ONFILM Interview: Christopher Nolan

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Christopher Nolan - Photo by D. Kirkland

“I started making films when I was 7 years old, when my dad was kind enough to let my brother and I use his Super 8 camera. I believe that you should work on films because you love the stories, and not because you think they will be stepping stones to bigger or better movies. Filmmaking is an unique art form because every movie is a collaborative effort involving people with different personalities and visions who are working together. As a director, I’m sort of a human lens through which everyone’s efforts are focused. A big part of my job is making decisions about how all the great talent that I’m working with blends into a single consciousness. To me, a beautifully executed film is one where the sum of all the images leaves a lasting impression. I’m optimistic about the future of the cinema because it’s a communal experience. There is a special excitement that comes from sitting with a group of strangers and watching a story that engages the imagination and transports you to another world. From the beginning, I have shot everything on film because I feel responsible for putting the best possible images on the screen.”

Christopher Nolan earned his first credit for directing a motion picture in 1998 for Following, a 16 mm black-and-white movie. He has subsequently directed Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins,The Prestige, and The Dark Knight.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with Christopher Nolan

by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: When and how did you get interested in movies?

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: Do you recall what inspired you to make films?

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: Did you study filmmaking in college?

NOLAN: 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 35 mm feature films during the school year, and used the money earned from ticket sales to shoot our own 16 mm during the summers. Emma is my wife and collaborator. She has produced all of my feature films.

QUESTION: 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?

NOLAN: It is difficult to single out just a few. I have always admired Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott and Nicholas 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.

QUESTION: Do you recall when you decided to become a professional filmmaker?

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: We heard that you had a Super 8 film on PBS while you were in your teens.

NOLAN: I made a Super 8 short called Tarantella with a friend, Roko Belic, who is a documentary filmmaker. It was on Image Union, a PBS show in Chicago that aired short films.

QUESTION: How did you get started in the industry?

NOLAN: My first feature was called Following. It’s a 16 mm 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.

QUESTION: Memento is such a unique story. What inspired it?

NOLAN: It was based on a short story that 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 that 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 in itself presented some interesting challenges.

QUESTION: What kind of research was involved? Did you reference older movies?  

NOLAN: It wasn’t research, but some of Nicholas 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.

QUESTION: You and Wally are about to start your fifth film together. After Memento, you collaborated on Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and now The Dark Knight. We were wondering how you and Wally originally connected with each other?

NOLAN: I was at the Slamdance Festival with Following while Ron Judkin’s 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. I decided during our first conversation that I wanted to work with Wally. 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.

QUESTION: Can you explain what you mean when you say, “a beautifully executed film?”

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: 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.

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: 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?

NOLAN: 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 into a different direction than you initially imagined.

QUESTION: Do you think of filmmaking as purely entertainment or is it more than that?

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: Can you give that last thought a broader explanation?

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: The Prestige is a unique story set in London about a conflict between two magicians at the turn of the 20th century. Where did the idea for that film originate?

NOLAN: The Prestige is based on a novel that I was given by Valerie Dean six or seven years ago. She’s a producer whom I’ve known and worked with for years. The story grabbed me, but I didn’t know what to do with it right away. I thought about it for a few years. Then, I showed it to my brother. He spent a couple of years writing the screenplay, and then I tidied it up a bit. It took a long time to get it in shape. We were actually going to shoot The Prestige before Batman Begins. We had to put plans for The Prestige on ice when we started production of Batman Begins.

QUESTION: What was the basic idea for telling a period story about magic?

NOLAN: What I wanted to do was throw the audience into an extraordinary world at the turn of the a new century, but make it a contemporary story, so they aren’t thinking of it as a period film. We looked at prints of Barry Lyndon, Chinatown, Angel Heart and some other classic movies. We also shot some very early tests in my dining room and back yard, and “pushed” a 500-speed film stock two and three stops to see how it reacted. I wanted to shoot The Prestige in natural light for that period, which transitions from candles and lanterns to the earliest electric lights. We shot most of the movie with a handheld camera, and designed settings that didn’t tie the actors down to hitting marks. We want it to feel loose and spontaneous with a sense of immediacy that makes people feel connected. We choose to shoot it in 35 mm anamorphic format with traditional timing at a film lab, and that produced beautiful cinematic images.

QUESTION: You also made some extraordinary use of 65 mm film in IMAX format.

NOLAN: I have always been interested in exploring the possibilities of the IMAX medium. This film gave me that opportunity. We used it for certain visual effects shots. I believe those shots look and feel more natural because we used the larger format. We wanted those scenes to be as spectacular as possible.

QUESTION: Why was that important for those particular shots?

NOLAN: I felt that we needed the highest quality images because those scenes called for a larger than life experience. 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.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts about the future of the cinema? Is the audience going to stay home and watch movies on their telephones?

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: You spoke earlier about working with the same team, including the production designer, editor, cinematographer and others. How have those relationships evolved over the course of four or five pictures?

NOLAN: Like any relationship there is a greater sense of ease and trust, but at the same time you try and keep the things that work well the same from film to film. For example, when we did Batman Begins, one of the things I was really passionate about was not being daunted by the size of the movie. We brought the same sensibilities to Batman Begins that we felt when we were shooting Memento and Insomnia.

QUESTION: You have directed an eclectic range of genre films.

NOLAN: I guess I have, but I think they have things in common. I don’t really think in terms of genre, or whether a new film is the same genre as previous ones.

QUESTION: Have you written or co-authored scripts for all of your films?

NOLAN: Hillary Seitz wrote the script for Insomnia. I thought that was an engaging story about a darker side of humanity with a wonderful cast.

QUESTION: You are following Batman Begins with The Dark Knight. We were just wondering whether you were a Batman fan while you were growing up.

NOLAN: 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.

QUESTION: Do you have younger filmmakers asking you to share the secret of success?

NOLAN: 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 65 mm movie or a low budget, 16 mm independent film … do it for the love of telling that story.