It’s only appropriate that Christopher Nolan’s May 5 visit to the Walker Art Center came on the heels of the dizzying release of the latest teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Fresh off his own trek to the outer reaches of space with the spectacular sci-fi adventure drama Interstellar, Nolan 38 years ago was, like countless moviegoers worldwide, forever impacted by the George Lucas’ 1977 space opera. But unlike most starry-eyed fans, Nolan was inspired to expand the Star Wars universe in his own cinematic way, and in doing so, he was inadvertently laying the foundation for a legendary, Lucas-like career of his own as a writer, producer and director.
“I started making Super 8 films when I was 7 years old,” Nolan told me in 2006, in the first of four conversations we would have about his films over the next eight years. “My first few films were little action-figure extravaganzas, and soon, as Star Wars came out and changed everything, my movies were Star Wars ripoffs for years, with spaceships and action figures. They were little, mini-epics. It was great fun.”
The filmmaker’s dialogue with Variety film critic Scott Foundas earlier this week comes only months after the release of Interstellar, perhaps undoubtedly his most ambitious project to date. Released in November 2014, Interstellar is a harrowing yet uplifting tale of a dying planet Earth that, among many other things, examines wormholes, black holes, and the notion of love transcending the boundaries of space and time.
Timing, of course, is everything for anyone’s career in Hollywood, and in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine what might have been had the business had been running on Nolan’s clock during a pivotal moment in his career. After his debut feature with the indie mystery thriller Following in 1998 and the critically acclaimed mind-bender Memento in 2000, Nolan was marching forward at a rapid beat by attracting Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank to his 2002 atmospheric crime thriller Insomnia.
The film established his relationship with Warner Bros. and effectively laid the groundwork for his reimagination of studio’s famed DC superhero, Batman, with Batman Begins. But, as the filmmaker revealed, he was all but ready to launch into his magician opus, The Prestige, before realizing he didn’t have the proper amount of time to effectively recalibrate the expansive, time-honored tale of the Caped Crusader.
“I was going to make the film before Batman Begins, and right at the last minute—literally the last day before I was going to get on a plane and start looking for locations for The Prestige—I realized that we just didn’t have the time to do the film justice and turn Batman Begins around for a summer 2005 release,” Nolan said. “I promised the studio that I would not allow [The Prestige to be overshadowed], so we put the film on ice and was able to come back to it a couple of years later.”
In doing so, Nolan—bolstered by the success of the superhero film—was able to return to the project about magic and obsession with such heavy hitters as Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson and a few familiar faces.
“I was able to reapproach the script [for The Prestige] with fresh eyes, which was great, and also from a casting point of view, I was able to imagine, suddenly, Christian Bale as Alfred Borden and Michael Caine as Cutter,” said Nolan, who has produced all his films with his wife, Emma Thomas. “To me, those parts are unthinkable with anyone else at this point.”
Ironically, Bale wasn’t an automatic for the role as Borden, a technically gifted magician who found himself at odds with Jackman’s Robert Angier, a flamboyant magician with better stage presence than Borden, but who is inferior in skill.
“Since we worked together so well on Batman, the only hurdle was, ‘Is Chris going to see me anything but Bruce Wayne?’ That was tricky,” Bale told me in 2006. “Fortunately, he was very easily convinced. I made a couple of calls to him and he said, ‘All right, let’s do it.'”
Nolan appeared less concerned over the Batman factor with Bale, because he knew going into The Prestige what the actor was capable of sans a cape and cowl.
“It was really great fun to get Christian in an arena where the acting was everything,” Nolan recalled. “We used lighting setups where we didn’t have marks so the actors could wander around freely and be a bit more spontaneous and looser with things. It was tremendous to watch him take that opportunity and just run with it. He’s an extraordinary performer. The layers he’s put into the performance are just thrilling.”
As Nolan tipped his hand in the direction of The Joker at the end of Batman Begins as the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis for the film’s sequel, The Dark Knight, he knew that he had to find an actor to play the Clown Prince of Crime that brought as much complexity and ferocity to the role as Bale brought to Bruce Wayne/Batman. His choice was an unlikely one with Heath Ledger, and it was met with intense push-back from the Batman fan base when the first photo of The Joker—a close-up revealing only the scarred face of the character—appeared online in a viral campaign.
And while Nolan started his Batman experience with an utmost respect for the fans, he also knew he had to stand firm by his casting choices no matter how ugly the criticism got.
“The way I’ve chosen to respect the fans and the investment in this character, which I feel they quite rightly own to a degree, is to sincerely make the best possible film,” Nolan said, just as The Dark Knight went into production. “That’s what we did with the first one, and that’s what we will continue to do, and hopefully that will see us through. Attempting to pander to anybody’s expectations and going against your instinct of what to do … that I know won’t work. But hopefully it will work to stay true to what we think will be the greatest possible movie.”
Perhaps Nolan’s words in 2006 were part of sort of some self-fulfilling prophecy, because by the time The Dark Knight arrived in theaters in July 2008, the feverish anticipation of film was unbearable. Unfortunately for Nolan and his collaborators, the buzz was largely due to the curiosity over Ledger’s performance, because while the actor completed his scenes on the film, he also tragically died nearly eight months before at age 28.
Speaking in 2008 before the debut of the The Dark Knight, the director told me with a heavy heart that it was hard to celebrate the performance of The Joker—which eventually earned Ledger a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar—without the actor being there.
“It’s extraordinarily bittersweet to have Heath not around and see the impression that he’s making on people,” Nolan said. “At the same time, I have to admit to feeling great relief that people seem to be receiving the performance very much in the way the Heath would have liked and would have intended.”
The positive reception by critics and preview audiences of Ledger’s performance came as a incredible relief: “It means that I think I did my job OK in terms of putting together his performance and letting it speak the way he intended—which is big responsibility for any film director under any circumstances, let alone when the actor’s died,” Nolan said.
In crafting the film after Ledger’s death, Nolan said it was important to stay true to the way he originally intended to assemble it, instead of letting his personal emotions about his star’s death change the way he completed the project.
“I think and honestly believe that the performance in the film is exactly the way it would have been if Heath had not passed,” Nolan observed. “The truth is, the character he created was so incredibly different to who he was that it made it easier to be more objective about it. This monstrous creation that he’d given us for the film was so opposite to who he was and what it was like to work with him.”
Rising above expectations
While The Dark Knight created a burning anticipation for his planned third film in The Dark Night trilogy, the billion-dollar success of the film worldwide also gave Nolan an incredible amount of clout to pursue other projects outside the superhero realm. With a penchant for creating cerebral narratives for all of his films—superhero or otherwise—Nolan embarked on a trip to the subconscious with the mind-bending espionage masterpiece Inception.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a corporate thief who plants ideas in unknowing victims’ minds through a technology that allows him to enter people’s subconscious thoughts, Inception featured Nolan’s biggest ensemble cast yet—including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cottilard and his frequent collaborator, Michael Caine.
Inception also starred Tom Hardy, an actor who would prove to be pivotal to Nolan’s next Dark Knight installment. Hardy, who played Eames, a forger who can project the image of anyone within the subconscious mind, effectively helped Nolan fulfill his desire to do a 007 film.
“Definitely, Eames in Inception was Christopher Nolan’s ode to Roger Moore’s James Bond,” Hardy told me in a 2012 interview.
While Hardy was a refreshing surprise as a relative newcomer to American audiences in Inception, the actor’s presence grew exponentially (and along with it, pressure) as the main villain, Bane, in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. After all, he was faced with the daunting task of living up to Ledger and his legendary performance in The Dark Knight.
In a 2012 interview for The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan told me that in the creation of Bane, he had to find a villain in the Batman lore that would provide something different than the psychological terror The Joker imposed in The Dark Knight four years before.
“What we knew after the end of the second film was that we had an ending for the third. We knew where Bruce Wayne’s story was going, but then we had to construct the tale that would get us there. We needed to find an antagonist for Batman who would primarily be a physical adversary,” Nolan recalled. “We didn’t want to tread on anything Heath had done with The Joker. We wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before, which was to put Batman opposite an adversary who could trade blows with him. We wanted to create a very palpable tension in the audience of not knowing who’s going to win that fight. Bane gave us a really great opportunity to do that.”
While he was the main villain in the film, Hardy wasn’t the only actor facing huge expectations to deliver in The Dark Knight Rises. Anne Hathaway, despite being fresh off a critically-lambasted gig as co-host of the Academy Awards, still caught Nolan’s attention as a frontrunner to play the ambiguous cat burglar Selina Kyle and Catwoman (although she is never referred to that moniker in the film) because of her stage presence.
“She can project a very minutely observed psychological characterization. She can build a character from the ground up in a very realistic way the best film acting requires,” Nolan said. “Yet, she can also go on a stage and entertain 1,000 people, and fill a room with her energy and her vibrancy.”
The combination of those sensibilities, Nolan said, is exactly what Hathaway needed for the dual role of Selina Kyle and her costumed alter ego.
“She’s playing a real character in a grounded universe that we’re trying to create, yet she’s taking on an iconic status, so you need those two things to play both sides,” Nolan said. “It’s very rare that you can find actors who can do both things.”
Days of future, past
The first Nolan film that takes viewers beyond the stars, Interstellar is a 2 hour, 49 minute film about a dying planet Earth and search beyond the realm of our galaxy for a planet for the human race to survive.
An ode to Stanley Kubrick and indelible impression the legendary director’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had on Nolan’s life and career, Interstellar was presented to Nolan through his frequent screenplay collaborator, his brother, Jonathan. Nolan’s younger sibling was originally tasked to write a screenplay for producer Lynda Obst and world-renown astrophysicist Kip Thorne, for a film that was originally to be directed by Steven Spielberg.
Once Christopher Nolan was brought on board to direct and build on the foundation of his brother’s screenplay, a familiar feeling set in: the complex emotion of fear. But fear, a popular theme in Nolan’s films—especially in The Dark Knight trilogy—is something he thrives on as a filmmaker; and for Interstellar he was driven by the idea of presenting images never seen on screen before.
“Every film you want to have things in there that really frighten you, and there were plenty of those experiences I wanted to find out for myself in Interstellar in terms of what things would look like and feel like [in the depths of outer space],” Nolan told me in 2014. “I had a great team, from visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and (special effects coordinator) Scott Fisher, to the great theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Kip was able to work with the visual effects guys and give them the actual equations for how a wormhole would look, how a black hole would bend light around it. He explained it and they were able to render it more accurately than it’s ever been done before.”
While Nolan’s continues to evolve in his career, presenting viewers with images they’ve never seen before, it’s refreshing that his approach to filmmaking remains timeless. Whether it be his insistence on casting classic actors or shooting on film stock (and presenting it on film whenever possible, an increasingly difficult thing to do in the age of digital projection), Nolan said it’s the history of cinema that’s inspiring his visions of today, and tomorrow.
So rest assured, as we bear witness to the work of Christopher Nolan as he moves through time, the integrity of moviemakers past and their timeless creations will remain with him, and most importantly, be forever presented through him.
“I love movies and love the history of movies. With it—just as you have the history of the Batman comics to draw on with all their great writers and artists—you have this great history of experimentation and innovation of the past masters of moviemaking,” Nolan told me during our interview for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. “You’d be crazy not to study that and avail yourself to that, and look beyond the trends of today to see the moments of what’s been done in the past. They may surprise you and surprise the audiences of today when they’re represented again.
The Walker Cinema screens nine of Christopher Nolan’s films as part of retrospective, Christopher Nolan: Moving Through Time, May 5–24, 2015.