A Conversation With Christopher Nolan
December 16, 2008
When and how did you get interested in movies?
I started making films when I was seven years old in London. My dad was kind enough to let my brother and I use his Super 8 camera. We shot mini-epic science fiction and war movies with action figures. We sent the Super 8 cartridges off for processing and waited anxiously for two weeks to see what we got. It was great fun.
Do you recall what inspired you to make films?
I just loved movies, and my parents encouraged that interest. They are very creative people. My father is English and my mother is American. We lived in Chicago for a while and then moved back to London where I attended University College.
Did you study filmmaking in college?
No. I studied English literature, but that got me thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors have enjoyed for centuries. It seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well. Emma Thomas and I were members of the university film society. We showed 35mm feature films during the school year, and used the money earned from ticket sales to shoot our own 16mm during the summers. Emma is my wife and collaborator. She has produced all of my feature films.
You mentioned that you have loved movies since you were a child. Who are some of the filmmakers whose works have influenced your thinking and feelings?
It is difficult to single out just a few. I have always admired Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott and Nicolas Roeg to name as few. I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chinatown and Lawrence of Arabia. Alien and Blade Runner blew me away. All of those films created extraordinary, completely immersive worlds.
Do you recall when you decided to become a professional filmmaker?
When I was about 12 years old, I kind of figured out what a director did and realized that an actual job existed. I can trace my decision back to that realization.
We heard that you had a Super 8 film on PBS while you were in your teens.
I made a Super 8 short called Tarantella with Roko Belic, a friend who is a documentary filmmaker. It was on a PBS show in Chicago that aired short films.
How did you get started in the industry?
My first feature was called Following. It’s a 16mm black-and-white drama about a writer who follows a thief around and gets involved in his crimes. I was the writer, director and cinematographer. Emma was one of the producers. It got some attention at film festivals, which got the interest of a distributor. That got us the funding to get started on Memento, a script that I wrote while we were finishing Following.
What inspired you to write Memento?
It was based on a short story that my brother Jonah was writing. He hadn’t finished yet, but he told me about it, and I immediately told him that I wanted to write a screenplay. The first thing I had to do was figure out how to tell a story on film about a man who had lost his short term memory. That presented some interesting challenges.
Did your research include referencing older movies?
It wasn’t research, but some of Nicolas Roeg’s films influenced my thinking from a visual point of view. I also remember talking to Wally Pfister (ASC), the cinematographer who shot Memento, about the simplicity and cinematic purity of the images in The Thin Red Line, a Terrence Malick movie that had just come out. They were very clear and clean images without filtration.
After Memento, you and Wally collaborated on Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. When and how did you meet?
I was at the Slamdance Festival with Following while Ron Judkin’s film Hi-Line was being shown at Sundance. I thought it was a beautifully executed film that was clearly produced with limited resources. I had to meet the guy who shot it. It was Wally. I decided during our first conversation that I wanted to work with him. We just clicked the way you sometimes do with people. We know each other better today, but our relationship hasn’t changed. There is a synergy that affects our ability to translate ideas into images.
Please explain what you mean when you say, “a beautifully executed film?”
To me, a beautifully executed film is a movie where the sum of all the images leaves a lasting impression on you, rather than the individual shots. It’s how you use cinematography to tell a story. Wally is not just wrapped up in the shot of the moment. He is thinking about the whole story during every shot we make.
You have also chosen to collaborate with various other people on multiple projects, including your brother Jonah, who has worked on stories and scripts, editor Lee Smith, production designer Nathan Crowley, and your wife, Emma.
When you find great people, I believe that it is a huge advantage for a director to try and keep the team together because trust and communication are so important in filmmaking. Moviemaking is a unique art form because every film is a collaborative effort involving people with different personalities and visions who are working together. A big part of my job is making decisions about how all this great talent that I’m working with—actors, cinematographers, production designers, and everyone else—blends into a single consciousness. I try to make the most of what everyone has to offer. I’m sort of a human lens through which everyone’s efforts are focused.
Directing a feature film is a huge commitment. How do you decide a project is something that you’re willing to dedicate years of your life to doing?
For me, it comes down to deciding whether it is a film that I feel I have to make. I ask myself, will I be sorry if I miss this chance? Is it a film that I would be excited to see? Will the story stick in my mind years and years after it is done? Those are the types of things I think about. The irony is that once you get into the process, sometimes the story leads you in a different direction than you initially imagined.
Do you think of filmmaking as purely entertainment or is it more than that?
I think film is first and foremost entertainment. But, all forms of entertainment throughout history have always produced works that last and transcend the concept of entertainment. All entertainment can take many different forms. It can be serious and intellectually stimulating, and it can also be a temporary way to forget our everyday worries. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities encompassed by the word entertainment, but I do believe that film has developed into the most important story-telling medium of our age. I am certain about that statement.
Can you give that last thought a broader explanation?
As much as I love books and the theater, I think the cinema is a uniquely modern medium that we look to for the stories of our times.
You made some extraordinary use of 65mm film in Imax format in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Please share some thoughts about that decision.
I have always been interested in exploring the possibilities of the Imax medium. These films gave me that opportunity. We used the Imax format for scenes that called for a larger than life experience that we wanted to be as spectacular as possible. I believe those scenes look and feel more natural because we used the larger format. Imax today is the ultimate form of cinema. The large format also gave us a lot of room to experiment, and that in itself was fun. I feel strongly that whether you are shooting a low-budget film, or a hundred million dollar blockbuster, you have a responsibility to put the best possible images on the screen. I’m always trying to maximize the images.
Were you a Batman fan while you were growing up?
I was a Batman fan when I was a kid. I think the comic book superheroes fill a gap in the pop culture psyche, similar to the role of Greek mythology. For me, Batman is one of the most fascinating of those characters. He is a marvelously complex character. There is something extremely accessible about him that is timeless and universal.
Do you have younger filmmakers asking you to share the secret of success?
They’ll often ask me that question. There really isn’t a simple answer, except that you should work on films because you love that movie, not because you think it will be a stepping stone to getting another movie that is bigger and better. I believe that you can apply that rule on any scale, including kids shooting Super 8 movies like I did when I was seven. The same thing is true whether you are making a blockbuster 65mm movie or a low budget, 16mm independent film … do it for the love of telling that story.
What are your thoughts about the future of the cinema? Is the audience going to stay home and watch movies on their telephones?
I’m extremely optimistic about the future of the cinema. I believe there will always be a huge demand and need for a communal story-telling experience. In the past, it was theater. Today, it’s the cinema. There is a special excitement that comes from sitting with a group of strangers watching a great story unfold on a big screen. It engages the imagination and transports you to another world. I think it’s a universal experience.
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