You can go home again, it turns out. Christopher Nolan, who works on larger scale studio films than just about any director in Hollywood, took time out from posting his time travel tentpole Interstellar to fly in to the Slamdance Film Festival and accept the fest’s inaugural Founder’s Award. Flanked by his wife/producing partner Emma Thomas, their children and longtime agent Dan Aloni, Nolan recalled the days 15 years ago when he came to Slamdance a wide-eyed first timer with his directing debut, Following. Gazing out at an audience of indie filmmakers crammed into the cramped space where the fest shows movies at the Treasure Mountain Inn, Nolan opined that nothing had changed from his last visit here, and recalled braving the cold and personally papering Main Street with his Xeroxed one-sheets for his $6000 budget film, and reacting giddily when Following was panned by Weekly Variety (who was that genius reviewer?) simply because it meant somebody noticed.
“What Slamdance teaches you is that while it’s wonderful to have a great community of filmmakers around you, you have to be prepared to do everything yourself,” said Nolan, interviewed by Slamdance president Peter Baxter. “That’s something that never goes away…you have to be prepared to carry the flag for the film because if you’re not, nobody else is going to bother. The tricky thing is, it can seem like arrogance because it’s the film you made, but there’s no way around it. You just have to do it.” Asked how he made the transition to large-scale budgets while many others flounder when they step up to that sandbox, Nolan said the key was taking incremental steps, and trying to look at each project from the vantage point of an audience member, making sure as director your vision matches up with a studio’s expectation of the film it will receive for its investment. It is sound advice; how many times have we seen directors become insulated, go way over budget and deliver a mess of a picture, pissing off a studio to the point it writes off the film as a failure, cuts its losses and doesn’t spend P&A, and stunts the filmmaker’s trajectory?
The question that made me chuckle was one asked by Blake Robbins, the former star of the HBO series Oz who just finished his directing debut, The Sublime And Beautiful, which made its Slamdance debut today. Robbins clearly wasn’t far removed from marathon editing sessions when he asked Nolan if he found a moment in the editing room where he hated each of his films. Nolan confessed that when his editor puts together a rough assemblage, he tries not to watch it. “It’s four hours long and it’s terrible and I don’t want to start from that place,” Nolan said. “I want to start from a sense of possibility…when we were cutting Inception, I remember we got to reel three and it was completely incomprehensible. And when I looked back at the script for that part of the film, it was not that different.”
It made me laugh because I recall speaking with some of the Warner Bros executives who were in the room when Nolan pitched his vision for Inception. Several confessed later that even though Nolan gave a detailed and exuberant presentation, the concept was so complex that they smiled, nodded — and didn’t get it at all. But they also weren’t going to let another studio jump on it and perhaps steer Nolan away so they committed to a huge budget and a green light, taking it on faith that their resident hitmaker knew what he was doing. It seems somehow poignant that even a confident helmer like Nolan had to find his way through one of the best-executed and most creatively ambitious studio blockbusters of the last 20 years.
Nolan talked about how Brad Pitt read Memento but passed on it, but described that as lucky because just having word circulate that Pitt had read it gave the script momentum and got it to the attention of Guy Pearce. Nolan felt that rejection paved the way for his breakthrough film and it reinforced a valuable adage for the newbie filmmakers here. It is hard to make movies at any level, and you never know where the break is going to come from, the one that gets your foot in the door. If you’re talented and dogged enough, you will find your way in.