murph. I was astonished by the warm and friendly deference that Caine and Chastain showed me. Despite having no role in the filming, I was notorious as Interstellar’s real scientist, the guy who inspired everyone’s best effort to get the science right for this blockbuster movie. ...

Now comes the final phase of Lynda’s and my Interstellar dream. The phase where you, the audience, have become curious about Interstellar’s science and seek explanations for bizarre things you saw in the movie.

The answers are here. That’s why I wrote this book. Enjoy!

Kip Thorne received his B.S. degree from Caltech in 1962 and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1965. Thorne’s research has focused on Einstein’s general theory of relativity and on astrophysics, with emphasis on relativistic stars, black holes, and especially gravitational waves. He was a cofounder of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) Project, with which he is still associated.  His current writing focus is a textbook on classical physics coauthored with Roger Blandford; he was science consultant and executive producer of Interstellar.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

March 2015 (Volume 24, Number 3)

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APS Names its First Chief Executive Officer
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Smartphones in the Classroom Help Students See Inside the Black Box
APS Fellow Alan Alda Brings Science to Life
Balancing Freedom of Information and Academic Freedom
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