Tenet: Christopher Nolan on the complexities of filming time-inverted fighting scenes

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan knows how to make a confusing movie. Inception has the world questioning whether Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb was still in a dream, and Tenet will no doubt have fans of the auteur filmmaker asking even more questions. Yes, the movie really asks more of audiences than Inception, and that's why we gave this new spy thriller five stars.

But how does Tenet pull off such a feat? As revealed in the trailer, there's something called time inversion that plays out in the movie. We won't go into details, but basically some scenes play out backwards and forwards, including some fights. That led to some very complicated choreography for the actors to master.

"The complexities of fighting, and that this concept of inversion of time present, were clearly going to be an important part of the story," Nolan says of the concept.

"So I sat with the stunt team very early on, with George Cottle, our stunt coordinator, and Jackson Spidell, our fight coordinator. And we looked at a lot of different fight moves, and how they could be manipulated through time and over time. And we actually had a very intensive rehearsal period. The physical choreography of the film is one of the things that we approached first, and spent a lot of time in prep working with very talented stunt people, as well as some dancers as well, and looking at dance choreography, and how that could inform things.

"We really put a lot of care and attention to it, because we felt that the physical movement, and the physicality of the piece – John David Washington's character The Protagonist is an extremely physical character, as is Robert Pattinson's Neil – and really trying to approach how the action was going to work in the film. It felt like if we could crack that, and we’d start with the scenes where there’s hand-to-hand combat – but if we could crack that, and crack how we approach filming that, the rest of the film would start to fall into place, as we got more and more complicated and larger and larger scale action."

For more on Tenet, be sure to read our coverage from the movie's set. Tenet is in UK cinemas now, and US theatres from September 4.

Matt Maytum
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, looking after the long-form features there, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.