With The Dark Knight Rises upon us, we defend Christopher Nolan's conservative side.
Christopher Nolan is often thought of as something of an innovator and narrative ingénieur – a conjurer of interweaving, elliptical stories that confound and dazzle audiences in equal measures. But beyond the hype and hyperbole is a modern filmmaker of remarkably traditional taste.
Though Nolan has become most well known for his penchant of manipulating linear time frames and conventional cinematic space, to obsess over his story telling methods is to undermine the many skills he offers as a filmmaker.
Even though his most avid admirers will somewhat concede that his technician's eye for filmmaking can result in his films feeling cold and emotionless, look closer and you’ll find someone obsessively fascinated with the traditions of cinema and its techniques. Working in a fashion more befitting a filmmaker of a preceding generation, we should consider Nolan not as someone who is reinventing cinema, but rather a traditionalist whose philosophy is preserving some of its greatest tricks.
When looking at some of Nolan’s extraordinary action sequences, one realises how much of a proponent he is of in camera stunts and effects. Many will point to the hamster wheel in Inception (though that itself is an homage to Kubrick’s 2001), but looking at the chase sequences in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight you’ll find echoes of The French Connection and Ronin's elaborate live choreography. Nolan's stance on the use of post-production visual effects is simple: If he can shoot in-camera, he’ll it shoot in-camera.
A distaste for second units also highlights Nolan’s ambition to shoot every single frame himself, while also shedding an added expense. And despite the fanfare elevating him as a modern day auteur, Nolan hasn’t abused his status and is always on time and under budget. Looking back over film history, directors who have similarly had a creative carte blanche on their projects have not always been as disciplined.
Take, for example, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Bloated and well over schedule, it sunk United Artists despite Cimino’s previous success with The Deer Hunter. Giving $250 million to Nolan for the conclusion of his Dark Knight trilogy was little risk; after all Batman is an established and bankable franchise. But giving him $160 million and final cut for his contemporary sci-fi heist thriller Inception certainly was. What was to stop it being Warner Bros.' Heaven’s Gate?
Though the halcyon days of big Hollywood studios funding maverick filmmakers who plundered their money on booze and blow are long gone, Nolan’s position and stature amongst the industry is as close as it comes to mirroring those times. Only Kubrick, who successfully demanded complete autonomy, can be drawn on for a comparison when it came to the faith that established Hollywood studios showed in allowing him to go off and make the film he envisioned. However big and whatever the cost.
Fending off the studio’s wishes seems to be another of Nolan’s great attributes and the current change in the industry from celluloid to digital is a change that Nolan is personally resisting. In an interview with the Directors' Guild of America Nolan let it be known how much he favours the technology that has lasted for over a hundred years. He has even gone further in proving that film is not an obsolete format by using larger imaging IMAX technology. Remarkable, considering the way in which the current crop tent pole movies have been standardised as 3D products. Instead he is pushing for a return to a cinema with a true visual impact.
Large image 70mm formats are hardly new and have been available in numerous incarnations since the 1920s. Though CinemaScope, VistaVision and Cinerama played around with blowing up 35mm images in the 1950s, Nolan has stayed true and honest to the vastly superior 70mm 15 perf IMAX photography as opposed to the Digital Media Remastering (DMR) technique that upconverts conventional formats to IMAX. Like Steven Spielberg it seems, Nolan is still devoted to the magic of passing light through each single frame of film. It may be nostalgia for what is a dying art, but it’s also a belief that this is the best way.
Nolan’s favouring of long time collaborators has also helped maintain his working philosophy. His regular cinematographer Wally Pfister – the Pressburger to his Powell – has shot all of films since Following and has staunchly supported Nolan against the use of 3D, while production designer Nathan Crowley, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin, editor Lee Smith, composers Hans Zimmer and David Julyan, and most importantly, his longest standing collaborator – his Alma Reville – producer and wife Emma Thomas, have all been on board for numerous films, ensuring a consistency of style and purpose.
To some, Nolan appears too obsessed with craft and process. In truth though, Nolan’s technical skill and knowledge shows the high level of artistry he possesses as a filmmaker. What Nolan has proven is that set pieces, production design and specialist photography are all a part of the craft of filmmaking. To Nolan the architecture of an action sequence is as important as a simple set-up.
One day we might find him making a 3D movie, working in digital rather than celluloid, and doing away with the suit and tie, but until something convinces him otherwise, the philosophy stays the same.