Christopher Nolan has conjured up a career that has managed to keep both critics and audiences onside. After stumping up his own cash to finance his debut feature, he has found himself handling bigger and bigger budgets (Memento) and the odd Hollywood blockbuster (Batman Begins). He tells Donald Clarke about his latest venture, The Prestige, and explains how he's pulled it all off
LAST Sunday the Warner Brothers machine descended on London's Leicester Square to launch the bi-monthly (or so) procedure that sees red carpets laid down and spotlights trained on the heavens to provide a backdrop for the pictures of Scarlett Johansson in the next day's first editions.
Sure enough, as I am making my way to the Dorchester Hotel on Monday afternoon, the dizzyingly ubiquitous Johansson grin - visible from outer space my advisors tell me - beams out from the front page of every Evening Standard. Why bother inviting journalists to interview the director of your film when a brief wave from Scarlett will guarantee the sort of coverage normally accorded the death of a pope? Anyway, Christopher Nolan, the director of The Prestige, which offers Johansson a role as modest as the one she had in The Black Dahlia (remember the photos), has seen fit to turn up and chat to me about this and that. After that premiere in Leicester Square, Chris allowed himself a few drinks and, day following night as it does, he now admits to feeling somewhat hungover. Still he looks clean and fresh - if eerily like a younger Harry Enfield - and seems capable of stringing together impressively lengthy sentences.
Nolan is one of those rare directors who has managed to maintain the respect of snooty critics even as he has embarked on the most commercial of projects. Raised in Chicago and London, he first drew attention when he managed to squeeze Following, his micro-budget debut feature, into British cinemas in 1996. Three years later, Memento, in which Guy Pearce coped badly with losing his long-term memory, became a cult sensation. Then, in 2005, he achieved the impressive feat of finding new things to do with DC's most morose superhero in Batman Begins.
The Prestige, adapted by the director with his brother Jonathan from a novel by Christopher Priest, tells the story of a fierce rivalry between two magicians in Victorian England. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play the conjurers. Michael Caine plays an older magic expert. David Bowie turns up as Nikolas Tesla, the pioneering physicist. Scarlett Johansson's in it too. The film's title refers to the third act of a magic trick, following the Pledge and the Turn.
"Most of the films I have made so far have been self-generated," Nolan explains. "I am always looking for a project that will still be interesting two years after I begin working on it. Because that's how long it takes. I started working on this before Batman and then quickly realised I could never finish it on time. It's interesting, because directing any film changes you as a person and this film has ended up very different to how it would have been if I had made it back then."
The Prestige, though a tad overlong, has ended up as a gorgeous, spooky, properly worrying exercise in high Victoriana. One wonders how it might have differed if Nolan had got to make it three years ago. What lessons has he learned working on big-budget productions such as Batman Begins? "It is an arduous task making a movie. I mean, I don't want to complain. It's not like coalmining or whatever, but it is quite hard work. And what I have learned in the last few years - and this is what helps sustain me - is that what matters in a film is the emotional life of the characters. So The Prestige became more about emotions and less of a puzzle game than it might have been." Now this is interesting. Nolan says that he engages first with the inner life of his characters, but thumbnail treatises on his work tend to focus more closely on his inventive approach towards chronology.
Following, the story of an obsessed writer shadowing various strangers, zipped backwards and forwards through time. Memento was told backwards. The Prestige also fails to follow a conventional forward linear narrative.
"I hear it both ways," he laughs. "People who don't like my films tend to concentrate on that aspect. Broadly speaking, people who like my films seem to get the emotional side more clearly. Guy Pearce saved Memento by bringing that real emotion to it. What I had written was quite sterile and it took a performer like Guy to open it up emotionally. His performance is massively underrated."
Keeping in mind Nolan's addiction to temporal experimentation, it is probably acceptable here for us to flashback to the start of his career. Having jetted between England and the United States throughout his childhood, Christopher, born in 1970, elected to study English at University College London. He began making shorts at the college film society, but failed dismally to get agents or production companies interested in his idea for a feature. Eventually, his wife, Emma Thomas, who remains his producer, persuaded him to finance Following out of his own pocket. It ended up costing a paltry £3,000 (though these figures are notoriously unreliable).
"My wife was working for Working Title at the time and she is a real optimist. She made me apply to financing funds and other sources of revenue. I would have given up years before without her. Eventually, having received all these rejection letters, we decided just to make it ourselves."
Production companies quickly took notice of Nolan's high-quality cinematic calling card. Memento was made independently, but with a respectable enough budget and has now come to be regarded as a key film of the decade. Aside from that fixation with rearranged narrative, many of the recurring themes of Nolan's films are already on display: the devastating effect of guilt, the psychology of revenge, the persistence of memory (or its opposite).
"Memento seems to have lasting appeal beyond its initial flashiness," Nolan muses. "It lasts after the gimmickry has worn off and, again, I think that has a lot to do with Guy's performance. That gives it heart."
Moving from a shoestring operation like Following onto Memento must have been a jarring business. After that, he found himself working with Al Pacino on the powerful remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia. Then Batman, for heaven's sake. What use were his experiences on a zero-budget thriller when it came to ordering around the armies that occupy the set of a major Hollywood production? "Well yes. After Following the budget on Memento was, to me, colossal. But it was a reassuringly familiar creative process. You have to develop tunnel vision and just look at the shot - think what the story is - and not consider the trucks and hundreds of people all around. "Now, Following was great training because that was all there was there: the shot. There were just two or three of us there. That was a very useful experience."
Fair enough. But it must be enormously difficult keeping your personal vision alive on the set of a film like Batman Begins. Nonetheless, Nolan did manage it. As gloomy as Tim Burton's 1989 version, but notable less camp, the film, featuring a stern Christian Bale in the title role, stays true to the conventions of the original comic book while remaining recognisably a Nolan film.
Relations with Batman fanatics have, however, been frayed by the film-makers' refusal to release information about either Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, its upcoming sequel, in advance.
What can he tell me about the new film? "Nothing." So why the secrecy? Why not feed the internet with delicious gossip? "I think we live in an age where there is too much information about the process of making a film out there too early. When you are constructing a film it is a little like a magician creating a trick. Everything must be finished and ready to present to the audience before they see anything. Nobody takes novelists to task for not reading out chapters of their books in advance. It's a visual medium. You are spoiling the experience by showing too much too soon."
Ah yes. But look how successful Peter Jackson has been in his attempts to keep the fans informed at every step. The filming of King Kong was recorded in bewilderingly comprehensive detail on the Kiwi's website.
"I guess you go one way or the other," he concedes. "I don't know where these guys find the time, frankly. I suppose you either have complete transparency or conceal everything you can. Maybe in some perverse way they are similar approaches."
Never mind. Fans of Nolan and Bale, while they wait for The Dark Knight to show himself, should find plenty to chew on in The Prestige. One question worth pondering is whether it is proper to reveal so much about perennially popular magic tricks. Ricky Jay, the dextrous magician and powerful character actor, was on hand to teach Bale and Jackman how to palm a coin and force a card. Surely Jay must have winced to see the film reveal where doves really go when they are apparently de-materialised in a magician's cloak. And so forth.
"Well a lot of it is made up actually," Nolan smiles. "The business with the birds was made up to look visually interesting. But, oddly, my solution as to how you do it may have been very close to how they did do it. We haven't had any death threats from the Magic Circle yet anyway. But, yes, Ricky's business card as magic advisor does actually have the words 'need to know' on it. Ricky and his business colleague would make sure to tell us no more than we needed. They were constantly asking where the camera would be, so they could assess how much need be revealed."
Nolan, perhaps, delivered a conjuring trick of his own when he managed to coax a fine performance out of David Bowie. Playing Nikolas Tesla, Thomas Edison's great rival in the harnessing of electricity, the Thin White Duke is as spookily effective as he has been in anything since The Last Temptation of Christ.
"He said no at first and I had to fly out to New York and give him my best pitch for an actor: 'I can't think of anybody else who could play this part.' Usually when you say that to an actor you don't mean it. But on this one occasion I actually did mean it and it did the trick. I had been a huge Bowie fan all my life, so it was an amazing pleasure to meet him."
The Prestige does not sound like a blockbuster. But, bolstered by Ms Johansson's occupation of the nation's magazine covers, it managed to briefly top the American box-office charts. Nolan could, perhaps, be forgiven for allowing himself to succumb to arrogance. Everybody who works with him does, however, attest that he is as consistently nice and polite as he seems today in the Dorchester.
"Well I'm not the guy to ask, but I remember on Memento shouting at the script supervisor and then realising my mum was standing right behind me. She was very fed up with me and let me know it and I never did that again. It is hard to be as wonderfully nice on set as you would like. But I try never to use my frustration at the film-making process as an excuse for childish behaviour. My wife is there as a producer of course and that helps. But I don't think there is any excuse to be a prat."
His mum should be proud.