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Why Christopher Nolan blew up a real 747 for one of Tenet’s biggest action scenes

By Benjamin Bullard

To pump up the action for his upcoming time-bending thriller Tenet, director Christopher Nolan already had presided over the explosions of dishes, windows, a small fleet of cars, and — judging from the latest trailer — even an entire symphony orchestra. So when it came time to film a sequence involving the hair-raising destruction of a passenger plane, he was faced with a choice: Go the special effects route and let CGI computers work their magic, or find an actual airplane and let the practical effects team wreak havoc.

Not one to ignore the impact of footage that only a real-world shot can capture (just ask James Cameron, who blew up an obsolete bridge over the open water of the Florida Keys for True Lies), Nolan of course went with option B. In a new interview with Total Film, he explained, it just made more sense — and, amazingly, cost less money — to buy a full-scale 747 and give it the starring role in one of Tenet’s many explosive shots.

“I planned to do it using miniatures and set-piece builds and a combination of visual effects and all the rest,” he said, explaining that the production team ended up stumbling across a field of retired planes while scouting locations in California. “We started to run the numbers... It became apparent that it would actually be more efficient to buy a real plane of the real size, and perform this sequence for real in camera, rather than build miniatures or go the CG route.”

The audacity of plowing a real jumbo jet straight into a hangar (as seen at the end of the above trailer) mystified Tenet co-star Robert Pattinson, who told TF that a stunt that rare and ambitious — in a Nolan movie where ambition is par for the course — rises to new levels of “ridiculousness.”

“You wouldn’t have thought there was any reality where you would be doing a scene where they just have an actual 747 to blow up!” said Pattinson. “It’s so bold to the point of ridiculousness... I remember, as we were shooting it, I was thinking, ‘How many more times is this even going to be happening in a film at all?’”

We definitely don’t have an answer, but apparently retired planes are still relatively plentiful and cheap — so long as you’re working with a blockbuster budget. Nolan described his plane purchase as "a kind of impulse buying," and said the real props for pulling off the visual spectacle go to special effects supervisor, Scott Fisher, and production designer, Nathan Crowley.

Tenet’s still secretive plot revolves around the eponymous trigger word’s role in tapping the power of “inversion,” a phenomenon that isn’t exactly time travel but appears to allow star John David Washington (whose character name hasn’t been revealed either) to walk through (and perhaps reverse) future events. As one of the first box office tentpoles timed to arrive in theaters tentatively reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, Warner Bros.’ Tenet is supposed to crash onto big screens July 17 — though that release date has been removed from the latest trailer. Sadly, we can't see into the future like a Nolan character, so we'll be on the lookout for any news if the studio ends up adjusting Tenet's timeline.