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Four Things I Learned From Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan

It’s dangerous to say things around me sometimes. Because I get ideas. For example, since Inception came out on Blu-Ray last week, Thespia had occasion to say: “That Christopher Nolan sure can think big.” And I agreed. And thought that Mr. Nolan might have some lessons for us. Besides, you know, how to get revenge for your dead wife and strike fear into criminals and whatnot. So, thinking along those lines, here’s what I came up with.

1. Think Big. No, Seriously. Bigger Than That.

So take a look at Nolan’s career and get to Batman Begins. Consider this: you’re a guy who had previously done a critically-acclaimed feature film and then a thriller with Pacino and Williams…and you then go to Warner Brothers and say, in essence, “Yeah, that superhero franchise you completely screwed up. No, no…not the one with the red and blue spandex, the other one. Yes, that one. Give me that.” That takes a wheelbarrow for your balls right there, friends. But Nolan did it–with some help–and as a result, gave us one of the best superhero films to date. And then along comes the sequel which is not only one of the best superhero flicks ever, but proves that comic book characters–done well–can make craploads of money. So Nolan basically changed the game for everybody. You can’t do a superhero movie now without bringing up Dark Knight in the same way that you can’t do a fantasy film without bringing up Lord of the Rings.

[ad#rightpost]And speaking of Dark Knight, talk about thinking big: compare Nolan’s sequel to Burton‘s. One is a sprawling epic crime drama that just happens to have some costumed loonies in it and the other is…well, Batman Returns.

Thinking big got Nolan propelled into being able to basically write his own ticket in Hollywood. And he could soon save that other red and blue franchise as well. Could he have fallen on his face? Oh sure. But you can’t win big without betting big. Of course, you have to bet smart too, but go ahead: line up the sights and fire.

2. Plan Ahead. If Necessary, Way Ahead.

Inception had been running around Nolan’s head for about ten years. As I understand it, just like Cameron had to wait to do Avatar until technology caught up with him, Nolan had to wait until he had enough clout to get Inception made. As he mentions in the bonus features, he tried to conceive of it as a small film but it just kept getting epic. So he put Inception in the future and aimed himself at it.

What can we take from this? Well, let’s say you’ve thought big and you have X in mind. But you don’t have the means to do X yet. I say remember the word “yet” and press onward. Because if you play your cards right and don’t quit, you might find yourself ready for X. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single hop and a skip and all that. If you don’t have a plan and don’t move towards that plan, you’ll never get anywhere.

3. People Are Less Intimated By the Complex Than You Think.

I think it was in Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You where he talks about how television is actually improving rather than it rotting our brains from the inside out. He relates how Lost simply wouldn’t have happened 10-15 years ago. Or something close to that. The point being that a show with that many characters and as many plotlines as the thing had (or tried to have)…it would never have made it. Think about your favorite TV shows. Are among them titles like The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and yes, even The Walking Dead? Inability to air “questionable” content aside, can you imagine those airing 10-15 years ago?

The success of Nolan’s works like Dark Knight and Inception just go to show that you don’t have to have a completely linear, simple storyline to please the masses. Do we like to sit down and watch something stupid where we can turn off our brains? Sure. But there’s apparently still room at the box office for something that fires on all cylinders: action films that have complex plots and actually make you think about what you’ve seen.
Now I know what you’re thinking: you can probably rattle off a number of “complex” bits of media that didn’t blow up the box office (or the Billboard Top 100 or the New York Times bestseller list or what have you). Oh sure, Dark Knight had a perfect storm of publicity (some of it extremely unfortunate) leading up to its release. That cannot be denied. And would Inception done as well if Nolan had been able to go straight to it from Memento? Probably not. My point is not that complex automatically equals success and/or profit.

My point instead is that the right complex storyline/media project in front of the right eyeballs at the right time can win. And I think people actually do crave things that make them think. But how do you line up the stars so you can make the winning move? That part somebody has to show me–if I knew it, I’d be busy doing it instead of writing a blog list. Unless…perhaps this is part of my Grand Plan (See #2).

4. The More You Can Do For Real, The Better.

Audiences know the difference. Even when they don’t. That’s why when you watch the bonus features on, say, Dark Knight and Inception, you realize things like: “Holy crap, they actually did flip a semi in the middle of Chicago.” Or “Holy crap, they actually built a 100-foot rotating corridor.” I think we can tell CG from reality and thus those scenes hit home much more than if they had been faked up in post.

How we apply this to ourselves is to go for substance rather than fluff. Because just like we crave the complex, we crave substance. You can get fluff anywhere. You can get CG anywhere. But actual things are rarer and do impress.

Does this mean that Zack Snyder should really stop dry-humping his green screen setup? Nah. Just like there’s a place for turning off your mind, there’s a place for just going balls to the wall unreal. 300 would not have been nearly as much fun if it had been “real,” but that was the film’s intention–not a way to save money. Just like Aronofsky and Pi–he shot it in black and white. Not to save money, it was actually more expensive. He just wanted to go for that feel.

I guess the point here is: don’t be lazy. When in doubt, go for the real.

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