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Tribeca: Bennett Miller Gets Christopher Nolan to Open Up About the Studio System and His Biggest Fears

Tribeca: Bennett Miller Gets Christopher Nolan to Open Up About the Studio System and His Biggest Fears

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On Monday evening, Christopher Nolan, acclaimed director of “Memento,” Inception” and “Interstellar” visited the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival for one of their Tribeca Talks panels. His moderator was Bennett Miller, acclaimed director of “Moneyball” and “Foxcatcher.” Throughout the panel, Miller kept the focus mostly on Nolan’s filmmaking history, his influences, his processes and his family, but did manage to include a story referencing Amy Pascal and his own experiences with studios. Check out the highlights from the panel below which dive into Nolan’s process:

Nolan’s first memory of film.

“My first memory of going to a film is probably seeing ‘Snow White’ in re-release,” Nolan said. “I very much remember seeing the evil witch, the evil queen who transforms herself into the witch, with the apple and being absolutely terrified and going down on the floor of the movie theater behind the seat. The first memories of making films are I started borrowing my dad’s Super 8 camera when I was 7 years-old and using toys and stuff to do stop-motion animation, you know bringing toys in front of the camera and trying to get shots. Then from the second I saw ‘Star Wars’ everything was space ships and science-fiction. I would make these imaginatively titles films on Super 8 called ‘Space Wars.’ I actually showed a couple of them to my kids recently and I was a little disappointed at how bad they were!”

Where Nolan gets his confidence.

“The confidence that I have comes from the knowledge that, even if I couldn’t secure a huge budget and big stars, I could make a film on table tops,” Nolan said. “I think if you can allow everything outside the fray to fall away, if you can always be obsessed with the image and what’s in the frame and what it’s doing to the story, you can get creative.”

Nolan’s advice to young filmmakers.

“I had a chance to talk to Steven Frears when I was starting out and his advice was, ‘Be a lucky man,'” Nolan said. “And he saw how crestfallen I was and he sort of stopped and stared and then said, ‘Okay, get a script and hang on to it no matter who tries to push you off it or buy it off you.’ If you’re lucky enough to be telling a story with a camera, appreciate that as filmmaking. Don’t always be waiting for the real film to come along, because you may be making the real film.”

Nolan’s biggest fear.

“My biggest fear is embarking on a project that you fall out of love with,” Nolan said. “I’ve done everything to avoid that in my career. For me each film, there’s a huge investment of time and life and energy. The big fear is that you get halfway through and think, ‘No this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, my writing drafts or living with it, thinking about it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy to be obsessed with this project three years later.”

How does Nolan balance family and work?

Nolan confessed that he relies on his wife when it comes to keeping his family life in balance. “It’s challenging,” he admitted. “The best part of that equation is to find yourself as a partner, as a producer and as a wife, who is capable of raising four children while she produces the huge movies. But the process of getting married and having children, I’ve tried to use that in my work. I can just always be driven by things that are important to me. I can look out the window and see my kids playing in the grass and that becomes the key image in ‘Inception.’ I’d rather be out there playing with them than writing a script, but you use that emotion.”

How Nolan deals with studios.

“Being a film director in employment terms, in theatrical motion pictures is a very paradoxical position,” Nolan said. “Because you are hired by people who then give the appearance of wanting to control you, but they’ve hired you to defy them. They’ve hired you to have a point of view, but they know that. So you’re being paid to disregard those pressures to straighten up and fly right. At no time have I ever had that acknowledged.”

Miller then relayed a funny story about his experiences dealing with the studio system: “I was in a meeting for ‘Moneyball’ and went and sat with Amy Pascal and a group from the studio and everyone had gone through a version of the script and had taken pages of notes. We just went around in a circle, with everybody sharing their notes and I, I thought very reasonably, rejected them. Rationally, ‘No because, no because, no because.’ I thought it was a very productive meeting. I wasn’t five minutes off the lot when Amy called and said, ‘I’m only going to explain this once. We all know collectively at the studio, as a studio, that in the best circumstances we will only ever exercise 4.5 percent influence over you, ’cause you’re the director. But when we have these meetings, you have to make everybody feel smart. And good. And I will never say this again.’ From that point forward they continued to torture me, but I had that. I don’t know how you learned that but I needed someone to tell it to me.”

Nolan explained that he gets his restraint from Steven Soderbergh. “I think I learned it form Steven Soderbergh because he very kindly was an executive producer on ‘Insomnia.’ When you get into that studio environment where there’s a hierarchy where there are people whose jobs it is, literally they’re being paid to give you notes. He had developed such a reasonable attitude to it that in no way compromised what he was trying to do creatively, it was an incredible example to go on and a wonderful thing to see. It was all about respect for the other person’s point of view. It was okay the note might be wrong or the suggestions might be wrong. But they’re saying that for a reason, and you have to figure out what that reason is. Sometimes there is ego, but very often there is a creative reason.”

How Nolan eases a studio’s worries.

“You have to develop confidence or the fake version of it as anxieties rise at the studio. Anxiety breeds anxiety,” Nolan said. “If they see that you’re worried or if they feel that you’re worried, that will worry them more than anything. So whatever anxiety they’re expressing, you have to be the person to reassure them somehow. And I think that’s very very important. You also have to recognize the economic anxiety. I do think everything is cyclical in the movie business, but certainly difficult for original films to get made.”

Nolan was concerned about Matthew McConaughey.

“Once he won the Oscar for ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ the studio particularly credited itself with arranging this but the truth is we cast him [in ‘Interstellar’] long before any of that happened,” Nolan said. “I remember seeing him shooting ‘True Detective” and being concerned and thinking, ‘Oh well he’s doing a TV show, what’s that going to be,’ and so we got incredibly lucky. It’s a combination of luck and knowing he was right for the part. The studio was thrilled when his star then rose in such spectacular fashion.”

Why Nolan cares about film preservation.

“I care because film has the best imaging capabilities that exist. I think that a lot of the threat to film in production particularly is a little shortsighted a little financially driven. I think that I’m fortunate to be in a position to be able to stand up for what I believe in and I want to try and give a voice to the many other filmmakers who love the stuff. To a certain extent, I use the stuff that’s best for the job.”

How Nolan works with actors.

“I’d say it’s just evolved into a process really of trying to be the director that an individual actor needs me to be,” Nolan said. “Every actors needs are different. What I love about great actors is I’ve found their process to be different and unique always but when their in a scene with another actor of a different process, they have a way of accommodating each other and that’s the transfer of energy that I find very inspiring. What I try to be is an audience for my actors. I try to simply delight in the work they’re doing and give them feedback from that point of view.”

How Nolan imagines the audience.

“For me every stage of the process I try to be the audience,” Nolan said. “I try to be watching the film, a member of the audience. Your expectations, as an audience member, they’re different depending on the film. So I don’t think of the audiences as somebody else or as us and them. I think i’m part of the audience and I try to be true to what I would want to see and would enjoy watching in the type of film that I’m making.”

On that “Inception” ending.

An audience member asked if, at the end of “Inception,” the top fell over or remained spinning, to which Nolan replied. “I’m certainly not going to answer that or I would have put in in the film.”

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