As an interview subject, Christopher Nolan is an expert diplomat: He’s great at sounding forthright while not saying anything particularly revealing. But, holding forth on his career in an hour-long conversation with Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller at the Tribeca Film Festival last night, the Dark Knight and Inception director did open up at a couple of points. Maybe it was the fact that he was talking shop with a fellow filmmaker, but Nolan seemed refreshingly reflective, particularly as he discussed some of the opportunities he’d been given in his career.
“If there’s one thing that I’ve been fortunate in, in my development as a filmmaker, it’s that I’ve always worked at a comfortable scale,” Nolan said. “I started very very small [with the no-budget feature Following]. Then, after I had done Following … I was able to show people the script for Memento, and it had a similarly nonlinear structure. It was a difficult script to read on the page, but Following was a clear illustration of how it might work onscreen.” Making the $3.5 million Memento, Nolan said, “was a huge leap. That was the moment in which you had to just turn up for work and see all these trucks, and all these people hanging around and this huge machine, and go, ‘Okay, I’m just diving in now.’” The success of that film then provided Nolan with his entrée into studio filmmaking, but at a more modest scale — with the moody crime drama Insomnia, which “was a very comfortable first step up — as a first studio film, my first time working with huge stars like Robin Williams, Hilary Swank … Doing my first studio film in that way was a key part of gaining the confidence to ignore the huge machinery, and not feel the weight of that every time you told somebody where to put the camera.”
Nolan contrasted his experience with those of other directors today. “There are a lot of directors today who get thrown into much bigger films having done their version of Memento, whatever that is. I actually got a much more comfortable path into bigger and bigger films.” Nolan didn’t name names, but one wonders if he was thinking of directors like Colin Trevorrow — who was given Jurassic World after the very-low-budget comedy Safety Not Guaranteed — and David Lowery, who got Disney’s Pete’s Dragon remake after the tiny, moody drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
Nolan also had very appreciative words for Steven Soderbergh, one of his executive producers on Insomnia, for effectively mentoring him as he navigated the studio process. “Being a film director, in industrial terms, is a very paradoxical position,” he reflected. “You are hired by people who then give you the appearance of wanting to control you, but they’ve hired you to resist them, they’ve hired you to have a point of view. So there’s this weird tension … You’re being paid to disregard those pressures … But at no time is that ever acknowledged … [Soderbergh] had developed such a reasonable attitude to it that in no way compromised what he was trying to do creatively … It was all about having respect for the other person’s point of view. It was all about saying, ‘Okay, the note might be wrong or the suggestion on how to fix it might be wrong, but they’re saying it for a reason, and you have to figure out what that reason is.’ Now, admittedly, sometimes that reason is ego, or trying to impress their boss, or whatever it is, but very often there’s a creative reason. And you can either get it from the note itself, or you can go and think about it and internalize it … I seized on that as a way of dealing with the studio system, because he showed me the possibilities of the incredible power of the studio machine and what it can be used for, in a creative sense.”
That said, Nolan credited much of his success in the studio system to luck. “I do attribute a lot of it to luck, and I’m not being falsely modest there,” he said. “When you make a film, it’s a very long-term thing. You’re looking years in the future. The idea that you can gauge what an audience is going to be interested in, or what a marketing department can sell, is completely untrue. One recent example is working with Matthew McConaughey on Interstellar. Once he won the Oscar for Best Actor, everyone at the studio credited myself and Emma [Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producer] as geniuses … But the truth is we cast him long before any of that happened. I went down to see him when he was shooting True Detective. I was thinking, Oh, he’s going to do a TV show now, what’s that going to be like? It was a combination of luck and knowing that he was right for the part. The studio was thrilled when his star then rose in a spectacular fashion. But it’s always a leap of faith.”
Of course, because this is a Chris Nolan interview, and because the audience also had questions, there was the inevitable question about the ending of Inception — and whether the totem fell or not. At this point, Miller interjected with what we think was a joke: “I asked the same question backstage, and he told me the answer, and he said, ‘It’s not really for public consumption,’” he remarked to both guffaws and several awwwws. “I’m not going to answer that, or I would have in the film,” Nolan said. But even here, he reflected on lessons he’d learned earlier in his career, this time on some advice his brother Jonathan gave him when they were premiering Memento at the Venice Film Festival. Asked about the ending of that film during the press conference afterwards, “I said, ‘It’s up for the audience to decide, but this is what it means to me.’ Then I gave a greatly detailed answer on what the ambiguities of the film meant to me.” Then Nolan recalled that his brother told him, “You don’t understand. Nobody hears that first bit where you say it’s up to the viewer to decide if you then give your interpretation.” That, Nolan says, was the last time he offered up an interpretation of any of his movies.