Can Nolan save the blockbuster?
Interstellar director shares his vision of where big-budget movies are heading
There’s a sense with a big movie that everybody has some kind of responsibility to play by the rules. And I think that’s complete bull.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN DIRECTOR
To find out what it feels like to be a character in a Christopher Nolan movie, just talk to Christopher Nolan. His films imagine the world as a grand, cosmic puzzle, waiting to be solved by someone with enough wits to make the parts click — from Memento’s Leonard Shelby, groping through the fog of his faulty shortterm memory as he tries to reconstruct the murder of his wife, to Cobb, the dream-building corporate spy nesting mazes within mazes in Inception. But after speaking with the director for a while, you realize these apples haven’t fallen all that far from the tree.
“I always wonder if somebody’s going to start forging lost movies,” he says. “You know, go off into the desert with a camera, and come back with a masterpiece of the past.”
We’re talking about Erich von Stroheim’s lost nine-hour, 42-reel epic, Greed, which was screened only once, in 1924, before being pruned to a little more than two hours by MGM. Most of the extra footage subsequently vanished and Von Stroheim was heartbroken, disowning the studio’s cut.
“God, what a tragedy it doesn’t exist,” says Nolan. “But maybe one day, someone will find it. These things do happen.” Nolan is far from the only director to obsess over the director’s cut of Greed, but he’s the first one I know of to moot the idea of forging it. The idea is somehow totally insane and totally logical at once: it would be a film that everybody would want to see, but you would never be able to take credit for it.
We’ve arrived at the subject of faked masterpieces via a wormhole. Nolan, 44, lives in Los Angeles and is in town to talk about Interstellar, his ninth feature but the first to receive an honest-to-goodness awards-season push. It’s a film set variously on a parched future-Earth, in deep space, on a frozen other world and in the gap between dimensions, with a key sequence cribbed “completely and explicitly” from Greed’s climactic struggle in Death Valley.
But it was the non- appearance of Nolan’s The Dark Knight on the Oscars’ best picture shortlist in 2009 that prompted the Academy to expand its list of nominees to 10 — so that it might include, as has been wryly noted, films that people actually go to see. Nolan thinks that a handful of recent big-budget films, particularly the James Bond outing Skyfall and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, are helping rehabilitate the blockbuster from its continuing drift into the realm of the crash-bang-wallop. He says he’s been “feeling a shift,” and the reception of Gravity last year — seven Oscars, six Baftas — has been “encouraging.”
Born in London and educated at Haileybury school, Hertfordshire, he is so well- spoken he’s almost newsreaderly.
He also carries himself like a successful businessman, which, of course, he is. There were mutterings that Interstellar, which is as intrigued by the sentimental as it is the metaphysical, might be the film to trip him up, but its worldwide takings have just passed $600-million (US).
A film to which Interstellar has been likened, both regularly and inevitably, is 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I put it like this: you can’t make a science- fiction film pretending that 2001 doesn’t exist,” he says. “But I think 2001’s relationship with humanity is more philosophical, more abstract. I wanted to embrace the metaphysics, but relate it to something more obviously human, like love.”
As such, when Nolan started work on Interstellar in early 2013, he and his screenwriter brother Jonathan extensively reworked the script, which Jonathan had originally penned for Steven Spielberg in 2007.
To keep Interstellar grounded, he worked hard with his director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema, to make everything look as down-toearth as possible. The film’s spaceship, The Endurance, was shot “like a Honda rather than a Lamborghini.” The alien planets were filmed on location in Iceland so the cast could be “inspired by the environment.”
He found the formality and precision of making Batman Begins, the first film in his Dark Knight trilogy, draining, and vowed that, from The Dark Knight onward, his sets would be “playgrounds of spontaneity.”
He was stung by the recent furor over Interstellar’s sound design, when some moviegoers complained on social media that passages of dialogue were drowned out by the film’s sound effects and score.
He is clearly irritated by the idea that his decision to mix the sound in what he describes as an “impressionistic” way has been regarded by some as a mistake.
“Small films avail themselves of these kinds of techniques all the time and everyone’s fine with it,” he says. “But there’s a sense with a big movie that everybody has some kind of responsibility to play by the rules. And I think that’s complete bull.”
It’s a strange thought: Nolan the maze-builder, the maker of riddles, seeing himself as someone who works outside the lines.
“Oh, God, no,” he says, when I put it to him. “Breaking rules isn’t interesting. It’s making up new ones that keeps things exciting.”