Chris Nolan and the “Indie” Director Conundrum

Posted on 15 July 2010 by Quaid

I’m a fairly young guy. At age 26, I have really only been following film for the past ten years. I started by tracking down web-rings (remember those?) about Halloween and other horror films, and I eventually stumbled on Aint-It-Cool-News, which I’d later realize was the birth of the online film community.

So I was really only starting to throw my hat in the ring of film-geekiness at the tail-end of the first “independent film” renaissance. You know, that period in the mid/late ’90′s when Hollywood studios began tracking down young talent like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith and throwing multi-picture deals at them?

It was exciting…for the first time, young filmmakers were making really interesting, self-funded films and having the world handed to them. These movies were steeped in film history or covered with in a unique style. It marked a very different approach than the “work your way up” feel of the earlier days of the film industry. Instead of directors being hired by studios, it felt (whether true or not) like directors were being given full control of projects, and the studio was just there to write the checks.

This gave us crazy films like From Dusk ’til Dawn and wildly irreverent, intelligent and dialogue-heavy verbal style-fests like Chasing Amy.

While these directors were getting their “big break” in the mid 90′s, though, there was another director that was trying to match their success. In 1996, Christopher Nolan shot a movie called Following on Saturdays over the course of a year. It was a similar approach to what Rodriguez did with El Mariachi and how Kevin Smith managed to make Clerks. And, just like those guys’ films, Following was well received, and soon Chris Nolan was off and running with his cult-classic follow-up, Memento.

From there he made Insomnia with Robin Williams and Al Pacino. Then he was handed the keys to the kingdom of Batman, and he rebooted the franchise with two amazing films. In between, he managed to slide in a Christian Bale magician movie that was more than a little cool.

So…case closed. Another success story, right? Not entirely.

When sitting in line waiting to go see Inception last night, Shep and I got into a friendly tussle. While he argued that Nolan’s rise to success was the same as a director like, say, Peter Jackson–being handed a huge franchise after making only a handful of successful “cult” films–I disagreed. It wasn’t really that Nolan’s filmic ascent was different on paper, but it feels somehow more unlikely…because of the kind of filmmaker Nolan is.

You see, Robert Rodriguez makes movies with cool action and maintains his low-budget sensibilities, keeping the crews small and the craziness high. Tarantino is the poster child for auteur directors, his personality apparent in almost every frame of his films, and Kevin Smith makes movies so dialogue heavy with such a clear signature that they all feel like variations of his first film. Finally, Peter Jackson manages to imbue his Lord of the Rings films with the same giddy over-the-top wackiness that made him a genre favorite in the first place.

And Chris Nolan has a distinct style, too. He has a clear auteur presence in his films. Still, there is something that sets Nolan apart from his indie counterparts, and its the “classical” and complicated nature of his films.

When I was watching Inception, I was struck by the idea the this movie could have been directed by a Martin Scorsese or a Stanley Kubrick. It feels like a work that comes from directing dozens of films of various budgets and qualities, or a movie that would be made by a traditionally educated filmmaker who worked his way up the ranks in the film industry.

Whereas many of the movies made by “indie” directors are intimate or quirky or over-the-top, this one is polished, restrained, and formalist in the most traditionally Hollywood way. It’s wildly intelligent, has impeccable structure, and manages, somehow, to keep itself rooted firmly in the mainstream. It’s planned, polished and perfectly executed. Whereas those previous directors seem to thrive on surprises or on simplicity or on wild cuts and insane camera movement, Nolan’s films really feel like movies that are planned in the director’s head, word for word and shot for shot, months before a single frame of film was shot. Every shot and costume and lighting effect means something important…just like film school says it should.

But Nolan studied English literature in college. His first movie cost $6,000, and then he was off and running, always at the helm of large or spectacularly large productions. He didn’t spend decades around huge productions, honing his craft as a cinematographer or screenwriter and eventually getting his “big break” as a director. So where did he learn this very specific, classical style of film making?

In his review of Inception, Shep asks the question “How can one man put all of this together in his head?” I’ll take it a step farther. How can one man teach himself all the technical, artistic, and structural elements of classical filmmaking and still manage to give us something new and exciting with his brand of narrative/structural style all over it?

If you figure out the answer to that question, let me know. I’d like to give it a try.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that Chris Nolan has made the circle complete. Those other guys proved that “untrained filmmakers” can make great movies. They can breather new life into a stale Hollywood system and give people something fresh and stylistically different…movies that break the rules and are better for it.

Now, though, Nolan has proven that these plucked-from-the-masses directors can make a structurally complicated, mature, formalist movie within the rules of “Old Hollywood” without losing their ability to bring audiences something new, exciting, and thought-provoking. Tarantino taught us that the “unknown” can step up and make great films like we’ve never seen before. Nolan teaches us that the “unknown” can make narrative masterpieces in the most classical, clinical definition of the word. Without selling his soul.                           

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Rachel Says:

    Well said. Very enjoyable read :)

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