Christopher Nolan directing Hugh Jackman in 2006's "The Prestige." (photo by Francois Duhamel/Newmarket Films)
By Colin Covert
After directing nine dark dramas that have grossed $4.9 billion worldwide, Christopher Nolan took some time to talk with fans Tuesday evening at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. As one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers, he carries an uncommon cinematic pedigree, guiding franchise blockbusters (directing Warner Bros.’ Batman series and overseeing its Superman entries) while picking up Oscar screenwriting nominations for complicated originals like “Memento” (2000) and “Inception” (2010).
Soft spoken and mild mannered, Nolan spent more than two hours in discussion with Scott Foundas, lead film critic for the industry mag Variety, and in conversation with audience members, a strikingly youthful contingent that packed the Walker cinema. During clips from “Memento,” “Following,” “The Prestige” and “Interstellar,” he thanked the museum for showing them in his preferred 35-mm celluloid format, and saluting the technical staff with a thankful “Tonight they’re being projected well.”
Exploring the experiences that made him want to become a moviemaker, the English director said they were not Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novels, comic books or boys’ adventure stories. “My influences are primarily film based. It’s the one medium we all come to from a mainstream point of view,” he explained, beginning when he was very young, watching Disney’s “Snow White” and being terrified of the witch.
“When I was 7 or 8 years old I remember watching ‘Star Wars,’ the old James Bonds.” Soon he was messing around with his parents’ Super-8mm film camera making a film “imaginatively titled ‘Space Wars,” he said. His uncle, who worked on NASA’s space program sent young Christopher films of Apollo launches “and I dutifully just cut them into my film, thinking, ’Hmm, production value, maybe no one will notice.’” When a childhood filmmaking teammate saw the trailer for Nolan’s space thriller “Interstellar,” he said: “Oh, the same thing you were doing back then.”
By 12 he thought of directing as “the job I wanted to aim for,” and his early movie experiences stuck in Nolan’s memory as he was making his Batman films.
“Going to see them with my parents would give me the feeling of the potential for geography, for landscape, for scale and escapism” that helped him when taking on the responsibility for a large-scale project like “Batman Begins,” he said. “I really wanted to give it that scope which was so important to me in the blockbusters I watched when I was very young.” He studied the medium personally rather than taking a film degree, appreciating great, sophisticated artists, “but it sits in a different place in your cinematic brain.”
Speaking about what drew him to his only period film, the story of competing stage illusionists “The Prestige,” Nolan said it dramatized some of his own calling’s devices.
“What you do as a filmmaker is you put on a magic show, you surprise people, try and misdirect them, try and bring their attention in a particular direction. Certainly if you’re dealing in the world of film noir, or thrillers, things with the double cross, the betrayal, you have people not being who they appear to be,” a theme reflected in every one of his films.
Audience questions included a professional projectionist’s inquiries about Nolan’s fondness for shooting on motion picture film. He praised “the grain and the color quality that you get with film,” and when the 40-year veteran said that the Muller Family Theaters Willow Creek 12’s rare 70-mm presentation of “Interstellar” drew viewers from several states, Nolan praised his expertise and said, “We need four more theaters” as capable.