It’s often said that filmmaking is a battle between art and commerce. In his career so far, British director Christopher Nolan has managed to strike a balance between the two better than just about any filmmaker currently working.
Look at how cleanly Nolan made the transition from independent moviemaking to the Hollywood mainstream. He shot his first film in 1998, the black-and-white thriller Following, on a budget of just $6,000. Its festival success led him to make Memento, a uniquely constructed, taut psychological thriller made for a lean $5 million. Despite Nolan’s initial difficulty in finding a distributor for the film – its style of editing was too confusing, they said – Memento became a hit, aided largely by strong reviews and positive word-of-mouth.
Memento’s success led to his first studio movie: Insomnia, produced by Alcon and Section Eight and distributed by Warner Bros. Many directors might have been tempted to treat this project, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name, as a simple work-for-hire gig, but Nolan didn’t. He did a final rewrite of the script (which went uncredited) and forged the film in his own style, even bringing along cinematographer Wally Pfister and editor Dody Dorn along from Memento. The result was another creative success.
If Nolan was fazed by this abrupt transition to a $46 million picture with an A-list cast (Al Pacino playing the guilt-ridden lead, and Robin Williams the killer), it didn’t show in the final edit. It was Nolan’s seemingly unshakeable control of his craft that probably prompted Warner Bros. to hire this relatively new director to helm Batman Begins in 2003.
A franchise that had fallen into the doldrums in the ’90s was revived thanks to Nolan’s fresh approach, which fused the tone of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie with his own interest in noir thrillers and non-linear storytelling to create a new silver-screen take on the Dark Knight. Batman Begins was, of course, a success when it launched in 2005, and served not only to put the Caped Crusader back on solid ground after the debacle that was Batman & Robin, but also granted Nolan a degree of creative autonomy that is vanishingly rare in modern Hollywood.
Nolan would agree to direct two more Batman films, forming what we now generally call The Dark Knight Trilogy. But Nolan also shrewdly negotiated the time and space to make his own original films in between: The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), which he made in the wake of The Dark Knight’s huge popularity, and most recently, Interstellar, which followed his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises…a movie worth reconsidering and defending on its own.
While the Dark Knight movies are still inscribed with Nolan’s signature, it’s arguable that The Prestige, Inception,and Interstellar are his more personal films. In each of them, it’s possible to see his changing style as a filmmaker, and the increasing latitude he was given between the release of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Christopher Priest, The Prestige was shot relatively quickly and on a budget slightly lower than that of Insomnia a few years earlier ($40 million versus Insomnia’s reported $46 million). Had The Prestige been a box-office failure, it would almost certainly have damaged Nolan’s chances of getting his own, non-franchise films off the ground. The Prestige made a respectable $109 million.
This success in turn gave Nolan the room to make an even bigger gamble with Inception, a lengthy (148-minute), expensive (budget: $160 million) thriller with a plot that was difficult to discern from its trailer alone. Again, the failure of Inception could have been damaging for Nolan, but instead, its success was unexpectedly gargantuan: making a shade over $825 million worldwide, it was more than twice as lucrative as Batman Begins.
Inception proved that Nolan wasn’t merely another name in the Hollywood movie factory, or a hack reliant on the branding of the Batman franchise to garner a hit. Here was a director with an eye for stories that were both populist and complex. With a track record such as this, it’s little surprise that Nolan’s said to be one of the highest-paid directors in Hollywood.
As well as the latest grand opus from the director, Interstellar could also be seen as the third film in a trilogy of Nolan’s mainstream but nevertheless personal films. Although The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar have all come from different sources – the first was adapted from a novel, the second was a personal idea of Nolan’s, while the third was originally dreamed up by producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne – the director found ways to turn each of them to his own interests. They’re wildly different films set in wildly different genres, but there are common bonds between them.
For one thing, they could be read as Nolan’s films about being a film director.
The director as illusionist and con artist
The Prestige is ostensibly a dark period piece about two rival magicians who go to increasingly dangerous lengths to outdo each other. But there’s something else going on here, too. Just as the process of a magic trick is broken down into three sections – The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige – so the film’s three acts are very deliberately broken down along the same lines.
There’s an obvious parallel being drawn here between the role of director and magician; pioneering filmmaker George Méliès was an illusionist, and his ingenious use of trick photography, dissolves, and other techniques are still commonly used today. In The Prestige, Nolan presents himself as a kind of invisible magician. When the rules of the magic trick are pointedly outlined by Michael Caine’s character, we’re being invited to scan the film itself for signs of trickery – clues as to where the story might take us next. Nolan admitted as much in one of the featurettes on The Prestige’s DVD:
“The Prestige is very much about filmmaking. It’s also intended to suggest how the film itself is spooling its narrative out to the audience. We want people really to be aware of the effect the film is having on them as it’s unfolding before their eyes.”
Nolan pursued this idea further in Inception. As many writers pointed out at the time of the film’s release, Inception is another film about filmmaking. It presents Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as a high-tech thief capable of entering dreams and stealing (or planting) information in his target’s minds. Cobb executes his crimes as a film director might, with his cohorts each falling into familiar filmmaking roles: actor, producer, set designer, and so on, as he constructs elaborate dreamscapes in which his heists will take place.
Read like this, The Prestige and Inception offer a playfully cynical view of the film director as either a trickster or a conman. In the case of Inception, the dreams are like movies, designed to beguile and fascinate its audience (that is, the solitary dreamer) while Cobb commits his crimes behind the scenes. As Cobb points obliquely tells us, films are like dreams in that they both “feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we notice something was actually strange…”
(In a recent New York Times article, Nolan again drew on the director-as-magician sentiment outlined in The Prestige when he said, “At the movies, we’re going to see someone else put on a show, and I feel a responsibility to put on the best show possible.”)
A leap into the unknown
Compared to The Prestige and Inception, Interstellar is notable for its unusual lack of cynicism. The protagonists in Nolan’s earlier films, both his non-franchise projects and his Dark Knightmovies, are deeply flawed people, often motivated by guilt and revenge. In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is, at least initially, unclouded by negativity. He’s loving father to his son and daughter and has a particularly close relationship with the latter.
The main thing gnawing away at Cooper is an unfulfilled dream. In his younger days, he was a test pilot, but the world has since fallen into ecological turmoil, and his responsibility as a father, to raise his kids and try to grow food in an increasingly hostile environment, takes more urgent precedence. But then an encounter with Dr. Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine) finally allows him to chase his dream: he leads an expedition to the other side of the galaxy in search of a new home for humanity. In fact, it is so staggeringly humanist, we’d argue that Interstellar can be read as a Secular End Times Myth.
Until Interstellar, Nolan’s films were consistently laced with the trappings of the noir thriller genre, yet there’s no trace of this in his latest opus. Instead, it’s more closely akin to the films of Kubrick, Philip Kaufman, and Steven Spielberg – all of whom Nolan admits are primary influences. But Interstellar is still a personal film for Nolan, even if it is undoubtedly his largest yet in terms of universe-spanning scale.
Nolan co-wrote Interstellar with his brother Jonathan, and made several amendments to its story when he took it on (Interstellar began life as a Spielberg project in 2006, which was a very different movie we detailed here). One of the key changes Nolan made was to change the character Murph – Cooper’s youngest child – from male to female. At the film’s UK press conference, Nolan explained that this gender change was a very deliberate one, made because he had a young daughter himself, and could relate more easily to that father-daughter relationship.
Jonathan Nolan has acknowledged that, beneath its hard science fiction shell, Interstellar is a relationship drama about the separation about a father and daughter – something his brother Christopher appeared to have emphasised in his revision.
“The film is about parents and their children,” Jonathan said. “When I started writing it, I didn’t have any kids. Now, I have a little girl who is a year old, so watching the film is a completely different emotional experience for me.”
Interstellar could therefore be read as another perspective on the life of a filmmaker: that of an explorer taking a leap into the unknown. When a director packs up his equipment, says goodbye to his family, and sets off with his crew to make a movie on the side of the world, who knows what he’ll find there? Will the mission be a success? And what effect will being away from home have on his children?
“Having children,” Nolan told the New York Times, “absolutely fine-tunes your sense of time and time passing. There’s a desperate desire to hang on to moments as your kids grow up.”
As Interstellar opens in cinemas, the natural question arises: what will Nolan direct next? It was recently revealed that Nolan had turned down offers to produce Batman v. Superman and Justice League (though he is listed as an executive producer on the former movie), and said in an interview with Time Out that, although he “had a great experience with the supehero genre,” he found it “hard to imagine returning to it.” Which is all the more interesting considering the similarities between Interstellar and his Man of Steel story.
If Interstellar’s a hit – and if its $50 million in ticket pre-sales is anything to go by, it seems likely that it will be – then Nolan’s sure to be given the same creative latitude he’s enjoyed for almost a decade. Whether he’ll return to making neo noir-style films, or whether Interstellar marks the emergence of a director with a more upbeat worldview, Christopher Nolan is sure to remain one of mainstream cinema’s few true auteurs for many years to come.