'Knight' helmer Nolan brings an indie style to tentpole realm

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When it comes to its director, the biggest three-day opening in Hollywood history has a backstory as improbable as a caped crusader flying across a city skyline.

Less than 10 years ago, Christopher Nolan was making his debut with an indie called "Following," a fractured thriller about a writer who follows strangers. It earned $40,000. "Following" wasn't just any indie, either. Like Nolan's follow-up "Memento," the film showed an experimentally minded director intent on playing with timelines and disorienting the viewer.

While other directors have come through the indie ranks to make studio hits — Spike Lee with "Inside Man" and 1970s auteurs like Martin Scorsese with several money-minting films — most have done it over a long period, with missteps and detours back to the indie world. Nolan (along with his writing partner and brother, Jonathan) pulled it off in less than a decade, and even his most mixed result, Warners' midrange Alaskan murder mystery "Insomnia," made nearly $70 million.

What's perhaps most remarkable in the arc of the one-time English lit student is is that he has migrated to tentpoles without compromising much of the vision of his early movies. In fact, judging by the word-of-mouth, "The Dark Knight" succeeded because of, not despite, this authorship.

"Chris has the confidence to realize that the audience is sophisticated and smart, probably a lot more than the (studio) gatekeepers realize," said Bob Berney, who worked with Nolan on Newmarket's 2001 release "Memento."

Yet Berney adds that, unlike some indie directors who simply end up directing bigger movies when offers come in, Nolan was in a way aiming for tentpoles all along. "He exuded self-assurance and confidence that he'd be where he is today," he said. "He wanted to be doing movies like ('The Dark Knight')."

Nolan, who turns 38 next week, is an anomaly for another reason: he's a director who gets the money people excited. "I told (Nolan), 'I'd do anything with you. I'd do a wedding video with you," said Legendary Pictures financier Thomas Tull.

The closest analogue may be Paul Greengrass, who moved fleetly from edgy political fare like "Bloody Sunday" to the mega-earning Jason Bourne franchise.

Still, Nolan, on a press day in the U.K. Sunday when the boxoffice news broke stateside, now faces the tricky question of where he goes from here.

A rep recently alluded to him potentially returning to an indie. (The only project he's currently signed on to direct — beyond the possible next Batman installment, in which he would be in a position of trying to top himself — is an adaptation of the 1960s British secret-agent series "The Prisoner" for Universal.)

Execs say that while a true indie is unlikely, a smaller studio movie isn't, if only because a production of a lesser scale can be a relief after the burdens of a tentpole. "As much fun as it is do to a big movie like 'The Dark Knight,' sometimes you want to do something smaller because it's quicker," one distribution executive said. And speed has been a hallmark of Nolan's career. (partialdiff)
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