Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Christopher Nolan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"It's just not that common that someone as creatively inspired as Chris just gets carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wants. Anything he can think of"”anything"”he got to do it." Joseph Gordon Levitt, on Christopher Nolan

One thing that is important to realize when considering the auteur theory, something that we have struggled with throughout the last year of this feature, is the collaborative nature of film. It can be difficult to argue for a single author of a film that involved the work of hundreds of people. Studios and producers can require input, screenwriters can exert their own voice, actors can change lines or even plot points, cinematographers can contribute a feel all their own to the film, and even costume designers, location scouts, and stunt coordinators can all play an essential role in putting together a complete film. Especially in our current age, many films are made or broken by studio executives based on very brief pitches.

So it is fitting that the final director I will cover in this first run of Whose Film Is It Anyway? columns is one of the few auteurs working today who has managed to solve this problem of studio interference and make big budget movies his own way. How has Christopher Nolan transcended the standard problems that plague a director of blockbuster movies? It's simple, really: he made a fuck-ton of money (to be clear, "fuck-ton" is more an estimate than an actual scientific or mathematical term). Rather than examining the recurrent themes or technical accomplishments of Nolan's career (though both could easily be the subject of a full column), I want to take this opportunity to look at the evolution of the auteur, from his humble independent roots to his huge budget freedoms, hopefully shedding some light on a path to vast success and unlimited influence for an auteur along the way.

Nolan started his directorial career with Following, a neo-noir released in 1998 and filmed for just $6,000. Shot using a cast who was working full time and locations made up mostly of the houses of his family and friends, the film follows a young man (Jeremy Theobald) who is drawn into the life of serial burglar Cobb (Alex Haw) and becomes increasingly involved in an underworld he fails to understand. The film introduces several tendencies that will recur throughout his work (non-linear storytelling, twist endings, noir-ish themes and even a man named Cobb will all be seen again in his career), but most importantly proved that Nolan could, and would, shoot a movie for little to no money in order to retain full artistic freedom.

After the critical success of his first film, Nolan was able to secure almost $5 million to produce his follow-up, Memento. Based on a short story written by his brother Jonathan and a screenplay he wrote himself, Memento follows Leonard (Guy Pearce), a man inflicted with anterograde amnesia who is searching for his wife's killer (dead wives and lovers are another recurring element to Nolan's oeuvre). Playing out in reverse order, the movie plays with notions of identity and reality, both of which are central themes Nolan returns to repeatedly. The movie scored two Oscar nominations (Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing), and got Nolan his first studio directing job.

Nolan directed the 2002 remake of the Norwegian film Insomnia next, working with his largest budget to date by far ($46 million) and working for the first time with the studio he has remained with to this day, Warner Bros. A psychological thriller following two detectives (Al Pacino and Martin Donovan) out to investigate a murder in a town afflicted with perpetual daylight, the film examines perception, memory, guilt and ethical compromises, effectively recasting the original film for American audiences (who, of course, hate subtitles).

Following the success of Insomnia, Nolan convinced Warner Bros. to take a chance on him for the revival of the Batman franchise, which had been dead ever since Batman and Robin killed anyone's desire to ever see a Batman movie again. Fortunately, Nolan aimed for a more grounded approach to the story, and the resultant Batman Begins cemented him as a blockbuster director capable of handling big budget projects and turning them into hits. Unlike most big budget productions, Nolan refused to use a second unit (generally a back up team that shoots less important scenes, like establishing shots and cut aways, while the first unit shoots the big scenes with the actors or action set pieces) in order to keep his vision consistent. The film also plays with several of Nolan's pet themes, examining fear, duality, father figures and differing notions of justice.

Nolan had been working on his next film, The Prestige for years, having been approached with the novel and having tasked his brother with the writing of the screenplay (which he eventually revised and rewrote, earning himself a screenplay credit as well). Working with a smaller budget than Batman Begins, Nolan was able to secure himself the freedom he needed to structure the film in his own inventive, nonlinear style to mirror the three elements of the illusion in the film: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The film thematically mirrors much of Nolan's other work (focusing again on perception, duality, and obsession) and performed well at the box office.

Nolan achieved his biggest success, however, and the film that has assured him the freedom he now enjoys, was 2008's smash hit The Dark Knight, which became the highest grossing film ever made, if only you don't count that James Cameron guy. Arguably the apex of Nolan's career, The Dark Knight plays with most of Nolan's recurring themes while also serving as a meditation on terrorism, the limits of vigilantism, and the lengths a person must go to in order to truly battle evil.


After the monumental success of The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. was desperate to entice Nolan to return for a third time to the franchise. While this has never been confirmed, it is widely rumored that Nolan agreed to direct a third Batman movie if Warner Bros. would allow him total freedom to create the big budget project of his dreams: Inception. Based on an idea that had plagued him since high school and working off of a screenplay he had written over the course of the previous decade, Inception takes Nolan's recurring questions about perception and reality, his predilection for dead wives, and the big budget aesthetic he has developed since Batman Begins and creates his most personal and original film to date.

Inception is more important, though, for what it represents than for what it is actually about. Based solely on his previous successes (and theoretically the promised future success of another smash hit Batman movie), Christopher Nolan was able to get Warner Bros. to hand him $160 million to make an incredibly high concept and complex movie exactly the way he wanted to. When he decided he wanted the trailers to reveal nothing of the plot, they acquiesced. When he chose to leave the ending ambiguous, they relented. When he wanted to build a rotating set and shoot Joseph Gordon Levitt in zero gravity, he was allowed to. All of this is important because of what it says about the potential of the auteur theory. Christopher Nolan has achieved a remarkable level of success, but he has managed to do so without ever compromising his vision, instead figuring out how to incorporate it so successfully that he can make pretty much any movie he wants at this point and set his own budget.

Movies are made through the collaboration of hundreds of people in one capacity or another. Most auteurs earn the label by transcending these challenges and miraculously leaving their own mark on their movies, even in spite of the pitfalls and people that often stand in the way of just that. Christopher Nolan is a different sort of auteur, though. Where most auteurs work within the confines of the system, Nolan has remade the system to allow himself the freedom he wants and the money he needs to communicate his vision. By using his vast marketability as leverage, he has managed to become the sort of director who can make any movie he wants, at any price, and always manage to ensure that it is completely and utterly his own.

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5/8: Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011

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