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John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in 'Tenet'.

Mystery and excitement has shrouded Christopher Nolan’s time-bending latest film, ‘Tenet’, for weeks now, ahead of its release in the UAE this Thursday. I distinctly remember having a conversation with a friend about it, after seeing posters for the film pop up everywhere: “So, what is it about?” “No one knows.”

Nolan is no stranger to unusual and perplexing premises. Every 10 years, the director seems to drop another head-scratcher (and massive critical hit) on us — has anyone figured out what the ending of ‘Inception’ (2010) really means? And can someone please check on Guy Pearce’s character from ‘Memento’ (2000)?

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Nolan delights fans with these big productions that require more than a passive — or even single — viewing to fully comprehend. But what can we glean from the promotion of ‘Tenet’ so far? And will it be as big of a success as his other box office hits?

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Christopher Nolan. Image Credit: AFP

Moving backwards

The film stars John David Washington, Denzel Washington’s actor son, in the lead role. He has no name so far, simply credited as ‘The Protagonist’. The film also stars Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Himesh Patel, Bollywood’s Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Caine.

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Dimple Kapadia in the film.

The official synopsis states: “Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.” All the promotion of the film has emphasised backwards movement.

Director Nolan describes the film as an “espionage thriller” where the protagonist is “inducted into a more-secret-than-secret organisation known as ‘Tenet’.”

Reinventing spy genre

Nolan is known for his mission to deliver authentic cinematic experiences, so ‘Tenet’ was filmed on location across seven countries: Estonia, Italy, India, Denmark, Norway and the UK. The trailers give us a glimpse into this gargantuan scope. At one point, a stylistic gunfight scene happening in reverse harks back to ‘Inception’s’ famed gravity-defying hallway scene.

Joseph Gordon Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Inception'.

Of his desire to make ‘Tenet’, Nolan explains: “For me, it was a combination of wanting to get back to a broader sense of filmmaking, following ‘Dunkirk’, and taking audiences around the world to more places than we’d ever been. I also felt ready to take on the spy genre, which I’d always intended to do … The simplest way to explain our approach is to say what we did with ‘Inception’ for the heist genre is what ‘Tenet’ attempts to bring to the spy movie genre.”

In the film’s trailer, a woman in a lab coat tells the Protagonist: “One of these bullets is like us, travelling forwards through time. The other is going backwards. Can you tell which is which?” Later, Pattinson’s character drops this succinct warning, which could very well be a tagline for the film: “Time isn’t the problem. Getting out alive is.”

Importance of the camera

Nolan spent more than a decade ruminating on the central ideas of the film, and another five years writing the script. The movie was shot in 70mm and IMAX.

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Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in a scene from 'Tenet'. Image Credit: AP

“Before the motion picture camera existed, there was no way for us to conceive of things like slow motion or reverse motion. So, cinema itself is the window onto time that allowed this project to come to fruition. It is literally a project that only exists because the movie camera exists,” says Nolan.

“This could not be more of a Chris Nolan movie,” comments Pattinson, who plays Neil, who is paired up with the Protagonist. “There is such a singular vision to every one of his films and making this one was a spectacular feat in every way. It’s pretty amazing… there’s literally nothing comparable.”

Eye on Washington

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John David Washington in 'Tenet'.

Nolan set his eyes on Washington for the role of the Protagonist at the premiere of ‘BlacKkKlansman’ at the Cannes Film Festival. “I was struck by his natural charisma,” recalls Nolan.

As for Washington himself, it was a no-brainer. “It’s Christopher Nolan. I’ve seen every one of his films, so whatever he wants me to do, I’m doing.”

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A still from 'Tenet'.

His character is willing to die for the people he’s fighting for, says Washington. “I think what he discovers is, with these different rules governing time, he can change things … and he might have the ability to save the world in a new way. Or maybe what happens, happens.”

Meanwhile, Pattinson says he enjoyed the ambiguity of their partnership. “Is he a friend or foe? How do you decide when to trust someone and when to be sceptical? … I liked seeing how exponentially more complicated those things can become when the rules of known reality are changed and inverted.”

The bad guy

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Kenneth Branagh (right).

Of course, there has to be a bad guy — and Kenneth Branagh’s powerful Russian oligarch Andrei Sator was “as bad as they get”. “‘An appalling piece of humanity’ is how [Chris Nolan] put it,” recalls the actor. “He is ruthless and egomaniacal … he is energised and capable of getting the job done, so he is someone who we all need to fear. That sort of amorality is truly terrifying.”

Sator’s wife, Kat, is played by Elizabeth Debicki, who describes her character as “grappling with crippling shame and confusion whilst trying to keep her head just above the water at all times.” “I felt that Chris had written a very strong woman onto the page, and truly her strength is her intelligence,” remarks Debicki.

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Elizabeth Debicki. Image Credit: AP

The film required a huge amount of physical training — and that started with the stunt people learning the ropes themselves.

“There was so much trial and error; it was a hard process but fascinating at the same time,” says stunt coordinator George Cottle.

“It was exciting to me,” says Washington, “because George and all the guys said they had never done anything like this, and they’ve seen it all and done a lot.”

Technical challenges

In terms of the reverse scenes, cinematographer Van Hoytema worked together with IMAX to “redo electronics so we can shoot both ways.”

“One of the biggest technical challenges was that we wanted the IMAX camera to be able to run in reverse to achieve certain in-camera physics that are not possible if the film only goes forward. IMAX cameras have powerful motors, but at the same time require extreme precision and they were not built to go backwards.”

But a lot of it was down to the actors managing to get all the scenes done in-camera. And that included driving their own cars during high-speed chases.

Pattinson, the pro driver

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Robert Pattinson in 'Tenet'.

“Rob [Pattinson] didn’t talk up his driving ability at all,” remarks producer Emma Thomas. “In fact, he acts as though he can barely drive and isn’t a pro at all. But when the stunt team did an evaluation of what he could do, they were duly impressed, so he ended up doing a lot of his own driving in the movie.”

Pattinson calls it “extraordinarily fun”. “I’m a pretty conservative driver, but weaving in and out of traffic with an IMAX camera on a rig in front of the car was unbelievably exciting.”

(Whether or not this means Pattinson, DC’s new Batman, was allowed to take a spin in the Batmobile remains to be seen.)

Don’t miss it!

‘Tenet’ releases in the UAE on August 27.