Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

Dec. 08, 2010 | 5:26 p.m.

The Envelope is the awards-season special section in the Los Angeles Times and tomorrow my feature of Christopher Nolan is on the cover. Here’s a longer version of that story.

christopher nolan by robert gauthier Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts
Christopher Nolan (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Think of Christopher Nolan as a man trying to write a novel while the neighbors – in this case, the rest of the world’s population – won’t keep the noise down. The  filmmaker doesn’t own a cellphone,  has no e-mail account and, in recent weeks, he’s been hiding out at the Paradise Cove trailer park in Malibu to focus on a new script while growing a Hollywood hermit’s beard.

“I don’t really look at the Internet,” the 40-year-old said with an old-soul sigh, “because if I don’t, it gives me more time to think.”

The deep thoughts of writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan have become massive business for Hollywood with his billion-dollar Batman film, “The Dark Knight,” in 2008, and this year’s “Inception,” the ambitious, reality-bending heist film that trails only “Toy Story 3” and “Alice in Wonderland” in worldwide box office for 2010 releases. Now comes the Oscar season, which will begin to show whether this Hitchcock of contemporary genre movies (Nolan’s last four films have been superhero or sci-fi fare) will have better luck with academy voters than the real Hitchcock, whose esteemed and crowd-pleasing output never won him an Oscar in the director category.

Nolan’s grim and epic Gotham City movie did not make the final five in the Academy Awards’ 2009 race for best picture and, in the eyes of many industry observers, that snub led directly to the expansion of the marquee category to 10 nominees for the award show this past March. That “Dark Knight rule,” as it has been called by some pundits, was intended to widen the field so some well-regarded blockbusters can squeeze in with the traditional art-house fare, and perhaps ease the numbing effect on the Oscars’ television ratings.

leonardo dicaprio and christopher nolan Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoper Nolan on set of "Inception" (Warner Bros)

 With its box-office brawn, strong reviews and elite cast (there were seven former Oscar winners or nominees in the ensemble), “Inception” seems precisely the sort of film that the Oscars leadership would love to see in the best picture mix. And Nolan, too, has become one of the most intriguing filmmakers on the scene, in part because he’s the rare silent type and stately thinker in an industry of much squawk and bluster. With the formal diction of his British boarding-school youth, Nolan also seems to make people around him stand up straighter. “Inception” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for instance, still can’t quite refer to the filmmaker with first-name casualness.

“Mr. Nolan doesn’t cater to the executives at some big company, he really does what he wants to with a film,” Gordon-Levitt said. “He manages to do it within the current big system because he’s that good and he can, but ‘Inception’ and his films aren’t developed by committee. And it wasn’t him saying, ‘How am I going to make a big summer hit?’ ‘Inception’ was about him following his own fascinations.”

Nolan burst onto the scene in 2000 with the twisty cinematic riddles of “Memento” — which earned an Oscar nomination for screenplay for the filmmaker and his brother, Jonathan. The sibling team is together again and working by the sea on the third Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” All of Nolan’s movies are produced by his wife, Emma Thomas, and they will be expanding their cape ventures with a new Superman film for Warner Bros., although Nolan’s role on that high-profile project is as producer and Zack Snyder (“300” and the upcoming “Sucker Punch“) will be directing.

christopher nolan leaonrdo dicaprio and cillian murphy on set of inception Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy on "Inception" set (Warner Bros)

“Inception” was Nolan’s seventh feature film and perhaps his most personal piece — he wrote the script as the latest version of a tale he first put to paper more than 15 years ago. The psychological thriller with sci-fi underpinnings and a globetrotting sweep stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dominic Cobb, a corporate espionage specialist who might be considered a dream thief. Cobb and his team, which includes newcomer Ariadne ( Ellen Page), steal secrets by connecting their dreams with their tycoon targets. Cobb, however, is also slipping into a personal nightmare and losing his hold on reality.

“The nature of reality and dream, of illusion, those have been topics for fascination for centuries and for me, growing up, dreams were something I thought about a lot,” Nolan said. “The clash of objective reality with our subjective view of the world, that’s pretty interesting stuff. This is something I thought about doing for a very long time. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since I was about 16. It was the approach I wanted to take to an almost alternate reality — approaching the dream life as another state of reality. And one that in certain circumstances can be manipulated.”

The Warner Bros. release made $824 million in global box office and is expected to be a powerhouse release on Blu-ray and DVD for the holidays (it just hit store shelves), all despite early studio anxieties that the film might be too complex or surreal to connect with a mass audience. Studio executives were happy when Nolan would tell interviewers of the film’s James Bond-informed action. They were far less enthused for moviegoers in the heartland to hear him talk about how Page’s character shares the name of the Cretan princess who helped Theseus escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

christopher nolan and aaron eckhart on set of drak knight photo by stephen vaughan Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

Christopher Nolan and Aaron Eckhart on set of "The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros)

In an era when other filmmakers are taking ancient myth and turning it into popcorn adventure ( “Clash of the Titans,” “300,” “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief“), Nolan is taking contemporary adventure tropes and reframing them through literary ambition, psychological tintings and stately old-school film craft. The man who grew up splitting his youth between Chicago and London and seems informed by both heritages has become an unlikely specialist — an art-house auteur who makes grim blockbusters for the graphic-novel and video-game generation.

“Inception” was especially popular with tech-savvy young thinkers who saw it as an of-the-moment statement on pixelated life and virtual reality. That’s not really the way Nolan is wired — no iPhone, remember? — but he says the most compelling sci-fi isn’t really about hardware, it’s about the humans inside the machinery of the story. “It’s ideas, characters and stories that resonate, not the trappings. But if you can combine those with the large canvas of film, the scale of it and the visual power of it, that can be something very special.”

As a filmmaker, one of the most interesting things about Nolan is his general resistance to the use of CG effects unless it’s absolutely necessary or (in the case of erasing stunt-team harnesses and tether lines) it provides more safety for cast and crew. Essentially, Nolan’s dreams are too big for a computer hard drive. “Inception” was filmed in six countries and on massive sets in Cardington, England, and on the Warner Bros. studio lot — and instead of relying on mouse-pad artists to create “Inception’s” spinning rooms, runaway trains, levitating dreamers and flooded castles, Nolan turned to old-school mechanical savants such as Chris Corbould, the special effects supervisor who came into the project with 11 James Bond films on his résumé, and director of photography Wally Pfister, a former television news cameraman.

memento Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

Guy Pierce in "Memento" (Danny Rothenberg)

It brought a sort of Old Hollywood scale and magic to the set — DiCaprio called it “a classic approach to filmmaking and craft” — and also the high-stakes pressure of capturing action in the real world where there’s no keyboard and “escape,” “back” or “delete” button. None of this is meant to paint Nolan as a Luddite. “Inception” certainly used state-of-the-art CG effects — a filmmaker can’t fold a city skyline as if it were from the pages of a pop-up book without a considerable amount of digital wizardry — and the filmmaker is intrigued and involved in the plan to make an “Inception” video game. But Nolan also admits that it’s “a point of pride” for him to resist what he views as Hollywood’s new over-reliance on pixel magic.

“I want to be proud of the fact that at the end of each movie we haven’t taken any shortcuts to use modern technology simply to make our lives easier or not bothering with things,” Nolan said. “These things are taken to the extreme. If there’s a ladder or a cherry picker in the back of a shot, people will paint it out later rather than just moving it. Really, it happens all the time. As filmmakers working on a large scale with large budgets, we have a lot of techniques at our disposal and I just want to feel as if we used each technique for what it’s best for. If you have a compelling story to tell and then when you build on that with visual effects you have an incredibly powerful combination. When you use it to take a shortcut, it’s not so impressive, at least not to me. We certainly try not to  have shots in the film that are done with visual effects if, just 20 years ago, wouldn’t have to be done with visual effects. That’s where we feel we’re losing.”

batman begins Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

"Batman Begins" (Warner Bros)

Nolan added: “Doing things on a grand scale in camera keeps it very exciting for all of us, the actors included. I like the fact that these aren’t things that you can repeat endlessly. It focuses everybody’s mind on making that big shot work, just achieving that and then moving on to the next thing. There’s a precision that results because everybody had to think very carefully about what they’re going to do at the moment.”

The filmmaker’s disciplined eye and intense expectations may well put him on the level of a James Cameron and Tim Burton as far as Hollywood’s most distinctive dreamers of blockbusters, but his actors say it is the small-scale insights they remember.

“He’s very concerned with instilling every moment with a human honesty and organic life,” Gordon-Levitt said. “I never felt like I was playing a device in a heist movie. He would ask me stuff, from big things to little things. ‘You’re carrying a bag in this scene. What’s in the bag?’ That’s the kind of thing you probably should know to be really in the role but you wouldn’t even think of that in a typical action movie — ‘I have a tote bag, it’s my prop.’ He doesn’t want you to think in a two-dimensional way. He doesn’t let things go by unconsidered and that’s why he’s Christopher Nolan.”

– Geoff Boucher

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Nolan breaks silence on Superman film

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Nolan on his favorite scene in “Dark Knight”

Comments


18 Responses to Christopher Nolan: Hollywood takes too many shortcuts

  1. Great article Geoff!

    I really admire the way Nolan works and the way he approaches his films. Batman fans couldn't ask for a better director. Whoever's next has some big shoes to fill!

  2. AmbroseKalifornia says:

    Great article, Geoff! I loved Memento, and went to see Inception based on your recommendation and enthusiasm. Now, I tell EVERYONE about it.

  3. Pete says:

    I love the comment he makes about today's directors: if there's a cherry picker in the shot, they just erase him out of the shot in post instead of just asking him to move. This really sums up how lazy directors today are; they rather not bother while shooting because they can get the computer guys to fix everything. What really comes to mind is the scene in The Social Network where the two characters are emitting CGI frosty breath. Why couldn't they just cool the set down???? Or use ice, or something. It is just so fake looking. I am glad to be alive in this day and age with a filmmaker that GETS IT! Christopher Nolan, I salute you. Thank you.

    • Lars says:

      "What really comes to mind is the scene in The Social Network where the two characters are emitting CGI frosty breath."

      I'm generally a Fincher fan but you are so spot-on with that observation. Stupid CGI breath took me right out of the movie. Such an excellent example of laziness.

      • Josh says:

        actually it was the opposite of lazy, they really were outside, and it really was friggen cold, but the breath did not show up on camera.

  4. The Third One says:

    yeah, CGI frosty breath was a huge disappointment in "The Social Network". Don't get me wrong, behind Nolan, David Fincher is one of my favorite directors, but that breath was so distracting… how could it have looked better in "Fight Club" during Jack's dream sequence, when that movie came out years prior? it's shameful.

    anyhow, a lot of people are seriously wondering what Mr. Nolan has up his sleeve for his last bout in Gotham City. i'm so glad he is back and am terribly excited to see what he does next. It's rare when a filmmaker's name alone can sell a film. i knew as soon as i heard he was directing some movie called "Inception" that i would be there opening night and that i wouldn't be disappointed. Both of those initial thoughts turned out to be true. many thanks to Christopher Nolan for creating films for a more sophisticated modern audience and livening up the art of filmmaking.

  5. sophie says:

    C. Nolan is the closest thing we have to the George Lucas of the Original Trilogy – brilliant sci-fi films which pulled off just amazing imagery, staging and stories without CG gimmickery. Mostly because the CG gimmickry didn't exist. i read somewhere that George Lucas is his idol (i would presume from the pre-prequel days!).

  6. Darik says:

    Fantastic article, Geoff!

    I find it ironic that both Tim Burton and James Cameron, the two "dreamers" Nolan was compared to, have recently released sub-par films that were drowning in excessive computer imagery. Both movies cost said directors a little bit of the respect I had for them, and I think that's true for a lot of people; CG seems only able to tarnish the visions of good filmmakers, or allow them to be lazy when coming up with stories because they're more concerned with creating new, dazzling visuals then they are with perfecting the script (well, in Burton's case, that was true even in the eighties, but I think CG robs his quirky sensibilities of a lot of their appeal). Thank God Christopher Nolan is helping to push cinema away from becoming the overcooked cartoons they're on their way to being, and getting them going back in the right direction!

    Now if he'd just get around to announcing who was going to be in The Dark Knight Rises (AND who it is they will be playing), that'd be awesome…

  7. Batmanjr says:

    Nolan is great in the sense that he does what he wants.

    I thank him for not using 3D & I believe Aaron Eckhart: TDKR has potential to blow us all away…

  8. Joe G says:

    Part of why so many stupid and unfulfilling movies are produced is because of that comment you included about execs being nervous about how the more sophisticated elements would go over in the heartland. Unfortunately, much of Hollywood is still in the dark ages of thinking about the sizable population between New York, Chicago, and L.A. as farmers who need big and simple stimuli to get off of their collective tractors and into the county moviehouse to make a movie into a mainstream hit. When the only reason that stupid simple movies are seen as hits in the heartland is because we see whatever comes out of Hollywood (as there are no beaches or mountains or many other things to pass the time other than a warm cinema on a freezing winter day or a cool one on an unbearably hot day), and stupid movies about action figures and Saturday morning cartoons are the ones that are currently being crapped out by the major studios. Inception became a major mainstream hit, which meant that despite execs’ trepidation, the Midwesterners “got off their tractors” and came out in droves to see a sophisticated and complex film — because they like everyone else, were STARVING for a GOOD movie.

    • BADunn says:

      I would agree with you but just remember that Batman has been, among other things, a Saturday morning cartoon. It doesn't matter what the source of a film is. What matters is what someone does with it. Christopher Nolan has given us films that easily mix the fun, gee-whiz feeling that people long for with sophisticated style and intriguing ideas and stories. He gets it. But I think it's clear that many other directors don't get it, and it goes a lot further than CGI breath.

  9. L@! says:

    CGI breath or not, Fincher is a better director any day of the week. I love Nolan… he is absolutely amazing, but nothing he has done can come close in structure or craftsmanship to SEVEN.

    • Todd says:

      alot of seven's structure came from the script. Yes his direction was great but I think the real highlight of seven was the writing. that being said I think Nolan delivers on a higher level than fincher. In my opinion Fincher has kinda fizzled out. Yes his latest movies(social network,benjamin button) did well but compared to seven, fight club and the game they just dont stack up. I also think the fact that Nolan writes his films makes them have something Fincher cannot obtain and that's an extremely strong connection to the material. but hell thats just me!

      • Leslie says:

        I completely agree with you about Fincher’s latest films. I thought Benjamin Button was just awful and far from Fincher’s style and choice of storytelling. Hopefully he’ll go back to his roots of raw, gritty film making.

  10. MonstaHeel 450 says:

    I agree about Hollyweird and their approach to some movies… look what they did to Green Lantern

  11. COMICFAN says:

    Nolan's accusing people of taking too many shortcuts? This coming from a guy who hires the crew from the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to shoot a fight scene, not to mention pivotal scenes and spends hrs. on unnecessary SPIDER-MAN/THE MATRIX type chase scenes that should last about 5 to 10 mins. at most? And makes 2x the cash?

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