The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Part I
To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Cult Hub takes a retrospective look at some of the most iconic films created by Christopher Nolan and explore their themes, science and philosophy. While a number of his contemporaries have strengths in visual effects (James Cameron), big productions (Steven Spielberg), traditional film making techniques (Martin Scorsese), spectacular violence (Quentin Tarantino) and exploring the human psyche (David Fincher) – Christopher Nolan is only a handful of directors who can successfully combines all of those qualities to create feature films that are not only applauded by the critics but religiously praised by the audience. The fan boys have coined the praise ‘In Nolan We Trust’ proving no matter how odd the choices look from the outset, we can be sure that Christopher Nolan can morph the ordinary into a spectacular cinematic event. As his promotes TDKR with his cast around the world, we look back at his modest but impressive catalogue of films that helped shaped the man who recently became the youngest director (aged 41) to be honoured with a hand and footprint ceremony at the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. His name sits alongside Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlton Heston, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood.
Christopher Jonathan James Nolan was born in London on July 30th, 1970 to an English father who worked in Advertising and an American mother who was a flight steward. With his dual citizenship in the UK and US, Nolan spent most of his childhood split between London and Chicago, and was only seven when he first found his father’s Super-8 camera which inspired him to make short films using his toy soldiers and cars. Nolan was educated in Hertfordshire, England and then later studied English Literature at University College London where he also developed his camera skills at their film-making facilities. Even after graduating from UCL in 1993, Nolan was president of the Film Society from 1992 till 1994 where his friends commended his technical expertise and storytelling skills. Many of his friends from the society would later help him create his first feature film called Following back in 1998 which told the story of a man who followed strangers around until one of them offers a job to see how good his observation skills were. The encounter leads to the protagonist being involved with the criminal underworld and framed for murder he did not commit.
Wanting to keep the budget to a minimum, Nolan made his actors rehearse their scenes endlessly to ensure he didn’t waste the film in the 16mm camera it was being recorded on and shot the movie over many weekends with the final production taking almost a year to complete. Looking back, Nolan commented that there was no difference in getting together with friends and focusing on a mutual project than it was on a full scale production feature film – the ethos of wanting to create the best film possible remained the same. While the film made little impact in commercial terms, it was his non-linear plot structure that got him noticed and has been his signature feature in many of his later films.
In 1996, before Following had started filming, Christopher Nolan’s interest was plucked when his younger brother Jonathan Nolan told him of a short story idea of a man who suffered from anterograde amnesia which prevents a person the ability to store new memories. While Jonathan’s story, called Memento Mori, was published in Esquire magazine in the US, Christopher was developing Memento into a screenplay and used the Sujet structure – which he also adapted when writing the script for Following. Memento follows the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce) who is in search of the man who killed his wife. The Sujet structure uses two story telling arcs: the forward-story scenes are depicted in black and white, while the reverse-story scenes are shot in techni-colour. The direction is meant to mirror the polaroid pictures which go from negative imaging to colour and are crucial to the plot development of the story.
The film opens with a polaroid picture of a man shot in the head – it develops backwards from colour to sepia to clear negative and you realise the entire scene is slowly being rewinded. In reverse mode, you see the blood dripping upwards on the tiled walls. The gun jumps back into Shelby’s hands. The bullet on the floor flies back into the barrel of the gun before it penetrates the man’s head. The narrative is purposefully confusing to reflect the Shelby’s state of mind as he struggles to fit new memories in his head. The film also explores the notion of facts. Shelby debates with a police officer Teddy Gammell (Joe Pantoliano) that eye witness accounts are futile because they are based on memories which are deemed inconsistent and vague, where as facts are reliable and scientific. It is because of this notion that Shelby self tattoos his entire body with facts and motivational quotes to find the man who killed his wife. ‘Male’, ‘White’, ‘Drug dealer’ and ‘John G’ are clues he needs to solve and put together however we later discover the ‘facts’ on his body are misleading – mainly because Shelby has constructed or rather fabricated a story to justify the death of his wife. The story of Leonard Shelby is both tragic and evocative, leaving the audience with a sense of wonder how the mind truly collects memories and explores fantastical themes such as self-deception and vengeance.
When Memento opened at the Venice International Film Festival in 2000 it received critical acclaim and Nolan earned his only Academy Award nomination for Original Screenplay back in 2002. Even today Memento is studied in film schools as it successfully breaks the traditional three act format; Nolan here proved the structure does not dictate the story… the story dictates the story. Memento catapulted Nolan into the mainstream industry and few rarely believed he would become a powerhouse in less than a decade.
Before Scandinavian-to-Hollywood adaptation became a trend, Nolan was already ahead of the curve after taking on sleepless thriller Insomnia in 2002 – adapted from the Norwegian film of the same name released in 1997. While the script was penned by HIllary Seitz (Eagle Eye) Nolan began his relationship with Warner Bros. who in turn provided him an opportunity to work with some Hollywood greats. The impressive cast for Insomnia included Academy Award winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh acting as Executive Producers.
The plot line revolves around a couple of LAPD Detectives – Will Dormer (Al Pacino) Eckhart (Martin Donovan) – sent to a small fishing town in Alaska to investigate the death of a 17 year old girl who has been beaten to death. To complicate the investigation even more, perpetual daylight has disorientated Detective Dormer sleep pattern that he can’t think nor rest properly. When certain clues lead to a suspect, Dormer and Eckhart chase him down only to be led into a forest covered in fog. It’s here Dormer accidentally shoots Eckhart and tries to alter the crime scene since the departed was going to testify to Internal Affairs against Dormer on a previous case. Dormer misuses a local Detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who thinks of him as a icon, into thinking the suspect he was chasing had killed Eckhart. All seems well until Dormer receives a phone call from crime writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) who not only confesses to the murder of the young girl but also saw Dormer shoot Eckhart. Finch then presents Dormer with a moral choice - frame the young girls murder onto someone else or be exposed and ultimately lose his job.
While the story was a chilling thriller, Insomnia developed Nolan in two significant ways: scale and action. The Alaskan environment had enlarged his visual canvas by tenfold as there are many aerial and landscape shots creating a very deep foreground in contrast to Pacino’s character who was struggling with internal demons. While Memento and Following had some action, it was here where Nolan was able to put money behind his chase and action sequences. Unlike many contemporaries who use special effects, Nolan was very much a method director insisting all the action had to be for real.
With a budget of only $46 million it racked up over $113 million worldwide with film aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes giving it 93% certified fresh ratings with a number of critics complementing Nolan not only for creating a wonderful psychological drama but brought both Pacino and Williams back to legendary form. Insomnia, was to many, a project for Nolan to show he was not only a good story teller but had vision and scope. Warner Bros. were very impressed with the tea drinking British director and were open to what he had to offer next.
While developing a script for the eccentric Howard Hughes, Martin Scorsese had beaten him to it when he released The Aviator in 2004 starring Leonardo DiCaprio depicting Hughes during the highlight of his years from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s. After shelving the project and hoping he could resurrect the project in ten years, Nolan was tasked by Warner Bros. to reboot the Batman franchise which died an abysmal death under the hands of George Clooney and Joel Schumacher. After a meeting with comic-book and screenplay writer – David S. Goyer (who wrote all three Blade movies starring Wesley Snipes), Nolan stated he was interested in the telling the origin story of Bruce Wayne rather than just Batman as depicted by the Tim Burton movies which focused on the style rather than the drama. This helped Nolan explore the conflict in young Bruce Wayne who forever had to live with picturing his parents dying in front of him. The element of fear – which became the theme of the movie – was transformed into a symbol and eventually the constructive reason why a man would dress up as a bat. Nolan was able to combine the elements of fear from Insomnia and vengeance from Memento into Batman Begins.
Nolan said that “humanity and realism would be the basis of the origin film” and that “the world of Batman is that of grounded reality”. Along with Goyer, Nolan worked with Production Designer Nathan Crowley who built a model of Gotham City in Nolan’s garage in Los Angeles. This allowed Nolan to track back and forth from the visual aspect with Crowley to the script with Goyer. Using multiple comic book sources such as The Man Who Falls, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory and of course Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One – Goyer and Nolan produced a draft for their Batman film which Warner Bros gave a budget of $150 million. Three times more than he had for Insomnia.
Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) waking up in a Bhutanese prison after being caught for stealing and commiting petty crimes. A mysterious man named Ducard (Liam Neeson) visits him knowing who he is and offers an opportunity to be trained under The League of Shadows, commandeered by a figure known as Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) in a temple high up in the mountains. After a gruelling training regime as a Ninja, Bruce leaves the temple of the League of Shadows in a blaze for having to choose to decapitate a man to prove his allegiance. He returns to Gotham City after a seven year hiatus a changed man wanting to become more then flesh and blood but a symbol of fear he can plant into the minds of all criminals. Bruce tries to build bridges with the people he left behind including Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) the family butler at Wayne Manor and his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) who is now the Assistant District Attorney. Bruce also meets new friends including Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the head of the Applied Sciences division at Wayne Enterprises (the company his father built) and Sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) – the only cop in the city who doesn’t take bribes from the mob. Bruce becomes a secret vigilante using the rejected military toys in the Applied Science division and ultimately becomes Batman using a bat as his symbol of fear – a creature he himself once feared as a child. After capturing Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the head of the Falcone mob syndicate, Batman freely offers him to Sgt. Gordon with a visual message that there’s a new kid in town and things are about to change. However, a sinister plot devised by the Head Psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum – Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) – also known as The Scarecrow, is put in place to test Batman and reintroduce him to an old foe he thought was already dead.
There are, in effect, two time lines telling two different stories. The first is of a younger Bruce Wayne, who is still mentally tortured after seeing his parents being shot in front of him. The man responsible is released from prison years later only to be shot by the mob. Unable to satisfy his vengeful urges he takes a visit to see Falcone who claims Bruce is actually the Prince of Gotham and would never understand how they operate because he’s never been in the gutter where the criminals reside. In order to experience that Falcone knows, Bruce would have to travel thousands of miles to visit a place and meet people who didn’t know his name – and that is exactly what Bruce does. The second story arch is that of Bruce becoming Batman and living the consequences of being the dark knight. Yes, he’s able to use his symbol of fear to intimidate criminals but he also struggles to extract the fear he has of bats. Equally he’s legal death means he needs to start life all over again as Bruce Wayne the businessman, a friend to Rachel Dawes and the remaining person to honour the Wayne name. Of course by the end of the film, you realise the story of two men share the same phobias, challenges and enemies. Some of the dialogue spoken earlier in the film are reused again later to reflect the duality as seen by Bruce/Batman. It also gave way to one of the greatest pieces of dialogue written by Nolan and Goyer describing Bruce. Back in the prison cell ,when Ducard meets Bruce for the first time, he tries to encourage the prisoner, who seems lost in his travels, to choose a path that would ultimately lead to greatness if he joined and trained with the League of Shadows. “If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal and if they can’t stop you, you become something else entirely – a legend, Mister Wayne.”
Batman Begins, released in the summer of 2005, was a global sensation for its time making nearly $400 million at the box office and resurrected the Batman franchise to the delight of Warner Bros and DC comics. It was also the first proper feature film produced under Syncopy Films, which is a production company created by Nolan and his co-producing wife Emma Thomas. The name derives from ‘Syncope’ which is a medical term for loss of consciousness. Both fanboys and the critics applauded Nolan’s fresh take on the Batman legend as he proved this character could existed in modern times with its limitations and technology. Nolan was able to use the skyline of Chicago to stand in for Gotham and overly expensive military toys for Batman’s gadgets. While the film had some actors who never engaged in their roles as much as Bale and Caine did, the cast on the whole were brilliantly collected as were the production team who brought the dark knight to the screen again. While other superhero movies at the time such as Spiderman were clearly devised for sheer entertainment and a younger audience – Batman Begins darker, more psychological aspects brought it into adult territory. But while films like Spiderman have arguably aged, Nolan’s first take on Batman to this day looks fresh, inspiring, exceptionally dynamic and above all – phenomena.
Written by Vaskar S. Kayastha