Christopher Nolan is one of the most influential, revered and successful directors of his time, creating a seemingly endless run of expectation-defying movies – but his rise is also the reason behind some of the key problems in modern Hollywood. When we talk about Nolan’s influence, it tends to center on two key things: the brooding darkness and PG-13-pushing of The Dark Knight Trilogy, and the high concept storytelling of his original projects from Memento to Interstellar. These have certainly had a major impact on blockbuster cinema, although to take in the scope what he’s truly done, we need to step outside of the movies’ actual content and look at how he’s altered the studio approach.
Nolan is from the generation of Star Wars-inspired directors; he was drawn to filmmaking by George Lucas’ space fantasy and after making Super 8 films as a teenager transferred that into a formalized education, studying film at UCL and making typically experimental shorts. While his feature debut is the lesser-seen Following (a student film in all practicalities, although not one without hints at future greatness), the big step was Memento; his revenge drama in reverse got massive attention and marked him out as one to watch. Next up was remake Insomnia, but then – after just three films, two of which were moderate successes – he was handed the keys to the castle. Warner Bros. wanted to save Batman from the Schumacher era and so they got Nolan to craft a top-down new take on the Caped Crusader, and both the character and his career just went from strength to strength.
While the rise to Batman Begins is certainly swift and impressive, what Nolan’s done since is perhaps even more remarkable. He took Batman to heights hitherto only reached by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, seeing The Dark Knight to a billion dollar haul, and then when gifted a blank cheque to make his long-gestating passion project Inception didn’t miss a step, turning in an emotional, high-minded blockbuster that made $825 million (only a fraction less than the Batman flick). And while more recent fare The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar have been more experimental and thus divisive (mainly due to vastly increased ambition), he’s continued to only more success.
No matter how you measure it – reviews, audience assessment, box office, lasting legacy – Christopher Nolan is the ideal blockbuster filmmaker. So it’s little wonder studios have tried to find another.
The Real Nolan Influence
That first step in Nolan’s journey – the jump from small movies to a massive studio tentpole – is hardly groundbreaking by today’s standards. In the just the past few months we’ve had Dean Israelite on Power Rangers, Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman and Jon Watts on Spider-Man: Homecoming making similar steps. You could also throw Rian Johnson on Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Taika Waitti on Thor: Ragnarok in there; they’re more established in the industry but their new films are still a massive increase in scale. This isn’t just one way to do things either: it’s the way. Gareth Edwards on Godzilla, Colin Trevorrow on Jurassic World, Marc Webb on The Amazing Spider-Man, most of Marvel’s recent hires; plucking an indie star out of immense but lesser-seen success is the way you make a blockbuster in the 2010s.
But back in 2005, it was a pretty unprecedented move. You had director wunderkinds, sure, but they grew off their previous successes, not promise of potential. Going back a couple of decades, while George Lucas and Steven Spielberg both rose to hitherto unbelievable heights, they did that by first making low-budget films mid-range successes and then the mid-budget projects they received off the back of that into all-timers (Star Wars cost $11 million, a mere $44 million in today’s money). And even then they were subject to continued studio pressures – Spielberg went into Raiders of the Lost Ark unwanted by Paramount and immense pressure to prove himself a frugal, timely director. There was no free pass. People would make jumps, but the indie darling done good really only became the go-to when Nolan brought continued success to Warner Bros.; everybody wanted a similarly loyal, driven filmmaker.
The problem here isn’t that the resulting films haven’t worked or the talent is undeserving of praise – many of the movies cited above are good. It’s that Hollywood has tried to replicate Nolan without quite understanding the full scope of his success.
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