Director Bennett Miller went mano a mano with director Christopher Nolan Monday evening before a packed, film-crazy crowd at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Actually, the Tribeca Film Festival event was more bromance than smackdown, as Miller (Foxcatcher, Moneyball, Capote) played admiring interlocutor to the amiable Nolan (Interstellar, Inception, Memento). Their only prior work together had been in the area of keeping the use of film stock alive.
After running through Nolan’s C.V., Miller wondered whether the London-born director saw a “continuity of themes” as his canvas expanded from the intimacy of Memento (2000) to the scale of spectacle in Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014)?
Not really, Nolan replied: “I try and begin every film with some interesting questions. If there’s some continuity, I’m not very conscious of it – except for leaving questions at the end of the film.”
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Were he to look at all his films, he admitted, “I’d certainly see a lot of the same shots. I try not to think too much and to feel it a bit more.” One motivation, he said, was speed, because he can see his kids playing on the lawn outside – and would really prefer hanging with them.
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‘Memento is a classic example of what can happen when you don’t know what you’re doing.’
Time to try a new tack. What’s your first film memory, Miller asked.
“Seeing Snow White in re-release,” Nolan, 43, instantly replied. “I was absolutely terrified.”
By the time he was 7 years old, he’d begun borrowing his father’s Super 8 camera and making short films. One of the first was a Star Wars homage called Space Wars, he noted with a self-deprecating chuckle. He’d recently shown it to his children, only to discover it wasn’t very good, which was something of a letdown.
“I remember them the way I wanted them to be,” he said. As a young filmmaker he as influenced by Ridley Scott‘s Alien and Blade Runner, and his first mentor was director Stephen Frears. What advice had Frears tendered?
“Be a lucky man,” Nolan said, to laughter from the audience. “And get a script. Don’t always be waiting for the real film to come along – the film you’re making may be the real film.”
Nolan seemed nostalgic for his salad days.
“Memento is a classic example of what can happen when you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “As you learn more and more, it gets harder and harder to put aside the rules.”
Making unconventional films, he added, is precarious business: “It can be very difficult to gauge when to fight for an idea. Not every counterintuitive choice you make is going to be wise.”
Nolan’s next big influence was Steven Soderbergh, he said: “He was a tremendous influence – but one of the things he taught me was that it’s a very individual pursuit.”
Asked what sequence he was most proud of, Nolan drew silent, tried to demur, and then described the panning that went into the airplane sequence that opens The Dark Knight Rises, the culmination of “months and months of work.”
The evening’s best laugh came near the end of the hour-long conversation, when an audience member started to ask about the ending of Inception. The mere suggestion of the question elicited a roar from the crowd.
Noted Miller: “I asked him that myself before we came out. He said it’s not for public consumption.” Nolan said he’d long ago learned his lesson about sharing his notions of his movies’ endings, and now preferred to let them linger, in ambiguity.
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