Written Interview: Christopher Nolan

January 8th, 2011 by

Terrific Q&A via Deadline with Nolan focusing on his writing process.  Some excerpts:

DEADLINE: How was writing Inception different for you?

NOLAN: What I try to do is write from the inside out. I really try to jump into the world of the film and the characters, try to imagine myself in that world rather than imagining it as a film I’m watching onscreen. Sometimes, that means I’m discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story. Other times, you’re plotting it out with diagrams and taking a very objective view. Writing, for me, is a combination of both. You take an objective approach at times to get you through things, and you take a subjective approach at other times, and that allows you to find an emotional experience for the audience. This was one of those projects that burned inside me for a long time, but I wouldn’t say in a completely unique way. I made a film earlier called The Prestige. For four or five years, that burned inside me. It was something I really wanted to crack with my brother Jonah, and eventually we did it. I certainly have other ideas I’ve not been able to crack that I see great potential in, sitting in the back of a drawer. You never quite know what you’re going to come back to and figure out how to make it work. You never quite know where that desire to finish something, or return to something in a fresh way, is going to come from. Every time I finished a film and went back and looked at it, I had changed as a person. The script was different to me. And, eventually, who I was as a writer, as a filmmaker, and what the script needed to be, all these things coincided.

DEADLINE: What breakthrough ended Inception’s 10-year script gestation period?

NOLAN: The final piece of the puzzle for me with the script I’d been trying to finish for about 10 years was figuring out how to connect emotionally with the central character in a way that would make it a more emotional story. The reason I got hung up on this is that I had first devised the rules of the world, using the heist genre as a way in. That genre embraces exposition and so it’s good for teaching a new set of rules to an audience. The problem is, heist movies tend to be a bit superficial, glamorous, and fun. They don’t tend to be emotionally engaging. What I realized after banging my head into a wall for 10 years trying to finish it is that when you’re dealing with the world of dreams, the psyche, and potential of a human mind, there has to be emotional stakes. You have to deal with issues of memory and desire. I figured out the emotional connection of the central character to the audience and made this about following his journey home to his children and his love for his wife. Those really were the final pieces of the puzzle that let me finish the script.

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DEADLINE: What advantages did writing on spec give you?

NOLAN: I had actually gone in and met with Warner Bros years before, right after I’d finished Insomnia, and described the project when I was starting to write it. They wanted to hire me then to write it, but I turned away from that opportunity. I realized with a project like Inception I would be trying to cross certain boundaries of genre and push the envelope of what mainstream movies are allowed to with an audience. I felt it very important that I develop the script on my own. I had to finish it on the page, so at least there would be a specific and clear document in front of the studio of what this film was going to be. The advantage of writing on spec was I got to really thrash out in my own head how to make these things work, and then offer it to the studio for backing and collaboration. I don’t think I would have been able to develop this with someone else. I needed to at least get the first practical draft done on my own and then bring the studio into the process.

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DEADLINE: Did Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures say yes when they read the script or did you have to show them visuals?

NOLAN: I try and get everybody on board with a project simply through the words on the page and my explanation of what I see, how I’m going to put these things onscreen and what they’re going to feel like. And so, the process of getting Inception greenlit was involving a wide group of people at Warner Bros, from creative and production, distribution and marketing. Everybody read the script. Then I came in and fielded a lot of their questions about how particular visuals were going to be done, and what the feel of the film would be, and very much about how the audience would be able to orient themselves to the film. That was always a concern by everybody who read the script. I was happy to talk about that, how we would use the design of the different dream levels to help orient the audience as the film rolls into more furious cross-cutting in the last third.

DEADLINE: How did you explain to them the three levels of dreams?

NOLAN: I told them one of the dream levels is in the rain, one of them is a night interior, one is outdoors in the snow. That meant that even in a close-up, you would be able to tell which level you were in as you cross-cut. They were very aware of the risky nature of the project, but they just got very excited about seeing the film.

Consider this quote: Writing, for me, is a combination of both. You take an objective approach at times to get you through things, and you take a subjective approach at other times, and that allows you to find an emotional experience for the audience.

Sometimes as writers, we find ourselves deep inside the story universe and that’s important for a variety of reasons: To get a sense of the reality of the place, a feel for it, to bump up against the characters, see who they are in their own environment and how they live.  I like to call this writer as observer.  But then there are times where we need to step back and outside that story universe: To shape the plot, move the characters around, influence events.  I call this writer as manipulator.   

Like Nolan says, what we do is a combination of both, each necessary, each important.  And it can be helpful to remind ourselves where we are at any given time when we’re working on our stories.

For the rest of the interview with Chris Nolan, go here.

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  1. [...] Go Into the Story has a sharp take on what the method means. [...]

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