Screen Genius - Director Profile: Christopher Nolan lyrics
A Profile of Christopher Nolan By Nick Ferguson (aka Heisenferg) Biography Nolan split time between London and Chicago when he was growing up, and this fluency in both cultures shines through in his movies. Whether it be making superhero movies rooted in American history international smash hits or making Americans love a movie based on a British novel, set in London, and starring two British actors, the director's unique experiences have allowed him to flourish domestically and internationally, as well as critically and commercially.
Born to an advertising copywriter father and English teacher mother in London, England, Nolan started making movies at age 7 and started aspiring to do so professionally at the age of 11. Though he actually studied English literature in college, these aspirations shaped most of his experiences at UCL, as he chose the college for its film program despite not being a Film major, and served as the school's president of the Film Society despite lacking any formal training. It was here that he met his future spouse Emma Thomas but also learned that the UK might not be the best place for an aspiring filmmaker to get a career of the ground.
After a series of shorts such as 1997's "Doodlebug" failed to garner much attention, Nolan released his first feature film The Following on what he claims can compete for the title for least expensive movie ever made. The Following's positive reception at British film festivals gave Nolan enough clout to shop his brother's short story to studio executives and land his first gig as a Hollywood director. The result was 2000's critically acclaimed psych-thriller Memento, whose overwhelmingly positive reception afforded him the opportunity to direct a blockbuster adaptation of Insomnia starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams. This success was enough for Warner Brothers to hand him the keys to the Batman kingdom, and his realistic take on Gotham city turned him into a mega-star. And when The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises became 2 of the highest grossing movies of all-time, studios began giving him the green-light to take screenplays born from his own vivid imagination to the big screen. He felt the need to take advantage of this, the result so far has been Inception and Interstellar, two of the most ambitious and successful movies of the 21st century. Directorial Trademarks Everything is built on a lie While only some of these lies are put into words, the foundation of every one of Nolan's movies is some type of lie. Some characters lie to theirselves to feel better. This most notably includes Leonard Shelby who admits “we all lie to ourselves to be happy” at the end of Memento, but it also applies to Cobb never addressing his inability to let Mal go, Angier convincing himself Borden killed his wife to justify his one-upmanship, and Bruce telling himself that murdering Chill would be true justice in Batman Begins. Other characters lie for the “greater good”; e.g. Bruce deciding “sometimes the truth isn't good enough” at the end of The Dark Knight and faking Batman's death to close The Dark Knight Rises, Brand lying to the astronauts in Interstellar about being able to see their family again so he could save the human race, or Dormer planting evidence so he could arrest a pedophile. And some lie maliciously or for an evil cause: Cobb from The Following framing the Young Man for murder, and Talia hiding her identity and gaining Bruce's trust in The Dark Knight Rises.
But regardless of circumstance or intention, each of these lies eventually devolves into a gray middle ground that lets Nolan's movies achieve true ambiguity. Bruce's lie in the The Dark Knight seems noble at the time as it temporarily saves the city, but things get muddy when the exposure of that same lie ruins Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises. On the flip side, Detective Dormer of Insomnia spends most of the movie as a corrupt scumbag in the eyes of the audience after going against police protocol and lying about the circumstances of his partner's death. But the revelation towards the movie's end that he has also lied so that he could arrest a pedophile who was going to walk free leaves us unsure what to think about protocol, Dormer, and lying as a whole.
From magicians in The Prestige insisting that the audience wants to be fooled, to TARS from Interstellar warning that "absolute honesty isn't always the most diplomatic nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings", Nolan's films operate on the assumption that the audience will always tolerate a degree of deception in order to be entertained. And why is this seemingly well-mannered man so interested in playing with the emotions of his audience throughout the course of his movies? Because if he can fool us, even for a second, then he gets to see something special. Troubled protagonists Outside of perhaps Interstellar's Cooper, every single one of Nolan's protagonist suffer from an unhealthy obsession, phobia, or disorder. The Young Man in The Following's obsession with the criminal world ends up doing him in. Leonard from Memento deals with amnesia and the grief surrounding his wife's death. Insomnia's Will Dormer has, well, insomnia, and is plagued by the guilt of his partner's killing. Both Angier and Borden of The Prestige have unhealthy obsessions with both one-upping each other and coming up with the perfect trick. Bruce Wayne has a long list of issues, starting with his original fear of bats and both the grief he felt after witnessing his parents' deaths and the guilt he felt for partly causing it. And Cobb's loosening grip on reality plays a big role in Inception. Most of these characters are portrayed by A-listers, but they're often playing damaged souls rather than the bulletproof world-beaters they're usually hired to play. A big payoff (not twist) Most Nolan films are expected to contain a big twist that changes the entire meaning of the movie, but this reputation is perhaps unearned. It is true that endings are very important to Nolan (he has said as much), and they are often unexpected, exciting, and dramatic. But a more accurate description of these endings is that they have a big payoff rather than a big twist, because more often than not they enforce the rest of the story rather than change it.
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There are exceptions, and these exceptions play a large role in the way Nolan's endings are viewed. Memento presents itself as the story of a man suffering from short-term memory loss who is investigating and trying to avenge his wife's death. Nolan spends 95% of the movie lending credence to this story, from actually flashing back to the moment his wife was attacked to legitimizing Leonard's methods of collecting evidence. But in the final scene we find out that he actually killed his wife and has already killed her attacker, and the “investigation” we had been watching was just a farce Leonard created to give his life purpose. This was a true twist, and seeing as this was most people's first exposure to Nolan, they kept this ending in the back of their mind when watching his future movies so that they wouldn't get tricked again.
But from that point on, we never saw another true twist from him. Insomnia and Batman Begins had very straightforward endings. Almost no one saw the ending to The Prestige coming, but it wasn't a twist because we should have already known these magicians would do anything to execute a trick. Batman choosing to become the villain in The Dark Knight was brilliant and unusual for superhero movies, but it stayed very true to a central theme of the movie: Batman was just a symbol. And the other movie that so many assume ends in a major plot twist/mindfuck (Inception) may be ambiguous, but it does not transform the movie. The spinning top scene doesn't mean that the entire movie was a dream. It shows that dreams and reality are more interwoven than we think, which was important to the previous 2+ hours as well. This reputation not matching the reality was most apparent in The Dark Knight Rises. When Bruce Wayne faked Batman's death then bounced to Italy with Selina Kyle, it confirmed what we had known since the first movie in the trilogy: Batman and Bruce Wayne can be separated because Batman is just a symbol. Or at least it should have confirmed it, because shortly after a wild theory that Alfred was suffering from dementia and imagined the scene in the café started to gain traction. The point being that you should definitely expect a Nolan ending to surprise you and get you thinking about characters and particular plot points in a new light, but the endings are much more grounded than a M. Night Shyamalan twist that makes you reevaluate the film as a whole. ”Purist” This encompasses his preferences to use sets and miniatures instead of CGI, shoot with film stock instead of digital, avoid 3D, and oversee every scene himself rather than use a second unit. His reasoning behind employing CGI as little as possible is that not only makes the movie look more real, but it also is more interesting to work with as a director. The most famous example of this is the giant spinning hallway he constructed in Inception. He prefers film over digital because “it's cheaper to work on film, it's far better looking, it's the technology that's been known and understood for a hundred years, and it's extremely reliable”. He never makes 3D versions of his movies because “[he] prefer[s] the big canvas, looking up at the enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life”. And he never lets a second crew handle the action scenes like some directors tend to do because he feels that if you don't care enough about a scene to work on it yourself then it doesn't belong in the movie. His particular style and misquotes have led to some dubbing him a snob or elitist, but it seems that he truly does just prefer shooting movies this way. Repeated lines/moments This isn't a constant through every Nolan movie, but it does appear in most of them. Often the ending to his movies, or a climactic moment in the final act of the film, echoes an earlier line that you didn't think much of at the time. For example, Mr. Wayne asking young Bruce “why do we fall?” may not mean much when we're just talking about falling into a well, but when Alfred repeats it after Bruce is almost killed by the League of Shadows its new context gives it new meaning; instead of a throwaway quote to a little kid it becomes a testament to the unbreakable will to Batman.
Other examples: Teddy accusing Leonard of lying to himself in Memento becomes the final line of the movie: “Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy, yes I will”. The very first line of The Prestige, Michael Caine's monologue explaining the three stages of a trick also serves as its final lines; by then we understand that the speech also applies to the three acts of movies. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent says “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” in reference to Caesar in a seemingly meaningless scene, but when Bruce repeats it in the movie's finale by then it ends up applying to almost all of the movie's characters. This is featured heavily in Inception, as the phrases “Do you want to take a leap of faith” and “You're waiting for a train…” get repeated constantly throughout the non-linear storyline and takes on a new meaning every time. And in The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred goes on about what we assume is a completely hypothetical fantasy involving Bruce in an Italian café, but the last time we ever see Bruce Wayne is in this exact café. Dead wives This one appears so frequently that it is beginning to come off as obsessive. While the death of spouses plays a major role in the plots of Memento, Inception, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, Cooper's wife in Interstellar dies years before the story begins and it serves no clear narrative purpose. The common link between these deaths is that they often drive the protagonist to the brink of insanity: Leonard obsessively investigates his wife's “murder” and repeatedly kills John G.'s, Cobb begins struggling to separate reality from dreams in the wake of Mal's death, Angier pins his wife's death on Borden and dedicates his life to revenge, and DA Harvey Dent becomes the villain Two Face in the wake of Rachel's death. Nolan's debut film, The Following, and Insomnia don't feature any spousal deaths, but both contain the murder of a young girl at the hands of her lover.
Making the jump to saying Nolan is a misogynist is a bit extreme, though, as most of his living females are smart, tough, and more admirable than their male counterparts; the problem is that he doesn't write many of these characters. The most reasonable conclusion to come to is that Nolan is fascinated by the male psychology, and seeing as his plot-driven movies only have room for 2-3 fully fleshed out characters, wives, daughters, and lovers often get left out. Men in suits This visual cue likely stems from the director's own personal fashion preferences. Like Hitchcock and others before him, Nolan prefers to direct with a suit on and this often seeps into the wardrobe of his characters. There are never intimate moments of a character relaxing in their sweatpants; even when a character is in a safe environment they're usually wearing the same clothes that they were wearing in the action scenes. This keeps things interesting stylistically, but also makes sense thematically as there are not any parts of the movie you can afford to miss so the characters are always “on the job”, so to speak. (This is what makes moments like Bruce giving his coat to the homeless man in Batman Begins more impactful). The “barrel roll” shot More on this here, but essentially, almost every one of Nolan's movies feature a shot that turns a character sideways or upsidedown to make us feel as disoriented as the characters. Themes Guilt The funny thing about guilt in Nolan movies is that while almost every character suffers from it, eight-year-old Bruce Wayne is the only one who admits to feeling guilty; and by the time he gets older he reveals “my anger outweighs my guilt”. This means that Nolan's movies deal with repressed guilt, and this repressed guilt often presents itself in interesting ways.
Memento is an extreme case of this, as Leonard Shelby cannot physically cope with the guilt of unintentionally killing his wife. So he messes with his own fragile memory and combines his story with another character's as a coping mechanism so he doesn't have to confront the fact that his wife wasn't actually murdered. Insomnia deals heavily with this as well, as the constant guilt Dormer feels for killing his partner and tampering with a past case is symbolized by the unrepentant Alaskan sun. And this guilt manifests itself in a very interesting way in Inception, as the mere appearance of Mal in the dreams that Cobb enters is indicative of this guilt. But, like most of these characters, he would rather lie to himself and others about how much of a hold Mal has on his life than confront the problem. Obsession When a Nolan character sets their eyes on something, they will do anything in their power to achieve it, then justify the deeds at a later point. Leonard's entire existence depends upon being able to hunt down his wife's killer, so he frantically scribbles down clues about the case, even going so far as to get important facts tattooed on his body. And when he learns this is all a sham, and that there is nothing left to avenge, he fabricates information so that he can still obsess over finding John G. This obsession is perhaps most apparent in The Prestige, as Angier and Borden's obsession over finding the perfect magic trick escalates to the point where Angier is willing to risk a 50% chance of drowning on any given night just to prove himself as a better showman than Borden. And while obsession may not dominate the plot of Inception like it does these other two movies, it is impossible to see Cobb fixated on his spinning totem and say it doesn't seep in to this movie as well. Identity Struggling to find one's true identity then often having to hide that identity later is one of the central struggles in all of Nolan's movies. This struggle is on most prominent display in the Dark Knight trilogy, as Bruce not only has to find an identity to help cope with his parents' death, but also needs to keep that identity concealed even though many would argue that Batman becomes his true identity by the end. But it's also hugely relevant to The Prestige, as each magician's doppelganger has to hide their identities and true feelings for the sake of the act, and Memento's Leonard constantly has to worry about losing a part of his identity if he doesn't write a note down in time. Frequent Collaborators Jonathan Nolan (7 collaborations) Besides Inception and Insomnia, “Jonah” has written or co-written every screenplay Chris has directed since Memento. And it's not like Chris just bounces ideas off his little brother then gives him a co-writing credit -- Jonah came up for the idea for Memento and was the main writer for Interstellar. Wally Pfister (7 collaborations) Pfister has been Nolan's cinematographer ever since Memento. The only movie he has missed since is Interstellar, mainly due to scheduling conflicts as he was directing his own film Transcendence around the same time. Pfister is very loyal to Nolan, saying that he is the only director he wants to consistently work with and even turning down major opportunities such as Harry Potter movies just in case Nolan ever needed him. Pfister says that working on Memento was " the first time [he] worked as a cinematographer for someone [he] felt really had a special gift for storytelling". Michael Caine (6 collaborations) Michael Caine is ubiquitous in Christopher Nolan films as Nolan has cast his fellow countryman in his previous 6 movies. Caine generally plays an older mentor to the protagonist, most famously Alfred Pennyworth in the Dark Knight trilogy, and Nolan has great respect for him as an actor, saying that working with him is “about as enjoyable and relaxing an experience on set as one could hope for” and that “he's a director's dream”. Hans Zimmer (5 collaborations) The two first teamed up for 2005's Batman Begins and, besides The Prestige have been working together ever since. Zimmer's anthemic scores match up perfectly with the dark and cerebral themes of Nolan's movies and the result has been 3 Grammy nominations (1 win) and 2 Oscar noms. Christian Bale (4 collaborations) Seeing as Nolan cast Bale in the role that would likely make or break the reboot of one of America's largest franchises, it goes without saying that he has tremendous respect for him as an actor. Besides playing Bruce Wayne in all three of the Dark Knight movies, Bale also starred alongside Hugh Jackman as magician Alfred Bolden in The Prestige. Part of what Nolan likes so much about him is that despite his reputation as a great and popular actor, “He doesn't want the audience to go to a 'Christian Bale movie'. He wants them to come see the character he's playing.” Cillian Murphy (4 collaborations) This Irish actor has never starred in a Nolan movie, but the work he does in his smaller roles is so strong that Nolan keeps bringing him back. He played Dr. Crane/Scarecrow in the Dark Knight trilogy, though he only received significant screen time in Batman Begins. And he played a fairly significant role as the target of the dream extraction team in Inception, Robert Fischer. Quotes “Films are subjective-what you like, what you don't like. But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it's the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they've done, I want that effort there-I want that sincerity. And when you don't feel it, that's the only time I feel like I'm wasting my time at the movies.”