One of the most jaw-dropping scenes in writer-director Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" is an impossibly elaborate car chase involving time travel, cars driven in reverse, real explosions and star John David Washington crawling out on the ladder of a moving fire truck.
The elaborate scenes required shutting down one of the main highways in Estonia, closing nearly four miles of the Laagna Tee highway around the country's capital Tallinn during shooting last July.
You'd think drivers in the former Soviet republic might hold a "Tenet" grudge.
"You might think so," says Nolan. "But it turns out that 'Tenet' is the most successful film in the history of Estonia. So I think they were OK with it."
"Tenet" (available on Blu-ray and streaming in the U.S.) broke the Estonian box-office record for international film with $1.2 million, with 266,000 people from the small country's population of just 1.3 million seeing the film.
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The highway shutdown was unprecedented for Nolan, who has overseen major traffic stoppages for action sequences before, such as when he closed Chicago's Lower Wacker Drive (at night) to film memorable scenes for 2008's "The Dark Knight."
Nolan was blown way by the effort during the Estonia shoot, which was akin to shutting down Los Angeles' busy 405 freeway.
"To go to a city and say, 'Look, in the middle of the day, we want to close down your busiest highway for three weeks,' " says Nolan. "But they went with it. We really had the run of that road throughout the day and staged some very extreme stunts where we had to clear the whole area."
Nele Paves, commissioner of the Estonian Film Institute, says over e-mail, "It really is one of our main highways, closed during the height of summer. But Estonians are so proud of the film, accompanied by such excitement and media frenzy. People were interviewed in the cinemas saying they are going to go see it twice, as the first time they were distracted looking at the Estonian locations and had a hard time following the actual plot."
The highway scenes included Kenneth Branagh walking away from a car explosion, Robert Pattinson at the wheel of a car driven in reverse by a stunt driver in the back seat, and several trucks rolling in formation down the highway. The fire truck seen with Washington required special attention.
"There were all kinds of conversations before we actually shot the scene, how tall is this truck, how low are the (oncoming) bridges, do we need to let air out of the tires? But it all fit," says Nolan. "We were able to put together a sequence that looks incredibly hazardous. It wasn't easy to film, but it was very safe to film."
Nolan also raved about the 3,000 local Estonian extras who played concertgoers in the action film's opening scene, shot in the Soviet-era Linnahall. The extras, most in their first Hollywood movie, portrayed audience members under attack by commandos, knocked out instantly by sleeping gas.
"They did an incredible job," says Nolan. "There's the choreography of them all succumbing to the gas and falling asleep in a big wave. Then they had to pretend to be unconscious while gunfire is going off around them, with very loud blanks and explosions. Nobody stirred. There were actors climbing over them and the backs of the seats at points. But we didn't have to edit around anyone. They were really remarkable extras."
The extras endured a week's worth of often tedious shooting. Normally with a scene like that, extras excitedly attend Day 1. "And then, when they see how boring filming can be, they don't turn up the next day," says Nolan. "But these guys were committed."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How 'Tenet' highway car chase closed Estonia's main highway