Monday, July 26, 2010

Christopher Nolan's Early Years

About a decade ago I was tipped off to an odd, inscrutable film by a budding English director living in LA. Christopher Nolan's Memento, which starred Guy Pearce in an ill-fitting pale suit and bleached hair, knocked me out, and I spent an afternoon talking about movies, memory and fragmented narrative with the 30-year old director at his apartment near the LACMA while he played Radiohead's Kid A on a boom box.

I just dug up my old New Times cover story, "Indie Angst," because of Nolan's new film Inception, and part of what's striking is how much a struggle the director went through to get that early film shown. For reasons I have never understood, the company that owns New Times does not keep an online archive for the LA paper, but thanks to the UC Berkeley film archives you can read the story here.

Memento, of course, is one of the most original movies of the last 20 years, with a bizarre structure -- a few minutes of exposition, then a violent jump back to a previous sequence -- that should not have worked but somehow did.

Nolan talked about how the novel had spent more than a half century messing with chronology -- he was especially interested in Graham Swift's Waterland -- and discussed Harold Pinter and his interest in noir writers like Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and James Ellroy.

"The only useful definition of narrative I've ever heard," Nolan told me, "is 'the controlled release of information.' And these novelists and playwrights -- they're not feeling any responsibility to make that release on a chronological basis. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we don't feel that responsibility in day-to-day life."

Of all the filmmakers I interviewed during my years at New Times -- Labute, Linklater, Solondz, Spike Jonze, Kevin Smith, the Blair Witch guys -- Nolan was among the smartest, the most sure of himself, and the last one I would have expected would be making blockbuster movies.

Nolan's lean, mean, Hitchcock-inspired debut, Following, was made with borrowed equipment from his British university and almost no money. "For me it's very satisfying filmmaking, because the only sacrifices are practical ones. The filmmaking process in my head, the imaginative process, was identical to making a film for millions of dollars. When I made a film with a bigger budget, I realized it's the same thing. You've just got more trucks."

One thing I don't recall discussing with Nolan, by the way, was comic books.

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