The Nolan Effect

Director Christopher Nolan at work behind the camera

From the Shadows: with Interstellar the most anticipated movie of the year so far, Carl Pinnick takes a look at the rise and rise of an indie filmmaker.

The name Christopher Nolan is synonymous within the confines of Hollywood as pure ‘bankability’ – to other mere mortals; his name means more than that – a great deal more indeed. Nolan has been described as “the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation.”

Nolan began shooting his own films from the age of seven, using his father’s Super 8 camera and employing a cast of action figures, pure imagination and crucially; inspiration from a cinema visit at Leicester Square to see legendary film-maker, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with his father – a film that would later go on to inspire Nolan’s future aspirations as a film-maker, with its themes evidently peppered throughout his filmography, even today. From the age of eleven, his growing ambition and desire to become a professional film-maker would impact the decisions he would go on to make throughout his education and early career with an absolute laser-focus goal of gaining a foothold within the film industry.

He was educated at Haileybury and Imperial Service College, an independent school based in Hertfordshire. Later on, he studied English Literature at University College London (itself used as a landmark in many of Nolan’s films), where he would become president of the Union’s Film Society, and along with his girlfriend, Emma Thomas – his now wife and producing partner at their film production company; Syncopy Inc. – would work throughout the school year screening traditional 35mm films (which Nolan is still a key advocate of today, and is currently the subject of huge backlash and deliberation in the U.S. with the release of Interstellar on the format), to help fund their low budget 16mm film projects during the summer. After his graduation from the university, Nolan was announced as an Honorary Fellow of UCL for his contribution and distinction in the arts. He found it difficult to engage with the studios and production companies, recalling the ‘stack of rejection letters’ that greeted his earlier attempts to kick-start his projects, where he spent most of his time directing corporate promotional videos and industrial films, before moving to Los Angeles where he became a script reader.

Nolan began his film-making career with a series of short films; Tarantella (1989), which was produced in collaboration with Academy Award nominated documentary director Roko Belic, was shown at an independent film and video showcase on the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. Larceny (1995) was shot in black and white with a limited cast, crew and filmed with equipment loaned from UCL. Funded by Nolan himself, the film appeared at the Cambridge Film Festival of 1996 and is still today considered as one of UCL’s best short films. In 1997 Nolan produced a three-minute short film, curiously titled Doodlebug, in which a man chasing what appears to be a bug of some sort around a flat, discovers that upon finally swatting it with his shoe, it was in fact a miniature of himself – an early attempt at exploring the depths of insanity and parallelism, which are both themes woven through some of his more recent material.

Even though his earlier feature films were (largely) superb, both in terms of sociological concepts and ideas, they were very much rooted within the independent film category and thus confined by their respective production scope and seemingly limited appeal. It’s almost impalpable to consider that those earlier productions were not considered to be hugely successful projects from a financial standpoint, despite all producing a seemingly profitable endeavour for the studios involved. They were all, however critically praised and enjoyed by their respective audience – a rarity even for some of today’s big-hitters. Nolan’s debut feature film; Following (1998) returned just over eight times its (self-funded) budget of $6,000, with his follow-up film and arguable his breakthrough project; Memento (2001) coined $39.7 million worldwide on a production budget of $9 million. More importantly, Memento signified the arrival of Nolan as a credible filmmaker in his own right. In fact, it was Steven Soderbergh, Executive Producer on Insomnia (2002) who championed Nolan to direct the psychological thriller, initially against studio Warner Bros.’ wishes, who preferred a more ‘seasoned’ director.

Ultimately, the numerous awards and nominations, including; Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for its screenplay, and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director & Best Screenplay contributed not only to Memento being regarded as one of the best films of the early 2000’s but also landed Nolan at a proverbial ‘crossroads’ in his career, and at the helm of Insomnia – a $50 million production and itself a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name.

(Christopher Nolan On Character & Perceptual Distortion In ‘Memento’)

For a man who’s product of his imagination has grossed in excess of $3.5 billion worldwide at the box office alone, his thought process and creative output still remains very grounded and individual, where some of his modern day peers have become a product of the system in themselves, inevitably & ironically taking their own direction from the studios and production companies. Nolan has always managed to remain philosophical and artistic in his approach, despite his huge ambition. A privilege that he no doubt rightfully earned in financial cume alone, since earning critical mass with The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012).

The repercussion and impact of The Dark Knight Trilogy are plain to see – those films commercialized the genre on an unfathomable scale, and in a post Batman Begins (2005) world, we are presented with the reality that the genre of comic book heroes & adaptions has never before experienced so much success and relevance in today’s society with their respective and wider audiences. We are also fortunate to be graced with the same Christopher Nolan from the pre-Batman era, as he retains his auteur influence and continues to push the boundaries with new experiences and original, often postmodern narratives and ideas. His fifth feature film; The Prestige (2006), focused on the darker side of human connection – almost a palate cleanser of creativity and heavily influenced by film noir, The Prestige proved that the film-maker we were exposed to prior to the commercialization of his style and methods with 2005’s Batman Begins was still relevant, bold and exciting with that film going on to achieve both critical and commercial success. A tantalizing glimpse into what was about to come.

After the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight (2008) – considered by many to be the apex of his career, Warner Bros. signed Nolan to direct Inception (2010), which he also wrote and co-produced. The film was a huge risk, not only in that it was an original ‘un-proven’ big budget film (costing $160 million) in the age of sequels and established franchises; but also a question of faith in the ability of its audience to fully realise the concept and ideas within the film itself. It was speculated that the film’s success could inspire the studios to commission further new, original concepts moving forward – a huge burden and responsibility with the potential to change the outlook of the industry post 2010, provided that the film proved to be a commercial success. Inception ultimately ended up grossing over $820 million worldwide – essentially unheard of for a new, un-established property, and was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture; it won Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects. Nolan himself also received BAFTA, Golden Globe, Directors Guild of America, and Producers Guild of America Award nominations in addition to a Writers Guild of America Award for his work on the film. It’s thought-provocative to consider the impact that Inception has made in the industry for budding new ideas and aspiring film-makers since its release.

Even despite the gargantuan success Nolan has faced with his original ideas and concepts, the irony is that mainstream audiences recognise and associates Nolan’s name and credibility with that particular trilogy of films in which the Batman himself emerged from the dark shadows of Bruce Wayne’s psyche in search of his identity and place within his world – just as Christopher Nolan as a film-maker has had to fight for and find his place within our world. The context is hugely different of course, perhaps even dramatic, however the parallel is symbolic – just as The Dark Knight is himself. Perhaps Nolan was in fact destined to be the ‘caretaker’ of those characters from the very beginning. After all a sign of a truly great filmmaker is to peel back the surface and distinguish between the complex layers within to ultimately bare the heart & soul of the characters and their worlds on-screen – certainly an interesting anecdote.

Nolan is at the epitome of intrinsic film-making, melding together the fictional framework of his narrative with the reality of audience perception, allowing the psychological state of his characters to merge with the subjectivity of the viewer, granting a level of character authenticity and emotional investment from the audience that is rarely replicated successfully by other film-makers. Among the greats of our time, Christopher Nolan above most has accomplished the ultimate in transcending his vision and idyllic concepts into our hearts and minds.

(Christopher Nolan and Exec Producer & Scientist Kip Thorne talk about how they created a black hole for Interstellar)

The ‘Nolan-effect’ cannot be understated behind the camera either, as even long-standing studio partner; Warner Bros. yearned for a cut of the profits from the imminent release of Interstellar (originally a Paramount Pictures worldwide release), giving up future film distribution rights to Friday the 13th and South Park, in addition to a co-financing option on a future, currently un-designated ‘triple-A’ Warner Bros. film property in return for a share of the distribution rights.

On the eve of the UK general release of Interstellar (November 7th, 2014) – a film with impossible expectations,  Christopher Nolan may just become a symbol of hope and inspiration for future budding writers, producers and directors once again.

Interstellar movie poster

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