I never considered myself a lucky person,” says the 34-year-old director of Batman Begins. ‘I’m the most extraordinary pessimist. I truly am.” Sorry? Christopher Nolan is the most meteorically successful filmmaker the United Kingdom has ever produced. When I first met Nolan in late 1999, he was a 29-year-old eagerly publicising his micro-budget debut, Following, as it received a tiny cinema release.
Now, just more than five years later, Nolan is back in the UK, strapped into the cabin of what Warner Bros hopes will be one of the season’s biggest blockbusters.
What’s extra unsettling about Nolan is that he is a transparently decent, self-deprecating, thoroughly nice chap. He doesn’t seem to have changed in the slightest since the Following days: no temper tantrums, snottiness or bags under the eyes. He looks like an overgrown schoolboy.
Then there’s the fact that Nolan owes practically nothing to the development system in the British film industry that is supposed to nurture talent like his. A ‘stack of rejection letters” greeted his early forays into filmmaking.
‘I don’t dispute that it’s ironic that it was Warner Bros that brought me back to film in England. But there’s a very limited pool of finance in the UK,’’ he says. ‘It’s a very clubby kind of place. In Hollywood there’s a great openness, almost a voracious appetite for new people. In England there’s a great suspicion of the new. When you’re trying to break into the film industry, it’s definitely a bad thing.
‘I never had any luck with interesting people in small projects when I was doing Following. Never had any support whatsoever from the British film industry, other than Working Title, the company that [producer] Emma Thomas was working for at the time.’’
Maybe luck doesn’t come into it. Nolan’s ascension to the top of the cinematic tree in double-quick time is clearly the product of hard work, sound career management and an ability to get things done. But, most importantly, it’s about ambition. ‘I sometimes think how strange it is that I’ve got to do exactly what I want, and that is difficult to cope with. You have to remind yourself every few weeks: I’m making this film and this is exactly what I want to do. And suddenly you’re happy again.’’
So what was the turning point? Nolan says that it was getting hired to direct Insomnia—his third film, an Al Pacino vehicle and his first major studio production—before Memento was released. ‘This was at a point when I wasn’t entirely sure that it was ever going to come out. But Memento was so successful, such a huge cult hit, almost on the scale of a large film. If that had happened, with all the acclaim, before the next job, I’d have found it very difficult to figure out what to do next. I ended up doing something very different, which was very good for me.’‘
Insomnia—a remake of a Norwegian film about an obsessed detective — may have put Nolan into the big league, but a Batman movie is another level again. First and foremost, Nolan has had to grapple with the legacy of the Joel Schumacher Batman films, the last of which, Batman and Robin, was famously torpedoed by streams of abuse on Internet fan sites. One attempt after another to resuscitate the profitable franchise has failed to get off the ground. By the time Nolan came into the picture, around two and a half years ago, he says, he was looking at a blank slate.
‘When I was looking for what to do next, one of the things I heard about was that Warner Bros were looking to restart Batman. The great part was that they wanted to refresh and invigorate the franchise, but didn’t have any specific concepts and were essentially looking for someone to come in and tell them what to do. It’s pretty unusual to have this sort of movie up for grabs.’’
Warner Bros, mindful of the Batman and Robin fiasco, went to considerable lengths to keep a lid on its plans.
‘We sidestepped the usual studio shenanigans because of all the security on the project. We had the heads of the studio come to our house to look at things and read the script. We built a plastic model of the Batmobile in the garage. The last thing we wanted was for any early ideas to get out there and be rejected by the fans and the Internet guys.’’
So what is his take on the mat-erial? ‘The origin story was the bit that had never been told. I wanted to try to do it in a more realistic fashion than anyone had ever tried to a superhero film before. I wanted to make the Batman epic you expected to have been made in 1979.”
Batman Begins deals with its central figure as a study in psychological damage. Nolan isn’t afraid to wax a little philosophical about the caped crusader, something that will no doubt endear him to the devoted fans out there. ‘Superheroes fill a gap in the pop culture psyche. For me, Batman is the one that can most clearly be taken seriously. He’s not from another planet or filled with radioactive gunk. Batman is more like Hercules: he’s a human being, very flawed, and bridges the divide.’’
He talks again about wanting to make the kind of large-scale entertainment that he had enjoyed watching while growing up, and it becomes clear why Nolan didn’t mind sacrificing the indie-auteur reputation he acquired as a result of Following and Memento.
‘Part of your brain just switches off. You can’t think about the size of it, or you won’t make the film. I made Batman the way I made every other film, and the film, truly, is exactly the way I wanted it to be.’’
These can’t be the words of a real-life pessimist, surely? But Nolan pulls it out the bag. ‘I can’t blame the studio or anything like that. If the film doesn’t work, it’s my fault. If I fail, I fail on my own terms.’’—