Christopher Nolan is arguably the most popular film maker in the world. After making a splash with Memento, he helped redefine the superhero film for the modern era. He also developed a reputation for brainy, puzzle-like thrillers. One of his favorite themes is the subjective nature of time – The Prestige jumps around in chronology, and there is a scene in Interstellar where entire decades pass in an instant – but for all his innovative approaches to narrative, Nolan can be a traditional filmmaker. He refuses to shoot with digital cameras, for one thing, and prefers practical effects over computer-generated ones. Contradictions like this should make him a fascinating interview subject, and yet his recent talk at the Library of Congress was mostly boilerplate, with the filmmaker almost shy about his career and influence.
Nolan is a member of the National Film Preservation Board, and its annual meeting is ostensibly why he was in town last Thursday. Along with other board members, Nolan debates and decides which twenty-five films they want to add to the film registry, with a focus on what has the most historical and cultural influence. Last year, for example, the Board added everything from The Lion King to The Birds, and back in the 1990s the board added the Zapruder film to its archive. Neither Nolan nor his interviewer, head librarian Carla Hayden, disclosed any of the films they decided for this year. Instead, the talk focused on two main areas: the value of celluloid film, and Nolan’s own career.
Most of the stories and anecdotes will be familiar to anyone who has watched Nolan speak in a DVD extra, or a press junket. He talked about how he saw Star Wars twelve times in the theater, to the point where he wore out his father’s patience. He talked about how the through line of Alien to Blade Runner helped him make sense of what a director does.
Dunkirk, Nolan’s most recent film, came up because of how Nolan once tried to traverse the English Channel via boat, only to have the trip be much more challenging than he ever thought. He was deferential and attentive, if a little bored – due in no small part that he probably spent the entire day arguing about movies – and Nolan has surely heard Hayden’s line of questioning dozens of times before.
The most interesting part of the talks were Nolan’s reasons for preserving celluloid, as opposed to keeping up with the latest digital technology. He suggests that film negatives and celluloid “are their medium,” whereas constant digital improvements mean that the average old film has no authoritative digital copy. There is merit to that – Nolan notes how his films now exist in VHS, DVD, VOD, and Blu Ray formats – and yet his preferences come with an economic privilege he never acknowledges.
Many important modern filmmakers would not have careers today if they did not have access to inexpensive, affordable digital cameras. The Registry only adds a film if they can have a celluloid copy of it, which means they may not even consider modern digital masterpieces like Zero Dark Thirty and Zodiac. Nolan positions himself as one of the last holdouts, a quixotic champion of a dying twentieth century format, and I would have liked to see Hayden push him on the challenges/limits of of preservation.
Other amusing contradictions come up Nolan’s talk. He notes how he prefers to cast younger characters with age-appropriate actors, but at age twenty-five Barry Keoghan played a teenager in Dunkirk. Mere moments after saying how much he loves working with actors, he name checked Malick’s The Thin Red Line, a film that is notorious for how badly its cast was treated. Throughout the talk, Nolan hit the familiar hallmarks of a director in conversation: he loathes film critics, a common refrain, and his main advice to budding filmmakers is “be very lucky.” At just under an hour, this event felt like an afterthought, a chance for the non-converted to drink the celluloid Kool Aid. Nolan has strong arguments, and anyone who seriously cares about film preservation should listen to them. Still, the ease of his answers only made me wish the conversation was more of a debate.