Breaking rules is not interesting
Christopher Nolan said, that breaking rules is not interesting: it’s making up new ones that keeps things exciting. And I couldn’t agree more! This British-American filmmaker is one of my favorites directors in the industry. I have deep respect for creators, who take time – both literally and figuratively. And with Nolan, the ultimate Champion in area called concept of time, you get the whole package. His movies are like Christmas presents, but you just have to wait a little longer for them. He was writing Inception for almost 10 years, but guess what? It’s worth the wait.
The screen is the same size for every story. A shot of a teacup is the same size as an army coming over the hill. It’s all storytelling.
You should know, that the idea for this post was planted in my mind long before this blog came to life. My very first movie by this British-American filmmaker, born July 30th, 1970, was Batman Begins. Back then I wasn’t much interested in the movie business. Okay well, maybe not THIS much. I always enjoyed going to the movies with my family or friends but the idea of “overthinking” them came a bit later in life. But I will never forget the feelings I had while watching Batman Begins, the feelings I still have!
Christopher Nolan is one of the “marvelous people” of film industry, this is why he was the first “hero” of Wonder-Movie Live Podcast I’m hosting for my movie club at work. Those weekly hearings are now endless source of inspirations for me! I am taking it very seriously – doing lots of research to provide the best content for my people. So, when I dived into the Nolan-well, I felt wonderfully overwhelmed with concepts, ideas, methods, models and greatness. Few weeks back I watched Inception with my mum (2h 28minutes turned into almost 4 hours with her asking questions, but heck – it was so worth it!) and I felt really confident clearing her doubts. I will get to Inception a bit later in that post, what I want to say is that I though that I know all there is to know about Nolan. Boy, how I love being wrong!
As everything good in life, Nolan’s love for movies grew inside him as he was still a kid. He then studied English literature at University College in London. In 1998, he made his film debut with Following, but it was his second movie, Memento (2000) that put made everyone in the industry talk about him. 10 movies later, with 11th in the making, he grossed over US$4.7 billion worldwide! His films had total 511 awards nominations and 185 wins.
You’ve got to put everything into the one movie and just try and make a great movie because you may not get this chance again.
Nolan likes to play by his own rules, and I absolutely love it. I did few courses on storytelling, read countless amount of articles and books on how to become a good writer and one thing, among million different approaches, was very clear: be unique, don’t ever repeat yourself. Create extraordinary stories and characters all the time. And Ch. N. is showing his middle finger to all that, creating his own rules.
There is a significant difference between pattern and pattern. One is “the good pattern”, other is “the bad pattern”, and let me start with the second one. Why it’s wrong? Your characters are bland, repetitive, there is nothing distinctive about them, nothing that caught the eye. They are shallow, so what you are trying to do, to add some flavor, is putting them in ridiculous situations over and over again – like making them a hero, who saves the day. Still, that does more harm. Same thing for any other story. I know that this is harsh, but it’s a constructive criticism, that I learn the hard way, over the years. Trust me, I did that too. Even know, when I read the stories I wrote ages ago, jeez. But I am proud of where I am today, with a long road ahead, of course. For all you creative writers out there – worry not. Practice is perfection ?.
The “good pattern” is creating a base. It’s exactly what Nolan did with his protagonists. He built a type: emotionally disturbed, morally ambiguous, obsessive, facing anxiety, loneliness, dealing with guilt, jealousy and greed. Often lost, pulls himself back, make other avoid him. Protagonist so “human”, so very alike to everyone is… Easily accessible to the audience. By grounding everyday neurosis, hopes and fears, Nolan makes it easier for us to relate, even if the hero is in space. Do you see where I’m getting here? He proved that using one type, but throwing him into different surroundings, timelines, circumstances, different points in life, they are getting the uniqueness I read about.
This way, the classic maneuver, where protagonist and antagonist are mirror images of each other is truly interesting to watch in his films. The clashing ideologies, that often highlight the ambivalent of truth, fit perfectly to the base.
So, if Cobb, Bruce Wayne, Cooper, Leonard, Robert and Cobb (Memento Cobb) on some ground level feel familiar, it means that you started really watching Nolan. Dissecting his movies into chunks, so when you watch them again, it’s a new experience.
When you think of the visual style, when you think of the visual language of a film there tends to be a natural separation of the visual style and the narrative elements, but with the great, whether it is Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick or Hitchcock what you’re seeing is inseparable, a vital relationship between the images and the story he’s telling.
His movies are beautiful. You know, if there is something that I’ve actually learned from storytelling courses is that singular words are powerful. So, yeah – beautiful it is. Nolan is extremely detail-oriented, and this quite rare “commodity” in movie industry, is fundament of his style. Let me throw another word at you: aesthetic, which means “concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.” Concerned with beauty, oh my! What a great rule to follow.
The aesthetic component of Nolan’s base is composed of three parts: style, music and themes. Let’s talk about themes, so what exactly are his movies about? He often touches areas of existence, ethics, epistemology. Subjective experiences, distortion of memory, human morality, nature of time (he does have odd relationship to time, doesn’t he?) and construction of personal identity.
Fascination of subjective perception of reality is solid theme in Nolan’s movies. Each of us is stuck in a singular point of view, sometimes it is hard to look at something through “different set of eyes”. With reality though, it’s the hardest. It’s the essence of subjectivity, this personal perspective that, strangely enough, we all agree to be the objective reality. Nolan keeps on pushing with the personal perception, running away from the frames created by society, the frames we agreed upon.
He loves to plays with subjective reality, stuffing it with puzzles, ambiguity, corruption and conspiracy; building mazes, using impossible construction and paradoxes, to emphasize divergent consciousness.
And all of that is shaped into series of existential questions, that are core of his movies.
I just love photographing things and putting them together to tell a story.
Visual style of Nolan’s movies is easily recognizable for a movie-lover eye. The colors… Sort of muted and toned, like watching world through a filter. The gloomy reality, often presented in urban setting, men in suits, scenes with dialogues framed in wide close ups.
Nolan is fond of hand-held camera work, choosing real locations over “green screen” whenever possible. Deliberate crosscuts between timelines and embedded narratives, believe it or not, add tiny stones to the style pile.
And that style is one of the reasons his movies are so damn heavy and hard to watch. You really need a day or two for them to sink in, right? To settle, to wrap your head about them, to have an opinion or even an open discussion about them. When I watched Inception for the first time, 10 years ago in the cinema, I really… I was like, “what the heck did I just watch”? But again, this was 10 years back, I was 17 and not this much into movies in general. Watched them simply for the pleasure and thrill of it all, nothing more. Inception made me think, a week after I saw it. And it hit me! Using two conflicting concepts:
Nolan creates feeling of pleasant exhaustion for the audience. Once again, not breaking the rules, simply creating new ones.
Playing with meta-fictional elements, elliptical cutting, solipsistic perspectives, to switch into non-linear storytelling, ultimately creating labyrinth plots – all for the visual pleasure.
When I read Chris’ script, I knew that this was going to be a bold and experimental movie.
In words of Hans Zimmer himself! Look, before I start, you should know that I am a big, big, biiiiiiiiiiig fan of Zimmer. He wrote Oscar-worthy music for The Lion King. He composed so many excellent scores! But this piece is about Nolan, so I should cool it, haha.
Before Nolan started working with Zimmer, he cooperated with David Julyan, he created soundtrack for two short films: Lorceny and Doodlebag, and three fulltime pieces: Following, Memento and Insomnia. Slow, atmospheric scores with hint of minimalistic expressions. Good, very good in my humble opinion, but.
But Hans Zimmer happened and made me extremely bias. I’m not even going to cover it up, deny it or anything. For me, Nolan goes with Zimmer and Zimmer with Nolan. Great duo, guarantee of a great movie. Zimmer knows his ways around electronic music, he loves to experiment with traditional and orchestral arrangements. And suddenly the scores became more kinetic, almost electric, highly experimental, bold and piercing to the bone. Soundtracks are powerful, because one crafted by skilled composer can throw you right in the middle of the mess. You can be on the streets of Gotham or up in space. Or going back in time, or stealing someone’s dream.
Let’s take Dunkirk soundtrack for instance, a.k.a. the perfect “keep one on the edge through entire movie” score. It was created to accommodate the auditory illusion of a Shepard tone! Shepard tone is, according to yourdictionary.com “A superposition of sine waves, separated by an octave, whose relative amplitude may be varied to give the illusion of a rising or falling note” – trust me, I was aware of the phenomenon, but couldn’t name it for the world. In other words: it makes you feel like the tone ascends or descends in pitch, but ultimately seems to go no higher or lower. I other, other words: it’s magic.
Fun fact: the ticking clock your hear in Dunkirk is a recording of Nolan’s pocket watch.
The only job that was ever of interest to me other than filmmaking is architecture.
Nolan is a methodical man. He described filmmaking process as a combination of intuition and geometry. While working on a movie, he often uses mathematical or scientific models, draws lots of diagrams, timelines. I imagine, that walls in his office are covered with sticky notes, there are white boards all over the place, with pictures and drawings. Little ideas, that pile up into skeleton of a script.
He also have a certain way of working with actors, which I very much admire – giving all the space they need to shoot the scene. They can do as many takes as they wish, to create unforgettable performance. This close cooperation, along with real-time watching of actor’s work is visible on screen – true emotions, subjective interpretation of events. Have you noticed though, that he has his “favorites”? Don’t take this the wrong, picky way, no! Nolan likes working with certain people and once again, setting new rule book of having a type, just throwing them into different situations – Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Cain…
His ways with crew on set is similar – one of the tips Nolan gives out to young filmmakers is to understand every job on set, to be interested in every single bit of filmmaking. How? By doing every single bit of filmmaking!
If you’d ask Nolan whether he favors CGI over “real shots”, the answer will always be the same: minimize computer-generated imagery whenever you can. He uses it to enhance elements captured by camera, which in so very common era of “green screen, everybody” is, once again, rare commodity.
I’ve been interested in dreams since I as a kid and I’ve wanted to do a film about them for a long time.
And finally, crème de la crème – concept of time. Now, I believe I mentioned that Nolan has “odd” relationship with time, correct? But I also mentioned, that he is very subjective in perception of reality. So, his love affair with time is nothing more, than subjective perception of it, in particular circumstances. Crosscutting between timelines is his pool, and there is no better swimmer:
- Following: 4 timelines, inter-cuts 3
- Memento: 2 timelines, 1 moving backwards
- The Prestige: 4 timelines, inter cuts 3
- Inception: 4 timelines, all framed by the 5th
- Dunkirk: 3 timelines created to emulate the Shepard tone = constant feeling of intensity
Taking a closer look, time is another fundamental in Nolan’s filmmaking base. Interstellar explores the laws of physics. Time is the antagonist and it correlates with Einstein’s general relativity. Inception shows the “escape time” motive, where there is illusion built that time hasn’t passed and is not passing now.
Breaking, or maybe bending, rules of time is like walking on thin ice, but Nolan makes sure to do the homework – this is why one of his methods while working on a script is visualizing it. Drawing models, looking for scientific theories that could support it or justify it in a way. But also, using the artistic concepts, like mise en abyme (placing a copy of an image within itself, often to suggest infinitely recurring sequence) which includes “dream within a dream” theory. Why? To stimulate viewers! To make them ask why his films are put together the way they are, why they provoke particular response. Brilliant!
Blending objective with subjective, like I mentioned before – he sees things as creator and as audience. But there is one more element, I want to bring up here. While creating a world, environment, one must know everything about it. That means being the God of the world you are creating. Christopher Nolan is well aware of advantages of holistic approach: knowing what cannot be known by any of the characters in the story (God or King; objective?), then switching to character’s perspective (Hero; subjective?) and ultimately – trying the audience glasses, to experience the movie (Fan). Imagining himself in the movie, rather than watching what happens onscreen, results in discovering things the audience will, once the film hits theaters. That only proves how great Nolan’s mind is. Look at the amount of different perspectives he takes in, to make his movies so damn good.
Another thing he passes on to younger generations? “Big spectacles aren’t antithetical to speaking personally to the audience”. His films are profoundly personal. Imagine this: you sit in a dark movie theater, the old kind, with rusty maroon chairs, wooden armrests. No one around you, just you in darkness. Projector screeches, it’s the old-fashioned signal that the movie will start soon. Someone enters the room last minute, you can see the producer’s logo on the screen. Man sits next to you, with a smile, stretches in the chair. Curious enough, he got you puzzled. Film hasn’t started yet, when he gives you his card, without saying a word. The almost-silence around you is thick, you can feel the electricity in the air; and that’s when he thrives. He knows exactly how manipulative that maneuver was, casting the rod on you like that. You were just about to ask a question, when he stood up, winked at you and left. The movie started, and you realize exactly who that was.
That’s how personal his movies are and how intimate they feel. spellbound
An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.
During the podcast I asked about the ultimate favorite Nolan’s movie. For me, if I’d have to choose to watch one for the rest of my life, it would be Inception. Only because I treat The Dark Knight trilogy as, well, a trilogy and I couldn’t pick just one movie to watch. So yeah – Inception it is.
I didn’t get it the first time. It took me two times to understand it, three times to explain it out loud, four times to be sure that I will answer my mum’s questions. And believe me, she asks only the tricky ones. But I could watch it over and over again. I am spellbound by the plot. There are two levels of storytelling I aspire to: emotional one (and that’s Ryan Tedder) and creative one (and that’s Christopher Nolan). Inception got me hooked on both levels (with additional levels of sleep, boom!) – it’s complex story with emotional angle of true love taking the wrong turn.
Did you know, that initially this was supposed to be a horror movie?! There is something disturbing about, this much is true. Nolan’s work on script started in 2001, as he wrote an 80-page treatment on dream-stealers. Along the way, he plaited subtle brain-stimulating bits, like the maze Ariadne drew for Cobb on “job interview” – it was King Minos’ labyrinth. This sophisticated move was a nod to Greek mythology – Ariadne, the King’s daughter helped Theseus navigate the maze, as Ariadne in the movie helps Cobb get out of the Limbo. And she created the labyrinths.
Another puzzle within were the Penrose stairs or the impossible staircase. That was a reference to visionary object created by Lionel and Roger Penrose. The stairs were actually a variation on the Penrose triangle, but in a nutshell: it’s a two-dimensional image of staircase, in which the stairs make four 90-degree turns as they ascend or descend thus forming continuous loop. So, the person climbing the stairs is stuck forever, not getting any higher.
From the technical point of view, Nolan aimed to be analog to the bone, filming without any second units or 3D technology. Which, in his opinion would be annoying distraction from the actual storytelling experience. Couldn’t agree more, Mr. Nolan! What also struck me as interesting was another way of watching Inception – what if we look at it, as a story of… Filmmaking? Think about it! Nolan admitted it himself, that the roles of each character could be similar to roles on set:
- Cobb (DiCaprio) – director
- Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) – producer
- Ariadne (Page) – production designer
- Eames (Hardy) – actor
- Robert Fisher (Murphy) – audience
- Saito (Watanabe) – studio
Interesting, eh? I love nuances like that! See, when you think you know all there is to know about a movie, out of the sudden you find diamonds like that. And speaking of Watanabe, character of Saito was written just for him – Nolan felt remorse that in Batman Begins (Watanabe played “Ra’s Al Ghul”) he didn’t have enough screen time.
See, things like that – little pieces that built the complete image, make you want to come back to this movie even more often. I don’t want to dig into the deep review (one day!), so here I am merely scratching the surface.
Also, fun fact: Warner Bros released a comic called Inception. The Cobol Job. It features Cobb’s learning of dream sharing (from his father-in-law) and his work for Cobol Enterprises with Arthur and Nash. It’s available here, have a read! It will give you a great, valuable inside to what happens in the movie, and why.
I just love photographing things and putting them together to tell a story.
Christopher Nolan certainly is a legendary filmmaker. His goal is to make the actual (objective) world less important, and make created (subjective) reality the one that truly matters. His movies are challenging and stimulating, craving for your undivided attention. And that is exactly what I expect from him. Deeply intimate 1:1, just me and him. But he is so very complex… It’s a tough relationship and it requires work and sacrifice from both sides. But damn me, it’s the best love affair I’ve ever had. And I want more.
TENET, I am waiting for you to blow my mind.