Christopher Nolan: The Last Of A Dying Breed?

With a film CV of FOLLOWING, MEMENTO, INSOMNIA, BATMAN BEGINS, THE PRESTIGE, THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION and the forthcoming THE DARK KNIGHT RISES you could be forgiven for worshipping at Christopher Nolan’s feet; he is undoubtedly Hollywood’s most exciting director, someone unafraid to throw a couple of different narrative angles at you or make you actually think about what you’re watching – properly think in a way only Kubrick has been able to make us do.

At the age of 41 Christopher Nolan has the world in his hands and is set to dominate the summer with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. But what makes him tick? Well the Directors Guild of America recently interviewed him, and he’s every bit as interesting as his films.

Nolan on Directing:

I’ve always made films and I never really stopped, starting with little stop-motion experiments using my dad’s Super 8 camera. In my mind, it’s all one big continuum of filmmaking and I’ve never changed…I didn’t go to film school. I studied English literature at college and pursued a straight academic qualification, all the while making my own films and wanting to make more.

Nolan’s discovery:

I paid for my first feature, Following, myself and made it with friends. We were all working full-time jobs, so we’d get together on weekends for a year, shooting about 15 minutes of raw stock every Saturday, one or two takes of everything, and getting maybe five minutes of finished film out of that. We went to the San Francisco Film Festival with it [in 1998] and Zeitgeist Films picked up distribution, which really helped me get MEMENTO going. I got paid to direct it, I had millions of dollars in trucks and hundreds of people and everything, and I haven’t looked back since.

Nolan’s influences:

When I was 16 I read a Graham Swift novel, Waterland, that did incredible things with parallel timelines, and told a story in different dimensions that was extremely coherent. Around the same time, I remember Alan Parker’s The Wall on television, which does a very similar thing purely with imagery, using memories and dreams crossing over to other dreams and so forth…somehow, I got hold of a script to Pulp Fiction before the film came out and was fascinated with what Tarantino had done.

Nolan on discovering directing:

…when I was young and looking at ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER, I was going, OK, they’re different stories, different settings, really different actors, everything’s different—but there’s a very strong connection between those two films, and that is the director, Ridley Scott. I remember being struck by that, and thinking that’s the job I want…You really felt there were things going on outside of those rooms where you’ve seen the film take place. That’s something I’ve always tried to carry with me.

Ever since MEMENTO, working with Guy Pearce, Nolan has worked with exceptional talent, Pacino, Bale, Oldman to name a few but how does he get the best out of them?

Nolan on actors:

What I try to do is give them whatever process they need. It may not be what they think they need, and indeed it may be counter to that, but I really try to be different [and adapt] for every actor, I try to make them comfortable, I try to get the best out of them…My uncle [John Nolan] is an actor and he’s been in several of my films. When I came to make FOLLOWING, he was teaching acting so I asked him what I would need to know. He gave me a couple of Stanislavski books—An Actor Prepares was one—and said they would give me the basics. He also talked me through a few things and gave me an understanding of the craft…I learned lots of things on MEMENTO, but one thing I’ve always adhered to since then is letting actors perform as many takes as they want…If an actor tells me they can do something more with a scene, I give them the chance, because it’s not going to cost that much time.

Nolan on independent to studio:

…the difference between shooting FOLLOWING with a group of friends wearing our own clothes and my mum making sandwiches to spending $4 million of somebody else’s money on MEMENTO and having a crew of a hundred people is, to this day, by far the biggest leap I’ve ever made. It was a bit like learning to swim once you’re out of your depth: It doesn’t make any difference if it’s 2 feet or 100 feet down to the bottom—you’re either going to drown, or not…for me, the process itself has always been fundamentally the same: You stand there and look at what the scene is going to be and then everything else falls away

Nolan on filming and editing:

…for all the dramatic action, I use single-camera. Shooting single-camera means I’ve already seen every frame as it’s gone through the gate because my attention isn’t divided to multi-cameras. So I see it all and I watch dailies every night…I’ve always been able to visualize what I want mentally, and I can lie there at night and cut the film in my head, one shot at a time, all the way through the whole thing.

Perfectionist was attributed to Kubrick and Nolan fits that mould, so how does he feel about the advances in technology and 3d?

Nolan on digital, IMAX and 3d:

It’s cheaper to work on film, it’s far better looking, it’s the technology that’s been known and understood for a hundred years, and it’s extremely reliable…We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I’ve never done a digital intermediate…I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented. It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion…3-D is a misnomer. Films are 3-D. The whole point of photography is that it’s three-dimensional. The thing with stereoscopic imaging is it gives each audience member an individual perspective.

Nolan on CGI and special-effects:

There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in…I prefer films that feel more like real life, so any CGI has to be very carefully handled to fit into that…I grew up as a huge fan of Kubrick’s 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY, and was fascinated by the way in which he built that centrifugal set so that the astronauts could jog all around and upside down. I found his illusions completely convincing and mind-blowing. It was one of those rare instances that, when you find out how the trick is done, it’s even more impressive. So I’ve always wanted to do something like that, and with INCEPTION (the tumbling corridor scene) I had the opportunity and resources to do it within an action context.

Nolan on consistency in film-making:

…it’s all about point of view. I can’t cut a scene if I haven’t already figured out whose point of view I’m looking at, and I can’t shoot the scene in a neutral way… I don’t reframe using the zoom. Instead, we always move the camera physically closer and put a different focal length on. Stylistically, something that runs through my films is the shot that walks into a room behind a character, because to me, that takes me inside the way that the character enters.

So there you have it, a few quotes from an enthralling man who along with regular collaborators; Jonathan Nolan (Writer), Wally Pfister (Director of Photography) and Assistant Directing Trio Nilo Otero, 2nd AD Richard Graysmark, and 2nd 2nd Greg Pawlik, has created some of the most visually and thematically stunning films of the past…well, ever. In a time of Digital 3D, where watching a film can feel like an experiment in torture, it is refreshing to hear a man of such stature preach traditional film-making style and its virtues and we at The Hollywood News are enchanted by such a timeless film director.

Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway and Gary Oldman, lands in cinemas 20th July.

Source: Directors Guild of America

Sam is a bloody lovely lad born and raised in Bristol (he’s still there and can’t escape). Favourite films include THE LOST BOYS, DRIVE, FIGHT CLUB and COMMANDO, well pretty much any 1980s Arnie film you can throw his way…even RED SONJA. Sam once cancelled a Total Film subscription after they slagged off Teen Wolf. He resubscribed 2 days later.

1 Comment

  1. Thomas

    April 23, 2012 at 8:03 am

    Gained a lot of respect for Nolan after this interview. While I’m not sure about the whole batman thing, I can say he’s brilliant at what he does.

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