Theatre of the Mind: A Christopher Nolan Profile (Part 2)

With his latest offering Inception hitting cinemas this month, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of British filmmaker Christopher Nolan in the second of a three part feature… read part one here.

Insomnia poster“There’s a very limited pool of finance in the U.K.,” observed British filmmaker Christopher Nolan. “To be honest, it’s a very clubby kind of place. In Hollywood there’s a great openness, almost a voracious appetite for new people.” One of those impressed by his directorial talent was a legendary actor to whom Nolan had sent a copy of his sophomore effort. “I wasn’t looking to make another movie,” admitted Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon). “Then I saw Memento [2000] and I went, ‘Oh, yeah, I gotta work with that guy.’”

While under investigation by Internal Affairs, Los Angeles detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) fly to Alaska to help the local police solve the murder of seventeen-year old Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe). “He didn’t sign on right away,” confessed Christopher Nolan who had envisioned Al Pacino as Dormer in his remake of Insomnia (2002). “He had some reservations about the script, and so did I. But we kept on talking until we worked them out.” Commenting on the role played by Stellan Skarsgård (Taking Sides) in the original 1997 Norwegian picture, Pacino stated, “I like the idea of this character doing something he knew [was wrong] but he had some higher moral reason for doing it and he pays for it.” There was no need to conduct research for the part. “When I did Serpico [1973], I lived like a cop for months. I went on patrol; I hung with the guys. I wanted to get it right by which I mean I needed it to feel real for me. I still do that for some parts, but I’ve played enough cops by now; I should get a pension.”

Christopher Nolan was impressed by his leading man. “He has this uncanny sense of narrative and you can’t slough him off with the usual promises that it will all make sense in the end or get fixed later. He wants it right now, while he’s still around to make it right.” Cast to play the murderous author Walter Finch, who witnesses and torments Dormer for the questionable killing of his L.A.P.D. colleague, is Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting). “It’s great to act with somebody like that,” said Al Pacino in reference to the notorious comedic antics of his co-star. “It also makes a movie shoot in Alaska more enjoyable because you have someone to talk to about something besides gross points and what roles they’re up for. He just synthesizes everything. It makes those long days go faster.” Recruited for the part of the eager and star-struck novice Alaskan detective Ellie Burr is an actress who, like Pacino and Williams, is an Oscar-winner. “With this character, she’s just a small town girl and I’m a small town girl so it wasn’t hard for me to conjure that up,” revealed Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry). “I think I just tried to get under the skin of what makes her tick and just work with Christopher and his vision of the film. She’s a rookie detective and she looks up to Al Pacino who’s a seasoned detective. That wasn’t too hard for me being a rookie actress looking up to a seasoned actor.”

Insomnia Christopher Nolan Hilary SwankWorking with a production budget of $46 million, which is nine times the cost of its cinematic predecessor, was not an intimidating experience for Christopher Nolan. “I find each film I’ve made has had its budget increased exponentially and I’ve found the process reassuringly similar at every stage. Cause at the end of the day it always just seems to be about the shots you get.” Filming from a screenplay written by Hillary Seitz (Eagle Eye) was not an awkward adjustment for Nolan. “There’s something quite liberating about taking someone else’s script on because you can be a lot more objective about a pretty advanced draft, whereas when you are writing yourself you get very much wrapped up inside it…and it’s difficult to maintain focus.” The director did not want to do a straight reproduction of the original picture. “The first film was beautiful but it had a certain coldness to it whereas this film is more character driven. You see what is wrong with the detective but I wanted to make it easier for the viewer to understand why he is having such a hard time dealing with his sleeplessness.”

Reviewing the thriller, which earned $114 million worldwide, Rolling Stone film critic Pete Travers wrote, “Nolan stages a thrilling chase for cop and suspect across moving logs, but it’s Walter’s psychological pursuit of Will that make this one of the year’s best movies.” For his cinematic efforts Christopher Nolan was lauded with ALFS Award for Director of the Year by the London Critics Film Circle, while Al Pacino contended for Actor of the Year.

Tackling a biopic about a famous enigmatic media tycoon was next on the agenda for Nolan. “[Howard] Hughes is an astounding figure. There are so many aspects to his character. The extremes of his life are the stuff of movies, but you need someone like Jim Carrey [The Truman Show] to make it all credible. When I met Jim and heard his take on Hughes, I knew we could make this movie work.” For his source material the filmmaker relied on Hughes: The Private Diaries, Letters and Memos by Richard Hack. “I struggled massively with the script. It took about a year to write. And it finally came together just as The Aviator [2004] got a greenlight. But the script just clicked. It’s the best thing I’ve written…Hopefully, it’ll have its day. Patience is definitely part of this business.”

Batman Begins posterSeeking to revive a lucrative superhero movie franchise, DC Comics and Warner Bros. approached American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). Tentatively called Batman: Year One, the collaboration was abandoned with rumours that Aronofsky intended to make butler and surrogate father Alfred Pennyworth an African-American mechanic named “Big Al”, the Batmobile a highly-modified Lincoln Towncar, and the central character a homeless man. “It was interesting when we were meeting with DC and Paul Levitz [the then president of the comic book company],” began screenwriter David Goyer (Blade: Trinity) who teamed with Christopher Nolan to pitch their own version of the story. “I was very curious as to how they were going to react. But they embraced everything we were proposing because it seemed to fit in with everything that had been set before. It was exciting to do an origin story because we weren’t beholden to any of the other films or to the TV series. In comic book terms, it was sort of a reboot in a way. The notion was that after our film finished, we could go off, and if Chris or Warner Bros. wanted to play with subsequent films, they could reintroduce the pantheon of villains.”

Haunted by the childhood memory of his parents being murdered by a street mugger, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne battles the injustices that plague Gotham City as a masked crime fighter known as Batman. “Superheroes fill a gap in the pop culture psyche, similar to the role of Greek mythology,” observed Nolan who devoted half of the screen time in Batman Begins (2005) to the origins of The Caped Crusader. “We all wake up in the morning wanting to live our lives the way we know we should, but we usually don’t, in small ways. That’s what makes the character of Batman so fascinating. He plays out our conflicts on a much larger scale.” Cast to play Bruce Wayne and his vigilante alter ego was Christian Bale who had previously screen tested for the role of the trusted sidekick Robin in the critically maligned Batman Forever (1995). “Batman is a marvelously complex character,” stated the director, “somebody who has absolute charm and then, just like that, can turn it into ice-cold ruthlessness. There are very few actors who can do that and Christian is one of them.” Commenting on the previous films, Christian Bale (Empire of the Sun) remarked, “The other ones just weren’t my thing at all. I felt that I wanted to attempt to base it in reality, starting from a realistic point of view of the pain and the trauma that a child has been through.”

CBatman Begins Christopher Nolanhosen to play the role of Alfred, the domestic servant who serves as a father figure to Bruce Wayne was Oscar-winner Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules). “I wanted to be the toughest butler you’ve ever seen,” explained the acclaimed British actor, “not the normal English suave butler. And so I made him an S.A.S. [Special Air Service] sergeant – which is a very, very tough British army unit.” Taking into consideration that the major theme of the picture is the overcoming of one’s personal horrors, Cain remarked, “My main fear in the movie was that Batman would lose his moral convictions and get carried away with the power he has. In real life, I’m afraid of heights, and people who have moral convictions and might get carried away, such as Adolf Hitler.” Performing upon the same huge soundstage at Shepperton Studios where he commenced his long movie career caused Michael Caine to experience a case of déjà vu. “I made a tiny little film called A Hill in Korea [1956], a British army picture when I was very young. I had eight lines in the picture and I screwed up six of them.” Informed that the bats in the ceiling of the Batcave set were live ones that happened to be asleep, the actor instructed Christopher Nolan, “Well, don’t wake them up, whatever you do.”

“The main thing he had to guide me on was the physicality because I was coming into the part extremely scrawny,” divulged Christian Bale who had lost much weight for The Machinist (2004); it caused a great deal of concern for Nolan. “He was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to look believable playing The Dark Knight.” Contemplating what made Batman Begins unique, Bale said, “We focused on Bruce Wayne and Batman, whereas what I would find when watching most of the other movies, and also the TV series, was that the villains were much more interesting.” To help him with his performance, the Welsh actor kept the source material nearby. “I would refer to the different graphic novels. I had them on the set with me all the time just because I loved the imagery.”

Batman Batman BeginsA total of four hundred visual effects were used in the picture. “I think there’s a vague sense out there that movies are becoming more and more unreal,” commented Christopher Nolan. “I know I’ve felt it. The demand we put on ourselves was to be as spectacular as possible, but not to depend on computer graphics to do it.” Not entirely relying on his physical prowess to capture criminals, Batman employs a vast array of high-tech gadgetry. “When we were working on the story,” confided David Goyer, “it was all based on either existing technology or technology that was going to be thrown into the marketplace in the next ten years or so.” There was no doubt as to what accessory Christian Bale coveted the most. “The car. It has to be because they’ve done such a radically different thing with it. What I love about it is that aesthetically it kicks ass.” While shooting the principle photography on the streets of Chicago, the Batmobile became quite a public spectacle so much so that the vehicle was sideswiped by a drunk driver with no license. “You see that thing going down the street and everybody is stopping and looking, ‘What the hell is this?’” chuckled Bale. “The guy who crashed into it…he got so panicked when he saw the car he thought aliens were landing so he put the pedal to the metal.”

“I felt very strongly that we should use characters that hadn’t been depicted in the film before,” remarked David Goyer. “In the case of Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul they were two really great villains that hadn’t been used. “Ra’s Al Ghul is unique as a Batman villain because of his goals; although they are certainly perverted somewhat, he’s more realistic as a character. Scarecrow is unique because it allows the opportunity to depict a villain that is truly scary and frightening.” On the issue of adversary overload, Goyer admitted, “I know some people were concerned. ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to do two villains.’ But we wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t fit in a very organic way.” The screenwriter added, “Chris is a real task master and a perfectionist, and when you’re working with him he’s hyper-critical about everything having to make sense. Everything has to be motivated. Even a line audiences would love, if it doesn’t make sense…he won’t use it.”

“I just wanted to make an attempt to get back to the kind of grand scale filmmaking that I’d enjoyed watching when I was a kid,” remarked Christopher Nolan who selected a cast featuring the acting talents of Liam Neeson (Taken), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption), Gary Oldman (The Fifth Element), Cillian Murphy (Sunshine), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), Rutger Hauer (Ladyhawke), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), and Katie Holmes (Wonder Boys). “I didn’t have the comic book character to draw from but it was like playing any other character you create from what’s on the page,” said Katie Holmes in regards to the role of the Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart, assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes. “She’s very much an independent thinker. She has a lot of idealistic views about the world and she’s trying to make it a better place.” For Gary Oldman, he welcomed playing the part of a good guy for a change. “It’s nice to play someone who’s really the moral centre of the piece, someone who’s strong…virtuous, honest, and incorruptible,” stated Oldman who portrays future police commissioner Jim Gordon. “All those qualities make him fun to play versus some of those wacky or strange people I have played in the past.”

Made on a production budge of $150 million, Batman Begins grossed $373 million worldwide. The picture received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography and contended for Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, and Best Sound at the BAFTAs. The MTV Awards honoured Christian Bale with Best Hero while the Razzie Awards nominated Katie Holmes for Worst Supporting Actress.

“Our folks are happily married and live in England,” remarked screenwriter Jonathan Nolan of his and Christopher’s English father and American mother. “They couldn’t figure out where they wanted to live for thirty years. So I wound up growing up here [in the U.S.] and he [Christopher] wound up growing up over there.” Jonathan had to adjust to his new surroundings. Living on two separate continents has affected the two brothers’ approach to storytelling. “I think our minds work in similar ways. We bounce the script back and forth and you get that kind of American vibe in the material that I provide and his is slightly more English.”

The Prestige posterNot having worked with each other since their breakthrough effort Memento, the Nolan siblings reunited for a cinematic version of The Prestige (2006) by author Christopher Priest. Victorian-era magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Broden (Christian Bale) become fierce rivals when their biggest trick together goes fatally wrong. “My executive producer Valerie Dean gave me the book,” recalled Christopher Nolan of the incident which occurred while on a UK publicity tour for Memento. “She said, ‘You’ll see a film in this.’ And I did, but it took a long time to figure out exactly what the film was going to be.” Jonathan Nolan, who had never adapted a novel before, set about the task of writing the screenplay. “The sheer wildness and density of what Christopher Priest put into the book…gives you license to say, ‘Well, I can’t make that into a film,” stated Jonathan. “We’re going to have to take it all out and build from the ground up and then hopefully get back to something that captures the spirit of the book.” Christopher Nolan, who made revisions to his brother’s drafts right up to the commencement of principal photography, confessed, “We really spent years working on the script. It required interlocking framing devices and interlocking voice overs, combined with the three act structure.”

Collaborating again with Christian Bale was no accident for Christopher Nolan. “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.” Bale was glad to have the opportunity to work with Nolan beyond the superhero franchise. “Chris was a shape shifter in a way; he went to very different styles of directing from Batman [Begins] to this. He really wanted to be able to move very quickly, spin on a dime and have us approach all ready to approach different scenes in different ways. ‘Maybe we are going to do this scene today, maybe we’re going to do this one instead.’ Whereas with something like Batman, because it’s such an enormous setup, you really know that here is what we have to do.” Another Batman Begins alumni starring in the picture is Michael Caine whom Christopher Nolan greatly admires. “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.”

The Prestige Hugh Jackman David BowieTo play the role of historical figure and inventor Nikola Tesla, Nolan turned to a renowned musician, “[David] Bowie was a very essential figure in that casting because Tesla’s a small part, but a very important part in the film. The audience has to see him on screen and immediately invest a tremendous amount of belief in his abilities as some kind of magician, wizard. I felt to get a movie star to do that would be very distracting. Bowie’s presence and charisma comes from a different place. It’s harder to define, but very palpable. I’m very lucky to have convinced him to do it.” Other cast members in the picture include Ricky Jay (Redbelt), Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly), Rebecca Hall (Frost/Nixon), Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation), and Andy Serkis (Clueless).

Speaking about the differences between the two feuding magicians, Jonathan Nolan observed, “Christian Bale’s character understands intuitively the gimmick behind a trick…Hugh Jackman’s character is the showman, he understands that just to have that innovation isn’t enough, you’ve got to sell it to the audience.” Christian Bale channeled the discrepancies in the two personalities into his performance. “The rivalry I was focusing on was the knowledge that a…more brilliant showman was being considered the better talent, and [my character’s] hatred of having to sell yourself in that way.” Magicians Ricky Jay and Michael Weber served as mentors to Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. “I went around to their houses and it is what they live and breathe, night and day,” marveled Bale. “I admire somebody who has such an all-engaging obsession.”

For Christopher Nolan, duality and the ability to manage it is a prominent theme in the picture. “In any relationship you have to deal with different sides of your nature and the different impulses to preserve individuality through secrecy and yet try to break down those barriers forever in a long-term relationship.” One thing the British helmer wanted to avoid was making a period movie. “Everything we did in the filmmaking was aimed at treating it as a contemporary story.” Upon its release The Prestige easily recouped its $40 million production budget by earning $110 million in worldwide box office receipts. The picture was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography while the Empire Awards lauded the film with Best Director and Best Actor (Christian Bale) as well as a nomination for Best Female Newcomer (Rebecca Hall).

On the matter of continuing the Batman movie franchise, Christopher Nolan replied, “On completing the first one, which has a great tease for The Joker, I just wanted to send the audience out with a sense of possibility for what we might see, not specifically as a sequel.” After conferencing with David Goyer and his brother Jonathan Nolan, the director realized that the tease was in fact a very compelling idea for the follow-up effort; however, for it to work the story would have to emulate two classic pictures. “Whether you’re looking at The Godfather: Part II [1974] or The Empire Strikes Back [1980], those are sequels that built on what the first ones did really well. And that’s what we’re aspiring to with this film.”

Continue to part three.

For more on Christopher Nolan visit fan sites ChristopherNolan.net and Nolan Fans.

Related:

Short Film Showcase – Doodlebug (1997)
Movies… For Free! Following (1998)
Thoughts on… Inception (2010)

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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  • Anonymous

    Very very good read, can't wait for the next chapter. Thank you very much for this.