UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Christopher Nolan has, by any account, had a banner year with “Oppenheimer.” But “Tenet” was still on his mind.
The palindromic spy thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson was released at a tricky time during the pandemic, when many theaters were open internationally but not yet in New York and Los Angeles. And all those IMAX 70mm and 70mm film prints, which proved so immensely popular with audiences for “Oppenheimer,” were just sitting around.
“It’s a film that was designed, almost more than any I’ve made, to be enjoyed in this form,” Nolan told The Associated Press. “When I heard they were going to be making film prints on ‘Dune: Part Two,’ I jumped at that and thought what if we opened up the week before? We can dust off the projectors.”
Nolan showed one to Warner Bros. film chiefs Pam Abdy and Michael De Luca, and “they got it.”
Beginning Feb. 23, “Tenet” will be back in theaters, in Nolan’s favorite format, at locations like AMC Lincoln Square, in New York, and Universal CityWalk and the TCL Chinese in the Los Angeles area, as well as venues in London, Melbourne and Nashville, Tennessee, and Tempe, Arizona.
Longtime friends, Nolan and Denis Villeneuve spoke to the AP last week, outside of a sold out showing of the re-release, about “Tenet,” “Dune: Part Two,” and the sense that, a decade after Kodak almost stopped making film altogether, movie audiences are embracing and rallying around film too.
Below are excerpts from the conversation, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.
NOLAN: For me, living in Los Angeles, I never got to see it with an audience. It came to streaming first here, so this is a really fun opportunity to get it in front of people the way it was intended. The thing with “Tenet” is, I think of all the films I have made, it’s the one that’s very much about the experience of watching films. It’s about watching spy movies in a way. It tries to build on that experience and take it to this very magnified, slightly crazy place. A lot of that is about sound and music and this huge image.
Most people see our films in the home, numerically speaking, but the identity of those films is really defined by their initial theatrical presentation. And that excitement carries through. More than any film I’ve made, “Tenet” was designed to have this very theatrical, IMAX, larger than life identity.
VILLENEUVE: It was not planned that I would get an IMAX film release. It was a bit like a gift from life, the movie being delayed because of the strikes. Someone came with the idea to try it. They mentioned this once and then I was like a dog not letting it go. We did some tests and I thought it looked absolutely amazing. The idea to experiment, and, frankly, Chris will say “cheat” because…
NOLAN: I wasn’t going to say that!
VILLENEUVE: But still, I left film a long time ago. Or, I didn’t leave film, film left me and my heart was broken.
NOLAN: Film wants you back.
VILLENEUVE: I’m flirting with the idea, Chris Nolan.
NOLAN: I know for myself the life of the movie is a much longer proposition in that, you look at other people’s films and indeed your own films in decades, not in weekends. I think the science fiction genre is the one where the long view is everything. People revisit. They value science fiction in a very long-term way. The original “Blade Runner,” nobody paid any attention to it on release, it was famously a flop. Then over time, people like myself (found it). I think I was 13 when I first saw a VHS tape.
VILLENEUVE: You discovered “Blade Runner” on VHS?
NOLAN: Pirate VHS.
VILLENEUVE: Me too!
NOLAN: The first time I saw it on film was in college.
VILLENEUVE: For me, it was frankly the same for “2001.” I discovered the movie as a kid on TV.
NOLAN: I got to see it in a theater. I was 7 years old when the first “Star Wars” came out, and it was such a massive hit, they re-released “2001” in 70mm and my dad took me to see it.
NOLAN: We don’t get to do things of that sort often.
VILLENEUVE: Lonely wolf.
NOLAN: I think I first started to connect with other directors when film was under massive threat. When we were finishing “Interstellar,” Emma (Thomas) and I got the call from Kodak that they were going to stop making film. We started calling filmmakers … and got tremendous support.
VILLENEUVE: I cannot give numbers, but I know that many of the pre-sales for “Dune: Part Two” are in 70mm.
NOLAN: People are loving the format and getting it.
VILLENEUVE: There’s the notion of an event and that is something people are starving for, they are craving it.
NOLAN: As filmmakers we’re competing with incredible home technology. 4K, UHD, beautiful television sets. Compared to our pirate VHS days, it’s come forward enormously. We have to raise our game, but it’s great to see a new generation seeing what the difference is. There’s an emotional response to it that I think is very hard to quantify. It’s hard to justify to the studio sometimes. So it’s wonderful when they look at the numbers and they see that they sell more tickets that way, because audiences get something.
VILLENEUVE: The idea to put “Dune” on film didn’t come from me, to be honest. I was still in the process of finishing it. It came from Warners.
NOLAN: I’m admitting nothing, but we might have pointed out to them some of the numbers that we made.
We’ve been banging the drum for years. And for us, “Oppenheimer” was really the first time when we saw a younger generation of film goers really connect with it and be interested in it. And that lifts everything. It gets everybody excited about it, even the studios, because they see that there’s a way to get people out of the house.
VILLENEUVE: It always ends up being about the money.
NOLAN: I just like hearing the guy who made “Dune Two” be like “it’s all about money.” I’ve seen that film. That’s not a cheap film, my friend. Millions of dollars on that screen.
VILLENEUVE: I have a question for you Chris. You must have strong shoulders because you were able to keep film alive by yourself. You’re pretty stubborn, my friend, but was there a moment where you felt a bit alone?
NOLAN: Emma was always on the exact same page. I think it would have been very hard if my producing partner hadn’t understood it the same way I understood it, emotionally. She’s very connected with film. I’ve never felt on my own because it was always at least the two of us together. There was a strange feeling of, hang on, how can it come down to this? We’ve achieved this incredible goal to be able to make films on a large scale, surely they won’t take the tools away at the last minute. On every film I’ve ever done, including “Oppenheimer,” I first showed it to the studio on cut and copy, taped together, splices and everything.
VILLENEUVE: You’re not using (editing software) Avid?
NOLAN: No, no we use Avid. I may be stubborn, but I’m not crazy.
You know when I first got the 70mm/5perf print, I showed it to Steven Spielberg. He had called me about something else and I had just got the print as well and I hadn’t shown it to anyone. I mean, the studio had seen it. But we screened it for him on his own. I sat behind him and watched him watch the film. It was an extraordinary experience.
VILLENEUVE: He told me he absolutely adored it.
NOLAN: He said some very kind things, but really just to watch him watch. I wasn’t even supposed to watch it with him, but seeing the great master watching? It was sort of irresistible.
We talk a lot about the picture, but it’s also the sound. To me, it’s the difference between going to a live concert and listening to a CD or record on a really beautiful stereo system.
VILLENEUVE: I think that’s the way movies will survive. Large formats, like IMAX more precisely, is definitely the future of cinema because you cannot reproduce that at home. Not even in your home.
NOLAN: Well, mine’s pretty good (laughs).
VILLENEUVE: Yours is the BEST. But it’s not IMAX.