Time for Tenet: Behind the scenes of Christopher Nolan's top-secret movie

After months of lockdown, Hollywood hopes the director's time-twisting thriller can lure audiences back to theaters.
By Clark Collis

Editors’ note: After this cover story went to press, the release date for Tenet was changed from July 17 to July 31 — and then Aug. 12 — due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which forced movie theaters to close and shifted plans for nearly every film slated to come out in recent months. The new date is reflected below. For the latest information on COVID-19, please visit coronavirus.gov.

This is a mere sliver of what the movie is going to be,” Tenet producer Emma Thomas tells EW in the sweltering California desert this past October. If this is a sliver, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest film is going to be a doozy: On an expanse of dusty, sun-blasted terrain approximately 80 miles east of Palm Springs, an abandoned city of destroyed buildings and rubble has been constructed from scratch, a vast set populated by hundreds of extras in military camouflage uniforms. As the day progresses, and the temperature climbs, two of the film’s stars, John David Washington and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, repeatedly sprint down the road bifurcating the cityscape. Robert Pattinson, driving an armored military vehicle, is in hot pursuit; he’s followed by another truck holding both an IMAX camera and Nolan. The whole shebang is pretty much the most impressive Hollywood-financed flex you could hope to see. Even Nolan, 49, who has plenty of experience directing outsize movies — Interstellar, Inception, and the Christian Bale-starring Dark Knight trilogy — seems impressed. “The set would certainly rank as one of the largest-scale outdoor builds of all time,” he says. “It’s colossal.”

It is something of a surprise that EW has been invited to witness the proceedings today, given the secrecy surrounding the Warner Bros. film. When the news of Nolan’s new project starring Washington, Pattinson, and Taylor-Johnson broke in May 2019, the studio described the movie, with deliberate vagueness, as “an action epic evolving from the world of international espionage.” Today, Thomas remains extremely tight-lipped about the project, whose cast also includes Elizabeth Debicki, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel, Nolan regular Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh, who appeared in the director’s previous film Dunkirk. The producer politely declines to answer even the most basic of questions, such as what country are we supposed to be in now? “I know people think we’re secretive, and we’re generally not,” says Thomas, who is married to Nolan and has produced all his movies. “On this one there’s a little bit more…” Thomas pauses, then changes tack. “All will become clear!”

This air of mystery, combined with Nolan’s reputation as a creator of original blockbusters admired by audiences and critics alike, made Tenet one of 2020’s must-see releases the second it was announced. But in the months since EW’s set visit, the film has come to represent much more, as the coronavirus pandemic forced cinemas to close and almost every film scheduled for release prior to Tenet’s initial July 17 arrival to be postponed. While other summer movies were eventually pushed back or dispatched to streaming services, Tenet held firm. Warner Bros. and Nolan did eventually delay the film's release, but only by two weeks, announcing on June 12 that the film will now come out July 31, a week after Mulan. Should those two movies prove successful, it will trigger the resumption of a normal — or normal-ish — summer movie season. “[Tenet is] kind of a unicorn of a movie anyway, because it’s not based on an IP thing,” says Pattinson. “But after all this — hopefully it will be a ridiculously overwhelming experience.” [Editors' note: Tenet's release date has since moved to Aug. 12, and Mulan was postponed to Aug. 21.]

But if audiences stay home out of fear then Hollywood may have to forget about summer altogether (and start seriously worrying about the fall). As a result, Tenet’s release is both a symbol of the big-screen experience and a practical indicator of when people will actually return to cinemas. (No pressure, Chris.) Nolan’s films have frequently dealt with the concept of time, and Tenet is no exception, but the ticking clock that marks the approach of the release date is a temporal force over which the director has zero control. In short, the big question surrounding Tenet is no longer “What is it about?” but “Will people return to cinemas to see it?” 

Marc Hom for EW

It says a lot about the level of secrecy surrounding Tenet that, when Pattinson met with Nolan in Los Angeles in early 2019, he didn’t even know what the meeting was for. “We talked for three hours about nothing, really,” says the actor, 34. “Then, he finally said in the last two minutes, ‘So, I’ve been writing this thing...’” Debicki recalls having to read Nolan’s screenplay at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. “I went into a small room and read the script by myself,” says the Australian actress, 29, best known for playing Jordan Baker in 2013’s The Great Gatsby. “That’s quite unusual. It does feel like a kind of club and somehow I got the magical password and I got to suddenly experience the machinations of Chris Nolan's mind, which was fascinating."

Washington’s first encounter with Nolan was similar to Pattinson’s: “We talked about everything except the project,” says the actor, 35. “We talked about our love for movies, family, my childhood. It was really a nice meeting, and when I found out I got the part, then I read the script.” Nolan says he first noticed Washington while watching him play NFL player Ricky Jerret on Ballers (yes, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the director is an unlikely fan of the HBO sports comedy) and then began to consider casting him after Spike Lee invited the director to the BlacKkKlansman premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. “John David was the very charismatic lead in that great movie,” says Nolan. “That felt like destiny at that point.” It’s clear Nolan believes the actor has the big-screen presence to follow in the footsteps of his father, Denzel Washington: “He’s a true star,” says the director. 

Nolan’s ability to keep a lid on the project is doubly remarkable given how long he’s been thinking about it. “I’ve been working on this iteration of the script for about six or seven years,” says the director, calling in May from his house in L.A., where he is overseeing Tenet’s postproduction. Branagh says Nolan did not mention the project to him when they were shooting Dunkirk, which is probably just as well given the actor can’t help but enthuse about the film, letting slip something close to a synopsis along the way. “It’s an espionage piece that’s dealing with a global threat to the world,” says Branagh, 59. “A nuclear holocaust is not the greatest disaster that could befall the human race. Tenet discusses an even worse possibility, and it is wrapped up in this mind-boggling treatment of time that continues Chris Nolan’s preoccupations in films way back to Memento, through Interstellar and Inception.”

In Tenet, that preoccupation bloomed into what characters in the film refer to as “inversion,” a way of manipulating time so that characters can, for example, “shoot” bullets back into a gun. (The latter ability is much more useful than you might think, according to the movie’s prologue, which played before select IMAX screenings of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker this past December.) Inversion is inspired by real-life physics and entropy, a measure of disorder and randomness in thermodynamic systems. “This film is not a time-travel film,” says Nolan. “It deals with time and the different ways in which time can function. Not to get into a physics lesson, but inversion is this idea of material that has had its entropy inverted, so it’s running backwards through time, relative to us.” 

Hey, we thought you said this wasn’t going to be a physics lesson! It’s less complicated when Nolan describes his principal characters, including Washington’s. “We’re dealing in a world of espionage, we’re dealing in a world of hidden identities,” the director says. “[John David] is playing an operative who is known by the term ‘Protagonist.’ Tenet is the name of the organization into which the Protagonist gets inducted.” Given Nolan’s love for the 007 films, it sounds like Washington’s character may be the closest yet to a black Bond, although the director is quick to point out that the Protagonist is no clone of Ian Fleming’s creation. “He is very much a presence at the heart of the film, but, unlike a Bond, he has a very warm emotional accessibility.” Pattinson, meanwhile, plays someone named Neil — possibly. “We think he may be called Neil,” says Nolan with a laugh. “You never really quite know what’s going on with these identities.” Nolan describes Neil — or whatever he is called — as a “slightly rascally character who operates within what they refer to as this twilight world of operatives in different secret services.”

As for Branagh’s villainous Russian oligarch, “He’s a baddie, there’s no question about that,” says the Murder on the Orient director-star. “When Chris cast me in the picture, he was at great pains to make sure that I understood that this character was unremittingly dark and that he was a pitiless, avaricious, mean, desperate, terrifyingly dangerous individual.” Debicki portrays his estranged wife, “who’s got herself into a very tricky situation with her husband,” says Nolan. “Her relationship with John David is ambiguous and complicated.” 

Elizabeth Debicki
Marc Hom for EW

Washington, Pattinson, Debicki, and Branagh were all in the film’s first trailer and in a second promo clip released in May. But Taylor-Johnson is seemingly absent from them and does not appear in any of the movie’s stills so far. “Aaron Taylor-Johnson is indeed in the film,” says Nolan. “He’s an important part of the film. Yes, there are no photographs of him, this is true. He is briefly glimpsed in the [second] trailer. He’s also completely unrecognizable. There are all kinds of things that happen in terms of where the story goes as the film develops and where it winds up in the later stages that we don’t want to spoil for people.”

Nolan shot Tenet in seven different countries, something that now seems close to science fiction in this period of lockdowns and quarantines. By the time of EW’s set visit, the Tenet production had filmed in India, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, and the United Kingdom. “I think if you’re working on a film where you come in on Tuesday and there’s a bluescreen and then you change it on Wednesday to a greenscreen, no one’s really going to care,” says Nolan. “But if [you are in] Tallinn in Estonia and then you get on a plane and you’re in Amalfi in Italy, it’s an incredible change of scene and brings with it a feeling that seeps into the movie.” 

The cast and crew spent seven weeks shooting material in Estonia — longer than many films’ entire shooting schedule — including an elaborate car-chase sequence. “It’s funny, I did one day’s training for the stunt driving,” says Pattinson. “I thought that I wasn’t going to be doing any stunt driving in it, but then I ended up doing tons and tons. I remember doing one sequence where me and John David are in a BMW with an IMAX camera rigged on the hood, which means you can’t see anything through the windscreen, basically. And also, if you turn even slightly too much to the left or right, the rig hits the road, which is kind of terrifying. John David’s turning to me and saying, ‘Are you, like, a stunt driver or something? Have you rehearsed this?’ Under normal circumstances you wouldn’t really be allowed to do this. But Chris has so much control over the set, you get to do the actual fun stuff, which normally would be reserved for experts and not people who can’t even parallel park.” (Lest anyone have any concerns about the safety on-set, “Rob is being typically cheeky and self-deprecating,” says Nolan. “His day of 'stunt training' was actually a day of ability assessment by our stunt team who found him to be an excellent driver more than capable of safely performing the required shots, none of which, for the record were as difficult as parallel parking.”)

Pattinson’s glee at being allowed to do “the fun stuff” was a by-product of Nolan’s desire to film as much as possible practically, without resorting to CG or other effects; when he needed to destroy a plane, he didn’t use miniatures — he bought an old Boeing 747 and blew it up. “We ended up with a tiny number of visual-effects shots,” says Thomas. “We were originally thinking that we might have to be up in the 700-to-a-thousand shot-count range, but ended up way south of that because we managed to do so much of it practically.”

John David Washington, left, and Robert Pattinson
Marc Hom for EW

In early March, four months after EW’s set visit in the California desert, Pattinson, Washington, and Debicki met up in the rather less dusty environs of a photo studio in London — where Pattinson was shooting The Batman — for the EW Tenet cover shoot. When I thanked Pattinson for showing up despite growing concerns about COVID-19, he made it clear it was no big deal. At the time, if you were in the U.K. or the U.S., coronavirus wasn’t a big deal. Just five days before the shoot, British prime minister Boris Johnson proudly boasted how he had been shaking hands with hospital patients suffering from coronavirus. The situation rapidly worsened, of course. By early April, a COVID-19-stricken Johnson was fighting for his life in a London hospital and most of America, including its film industry, was self-isolating.

Composer Ludwig Göransson was about to start the orchestral sessions for the soundtrack when the country shut down. “We’ve been recording the musicians in their houses individually and then my engineer’s putting it together,” says Göransson, whose credits include Black Panther and The Mandalorian. “You don’t get the traditional orchestra sound, but the sound that we do get is actually very fitting for the score.” Nolan claims that the pandemic has not really been a problem at all in terms of finishing the film. “Well, fortunately for us, our creative process for many years now has been fairly adaptable to the current conditions,” he says. “I’ve always liked to do the visual effects with Double Negative in London, so since Batman Begins, we’ve been doing that down the line remotely. We’ve been able to adapt our process without creative compromise, and we feel very fortunate in that regard.”

While all was well with the film, the theaters where Nolan hoped to screen Tenet went dark. An ardent advocate for the big-screen experience, Nolan is one of the few directors who still shoots on film rather than digitally. On March 20, The Washington Post published an impassioned op-ed he wrote, asking the government to provide aid to theater employees and studios to strategically combine with the theatrical exhibition community in the wake of the pandemic. “When this crisis passes,” the director wrote, “the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever.”

Will Tenet be the film to fulfill that need post-lockdown? Time — that mostly irreversible force — will tell. Nolan himself is cagey about discussing the weight of expectation that has been placed on the film as the movie that could usher audiences back. “I can really only take responsibility for finishing the film and trying to make an entertainment that’s worth going back to the movies for,” he says. “That’s the kind of film we’ve always tried to make, and Tenet is no exception.” 

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