The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Part II

Back in 2000, when Nolan was still relatively unknown and was struggling to find a US distributor for Memento, he came across a book called The Prestige by Christopher Priest that not only captured his imagination but also allowed him to work with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, again. While Christopher Nolan hoped to start production before starting Batman Begins, it took almost five years to finalise a screenplay making several adaptations and cuts to the original novel. Returning to his LA garage, he invited Production Designer Nathan Crowley again to recreate Fin-de-Siecle London using a lot of traditional theatres still found in Los Angeles. The Prestige is a welcome returns to Nolan’s non-linear time frame but also incorporated an unusual telling of a story, within a story, within another story format.

Stage assistants, pretending to be members of the audience, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) are working with a stage performer Milton the Magician under the watchful eye of illusion engineer John Cutter (Michael Caine). Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) is performing the water cell act with Milton when Borden fumbles with the knot to tie Julia with. The first night goes well except Borden complains he could do a better knot and will one day show everyone what a great magician he really is. On the second night, Borden ties Julia with a different knot but it unfortunately goes horribly wrong and prevents her from untying it thus causing her death. As a result, Borden and Angier part ways becoming professional magicians in their own right (Angier – The Great Danton, with Borden – The Professor) however their bitterness for each other turns dangerous when they wreck each other’s acts and ultimately their reputation.

One day, Borden presents to the world his new act – The Transported Man – where after throwing the ball from one end of the stage, he reappears to catch it from the other side at a blink of an eye. Unable to guess how the trick works, Angier sends his new assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) to discover the secret. Olivia then discovers Borden’s notebook and gives this to Angier except it’s written in a cryptic language and can only be unlocked by a keyword. After blackmailing Borden for the keyword in exchange for someone he cares about, Angier travels from London to Colorado Springs in the US in search of a man called Tesla who claims he can do what other magicians think they can do – real magic, through science. Realising his journey was a pointless one, he never found the answers to the question he set out to seek – however he found something else entirely. Something he plans to not only exploit and ruin Borden’s reputation with but seek revenge for taking Julia’s wife. Back in London, Borden’s wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall) is suspicious her husband is having an affair with Olivia however the man she suspects isn’t her husband at all.

In perhaps his most intricate film yet, Nolan had purposefully structured the screenplay to reflect the three acts to an illusion: the pledge (presenting something ordinary), the turn (changes into something extraordinary), and the prestige (the return of it being ordinary). Nolan stated in an interview with Variety Magazine that, “It took a long time to figure out how to achieve cinematic versions of the very literary devices that drive the intrigue of the story. The shifting points of view, the idea of journals within journals and stories within stories.  Finding the cinematic equivalents of those literary devices was very complex.” After the script was finalised, production on the film was very swift with filming starting in January 2006 and released in cinemas by October of the same year.

The story has always been promoted as a rivalry between the two main protagonists where their obsession to discover each other’s secret becomes the driving force of the film leading to an surprise no one really saw coming. But unlike other films where you move one after the ending is revealed, The Prestige almost invites you to take your seat again and watch the film from an entirely different perspective where you’ll find many clues that were looking right at you but never fully realised. The magic tricks themselves have no great revelation – it is more the intimate scenes between the magicians and their partners that resonate their humanity and desires. The Prestige is also a film about sacrifice – not for fame, money or glory, but for the art of magic itself. You realise at the end of the movie that both magicians have gained, loved and lost a great deal over their lives (mainly due to their rivalry) thus Nolan successfully projects both characters as neither antagonists nor protagonists. Nolan also mirrors their journey through their evolution of the class structure from working class typical stage assistants to names adorned with lights at the London stage.

Priest, who was also a fan of Nolan’s previous films, watched The Prestige three times, describing it as “an extraordinary and brilliant script, a fascinating adaptation of my novel”. While the film received a number of awards and credible nominations from Academy Awards for Art Direction and Cinematography – it separated opinions from both critics and audience members alike where it made just over $110 million worldwide – $40 million short from Insomnia which used a similar budget. But while The Prestige was considered a moderate success, no one, not even Nolan himself, was prepared for the explosion and ultimate aftermath his next project was going to create. He took the themes of rivalry and obsession back into the comic book world and while making his first sequel, he inadvertently made his most iconic film to date – The Dark Knight.

When Heath Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose back in January 2008, the grieving came in two folds. One, that Heath had died so young – aged only 28 at the time – and second, like Bruce Lee, he never saw his contribution to a film that not only elevated his craftsmanship but defined a role that will be talked about for decades to come. The role, of course, was the Joker which attracted a number other prominent actors during the casting stage however Nolan chose Ledger simply because their interpretation of the character was aligned in terms of his chaotic and disturbing nature. Ledger’s performance earned him a posthumous Oscar, the second time that has ever happened, and while the marketing department presented an enthralling viral campaign with Aaron Eckhart, who played Harvey Dent/Two-Face, and Christian Bale, who reprised his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, it was Ledger’s death that was the most talked about element of the film. Nolan promised the world he would present Ledger at his best with a performance that would both honour and respect him as an actor. He kept that promise and in return, film magazines like Empire described Ledger’s take on the Joker as “a towering performance”.

The Dark Knight is the story of three men. Harvey Dent, Gotham’s District Attorney, is fighting a legal battle against the Falcone crime family to ensure the streets are free from thugs who terrorise the citizens and have allowed vigilantes to fight crime. He is nicknamed the While Knight. Bruce Wayne is struggling to find balance in his life and see’s Dent as an opportunity to take up the mantle to fight crime that his alter-ego Batman never could. He is called upon by Jim Gordon, now the new Police Commissioner, and Dent to take down a new threat to the city who wears make-up, has no real agenda except to become an agent of chaos and watch the world burn. The Joker presents not only a threat to the city but also starts a war with the mob bosses not for power or even pleasure – but to make a point how fickle and elementary they are compared to his ingenuity and creativity. The Joker plays a role in the death of a significant character which pushes Batman’s morality into the edge and transforms the White Knight, who lives by the law, into a man who takes the law into his own hands.

Like Batman Begins, duality plays a huge factor in The Dark Knight with the Joker representing everything the Batman isn’t and Dent projecting a physical representation of the same theme on his face after a rescue mission gone horribly wrong. Further examples can be seen in the questioning room where Batman tries to intimidate information out from the Joker, however the latter mocks the former claiming he has nothing to threaten the Joker with because he has nothing to lose where as the Batman has everything to lose. The film closes with a dramatic conclusion leaving Batman with the title of the ‘Dark Knight’ not because of his shadowy nature but because of the burden and responsibility he has to bear for the sake of Gotham and its well being.

Nolan chose the Joker for this movie on the basis that the Batman acted as a magnet for criminals and lunatics to roam the city. The only villain who could encompass that fully in his Bat-universe was the Joker, however during the story stage Nolan decided with Goyer that the Joker wouldn’t have an origin story. In fact this is toyed with in the film when the Joker tells two different versions of how he ended up with the scars on his face that are caricaturised with red paint depicting a deformed, tortured smile. In an interview with MTV, Nolan said “the Joker we meet in The Dark Knight is fully formed…To me, the Joker is an absolute. There are no shades of gray to him – maybe shades of purple. He’s unbelievably dark. He bursts in just as he did in the comics.” Nolan co-wrote the movie with brother Jonathan who visited the creators of the Joker and noted Batman: The Killing Joke as the most influential factor when writing the dialogue for the movie. Christopher Nolan also cited Michael Mann’s Heat as a structural basis of the film as the actions and motives of the three core characters affected not just those close to them but the city as a whole from the police officers, the mob, the public, the press, etc. Nolan wanted to bring breath, scope and consequences that would devastate a whole city and it made an impact unlike anything he had done before.

In The Dark Knight, the action sequences are intense and more hands on; to allow Batman more flexibility when fighting, Bruce Wayne pay a visit to Lucius Fox who helps develop the new Batsuit that separates fragments of the suit offering greater manoeuvrability. The new suit came with new toys which included the Batpod – a unibody motorcycle that was mocked up by Nolan and developed by Nathan Crowley who also designed the Tumbler for Batman Begins. Batman also acts as a detective using the clues left behind by the Joker only to be tricked into situations that force him to decide using his moral compass. The Joker quips with the Batman near the end of the film saying that they share a special spark, as if an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The most impressive and aesthetic difference this film had over the others was the use of IMAX cameras shooting four major segments include the opening bank robbery scene and the Dent capturing/car chase sequence. The scenes were far more immersive than any other 3D film released previously, solidifying Nolan’s argument that movies on films created a better quality then those projected digitally.

Questions about Nolan’s directorial skills were put aside when The Dark Knight was released in the summer of 2008 and earned over a billion dollars with a budget of $185 million dollars making it Nolan’s and Warner Bros. most successful Batman film to date. It earned eight Oscar nominations – winning two – and was the highest grossing movie in 2008. This was a dream come true for Nolan who later used that notion as the premise for his next project.

Before his high profile films like Batman Begins and Insomnia, Nolan wrote a treatment about dream stealers and presented it to Warner Bros. who liked the idea but much like The Prestige, Nolan felt he was inexperienced at the time to deal with the scope and its inherent complex storyline. After the success of The Dark Knight, Warner Bros gave Nolan unlimited resources to resurrect the project, now entitled Inception, back in early 2009. He was able to invite Executive Directors to read the script in his LA office – the struggle to sell his films like he experienced for Memento were now long behind him. After the project was green lit, Nolan’s immediate point of call was to cast Leonardo DiCaprio, who declined to work with the director in the past, as Dominic Cobb – the main protagonist for Inception which was also Nolan’s first original project since Following that wasn’t an adaptation from another film, novel or comic book.

A budget of $160 million was invested due to the film being shot in six different countries including Japan, Canada, France and the US – with heavy use of special effects which weren’t groundbreaking but were certainly arresting, awe inspiring and fantastical due to the laws of reality and physics being both manipulated and constructed.

Inception is the story of an architect who specialises in a specific kind of subconscious security. He meets a client and asks a question, “What is the most resilient parasite?” He continues to say, “An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities, transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why… I have to steal it.”  Dominic Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are business partners in corporate espionage who have developed a technology that allows them to infiltrate a person’s subconscious during their dream-state to extract sensitive information that could be valuable to others. Their skills impress a Japanese business tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe) who offers them a challenge to insert, rather than extract, an idea into the mind of his corporate rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and make him break up his father’s business empire which he become the heir to after the death of his father.

Cobb claims inserting an idea, called Inception, cannot be done however Saito promises Cobb a return ticket to the US and be with his children after he was charged for his wife’s murder. Cobb takes a trip to visit his father in Paris where he recruits a new student architect called Ariadne (Ellen Page), a forger named Eames (Tom Hardy) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) as the chemist who induces the dream serum and sedates the entire team, including Saito and Fischer, during the flight when the junior Fischer escorts his father’s body from Sydney to Los Angeles.

Unfortunately the Inception programme goes horribly wrong, primarily because Fischer had been trained by another security team to counter-attack any invasion into his mind but also because Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) has remained in his sub-conscious since they were in a state of limbo together for nearly 50 years and now sabotages all of Cobb’s missions wherever possible and will continue to do so until Cobb returns to Mal forever.

The main focus in Inception is of course the environment/layers the team create and the suspension/anti-gravity action sequences. An enormous amount of research went into creating the rules both the team and the premise of the film abide by. After interviewing dozens of volunteers Nolan was able to construct the ‘kick’ which is a falling sensation that is introduced to break your dream-state. It is why we see a lot of gravity defying stunts and elements that beat throughout the film. The complexity of the story is elevated further by the inclusion of multiple characters, each playing a role within the mission, which are ultimately separated to manage a layer – of which there are three – to ensure whatever happens in that layer actually happens and the team remain safe. Due to Cobb working through all the layers however, he brings with him a threat in the shape of his wife Mal, who creates an unusual conflict that is both internal and personal. Mal represents a demon Cobb would need to fight in order to conquer his fears for the sole purpose of seeing his children again. It is a risk he does not take likely for it is also possible that failure to tackle his fears would result in compromising the mission and the lives of his Inception team.

Each of the team members are encouraged to carry a totem of some kind – a small object only the carrier would know how to use to confirm the state they wake up is either a dream-state or reality. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top that spins and falls if he’s in the real world but the ending to Inception has left audiences puzzled how the story ends and it is a question Nolan has had to deal with more than any of his other films. While never directly answering the question, Nolan states that “The most important emotional thing about the top spinning at the end is that Cobb is not looking at it. He doesn’t care.”

But the audience certainly cared as Inception earned over $800 million globally and was universally admired by critics complimenting Nolan’s bold choice to release an untested espionage thriller unlike anything anyone has ever seen before as a summer release. It not only challenged the audience’s perception of reality but also engaged with them fully on a cinematic scale. Not since The Matrix Trilogy by the Wachowski brothers has a film made the dream world feel so compelling. It was also garnished with awards including four Academy Awards in the special effects and cinematography divisions and nominated in four other technical categories. Inception brought an opportunity for Nolan to work with a different set of exciting actors and brought many of them back for his latest feature The Dark Knight Rises – his third and final Batman project.

The cinema of Christopher Nolan is a remarkable one. The themes he explores are very unusual, often psychologically disturbing, but nonetheless unquestionably inviting. Many, if not all, of his protagonists are flawed characters which can technically be considered as anti-heroes for none of them have a mission to do good and save those in distress. They act by necessity because the situation they are put in compels them to act that way. For Shelby in Memento it’s the death of his wife, for Bordon it is to compete against Angier to become the greatest magician alive in The Prestige, for Cobb it is to risk the lives of many to see only his children and return home in Inception. Even for the likes of Bruce Wayne who didn’t really choose to be Batman but his tragic circumstances of his parents death have forced him to become a vigilante that hides in the shadows –  unlike his contemporaries likes Iron Man, Spiderman or even Superman who proudly flock among their citizens in their respective cities. All of Nolan’s characters question their morality, ethics, identity and eventually their purpose. Why are they here? What are they doing? Can they make a difference? We realise that they can – with unsettling results. Characters like the Joker shock us to our very core while others like Mal Cobb reflect those hidden fears we choose to forget and try to retain in our deepest, darkest places in the human psyche.

The skill to being a great director isn’t just about telling a good story, it’s choosing the right cast of actors to tell the story for you. Nolan has worked with the likes of Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy more than three films confirming if they are able to project the characters in his mind – why go for someone different. The case remains the same for the team behind the camera for the likes of Cinematographer Wally Pfister who has worked on every single Nolan film since Memento back in 2000, earning a number of Oscar nominations and eventually winning for Inception in 2011. Legendary music composer Hans Zimmer has worked on all three Batman films, as well as Inception, which coincidentally have been some of his best work to date. His long standing producing partner, and significant other, Emma Thomas, with whom he has four children, has been with him since they met at UCL where she produced one of his original short movies – Doodlebug in 1997.

With only twelve professional years in the film industry, Nolan has achieved such acclaim very few have been able to match. Not since Steven Spielberg entered the industry has a talent radicalised the director’s chair and made people want to visit the cinema again. In comparison, Spielberg at Nolan’s current age had only reached Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on his CV – the likes of Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park were at least another four years away.

His future projects include returning another DC comic character to the screen – Superman, which he’ll act as Producer while giving the directorial helm to Zack Snyder with David S. Goyer in charge of the screenplay. Man of Steel will be released summer of 2013. His beloved project for Howard Hughes has been shelved indefinitely with Nolan talking Empire magazine claiming he “managed to find another wealthy, quirky character who’s orphaned at a young age”.

Nolan has yet to receive the coveted Best Director award at the Oscars but perhaps like Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings Trilogy – the overwhelming and thoroughly deserved accolade could be accomplished if he is nominated at the Academy Award ceremony next February.

Often referred to as a quiet director, who observes rather than interferes,  he fuels himself with Earl Grey, which he carries around in his flask, and has an answer for every little detail should one of his actors approaches him with a query. Though still young, Nolan is a creative force like no other and has yet to disappoint with any of his past projects proving talent does exist in the world of cinema. Even if he decided to retire tomorrow – he would leave behind a rich catalogue of films that not only have dramatically dictated popular culture but left a legacy for future directors to reference and enjoy. Thankfully Christopher Nolan has many more films to make and states, “I think audiences get too comfortable and familiar in today’s movies. They believe everything they’re hearing and seeing. I like to shake that up.”


 Written by Vaskar S. Kayastha



Vaskar S. Kayastha is Cult Hub’s contributing film writer focusing on blockbuster movies as well as independent and world cinema. Vaskar graduated with a BA (Hons) in English which focused on the Classics, Medieval, Shakespearean and Ancient Literature. He also has a keen interest in Photography, History, Technology, Theology, Poetry, Ballet, Art, riding his Vespa and eating Gelato. Vaskar is also the Creative Director for TheStyleColumn - a portal for showcasing talented new fashion designers as well as covering global fashion weeks. Find out more about Vaskar on his blog or follow him on twitter.

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