Inquirer Super

Super Exclusive: Enter the twilight world of ‘TENET’

By: Ruel S. De Vera

The most complex Christopher Nolan film yet

Every film director Christopher Nolan has ever made has led to the making of “TENET.” It is not only how time works in his films (“Inception” and “Interstellar”) but how time is perceived by the audience (“Memento” and “Dunkirk”) that come together in “Tenet.” “As I like to say about time, I’ve always lived in it, so I’m fascinated by I,” Nolan said to the press. “Having narratives that in some way explore the relationship between the way we perceive time in everyday life and the way we perceive time in a movie theater and watching a film…that’s always seemed an interesting place to play around.” In many ways, he has been waiting all this time for cinema technology to match the ideas in his head. It has finally happened.   

“Actually, I think maybe the longest gestation he’s ever done for a film,” Nolan’s producing partner and wife Emma Thomas told the Inquirer. Nolan had applied his penchant for using practical effects as much as possible instead of CGI, his preference for multiple locations and a mind-blowing twist or central premise to different genres (the heist in “Inception,” space in “Interstellar,” war in “Dunkirk”) and now he finally got to do it for the spy genre, something he’s always wanted to do. “I’ve always wanted to take on a spy film, but I’ve also known that I would never be that interested in just making the kind of spy film that I had grown up watching,” he said.  “What I really wanted to do was find a way to reenergize it for the audience—to give them a reason to look in a fresh way, in a new way, at some of the tropes of the genre.”

“Tenet” revolves around what happens to a presumed-dead CIA agent with no name but tongue-in-cheek referred to as “the protagonist,” (John David Washington). He is recruited by a secretive organization together with an enigmatic partner named Neil (Robert Pattinson) to stop a Russian warlord Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world. At the heart of all this is a fictional but spectacular process called Inversion, where time not only runs in reverse but can be used to wreak havoc. The only way to get to Sator is through his beautiful wife Kat (Elizabeth Debecki). The resulting plot starts off as an infiltration but ends up basically as a sci-fi war that will stun the eyes and boggle the mind.

It wasn’t easy—or short making “Tenet.” “We started shooting at the end of May last year and we finished in the beginning of November,” Thomas said. “Because we went around so much we traveled from country to country even days and we weren’t shooting we were scouting

location and the locations are really great because when you move from country to country, a sense of achievement when you finished.” They shot in California, London, Mumbai, Estonia, Oslo, Denmark and, everyone’s favorite, Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

“Tenet” is shot beautifully and kinetically, but it is a movie that requires your constant attention and analysis. The action scenes are even more impressive than anything in “Inception.” It isn’t as viewer-friendly as that film the first few action scenes may be somewhat figured out but the spectacular climactic battle will require multiple viewings, slow-motion and probably at least one IMAX viewing (recommended) to understand. Instead of his usual comrade-in-arms Hans Zimmer, Nolan collaborated with Academy Award-winning Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther” and “The Mandalorian”) and it works. Washington makes for a compelling, stressful lead, Pattinson seamlessly continues his streak of choosing effectively quirky roles, Branagh hams it up mightily, but the revelation is the statuesque Debecki, who steals every steal she’s in. Thomas said she wants audiences to see it in cinemas: “It is truly an experience, which I think is what we’ve all been missing so much. I want them to be challenged and entertained. And I want them to be allowed to put your side where they have as a real world.” Ultimately, your mileage will vary depends on how well you understand Inversion and the state of being “Inverted.” Whatever your expectations, there’s surely something here you’ve never seen done before. It is the single most complex and ambitious film Nolan has ever done.

Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” is open in Philippine cinemas in early 2021.

John David Washington is the Protagonist

Ironically, the most important character in “Tenet” isn’t named, though Washington’s character is referred for practical (and ironic) purposes as the Protagonist. This is extra ironic considering Washington’s pedigree as the son of Denzel Washington (yes, that Denzel) and his high-profile work as star athlete Ricky Jerret on HBO’s “Ballers” and detective Ron Stalworth in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” But the 34-year-old Washington, despite first appearing on screen as a 7-year-old student in Lee’s “Malcolm X” that, naturally, had his father in the lead role took a different route at the beginning. As a bruising running back, the 5’9” 208-ln. Washington played football all the way from Morehouse College and then in various professional leagues until he made it to the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams’ practice squad as an undrafted free agent.

But the football actually helped him make it in Hollywood. Thomas revealed that Nolan had first noticed Washington on “Ballers,” and made a mental note to try and work with him in the future. Finding this out blew Washington’s mind. “Really? Wow!” he tells Super. Additionally, the training and physicality also helped him: “All of those life lessons I learned during that time, I was able to apply to this occupation. This was my first love. So, it was an immediate transition to football, that I actually one of the concepts, depending on so many people so many people have to be good at what they do, and have to know what they’re doing.”

The weapons and stunt training with a former SEAL team member will also fall into the body of knowledge that Washington is compiling for future roles. “I’ve never been through any type of thing like that before and I was, was constructed as weapon, especially the character. That was taken all the skills that I’ve learned how to apply for the next movie, whatever, additional skills that require a different set of skills.” He has not been hesitant to ask advice from his father either.

That’s because the very detail-oriented Washington (it’s John David, not just John) is looking forward to as diverse a set of roles as he can. That’s kind of the point. That’s what I want my career to be. I want to be able to fully experience. The variety or capacity in my craft, be able to play different things and collaborate with different artists. “Collaborating with Christopher Nolan, that was the best for me. So that’s what I’m looking to do in the future. Hopefully, working with Spike Lee again, and more of the actors and directors I like. I’m hoping that I get the same opportunity.” Washington is true to his word, as you’ll see him next opposite Zendaya in the Netflix drama “Malcolm & Marie.”

Robert Pattinson is Neil

If ever there was someone who endeavored mightily to break out of typecasting, it had to be Pattinson who had been in two hit franchises, playing Cedric Diggory in the “Harry Potter” films and vampire Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” films. But he refused to be just a pretty face, carefully and purposefully opting for very unusual choices that culminated in 2019’s “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ claustrophobic drama that wowed the Cannes Film Festival. Now, Pattinson is in a Nolan film, and he’s, as they say, pretty chuffed about it. “He’s got a pretty flawless track record,” he says to Super. “And then I remember reading the script the first time and it’s just by far the most ambitious script I’ve ever read in my life. I met him in a very low-key environment, just had a cup of tea in his little office in his house, and then read the script like no one else knew anything about the movie, there was no talk about and LA or anything. And then you read the script which is just the most enormous thing, a day it’s almost, it was almost impossible to compute at scale.”

And all the Inversion stuff impressed him even if it took time to get used to: “On top of that, the, the nature of sort of theoretical physics in it which you probably need a Master’s to fully understand. It just seems at some very, very exciting.”  He should be excited for his much-anticipated upcoming turn as the hero in Matt Reeves’ “The Batman.”

Pattinson’s Neil is a character to pay close attention to, and in the end, Pattinson is still kind of amazed at what they managed to do with “Tenet.” “You realize it’s this kind of this incredibly intellectually dense movie that feels like just a magic trick that it’s even achieved in the first place, even on a script level, and then, you know, then shooting it afterwards and realizing he can execute all these just ridiculous spectacles,” he says. “It’s just I think anybody would want to do. I mean, you kind of felt very much a visceral part of something special as you’re shooting it and kind of been experienced I know it’s not really, I’m not really expecting to feel anything like this again for the rest of my life.”

Elizabeth Debecki is Kat

It would be utterly impossible not to walk out of “Tenet,” and, despite the effects and the stunts, not remember the most Debecki. Beyond her impossibly perfect and long neck, her stunning looks and her 6’3” frame, Debecki gives the best performance of her career, presenting a glamorous and wealthy woman who is also trapped and in constant danger. You may have noticed the Australian actress first in a supporting role in Baz Luhrman’s remake of “The Great Gatsby,” but she really got noticed playing opposite Tom Hiddleston in the mini-series “The Night Manager”; another Marvel connection is her role as Ayesha in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” but she’s almost unrecognizable in gold makeup.

But the 30-year-old actress is really hungry to expand the kind of films that she’s working on. And she has a very strict criteria.  “I’m sort of interested in two things,” she tells Super. “One is the filmmaker, that’s super important to me, as an actor to be working with someone who I find, you know, very interesting, and that I think is going to challenge me and provoke me to, you know, provoke me into a sort of an interesting or challenge, you know, whatever kind of performance that is, demands, something of me that I haven’t tried to do before. And I think that requires that you really trust the director you’re working with.” She loved working with Nolan, loved the travel but was shocked by how long the shoot took. “It felt like a didn’t come up for air for six months.”

The other criterion is that it be something new: “But the other thing in terms of roles, I mean, I kind of always is looking to do something that’s different from the last thing I’ve done. And I suppose I’m always just looking for a challenge, and you never really know what genre or what kind of role that’s going to present itself in. So, you know, I come from theater, and I really care very much about writing and the writing of the piece. So that’s also something I take into consideration when I’m looking at roles.”

“Tenet” is a film with actors to watch, but Debecki may be the one to watch the most. She’s certainly not afraid of challenges: She will be playing Princess Diana in the final two seasons of Netflix’s “The Crown.”

Kenneth Branagh is Sator

Perhaps it was only right that a classically-trained Shakespearean actor like Branagh would eventually start playing villains with both seething menace and sleek style. The man who is directing and playing Agatha Christie’s Inspector Herule Poirot in the upcoming “Death on the Nile,” returns to play another Eastern European billionaire with an antagonistic agenda. It is his Sator that literally holds the key to “Tenet.” Yet perhaps the biggest challenge for this veteran thespian was physical, because of the high-speed catamaran race scene in Italy. There was sailing at a speed, and a level that I never cross.  I’m not somebody who sails,” he says to Super. “And so to be in in one of the world’s fastest racing yachts in a very, you know, fierce wind was exciting exhilarating. And to be perfectly frank rather scary, but definitely That one’s been ticked off my bucket list, try and try to act in the middle of it was something of a challenge for me but I hope I did that. There were you’ll see because of the way that time is played with, there are some really pretty unusual physical demands that have to happen that happened on set, they’re not visual effects as you know Chris Nolan is not somebody who wants to rely on visual effects he likes things happening in camera, so sometimes that involves some physical go work which is very unexpected. So, a lot of people went to the chiropractic during this production. And I was one of them.”

Not only is Branagh a successful director himself but this is the second time he has worked with Nolan after “Dunkirk,” and he acknowledges how special the experience is. “I think. Christopher Nolan is unique because he can make blockbuster films that seem like they’re very personal. He can. He has an individual vision, which is unique. I think you’re going to be able to write a novel, it’s a page turner that you definitely get immediately. It’s visceral, it’s relentless. It’s energized, it’s exhilarating. It just leaves you jittery afterwards but you know it’s very enjoyable. But nevertheless, it’s multilayered so you just want to keep going back.”

Branagh says even just the actual nuts and bolts of making “Tenet” were unbelievable.  “I think the scale is enormous I’ve never seen so many locations or for one movie, everything to do with the size so if you’re in Amalfi you feel like you’ve got every job in the world is there. If you’re, you know, in Estonia you own the entire motorway network and every 5,000-seat auditorium is in the movie. And so it goes on it just keeps upping the stakes of what the visual, what matters in the story. And then, and then he also casts, you know some wonderful actors: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki and Robert Pattinson are all fantastic in the film. They’re all young, they’re all sexy in this unique combination of big bold personal blockbuster movie.”