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