Christopher Nolan Feature

His Mind Is the Scene of His Genius 

Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarantino: these are all filmmakers of the ages; filmmakers whose features are defined by who made them, as opposed to being billed as the latest in the long line of sequels or a fresh Johnny Depp cash-in. Some might say this is becoming more and more of a rarity as the film industry continually progresses – or plummets, if you will - into the age of ‘celebrity’. Half an hour into The Dark Knight, the stratospherically successful sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, and it shines through that this is the work of a true craftsman, converting a landscape straight from Michael Mann’s Heat to a modern day Gotham City. This craftsman stands by the name of Christopher Nolan. 

Scouring your eyes over the highest selling films of 2010, something might occur to you. Of course, you would be forgiven if you noticed that nine features out of the top ten were either: A – an animation, B – a sequel, or C – a remake. You would also be forgiven for thinking that the fourth highest selling film slots into one of these categories, or was at least ‘adapted from the novel of the same name’. Well, do not make the same mistake again: Inception – which has just hit shelves on DVD and Blu-ray - was all Christopher Nolan. It is for this very reason why it is becoming increasingly more probable that Nolan has become the filmmaker of a generation; namely, our generation. First hitting the big-time with the mind-boggling, genre-shifting, and arguably greatest film of the noughties, Memento in 2000 he has managed to convince that boggling minds and shifting conventions is merely a hobby. Of course, a natural move from an independent thriller that shreds the film rule book into pieces, plus a remake of a Norwegian film that stars Robin Williams as a serial killer is a reinvention of the hugely popular Batman franchise; the same franchise which single-handedly butchered Joel Schumacher’s career back in the nineties. A brave step forward? A stupid step backwards? Batman Begins solidified the proof that Nolan’s abilities as filmmaker were second to none. Gone were the darkly comic days of Burton’s Gotham – here, just psychological darkness prevailed. In a summer dominated by The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s and Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s of the film world, Begins planted a seed that everybody yearned for. By the time The Dark Knight flew onto screens, the seed blossomed into the seventh highest grossing film of all time.

Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the colour of a car. They’re just an interpretation…

Citing Kubrick as a major influence, if Chris Nolan ever took the time to sit and reflect upon his career thus far, it would be fairly easy to draw comparisons to the renowned director’s filmography. Stanley’s first features were all about establishing himself, before hitting the film universe with true classics. One could claim that The Dark Knight is Nolan’s Spartacus. Okay, it is not set around the time of the Roman Empire, but the Empire could represent the force that The Joker effuses, whilst Bruce Wayne depicts a modern day Kirk Douglas in leading a revolt that often results in violence. If that was a shaky analogy, I am sure it could be agreed that Inception is most certainly Nolan’s 2001; pushing boundaries, genuine originality – as Ellen Page’s Ariadne puts it ‘pure creation’. 

Batman Begins:
 “You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent”

However, the striking similarity between the two runs far deeper than what is on the surface; they primarily lend focus to a protagonist’s state of mind. In Nolan’s case, this is what he hinges his films upon. Leonard Shelby has memory loss, Will Dormer has insomnia, The Joker lacks empathy. He moulds his features based on whichever dysfunction a protagonist suffers from. This could just well be the secret of his success. Without this emphasis placed on the human mind, where would the justification of extreme use of non-linear narrative be? There is a reason for this technique to be used, and used perfectly. The man himself once commented that the reason he directs is due to narrative freedom. ‘Authors had enjoyed (narrative freedoms) for centuries and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well’. Thanks to Nolan’s efforts, crowds in their droves are free to revel in these freedoms too. 

The Prestige:
Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled”

Alas, whereas Kubrick’s trademark aspect ratio, recognisable tracking shots and colourful credit sequences are contemporarily deemed Kubrickian, Nolan’s trademarks are more… well, original to him. To begin in an apt place, almost all of his films start with a close-up of a character’s hands performing an action. Whether this is Guy Pearce’s troubled Leonard Shelby holding a photograph of the man he just killed (in reverse, obviously), or the legendary Michael Caine performing an astonishing magic trick. Most noticeably, the opening is a vital moment that, due to the tweaked narrative, takes place later on in the film: offering a revelation, slotting a giant chunk of the jigsaw into place. Ultimately, this causes Nolan’s back catalogue to require repeat viewings (I dare anybody to say they got everything they needed from Inception after their initial viewing), and ensure you are empowered to watch over a third time when you unveil yet another shrouded mystery.  

You might wonder how a film that starts with the final scene manages to clutch your attention in its fist, build momentum and cause tension. However, due to Nolan’s skilled honing in on the human elements of these characters, the intricate nature of the structure and regular Director of Photography Wally Pfister’s blindingly beautiful cinematography, Memento is arguably one of the most original offerings of the past 15 years, with Nolan somehow throwing a gasp-inducing twist into the fore. That’s talent. The Prestige is the filmic equivalent of a magic trick, the rug pulled from your feet in the third act, forcing you to marvel at the wonder of how he did it. Like all talented directors, Nolan could have snatched at the commercial carrot and ensured his fresh take on the Batman franchise was a family-friendly, safe success-guaranteed throwaway. In staying loyal to his fanatical flair and talent, he not only sustained his passengers, he picked up an inane amount of hitchhikers to join him on his journey (If the quality of next instalment The Dark Knight Rises is anywhere as high as Begins or its sequel, there’ll be deafening, yet arguable, shouts of ‘Greatest Trilogy’). Even more aguably, the only recent film that matches the immersive, awe-inspiring visual of Inception is James Cameron’s Avatar – in which he was aided by 3D and a budget to create new technology. Reconstructing landscapes; zero-gravity fight scenes; crumbling structures: Inception is the ultimate lucid dream and one in which you don’t have to put glasses on to obtain what you require. 

The Dark Knight:
Madness, as you know, is like gravity; all it takes is a little… push”

Then there’s the performance he draws from his actors: whether it’s regulars (Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy) or one-timers (Guy Pearce, Heath Ledger, Leo DiCaprio), you can simply sense the performer’s innate trust in their director. He steers his cast to the top of their game, straight into career-best territory and, in the late Heath Ledger’s case, award glory. Whenever a cast member tells an interviewer it would be an honour to work with their director again, it shines through clearly that when Nolan is on the lips, they mean every word: not only has he become a desirable object for the head honchos, he’s a must for the Hollywood heavyweights. Gary Oldman, who stars in the Batman films as fan-favourite ‘Commissionerrrrrr’ Jim Gordon, shared his thoughts on working with the man himself: ‘He doesn’t feel he has to justify he’s the Director of this big movie. And a great Director knows when not to say something. He’s just a wonderful filmmaker – he gets the job done.’ Chris likes to keep it in the family (his main producer is wife Emma Thomas and fellow screenwriter Jonathan Nolan is his brother), but the cast he uses seem to become his family also. Additionally, and somewhat crucially, it is of utmost important to note that out of every Nolan film so far, he has screen-written all but one. In an age that places emphasis on the work of the director, the screenwriter will remain the unsung hero of a film. Granted, 2010’s The Social Network was not only billed as ‘the film about Facebook as seen by Fincher’, but also ‘written by Aaron Sorkin’, famed for TV powerhouse The West Wing’. But for a summer blockbuster to be written by their director – that is anything but typical. Ever the boundary-pusher, Nolan puts pen to paper as well as print to screen (the daddy of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, has only taken the sole writing credit on 3 of his 26 films).  

Dreams feel real while we’re in them; it’s only when we wake up that we realise something was actually strange”

Eight features down and producing/‘overseeing’ rights on Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot (after Bryan Singer’s underwhelming attempt tanked at the box office). It is clear studios and fellow peers have a lot of faith in Mr. Nolan, and as I’m sure you will surmise, the faith is whole-heartedly warranted. Whispers of overdue Oscar recognition have gradually snowballed into shouts. It is famously rumoured that he has already made his mark on the Academy’s history for the recently extended list of Best Picture nominees was done so due to The Dark Knight not being on the shortlist. Nolan may be making films for a wider-spread audience than ever before, but not once has fear of commercial cash-in presented itself. Writer, producer, director – and an honest-to-goodness nice guy, Nolan’s name can easily slip next to the legendary likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino - and is constantly becoming instantly recognisable.  And with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, the hugely-anticipated final part of his Batman trilogy already earning him a place in the record books a day before release, he is staying true to his vision and announcing no further plans to continue the franchise. His mark has been made.

Christopher Nolan, it seems, isn’t just the go-to man; he’s the man.