In The Nolan Variations, you explore Christopher Nolan’s work as a filmmaker, his filmmaking style and influences, as well as his life and upbringing – what was it about Christopher Nolan in particular that first inspired you to write this?
I wanted to write the book because I felt there was something lacking in the critical discourse about Nolan’s films. It wasn’t like critics weren’t saying enough kind things, or being nice enough. It was more to do with depth and seriousness of engagement. Big success renders filmmakers invisible, I think — I call it the invisibility of ubiquity. Critics like out-of-way work they can find by themselves and bring to everyone’s attention. But if the guy they want to bring your attention to is playing at a multiplex near you, then what’s the point? Nolan films don’t need critics the same way, say, the films of Nicole Holofcener do. Of course, from my point of view, writing a book about him, this was perfect because it meant I would have a blank slate —more or less uncharted territory. Which is weird when you think about it, because he’s everywhere, but everything about Nolan — his films, his success — felt anomalous to me. That was the word that kept coming up for me: anomalous. Something new under the sun, an outlier, a black swan. That merited investigation.
When you began the process, was there anything that you were surprised to discover? And was there anything in particular that surprised Christopher also?
I went into it a little frightened that in taking the engine apart, it wouldn’t run anymore — I’d explore his world until I bumped into the edge of it, like Truman at the end of The Truman Show. My first bit surprise, and relief, was that this didn’t happen. I was constantly finding out stuff right to the end, which testifies, I think, to the sheer number of hours he puts into his films, layering them, patterning them, enriching them. Inception took over 20 years to pull together. So no matter how many hours I spent thinking about it — and I worked out that I surely had to hold the world record for number of consecutive hours spent thinking this or that film, over a four-year period — Nolan had spent more. The other big discovery was working out how important music is to him, not just in terms of the soundtracks of the films, although he does have an unusually close collaborations with his composers, but in terms of their form, and structure. “All the films are musicals,” he told me. It’s where the Hitchcock analogy holds good, I think, although they’re quite unalike in other ways, but in terms of their love of structure, it’s Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Nolan.
The book is really well-structured, charting from Nolan’s early years between England and America to exploring each of his films. For an insight on how you write such a book, can you give us an idea of how you got started with this? And which were your favourite sections to write?
It came out of the conversations, really. As with his films, certain themes would recur so I used these to structure the book. Nolan was always encouraging me to cut loose from chronological structure (surprise, surprise), and avoid the forward march of a biography, and with his encouragement, I eventually let the winding, digressive current of our conversations dictate the book’s form. At one point he told me “this ending is fantastic…. now you have to earn it” which made me smile: his endings are among the best of anyone currently making movies. The chapter where it really clicked first was the Inception chapter. That’s the one I put the most work into initially, because I love that film so much, and that was the one where, according to Chris, I “found my voice.” He’s a gifted collaborator, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. Any filmmaker working at his level has to be. But it’s my advice to other writers: collaborate with a WGA winner.
The book frequently looks into Nolan’s influences and “fascinations”, from themes like symmetry, time and memory to real-life people such as Jorge Luis Borges and many other filmmakers, authors and artists that sparked an idea within him. Of all these influences and/or fascinations, which do you think has impacted his work the most?
Hard to say. I noticed that Fritz Lang came up a lot, for The Dark Knight but also Interstellar and Tenet, so just in terms of frequency I’d say Lang, but he also reveres Kubrick, Malick, Lumet. In terms of the writers, Borges comes into Memento, The Prestige (more of nod, really), Inception and Interstellar, so he probably just beats out Chandler (Following, Memento, Insomnia). In terms of the themes, I found them all connected. Nolan is just as original and unusual when it comes to the treatment of space as he is about time, for instance, and it goes back, I think, to his refusal to be bound, or confined, and his accompanying suspicion about the evidence of our senses. “There’s more to our world than meets the eye,” is about as clear a summary of his aesthetic or ethos as I can find. Which is an unusual position for a filmmaker to take, since movies rely exclusively on the evidence of our eyes and ears. It puts him more in line with the great movie-magicians like Melies and Welles.
What was it like meeting Christopher Nolan for the first time? And how did you persuade him to get involved in this project?
I first met him in 2000 on the eve of Memento’s release, and I can remember thinking how weird it was that this very specific type of Englishman — whom I could imagine working in the city and playing rugby at weekends — should be in Hollywood with this movie about a man betrayed by his treacherous head. For all Nolan’s politeness, the film hinted at much deeper obsessions. I saw him again a few times over the years, to interview him about this or that movie for a newspaper — Interstellar, say, or Dunkirk — and each time I nagged him to collaborate on a book. He originally told me he didn’t think he’d made enough movies for a career-length retrospective but eventually he made too many movies and relented. I wore him down. I presented hm with a proposal, met with him to talk about it some more and that was that. He’d passed “the point of no return” as he put it later.
You’ve also written books (retrospectives) on Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen – of those three and Nolan, all of which are quite different yet are big fish within the industry, which was your favourite book to write? And who was the most interesting to dissect in terms of a person and filmmaker?
Unquestionably, this book was the most satisfying to work on, because he collaborated so extensively on it. My book on The Irishman with Scorsese was also as much fun for the same reason. It makes a big difference when you’re working with the subject of the book because you really have to bring you’re a game. It knocks the glibness out of you. If you’re going to critique, you have to be damn sure of your reasons. Chris definitely wanted that. At one point I was soft-pedalling on my problems with the ending of Interstellar and he sensed it and said, in effect: come at me, let’s have it out. He realised that in a project of this kind, he would be best served by us having a deeper conversation, which is both very smart and very trusting of him. I wouldn’t like to say which filmmaker is the most interesting to dissect, but I will say that Nolan easily holds his own against the others on that list. Which is why I wanted to write the book, because I sensed that he could and wanted to find out.
Do you have plans for any more retrospectives or film-based books in the future?
Definitely, I have a list although it’s probably best kept to myself for now. I would love to write about a woman filmmaker, though. I’m basically counting down the minutes until Greta Gerwig makes another movie. Isn’t everyone? I think she’s exceptionally talented, and she ticks all the boxes: writer, director, performer. I couldn’t love her work more.
The film industry along with the publishing industry has taken a bit of a hit this year, with bookshops/cinemas shutting, publish and release dates being pushed back, and even sets having to shut down. How do you see both industries coping and adapting to the new normal?
Some things will always be with us and something are changed for good. Book-shops have taken a hit but Amazon is even more powerful than it was before. Its been great for the streamers like Netflix, and terrible for the movie theatres. Blockbusters will always be with us, but the theatres may find themselves under different ownership soon. You might find Netflix with its own chain, for instance. All the things they say about the pandemic pressing fast-forward on pre-existing trends seems true to me, although Nolan disagrees. He’s much more committed to the theatrical experience, and certainly in his case, I can’t see much changing — its everyone else who has to scramble. In the end, the innovation this period sees could be good for the industry, just like it was during the Great Depression — which gave us popcorn, cartoons, b-movies, newsreels — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t immensely scary to go through.
This may be a tricky one for you, but do you have a personal favourite Nolan film? And as we’re a books magazine, do you have a favourite book to screen adaptation?
Inception, because of all his films it’s the one I would have the hardest time explaining to an alien, or to my 16-year-old self (not much difference there). If you’d told me when I was 16 that that there was going to be this really rocking new Batman film, and the Joker is going to be really scary and dark, I may not have been able to know exactly what was in store, but I could at least conceive of the general ball-park. Inception isn’t in any pre-existing ball-park. It’s not even playing a sport I’m familiar with. Have you ever tried explaining it to someone who hasn’t seen it? It’s impossible. You end up sounding like a lunatic. It’s much easier to imagine a world in which that film is a big mess and a huge flop. And yet here we are, in the world in which it is a huge hit and magnificent. How? Why? You could say that of all Nolan’s films in fact. It’s much easier to imagine him with a small, cult reputation rather than a big, mainstream one. And yet here we are.
Finally, in three words, how would you describe Christopher Nolan?
Anomalous, Punctual, Exacting
The Nolan Variations is available now.
Keep your eyes peeled for Martha’s review, coming very soon!