Friday, July 27, 2012

The Auteurs #13: Christopher Nolan

One of the few filmmakers currently working in Hollywood with an independent sensibility, Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who creates films that are big but also highbrow in its ambition. Whether it’s in crime films or dealing with mysticism, there is no filmmaker like Nolan who is able to create films that can appeal to a wide audience no matter how complicated the stories he create seem. As he’s about to close the final chapter of his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan is already a filmmaker that many film buffs can trust on.

Born in London, England on July 30, 1970, Nolan was the son of a British copywriter and an American flight attendant where he later gained a younger brother in Jonathan in June of 1976. Splitting his time in London and his mother’s home of Chicago in the U.S., Nolan’s interest in the world of movies began at a young age where he made Super 8 films that featured his toy collection. While coming of age with his younger brother, Nolan met a future filmmaker in Roko Belic where they collaborated in shorts during Nolan’s time in Chicago. After attending the Haileybury and Imperial Service College in Hertfordshire, England where he would meet his future wife Emma Thomas who would produce all of Nolan’s films.

During his college years, Nolan would make two shorts in 1989’s Tarantella and Larceny in 1996 as the latter would explore Nolan’s fascination with memory as it was funded by UCLU Film Society in Britain. The film would also feature Jeremy Theobald who would be one of Nolan’s early collaborator.


Nolan’s 1997 short film revolved around a man who is trying to kill a mysterious bug in his apartment. The three-minute short explores Nolan’s fascination with the world of troubled individuals as Jeremy Theobald plays a man who is truly troubled by what he’s trying to kill. The big reveal shows the kind of ambition that Nolan wants as it would indicate the work that he would do in his feature films.

Following graduation and the three shorts he made, Christopher Nolan got a chance to make his feature film in the form of a 69-minute film that he wrote, shot, co-edited, and directed called Following. The film is a neo-noir story about a man who follows strangers including a thief only to be caught up in that man’s dark underworld.

A fan of noir films, Nolan decided to create a story that would play with the conventions of noir as he also devised to have it told in a non-linear manner. Notably as it would play into Nolan’s fascination with memory as it is told by this young writer who is being interrogated for crimes he may have not committed. Shot on location in London, Nolan aimed for a look that was reminiscent of the early films of Stanley Kubrick, notably the 1955 film Killer’s Kiss that shared similar noir aesthetics with what Nolan wanted.

Shot in 16mm black-and-white film stock and in the span of three to four months on Saturdays, the film was shot with a very low budget of 3,000 pounds as Nolan had a small crew that included early collaborator David Julyan who did some of the film’s sound and its chilling music score. With Jeremy Theobald playing the young writer, Nolan cast up-and-coming British actress Lucy Russell as the femme fatale, Alex Haw as the thief, and Nolan’s father John as the policeman who interrogates the young writer. With many playing noir-like characters, Nolan wanted to make sure that the film isn’t a conventional noir due to the non-linear narrative structure as well as the images he created such as the writer lost amidst a sea of people walking around.

The film made its premiere at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival where it would get a limited release in the U.S. in the spring of 1999 with a U.K. release in November of that year. Though the reception for the film was good, it wouldn’t be up until the aftermath of the success of Nolan’s follow-up film Memento where the film got more attention. Notably as fans would spot numerous references to Nolan’s future work in the film such as the thief’s name Cobb that is the same name as the protagonist in Inception as well as the clock Cobb stole that would be in Memento. Another reference is a Batman sticker on a door Cobb and the writer stole as it would reference the Batman trilogy Nolan would later helm. Since its release, the film is often regarded as a top-notch debut film that would lead to the start of Nolan’s career.

Nolan’s next project would be based on a short story his younger brother Jonathan had created during a mid-1990s road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles that would be called Memento Mori. During the development for the story that revolved a man with anterograde amnesia who is trying to find his wife’s killer, Nolan had an idea to have the story be told backwards. Notably as it would help play to the amnesia where a man tries to take note of everything he’s doing as well as keep track of finding out who killed his wife.

With help from then-girlfriend and producer Emma Thomas to help sell Nolan’s screenplay to distributors, it would get the attention of Aaron Ryder of Newmarket Films to have the film be made for a budget of $4.5 million. Though the budget would double to $9 million in the end, Nolan was able to have the production be moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in order for Nolan’s desire to play true to the realm of film noir. During pre-production, Nolan would gain a couple of key collaborators who would become part of his filmmaking team. The first is editor Dody Dorn while the other is cinematographer Wally Pfister who had started his career shooting softcore porn films for B-movie studios.

When it came to casting, Guy Pearce finally nabbed the role of the film’s protagonist Leonard Shelby after Brad Pitt passed on the part due to scheduling conflicts as Aaron Eckhart and Thomas Jane were also considered. For the role of the bartender Natalie who reluctantly aids Leonard in his mission, Carrie-Anne Moss got the part as she had just appeared in the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix. Moss suggested her Matrix co-star in character actor Joe Pantoliano to play the role of the corrupt cop Teddy as Nolan would also cast character actors Stephen Tobolowsky, Mark Boone Junior, and Callum Keith Rennie for key supporting roles in the film as shooting began in the fall of 1999.

Wanting to create a film that is true to the idea of film noir, Nolan’s approach to telling the story backwards was crucial to playing up the suspense where he wanted to repeat images and other parts of the film so that Leonard could try and remember everything he’s doing. Yet, he is surrounded by people that could be manipulating him from the truth as Nolan used both color and black-and-white film stock to help tell the story. Adding to the suspense of David Julyan’s score that plays to the suspense as well as the sense of loss that Leonard is feeling throughout the film. What Nolan would create isn’t just a reinvention of film noir but a way to tell a story without conventions or making it too high brow for a mass audience.

The film premiered at the 2000 Venice Film Festival where it was well received as following festival appearances at the Deauville American Film Festival in France and the Toronto Film Festival gave the film a lot of attention leading to its U.S. premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. The buzz it received from film festivals helped give the film a theatrical release despite lack of interests from other distributors helping Newmarket become an emerging independent studio. The box office success and critical acclaim Nolan would receive would elevate him as a new emerging voice in independent films as he would also gain detractors for his use of exposition as well as labeling his backward narrative as a gimmick. Still, the success of Memento would announce to the world that Christopher Nolan had arrived.

The success of Memento would help Nolan gain the attention of major film studios eager to work with him. Yet like many filmmakers, Nolan wanted control as he eventually was attached to numerous projects for major studios. One of them would be in a remake of a project that Jonathan Demme was attached to in Erik Skoldbaejrg’s 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia. The film was about a detective who travels to a town to investigate the death of a young woman only to deal with a killer, guilt, and suffering from insomnia due to the town’s perpetual sunlight season.

The theme of guilt attracted Nolan to the project as he did a rewrite on Hilary Seitz’s screenplay to focus on that theme in relation to protagonist that is renamed Will Dormer. With many actors slated for the part including Harrison Ford, Al Pacino was cast while playing the antagonist Walter Finch is famed comedy actor Robin Williams that surprised everyone. With an ensemble that included character actors Nicky Katt and Paul Dooley along with Martin Donovan as Dormer’s partner, Maura Tierney as the lodge owner, and Hilary Swank in an expanded role from the original as young detective Ellie Burr.

Shot on location in Alaska, the film marked a huge transition from the intimacy of his previous films to showcase more expansive compositions of the Alaskan mountains. Helping to add authenticity to what Nolan wanted is production designer Nathan Crowley who would become one of Nolan’s key collaborators. Even as Crowley would create sets to help create a mood for the suspense with cinematographer Wally Pfister setting up lighting schemes to play Dormer’s increasing insomnia. While the film would have repeated images that would play to Dormer’s guilt, the film would end up being Nolan’s most straightforward film of his career.

Released in May of 2002 through Warner Brothers and the Section Eight production company from Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. The film was a critical and commercial hit for Nolan as it drew excellent notices for its cast and suspense. While many Nolan fans cited it as Nolan’s weakest film due to the fact that he didn’t entirely write the film nor does it have some of his unconventional narrative approach. The film is still considered to be a rare remake that actually succeeds in being just as good as the original as the film would raise Nolan’s clout with studios who are eager to work with him.

The box-office success of Insomnia would have Nolan in line for a much bigger project Warner Brothers wanted to revive which was a film franchise for the superhero Batman. The famed Caped Crusader was a hero Nolan loved as he put a Batman sticker on a door in a scene in Following. Yet, Nolan was aware of how much work the franchise for Batman needed to be revived following the poorly-received 1997 film Batman & Robin that was directed by Joel Schumacher and starred George Clooney as Batman. Instead of wanting to follow along with what had been told, Nolan felt that the story needed to re-told and re-started for a new audience.

After finally being attached to the project in early 2003, Nolan collaborated with screenwriter David S. Goyer to create a script that would be an origin story but in a different take. Goyer’s knowledge of comic stories and mythology would be useful to what Nolan wanted as the two based their script on a short story about Batman’s world travels. The two also wanted to focus on the characterization of Bruce Wayne as well as delve into much larger, darker themes such as chaos in relation to the forces Wayne has to face in the film. Another theme Nolan wanted to explore was fear in relation to how Wayne’s fear of bats would play to the guilt he carried over his parents’ death. During the development of the script, Nolan would also go on the search to find the right Batman as a long list of actors were in line as Christian Bale ultimately got the role.

With the shoot beginning in early 2004 in parts of Iceland, London, and Chicago, Nolan decided to take full control of the shooting with cinematographer Wally Pfister as they also decided to avoid using second unit crew work for the film. With Bale in the role of Batman, Nolan was able to get an ensemble that any young filmmaker would dream of. Sir Michael Caine played the role of Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred along with Gary Oldman as then-Sgt. James Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Liam Neeson as the mysterious Henri Ducard, Ken Watanabe as Ra’s Ah Ghul, Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow, and some fictionally-created roles for Tom Wilkinson as mob figure Carmine Falcone and Katie Holmes as Wayne’s love interest Rachel Dawes.

While Nolan also put some of his cast from Following in small cameos including his father John, Nolan still wanted to aim for a realistic look into Batman. Straying from the comic-book vision of Tim Burton’s 1989 film and its 1992 follow-up Batman Returns as well as the more cartoonish ode to the 60s TV show that Joel Schumacher had created. Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley to create a look that looked more real as Nolan had more control on how he wanted the Batmobile to look as well as creating gadgets that seemed more realistic. Even the suit had to look real but also in tune with all of the traditional looks of Batman as Nolan still wanted people to realize that Batman could still be made in the real world.

Adding to the scale of the ambition were the choice of composers Nolan wanted as he gained the services of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard who had been interesting in collaborating with each other for years. Getting two for the price of one was a coup for Nolan as Zimmer/Howard created a score that lived up to the bombast of what Nolan wanted as well as the heightened drama to Bruce Wayne’s troubled life. The music was a major change to what Nolan had done previously as the music was now more driven by orchestral arrangements to swell up the suspense and drama. Particularly as Nolan wanted to create a film that was entertaining but also intelligent and the overall result is one of the best superhero films presented for its genre.

The film premiered in June of 2005 to become one of the most acclaimed films of the year as well as a major success in the box office. The film not only gave Christian Bale the attention he had been yearning after years of being a cult actor. The film also put Nolan firmly in the mainstream as one of the rare filmmakers to work in Hollywood with an independent sensibility. While not everyone praised the film for its ambitious take on Batman along with criticism towards Katie Holmes’ performance in the wake of her publicized relationship with Tom Cruise. The film did manage to win back a lot of fans of Batman as it would also help Nolan increase his fan base and clout with the industry.

Thanks to the success of Batman Begins, Nolan was able to get the chance to do whatever he wanted as he and his brother Jonathan decided to revive a project they had been developing following the success of Memento. Based on Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, The Prestige told the story of dueling magicians who seek out to outdo each other in the world of magic during the late 19th Century. The Nolan brothers decided to turn the story into a feature film by utilizing a similar non-linear narrative approach they did with Memento but telling it in a more straightforward manner.

With new collaborators Christian Bale and Michael Caine joining the project while Nolan also brought in Batman Begins editor Lee Smith as part of his filmmaking collaborative team that also includes Wally Pfister, Nathan Crowley, and David Julyan. The cast would also include Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, then-newcomer Rebecca Hall, Piper Perabo, music legend David Bowie as Nikolai Tesla, Andy Serkis, and noted character actor/magician Ricky Jay into the film. Wanting to use magic as part of the story and how it is made, Nolan asked Ricky Jay to train Bale and Jackman for their roles as the dueling magicians who try to outdo each other.

Wanting to maintain an air of suspense and get the audience to keep guessing what is going on, Nolan’s approach to the story was to see how Bale’s Alfred Borden and Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier try to one-up each other to the point that they become mad in their obsession to outdo each other in the field of magic. Notably as the film plays to this non-linear narrative where each man reads diaries from the other person where the audience seems to realize like the characters themselves can realize that they’re being played. Notably as the two opposing magicians are motivated by different reasons as Borden is about pushing the boundaries of what magic can do while Angier is motivated by revenge over the death of his wife in hopes to outdo Borden.

Shot in Los Angeles with part of the locations in the Colorado for the scenes involving Angier and Nikolai Tesla. Nolan also aimed for a visual style that was entrancing as it included lush scenery in the Colorado mountains where Tesla conducted many of his experiments that would drive Angier into near-madness where he would eventually create the ultimate version of Borden’s magic trick. The result would have Nolan doing a lot to get the audience to be entertained as well as be engaged into the world of magic where they also realize some things can be as simple as they seem.

Released in late October of 2006, the film was a critical and commercial hit for Nolan as the $40 million budget picture grossed more than a $100 million worldwide. The film helped to raise Nolan as a top filmmaker as the film became a personal favorite among his fan base for its intricate plotting and vast visual settings. While the film wasn’t a big hit in comparison to Batman Begins, the film did prove that there’s more to Nolan than just the Batman movies.

With a series of critical and commercially successful films under his belt, Nolan returned to the Batman series for its follow-up to Batman Begins with its sequel in The Dark Knight. Teaming up with David S. Goyer for the project, Nolan also brought his brother Jonathan into the writing team to create a story that was much bigger than its predecessor not just in visual scale but in themes that would include nihilism in the form of the main villain that Batman is to face in the Joker.

The story would revolve around Bruce Wayne’s desire to save Gotham from evil as he finds a way out in the form of district attorney Harvey Dent who he feels could save Gotham. Yet, the two along with James Gordon face a new dark force in an anarchist named the Joker who threatens Gotham’s desire for peace through corruption and chaos. There, Wayne realizes that even Batman has limits in what he has to do to save Gotham even if it means having to break a few of his own rules.

With a story this ambitious and this grand, this meant that the production has to be bigger where there’s more stunts, more set pieces, and more action. Still, Nolan wanted to balance all of the action and suspense with drama to emphasize Wayne’s desire for a life outside of being the playboy and being Batman as he has to contend with Dent but also the Joker. Notably as the film would contain tragedy that would test Wayne’s desire to do good but it would mark a shift into Dent’s behavior where he would become another villain in the form of Two-Face.

With Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman returning from the first film along with an appearance from Cillian Murphy reprising his role as the Scarecrow. The cast would include Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Eric Roberts as a mob leader Sal Maroni, and Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Yet the biggest casting news came in the form of the Joker as rising Australian actor Heath Ledger nabbed the part of the crazed anarchist as Ledger drew his inspiration from Malcolm McDowell’s performance in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. Ledger’s performance would definitely raise the stakes for everything as his interpretation of the Joker was larger than life as well as someone whose sense of humor is truly off-kilter such as the big scene of him walking out of an exploding hospital as he tries to have part of it blown up.

Since the film is meant to be a big blockbuster with brains, Nolan wanted to aim for something different to get people to see it in the big screen. For some scenes, Nolan decided to shoot part of the film and its action sequences for IMAX to capture the massive scale of the production. For Nolan, it was a chance to make something that was close to the epic 70mm films that he loved to watch growing up as he wanted to recreate that experience that he felt is lost in films. Notably as he becomes part of an ongoing debate over film vs. digital as Nolan argues in favor of film as the form is dying.

Released in July of 2008, the film became a massive critical and commercial hit of the summer with many stating that Nolan raised the bar for the superhero films. Despite all of the accolades, the film’s success was bittersweet due to Heath Ledger’s death on January 22, 2008 to an accidental overdose as his performance was cited as the highlight of the film as it earned him a posthumous Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. Yet, the film’s box office success pondered many on how would Nolan top this one as someone wondered if a third film would be made.

For his seventh feature film, Nolan decided to make a heist film that would be unlike anything else. A project Nolan had in mind in the wake of ambitious late 90s films like Alex Proyas’ Dark City and the Wachowski‘s 1999 film The Matrix, Nolan’s heist film entitled Inception would be a film that is would bend all sorts of genres. The project revolved around a man whose job is to steal dreams from people’s minds as he’s asked by a businessman to inject an idea into a business rival’s mind with the help of a team. The film would be one of the most extravagant Hollywood blockbusters with a high-minded concept.

The film would mark the first time since Following where he wrote the film by himself as he aimed to create a story that was about a group of people entering into people’s minds to inject ideas into someone else. Yet, the film would also revolve around Nolan’s theme of guilt as the story is led by a character named Cobb who is dealing with the death of his wife that he felt responsible for as he tries to come to terms with it despite being a bit of a liability to his team. It was a project Nolan had wanted to do for years but needed enough experience to make a project as grand as this.

The $160 million budgeted film would require Nolan to create expansive sets and shoot in various locations such as Tokyo, Paris, London, Los Angeles, Tangiers, and Alberta, Canada. Working with Nolan on the art direction would be British production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas who had been known for making big set pieces for the blockbuster films of Bryan Singer like X2: X-Men United and Superman Returns. Among the ideas Nolan and Dyas would create would hallways that would move upside down for one of the characters to face off against fictional dream figures.

While the production was to be ambitious in terms of creating big sets with some visual effects, the vastness of the project would also be filled in the ensemble cast Nolan got. Along with an appearance from Michael Caine and supporting work from Nolan regulars Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. Headlining the ensemble as Cobb is Leonardo DiCaprio as DiCaprio was a big fan of Nolan. The cast also included Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s late wife Mal, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Pete Postlethwaite in one of his final film appearances before his death in early 2011. Knowing that heist films relied on the ensemble cast, Nolan wanted to maintain the spirit of the ensemble with this film as he gave each of his actors a chance to stand out.

While the project was large in scale and cast, Nolan wanted to ensure that it was still about something as he knew he was making a high-minded concept blockbuster in the age where the summer blockbuster was being dumb-down for the masses. While the story would have to include exposition about what is happening, Nolan wanted to make sure that the audience is up for the ride as he does more than enough for the audience to care for the characters or even laugh at them as he injected moments of humor in these characters such as Murphy’s Robert Fischer character telling Ken Watanabe’s Saito character “why couldn’t we have dreamed to be on a beach or something?”

Released in July of 2010, the film drew rave reviews and massive box office as British film critic Mark Kermode championed the film for being the one summer blockbuster for daring to be intelligent for a wide audience. Grossing more than $800 million worldwide, the film also garnered many accolades though many Nolan fans were upset over Nolan being snubbed by the Oscars once again for his work. Despite being nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, the film won four for its visual effects, sound work, and for Wally Pfister’s cinematography as it was another big achievement for Nolan as his fans would state the words “In Nolan We Trust”.

Nolan’s eight feature film would have him return to the story of Batman for one last time to conclude the trilogy about Bruce Wayne and his role of being Batman. In The Dark Knight Rises, the film would take place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight where Bruce Wayne has become a battered man haunted by the lie he created while dealing with a new foe who arrives to Gotham to finish Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan to destroy Gotham. The arrival of this new force in Bane as well as a cat burglar named Selina Kyle would prompt Wayne to return as Batman much to the concern of his butler Alfred.

Budgeted at $250 million, the film would be Nolan’s most expensive and most ambitious as he wanted to create the ultimate finale for his Dark Knight Trilogy. Notably as it would involve many of his themes of fear and guilt where both Wayne and Commissioner Gordon deal with the lie they created and Bane’s arrival who is set to undo the peace they brought following Harvey Dent’s death. The film would also have Wayne go back to the world of the League of Shadows that Bane leads where Batman would learn more about Ra’s Al Ghul past.

With many of Nolan’s regulars from the franchise returning like Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy along with a special appearance from Liam Neeson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Marion Cotillard also became regulars of Nolan as they each played key roles for the film while Hardy got to play the role of the lead villain Bane. For the role of the anti-hero Catwoman/Selina Kyle, Anne Hathaway nabbed the part as her character would never be referred to as Catwoman. Other actors who had key small parts included Matthew Modine, Ben Mendelsohn, and Juno Temple as part of Nolan’s desire to create a unique ensemble cast.

The film was to be much more complex as it would explore Wayne’s return as the Caped Crusader where he faces new foes like Bane who is proven to be a physical force both literally and conceptually. Particularly in the latter where he would destroy parts of Gotham to create an example of what he wanted to do. Yet, he wouldn’t be the film’s big revelation as it’s ultimate surprise involves Ra’s Al Ghul and his past in which Wayne would be in a prison where he would be in a place that was considered to be hell on Earth. While the film doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises does confirm Nolan’s power as a filmmaker.

With already eight films to his credit and the admiration of moviegoers and film critics, Christopher Nolan is already considered one of the best filmmakers working today. He is among one of the rare Hollywood filmmakers who can work within the system and make whatever films he wants. Whether it’s about Batman, magicians, a guilt-ridden detective, a mind extractor, a follower, or a man with amnesia. Only someone like Christopher Nolan could make these kind of films and have an audience be engaged by these stories. Whatever he’ll do next, there’s no doubt that people will definitely be in line for whatever kind of magic Christopher Nolan will be up his sleeve.

© thevoid99 2012


Unknown said...

Nice work. I would love for him to return to making small films again, but I guess I'll settle for one that's not a remake, reboot, or sequel.

Chris said...

" Nolan would make two shorts in 1989’s Tarantella and Larceny in 1996"

Really? I thought Doodlebug was the first short. Where can I get those early obscurities. Or did Nolan hide the only copies away in his secret bat cave ( :