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'Interstellar' director and actors inspired by space exploration history

Matthew McConaughey holds a model of the Apollo lunar module in a scene from Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar." (Paramount)
Nov. 11, 2014

— On screen, director Christopher Nolan's film "Interstellar" invites audiences on a futuristic journey stretching the fabric of space and time.

Behind the scenes though, it was real space history rather than a sci-fi-based future that inspired Nolan to make the film, as well as gave stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain reason to reconsider their connections to space exploration.

"Space exploration, to me, has always represented the most hopeful and most optimistic endeavor that mankind has ever engaged with," Nolan said at a press conference preceding the film's release.

Nolan and his wife, "Interstellar" producer Emma Thomas, witnessed space shuttle Endeavour fly over Los Angeles in 2012 when it arrived on the back of a 747 jet to go on permanent display at the California Science Center.

Director Christopher Nolan (left) discusses a scene with Matthew McConaughey while filming the movie "Interstellar." (Paramount)

"It was a very moving moment, actually," Nolan said. "A little melancholy at the same time, because what you felt was that sense of that great collective endeavor [and] the optimism of that is something we're in need of again."

"I feel strongly that we're at a point where we need to start looking out again and exploring our place in the universe more," he said.

Specific look of space history

In "Interstellar," a crisis on Earth inspires a daring space mission in an attempt to save all of humanity. The film is set sometime in the near future, though its spaceflights go well beyond any of the missions NASA has achieved or currently has planned.

Despite that — or perhaps because of it, Nolan wanted audiences to identify with the spacecraft in the film. In addition to seeking advice from a veteran NASA astronaut and adopting a look and feel inspired by the space shuttle and the International Space Station, the director asked his production team to draw influences from NASA's historic rockets.

"We wanted people to recognize the language of the film-making," Paul Franklin, visual effects supervisor, said in a release issued by Paramount Pictures. "So, Chris had us looking at all of the old Apollo launch footage of the moon rockets going into space which have a very specific look."

The rocket in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" evokes the "very specific look" of NASA's Apollo-era Saturn V. (Paramount)

Nolan took a similar approach with the spacesuits worn by McConaughey and Hathaway in the movie. The costumes blended design elements from the silver suits worn by the Mercury 7 astronauts as well as the much bulkier pressure garments worn by the Apollo astronauts on the moon.

"We didn't want to stray too far from established reality of what's required for the environment of outer space," Nolan said. "So, we tried to keep it recognizable as belonging to an astronaut of the 20th century because we wanted to tap into that history."

Personal space

Anne Hathaway, who as a child dreamed of becoming an astronaut, described her "Interstellar" spacesuit as all time favorite costume ever ("and thanks to [Christopher Nolan] I have gotten to wear some pretty spectacular ones," she quipped).

The experience of playing an astronaut led Hathaway to recall her own experience in the wake of the loss of space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

"When I was in seventh grade, my class spent the entire school year preparing to launch a spaceship all together and we had our different jobs that we had to learn how to do," Hathaway told "We learned the math that you needed, we learned the practical skills that you needed. I thought that was really cool."

"The first time I put it on, I made up my mind it was my favorite costume I have ever worn," said Anne Hathaway. (Paramount)

Jessica Chastain shared a similar memory to Hathaway's, but it was not until she became an actress that she found the opportunity to connect with space exploration.

"My first real confrontation with space travel was when the Challenger exploded. I remember how traumatic that was for me... so I had never imagined that it was something I wanted to do," Chastain admitted. "I think we, as human beings, need to conquer our fears and reach beyond our grasps. I think it is very important that we do not become complacent and stagnant."

"The wonderful thing about being an actress is that I get, not necessarily in this [film], to act out those explorations beyond what, myself, am physically capable of," Chastain said.

For Matthew McConaughey, who also plays an astronaut in "Interstellar," making the film led him to take another look at the role that space exploration plays in humanity's future.

"It was something I didn't consider much," McConaughey said in reply to a question posed by collectSPACE, "in the vernacular of thinking that as we evolve is the new frontier out there, and if it is, why? I just didn't consider it or think about it that much."

"One of the things I got from this film was that mankind's expectations have to be greater than ourselves and as Chris [Nolan] said, the further out there, the more we find out and learn about you and me right here," McConaughey concluded. "It is much more of a tangible idea, obtainable thought."

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Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

Video credit: Paramount Pictures