Interview with Director Christopher Nolan

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

The Prestige Poster“The Prestige” marks the fifth film for director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan. Co-written with his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan Nolan, and starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine, the film depicts an intense rivalry between two magicians who become obsessed with outdoing one another, leading to self-destruction and murder.

Filmmaking has been a lifelong pursuit for Nolan who began making movies at an early age with his father’s Super 8mm camera. While studying English Literature at University College of London, Nolan shot 16mm films at UCL’s film society, learning the guerrilla film techniques he would later use to make his first feature, “Following.” The no-budget noir, which The New Yorker’s Bruce Diones hailed as “leaner and meaner than the thrillers of Hitchcock,” enjoyed great success at international film festivals, including Toronto, Rotterdam, Slamdance, and Hong Kong, prior to being released theatrically in the U.S., the U.K., France and various other territories.

Nolan’s second feature, “Memento,” was named film of the year by the Broadcast Film Critics. Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano, the small-budget independent garnered a DGA Award nomination. In addition, Nolan’s screenplay, based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan, received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay and a Golden Globe nomination and was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics and Broadcast Film Critics, as well as won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

Nolan followed “Memento” with the critically acclaimed psychological thriller “Insomnia” for Warner Bros. Pictures, Section 8 and Witt-Thomas Films. Starring Academy Award winners Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams, the film earned Nolan the Best Director of the Year award from the London Critics Circle. In 2005, Nolan co-wrote and directed “Batman Begins,” starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and Michael Caine. The blockbuster pleased critics and fans alike, reinvigorating the franchise and paving the way for the recently announced sequel, “The Dark Knight.”

At the Los Angeles press day to promote “The Prestige,” Christopher Nolan sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like writing and directing his latest movie. Nolan, who spent his childhood moving back and forth between the United Kingdom and the United States, has an accent that is mostly English but occasionally morphs into an American accent. He’s comfortable with and knowledgeable of both cultures and often casts British or non-American actors in American roles. Here’s what he had to say about his new film and upcoming projects:

Q: Did someone send you the book? Is that how this whole process began?

CN: Yeah, my executive producer Valerie Dean gave me the book, gosh, seven years ago, six, seven years ago, something like that and just said, ‘You’ll see a film in this.’ And I did, but it took a long time to figure out exactly what that film was going to be.

Q: You do make some quite significant changes to the book. Right? You make it your own sensibility.

CN: Yes, it’s a very loose adaptation but one that hopefully is very true to the spirit of the novel. The novel, if you’ve read it, is a big sprawling book with a lot of different possibilities for a film but one that certainly can’t all fit into a screenplay. So it took us a long time to focus on the elements we thought that would really work.

Q: How did you decide what those elements would be? It must have been very tricky to balance all those different…?

CN: Yeah, it was a complex adaptation but you really…in terms of how…frankly, you just start writing and trying things out and you just have to feel out for yourself what’s working and what isn’t.

Q: Christian (Bale) was saying that he wanted to play the part but wasn’t sure that you would see him as anything else other than Bruce Wayne which I thought was a rather strange comment given the fact that he had done a few films prior to doing “Batman.” Were you surprised that he actually thinks that?

CN: I’d be surprised if he really thought that. But he’s a very grounded, very modest individual so it doesn’t surprise me that he would say that almost out of politeness in a way. To me he’s somebody who’s just an extraordinary talent so you want to work with people like that again as much as possible. But what is true and what he’s probably referring to is when I work on a screenplay, I don’t think of actors playing parts. I think of the characters as characters until it’s all finished. Then we think about casting so it was certainly the case that I wasn’t calling him up and saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got this great part for you that I’m working on.’ It wasn’t like that at all. We finished the script and then we said, ‘Okay, well who could this be?’ Christian was certainly the obvious choice in retrospect, but it’s funny how you don’t see it that way. It was the same thing with Michael (Caine). His part was not written for him even though to me it absolutely plays now as if it were.

Q: As a writer, what do you think this film says about relationships?

CN: I think it’s not terribly optimistic about relationships. I don’t think it probably says any one particular thing that could be instantly summed up, but it certainly I think explores ideas of duality in relationships and coping with that fundamental principal.

Q: That secrets can be more important than someone’s life?

CN: Yes, I mean obviously the film exaggerates things into the realm of melodrama quite deliberately but at the same time I think that we all have to deal with … in any relationship you have to deal with the different sides of your nature and the different impulses to preserve individuality through secrecy and yet try and break down those barriers forever in a long term relationship.

Q: Do you think it’s a natural reaction that men would become fickle and turn on their (inaudible) and seemingly act one way one moment and the very next be like a (inaudible)?  Can you explain that?

CN: I think it’s a very human thing. I don’t know necessarily I would say more men than women. I don’t know. But I think it’s a very human thing, yes.

Q: Do you think it’s common for men to choose a career over a relationship?

CN: It’s very common, yes.

Q: The first time I met you was at Sundance with that little “Memento” movie. How surprised are you that you’ve become this successful and “Batman” has kind of…?

CN: I’m extremely surprised. You constantly have to remind yourself how lucky you are really. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and yeah, it’s been extremely surprising to me, but I’m very grateful for the fact of being able to make films and have people interested in watching them. It’s great.

Q: Is it hard for you to challenge yourself every time. For example, when you do “Dark Knight,” is it a challenge for you to ensure that that film satisfies existing and would be fans as well as your own individual?

CN: Yeah, definitely. Every film has to interest you as a filmmaker. Frankly, it’s too hard to make films, it’s too long a commitment of time to do films that don’t challenge you or frighten you a little bit. Certainly I hadn’t thought of doing a sequel to “Batman Begins” and there’s part of me that thinks it’s a huge risk for me to do that, but that’s why I make films because they present interesting challenges and this one certainly does.

Q: What was the biggest challenge in terms of making this film?

CN: I think for me the greatest challenge was firstly in the screenwriting process, largely my younger brother’s (Jonathan Nolan) work and then me taking over it at the last minute, but to really try and frankly just make the story work the way that we really wanted it to. And then in making the film I saw the great challenge as trying not to make a period film, trying not to make a film that had a certain alienating quality that a lot of period films have through their formality and through their stiffness. So everything we did in the filmmaking was aimed at treating it as a contemporary story.

Q: You just said that you don’t think about casting until you finish a script. But you cast Heath Ledger so does that mean that the “Dark Knight” script is actually finished?

CN: No, it doesn’t. What it means is we’ve finished constructing that character and so we were able to sort of think about that. You know, his casting was just a fortunate series of events. He expressed an interest. I hadn’t really thought that he would be interested in doing it but I thought it was worth a try. It was actually a very early conversation but then we realized that we were seeing the same character.

Q: You also said that Harvey Dent will be in the new film, but does that mean that Two-Face will be in the film?

CN: I couldn’t say. You’ll find out. (laughter)

Q: How much have you really written then?

CN: You want to know what page I’m on?

Q: Yeah, What page and what scene? (laughter)

CN: I wouldn’t tell the studio that. I’m not going to tell you. (laughter)  We’ll say it’s coming along.

Q: Christian was talking about even he hasn’t had a conversation about what the next “Batman” movie is going to be about. How important is it for you to just keep it with you, David Goyer, and maybe your brother, that’s about it, before you start releasing it to executives and actors?

CN: Yeah, we keep it very close to the chest. It’s part of the process. We’ve been working on the script a long time, over a year now, so one way or another with David Goyer, my brother and myself, but it has to be right. We’re almost finished.

Q: The Dark Knight is one of the best detectives in the comic book world. Are you going to address that side of Batman in your new film?

CN: I can’t really say any more about it to be honest. (laughter)

Q: Can you say whether it will be darker than the first one or do you want it to be darker than the first film?

CN: To be honest, I don’t really think in those terms. The story will be what the story is and then it will be for you guys to say whether it is or not. I honestly don’t think of it like that.

Q: How far along are you with “The Prisoner?”

CN: Not very far along at all personally, but David and Janet Peoples, two of the screenwriters, they’re working on it right now. I don’t know how far along they are. And as a fellow writer I feel it rude to call them up and ask, ‘What page are you on?’ I wouldn’t do that.

Q: One of the things that I found interesting in “The Prestige” was that the character of Tesla and that storyline was really intriguing. Was it difficult for you to keep that to a minimum so you didn’t overtake the rest of the story because it’s so intriguing?

CN: You can have a lot of fun with it but certainly in our first cut it was probably longer than it needed to be. We wound up trimming it down because it is ultimately just one small part of the story. Important, but small. Yeah, it’s a fun world to be in and a fun world to explore.

Q: What kinds of films are you looking to work on outside of the “Batman” franchise? Are there other directions that you see yourself taking at this point?

CN: Gosh, I couldn’t really say. I mean honestly you take each story as it comes. This film is very different from the next one I’m doing. I don’t know what I’ll be doing after that exactly. Maybe “The Prisoner,” maybe something else. To me, every film I do I approach as maybe the last film or the only film I’ll get to make and I view it on those terms. I don’t find myself really able to think about what I’m doing next until I’m finished with it.

Q: Can you talk about casting David Bowie? Was that like a personal ‘I want to work with him’?

CN: Yeah. I’ve been a huge fan of his ever since I was a kid and casting Tesla who has this small but pivotal role, you need somebody who immediately communicates this sort of otherworldly qualities and extraordinary charisma. I felt that any movie star, for example, doing that would be distracting in the wrong way whereas Bowie’s charisma comes from a different place, a little left of center really. It was quite fascinating so to get him was very exciting. He was terrific to work with.

Q: Why Hugh Jackman?

CN: Well, Hugh has a tremendous combination. He’s a wonderful film actor but he’s also an extraordinary stage performer and the character of Angier quite specifically has to be able to demonstrate massive power on stage and an affinity for understanding the audience and what the audience needs from him that transcends his abilities as a magician.

Q: Did you ask him to take the role?

CN: I approached him and sent him the script. You know, ‘What do you think?’ kind of thing. And he really (inaudible) quick which was great. Yeah, we just saw the character the same way and he just fits it like a glove.

Q: What’s it like directing two lead actors and being sensitive to their different personalities?

CN: It’s terrific. I mean one of the really fun things about working with great actors is they’re all completely different but they come together on screen and in their approaches to how they perform. They sort of effortlessly accommodate each other. I think part of that is because great actors really…they’re not just saying their lines, they’re also listening and the energy is passing back and forth so they’re very accommodating performances so it’s a lot of fun to watch them come together.

Q: Do you have to approach them differently?

CN: For me? Yes, every actor needs something different from me. He needs a different type of direction and that’s my job but they accommodate each other’s needs very easily.

Q: Is there a recent experience that was transforming for you?

CN: Well, having kids. I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old and a four-year-old so that’s been my transformative experience for the last four years is having kids. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone. Do you have to approach them differently?
 (laughter) It’s a terrific thing.

Q: How close are we to hearing who Harvey Dent is going to be?

CN: I don’t know who he’s going to be and I’m the only person who would know.

Q: Are we a couple months away?

CN: I don’t know because I don’t know who he is. We’ll have to know fairly soon. We start shooting in February so I’ll have to know by then.

“The Prestige” opens in theaters on October 20th.  “The Dark Knight” is scheduled for release in 2008. “The Prisoner” is currently in development.

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