I love me some Christopher Nolan. No other director has so consistently blown me away in the past decade, that's for sure. From Memento to The Dark Knight to Inception, he's challenged the way movies are made and even told, and has done this while taking the brave stance that he won't dumb his work down to appease the lowest common denominator as is so often the case in Hollywood. Last weekend, at the always entertaining and star-studded Santa Barbara International Film Festival, he was feted as a "Modern Master" for these accomplishments. He answered a flurry of questions, both on the red carpet and on stage, and what follows are some of the highlights of the evening
On how it feels to see a video retrospective of his filmmaking career:
"A little strange. Especially since seeing [those clips] all together shows all the things I repeat in films. It's interesting to see the connections other people make when watching your films that you don't make when making them."
On how making movies has changed for him since his first indie movie, Following, more than a decade ago:
"For me, in all honesty, the process has stayed the same. I try to concentrate on what you're seeing in the frame and on the screen."
On how he began making movies:
"Yeah, my dad had a camera he let me and my brother borrow. We made films with Legos first, then, after Star Wars, sci-fi epics imaginatively titled Space Wars. I kept doing that, and the films kept getting bigger and bigger."
Was there every any real possibility he could have followed a different career path?
"It's really the only thing I've ever wanted to do. I've just always found a way to do it with whatever means were available to me at the time."
Is it true Following, his black-and-white, 16mm film noir debut, only cost $16,000?
"Yeah, depending on the exchange rate. We spent £3,000 at the time. We were all working full-time jobs, so I figured that, if we got together on Saturdays, we could shoot five minutes of film, three of which was used. So it took a year to make the film that way."
On how Memento, one of the most mind-blowing indie movies of the last decade, became his follow-up to Following:
"I was finishing Following when I moved to Los Angeles. [My wife] had already moved out there. So I drove cross-country to meet her with my brother [Jonathan (who's gone on to co-write most of Nolan's movies)], who told me a short story he wanted to write. I immediately said, 'That's a movie. Can I use it?' He said absolutely and promptly finished the story three years later. By then, I had written the script and gotten it to Paramount."
In Memento, the protagonist has suffered a traumatic brain injury that prevents him from forming new memories. Consequently, his story is told backwards, from the end of the movie to the start where his character suffered said head injury. Did Nolan expect this unique structure would spin a lot of heads?
"I didn't at all. Amnesia is such a part of film noir. I just saw it as part of a movie I wanted to see. So I didn't anticipate how much it would spin some heads. I never anticipated that at all."
Does he like spinning heads?
"Well, I like having my head spin when I see a film. I hope for something that makes me see things differently."
Nolan is also one of the few directors working in Hollywood today who refuses to dumb his stories down in any way, even when it means audiences might have to work harder than they'd like (like Inception). What does he have to say on the subject?
"So far, I've always had the idea that I make the film I want to see. And I thought, 'I'm not a strange individual [with strange tastes].' I think all too often audiences are underestimated. But at the same time, I know it's hard for studios to take chances on unique ideas. Often you look at the biggest movies and they're all interesting, unique ideas."
"Yeah, intimidating cast. Incredible to work with, Al especially. When I told Guy [Pearce] that I was going with Al, he said, 'He's the best actor there is.' And I was like, 'I wasn't nervous before, so thanks.' But I found Al to be the most incredible actor to watch on set. He just is a legend and you have to pinch yourself the first couple days you work with him. I can't say enough about his technique."
And Robin Williams, he was playing a pretty intense character, a homicidal maniac in many respects. Was that seriousness reflected in how he conducted himself on set?
"No, he was very much Robin Williams. He likes to perform. He could see I wasn't receptive to his comedy between takes, but he was always entertaining the crew. Then I'd say 'action,' and he'd just go right into what he was doing. I've seen his performance many times, and it's scarily real. There are moments when you don't think he was acting at all. He's an incredible talent. It was so interesting to watch these two actors who come from such different approaches and energy."
Nolan's next movie was Batman Begins. On what drew him to the character:
"I think I was interested in Batman because he's not a superhero with superpowers. He's an ordinary man who does a lot of push-ups. His money is his superpower, but he's a real man driven by film noir motivations that I love -- revenge. There are so many things you can do with that range. We're about to begin our third film, simply because I find him such an interesting character."
On how he became involved with the movie:
"Well, my agent called me up and said Warner Bros. knew they wanted to do something with Batman, but they didn't know what. Darren Aronofsky had been developing Batman: Year One for a while, but wanted it to be rated R and Warner Bros. didn't think they could do that. When I thought about what hadn't been done, it was an epic telling of his origin story. What I pitched the studio was what Richard Donner had done with Superman in '78. Tim Burton had done his version [Batman] in his own idiosyncratic, gothic way, but the origin story of an ordinary world with Batman, this extraordinary character, in it, is what interested me."
On how he knew Christian Bale was right for the part of Bruce Wayne/Batman:
"I liked Christian a lot in American Psycho. He was mesmerizing and terrifying. But if you watch it again, you realize how funny it is. How funny he is in it. I had a great conversation with him at a restaurant. He'd only drink coffee, no food. I didn't notice it immediately, but you could see his ribs from behind. He had lost all his weight for The Machinist. I left the meeting thinking, 'This guy is Bruce Wayne.' He understood incredible dedication to something. My big fear about him was that he'd want to be this 90-pound Batman. But he got the weight back on, then muscle. It was like a 100-pound swing."
Batman Begins, like so many of Nolan's movies, involved considerable special effects, but very little CGI. Why is that?
"We try to do as much in camera as we can. Even if there will be effects enhancement, we try to still get a lot in the frame. I think the audience has an innate ability to tell the difference between what's shot and what's animated. I don't think that's ever going to go away."
Did he always plan on making sequels to the movie?
"Not immediately. We saw Batman Begins as a stand-alone film. The Joker card was just an exciting way to say it could carry on. But as the film came out, I just became fascinated by seeing that character in this world."
On casting Heath Ledger, who died before The Dark Knight was released, as the Joker:
"I think we had left ourselves with a pretty interesting jumping off point [with Batman Begins]. What was fascinating is that I got to cast Heath without him having read the script. His interest was based on conversations about the character of the Joker and what he would relate to as a force of anarchy. I watched the movie again recently, as we get ready to go into the third, and I really think the second half was a white-knuckle ride just driven by the unpredictability of Heath. What he figured out about the Joker in his performance that we never discussed is that unpredictability. You never knew where his performance was going to go, what he was going to do next."
On how Team Nolan came up with the story for the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises:
"Lots of banging my head against the wall. [Laughs] No, we've been working through it for a long time. We're about 12 weeks away from shooting, and we'll start shooting in May."
On the casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman:
"Selena Kyle. Yeah, that's going to be fun."
As Selena Kyle, not her alter-ego Catwoman?
[He answers with closed-lips, unwilling to say more, though he is willing to laugh about his silence]
On why he had to come back for a third Batman movie:
"I think really, yeah, it was about finishing the story. For me, it's all about endings. How does it end? I think with Bruce Wayne's story, that's what's interesting."
On adding producer of the new Superman movie to his resume:
"Yeah, it's going to be good. What I've done with that is hire a great director to take it on. Hopefully that's the end of my worries. I look forward to sitting back and seeing how it turns out."
Does he ever just want to try something easy, like making a movie with Jennifer Aniston?
[Bemused pause] "Not really."
On what drew him to the world of Inception, nominated this year for a Best Picture Academy Award:
"I wanted to capture what I love in grand-scale action movies, particularly the James Bond movies. We had been ripping off Bond in the Batman movies for a while, but nobody ever called us out. We throw in a snowmobile chase in Inception, and everyone calls me on it."