Christopher Nolan’s directorial outputs have become synonymous with summer blockbuster entertainment. Along with Emma Thomas, his wife and producing partner, the “Memento” director operates Syncopy, the production company whose logo shares the distinctive maze design that accompanied much of the promotional material for his 2010 hit, “Inception.” The Producer Guild of America’s annual Produced By Conference featured a conversation with both Nolan and Thomas, moderated by PGA National Executive Director Vance Van Petten at the Wheel of Fortune studio on the Sony Pictures Entertainment campus.
Some of the notable excerpts from their conversation are featured below:
On Nolan’s directorial debut, “Following”:
Van Patten quizzed the pair about their early years, comparing their efforts to make the noir-tinged “Following” after the two had finished their time at university. “The only budget we had was for the price of film stock and the cost of developing. At the time, when we did the festival circuit, I would say that we could fit the entire cast and crew into a London taxi,” Nolan said. During the process, he and his crew would rehearse during the week and shoot on Saturday. “A lot of those shots were second takes,” he said.
The American Film Festival Experience:
Since Nolan had dual citizenship in England and the United States, he was able to bring the film to, among other places, the San Francisco Film Festival. “There was no really developed network of festivals in Europe,” he recalled. Having the draft for “Memento” during the circuit was a great asset to its eventual production. “It was a good package to be able to say, ‘Here’s a film we’ve made.’” In a moment of advice to the aspiring producers in the audience, Nolan reiterated that it was vital to know “what you want to do next. If you don’t have something, it’s a huge disadvantage.”
Transitioning to the Studio System:
Eventually, when he secured the director’s chair for the Al Pacino-led “Insomnia,” Nolan began to hone his approach to a film with 10 times the budget of the roughly $3.5 million amount for “Memento.” He soon found that being simply a director was becoming less possible. “On ‘Insomnia,’ I approached it as a director. I didn’t want the responsibility of the budget. But as a director, you’re inevitably in the role of producer in the way I wanted to do it,” he said. As his filmography progressed and Nolan assumed the producer role, he and Thomas started to inhabit different halves of the main responsibilities. “Often times, with the actors, we have preserve the relationship between the directors and the actors. I have the conversations with them that don’t have to do with the performance,” Thomas explained. The audience chuckled when she added, “Like when I have to ask them to come to the set on time.”
As the ambitious nature of his undertakings grow in magnitude, Nolan’s realized that he can no longer go into casting with a set of shooting dates and locations. “All production is non-linear,” Nolan said, adding, “The schedules are dictated by actor availability. It’s a help that I can think like that, but it took me a couple of films. Your brain has to be six months ahead so that when you rearrange your schedule, you can do that. You have to say to the first four or five actors who come on that you don’t know when exactly you’ll be working. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t like being a producer, because you get in situations where you have to turn on a dime when an actor isn’t available.”
Building a Reputation at the Studios:
“There are different ways to approach how you deal with studios on the financial side,” Nolan explained. “We’ve always tried to be completely honest. We look in their eyes and say, ‘This is how much it’s going to take. I wish it were less, but that’s how it is. We want to have creative autonomy. If we stay on time and on budget, there’s less to worry about.” One of the ways that Nolan and Thomas are able to achieve that is by foregoing a traditional element of studio filmmaking. “I didn’t have any idea of how to use a 2nd unit as a director, so I think we made a case for it being cheaper. They’re a very expensive luxury.”
Film vs. Digital:
Nolan is a staunch proponent of using traditional film, rather than eschewing the original format for video. When asked to elaborate on his passionate defense of film, the director said, “The reason I think that film is the best format is that it is the best format. I don’t want to be the R&D department. I have no interest in being the research end of the process. Film is most analogous to what the eye sees. I use to shoot corporate videos in Britain that way and I didn’t like it. The way we’re doing our films is the way everyone was doing it 6 or 7 years ago.” Discussing the costs associated with transferring a rough cut of video footage to a digital-projector format, Nolan made the case that film saves time and money in the post-production process. If you have the film, he argued, you could tape it up and throw it on a projector. But, as he quipped, “It’s harder to find splicing tape these days. I think Steven Spielberg bought it all.”
But What About BATMAN?:
Van Petten was reluctant to ask Nolan for any specifics on his upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises,” but for anyone holding out hope that the director will return for a fourth installment, his answer continues to be a single word: “No.” When asked why the third film would be his final for the franchise, Nolan said, “Mainly, because I’m superstitious, but I said to my brother [and sometimes-writing-partner Johnathan Nolan] that I didn’t want to save anything. We’re never on a specific trajectory, but I always viewed Bruce Wayne’s story in three parts. I didn’t want to hold anything back. I think you learn so much from the audience. You don’t know what you’ve made until you’ve put it out there.” When talking about whether their next venture would be dictated by budget or expansion, Thomas explained, “We’re going to do a film that appeals to us. We make movies that we’d like to see.”