Christopher Nolan Reflects on 'Tenet' Release, Reacts to Warner Bros./HBO Max Deal (Exclusive)

The director has a strong stance on the future of theaters as WB commits to streaming debuts.

No one champions theatrical releases quite like Christopher Nolan. The writer-director has long been a vocal proponent of seeing his films on the biggest screen possible and will put his money where his mouth is. His latest, Tenet, was one of the only films released in theaters this summer amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a tricky rollout that involved numerous delays, much-deliberated box office numbers and more questions about the future of the movie industry than answers.

At the time, Nolan told ET, "We're hopeful that people will be patient with the rollout of the film and wait for it to come to their area." On Dec. 15, Tenet is available for at-home viewing for those who were unable or unwilling to venture to the theater this year. Ahead of this release, Nolan and star John David Washington Zoomed with ET to reflect on their initial run in theaters.

Considering Nolan's "bullish" -- to use his own word -- stance on theatrical releases, we wanted to hear his thoughts on Warner Bros.' unprecedented plan to release all of their 2021 films (including Dune, Matrix 4 and more) into theaters and on HBO Max on the same day. The director, as expected, minces no words. (The studio is also behind the release of Tenet.)

Washington, meanwhile, shared his favorite fan theory about the film as Nolan discussed the possibility of a Tenet sequel. The latter half of the conversation involves spoilers that won't make a lick of sense unless you've seen the movie, but if you haven't, exit when you arrive at the photo of Washington and Robert Pattinson.

ET: Tenet's theatrical release was obviously challenging and not what anybody could have planned for because of factors that are out of all of our control. What did you learn through that experience or what do you make of it all now with the benefit of hindsight?

Christopher Nolan: Gosh, big question. I mean, with the benefit of hindsight, it was great to see how audiences in places where the virus had been managed carefully and efficiently, where they could safely go back to movie theaters, people came back in great numbers. And what was a wonderful thing to see for the future of our business. Obviously, to not be able to travel the world with everyone involved with the film and have the premieres and experience it with audiences in, you know, Japan or Australia or wherever was a source of frustration. And then to not really be able to release the film in the United States was a source of frustration. But at the end of the day, 2020 has been a year of tremendous adversity for everybody on the planet, so we feel very lucky -- I feel very lucky -- to have been working and to have been engaged in a creative pursuit. I think it's been a really fortunate thing for myself.

John David Washington: I would echo that. It was exciting to know that where it was safe -- where they had managed [the virus] -- people were able to see it, and the response has been great. The feedback has been very positive online, and that makes you feel good, because you believe in something, you hope that people get to see it and the times we're living in right now, the fact that they still got to see it in certain places makes you feel good about it.

We're now seeing a massive movie like Wonder Woman 1984 simultaneously debut in theaters and on HBO Max, and Warner Bros. announced it will do the same for their entire theatrical slate through 2021. Chris, what was your reaction to that decision?

Nolan: Oh, I mean, disbelief. Especially the way in which they did. There's such controversy around it, because they didn't tell anyone. In 2021, they've got some of the top filmmakers in the world, they've got some of the biggest stars in the world who worked for years in some cases on these projects very close to their hearts that are meant to be big-screen experiences. They're meant to be out there for the widest possible audiences... And now they're being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service -- for the fledgling streaming service -- without any consultation. So, there's a lot of controversy. It's very, very, very, very messy. A real bait and switch. Yeah, it's sort of not how you treat filmmakers and stars and people who, these guys have given a lot for these projects. They deserved to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.

People have begun to question what long-term repercussions this release strategy could have on the industry. Where is your head at with that right now?

Nolan: Long-term, I think all of the studios know that the movie theater experience will bounce back and be a very important part of the ecosystem long-term. What you have right now in our business is a lot of the use of the pandemic as an excuse for sort of grappling for short-term advantage. And it's really unfortunate. It's not the way to do business and it's not the best thing for the health of our industry. But when the theaters are back and people are going back to the movies, when the vaccine has been rolled out and there's an appropriate health response from the federal government, I'm very bullish on the long-term prospects of the industry. People love going to the movies and they're going to get to go again.

Warner Bros.

Warning: the following contains discussion about spoilers for the film.

Soon, everyone who wants to will be able to see Tenet -- some for the first time, some on repeat watch. This is a movie that really calls for repeat viewings to fully take everything in. Do you have a message for those viewers diving back in, a piece of rewatch advice or something they should focus on this time?

Washington: I don't know if I have any advice, but I think it's a great opportunity to really maybe understand deeper the movements [in] a lot of the action sequences and fighting and the inverted punching and blocking and all those kinds of things. To be able to see it comfy in your own home and have the ability to rewind or pause to really if you want, like, Monday-morning quarterback or enjoy the fighting sequence breakdown, the opportunity to do that is pretty cool.

Nolan: Yeah, I think one of the most fun things about revisiting a movie like this is seeing the work that you guys -- the actors -- did. With yourself, a lot in the physicality of it. With Rob, there's a lot of layers to what he's doing that if you watch it again, you see a very different performance the second time, which is really fun. I love working on films where if you're interested to watch it again, there's something else to be found there.

One of the more-discussed fan theories I've seen is that Rob's character, Neil, might actually be the grown-up version of Kat's son, Max. What did you think when you started seeing that theory floated?

Nolan: Well, I mean, you know-- [Laughs] Like the royal family in England, I don't respond to rumors and unfounded [theories]. It's really fun to watch people interpret the work and you try and leave some things open in there. And obviously we have our version of what's going on and all the rest, but you kind of want to let the work speak for itself and see what people come up with.

John David, do you have a favorite theory or reaction you've seen? 

Washington: I think I saw one where they had Kat and Neil as Leo's kids. Like, Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception, those are his kids. I found that pretty fun. I enjoyed that one.

Nolan: [Laughs]

In the end, Neil tells the Protagonist he is only halfway through his story. Conceivably, there is more to explore in this world. Is there more you want to tell? Or is this Tenet chapter closed for you?

Nolan: The only honest answer to that is that every film I've done, you try to put everything you can into the one movie, but you like to create a world that lives on in the mind of the audience, lives on in my mind, all the rest. Sometimes you're drawn to revisiting that, sometimes you're not. A lot of it is to do with the audience response. It's up to the audience to tell us what they make of it and what they're interested in. I mean, certainly the possibilities are there.

Tenet is in theaters and available to own on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and digital on Dec. 15.