Books / Film

Book Review: Christopher Nolan – The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work by Ian Nathan [2022]

Remember Sammy Jankis.

My first memory, curiously, of Christopher Nolan was the mighty mind-bending Memento, starring Guy Pearce. A truly magnificent film and life in reverse, putting us firmly in the mind of lead character Leonard and unknowingly inviting us in to join his unravelling of the mystery he finds himself in, complete with amnesia and a murder to solve.

He had me hooked. From start to finish, and back again, and with it the beginning of ‘have you seen *this* film?’ began, from friend to friend, and then to the intrigue of seeing if Nolan had further work and I’ve never stopped looking since. You see, films like Memento and his debut Following, came out before social media in the form it is now, and I’m so glad. There’s nothing quite like an organic build of excitement, and I mean that in a non-tech sense, this was word of mouth – quite literally.

Some 22 years on from then, we’ve had Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, he also wrote the story for Man Of Steel (which is why it’s such a good film), then onto Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet and next year sees the release of Oppenheimer – and his unique talent for telling an encompassing story to a wide-as-possible audience has not faltered, and I sincerely hope that distinctiveness continues.

With Ian Nathan’s Christopher Nolan: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work, although unofficial and with a title that cuts straight to the point of the approach, we’re getting a lot more celebration and discussion over his impact on the modern film industry, but also of the ideas that he brings to the big screen – as well as the trust he places in his audiences to take on high concepts and embrace them.

For example, remember really enjoying 2002’s Insomnia, not just because it took Robin Williams and gave us one of his best dramatic performances, but also Al Pacino in the peaks of his power – and then we went somewhere else with a dark, atmospheric detective story that played with the very nature of time and our minds. His themes were settling. Curiously, I’ve now got family connections to where it was filmed, and who thought that kind of synchronicity could come full circle, which is interesting considering Nolan’s love of time and the mysteries of our reality.

Whilst I think it helped that big-named ‘stars’ wanted to work with him early on, especially after the success of Memento in an original-film-making sense, his work on Batman Begins stepped up the excitement. I recall watching that at the cinema, having always been a fan of the Batman – and especially Tim Burton’s film two films, but here was something different, something fantastical and grounded that also featured a new Dark Knight in Christian Bale, who at that point was on a creative high of great performances, as well as spots for already iconic actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, plus rising star Cillian Murphy and even Katie Holmes giving one of her best, something I still think she’s undervalued for. I mean, how do you gather a cast like that, for such an iconic character but with so little fanfare? It’s simple. Nolan had a vision of something different, more authentic, and the actors believed in him.

Nathan’s book delves into these types of scenarios, the introduction discusses his unique approach but also his love for the mystery box and giving that to the audience but not always offering complete answers, which is something I admire from J.J. Abrams, who also implements that world in his work, and while J.J. might be a bit more geeky (a positive thing), Nolan puts it out to the world and has the backing of the biggest film studios. The Intro talks of his love for Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick and, when you think about it, in some ways he’s a good mix of those: Fusing big questions, with big stories – whilst offering a way into it for everyone.

Section ‘The Hybrid Kid’ examines into this early life and, as that subject header suggests, tells us of his discovery of University College London’s filmmaking equipment, waiting to be unearthed beneath the Bloomsbury Theatre. He wasn’t alone though, as he setup a small film club/gathering with then friend Emma Thomas, who’d become his life partner and an ace producer in her own right. During that time, they’d screen films like Blade Runner and in his own time, he’d teach himself how to literally edit film, and learnt in the ‘school of’ just getting on with – purely for the love of making films, which are similar the stories we hear from some of the best, like Spielberg for example.

Whilst it probably helped that his father worked in and around film, as a creative director in an advertising company, it still helped fuel his love for film from a young age, and then when the tools came into focus, and we all see that evidence on screen now. It’s also interesting that while I don’t think he’s an outsider, you wonder if his life from growing up as both an American and an Englishman stemmed that escapism of the mysterious but also of possibility, and stories beyond the usual that you’d see on the big screen. The book also discusses the interesting point that maybe Nolan learned, inside the boarding and public-school world, how to negotiate your own desires inside a system – and that’s a fair notion, as it can be a gift to know how to work people on all sides of life, especially in a creative sense.

Much like Ridley Scott, another influence on Nolan’s progression which is discussed in more detail in the book, Nolan’s films and visions are all about ‘feeling’ and that’s another chief reason I enjoy his films, it’s the journey of believing the story, through fascinating characters and an equal measure of entertainment. The book offers a decent discussion on all these elements, and a whole lot more, so if you’re a fan of the director, and don’t know everything already, then you’ll flourish accordingly. It delves into his early filmmaking techniques during the likes of Following, and his process from research and advice from family, which in turn reminded me how well-researched Ian’s book is as well, giving it a deserved spot as a ‘go to’ insight on the director, that also comes in a very nice, hardback book and hard sleeve to give it that professional, official-esque look.

As well as working chronologically through Nolan’s films, Ian Nathan’s book is also complete with little side sections that also discuss his short films, his other work outside directing, and also the actual science he regularly endeavours to implement in these huge visions, which is another part that truly captures me – especially in the worlds of Inception and Interstellar. Nolan’s work with nonlinear chronology, the question of identity, and how memory treats us all is something that fascinates me, and I also wrote a feature about the psychology within his lead characters – have a read right here.

Over a good 170 pages or so, Christopher Nolan: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work is brilliantly examined, and it’s not just a quick guide to his films, it goes a level deeper, and I think that respect for Nolan’s work comes from Nathan probing an unfathomable amount of articles but from all that work, giving his career the time it deserves. It takes us from those early days to the edges of his work now, and what an incredible two decades of film for the now world-renowned director and filmmaker. When you think about the talent he’s worked with as well, which has been A-List (and on top of that the legendary David Bowie), and how it has aided actors to career-defining performances, this is completely worth your sofa time to revisit his past, to enjoy what he has attained and even for what’s to come in his 12th film as director, the deeply intriguing, Oppenheimer – coming to cinemas next year.

Now… where was I?

Christopher Nolan: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work is out now – Order it here: https://amzn.to/3Sxkqzl

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