I make mainstream films for a wide audience. I think having a little more complexities in story, something potentially confusing, that’s the fun of filmmaking. I like to pull people in a slightly different direction than they are familiar with”
A strong advocate of film preservation and big screen theatrical experience, Oscar nominee Christopher Nolan is optimistic about the future of theatres. His latest action-sci-fi thriller Tenet is in sync with his immersive, cerebral, non-linear storytelling style. It prompted us to understand and ask him about his fascination for all things complex — imagination, mechanism of time and its commonality with cinema. In an exclusive chat with Bombay Times, Chris Nolan spoke about his brand of cinema being mainstream, experience of shooting in Mumbai, wanting to have Irrfan in Interstellar and working with Dimple Kapadia in Tenet. Excerpts…
If it isn’t complex, it isn’t Nolan. Will we ever see you making a non mind-bending, uncomplicated film?
I like to do things that use convention to give the audience a certain jumping-off point. For instance (for Tenet) I have taken a spy film… the audience is familiar with that genre. There are conventions to that but I take those for granted and use those to take the audience somewhere different, somewhere more complicated or somewhere they haven’t been before. That’s my ambition for whatever genre I am working on because as an audience member, who loves movies and going to the movies, I want to experience something that I haven’t experienced before. I want to see things in a slightly new way.
You have to see Christopher Nolan’s films at least three times to understand what he is trying to say.” How would you respond to this popular opinion or observation of your work?
You’ve got to remember that I have had years and years to think about and craft these films with a great team working on it. The audience only has two and a half hours to take it away so inevitably there’s a density to it. There will be things in there that people miss the first time around that they get to see the second time if they are interested. I am happy if people want to revisit my work. If there are questions left at the end of the movie that make them want to rewatch it, that’s a wonderful thing for a filmmaker. But at the same time, a film has to be inspiring and exciting the first time you see it. It has to take you some place and give you a reason to think about it more or see it again with friends. When we are making films, there’s always a tension between what’s that first experience you get while watching it and how much of a thrill ride can we make it for you. Then the layering of ideas that might need you to go back to it come in.
Associating your complex & mind-time bending storytelling style to a German science-fiction thriller, a funny tweet read, ‘Dark is a series whose audience is Chris Nolan’. How do you perceive these witty one-liners or sarcasm if you may?
I think it’s just a level of self depreciation on the part of the audience or the person speaking for the audience. The reality is, I have been putting out films for many years on a wide scale that a lot of people have enjoyed. I make mainstream films for a wide audience. Hopefully they enjoy that. I think having a little more complexities in story, something potentially confusing, that’s the fun of filmmaking. I like to pull people in a slightly different direction than they are familiar with.
One cannot hold back from asking you about your fascination with time. Be it Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk and now Tenet. What draws you towards time the most?
I am fascinated with time because I have always lived in it like the rest of us. What I have learned over the years while exploring stories is that there’s a very unique relationship between time and cinema. My friend, visual artist Tacita Dean said something profound during a presentation in Mumbai a few years ago. I was seated in the audience. She said, “The camera sees time.” I thought about it when I was writing Tenet and it struck a chord with me. It’s true. Before the film camera, humans had no way of seeing time differently. Running something backwards or fast forward, slow motion! The birth of cinema itself lets us examine time in a way that we couldn’t before. This is why I feel time is the most cinematic subject.
In what has been a huge loss to cinema, one of our finest actors, Irrfan Khan passed away this year. You were keen on having Irrfan on board for Interstellar butthat didn’t materialise.He told Bombay Times in August 2013 that while he doesn’t have a tendency to regret what he does, not being able to work with you was one.
Yes. I did meet Irrfan for Interstellar. I was looking forward to working with him. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to do the film. He was a great actor.
Dimple Kapadia told us that she was sure she won’t get a part in Tenet but the only reason she auditioned for it was to get a picture with you.
(Laughs) Dimple is extremely self deprecating. She is an actress of supreme poise and elegance. As soon as we met, we felt a connection. What I was looking for in Priya (Dimple’s character in the film) was hidden depth, elegant facade, layered personality. She was able to project that. She gives you the shift you are looking for in her character. In our first meeting, I just put a camera on her and we tried to do a scene again and again in different ways to project different psychology of her character. That’s what I look for in an actor as a director. She is the whole package. There’s so much charisma.
You have been to Mumbai twice. You shot portions of Tenet in the city. As a director whose work takes him across the globe, what intrigued you about Mumbai the most?
Mumbai has a mixture of different architectural forms — old colonial, Gothic to modern and exciting skyline. The Scale, density of the city and number of people living there… Mumbai is vibrant, unique and extremely striking. For a filmmaker who hasn’t been there before, to see it all with fresh eyes, you try to take it all in and capture it on camera as much as possible. Having seen the city from the ground, I wanted to take some aerial helicopter shots of the skyline. I was able to do that and that was an unique opportunity. The Mumbai shots speak for themselves. They are one of the grandest scenes in Tenet and we have shot all over the world.
You have always been a huge supporter of the big screen. The pandemic has affected the theatre business globally. Do you see them bouncing back anytime soon?
People will always love the feeling of coming together to watch a great story. The pandemic has made us unable to do that for some time but in long term…. it’s something that you will always want to do.
This phase has been very hard on exhibitors and people working in theatres. But I feel people’s desire to watch films on the big screen is undiminished. People are hungry to get back to theatres when it’s safe to do so. Once this crisis passes, in the long run, I feel very optimistic about the future of film.
Was Robert Pattinson’s look in Tenet inspired by you? He looks oddly similar to you in the film.
You have to ask Robert that but If I had an influence on his look, it was purely unconscious. He wasn’t honest with me if that is what he was intending (laughs). If he was being mischievous he never admitted so. It was fun to work with him. He is a fabulous actor. It was interesting to watch him take on a slightly burned out British character and pull it off very well.