Christopher Nolan: I want the audience to feel my movies not understand them

With Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas

With Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas

With his latest movie, Interstellar, opening to $130 million globally over the weekend, Christopher Nolan has retained a clean record of no box office flops. After two years of anxious waiting and high expectations, his fans flocked to the cinemas to be dazzled by his magical visuals and be challenged by his new mind-bending story. Some will return for more viewing in order to decode and demystify this intractable celestial puzzle, as they have done with the director’s previous movies, such as Memento, the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception.

I first met Nolan in 1996 at the University College London, where he studied English Literature. We were both members of the College’s film society, where we taught ourselves filmmaking. Having been making movies since the age of 8 with an 8mm camera gifted to him by his uncle, Nolan was the most knowledgeable in and most passionate about cinema among the society’s members. He made several shorts and one feature before he embarked on making his first known feature, Following, in 1997, following his graduation from college.

Failing to obtain any funding or support from the British film industry, Nolan worked as a cameraman at a media training firm during the week, and laboured on Following on weekends. He spent 6 months rehearsing his actors and 6 months more shooting the film. Financial constraints forced him to use black/white film reversals that he collected free of charge from productions companies in Soho. He set up the lighting and operated the camera by himself. Most the filming was carried out in the streets of London without a license. His then-girlfriend, Emma Thomas, who has produced all his movies, and a few members of the film society were his only crew.

Like Nolan’s previous films, Following was sneered at by the British film establishment, prompting Nolan to move to Hollywood, armed with a copy of Following and a new screenplay, Memento, which told the story of an amnesiac in reverse, from the end to the beginning. Within less than a year, the 28 year-old aspiring director found a production company that agreed to make Memento for $5 million. With such a limited budget, Nolan had to forgo his own salary.

In spite the enthusiastic reception from critics and festival goers, Memento could not find a distributor, forcing the producing company to distribute it in-house. Thanks to a word of mouth, the film was a hit in the box office, grossing over $45 million, in addition to winning multiple awards and gaining an Oscar nomination for Nolan in the best original screenplay category.

Thanks to its innovative structure and unique narrative, Memento has become a landmark in cinema, and its commercial and critical success opened Hollywood’s gates for Nolan, who followed it with movies that have yielded hitherto over $3.5 billion in the box office and awed the critics and audiences with their originality and intelligence. Nolan proved that one can make Hollywood blockbusters, imbued with suspense, thrills, action and special effects, without compromising on artistic quality or substance.

Unlike mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, Nolan’s movies transport us to a different artistic domain made of complex plots and dark characters, and delve into complex scientific and philosophical issues, that challenge us to fathom and understand. But when I met him last week at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, he  told me that he wants the audience to feel his movies rather than understand them.

“I understand the risk of losing the audience, and it’s a risk I am prepared to take,” Nolan says. “But I think that if you can engage people emotionally, they are much more likely to follow the arc of the story, than if you engage them purely intellectually and you try to ask them to understand a puzzle. Audiences are capable of understanding anything if they are interested. And to me, the interest is never intellectual, it’s always got to be about character; it’s always got to be about an interesting emotional situation, an interesting narrative situation.”

And that was what he did in Interstellar. Although, the film seems like a space adventure and  a study of the laws of Relativity, gravity and Quantum mechanics, he insists that it’s about a father leaving his children in order to fulfil his duty.

The father is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who embarks on an intergalactic odyssey through a wormhole to search for a new habitable planet for humanity, when planet Earth becomes uninhabitable due to persistent deadly dust storms.

“This is a simple story,” Nolan stresses. “But the experience of it is big and rich and I think a lot is going on. And so for me, it’s that rollercoaster ride aspect and that’s where the emotional aspect comes in and I want people to feel the emotion of it.”

Indeed, it’s a simple story on an emotional level, but it’s clouded with advanced physics theories and underpinned with scientific and philosophical discussions, that only someone versed in science could follow and fathom. “In truth, every film that I have done, I have really wanted to try and layer density into it, a lot of different things into it, so you can watch it in different ways and if you are interested to come back and see it again, there would be something more for you to find. I have years and years to work on this film, and you have only 3 hours to watch it. So I should be putting more density in, I should be doing more things that you can’t pick up on the first time. We found it’s a very good way to increase box office and boost DVD sales,” he laughs.

Interestingly, in spite of relying on scientific theories and phenomenons to tell his stories that often explore the intricate mysteries of our minds and universe, Nolan’s interest doesn’t lie in science. “I am interested in patterns and shapes and geometrical relationships and I don’t view that as necessarily something scientific and it can be artistic in the same way,” he expounds.

In fact, he had never discussed his movies or consulted with scientists until he became involved in Interstellar, which is based on the work of renown scientist, Kip Thorne, who acted as a consultant during the making of the movie. What truly interests Nolan is the crossover between science and art.

“Interstellar was for me a perfect opportunity to work with a scientist, listen to how he achieves his ends, and explain to him our way of doing it, which is to create a story and explore an idea, in a purely hypothetical sense of flight, well what if this happened or what if that happened?”

It’s evident from his movies though that Nolan is fascinated by time and its relationship with different situations, as if it were one of his characters. In Interstellar, time is the antagonist that the characters have to confront as it stretches and shrinks from one place to another in the vast universe according to the laws of General Relativity, causing a generational chaos.

“All the films I have done really have had some odd relationship with time, usually in just a structural sense, in that I have always been interested in the subjectivity of time and how it feels different to everybody and feels different to you depending on your situation. And what was fun for me to come to Interstellar is this is the first film I have made where that’s literally true, and it’s literally a part of the story. It’s not just my conceit or my construction on how the narrative could work and it really is what’s going on, because of the laws of relativity and all of these complicated things, but what it means is, you can test the characters in fascinating ways.”

Indeed, the impact of time yields the most heart-wrenching emotions from the characters, particularly when Cooper finds that his children have outgrown him when he returns from a 3- hour exploratory excursion on a planet that has a more potent gravity than earth and hence each hour there amounts to 7 years back home.

There is no doubt that Interstellar is yet another testament to Nolan’s cinematic genius and his limitless and unconstrained imagination. Like his preceding movies, he was able to ignite our emotions, provoke our minds and challenge our cerebral capacity to demystify his unyielding puzzles.

The 44-year-old director admits that he deliberately seeks out challenging themes. “I want to try and express something that I don’t know how to express,” he says. “And that is about dealing with the impossible, that is about dealing with either imagery or structural ideas or narrative points of view that you can’t articulate to begin with and you can only really articulate through the film itself.”

Ideally Nolan strives to make movies that he wouldn’t be able to discuss and explain to someone who hasn’t seen the movie. “That to me is what pure cinema is about, and that’s the thing we are all sort of striving for, is to make a film that has to be experienced as a film, to answer the questions you have by feeling them rather than thinking them, I guess,” he concludes.

Follow me on twitter @husamasi  /  Facebook


Is Johnny Depp to blame for Transcendance box office failure? – interview

with Johnny Depp

The dismal performance of Johnny Depp’s starrer “Transcendence” in the US box office over the weekend heralded the 4th flop in a row for the Hollywood superstar. The $100 million production opened with just $11 million. The actor’s other movies that failed to deliver in the box office were: The Rum Diary (2011), Dark Shadows (2012) and The Lone Ranger (2013). Has Depp’s star power waned or is he making bad choices?

Directed by Wally Pfister, who shot Chris Nolan’s Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy , “Transcendance” has a high concept and explores pressing issues about our society and the repercussion of its reliance on technology from a new moralistic perspective. Hence, any star, including Depp, is bound to succumb to the temptation of being part of such a promising endeavour, particularly when it’s supervised by Christopher Nolan, Hollywood’s master of “big ideas” movies.

Depp inhabits the character of Dr. Caster, an artificial intelligence scientist whose consciousness is uploaded to the internet by his wife (played by Rebecca Hall) when he is assassinated by a radical anti-Technology group. Soon, his consciousness becomes viral, multiplying uncontrollably and causing havoc to all aspects of daily life.

Reading the script for the first time, Depp was captivated by Dr. Caster’s character. “Dr. Caster is just a sort of a very normal guy, who happened to be a brilliant scientist, but his normal human behaviour was until a certain point,” he tells me when I talk to him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “And then it’s about growing within the computer. Regenerating that person back together in the computer and mapping out the times of how old is he now in the computer, how savvy is he, how collected is he? and the ambiguity that is involved.

“So, I wanted people to question whether he was good or whether he was bad. I suppose that was it. I thought there was a great love story in it as well.”

Unfortunately, the love story that he refers to, between Dr. Caster and his wife, was not well served in the movie and fell unconvincingly flat, in spite of the valiant efforts of Hall to feign affection to his ubiquitous fuzzy image on computer monitors.

Artistically the film has failed to deliver, prompting critics to pan it (only 19 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes). But audiences are often indifferent to critics opinions when it comes to blockbusters like “Transcendance” that provide them with the necessary ingredients for pop entertainment namely a superstar and ample amount of impressive special effects, which begs the question why didn’t they flock to see it?

It has often been stated that since the late nineties, film stars don’t necessarily open movies anymore. Last year alone, we witnessed massive star-studded flops, even the king of summer blockbusters, Will Smith failed to save “After Earth” from from crashing, and hot Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx couldn’t save “White House Down” from drowning. And one of the biggest duds was delivered by none other than Depp himself in the shape of “The Lone Ranger” which crumbled in its opening weekend.

Last year, a studio executive told me: “Kids who are playing video games don’t care about stars; they want to see monsters fighting monsters.”

The executive, however, was proven wrong a few weeks later, when “Pacific Rim,” which boasted some of the biggest giant robots swinging battleships around, sank into an ocean of oblivion like its defeated alien monsters. Evidently, computer-generated monsters and dazzling effects on their own are no longer alluring to an increasingly sophisticated audiences, who demand more than just light and thunder.

Perhaps kids don’t care about stars anymore but they evidently care about their favourite characters. The Marvel Comic-based thriller “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has amassed a worldwide total of $585.6 million in the last three weeks. Other such sequels and prequels featuring familiar characters made similar splashes in the box office last year too. Most notably “Iron Man 3,” which grossed a whopping $1.2 billion worldwide.

In fact, sequels and reboots seldom lose any money, if at all, albeit they often don’t feature big stars and if they do, they masquerade them in elaborate costumes and suits. Henry Cavill wasn’t well-known let alone a star, but his playing Superman last year did not hurt the box office for the “Man of Steel,” which grossed $668 million globally.

Nonetheless, Hollywood will continue to court stars for its blockbusters, because although they don’t seem to pull audiences in, they certainly push movies out. And it’s still easier to promote and sell a picture with a familiar name on the marquee. The stars have become an insurance policy.

Having witnessed the slaughter of many of their original blockbusters last year, Hollywood studios are gearing up to deluge the market with a flood of sequels and reboots this season, starting with “The Amazing Spider-man 2” this month, followed by “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Godzilla,” “Transformers: Edge of Extinction,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Planes: Fires and Rescue,” and “Expendables 3.”

It’s hard to blame Hollywood for embracing familiarity and eschewing originality. After all, Hollywood is a business, and it can’t survive without producing a profit. This year, Sony pictures succumbed to the pressure of its investors and cut its production slate from 25 to 18 movies, due to costly flops last year, such as “White House down,” “Elysium,” and “After Earth.”

In this kind of environment, Warners Bros deserves a kudos for taking the risk in releasing “Transcendance,” and for offering another highly anticipated original “Interstellar” later in the year from director Christopher Nolan. After all, no one can predict the success of movie from the outset, and hence throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at one should not be taken lightly.

And charging Depp with failing to open the movie is absurd, though he admits that playing a role like Dr. Castor, whereby he had to sit in a box and deliver lines in a deadpan face is not his forte. “I feel much more comfortable in comedy but I also feel much more comfortable hiding if you will, because there are more possibilities,” the 50-year-old actor says. “I mean you give the director eight, nine, twelve ways of timings and things like that to go with a scene.”

That was perhaps what his fans were missing in this movie: his charming eccentricity. But they will get that soon in his upcoming caper movie “Mortdecai,” which he seems to be very proud of.

“Mortdecai has something very unique and special,” he enthuses. “It’s very different from anything I have done before. We haven’t seen that type of caper movie for a number of years. So I am really looking forward to that one.”

Who knows whether Mortdecai will resurrect his box-office power or not, but we can all be sure that the next “Pirate of the Caribbean,” sequel, which is currently scheduled for 2016 release, will most likely do.

Christopher Nolan promises new immersive technology in Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s films have made cinemas millions of pounds, hence it was apt to host  a lunch in his honour at thisyear’s Cinema Con in Vegas, where theatre owners gather to learn the studios’s offering for the coming year.

Speaking at the event, the Hollywood director was reluctant to share much information about his latest epic Interstellar, which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, other than describing it: “using interstellar travel to go to other places you couldn’t reach beyond normal space travel.”

Starring Matthew McConaughey and Sir Michael Caine, Interstellar, which was shot in practical locations in order to give the actors a tangible experience, is in the early stages of editing and will be released in the US November 17th.

Having shot all his films including Interstellar on celluloid, Nolan reiterated his loyalty to the old format and his disenchantment with digital filming, which he insists still lags behind in terms of resolution and contrast latitude. He also rejected the 3D format, suggesting that it’s not fit for an immersive cinematic experience, though he praised Baz Luhrman’s  work in last year’s The Great Gatsby.

Known for his non linear narrative structures, the 43-year-old director said that linear story telling was imposed on film in order to fit it for TV viewing. “Novels and plays were told nonlinearly since the days of the Greeks, so why not film?” he wondered.  Before TV, he said, filmmakers made films to be seen in cinemas only, which enabled them to tell stories in non linear format as Orson Welles did in Citizen Cain. Although he appreciates the evolution of TV, the small screen format is not something he wants to pursue.

The director of the Dark Knight Trilogy also promised new technologies that would enhance cinema goers’ experience beyond what they achieve in watching TV at home. But he wouldn’t divulge further other than that Interstellar will have a unique approach to sound mixing.

A Superman-Batman movie is in the works

Having done reboots, sequels and prequels of Superman and Batman, Warner Bros, the studio behind the superheroes franchises, is going to pair them up in a new movie. The announcement was made at the Comic Con show in San Diego by the studio and the director, Zack Snyder, who has recently directed Man of Steel.

Since its June 14 release, Man of Steel has grossed $622 million worldwide. Last year, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises topped $1 billion in global box office. With such glowing numbers, the studio is confident that combining the two superheros in one movie will be a glorious success in the box office.

Such a formula has already made magic in the box office for Marvel’s Avengers, which featured Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk and Thor. The 2012 Disney release amassed over $1.5 billion worldwide to become the third all time box office grossers, after Titanic and Avatar.

Zack Snyder is currently working on the story with David S. Goyer, who penned The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel. Production is expected to begin in 2014, with an anticipated release in summer 2015.

The movie is yet to be cast, for Christian Bale has said that he would not return to Batman, but Henry Cavill will reprise the Superman role.

“I’m so excited to begin working again with Henry Cavill in the world we created, and I can’t wait to expand the DC Universe in this next chapter,” Snyder said. “Let’s face it, it’s beyond mythological to have Superman and our new Batman facing off, since they are the greatest superheroes in the world.”

Christopher Nolan, who has his hands full with Interstellar, will only act as an executive producer alongside his producer wife, Emma Thomas.