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July 26, 2022

Screenplay Breakdown: Interstellar Explained

Christopher Nolan is one of Hollywood's most popular auteurs today, and for a good reason. His film's frequently play with high-concept ideas coated in the true potential of what a blockbuster film is capable of with cutting-edge effects and risky storytelling.

Today, I will break down the central tent pole plot moments of Interstellar and investigate how the screenplay functions under the hood.

Screenplay breakdown of Interstellar

Overview:

  • What is Interstellar about?
  • Main characters in the film
  • Beat-by-beat breakdown of Interstellar
  • Read the script
  • Closing thoughts

Context of Interstellar

Before Interstellar, Christopher Nolan had written and directed three Batman films that had rocketed him to director and screenwriter stardom. Still, he received particular acclaim for his work on Inception, another high-concept sci-fi story that wasn't afraid to pull its intellectual punches. Interstellar is something of a spiritual successor to Inception.

What is Interstellar about?

Interstellar is a story set in Earth's near future, where environmental disaster means that Earth will perish within the next century. Cooper, an ex-astronaut, is tasked with leading an intergalactic mission through a newly appeared wormhole to try and find a new home for the human race.

The film takes a lot of inspiration from other sci-fi epics from eras past, notably Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These films explore heady ideas that get to the core human experience.

Main characters

Cooper (Protagonist)

The story primarily centers around the protagonist, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. His primary motivation is to explore. He is a former NASA pilot turned farmer in a world where food cannot grow. He also loves his children, his daughter Murph and his son, Tom.

Murph

Murph is Cooper's eldest child and only daughter. She is brilliant and passionate about science. However, she is heartbroken when her father accepts his role with NASA to look for habitable planets in outer space. Anger becomes a significant theme in her life. This emotion later motivates her to overcome the pain her father caused her by leaving her behind and helps her solve the gravitational equation that saves Earth.

Dr. Amelia Brand

Dr. Amelia Brand is Professor Brand's daughter and is a brave and brilliant scientist. She is a secondary character in Interstellar, forms a strong friendship with Cooper, and is an integral part of the plot. She eventually becomes the first colonizer of humanity's new home planet and establishes a settlement.

Cooper and Dr. Amelia Brand on board the Endurance.
Dr. Brand and Cooper work together to search for a habitable planet.

Professor John Brand

This secondary character is Cooper's former professor and is a leader at NASA. He convinces Cooper to join the mission to search for a habitable planet while staying behind to work on solving the gravitational equation. However, he fails to share that solving the equation is impossible (which results in great inner conflict), and he has stopped trying. But, he refuses to reveal this to help humanity remain hopeful.

Other characters:

Romilly: An astronaut that travels with Cooper and Dr. Amelia Brand, Romilly is calm, intelligent, and sensitive.

Doyle: Doyle is another NASA astronaut on the mission with Cooper. He is self-sacrificing and brave.

Dr. Mann: Dr. Mann is a character driven by inner turmoil. He went sent out many years prior in an attempt to find a habitable planet. However, due to his selfish desperation, he sends a signal to Earth and notifies them he has found a suitable world - while in reality, this is a lie.

Donald: Donald is the protagonist's father-in-law.

Tom: Tom is Cooper's eldest and only son. He is practical and is a farmer like his father. He is married to Lois, his wife, and has a son named Coop, who is sick.

Breakdown of Interstellar

While Interstellar is seemingly complex, it follows the Save the Cat story structure quite neatly. If you need a refresher on this story structure, check it out here.

Act 1

Opening: Interstellar opens on Earth, but not like the one we know. It looks like somewhere in the midwest of the U.S., but giant dust storms, crop blight, and advanced technology tip us off that we're sometime in the near future.

This part of the story sets up the world and tone of the film.

Inciting Incident: Cooper is a father of two. Murph, his daughter, is a precocious 10-year-old who notices that dust on her bookcase is falling into a strange pattern on the floor, which Cooper realizes is a set of coordinates in binary.

Unsure of what to expect, Cooper brings Murph to try and find where the coordinates lead, and they end up accidentally intruding onto a secret NASA base, led by an old friend of Cooper's, Professor Brand.

It turns out that NASA has secretly been planning an interstellar mission to try and find a new home for humanity, and Cooper's just the man for the job. But, here's the problem. Because of the severe time dilation, Cooper will experience mid-mission; by the time he gets home, it'll be decades later. He'll miss the rest of his kid's childhoods.

Lots of stuff happens here, but this is everything that sets the adventure off. Though they don't know it yet, this event will forever change these characters' lives.

Debate: Thus begins a period of interior reckoning. Cooper knows that humanity faces an existential risk, but he's unsure if he can sacrifice his experiences with his family. However, after talking to his close friend Donald, Cooper realizes that he must put aside his desire to stay with his family and try to find humanity a new home.

Here the character has a moment to express who they truly are. A part of them always wants to stay in the world they began in, but a thematic question or wise words from a friend tend to set them off on the adventure.

Break into Two: Cooper tells his kids what he's decided to do, which results in Murph crying and screaming at him. This heart-wrenching moment may well be the last time Cooper ever sees her, and the memory haunts him as he drives away from his family and to the base, where he launches into space.

Usually, Break into Two is associated with a change of location (quite literally in this case); the Break into Two signals to the viewer that all the set-up is done. Now it's time to get into the meat and potatoes of the film.

Act 2

Promise of the Premise: With his crew, Cooper journeys to the mysterious black hole and goes where no man has gone before; he launches the ship into the rip in spacetime. The crew emerges in an entirely new galaxy where several planets must be surveyed. However, many of the planets are close to the black hole, which means that their time is severely dilated. If Cooper and his team go down to the first water planet, every hour they spend down there is equal to seven years in Earth time.

However, knowing they need to persevere, Cooper goes down to the planet. However, the mission goes disastrously as a giant tidal wave wrecks their ship, killing one of the crew. The crew retreats back to their ship and soon learn that 23 years in earth time have gone by since they left. Worst of all, the water planet isn't suitable for human habitation.

Cooper wades through water on Miller's planet.
One of the planet's, named Miller's planet, is filled with water.

Pro-tip: Imagine the film's trailer and what you're promising the audience who's coming to see your movie. Whatever that promise is, you better put it here at the beginning of act two. Interstellar's a sci-fi romp with big ideas, and as such, this section gives us lots of juicy sci-fi goodness to dig into.

Midpoint: This is where things start to go wrong for Cooper and his crew. Desperate to make some headway in their mission (and feeling guilty about going on this mission in the first place), Cooper and the crew head to another habitable planet where a previous expedition landed and found an allegedly habitable world.

Once there, Cooper and his remaining crew meet Mann, an astronaut from the previous mission who found this good planet. However, things go sour when it turns out that Mann lied about the data so that someone would come and rescue him. Mann attempts to steal their spaceship to fly back to Earth, but not before his foolishness gets him killed.

The Midpoint is usually where the stakes get much greater, and things go wrong. So, what we once thought was the goal now changes. In this case, Cooper wanted to return home one day. Now the question is whether he can return home at all.

Darkest Moment: However, Mann's failed docking on their spaceship permanently damaged it, meaning the crew may never be able to go home. The team wanted to make a better life for the people they love, but now they'll never get to enjoy it themselves.

Whatever your character's greatest fear is, have it come out in full force at this point of the story. For Cooper, the idea of never seeing his family again is hell.

Break into Three: However, they have one out that will require significant sacrifice. They may be able to use the black hole to sling their shuttle to the last habitable planet in the new system. The move will cost the crew another 51 years back home on Earth, meaning those they loved may be dead if they ever get home. So, they decide to make the sacrifice to complete the mission.

The Break into Three usually accompanies a thematic revelation that gives the protagonist the strength to launch renewed, changed, and determined into the third act. Here, Cooper knows that he can still accomplish the mission, even if it means destroying himself.

Act 3

Finale: But, things go wrong yet again. It turns out the shuttle's too heavy to perform the slingshot effectively. Against Brand's (the daughter of the creator of their mission) wishes, Cooper jettisons as much excess weight as possible, including himself, into the black hole so that Brand has a shot of making it.

Cooper goes head first into the black hole but miraculously lives. He ends up in a tesseract, a four-dimensional space that allows Cooper to see through time in Murph's room back on Earth. Here, Cooper can influence gravity through time and transmit a message to Murph nearly five decades in the past, using the data the interior of the black hole holds to deliver a theorem that will allow the human race to defy gravity and become a spacefaring civilization.

He is then miraculously able to survive the black hole and is found by humans who are now living in space (due to his efforts). In a touching moment, he is able to reunite with Murph, who is now old and on her deathbed.

Old Murph lies in bed.
Cooper is finally reunited with his daughter at the end of the film.

The Finale allows the protagonist to embody their new thematic knowledge and put it into action. In the case of Interstellar, Cooper comes to a new understanding of how the universe works and uses this new knowledge of time to give humanity the information they need.

Denouement: Cooper is a man out of time and realizes he doesn't have much of a place in the world. However, he knows that Brand is still out there somewhere and may need help. Ever the adventurer, Cooper gets in a spaceship and sets out to find his crew mate.

The denouement is the last puzzle piece in the story to show how your character has changed. Cooper started as a man who was reluctant to explore and be an adventurer. Now, he wants nothing more than to get out and adventure again.

Download Interstellar here

Want to check out the script for yourself? Well, now you can! We have done the hard working of finding the script for you. Click here to download the script.

Summing up

You might think, due to the complex material of the story, that Interstellar has a complex structure, but it doesn't. Breaking it down into its constituent pieces, we can see that the story follows traditional tent poles and the Save the Cat story structure almost to a tee.

Remember, if you're writing a complex sci-fi story, no matter how intricate the mechanics of your world get, the tentpoles of storytelling are your reliable friend, not your enemy.

Are you looking to write your own screenplay as complex and spell-binding as Interstellar? Check out these resources on how to outline your screenplay, how to choose a screenplay structure to follow, staying productive and finally, pitching your script to get it sold.

Luckily, you can use Arc Studio to help you on the entire writing journey - from outline to finished product! Arc Studio provides built in story structures so you don’t have to put in all that tedious time formatting. Try out Arc Studio today, for free!

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Screenplay Breakdown: Interstellar Explained
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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David Wain

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David Wain
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