Christopher Nolan: Modern Master


In Nolan we trust” – those four small words carry such weight of expectation. With The Dark Knight Rises, can modern auteur Christopher Nolan deliver a fitting end to what many are claiming is the definitive on screen treatment of the Batman legend? The evidence is already there that Nolan has never failed to deliver in spades, from his humble but audacious Super 8 debut, Following, to his IMAX Gotham love letters.

Christopher Nolan never went to film school or art college, but has been interested in film making for as long as he can remember, shooting short films as a child with his father’s super 8 camera, using his action figures as characters. He and his younger brother Jonathan, with whom he often collaborates in writing scripts, were raised in America and England by his English father and American mother. He read  English literature at University College London, and was heavily involved with the film society there. He believed that film makers should enjoy the same narrative freedoms that authors have enjoyed, and met his wife and future producer Emma Thomas through the society. Friends from those days would feature in his neo-noir film Following (1998), shot guerilla style in the streets of London and within their own homes and flats. He says “Following was always planned as an ultra-low budget film, so the substance of the film was both inspired by and planned around the shooting style which we developed to accomodate our limited resources.” An unemployed writer (Jeremy Theobald) randomly picks people to follow as a source of inspiration. When burglar Cobb catches him out and lures him into the break in of a mysterious woman’s flat, things start to get complicated and dangerous, and are not what they seem.

The film was shot by Nolan on 16mm black and white film, scenes rehearsed heavily to reduce the amount of takes needed, as Nolan was paying for the film himself from his full time salary. In fact, the film was shot in everyone’s spare time, over the course of a year, Nolan also producing and editing. He says a constant running through his films since Following is “absolute concern with point of view. Whether in the camera blocking or even the writing.” he doesn’t use zoom lenses, he just moves the camera physically closer and adjusts the lenses. “Stylistically,” he says, “something that runs through my films is the shot that walks into a room behind the character, because to me, that takes me inside the way that character enters.”

Following was screened at the 1998 San Francisco film festival and received a limited distribution. On the strength of that, Indy production company Newmarket films backed his next, bigger feature. The non-linear narrative of Following was expanded dramatically in Memento (2000), Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s adaptation of Jonathan’s short story, Memento Mori. Audaciously, the unreliable investigative narrative of Guy Pearce’s widower Leonard Shelby, a victim of short term memory loss after a robbery that claimed his wife, was shown in mostly reverse order. The film was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe for best screenplay. It also marked the beginning of Nolan’s fruitful collaboration with his director of photography, Wally Pfister.

Nolan had been impressed with his work on The Hi-Line, for which Pfister won the Santa Monica film festival’s award for best cinematography. He admired Pfister’s slow dolly shot on the protagonist during a crucial dramatic revelation, where others would have used a zoom (remember how Nolan doesn’t like to use zooms?). “It’s so slow,” Nolan said, “you feel it rather than see it. That kind of restraint is rare.” Nolan also enjoyed the fact that Pfister operated the camera himself – he’s all about cutting down barriers of communication and having quick set ups on set.

In 2002, Nolan was entrusted with directing the American remake of the 1997 Norwegian psychological thriller, Insomnia. Budget and star wattage, in the form of Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank, were increased. Its success allowed him the confidence, together with his next screenwriter David S Goyer and Pfister, to radically reinterpret Batman for Warner Brothers. Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008)  have been spectacular triumphs, and a touchstone for almost all reappraisals of comic book / superhero properties. That is, until the unapologetic, bright and exuberant team up of The Avengers. Comparisons are pointless though, each approach is equally valid for their respective characters. Nolan’s Batman touches on fear – corruption, escalation, economic downturn, hope and hopelessness – weighty stuff. His Batman exists in his own “Nolan-verse” – the director has firmly stated there is no Superman or Wonder Woman outside the Gotham city limits.

In between Gotham nights, Nolan delivered a sleight of hand period magician mystery, The Prestige (2006), a tragic tale of one-upmanship between his Batman Christian Bale, and rival Hugh Jackman. It was another typically twisty tale, another adaptation. He capped all that went before though with his most impressive, dazzling film to date, Inception (2010), whereby his burglar from Following, Cobb, has upped his ante a bit! Another Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specialises in “subconcious security” – to get his kids back, he is employed to stage an “inception” – plant an idea in his client’s rival’s mind. What was incredible about Inception, apart from the layered story and story telling (dreams within dreams) was how the hell Nolan, in 12 years, had basically got the power to do an independent blockbuster within the Hollywood system of his own idea, his own script, on his own terms, with little to no leaking of the plot. It did gangbusters numbers at the box office, and cemented his position as a major player in Hollywood. The title of this piece alludes to his award from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival – Executive Director Roger Durling stated “Every one of Nolan’s films has set a new standard for the film community, with Inception being the latest example.”

Nolan sees himself as “a human lens, through which everyone’s efforts are focused.” On Following, his actor uncle John Nolan gave him some Stanislavki books and a few tips on directing actors. Nolan is happy to let them do multiple takes if they feel they can produce something better, his reasoning being film is cheap, and he is already technically prepared. He shoots single camera for dramatic scenes, multi-camera for stunts, and doesn’t storyboard – he has a remarkable memory, being able to visualize what he wants, and edit the film in his head at night.

With regard to the digital vs film debate, he is a firm advocate of celluloid. he feels it is cheaper, looks better, and is reliable. For him , the king of all film is IMAX: “It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to.” The worrying reports about Peter Jackson’s 10 minute preview of The Hobbit – the RED 3D digital 48 frames per second  looking alarming to many – do not bode well, although hopefully these are exaggerated. Nolan laughs at the doubters about the viability of shooting on bulky IMAX cameras. He counters that they have been used in space – surely a more difficult environment than a controlled film set. Nolan has shot up to an hour of The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX format. “ The resulting image has so  much power that you don’t need to cut in the same way, you can frame the shot slightly differently, you wind up with a slightly different feel.” On the subject of 3D, he states “3D is a misnomer. Films are 3D. The whole point of photography is that it’s three dimensional. I prefer the big canvas, looking up at an image that feels larger than life” (as opposed to the darkening and shrinking complaint most have about 3D).

Another thing that sets Nolan apart from the herd is he doesn’t farm out to a second unit – he shoots everything, from the biggest stunt to the tiniest moment. He says “The screen is the same size for every shot. Everything is equally weighted and needs to be considered with equal care.” He obviously gets a kick out of directing action – he’s earned it, why hand over to someone else? “As much as I love books and the theatre, I think the cinema is a uniquely modern medium that we look to for the stories of our times,” he has said. I hope to be “Following” Christopher Nolan’s career for many years to come, and hopefully he will earn an Oscar sooner rather than later as a director – he has been recognised several times by festivals and the Director’s Guild of America, but never by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences . I leave you with a compilation of his released filmography to date (UPDATE: and a further, more complete recent tribute to all his films by Adrien Bssgt), and the trailer for his latest film Interstellar, due later this year.

Note: certain quotes are from Jeffrey Resner’s interview with Christopher Nolan for the Directors Guild Of America Quarterly – The Traditionalist. Others are from Kodak On Film interview with Christopher Nolan.

Originally posted 2012-05-08 15:29:54. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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