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Christopher and Matthew

Christopher Nolan's balancing act

The British director increased his budgets by 27,000 per cent and still kept the audience thirsty

Taken from the December 2006 issue of Dazed:

There’s a story about Christopher Nolan, about when he was at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 to present Memento. At the Q&A session after the film’s first screening, he unpicked a tantalising part of the plot for a befuddled member of the audience, and his brother Jonathan, the screenwriter, shouted him down. Words were exchanged afterwards: the film must guard its ambiguity, its heart. The slip-up hasn’t been repeated since.

A few years later, Nolan is the keeper of a cosmic secret. From the $6,000 scraped together for his directorial debut, Following, in 1998 to the $150 million showered from the Warner coffers on last year’s Batman Begins, his budgets have increased by 25,000 per cent (Interstellar's budget is estimated at $165m, which now equals a 27,000 per cent increase). And not only, at 36, has he emerged from the indie world into mainstream filmmaking, but he’s managed to remain true in the unstable flux somewhere between the two: picking silently through the neuroses of the Dark Knight’s psyche without losing his blockbuster swagger; and now returning to smaller-scale, more devious storytelling in his new film The Prestige, but with the showmanship still alive, the polish vigorously applied.

For Nolan, his success has the simplicity of supply and demand. “One of the really important things in Hollywood culture is an absolute acknowledgement that freshness and novelty are key. Despite the aphorisms and jokes, I think the studios are very aware that they can’t keep doing the same thing,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles, straight off The Prestige’s sound-mixing desk.

“One of the really important things in Hollywood culture is an absolute acknowledgement that freshness and novelty are key” – Christopher Nolan

Nolan certainly does make it look easy, on film and on the phone, with his seamless boardroom-pitch patter. But then, as The Prestige inscrutably celebrates, the act is all. At least it is for Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, the two 19th-century magicians played respectively in the film by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, who are constantly refining their acts to outdo the other, and constantly cooking up sabotage. Borden develops an incredible new trick, "The Transported Man", in which he appears to move instantly across the stage; Angier is apoplectic, and mystified too, and once again, the illusion becomes the prize.

Where previous movies about magic failed – they’re tricky to pitch to studios – Nolan wanted to attempt to put the tricks themselves centre stage. “If you’re putting magic through the lens, everyone knows there could be camera tricks, and it’s not going to be impressive the way it is live.” Instead, the prestidigitation is all packed into the narrative, and it’s been extremely well refined from Christopher Priest’s original novel over six years by both Nolan brothers, with its elegant, overlapping structure in which the characters read each other’s (not wholly reliable) journals. Jonathan Nolan says that the brothers’ working patterns mirrored, to some extent, the efforts of the magicians to out-fox each other; him writing, Christopher re-working. “I’ll complicate things, and then he’ll get in there and complicate things further. I then sit back and think, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ And then there’ll be occasions where I’d think, ‘Why don’t I get in there and rewrite his work.’”

Of course, the parallels between magic and filmmaking aren’t lost on the Nolans (and the intervention of Nikolas Tesla in The Prestige, whose research into electricity heralded the point at which cinema would supersede men pulling rabbits out of hats). “One of the key areas in which you find that is the willing suspension of disbelief,” says Christopher. “When people think about magic, they think people are trying to convince them they have supernatural powers. It’s not the case – the audience is always aware there’s trickery involved. Think of sawing a woman in half. When that trick is complete, the reason it’s entertainment – and the same is true of film – is the knowledge that what we’re seeing isn’t real.”

Aside from the goes-without-saying dedication to his craft, there’s definitely a hermetic air to Nolan as well. “He is very solid,” Christian Bale said of him recently. “He is kind of like the Egyptian pyramids – well-made and flush. You can’t get a card between any of the bricks. I can’t get anything past him, even the smallest details about my character.” Nolan gives very little away, the only lapse in his flawless diction being the odd Blairite dip into matey informality. So why, given his solid middle-class upbringing, does he make such consistently dark, introspective movies?

“When you’re looking at storytelling, you look to your own life, but you try and craft a more universal experience because you are trying to speak to people you don’t know” – Christopher Nolan

“I would simply account for it as the difference between life and art. When you’re looking at storytelling, you look to your own life, but you try and craft a more universal experience because you are trying to speak to people you don’t know. And in trying to make things universal, you wind up making them clearer and more extreme: either comedies, or tragedies, something that exaggerates the more intense, negative aspects of life.”

He sighs deeply when asked why he opts for the latter, and gives the cool answer: “I would say the thriller side more than the tragic side. In a funny way, the darker feel of thrillers is the kind of cinematic experience I find the most engaging.” When posed the same question, Jonathan jokes: “It’s my brother’s fault. I’ve got a very light sensibility, but in order to draw a pay cheque, I’ve got to write pieces he’d be interested in directing.” Right now, that includes exhuming the Joker for Heath Ledger in the Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, for which he’s just finished his first draft. Maybe there just is no secret behind the act; no shadowy trauma fuelling Nolan. Jonathan says simply that his brother is “a very funny guy, a light guy. He’s not riding motorcycles to nightclubs – for Hollywood, he’s about as much of a family guy as you can get.”

We might even see lighter material from the pair in future, he suggests, and holds Sam Peckinpah up as a cautionary tale. “He seemed to get trapped by his own sensibility and by the studios, into making movies that had the same bleak world view.” The pair, he insists, aren’t out to sermonise some shadowy philosophy, just to make movies people can enjoy. Perhaps the real secret with Christopher Nolan is not just in making it look easy, but in being pleased, and poised, to entertain.

Interstellar is out in cinemas Friday