The Traditionalist: The director who resurrected Batman, made time go backward in Memento, and deconstructed dreams in Inception speaks his mind.
The movie-obsessed son of an English ad man and an American flight attendant, director Christopher Nolan burst upon the scene in 2000 with the film noirMemento. The $4 million independent film delivered the usual crime thriller tropes but with a meta twist—the hero’s recurring short-term memory loss was illustrated by using an intertwined pair of narratives, one moving forward in time while the other told the story backward.
With its non-linear narrative, a device Nolan would also use in later films, Memento introduced a new talent who respected hard-boiled tradition while breaking cinematic rules. After capably handling Warner Bros.’ 2002 psychological drama Insomnia, the studio entrusted him to resurrect its dormant Batman franchise. Nolan’s 2005Batman Begins, along with its even more spectacular 2008 follow-up, The Dark Knight, brought brooding sophistication and near-Shakespearean gravitas to the familiar comic book character.
In between visits to Gotham, Nolan scaled down and directed The Prestige (2006), a period piece about rival magicians in late 19th-century London. And in 2010, he made the visually daring, labyrinthine caper film Inception, about a team of dream invaders. But behind the wild imagination that unleashed the anarchistic Joker, folded the streets of Paris like so much origami, and played out an entire story line in reverse, is a traditionalist who eschews special effects and shoots as much as he can with a single camera.
We met up with the 41-year-old Nolan as he was editing his third and final Batmanfilm, The Dark Knight Rises, working with associates out of a comfortable house a few miles below the Hollywood sign. Despite an intense deadline to pull all the myriad pieces together and complete his director’s cut, Nolan was the picture of Zen-like calm, speaking softly and deliberately about his work.
JEFFREY RESSNER: When did you realize that directing was your life’s calling?
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: To be honest, 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 used to noodle around with the camera but 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. 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 getMemento 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.
Q: What benefits were there in being self-taught rather than going to film school?
A: A very organic approach to understanding all the different bits of the craft. I’m interested in every different bit of filmmaking because I had to do every bit of it myself—from sound recording and ADR to editing and music. I feel very lucky to be a member of probably the last generation who cut film on a Steenbeck flatbed, physically taping it together and dropping out shots. It gave me a really good grounding in knowing overall what has to go into a film technically that was very valuable. And it meant that absolutely everything I did was simply because I was passionate and wanted to try stuff. You’re never going to learn something as profoundly as when it’s purely out of curiosity.
Q: You’re a longtime fan of detective novels, which often employ flashbacks and other time-shifting devices. Is that where your fascination for non-linear storytelling comes from?
A: Well, I had a couple of big 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. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and Performance were also influential. Those stuck in my head, as did a lot of crime fiction—James Ellroy, Jim Thompson—and film noirs like Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, which was just staggering. Then, somehow, I got hold of a script to Pulp Fiction before the film came out and was fascinated with what Tarantino had done.
Q: You’ve often said that your favorite film is Blade Runner. What special significance does it hold for you?
A: As a kid watching films, you go through a gradual realization of what’s behind them. You start off like everyone else, thinking that actors make up the words and create the film themselves. So 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.
The atmosphere of Blade Runner was also important, that feeling that there was this whole world outside the frame of the scene. 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. Every film should have its own world, a logic and feel to it that expands beyond the exact image that the audience is seeing.
Q: In your early films you wrote, shot, edited, even designed sets—the only thing you didn’t do was act. What process do you use working with actors?
A: 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. You hear stories of directors deliberately making actors uncomfortable, but I always make the actor feel that they have what they need to explore a scene. 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.
Q: What did you pick up from working with actors on your early films?
A: 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. I’ve come to realize that the lighting and camera setups, the technical things, take all the time, but running another take generally only adds a couple of minutes. I was shooting a very important scene with Guy Pearce in which his character is extremely upset, and it’s the lead-in to where Carrie-Anne Moss’ character takes Pearce’s shirt off and sees all the tattoos on his chest. That day, the financier of the film just happened to be visiting the set and was literally standing right behind me. We did a take that I thought was very good, and I knew we were out of time. So I asked Guy if he felt he’d gotten it, and he said, ‘No, we should do it again.’ I remember having a ‘What do I do?’ moment. Do I let him do it and risk running over? Or do I insist that we move on, which Guy would have done, because he’s flexible and professional? But I let him do another take, and that’s the one used in the film. It was very special, beyond what he had done previously, and way beyond what I had imagined was even possible for the scene. I’ve carried that with me ever since: 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. It can’t all be about the technical issues.
Q: How do you accommodate actors in the same film who may have different styles of working?
A: With Insomnia, Al Pacino liked to rehearse very, very carefully, block things out, and do a lot of takes. His first take would be perfect, but he really wanted to talk about things, whereas Hilary Swank didn’t want to rehearse too much. She wanted to save it, then do what she was going to do in one or two takes and no more. As a director, you have to figure out how to balance those things, because you want them both to feel that they’re being given the floor in the way they need for what they’re doing. What I love about great actors is that you then get them in a two-shot where you think their differences will be difficult, but it isn’t, because they accommodate each other’s process, they feel each other out and listen to each other.
Q: What was it like moving from the $45 million budget for Insomnia to three times that for Batman Begins? How daunting was that leap?
A:I don’t know if other people’s experiences mirror my own, but for me, 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.
The difference from Insomnia to Batman Begins, I would say, is we had very large-scale sets. But I had found a production designer on Insomnia, Nathan Crowley, who’d done a lot of art directing on big, big builds, so he came on board and we figured it out together. Those sorts of logistics are quite challenging and it was the first time I’d done a major visual effects movie. But 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, or it should if you’re concentrating correctly.
Q: You don’t like to shoot many takes, you only storyboard action scenes, you avoid shot lists, and you just use one camera for dramatic sequences. So how do you make directorial choices in the editing room given that you don’t seem to have a lot of coverage options?
A: Well, generally with the projects I’m working on, the script is based on some form of parallel action or shifting points of view, even when the story is linear. If you look at the last couple of reels on the Batman films, for example, they’re all crosscut parallel action. What that means is, even though you shoot very specifically and efficiently, you have unlimited choices in the editing suite because you don’t have to shoot complete continuity for a particular action scene. You can jump timelines or locations, so you have an enormous number of variables anyway. I’m not looking to make that process even more complicated.
Q: Does that mean you can edit more quickly?
A: On a film like Memento, I had a couple of days to edit each day’s shoot—which probably came out to a half-hour of dailies. On The Dark Knight Rises, to make that 10-week director’s cut I’ve basically got one day to cut three days of shooting—which comes to an hour or an hour and a half of footage. Just to sit there and watch it all is almost impossible, and I have massive, massive choices, even shooting in a pretty tight, efficient way. To make that more complicated—well, I might give myself more options, but I’m going to limit my editing time just to get a handle on it. I have a fantastic editor, Lee Smith, and he’s assembling as we shoot. You want to be able to sit back from the shoot and then really explore the materials. So you want to have the time to do that.
Q: Why do you prefer shooting with one camera?
A: I use multi-camera for stunts; 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. If you’re always shooting multi-camera, you shoot an enormous amount of footage, and then you have to go in and start from scratch, which is tricky time-wise.
Q: Without shot lists or storyboards, how do you keep track of everything?
A: In my head. 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. Watching dailies, which everybody used to have to do but now seems to be much more of an option, is an important process for memorizing the material. After memorizing it, you can then cut it in your head as you proceed, and when you get into the edit suite you know exactly where to find things. I can say to my editor, ‘You know, we shot a different angle on this’ or whatever, and tell him where to find it.
Q: You and your cameraman, Wally Pfister, are—along with Steven Spielberg—among the last holdouts who shoot on film in an industry that’s moved to digital. What’s your attraction to the older medium?
A: For the last 10 years, I’ve felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I’ve never understood why. 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. I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo. 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. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I’ve just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven’t seen that reason yet.
Q: Have you ever thought about communicating your feelings to the industry and other directors?
A: I’ve kept my mouth shut about this for a long time and it’s fine that everyone has a choice, but for me the choice is in real danger of disappearing. So right before Christmas I brought some filmmakers together and showed them the prologue forThe Dark Knight Rises that we shot on IMAX film, then cut from the original negative and printed. I wanted to give them a chance to see the potential, because 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. The message I wanted to put out there was that no one is taking anyone’s digital cameras away. But if we want film to continue as an option, and someone is working on a big studio movie with the resources and the power to insist [on] film, they should say so. I felt as if I didn’t say anything, and then we started to lose that option, it would be a shame. When I look at a digitally acquired and projected image, it looks inferior against an original negative anamorphic print or an IMAX one.
Q: What does IMAX give you that you don’t get from anamorphic 35 mm or 65 mm?
A: We shot 5-perf 65 mm for a few scenes in Inception and I liked the results a lot, plus you can use sound with it. But IMAX has three times the negative area of that format. It’s such a leap up in terms of quality that if you’re working on a film that’s such a large-scale production you can embrace the more cumbersome technology, and allow for it and build it into your production process, then what you get in terms of quality when you’re shooting is pretty extraordinary. For The Dark Knight Rises we were on Wall Street with a thousand extras, and you can see everybody’s face in the frame. In some ways, I feel it takes me back almost to the silent film era, when they had those huge cameras. Trying to do things in more of a tableau fashion, it changes the way I direct a film, it changes the way I block the camera movement because of the size of the thing. 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.
Q: Have you shot all of your big-budget films on IMAX?
A: We didn’t shoot IMAX for Inception because we were trying to portray the reality of dreams rather than their extraordinary nature, so we used a handheld camera and shot it in a more spontaneous way. Whereas the operatic quality of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises felt very well suited to IMAX’s larger canvas. So it’s different depending on what film you want to do. But, in each case, as a filmmaker who’s been given sizable budgets with which to work, I feel a responsibility to the audience to be shooting with the absolute highest quality technology that I can and make the film in a way that I want.
Q: Because of the kind of films you make, people might assume you use lots of computer-generated imagery, but you actually prefer models, mattes, and in-camera effects. When do you like to use CGI?
A: The thing with computer-generated imagery is that it’s an incredibly powerful tool for making better visual effects. But I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. 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. We try to enhance our stunt work and floor effects with extraordinary CGI tools like wire and rig removals. If you put a lot of time and effort into matching your original film elements, the kind of enhancements you can put into the frames can really trick the eye, offering results far beyond what was possible 20 years ago. The problem for me is if you don’t first shoot something with the camera on which to base the shot, the visual effect is going to stick out if the film you’re making has a realistic style or patina. I prefer films that feel more like real life, so any CGI has to be very carefully handled to fit into that.
Q: Perhaps the most famous effects scene in any of your films is the tumbling hallway sequence in Inception, which you did without green screens or computers but used an actual tumbling hallway. Why did you decide to go old school for that?
A: I grew up as a huge fan of Kubrick’s 2001, 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 withInception I had the opportunity and resources to do it within an action context. To take that trick and push it in a different direction fulfilled one of my childhood ambitions. So many techniques change in filmmaking over the years, and many of the things you grew up admiring you will never get the opportunity to do. But that large-scale physical effect was still the best way to do the sequence, and it was really fun.
Q: Speaking of technical changes, was there any pressure to do The Dark Knight Rises in 3-D?
A: Warner Bros. would have been very happy, but I said to the guys there that I wanted it to be stylistically consistent with the first two films and we were really going to push the IMAX thing to create a very high-quality image. I find stereoscopic imaging too small scale and intimate in its effect. 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. It’s well suited to video games and other immersive technologies, but if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace. I prefer the big canvas, looking up at an enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life. When you treat that stereoscopically, and we’ve tried a lot of tests, you shrink the size so the image becomes a much smaller window in front of you. So the effect of it, and the relationship of the image to the audience, has to be very carefully considered. And I feel that in the initial wave to embrace it, that wasn’t considered in the slightest.
Q: In terms of imagery and style, would you say there are any constants running through all your films?
A: An absolute concern with point of view. Whether in the pure camera blocking or even the writing, 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’ve tried to use more objective camera techniques—a longer lens, flattening things out, using multi-camera—but they don’t work. It’s funny, you were asking about 3-D and one of the things that happened when the craze came back was various aspects of conversion. The way I shoot film is actually very conducive to converting to 3-D because I’m always thinking of the camera as a participant. I don’t use zoom lenses, for example, so 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. I think those point-of-view issues are very important.
Q:You’ve worked with the same directorial team—1st AD Nilo Otero, 2nd AD Brandon Lambdin, and 2nd 2nd Greg Pawlik—on several of your films. What do you expect from them?
A: I’m looking to the ADs to bring everything to set in a timely fashion, and make sure all the different pieces of the puzzle work. I almost never get to leave the set. I have to go pee sometimes, of course, but otherwise I’m there by the camera the whole time, and so I really rely on the AD to wheel in all the different elements. Because I also like to work very fast and work single-camera, I have to keep things moving very smoothly. I rely on Nilo to keep a quiet set with no cell phones, and hopefully without making things too tense. He does a good job making people feel at ease, while also making it clear that we’re going to be extremely focused on the work that’s going on.
Q: Another thing that’s unique about your style, especially for such big films, is that you choose to work without a second unit. Why is that?
A: Let me put it this way: If I don’t need to be directing the shots that go in the movie, why do I need to be there at all? The screen is the same size for every shot. The little shot of, say, a watch on someone’s wrist, will occupy the same screen size as the shot of a thousand people running down the street. Everything is equally weighted and needs to be considered with equal care, I really do believe that. I don’t understand the criteria for parceling things off. Many action films embrace a second unit taking on all of the action. For me, that’s odd because then why did you want to do an action film? Having said that, there are fantastic filmmakers who use second and third units successfully. So it all comes back to the question of defining what a director does. Each of us works in different ways. It’s really helped me keep more of my personality in these big films. There’s a danger with big-action fare that the presence of the filmmaker is watered down, it can become very neutral, so I’ve tried to keep my point of view in every aspect of these films.
Q: You’re known for getting down to business quickly on the set. Roughly how many setups do you like to do in a day?
A: A very large number, given the single-camera approach. On Memento I remember a day when we did 53 setups with one camera. That was born out of necessity, but it was also very inspiring, very invigorating to be able to do a lot of different bits of storytelling in one day. I do like moving fast, and I can be quite impatient in that way, but I think the energy helps the project. I don’t like days on set where you don’t have enough to do. It happens very rarely. Generally, you never have enough time.
Q: You also don’t do re-shoots for your films. How do you avoid that?
A: I’ve never done a re-shoot, knock on wood. It all comes down to editing, just craft, just hammering it with my editor every day, trying radical cuts, pulling things out, abandoning bits of exposition, saying, ‘OK, does the audience really need to understand this? What if they don’t?’ I always overwrite the exposition in my scripts so that I’ve got multiple ways to get a point across. If you tell the audience something three times they won’t understand it, but if you tell them only once, they will. It’s an odd thing. So a lot of cutting for time is, for me, cutting for clarity. It’s finding where you can just pull dialogue out that you have overwritten, so you can find that one simple way an audience can get the right point.
Q: What are the issues in the industry you’re concerned about?
A: Copyright theft is a very important issue. While studios have been a bit late to realize that, I’m pleased the Guild has taken a real lead. I think it’s very important that both filmmakers and studios understand the importance of protecting their copyrights. I’ve worked at both ends of the spectrum and, yes, you can get a group of friends together and make a movie without spending lots of money. But if you’re going to be paid and make a living, and if you employ talented craftspeople who need to make a living, it’s always going to be an expensive form. The only way to ever get paid for it is by controlling the sale and distribution of the copyrighted material. Anyone who profits through theft, and certainly anyone getting advertising revenue off of somebody else’s copyrights, should be prosecuted, shut down, and held accountable. A lot of the laws are already in place, so it’s just a question of enforcing them. Judges and juries must understand what copyright theft really is.
Q: You joined the DGA after Memento. What would you tell a young director who is considering joining the Guild?
A: I got a DGA nomination for Memento, and I remember being impressed with the confidence and the values of the Guild, in that it didn’t matter to them if I wasn’t a member when I made that film. I joined for Insomnia, which was my first studio project. I think the protections afforded by the Guild are very important, particularly because directors are in a tricky creative relationship whenever they make a studio film. Ultimately, studios have all the power since they’re financing the picture. But having that 10-week director’s cut in which you’re able to work in private, without interference, and say, ‘Let me put this together in such a way so you can see what’s shot and how it was intended to be seen,’ is incredibly important. That alone is one of the key reasons to be part of the brotherhood.
Q: One last thing: I’ve noticed that while many of your peers wear casual clothing and baseball caps to work, it’s not unusual for you to sport a dark suit or a white linen jacket on the set. Why get so dressed up?
A: [laughs] I went to a boarding school where we had to wear a uniform, and I got used to using all the pockets in my jacket. It’s just what I’m comfortable in. I don’t like to think about what to wear, so I just wear the same thing every day. When I first started shooting with a crew on Memento I remember trying to pick up a sandbag and everyone was shouting at me that I wasn’t allowed to do that because there were specific people for that job. As much as I’d like to be able to get my hands dirty, I don’t usually get to do so. So I dress the way I would for a day at the office. It’s just easier that way.
BY JEFFREY RESSNER
reposted from the DGA Quarterly