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Director Affinity: Christopher Nolan

Class, passion and creative integrity are quickly becoming the exception rather than the rule, as over the past decade, big budgets and countless soulless rehashes dominate Hollywood products. The widely accepted “greats” of cinema will soon be behind us (or in many cases already are). How much longer will the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood be able provide us with the intelligent escapism and Oscar-pedigree films we have come to love and rely upon?

As unthinkable as it may be to envision a world devoid of cinematic pioneers, there comes a time when the spotlight must dawn on contemporary auteurs who are hungry and ambitious. Christopher Nolan is without doubt one of the greatest directors of this waxing generation, fabricating financially successful films with unimpeded passion and infusing much needed intelligence into everything he handles. On Friday, the arrival of his latest film, Inception, is a beacon of hope to many and has already (perhaps prematurely for all we know) been hailed as the savour of this bleak blockbuster season.

In honor of his growing legacy, we'll take a look at the man, his body of work and his cinematic artistry.



The Man

nolanpicNolan was born in 1970 in London England, but currently holds a joint citizenship with the United States. His passion for the craft stretches back to age eight when he would make short films with his father’s Super 8 camera. This interest showed no sign of wavering during his university career where he studied English Literature as well as dabbling in more short film products. His short Tarantella made it onto PBS in the UK and his follow-up Larceny was shown at the Cambridge film festival in 1996.

Like other notable filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez, Nolan began his professional career on a shoestring budget of $6,000, shooting his first feature-length film Following. This debut came one year after his marriage to Emma Thomas who helped to produce the black and white thriller as well as future projects Memento and Insomnia. Nolan also frequently collaborates with his screenwriter brother Jonathon, who provided the inspiration for his breakout film Memento with his short film Memento Mori. Jonathan would go on to co-write The Prestige and The Dark Knight.

P.S. Did you know Nolan is red and green colorblind?


The Movies


One of the most refreshing elements about Nolan is that (in this critic's opinion at least) his films rank from great to masterful. There is not a dog among his filmography but if one had to place a film at the bottom it would be his superbly crafted debut, Following. The art direction has the feel of a film 100x the budget with performances to match. Nolan once quipped, “We've got a prettyfollowingpic serious claim on this being the cheapest film ever made.” The $6,000 indie subsequently grossed $60,000 and started a domino effect for the Brit. In many ways, Following has the feel of a Quentin Tarantino film; dialogue driven and incredibly clever. Like almost all of Nolan’s repertoire, this effort contains numerous neo-noir and twisting elements and remains engrossing despite a running time of only 70 minutes.

Certainly the most elusive of Nolan’s films, Following explores the character of a nameless young author who stalks interesting persons around London to draw inspiration for his next novel. While endeavoring on this questionable practice, he meets a mysterious man named Cobb who is revealed to be a burglar. The author cannot believe his luck at this encounter with such a fascinating individual and things become increasingly risky as he gets involved with an enigmatic blonde and a dangerous gangster.

If you are a fan of Nolan or of revelatory, dark thrillers in general, Following is a little seen gem that emulates the sharp and ingenious career the filmmaker was to have over the coming decade.



Still Nolan’s masterpiece ten years after the low-budget sleeper blew the minds of critics and audiences in kind, this is not only still one of the greatest mind-benders of all time, one of the best uses of a fragmented narrative or one of the sharpest screenplays of recent memory but simply made Nolan a name and cemented his credibility as an up-and-coming auteur.

In different hands, in fact in anyone's hands but Nolan’s, Memento could have easily become an unmitigated disaster. Scattered chronology aside, Memento also employs a voice-over and an ultimately unsympathetic protagonist, both of which can easily smother a picture when conceived poorly. Shot in 25 days on a budget significantly larger than his previous effort ($4.5 million to be exact) Memento was filmed in a jumbled order with the principle actors completing their roles in unbroken sets.

For those who have not beheld this contemporary classic, Memento follows Leonard, a mysterious inked man with short-term memory loss. Leonard is illustrated as his tattoos are all that reminds him of the most important things from his immediate past; clues that are slowly leading him to his wife’s murderer. The title character is played by character actor Guy Pearce although Nolan considered other well-known actors such as Brad Pitt, Thomas Jane, Aaron Eckhart and Alec Baldwin. Nolan ultimately wanted to go with a lesser-known actor in addition to connecting to Pearce’s excellent screen test.

Memento went on to be one of 1999’s biggest indie hits grossing just under $40 million by the end of its run. This ingenious noir brain-scrambler is a film that demands repeat viewing; an order you will be happy to fulfill.



Two years after Nolan broke into the mainstream, he followed up with his most commercial endeavor, the murder mystery Insomnia, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Swank, Insomnia is a slow descent into madness when a detective (Pacino) investigates a murder during the night-less months of the Alaskan summer.

In addition to the tension of the murder investigation and the beautiful presentation of Alaska, Nolan was able to extract what is in my opinion Pacino’s last great performance. Robin Williams is also at the top of his game as the twisted killer; Mrs. Doubtfire will be immediately stripped from your mind.

Insomnia, to this day, remains Nolan’s only film not to be written by him or his brother as well as his only remake. The lack of inherent originality in the source material does nothing to diminish the end product, however, and showed audiences that Nolan was not the type of director would be restricted to lower-budget fare.


Batman Begins

Cleansing the putrid taste of Batman & Robin from viewer’s palates was to be no easy task for Nolan, who was given his first chance to direct a bonafide blockbuster with the 2005 revitalization of the iconic superhero. Critical acclaim and financial success was just the icing on the cake, as Batman Begins marked the point at which actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine first worked with the director and would go on to become recurring staples in his films.

Turning his back fully on the campy Batman made famous by Tim Burton in Batman and Batman Returns, Nolan’s Gotham City was a decidedly darker and more sinister place and single-handily redefined the superhero genre, proving that a compelling drama could perforate a less-than-realistic premise. Furthermore, Nolan expanded on the mythos by fashioning Batman Begins as an origin tale and thusly was able to leave his own creative fingerprint on the production.

What Nolan proved with Batman Begins and his subsequent follow-up, was that stunt-work and traditional ideals could replace extensive CGI sequences which looked more realistic and gritty, turning his back on the low quality progression of summer blockbuster films.


The Prestige

Following the success of Bruce Wayne’s return to the big-screen, Nolan took a step back with the supernatural/mystery period piece The Prestige. Unlike Insomnia, but akin to all Nolan’s films since Memento, The Prestige features an original screenplay from brothers Jonathan and Christopher, but was adapted from the Christopher Priest novel of the same name. Nolan had been approached by Priest’s people back in 2000 and discussed his admiration of the novel with his brother. They subsequently worked on the screenplay for the next six years during production of other projects.

What truly cements Nolan’s skill, is that The Prestige is the “worst reviewed” film of his career (although loved by audiences), still scoring a 75% “fresh” rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes. The tale of two dueling magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) went on to gross $110 million worldwide marking the director's fifth straight hit. Actor Michael Caine also rejoined Nolan in a supporting role in the second of what was to be four straight collaborations.

The Prestige was a subtle sigh of relief, avowing to Nolan’s creative vision and putting to rest the trend that directors had to sell out to make it big. After dabbling in a big summer production, his restrained return to a lower budget medium affirmed Nolan’s classiness had not diminished.


The Dark Knight

At this point, there is nothing to say about The Dark Knight that has not already been discussed, analyzed, dissected, compared, critiqued, loved, hated, fan-boy-ed or hated upon. So I will simply say this will be the superhero film that will stand the test of time, and the phenomenon that is sure to make Nolan a force in Hollywood for years to come.

As is the norm with all of Nolan’s films, he is of the select brand of directors who can draw extraordinarily strong performances from his entire cast. The prestige of the late Heath Ledger’s win as The Joker has not faded since that year’s Academy Awards like so many “of the moment winners” do and with the exception of the tongue-in-cheek bashing of Christian Bale's “Batman voice” you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint a poorly acted role in any of Nolan’s past efforts.

Few directors working today can sell a film based on their name, but The Dark Knight has made this once obscure director a household name and if Inception garners any success, the director himself must receive some of what is sure to be many accolades.


The Motif

Like most any director churning out steady cinematic works, trademarks begin to develop, and not surprisingly Nolan is no different in that respect. His movies continually explore psychological themes (insomnia, memory loss, phobias, etc) and even in his big-budget projects we often find the protagonist struggling with inner demons and mental imbalance. It comes as no shock that Nolan was a great admirer of Stanley Kubrick and his body of work and continues to emulate the late director’s style and themes. Even Nolan’s Batman is brooding and troubled, sporting more complexes and demons than he has gadgets.

mementopicNolan’s fascination with non-linear storytelling obviously goes back to Following and Memento which gave him his start, yet he continues to utilize that technique to great effect in more recent works like Batman Begins and The Prestige albeit more subtly. With larger scale films in particular, Nolan avoids use of CGI effects whenever possible, and has spoken out numerous times about their overuse in modern cinema.

Nolan’s characters also share similar arcs and traits outside of the broad “psychologically troubled” characterization using that growing insanity to their own ends. His protagonists will often resort to tactics of physical or psychological torture to gain information, from the hallucinogenics in Batman Begins to the burial of Borden’s assistant in The Prestige, Dormer’s automotive-centric scare tactics in Insomnia to multiple instances in The Dark Knight (the interrogation of Maroni, Harvey Dent’s coin, etc).

Cinematographer Wally Pfister has collaborated with Nolan on every one of his films and has been nominated for three Academy Awards as a result. Unlike most filmmakers, Nolan works without a second unit, instead overseeing every shot of the film himself. If one was so inclined, Nolan’s craft could be examined all the way down to the dust on the camera.

In an ideal alternate world, we would have the ability to divide Nolan amongst all money-driven filmmakers working today giving each at least an iota of the cinematic intuition and passion he possesses. Nolan has already crafted a legacy that has resonated with everyone from the average Joe to the elitist critic and if he were to stop making films today there would still be enough to admire for the rest of our lives.


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