Published on: 09 December 2014 in Longform

Christopher Nolan Q&A: "I still feel like an outsider"

Reading time: 15 minutes and 9 seconds

On Saturday 6 December we had an early Christmas present for our members in the form of a much-anticipated Q&A with director Christopher Nolan. The session took place following a screening of his latest film, Interstellar, and was moderated by Iain Softley (Trap for Cinderella, K-PAX, Hackers). The director of Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy talked to us about his early career, the impact of blockbusters and the importance of shooting on film:

Iain Softley and Christopher Nolan at our screening

Iain began by asking Christopher when he first fell in love with film. Christopher explained that his journey as a filmmaker began with making his own 16mm films on his dad's camera. Were you initially interested in photography or was it exclusively moving image? “I think I just liked watching films!” Christopher described the huge impression Star Wars made on him on as a child. Indeed that first 16mm “feature” boasted the copyright-bothering title Space Wars.

Of course Star Wars initial interest to him as a child lay in its depiction of space, but that gets to the heart of what its appeal is even now: it “felt like the cinema screen opening up and taking you on a journey”. Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s early sci-fi classics Alien and Blade Runner, were all so vast, they offered such cinematically-driven immersive experiences that they truly showed the potential of what cinema can do. “Perhaps that's why I've ended up doing so much science fiction”.

Part and parcel with this, is the fact that these films offered an everyday connection to cinematic technology and special effects. Christopher has spoken a lot about the power of the blockbuster during the publicity campaign for Interstellar, and there's a very good reason for that: a unique feature of cinema is that “we all come to film through blockbusters”. You may end up loving other kinds of films, but no-one’s entry point is through the films of Nicolas Roeg. That’s totally unlike any other art form, such as music or theatre: “not all people come to theatre through panto”.

So Christopher explained that he’s always had that wider cinematic reference and an appreciation of the scale of those kinds of movies.

But, Iain pointed out, Christopher didn't start off in sci-fi, his first feature Following displayed a strong Hitchcock influence. Describing Hitchcock as a "huge influence", Christopher again highlighted the director's relationship with blockbusters as one of the most interesting aspects of his career and in turn an influence on his own work.

Christopher Nolan's directorial debut, Following (1998)

With Following, Christopher explained how he used his dual UK-US citizenship to take the film around the US festival circuit, saying that they're a lot more open to emerging directors over there. He was then able to use the film as a calling card. He already had a script for Memento, but it was the fact that he was able to show people an actual film he'd made and “not just something on the page” that he was allowed to make Memento.

One of our members, who'd just made his own first low budget film, asked Christopher whether he'd have been able to take that same step up after Following if he'd stayed in the UK. “Do you want my honest answer? I think it would be incredibly difficult”. He couldn't imagine having the same opportunities in the UK or being able to make the films he wanted to make. “I have nothing but admiration for the people who try though and I wish you luck”. His best advice for filmmakers just starting out was something he heard Stephen Frears say: “Be lucky. And that's about right - I can't think of better advice than that”.

Making Memento in America, did you feel like an outsider? “I still feel like an outsider! I know how ridiculous that sounds”. Everyone was so excited when they were filming Memento, the true test came when they actually showed it to people and the first reactions were “what the fuck is that?!” But he took solace in the fact that every time they showed it someone got it, and then - as with Following - it was the reaction on the festival circuit that meant it took off and led to the next step up in his career.

Christopher stressed the importance of making Insomnia and what that process taught him as a director, about working on a studio film and working with actors. It was an essential stepping stone towards the films he made later and in fact shaped the rest of his career; if he hadn’t already been working on Insomnia when Memento took off, he wouldn't have known how to follow up that success. He knows he would have been tempted to do another highly personal film and make it even more “structurally weird”.

Claiming that people often misremember the course of his career - thinking that he went straight from Memento to Batman Begins - Christopher said that studios have tried to replicate his career model and take directors from very small films and put them on huge big-budget franchise pictures before they're ready. The result of this is that you end up with directors the studio can control. He explained that the industry is in a bit of a transitional period with regards to that right now, and we're still yet to see where it ends up, but “I'd say that directors are less powerful than they were ten years ago. I'm a strong believer that films can only be as good as the filmmaker making them”.

Christopher Nolan's forgotten film: Insomnia (2002)

Moving on to casting, Iain asked if he's now at a stage where he can cast whoever he wants. He was in the extremely lucky position of having a greenlight for Interstellar that wasn't cast-dependent. Christopher had already explained that the main difference between making movies in Hollywood and in the UK is that in the US everything opens up to you as soon as you get an actor on board. So to be in a position where that wasn’t needed was incredibly liberating, but at the same time you don’t want to take liberties - you still want to get the best actors that fit the part.

They were extremely lucky with the casting of Matthew McConaughey. When they initially approached him he wasn't in the position he’s in now - he was just finishing filming on True Detective, Dallas Buyers Club was in the can. So when he suddenly exploded it “made us look super clever”. But the reason he was cast was that he was absolutely perfect for the role; he’s a cowboy and that was what was needed to bring out the pioneer themes in Interstellar. The fact that McConaughey was already in a process of challenging himself as an actor and turning away from the kind of films he used to do just fed into that perfect piece of casting.

Once McConaughey was in place the rest of the ensemble could be filled in around him, “knowing all the time that Michael Caine was going to be in there somewhere!” He’d really wanted to work with Anne Hathaway again following The Dark Knight Rises, but you can't just shoehorn an actor into any old role, but luckily the character of Brand was perfect for her.

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar (2014)

When asked by one of our members about working with actors, Christopher said that he tries to shoot material from one location roughly in sequence - experienced actors don’t need this, but it does help, especially when working with younger actors such as Mackenzie Foy. Talking specifically about the watch scene in Murph’s bedroom - a two-hander between McConaughey and Foy - Christopher said it took two days to film. On reflection, this was probably a mistake as the actors got too tired and he eventually ended up using footage from the earliest shoots, but he always makes sure to do what the actors want: “if they feel they have more to give I let them do it. I just concentrate on coverage”.

Talking about coverage, Christopher explained that he shoots single camera for acting scenes and only brings in multiple cameras for stunt work. The actors don’t mind at all, as you don't actually end up shooting longer with single camera, you just end up structuring your time slightly differently. As long as you explain it all to the actors beforehand then they’ll be fine and will be able to allocate their energy accordingly across the day.

Christopher spoke about how important it is to have a familiar team around him. For instance, Wally Pfister was his DOP from Memento all the way up to The Dark Knight Rises and they grew together. Nathan Crowley has been his production designer since Insomnia. The Interstellar SFX team Double Negative also worked on The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. It’s good to have a team of friends who can give you proper feedback.

That desire also led to the decision to fully integrate SFX within production, something that was very common for 1960s movies and something he’d started doing with Inception. Conventional practice now is to finish filming and then send everything to a visual effects house to finish it off, but having an in-house team, working with you on set, is invaluable.

Interstellar originated as a script by renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who wanted to write a sci-fi film based on real science. Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan was then originally brought onto the project to work on a script for Steven Spielberg. He and Jonathan always talk about what they’re working on and so he was aware of the project and thought it sounded interesting. When he had the chance to get on board he only wanted to do so if he could incorporate his own ideas from scripts he’d already been working on, so they ended up co-writing a new script together. But he wanted to stay true to the ideas from Thorne’s original treatment, with the Earth as a nest that humanity would one day have to leave, and he also chose to retain the family themes that entered the project at the Spielberg stage, recalling his films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. So that's how Interstellar ended up as an intimate family drama played out against a huge cosmic background.

Asked if Interstellar would have turned out differently had he been on the project from the very beginning, Christopher said he didn’t know. All the elements that came from those earlier treatments were important to making an effective film - you need an emotional connection when telling stories of this scale. Plus he’s a father himself and so it appealed to him anyway. “But I don't know if I'd have been able to weld that huge cosmic scale to the family drama so well if Jonah hadn't had that original idea in mind”.

Talking more generally about the writing process, Christopher said “writing's horrible! You do it because you have to. The best bit of writing is always just having written”. Although he’s co-written scripts a number of times with both his brother and David S. Goyer, he always writes alone, sending drafts to his collaborators and rewriting theirs. So no, he can’t imagine ever writing something for someone else: “It's the thought of getting to direct it at the end that keeps me going”.

Asked if he’d ever been tempted to direct someone else’s finished script, he said he’d always want to put his own stamp on it. “If the script’s perfect there’s a feeling that you don’t need to direct it. It already exists in a perfect form so maybe it’s not all that suitable to be filmed”.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) comforts his distraught daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) in Interstellar

And then we got on to a topic that was extremely close to both Christopher and Iain’s hearts: the continued use of film over digital. Iain has chaired a number of debates on the subject for Directors UK and led a hugely successful campaign to reinstate the use of 16mm for broadcast, while Christopher has been a huge advocate for the use of film and the theatrical experience of watching cinema. Iain particularly highlighted the intimacy the use of film brought to the ending of Interstellar. Christopher: “It’s really important to me. People ask if I test digital, and I do - I know an awful lot about it”, but the technology just isn't good enough to compare to film yet. “We were told that the ALEXA was going to change everything - but it just wasn’t up to scratch”. Christopher's original inclination was to keep quiet about it: “Other people don’t tell me how to make films and I don’t want to tell other people”. But then he started to hear from other filmmakers who were being put under pressure to switch to digital, and he realised he had to speak out. People should be able to innovate but the switch to digital isn’t happening for the sake of innovation, it’s economics. You can see who's going to gain from that change and it isn’t filmmakers. “It’s partly the fault of DOPs”, who have capitulated out of fear of not wanting to be seen as technologically regressive.

Christopher related his experience when wanting to screen Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris in the run up to filming Interstellar, and how he was unable to find a DCP. Soderbergh’s a huge digital advocate and yet he had to tell him he couldn’t screen his film because there aren’t DCPs for any pre-2001 films. If you want to watch a huge successful movie then someone will make one, but when he enquired about doing that for Following he was quoted £300,000, because of scratches on the negative. “It’s going to get to the stage where you don’t have projectors, they’ll just put on a DVD or Blu-ray”.

The incredible rendering of a black hole in Interstellar

Christopher said that the issue has been mischaracterised as similar to the vinyl vs. CD argument, but they’re not comparable; “one’s talking about consumer products, but we’re working with industrial materials here”. Filmmakers should be allowed to innovate, but innovation can’t come at the expense of never being able to use film again. That’s how the issue was turned around - by him talking to filmmakers and telling them, “if you ever want to shoot with film in the future, you have to use it now”. The problem is that when people say digital and film look the same, it’s because they’re not looking at a properly duplicated 35mm original. The digital intermediate they’re watching has been through a mass stock producing process before it’s sent out to cinemas and the quality is considerably worse, “which they never told anyone. I’ve been trying to show that to other filmmakers so they know that”.

When asked by one of our members what to do on his current project where he’s being told to shoot in digital instead of his preferred 35mm, Christopher rather emphatically said: “If you don’t have that power you shouldn’t be directing it. You have to insist on it. You’re the director and you should be in charge. It’s wrong that productions have taken that power away from the director”.

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