A FILMMAKER RETROSPECTIVE: Following Nolan: from a Slamdance Indie to an Interstellar star

Written by: Sean McCarthy20141208-131453.jpg

The rise of Christopher Nolan is an interesting and unique story. Much like one of his films it’s almost puzzling to see such an intellectual filmmaker such as Nolan be given the kind of budgets, clout and universal appeal that usually comes with having to sacrifice vision for a more homogenized movie. Yet his films retain the purity of vision that you can see compromised, even on the indie level, for a myriad of reasons.

In the packed Slamdance screening room, at the top of Main Street, Nolan recounts walking up and down the street, stapling fliers in the cold. Though he recounts the story with a smile, he says with a glimmer in his eye that he does not envy any of the indie filmmakers in the lodge that night who have to pay their dues and acknowledges the hard trials and tribulations that one encounters. “You have to be prepared to do everything yourself…that’s something that never goes away” he says with utmost certainty. “You have to be prepared to carry the flag for the film because if you’re not nobody else is going to bother.”



following movieIt’s with this knowing confidence that the writer/director has navigated the perils of his 1999 $6,000 debut feature “The Following” (a film that is noted in their rejection letters, was first rejected by Slamdance on it’s first submission) to his 2014 $165 million plus international universe non-linear epic “Interstellar.” If anything has changed, it’s Nolan’s strive for grand, ambitious storytelling that would make even David Lean’s mouth drop. What has remained the same is his exploration of bold non-linear narratives that challenge the viewer but at the same time are very clear in their storytelling. There is a very distinctive voice that finds a stronger footing in film grammar with each film, to both challenge and communicate to his audience. In “The Following” he plays with the crime noir, utilizing the bandages and looks of the character to dictate where we are in the story. In “Memento” and “Insomnia” we are within the perspectives of our anti-hero protagonists suffering from a brain trauma in the former, and lack of sleep in the latter. Where some filmmakers could fall prey to getting either too artsy or too bland for the sake of ego or committee pleasing, Nolan has found a way to walk a tightrope between personal vision and blockbuster filmmaking that connects with a large audience. You can see that with the Batman trilogy, he pushed his level of scope and maintained what he had in “the Following”, which was a grounded reality, in a world with set rules and consequences.

interstellar movie posterEven in the surreal “Inception” and the magician period piece “the Prestige”, the idea of dreams and illusions is shot with a certain matter of factness. Whereas many filmmakers would be tempted to delve into more cliched surrealist filmmaking, getting heavy handed with CG. Nolan’s confidence comes in what great artists eventually learn, is to simplify and strip what does not need to be there. Shooting imagery with a certain practicality and efficiency, he is notorious for his preparedness and staying within or under budget. As opposed to adding more to a dream sequence he shoots it almost straight forward, except for key moments. Or as in “Interstellar” shooting the future he utilizes the Ken Burn’s talking heads and recognizable Americana with a slight twist, as opposed to the THX1138 look of clean white surfaces, he opts for an iconic baseball field with a gravitational twist. His budgets have grown but his stance has been always about one key thing that drives him to choose his film “I’ve only ever been driven by story, I try not to think not too much about why I want to make a film,” he said before responding to if he wants to do smaller scale, “I think there’s also a sense of opportunity, that opportunity’s not always going to be there.”

86th Academy Awards, Scientific and Technical Achievement AwardsIn 2014 receiving the first ever Slamdance Founder’s award and releasing a challenging original new film, Nolan continues to set the bar but still champion the independent film community, as he said at the Treasure Inn receiving his award, “I’m honored to be recognized by a Festival that gave me some of my first opportunities to connect with an audience. Slamdance continues to provide an important forum for emerging filmmakers and I’m proud to be part of their history.”

Not just for indie filmmakers but everyone working in the industry he is now admired. As when he called Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and some of his other colleagues — and fellow champions of the film over the digital experience — to screen a fresh print for them. Tarantino recalls “”We’re waiting for the movie to start and it hit me,” he enthused “I realized that it hadn’t been since The Matrix that I was actually that interested in seeing a movie even though I didn’t know what I was going to see.” The fellow cinephile noted “It’s been a while since somebody has come out with such a big vision to things. Even the elements, the fact that dust is everywhere, and they’re living in this dust bowl that is just completely enveloping this area of the world. That’s almost something you expect from [Andrei] Tarkovsky or [Terrence] Malick, not a science fiction adventure movie.”

looking into camera chris nolanIn 2014, where the newest technology is pushed forward without thinking of the effects. It’s important when a filmmaker takes a stand, even calling his fellow filmmakers to diplomatically convince them of the importance of shooting on film, noting the impact on the viewer with a celluloid experience and providing early screening rights to theatres with film projection (much to the chagrin of the many multiplexes that converted to digital). If someone like Nolan — who each indie filmmaker aspires to be, whilst inspiring a fellow master like Quentin Tarantino — makes a bold declaration with shooting and projecting on film. It’s important to pay attention and take note. This is why, in the Slamdance Film Festival’s 20th anniversary, they named Christopher Nolan recipient of the first ever Slamdance Founder’s award and why he is carving out a career and signature that is as recognizable as Hitchcock, and Spielberg and as as bold and challenging to the art form as Scorsese and Tarantino.


Audio Full Interview With Christopher Nolan In January 2014:


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