Interview: Christopher Nolan
by Scott Holleran
Burbank, California—Like his movies, including this year’s box office hit, Batman Begins, writer and director Christopher Nolan’s office at Warner Bros. is entirely functional: a desk, chair and sofa surrounded by exotic Batman paraphernalia. During a recent interview, the British native, who has successfully reimagined the studio’s lucrative Batman franchise, is forceful, confident and intellectual.
Having made the transition from making an independent favorite to an all-star blockbuster, 35-year-old Nolan is working on science fiction, preparing for production of the Batman sequel—he took a call from Michael Caine during the interview—and steering his career higher and higher.
Scott Holleran: Is Batman a hero?
Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2005-2012 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.
Christopher Nolan: Hero has become such a bandied about word, used so broadly, and it ceases to have any meaning. Is Batman a hero? Certainly, he’s more a hero than superhero [but] I think the word “hero” is very problematic. He has no superpowers, but he’s a heroic figure. The reason to me he’s heroic is because he’s altruistic. He’s trying to help other people with no benefit to himself and, whatever motivates him—and this was the tricky thing to really try and nail with Batman Begins as opposed to previous incarnations—is the difference between him and a common vigilante, the Punisher or Charles Bronson in Death Wish. To me, the difference is he is not seeking personal vengeance. We did not want his quest to be for vengeance, we wanted it to be for justice. That’s what sends him looking for an outlet for his rage and frustration. What he chooses to do with it is, I believe, selfless, and therefore, heroic. And that, to me, is really the distinction—selfishness versus selflessness—and that is very noble. But it is a very fine distinction. I do think he is a heroic figure.
Scott Holleran: But he does gain a value—justice is a value, even to Batman. Is he really selfless—or does he want to have a life to call his own?
Christopher Nolan: To me, he’s not selfish in terms of how the word is generally understood—he’s not obtaining personal gratification in an immediate sense. He’s having to obliterate his own immediate [short-term] self-interest. I could tap into the reality of the story if I felt that he saw his mission as an achievable goal.
Scott Holleran: So his is a higher, more rational form of selfishness, as against irrational, short-range immediate gratification?
Christopher Nolan: Yes.
Scott Holleran: What is the movie’s theme in essential terms?
Christopher Nolan: The struggle and the conflict between the desire for personal gratification or vengeance and the greater good for a constructive, positive sort—something more universal. Because Batman is limited by being an ordinary man, there’s a constant tension between pragmatism and idealism.
Scott Holleran: Are you a pragmatist or an idealist?
Christopher Nolan: I’m both—I have to be. In terms of the film, I have to be more idealistic, but at the same time, I have to be enormously pragmatic in terms of what is actually achievable in practical terms. Every day is a conflict between this ideal scenario, this vision, and how we actually do that in terms of time and the limitations. My job is to translate something abstract into something concrete.
Scott Holleran: Did you accomplish that in Batman Begins?
Christopher Nolan: Yes. I feel very pleased. We did some pretty outrageously ambitious things in making the film. We built what I believe is the biggest set for any movie. We shot in Iceland on frozen lakes. We didn’t use any second unit—we did everything first unit.
Scott Holleran: Is it too long at two hours and 17 minutes?
Christopher Nolan: It’s 2:20. 2:17 has been printed, but 2:20 is accurate. Three years ago, I went to the studio, and I told them roughly what the film was going to be, and I told them it would be two hours and 20 minutes long. The reason is that to me the epic scope of the story we were aiming for, combined with the fact that, in dealing with the origins of the story, you have to spend a lot of time before you even get to Batman. And you want a number of action scenes—you basically want a two-hour blockbuster movie plus an extra movement to the piece at the end with credits—which comes out at two hours and 20 minutes as opposed to two hours and five minutes. We had to start at the very beginning of the story, treating [Bruce Wayne] as a child—and spend time doing that, not just a montage, but really embrace the story—you need that extra room. When you look at the highest grossing movies, they’re really long films, whether it’s Titanic  or The Sound of Music or Gone with the Wind. I always want a film I work on to be as short as it possibly can, and it took a while because there’s a lot of story here to cram in. There aren’t any deleted scenes on the DVD, because we never removed story; we just compressed it. So it’s a furiously paced film, and we’re very fortunate that musicians helped us achieve a unity with the right tempo.
Scott Holleran: Is there anything you would change?
Christopher Nolan: No, it’s exactly the film I want. It’s not that you look and say it’s perfect, but it’s all the film I wanted to make. There’s always compromise involved with that—but they’re all my choices.
Scott Holleran: Do you read reviews?
Christopher Nolan: I can’t really read them anymore. To me, the value of film criticism, always was—and I say was because I used to be fascinated by anything written about films—the discussion of film, not the verdict, from a critic you knew, whose reviews you read a lot of. As soon as you start reducing things to numbers, it becomes less valuable—subject to all sorts of misinterpretations. The test of films is ultimately the test of time.
Scott Holleran: Whom do you want the audience to root for: Batman or Bruce Wayne?
Christopher Nolan: It shifts. For a lot of the movie, you root for Bruce Wayne, but somehow by the end you end up rooting for the concept of Batman.
Scott Holleran: Since Batman is a means to an end, are you rooting for Batman so he can get back to being Bruce Wayne?
Christopher Nolan: No, I think you’re rooting for Batman at the expense of Bruce Wayne. The feeling of the end of the film is the ending, or postponement, of the relationship with Rachel [the character played by Katie Holmes]—it’s the ending of the Bruce Wayne story and the beginning of Batman—Batman begins.
Scott Holleran: But isn’t Batman in business to put himself out of business?
Christopher Nolan: I think he is, but I believe that to be futile. There is no utopia. There is no Heaven on earth. We all sort of accept that—it’s not possible. If you look at the history of the comics, there are a lot of interesting explorations of the father’s life and organized crime, and the nature of the enemy changes. These things can’t ever be perfect or balanced or reconciled—it’s a constant struggle. As soon as we solve one problem in our lives, something else crops up.
Scott Holleran: Is it a malevolent or benevolent universe?
Christopher Nolan: I think it’s a benevolent universe. Ultimately, I think what Batman is trying to do is tip the balance against corruption—and that’s a specific type of evil that can’t ebb and flow, and it can be defeated in a sense. I do believe that. That’s why his quest makes sense to me.
Scott Holleran: That’s against a prevalent view that we’re all doomed and everything is dark and horrible–
Christopher Nolan: It’s interesting that you say that because, particularly with Batman, there’s a demand, particularly from the fans, that you treat it with appropriate darkness and, to me, it was never about making a darker film. It was about making a realistic film and, to me, there’s great [virtue] in the character. The discussion we were having about heroism is something I’ve thought a lot about Batman because, yes, you can make him very dark but you can’t ignore the question of his heroism and his inherent ability. Otherwise, he ceases to be Batman—he becomes a different character, the Punisher, the Crow. The fans can argue about what defines Batman, but the heroism—the positivity of what he’s actually doing—isn’t up for discussion. Again, it’s not just about making him darker—it’s about making him more realistic.
Scott Holleran: For me, Batman’s defining moment is when Lieutenant Gordon says to him, “I never thanked you,” and Batman responds: “And you’ll never have to.” That’s the cashing in of everything that’s come before because that’s when he stands for something—for something honorable…
Christopher Nolan: Yes.
Scott Holleran: …and he’s not just this dark, martyred knight who’s defined by torture and suffering…
Christopher Nolan: Yes.
Scott Holleran: …whereas in so many movies, the evil is more interesting, more compelling, than the good…
Christopher Nolan: Definitely. Yet the immediate response to Batman’s standing up for what’s good is a proportional escalation of evil, and that’s not philosophical—it’s not that it will always be that way—it’s about how bad things have to get before things become good. Batman is positive, but I believe that, in the first couple of years, he’s going to find an increasingly negative response from society, because the truth is that, when you have a powerful, negative city like Gotham, it didn’t become corrupt by accident, and those entrenched people are going to respond very vigorously.
Scott Holleran: Sounds like a good sequel.
Christopher Nolan: Absolutely. And that’s the point of the final scene. That [fighting evil] is not going to be easy. It’s going to get harder.
Scott Holleran: Gotham’s clearly based on New York City, which came under attack in September, 2001. Did the Islamic terrorist strike influence how you depicted the city?
Christopher Nolan: I’m sure it did but not consciously. When you’re dealing with a fictional character and city, we wanted to allow the influences to just naturally find themselves in the story. We didn’t want to be conscious about it, because then it would be insincere. But, definitely, the broad strokes, the villain that threatens you—the things you find frightening—those are going to be influenced by what’s going on in the world. I see the parallels now, but it certainly wasn’t conscious.
Scott Holleran: Does Ras Al Goul mean Demon’s Head in Arabic?
Christopher Nolan: Yes. That’s from the 1970s’ era of comics. In my opinion, they drew very strongly from the James Bond films of the period, so, for us, he was the obvious choice because he’s not as outrageous. We didn’t contradict what’s in the comics, but I prefer to think of him as a magician.
Scott Holleran: Are you a James Bond fan—or an Ian Fleming fan?
Christopher Nolan: Both. I came to Bond through the movies, and I got interested in reading the books, which are very, very different from the films in terms of the story. The books are quite gritty in their own way. It’s not as cheeky, though I think Sean Connery’s Bond is pretty close to the [James Bond of the] books. What I like in the books is that there’s a selfishness to the character, a vanity, just a little, at times.
Scott Holleran: Would you like to direct a James Bond picture?
Christopher Nolan: I’d love to.
Scott Holleran: What about a Harry Potter picture?
Christopher Nolan: They’ve found a great translation into what he’s about, so I don’t think you’d want to mess with it too much.
Scott Holleran: Is Bruce Wayne a great businessman?
Christopher Nolan: I see him as being like Howard Hughes, whom I wrote a script about. There’s a lot of Howard Hughes in Bruce Wayne. The bottom line on Howard Hughes is that you can read as many books that say he was a brilliant businessman as you can that say he didn’t have a clue. At the end of the day, he did extraordinary things with his money in terms of engineering and accomplishments and a self-interested direction. And I see Bruce Wayne as a very smart guy who’s going to use his money in a [similarly] extraordinary way.
Scott Holleran: Will we see more of him as a businessman in the Batman pictures?
Christopher Nolan: I see his business acumen as more of an adjunct to his journey. And he’ll delegate to the right [business] people, like Lucius [the character played by Morgan Freeman].
Scott Holleran: Revenge is a theme in Memento. Is this a running theme in your work?
Christopher Nolan: Revenge is a powerful cinematic motivator because it’s a very immediate, comprehensible, universal feeling. I would not be interested in doing a straight revenge story. To me, revenge is a flaw, a compromise.
Scott Holleran: Is everything in Hollywood a compromise?
Christopher Nolan: No. Ultimately, whoever is financing the film owns that film and has ultimate control, and that’s the reality of the nature of collective filmmaking. I’m very fortunate in my career so far as I haven’t yet had a sort of nightmarish compromise experience in making a film—I’ve been able to get the version I think is best on screen. I’ve been very fortunate with the people I’ve worked with, and some of that’s luck, because you don’t always get to pick and choose. Beyond that, I’d say I’ve been honest with people, and that allows them to give me their honest opinion earlier on [in the process] so I haven’t yet boxed myself into a corner. So, I don’t have massive regrets.
Scott Holleran: Is Warner Bros. the right philosophical fit for you creatively?
Christopher Nolan: Certainly, I’ve done two very fulfilling, creative projects with them, but you can always tell when you go in, and you tell them about the film you’re making and if you’re honest with them—and you have to be as honest as possible—you get a sense of whether they see the same film as you do, and they did and very strongly. These guys were totally, genuinely on board. I know it sounds like BS but they really got the movie. I think we had a huge advantage in that the 1989 Batman film that Tim Burton did, and that tone has defined comic book movies. Because we’re doing a Batman film, something new, fresh and different, they were looking for a re-invention. No one’s done one of these movies in years—the closest to it, for me, is probably the 1978 Superman, [Richard] Donner’s film, which had locations and shooting in New York. It had this great cast, and it treated its subject with a real degree of respect, not selling it short as just a comic book movie. To me, that’s what comic books are—it sparks your imagination with words, pictures, colors, light and shape. Just as when you adapt a novel, you do not consider the superficial form of the novel, you push to imagine the cinematic equivalent. Why should comic books be any different?
Scott Holleran: It’s been a disappointing year in some respects, yet your movie did well. Do you regard Batman Begins as unique?
Christopher Nolan: I do think of it as having certain unique qualities, in the sense that it’s a movie I would have liked when I was a kid, and that makes it a little bit unusual in this day and age. It’s the reason I made it—because I loved these movies growing up and I felt like it’s been a very long time since I’d seen that type of film.
Scott Holleran: What type of film?
Christopher Nolan: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Spy Who Loved Me, the first Star Wars. These are the films when I was seven years old that came about, and they created entire worlds that you believed in, and they had a very tactile, realistic, concrete sense of place and texture and, though they were all dealing with fantastic, outrageous material, they were all extreme exaggerations with idealistic heroes, but they had a recognizable taste and smell—we believe in the reality of what we see for two hours. We’re never let off the hook, we’re on that rollercoaster and we’re not looking at a cartoon. I would get asked all the time about Batman as a comic book and I would say, well, it’s not a comic book, it’s just a movie, the way that Star Wars wasn’t just science fiction and Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t just a cartoon serial.
Scott Holleran: Are the sequels Batman Continues and Batman Ends?
Christopher Nolan: I can’t talk about it. These are very early days. I’m going to do Prestige first—about a couple of magicians who become involved in sabotaging each other acts, set in turn of the century London—and then we’ll be looking at doing a Batman picture.
Scott Holleran: Did working with the cast of Insomnia prepare you for working with the all-star cast of Batman Begins?
Christopher Nolan: When we went to make Batman, I felt very strongly that the cast would be able to [rise to the occasion] and also embrace the interesting themes of the story, and great actors can do that because they can play two or three levels at once and communicate that to the audience—that’s really the thing. These movie stars—the Al Pacinos, the Michael Caines, Gary Oldmans, Liam Neesons—they can make the audience feel all the things you’re trying to put in there and get the richness of the story. That was something I also got from the Dick Donner film [Superman] when I looked at that cast—Susannah York, Glenn Ford, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, it’s a superb cast.
Scott Holleran: What’s The Exec about?
Christopher Nolan: That’s a script my brother’s working on loosely drawn from the comic book, though I don’t want to talk too much about. It’s a futuristic science fiction project. It extrapolates trends in the corporate world.
Scott Holleran: Is it anti-business?
Christopher Nolan: That’s a little bit like asking if Batman is anti-vigilante—it’s kind of both at the same time. It’s enjoying something and questioning it. It’s more subtle and fun—it’s not a satire of the corporate world. It’s a huge action movie.
Scott Holleran: One of the trends in action movies is that you can’t tell what’s happening on screen—even in Batman Begins, the action scene at the waterfront is unclear, though that’s to create the sense of Batman’s mystery—in which one’s perception is deliberately distorted.
Christopher Nolan: It’s all about subjectivity and the point of view you’re trying to express. If you’re trying to express the point of view of somebody who’s in prison [being beaten], there’s not any clarity, and there shouldn’t be any clarity there—just enough to know. The camera’s not objective; the camera can never be objective. All cinema is manipulation. But you can explain to me exactly what’s happening and you know exactly who’s doing what to whom. The essence of what’s going on in the scene is entirely clear.
Scott Holleran: But you’ve seen these action pictures where you can’t tell what’s happening. Does that drive you bananas?
Christopher Nolan: It depends on the reason for it. If it’s being done to obscure unimaginative or poor action, it can be irritating. But [it’s not] when I see it in a film that’s trying to express the kinetic energy of a fistfight, which is, in real life, an absolutely baffling, horrific thing to ever see or experience that can never be captured. My choice is to use the camera as subjectively as possible. The truth is you’re using all the tools at your disposal, in editing as well as camera placement to try and create a feeling and experience of a character’s point of view in a fight. Actually, I think the trend is the other way [toward greater clarity], and one of the things that made The Bourne Identity succeed is that they were going back to an old rhythm. You look at The Matrix and there’s a lot of long, no-cut shots with intense choreography, and that’s become more prevalent. You also have to take into account the changing rhythm of the way films are shot. Films are much more complex than they used to be—it’s kind of a demand from the audience; they’re fractured. But I genuinely believe it’s not audiences—it’s people who make films, critics, people in the media and in the industry discussing films. Audiences are led by them. I believe in the audience.
Scott Holleran: You’re a father of three kids. Would you rather they see Mary Poppins or Shrek?
Christopher Nolan: Mary Poppins is great—and I showed my kids The Lion King the other day, and it has that phenomenal quality of Disney movies. When I look at Mary Poppins, what’s interesting to me technically is that it’s so well made—it’s extraordinary. Not just visual effects. You’ve got these performers singing and dancing with no cuts and, therefore, with nothing to hide it with, which is extremely extraordinary. I’ve watched Mary Poppins [with my children] several times. Particularly with DVD, they’ll watch a section for a song, and the technology really embraces that. But when I look at trends in cinema, I don’t see things [in terms of] getting better or worse. In technical terms, it’s getting worse—cinema’s in big trouble and needs to be put back on course in terms of image quality. At the same time, the sound quality is getting much, much better. When you look at films from 30 years ago, you would have far fewer cuts but they’re not necessarily better because expectations and rhythm and ability to absorb have changed—and you can’t go back. You have to be realistic about the growth in complexity about each generation of films. You’re not creating film in a vacuum; you’re building on what’s come before.
Scott Holleran: Do you look at the box office numbers of your movies?
Christopher Nolan: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Do you think about profitability while you’re making the movie?
Christopher Nolan: No. When I look at the films that have really influenced me, most of them are box office failures: Blade Runner, The Man Who Would Be King—a terrific movie—but there’s no correlation between my favorite films and box office success. Let me look at it from the other end of the telescope. If you look at the biggest movies of all time and you look at the trends, the only thing that these very successful movies have in common is that they were made to be great movies and whoever made them made a sincere effort to make a great film. If you chase box office when you make a film, you’re never going to get that total breakout hit—that only comes from sincerity in filmmaking.
Scott Holleran: In Batman Begins, what was the significance of the boy, the bum and the old man?
Christopher Nolan: It was very conscious because we wanted them to be there on that street seeing this extraordinary figure. The reason those characters are there is to give an outside view—they’re the world. Quite often, these things are hard to explain to people, because they would see it as being—particularly in the case of the boy, and there’s a sentimentality—a little bit cornball, but the truth is they’re there because I wanted them there. To me, they bring Batman to [be larger than] life. Whereas, with the Tim Burton [Batman] film, however visionary it was—and I think it’s quite brilliant—Gotham is just as extraordinary as Batman so you’re denied that pleasure of seeing ordinary people just reacting.
Scott Holleran: Why didn’t you provide an audio commentary for the Batman Begins DVD?
Christopher Nolan: I hate doing commentaries. I’ve done them on my other films because in each case they came up with a reason or an interesting way to do it. Insomnia was in production. For Following, I was just talking about how to make a film. As for talking about artistic interpretation, if you will, you can’t possibly do that until the film has had its wings—because the film is not complete until it’s had an audience. There’s nothing more mortifying than to watch these commentaries on movies they’ve done before the movie’s come out because you don’t [really] know what the movie was [and how it played before those it was created to serve]. The movie’s not finished until it’s in front of an audience.
Scott Holleran: Why is the DVD like a video game in navigation?
Christopher Nolan: What they found is that kids use an interface by flipping the directional buttons and seeing what highlights, and then they tend to hit the enter button—to see what happens, almost instinctually, and people can generally find things. We tested that with the Memento DVD to the extreme, and I would have to say that we probably went a little outside the bounds of what people were capable of absorbing. But that was part of the point with Memento. Warner Bros. has been incredibly respectful of my input into the DVD, and I was able to have influence on the look and feel of it.
Scott Holleran: Are you a fan of the sci-fi dystopian series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan, in which your uncle, John, had his first television role?
Christopher Nolan: Oh, yeah. I discovered it when they started playing it on [Chicago-based television station] WGN or something at midnight one night, and I saw my uncle on a walk-on for the last couple of lines. I rung up my dad and said, ‘did I just see Uncle John on The Prisoner?’
Scott Holleran: Would you want to remake the popular program?
Christopher Nolan: I don’t think so. [It’s already] effective and brilliant—there’s nothing wrong with The Prisoner.
Scott Holleran: Would you ever make a musical?
Christopher Nolan: I don’t really get musicals, and I always used to say that I would do anything except musicals. Having said which, now that I have kids, I’m re-appraising that. There are a lot of films that [I saw] as a kid that I didn’t really remember as musicals. Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I completely forgot that it was a musical. I watched it again a few weeks ago and I saw it in a different way. I think as a kid you just accept the ground work of the film you’re seeing, you’re not judging it as a genre, and you’re much more open.
Christopher Nolan: I don’t think exclusively in terms of darkness and light—I do think of that, but I also think in terms of what I would call bleakness and richness, and I would prefer my films not to be too bleak, though there are definitely bleak elements, particularly in Memento, where the challenge was to bring an emotional richness to something that was inherently bleak. Insomnia was similar—I did feel confident in Batman Begins that we had taken material that was in its raw form bleak and give it an emotional resonance that was warmer, if you like.
Scott Holleran: Do you ever want to do something light and frothy?
Christopher Nolan: I guess I need a degree of seriousness. People have asked if I was interested in doing a comedy or something funny, and I find my films funny, actually, because, to me, what’s funny is serious stuff, where somewhere in there is something sardonic.
Scott Holleran: Do you make a distinction between dark and serious?
Christopher Nolan: Yes. There is a difference. [With Batman Begins], I wanted something serious that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Originally published in 2005 on Box Office Mojo