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Movies used to put physicist Kip Thorne to sleep, then he helped make 'Interstellar'

Physicist Kip Thorne with actress Jessica Chastain on the set of
Physicist Kip Thorne with actress Jessica Chastain on the set of "Interstellar."
Paramount Studios

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Finding the right balance of science and fiction is one of the biggest challenges to making interesting science fiction: You want the science to be real enough, but it shouldn't drag down the story in an overzealous attempt at authenticity.

That being said, whenever a big sci-fi flick is released, there are people chomping at the bit to pick apart the movie's scientific inaccuracies.

So when it was revealed that Christopher Nolan would be directing "Interstellar" with the help of one of the world's leading experts on astrophysics and general relativity, it brought a new level of excitement to the project.

Kip Thorne is an Einstein Medal-winning theoretical physicist and the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech.  "Interstellar" is his first foray into movie-making, and it's based heavily on his research involving wormholes, time travel and black holes.

Thorne just published a new book, "The Science of Interstellar," in which the science behind every plot point in the movie is explained and clarified. When he recently came by The Frame studios, we asked about the process of making a movie, the differences between thinking about art and thinking about science, and the power of brainstorming.

Interview Highlights:

You write in your book, "The Science of Interstellar": "As an adult I had never been all that interested in movies." Why was that, and did "Interstellar" change your mind?

Well, you know, I have used movies to go to sleep at night. You flip from channel to channel to channel and see just enough to make your brain mushy and go to sleep [laughs]. So that's what movies do for me. I was not all that interested because I had a very intense career in science at Caltech, and my mind works a lot more slowly than my colleagues'. So I had to train my mind to focus in better than they did to be on a level playing field with them. And that meant forgoing some things like movies that I might normally have done.

A lot of "Interstellar" focuses on the passing of time or how we define time. This is a movie that bent time in its own way: It took 10 years to get this movie made. You started working with Steven Spielberg, then with Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan, the screenwriter, then with Christopher Nolan, Jonah's brother. In terms of your experience in Hollywood, did that seem like an eternity?

The movie was really started by Lynda Obst and me. Lynda had done "Contact" with my close friend Carl Sagan; in fact, he introduced us, set us up on a blind date many years ago. Lynda has done many movies since, and had a lot of experience — "The Fisher King" and "Sleepless in Seattle," for example. So Lynda told me at the outset, just as she was bringing Spielberg on board: "This could take 10 years. 'Contact' took more than 10 years, so be prepared."

What did Carl Sagan warn you about, in terms of the movie-making process? Did you have conversations about that?

We didn't talk much about the movie-making process. We were close friends and colleagues, and we talked mostly about astrophysics and life. I never had any goal to be involved in movies, particularly, but I developed a close friendship with Lynda, and I watched Hollywood through her eyes from a distance. And it just happened that she called me one day and said, "I have an idea for a movie, let's talk." Now here we are.

As you have made this movie, have you started thinking a little bit more about how art and science are the most alike, and how they're the most different?

I have found that interacting with artists is tremendously enjoyable and fruitful, and I had not appreciated the degree to which that would be true. If you have somebody who's brilliant and highly creative with a different point of view than you have, and a very different intellectual background, great things can happen. And a lot of the ideas in this film arose from that. They arose from brainstorming sessions between Lynda and me, me and Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the first three drafts of the screenplay, and me and Christopher Nolan.

That brainstorming was just wonderful; I found my conversations with the actors, particularly Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, tremendously delightful and interesting. I had never had that amount of interaction with artists before, and I was blown away by the experience.

There's a scene in the movie where Michael Caine's character and Jessica Chastain's character are writing incredibly complicated equations on a chalkboard. If somebody like you looked at those equations, would they actually make sense?

Yes. I wrote the equations, or I ghost wrote the equations, so of course they make sense [laughs]. Actually, there are really 16 blackboards, but in the movie you only see a few of them. They're on the "Interstellar" movie website. I recommend that you go in, look at them, and try to decipher what's going on.

Between movies like "Interstellar" and "Big Hero 6," which both feature engineers and scientists as heroes, in addition to TV shows like "Cosmos" and "Big Bang Theory," it seems like science and scientists are really popular these days. Do you have any idea why your field is suddenly hip?

[Laughs] Well, I think black holes were always sort of hip compared to much of science, but beyond that, no, I don't know why. I do hope that "Interstellar" and this kind of science in film will catch the public fancy and help to reignite an interest in science — and a respect for the power of science in dealing with the problems that society has to deal with.

Has working on "Interstellar" made you more interested in watching or making movies?

I'm certainly enjoying movies more, because I have some sense of what's involved in making a movie. I saw this movie developed from the outset, and got glimpses at so many aspects, that I look at movies from a different point of view now. And they're more enjoyable because I can see them both as an ordinary viewer and as somebody who has some sense of what went in to making that happen.

Did you find, as you watched the making of this film from beginning to end, that there are any parallels with your work on scientific research?

That's a hard question. I haven't thought about that at all. The key parallel, and I think it's a very deep parallel, is the issue of getting ideas. The brainstorming process that I went through with Christopher and Jonah Nolan gave rise to some of the most wonderful ideas in this film. And that was a brainstorming process that I don't think I took enough advantage of in my own career. It really did give me an appreciation for the power of brainstorming with other people who are coming in from a different point of view, so I did do that as a scientist, but in retrospect I didn't do it enough.

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