With the release of Dunkirk, Eric Bay-Andersen explores the aspects of Christopher Nolan’s films that set him apart from his contemporaries…
Over the past twenty years, Christopher Nolan has amassed a body of work so impressive that a new film by him is now an event in the cinematic calendar. But it’s not just the great performances or the jaw-dropping set pieces in his films that have won him such acclaim and respect in the industry – it’s his philosophy when it comes to making and marketing movies. In this article, I will suggest some of the reasons why I believe Christopher Nolan is a cut above most other blockbuster directors…
When I heard that Rian Johnson (writer/director of the brilliant Brick and Looper) had signed up to direct a Star Wars film I was very annoyed, because I knew it would be at least five years before I’d get to see another ‘Rian Johnson film’ – this was not the case with Christopher Nolan. When he did the Dark Knight trilogy, it didn’t take over his entire career – he somehow found time in between those films to make two other masterpieces (The Prestige and Inception). Not only that, he’s one of the few film-makers to finish a blockbuster franchise (something that, in recent years, only James Mangold has done with the excellent Logan) whereas directors like Ridley Scott and James Cameron seem content to keep churning out Alien and Avatar sequels when their talents could be much better spent on more interesting and varied projects.
The problem, for instance, with Marvel’s movies is we usually know the main characters aren’t going to die because the actors are signed up to multiple picture deals. They have had enormous success with their Cinematic Universe model so far, but the studio’s existence depends on them constantly churning out movies, so they have no interest in telling a complete story, just a never-ending series of instalments. I’ve always believed that a story is defined by its ending – endings give resolution and weight to everything that happened along the way, and that’s why Nolan’s Batman films will always stand alone as an outstanding piece of work, and Alien: Covenant has pretty much already been forgotten.
Sometimes when indie directors are hired to helm a big blockbuster they can enter a power struggle with the studio, resulting in a broken relationship and a messy film (a recent example being Josh Trank’s experience with Fox on the disastrous Fantastic Four), but ever since Nolan made the leap from smaller films to blockbusters he has forged a great and trusting partnership with Warner Bros. studios because of his intelligence and his ability to produce great, successful films for them.
Some of Nolan’s films have been original works (such as Inception and Dunkirk) but whenever he adapts someone else’s work, he puts his own mark on it, usually by co-writing the screenplay (to date, Insomnia is the only film he’s done where he doesn’t receive a writing credit). There are so few blockbuster directors these days who write as well as direct (two exceptions that come to mind are James Cameron and Joss Whedon), so unless they have a regular screenwriter they collaborate with, they usually have to create a specific visual look for their films to put their ‘stamp’ on them (e.g. Tim Burton’s trademark gothic aesthetic). That’s not to say that Nolan doesn’t have trademark themes or a distinctive visual look, but there’s enough variation in his style so that his films don’t all feel the same.
How many times do you watch a trailer for a new movie, and you feel like you know the entire plot? Pretty often, I bet. This isn’t the case with Nolan’s movies, because he understands how to market a film effectively in a way that very few directors do. Inception is an especially interesting case – it was only because of the success of The Dark Knight (and, no doubt, his promise to make a third instalment for the studio) that he was able to get it green-lit, because it was a $200m original screenplay with an incredibly complex plot. All Warner Bros. had to sell it was an A-List star (Leonardo DiCaprio), the tagline “from the director of The Dark Knight”, and a trailer. The trailer was so effective because it showed and told us just enough and no more – we know that DiCaprio and his team are spies that enter people’s minds to steal and plant ideas, but only when we watch the film do we find out how and why they do it. Also (with the exception of The Dark Knight Rises) his trailers rarely show footage from the films’ final act – e.g. there’s no glimpse of the fourth dimensional ‘space’ in the Interstellar trailer, we didn’t get a good look at Two-Face until we saw The Dark Knight in the cinema, and the Dunkirk trailer doesn’t show anything from the film’s last half hour. That’s why it’s always refreshing seeing a Nolan film in the cinema because with modern blockbusters we’re used to sitting down knowing what the final set-piece or scene will be.
Trailers these days also tend to give away all the film’s best shots (‘money shots’ as they’re sometimes called), but Nolan’s trailers don’t – sometimes they’ll give you a hint of those shots, just enough to impress, but they’ll hold back so that you’re even more impressed when you see the final film. Two examples from Inception are the shot of the city folding in on itself and the fight in the rotating hallway – these shots are over ten seconds long in the film, but you only see about two seconds of them in the trailer (the first time I saw the hallway fight scene I nearly passed out, I just kept saying to myself “this is so awesome … and it’s still going!!”) Similarly with dialogue – he can write a great line, and he’ll use his trailers to make them iconic by the time the films come out – e.g. “Why so serious?” and “When Gotham is ashes … then you have my permission to die”.
CGI is so overused in modern films that it’s lost most of its wow-factor, but Nolan only uses it as a last resort – instead he uses miniatures (which look better, because the human eye can usually tell what’s real, but you can trick it with perspective) or he builds/does things for real. That’s why most CGI action scenes will look fake and dated in a decade’s time, but the sight of an eighteen-wheeler flipping over or a Destroyer ship sinking for real will always look impressive. He also avoids filming in 3D (a fad I dislike too), preferring to utilise IMAX technology wherever possible – it gives his films a sense of scale and grandeur than harkens back to the golden Cinema-scope days of Hollywood. He even said in a recent interview that he would never direct a film for Netflix because they are (currently) not interested in making movies that will be shown theatrically, and providing a great theatrical experience with each movie he makes is very important to him.
And speaking of Netflix, look through his films and you’ll find no mention of it – nor Facebook, Twitter, Uber or any other modern fad. When I watch a film that mentions one of these things, all I can think is “well done, you’ve shown me something that I’m aware exists – am I supposed to laugh, or be impressed?”. It may seem like a small thing, but not hearing these common everyday things mentioned in Nolan’s films makes them feel like they take place in their own world, which, for me, makes watching them an even richer experience. In fact, his films don’t pander to the lowest common denominator in any regard. They have complicated structures and plots, but they can be followed by anyone paying attention and not mindlessly texting while they watch the film. His films aren’t throwaway or disposable – they are layered and detailed, they often have ambiguous discussion-provoking endings, and they reward repeated viewings (something few films, blockbusters or not, can boast). And likewise, his scripts are exceptionally tight – The Dark Knight Rises may be a long film, but consider how fast a pace it moves at. Every scene is essential, and every line counts, and the fact that it’s the only film of his so far that had a deleted scene goes to show how much he boils his scripts down to the essentials when writing – something nearly all blockbusters writers could learn from.
It’s because of all these reasons that Christopher Nolan is one of the most successful and admired film-makers currently working, and why I personally will always look forward to his next project.