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Christopher Nolan: Transcending the Ordinary

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Christopher Nolan has a growing fear.

“I think there’s a vague sense out there that movies are becoming more and more unreal,” the writer-director said in an interview with Newsweek. “I know I’ve felt it.”

At the time, Nolan was faced with the unenviable task of resuscitating a defunct Batman franchise, one that had fallen on hard times following Joel Schumacher’s bloated, neon-infused vision of Gotham City. It had been eight years since “Batman and Robin” had robbed the Dark Knight of respectability, and Warner Brothers was in need of a distinct voice to take charge of one of their most prized franchises.

Nolan threw himself into the project with vigor, approaching it the only way he saw how – with gritty realism and a stark vision he’d honed to near perfection on his first two films, “Memento” and “Following.” Both of these pictures were low-budget gems, films that transcended their shoestring budgets to make Nolan the latest darling of the independent world. Though Nolan’s rise to his current place among Hollywood’s creative elite has been meteoric, the 36-year-old director has always shown an undeniable flair and passion for his craft.

As a boy, Christopher was shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic with a family that moved frequently. The adult Nolan speaks with a distinctly English accent, but he remains comfortable with both cultures after childhood spells in both London and Chicago. By the age of seven, Nolan was already learning the language of film, taking up his toy action figures and bringing them to life with his father’s Super 8 mm camera.

Many years of practice later, Nolan debuted his first feature film, “Following,” in 1996 after more than a year’s worth of work. The film focuses on an obsessed writer who tails random people on the street until he meets a thief who introduces him to the seedy world of burglary.

With a meager budget of $6,000, Nolan shot the black-and-white film on weekends, 15 minutes of footage at a time with friends who all had day jobs. As the budget only afforded one or two takes of each shot, “Following” was meticulously rehearsed for six months before a single camera rolled. The film’s narrative included scenes that were shown out of order, disorienting audiences and leaving them grasping at plot strands alongside the film’s protagonist.

If this technique sounds familiar, it’s because Nolan would perfect it into high art with his next film, 2000’s “Memento.” A dizzyingly original journey through one man’s search for revenge, “Memento” would ignite Nolan’s fledgling career and distinguish him from his peers.

Based on a short story written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, “Memento” employed an Academy Award-nominated screenplay that took viewers into the memory-challenged mind of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a widower hunting down the man who raped and murdered his wife. Audiences buzzed about the film’s helical twists and turns, generated from a non-linear plot that left viewers as perplexed as the film’s protagonist. Although the film failed to garner Nolan a much-deserved Oscar win, “Memento” remains one of the last decade’s most beloved films.

Next up for Nolan was his first mainstream success, 2002’s “Insomnia.” A remake of a 1997 Norwegian film, “Insomnia” gathered an impressive array of acting talent – including leads Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank – and allowed Nolan to take yet another plunge into the human psyche. This time, Pacino’s guilt-ridden detective searches for a killer in a remote Alaska town while dodging an Internal Affairs investigation and the accidental killing of his partner.

By the time Warner Brothers came knocking on his relatively obscure door for “Batman Begins,” Nolan was ready for them. His dark, brooding Batman was everything that had been lacking from the previously farcical installments of the Bat-franchise. The pitch-perfect casting of Christian Bale in the title role assuaged the wounded pride of fans who had given up on the dormant series. Prior to the start of production, Nolan screened Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” for the film’s cast and crew.

“This is how we’re going to make Batman,” Nolan would say, setting the tone for a grim new vision of a decades-old character.

With his next Batman film slated for 2008 – appropriately titled “The Dark Knight” – Nolan’s future looks bright. In an era of vacuous, special effects-driven blockbusters, he has a shot at bucking the trend.

In time, he may even assuage that nagging fear he has – of being ordinary, of not making relevant films. A decade from now, he may browse his filmography and realize he’s been making those kinds of films from the very beginning.