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From mega-yachts to Hitchcock: 5 spoiler-free facts about the making of Christopher Nolan's Tenet

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Sep 22, 2020, 11:42 AM EDT (Updated)

When it comes to Christopher Nolan's Tenet, you probably fall into one of two categories: 1) haven't seen it yet or 2) still confused. Since many folks don't feel comfortable about returning to theaters just yet, it would be imprudent of us to go into deep spoiler territory about the time-inverting blockbuster wrapped inside of a suave espionage tale. However, the movie's making-of book from Insight Editions is now on sale and chock full of interesting factoids about an ambitious production that often threw Nolan himself for a whirl. If the dude who wrote and directed the thing got confused at times, then you just know the finished product is a complex maze of ideas and execution.

While the book (written by James Mottram) does a great job of explaining Nolan's twist on time travel, a concept known as inversion, we won't be touching on that today. Let's save the heady stuff for a later date when Tenet is more widely available to the pandemic-era public. In the meantime, here are five fun (and spoiler-free) facts we learned about the serpentine production of the latest cinematic opus from the filmmaker behind The Dark Knight and Inception.

Members of the cast auditioned with scenes from The Matrix & Westworld

Credit: Gavriil Grigorov\TASS via Getty Images & Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images

With Nolan's screenplay under tight lock and key, most crew members had no clue what Tenet was actually about. As such, the actors hoping to join the cast had to audition with scenes from other sci-fi touchstones. For example, Yuri Kolokolnikov (who plays "Volkov," the menacing Russian henchman to Kenneth Branagh's Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator) "put himself on tape, reading from The Matrix before flying to Los Angeles to meet Nolan," writes Mottram.

Elsewhere, Fiona Dourif, (daughter of longtime Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif) auditioned with scenes from HBO's Westworld, which, as fate would have it, was co-created by Christopher Nolan's brother, Jonathan Nolan. Dourif plays the character of "Wheeler," but to go any further about who she is would be to entertain spoilers.

Nolan didn't screen any movies for the crew before production

Credit: Warner Bros.

Much like the mysterious word that gives the project its title and narrative momentum, Tenet went by the codename of "Merry-Go-Round" during production. It's a fitting monicker that hints at the way the story explores the circularity of time. Unlike he usually does for his films, Nolan didn't screen any movies for his crew beforehand to give them a sense of what style he wanted to achieve. "I don't even know what movie we could screen that would help us!" special effects supervisor Scott R. Fisher says in the book. Once you see the movie, you'll understand there's nothing else quite like it.

The film is slightly connected to Alfred Hitchcock

Credit: Warner Bros. & Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the London leg of production (Tenet was shot across seven countries), production designer Nathan Crowley was tasked with finding a location that would serve as the school for Max (Laurie Sheperd), son of Sator and his wife, Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki). Two actual schools were considered, but they didn't quite fit the bill. After wandering around Hampstead (situated in north London), Crowley discovered the perfect candidate: Cannon Hall, "a stately private residence" that was once the home of writer Daphne du Maurier. She penned the novel Rebecca and the short story "The Birds," both of which were adapted into feature films by legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. Fittingly, Tenet is a bit like Hitchcock's Vertigo, as it intends to throw the average viewer off balance by turning the natural laws of the world upside down.

A mega-yacht rented for shooting had million-dollar carpets

Credit: Warner Bros.

It's a widely accepted fact that a Bond villain's level of evilness is directly proportional to the size of their stately yacht. Since Nolan is a big fan of the 007 franchise, it only made sense that Tenet's baddie, Andrei Sator, would have an impressive "mega-yacht" that sucked up a good chunk of the project's $200 million budget. According to the book, the 73-meter vessel used in the film (named Planet Nine) had a helipad, pools, hot tubs, several floors, and was insured for a whopping $100 million. Not only that, but the carpets in just two of its capacious rooms were worth a collective $1 million.

In the book, Branagh describes the yacht as "a sort of floating city in itself." He adds: It seems an endless series of floors and rooms that take you into the mind of this fellow who uses it and who you feel has built and designed it to be his palace, his prison, his escape, his refuge from a world that he connects with in a sometimes sinister and threatening way."

Tenet has ties to Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy

Credit: Warner Bros.

Sator's mega-yacht wasn't the only seaworthy craft that marine coordinator Neil Andrea had to secure for the globe-trotting picture. Andrea also had to find a giant "icebreaker" boat that is featured in the latter half of the movie. He ended up settling on the Magne Viking, "an ice-classed anchor handling tug supply vessel" that was 85-meters in length. What really appealed to Nolan, however, was that the boat was yellow and black — two colors he had really wanted to incorporate into his Dark Knight trilogy (NOTE: the colors did appear during the football match in The Dark Knight Rises).

"On the Batman films, Chris had always wanted to put yellow and black chevrons around the place," Crowley explains in the book. "I was like, 'Chris, I'm not putting yellow and black chevrons in Gotham!' And he said, 'Well, just do it, I want a couple of them!' I'd say, 'No, I'm not doing it! Why do you like yellow and black chevrons? Where does that come from? You never tell me!'" 

When the director saw pictures of the Magne Viking, he reportedly starting laughing and said: "There it is, my chevron boat!"

And that's not the only connection to Nolan's time spent in the DC Universe. For the colossal set piece that involved crashing an actual 747 (the crew literally went plane shopping), the aircraft needed to be towed through a parking lot. Behind the wheel of the tow vehicle was Jim Wilkey, "who on The Dark Knight performed the outrageous stunt in which an articulated truck driven by the Joker flips over."

The Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan's Quantum Cold War is now available to purchase from Insight Editions. It features a Foreword by John David Washington (who plays "The Protagonist") and a — get this — "Backword" by Kenneth Branagh. Now playing in re-opened theaters across the world, Tenet also stars Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel, Michael Caine, and Martin Donovan.

To date, the Warner Bros. release has made $250 million globally.


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