In the green room backstage at the Santa Barbara Film Fest tribute to Inception writer-director Chris Nolan, presenter Leonardo DiCaprio showed me and moderator Pete Hammond his collection of priceless movie posters on his BlackBerry. He collects the rarest of the rare, the best of the best, from Casablanca to his latest acquisition, a Metropolis one-sheet that he paid more for than any other movie poster ever. How much? He demurred.
In his introduction to his Inception director, DiCaprio said: “Nolan is exploring human frailty and emotional authenticity. No one director of our time can better embody the title Modern Master.”
Listening to Nolan, now 40, talk articulately in front of 2000 people at the Arlington, I was reminded of how far he’s come in the 12 years since his black-and-white debut Following. He started as a DIY indie; his first movie made its debut at Slamdance, not Sundance. After Memento, with a boost from mentor Steven Soderbergh, Nolan joined the Warner Bros. studio family, proved himself with Insomnia and Batman Begins and then delivered two top blockbusters, sequel The Dark Knight, which was snubbed in the best picture race, and original Inception, which is nominated for eight Oscars including picture and screenplay, but not director. A third Batman and Nolan’s reboot production of Superman are ramping up.
“My job boils down to what the shot is, what the next shot going to be, and continuity with the shot before,” said Nolan, who was raised by a British father and American mother; his brother Jonah is more American, he said. Nolan started shooting Super 8 shorts when he was eight; he recently showed them to his kids and was disappointed. Making movies was the only thing he ever wanted to do.
Following was the culmination of shooting 16 mm in London with limited means. The neo-noir cost 3000 pounds; he rehearsed six months months before he filmed with a handheld camera, shooting 15-minute sequences on Saturdays, one day a week for a year. Actors got one take. The movie is about “what happens when social protocols break down,” said Nolan. “Black-and-white is not cheaper: it lets you create expressive style with less.”
From the start, Nolan believed in not showing the film to his composer, but rather got demos, then expanded the music into sections, and eventually showed him the film. A film score is about creating ambience, not just punctuating, he said. Nolan’s wife and producer Emma Thomas was working at Working Title when Chris drove cross country with brother Jonah, who told him the story that became Memento during that long drive. Chris liked the idea of telling the story backward. He shot Memento in 25 1/2 days with an LA crew. His director of photography Wally Pfister shot fast, but with “a degree of polish,” said Nolan, who didn’t anticipate how the film’s structure would spin people’s heads.
“I make the film I want to see,” Nolan said. “Plenty of people want to see that. But it’s difficult on a larger budget for a studio to take risk. They know you need new things, but there’s a gap between aspiration and known quantity.” Memento had disastrous buyer screenings, so Newmarket, which financed the film, also self-distributed it. “Bob Berney did a great job,” Nolan said. “We took it to Venice, then we knew that it would work.” The fest circuit built Memento, and the award circuit too. Nolan’s sweet revenge moment: Memento won Indie Spirit awards in front of all the distributors that had turned it down.
Insomnia was a remake, a Hollywood version with a different vibe from the original. Nolan was playing off Al Pacino’s “cop baggage,” he said. Soderbergh got Nolan the job at Warner Bros. He suggested that Pacino die at the end. When trying to execute various tricky maneuvers on set, Nolan said: “it’s important to get lucky on these films, and also to have a backup plan.”
The bigger films, starting with Batman Begins, were about “balancing big spectacle and human drama,” said Nolan. “The reason I was interested in Batman was that he is NOT a superhero. He’s an ordinary man who does a lot of push-ups; he has a desire for revenge and a lot of money.” Nolan is continuing to explore that idea with the third Batman film. He got the first Batman gig because his agent told him that Darren Aronofsky’s R-rated Batman: Year One was dead. Nolan wanted to do an epic retelling of the origin story, what Dick Donner did for Superman. It was about having “Batman as an extraordinary man in an ordinary world.”
Nolan had liked Christian Bale in American Psycho: “I thought he was funny. He was the first actor I met for the part.” Nolan was worried that Bale was had gotten so skinny for The Machinist, but the actor added the needed weight before he shot Batman. Nolan tries to get as much as possible in the frame: “The FX guys are good at matching and enhancing, without entering the world of animation. Audiences know the difference.”
With The Prestige, Nolan left it to his brother to figure out the script. They did it after Batman. They shot the whole thing on locations in downtown LA, which had abandoned theaters they could take over. Batman Begins was intended as a standalone film. Then months later, Nolan became interested in seeing The Joker in that world: “We had a jumping off point. The motor is The Joker.” Heath Ledger saw Clockwork Orange as a force of anarchy and chaos, said Nolan: “Heath was all about surprise, he keeps the audience on edge, they don’t know what he’s going to do next.” Ledger sidestepped comparisons with Jack Nicholson.
Nolan shot six scenes in The Dark Knight with huge IMAX cameras, which had not been used in features: “it’s very immersive.”
Sequels bring comfort and familiarity, said Nolan: “the challenge is reinventing it for the audience.” They’re 12 weeks away from shooting The Dark Knight Rises, which starts in May with Bale, Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy as Catwoman and Bane. “It’s about finishing the story: every film is about endings,” said Nolan. “It’s Bruce Wayne’s story.”
Zack Snyder is directing Henry Cavill as the new Superman, with Nolan producing, he said: “For me what’s fun is to pursue the movie I want to see the most.” He can’t do the Soderbergh multi-tasking workaholism thing. Inception he wrote by himself over ten years, with his brother reading. He pitched it to Warners after Insomnia, then wrote it for eight years. Within two years of handing in the script, it got made. It was his James Bond movie. He wanted to combine what he loved in grand-scale action movies like Bond, but take a conceptual approach to exploring character and combine it with action, twist the way the audience arrives at these things, apply them to action tropes, looking at it in different way. “It’s easy to miss the layers of character Leo brings to this guy’s subconscious,” Nolan said. Inception is an attempt to fuse the influences of adventurous filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Nic Roeg “with explosions and a conventional payoff for audience.”