The Three Acts of Christopher Nolan
How an indie director goes big while keeping touch with his roots.
By Joaquin Lowe
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk just opened at the top of the box office, resting comfortably alongside other summer blockbusters like Alien: Covenant, War For The Planet of the Apes, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. But Nolan’s current place in the pantheon of high-grossing directors belies his fierce commitment to visual style and thematic substance that he's carried through from his years as an independent filmmaker.
In 2006, riding high on his first big-budget film—Batman Begins, which revitalized the much-loved superhero franchise—Nolan took time before a sequel to direct The Prestige. Starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, it tells the story of two feuding magicians at the end of the 19th century. In the film, John Cutter (Michael Caine), a mentor and assistant to both magicians, outlines the three parts of a trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. In the pledge, the magician shows the audience something ordinary. In the turn the magician takes that ordinary something and makes it extraordinary. The third part, the prestige, is the climax of the trick. It’s the part that astonishes the audience. It’s the part that everyone leaves the theater talking about. Nolan’s career has so far mirrored that same pattern.
Nolan started making home movies as a kid, and continued to film small projects as he matriculated through school. At University College London, he was president of the school’s film society and produced two shorts. But after graduating, he had a tough time breaking through the ranks of the British film industry.
His first full-length success came in 1998, when he wrote and directed Following. The film follows a young struggling writer who falls into the habit of tailing people around London. What begins as a curiosity quickly becomes a fetishistic need. The writer forms a friendship with a petty burglar who performs robberies not only for the money, but also for the thrill of interfering with other people’s lives. And soon, our young protagonist falls down a rabbit hole of crime and lust.
Nolan and his close circle of friends filmed Following on weekends over the course of a few months, and the effort paid off, earning the director the attention of New Market Films and a budget of $4.5 million for his next project: Memento, based on a short story by Nolan’s brother, who has since proven a constant collaborator. The story follows a man (Guy Pearce) unable to form short-term memories as he pursues the person who raped and murdered his wife. Memento was an indie revelation, a critical darling and commercial success that garnered Nolan the attention of major studios.
These two films mark the beginning of Nolan’s rise to prominence. But while they share many things in common with his current directorial habits, they also differ greatly in tone and style.
Nolan has always worn his influences on his sleeve. But those influences have shifted as Nolan worked on different films. Following was shot completely on 16mm black and white film, and the tone is stark. The characters are out of sync with the world. The normal nine-to-five seems non-existent. Instead, the world feels full of twenty-something slackers looking to get by without ever joining the mainstream. The style of Following (and in a more psychedelic way, Memento) is a mash-up of late-90’s slackerdom and French New Wave. Following, especially, seems to fit nicely between Godard’s Breathless and Man Bites Dog.
Moving into Hollywood blockbusters such as Batman Begins and personal passion projects like The Prestige mark the second phase of Nolan’s career. Batman represents an extreme departure from the director’s humbler roots. As a franchise, it’s too entrenched to be completely reinvented, even by someone with the strength of vision of Nolan. It is, first and foremost, a Batman movie, not a Christopher Nolan movie. But like his earlier work, The Prestige displays Nolan’s penchant for non-linear storytelling, jumping back and forth through the lives and careers of the film’s two protagonists. It is told within a strict three act structure, which is mirrored in the performances of the magicians on stage. Its characters are motivated by selfish, obsessive needs not unlike the characters of Following and Memento.
The difference between The Prestige and Nolan’s earlier work is the massive layer of polish. The Prestige is slick as hell. Nolan, as a director, seems to revel in finally having a budget to bring the things he has in his mind to life. And while Memento had Guy Pierce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano, The Prestige’s cast—Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, and Michael Caine—occupies a different stratum of Hollywood fame.
The trick that Nolan pulls off is retaining the rigorous commitment to style and thematic philosophy of his early work while resisting the temptation to rely on big-budget effects that have lured other directors into complacency. Nolan manages to retain the substance of his earlier work while adding flair that fills theater seats in the midst of summer.
In this case, let’s take the third (and hopefully longest) act of Nolan’s career literally. Nolan has become one of the most prestigious directors in Hollywood because of his ability to create thought-provoking films that are so epic in scope they fuel summer blockbuster ticket sales. Consider Inception and Interstellar. For these films, Nolan continues to wear his influences on his sleeve. But while early in his career he drew inspiration from French and American noir, now he’s riffing on Stanley Kubrick. The dream mazes that make up the constantly shifting scenes of Inception recall the maze of carpets and hedges inside and outside the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. And as the audience descends deeper into the various rooms and nonsensical hallways representing the increasingly maddening thoughts of its caretaker, so are the mind-hackers of Inception drawn deeper into the dreams they aim to explore.
Interstellar continues Nolan’s infatuation with Kubrick. From the rotational structure of the spaceship journeying through a wormhole to the robotic companions imbued with human motivation, many of the key scenes in Interstellar invoke 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan even rewards space pilot Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) with his own psychedelic, trans-dimensional space voyage first undertaken by Kubrick’s Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea)—though unlike Bowman, when Cooper awakes in a hospital bed he’s still in reality.
Like Kubrick before him, Christopher Nolan has managed to walk the thin line of filmmaking where the work he produces strives to provide both entertainment and high art, to satisfy with style and substance. While his influences have shifted and his vision has become far more grandiose, Nolan retains and even nurtures those indie filmmaking sensibilities that bring life and philosophy to the characters and stories he creates. With Dunkirk, he now embarks on a part of his career where the “one for them, one for me” balance of alternating studio franchise blockbusters and passion projects no longer applies. He’s making only the films he absolutely wants to make, and we’re all better for it.