A Beginner’s Guide to… Christopher Nolan

To quickly explain these series of articles again, I want to be able to give a brief history of the director and then choose three of their films to discuss.The Beginner film would be for viewers who haven’t ever watched a film by this director (a good introduction, some may say), the Intermediate would be for those viewers who have a little background but still want to learn more about the director before coming along to Advanced, which would be the films by the directors which may be the least commercial or well known, but die hard fans of the directors would have watched.

Week Three: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is a film director, screenwriter and producer of both English and American descent. He was born in London to an English father who was a advertising copywriter and an American mother who was a flight attendant. He is known to often collaborate with his wife, producer Emma Thomas and his brother, screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan as well as several others.

Nolan with frequent collaborator, Christian Bale

Nolan was not originally interested in filmmaking but rather at a young age was interested in botany when living between both England and the United States, that is until, at the age of seven he started using his father’s Super 8 camera and his toy action figures to create films. While living in Chicago as a child, he also made short films with future director and producer Roko Belic who in 2000 was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary, Genghis Blues, which follows the journey of blind American singer Paul Pena to the isolated Asian nation of Tuva due to his interest in Tuvan throat singing. Whilst studying English Literature at University College London Nolan made several short films in the university film society including 1989’s Tarantella.

So again, just as with my previous two articles about Tarantino and Fincher, Nolan did not take the film academic route but rather was brought up studying English Literature and watching films off his own accord and once at university, he joined his university’s film society where he was able to communicate with others about his love for film and meet other people who were interested in producing, writing, directing and editing films and together they made the short features which started of Nolan’s career. My point here, as with the previous two articles, is that some of the biggest films in the world by some of the biggest directors today are not film scholars but rather taught themselves their love of film.

Nolan’s first feature film, Following in 1998, which he wrote and directed tells the story of a young man who follows strangers around the streets of London and is drawn into a criminal underworld when he fails to keep his distance. The film, which was produced on a small budget with lesser known actors, also introduced the world to some of Nolan’s stylistic techniques including a non-linear narrative. Nolan said of Following that “In a compelling story of this genre [neo-noir] we are continually being asked to rethink our assessment of the relationship between the various characters, and I decided to structure my story in such a way as to emphasize the audience’s incomplete understanding of each new scene as it is first presented.”

Despite Following‘s generally positive reception, it was not until Nolan wrote the script for 2000’s Memento starring Guy Pearce as a man with anterograde amnesia that was based on a short story called “Memento Mori” written by Nolan’s brother, that he was recognised by the world as an up and coming director and to be taken seriously. Further, in 2006, he wrote and directed The Prestige based on Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman and in 2010 he wrote the Leonardo DiCaprio starring science fiction thriller, Inception, which also starred Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordan-Levitt, Ellen Page and Tom Hardy.

Nolan is also known for rebooting the Batman franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins starring Christian Bale as Batman, this was followed by 2008’s The Dark Knight which stars Heath Ledger as The Joker (before the actors unfortunate death) and the film for which Ledger received his posthumous Academy Award. The third film and final film in Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is due out July 2012 and stars Bale as Batman, frequent collaborator Sir Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman), Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Juno Temple.


The Dark Knight, 2008

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman & Aaron Eckhart

Unfortunately for both Christian Bale as Batman and Christopher Nolan as director, The Dark Knight will always be “that film where Heath Ledger was incredible!”. Personally, I am not a Batman fan but was always going to see the film as a fan of Heath Ledger and I was intrigued by his role of The Joker, which had last been played by Jack Nicholson in the 1989, Tim Burton directed Batman.

On January 22, 2008, after he had completed filming The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger died from a toxic combination of prescription drugs, leading to intense attention from the press and movie going public. Due to the large viral marketing campaign that Warner Bros. had initially created highlighting the main attraction of the film as The Joker, many were confused about the untimely death of it’s main (sorry Bale!) star. Some theorised it was part of the plan for the release of the film and others blamed the role of The Joker for Ledger getting into that state in the first place because to play it so realistically, he had to go very deep into darkness. Still today, no one can be completely sure what happened, but I am sure that one of the reasons The Dark Knight became tenth highest grossing film of all time and the highest grossing film of 2008 was because of the news of Ledger’s death.

The Dark Knight introduces the character of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s newly elected District Attorney and the cohort of Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who joins Batman and the police in combating the new rising threat of a criminal calling himself the Joker. Nolan’s inspiration for the film was the Joker’s comic book debut in 1940, and the 1996 series The Long Halloween, which retold Two-Face’s origin.

There are two things that make The Dark Knight stand out from other comic book adaptations, the first is the feeling of an epic. With the mise-en-scene that Nolan creates, he has been very precise in his choosing of the correct colours, lighting, camera angles, pretty much everything which allow the film to be so much more than a comic book film. He very carefully juxtaposes the darkness swallowing up Gotham and it’s residents with the carefree, frivolity of The Joker (especially in the scene where he blows up the hospital) and he manages to let the audience know exactly how the characters feel without having to overload on the dialogue. It certainly isn’t just about the action either within the film, but by creating such a textured atmosphere, The Dark Knight describes how Batman feels about watching Gotham being destroyed and the hurt he feels as a character within the diegesis that is created. The second reason that the film manages to be so much more is because of the way that Nolan brings out the best in his actors. Don’t get me wrong, Ledger outshines the rest of the cast within the film by portraying the dark, sick character of The Joker down to the sound of his rasping voice and his very precise movements but also the rest of the cast including Bale as Batman (despite the ridiculous deep voice) who is able to portray his sorrow for being Batman and knowing there are so many people against him in the first place.

The reason for making The Dark Knight the beginner film is quite simple; pretty much most of the readers will have seen it and heard of the sheer quantity of publicity that it gained during 2008. Nolan will always be known as the director who brought back Batman after 1997’s Batman & Robin which was universally panned and he did so to critical acclaim. The film is typical of a Nolan feature with it’s epic scale mise-en-scene, it’s awareness of actors and it’s very strongly written script, which is universal throughout his pictures.


Inception, 2010

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page & Tom Hardy

For me Inception was one of those films which slightly turned up out of no where and suddenly everyone was talking about it. I don’t remember a lot of lead up towards the release of the film but do remember in Summer 2010, everyone went to see Inception and if you hadn’t yet, you would never understand what people were talking about. Towards the end of the summer the television played various commercial spots and ironically more posters advertising the film were also released. The brilliant thing about the poster campagin for the film was that each individual character was given a poster as well as several group shots. Apart from a cast list and the fact that the film played with the genre of science fiction thriller, there was little else know about the nature of the film or what happens within it. The release of Inception was fresh of the back of the press, ‘From the director of The Dark Knight‘ and what I wanted to know was how Nolan was going to be able to beat it, how was the film after Inception going to be advertised as ‘From the director who brought you Inception‘?

Looking back on the development of Inception is interesting because Nolan began planning the film roughly nine years before its release. After the success of Memento is the year 2000, in 2001, Nolan wrote an 80-page treatment about dream-stealers and presented the idea to Warner Bros. The story was originally envisioned as a horror film inspired by concepts of lucid dreaming and dream incubation but he felt he needed to have more experience with large-scale films before taking on this project. Then in early 2009, after working for almost a decade in Hollywood, Nolan polished the script and started to create the major scale, Inception.

The film’s narrative, if one were to plot it slowly plays out quite simply. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a wanted thief. His line of work exists within our dreams; he is able to extract valuable information from the unconscious minds of his targets while they are asleep. The film starts of with Dom wanted for murder and unable to visit his children, he is then offered a chance to regain his old life as payment for a task considered to be impossible: “inception”, the planting of an idea into a target’s subconscious.

Does that sound easy enough for you to understand? Well actually it was very simple, the film followed Cobb and his team go deeper and deeper into the unconscious of Robert Fischer played by Nolan collaborator, Cillian Murphy. Cobb is hired by Mr Saito to break up the energy conglomerate of a competitor and this is the idea they must plant within the deep levels of the mind of Fischer. Along the way Nolan presents to the audience various impossible objects that can be created in lucid dream worlds such as Penrose stairs; otherwise known as the continuous staircase. When one is discovering a world in the lucid dream state, these worlds can be bent and an architect can create a labyrinth within the world so that one is able to get out of the dream state.

The reason I have chosen Inception as the intermediate film is because it is a great example of Nolan’s expertise in science fiction as well as manipulation of what is being represented on screen. Nolan is a master of creating non linear narratives but what he manages to create within Inception is pretty much a non linear world where the characters can only fall deeper and deeper into the subjects subconscious. This film creates the perfect Nolan image by hosting a large ensemble cast, many of whom are frequent collaborators and Nolan manages to bring out their best performances by putting them into a world which is quite unlike their own and yet similar at the same time. For me, the visuals of Inception were what made it so good, the beautiful images of the cityscape bending over and the haunting wreckage of the city in the subconscious just blew me away with their attention to detail. The film garnered a lot of deserved press and is certainly a film that should be checked out.


Memento, 2000

Starring Guy Pearce & Carrie-Anne Moss

Memento, for me is the perfect psychological film as well as a brilliant representation of films by Christopher Nolan and the ways in which he works. As I previously mentioned the film is based on a short story written by his brother, Jonathan. The original short story that was written is somewhat different to the finished film production although it maintains very similar elements. In Jonathan’s version, Leonard is instead named Earl and is a patient at a mental institution. As in the film, his wife was killed by an anonymous man, and during the attack on his wife, Earl lost his short-term memory. As a Nolan film, Memento, is able to manipulate the audience’s understanding of the film with a non linear narrative as it presents a very specific structure that distinguishes between plot and story within the film and is based on the Russian Formalism idea of the fabula and sujet, which are employed in narratology when describing narrative construction. The film is deeply psychological as it deals with the mind of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who suffers from anterograde amnesia, which impairs his ability to store new explicit memories. The audience are very much placed in a similar position as Shelby as they have to follow the narrative construction of the film with it’s switching back and forth between two timelines.

The sujet, or the presentation of the film, is structured with two timelines: one in color and one in black-and-white. The color sequences (Leonard’s investigation) are alternated with black-and-white sequences (showing Leonard conversing with an anonymous phone caller in a motel room). The latter are put together in the chronological order. The color ones, though shown forward (except for the very first one, which is shown in reverse) are ordered in reverse. Chronologically, the black-and-white sequences come first, the color sequences come next. By the film’s end when the two narratives converge we understand the investigation and the events that lead up to the very first scene of the film.

As I mentioned before, this film deals with the mind and the psychological states that we can find ourselves in. The reason I find importance in this film is that the essential reading for Memento was hinted by Nolan that memory is unreliable (and I am sure we can all vouch for this) and that we are dealing in this movie with an unreliable narrator in form of Shelby. As Lenny puts it: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

Ironically, I have chosen Memento as the advanced film despite it being my introduction to Christopher Nolan. The film is not an epic in the way that The Dark Knight or Inception are and the main cast of the film is not as large either but what at it’s core, I believe Memento does in fact stand for everything Nolan wanted to make in his films. The story is clever, twisted and always keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Much like he said about Following, the audience is always having to recalculate where they are within the narrative and take what they are being shown for real on screen otherwise they would lose the thread of the narrative. The mise-en-scene of the film creates a claustrophobic world with the dull colours juxtaposing with the bright as well as the presentation of the narrative between the two strands, both converging together, but much like Shelby, the audience are expected to try and remember everything that came before but you also find it hard to create these newer memories because of the sheer amount of information you are being shown. This is the sign of how good the film actually is if it is able to make the audience empathise with the story and the characters, even if the world they are being shown is completely different from their own.

I would like to thank christophernolan.net for extra information about Memento and some great reveals from screen and script.

By no means is this list extensive, the rest of Nolan’s filmography is also just as epic and should be viewed but rather I aim to just give a brief picture of where the director is coming from and hopefully will get a few more audience member’s interested in said director.

Keep following Front Row Reviews for the latest on Nolan and his new picture, The Dark Knight Risesdue out next year.

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