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The movie business is rapidly switching from shooting movies on film to digital but Christopher Nolan, whose third Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises opens in July, thinks it is a mistake because its not being done for quality, but rather for cost.
“There’s a huge danger in all of this,” Nolan said Saturday while being interviewed at the annual Produced By Conference, presented by the Producer’s Guild of America. “If you are looking strictly at production cost, then you would use digital. But for the best image, it is still film.”
Nolan said he thinks film is still best because it provides the filmmaker the most range, captures the most depth of image and works best as a tool to tell a story. Nolan said that moving to digital creates a risk of “devaluing what we do as filmmakers.”
“The problem with the push to digital is its has been given a consumer aspect,” says Nolan,” who suggests it confuses the camera with an Ipad. “It’s not what is best for the film,” he insists.
While digital has made great strides, Nolan believes it has a ways to go yet before it will offer the quality to capture images that film does. “I don’t want to be the R and D department. I don’t have any interest in the research into electronics. What interests me is to use the best technology and that is film.”
Nolan says he does use digital technology in the editing process and for special effects and in other ways, but ultimately he wants his movies shot on film and shown on film. When the digital technology evolves to the point it has the same depth, image quality and look as film, he is open to shifting his view.
“When it is as good as film and it makes sense I’ll be open to it,” says Nolan. “But (at present) it’s not good enough.”
Nolan was interviewed along with his producing partner Emma Thomas in the first session on the first day of the Produced By Conference, held this year on the grounds of the Sony Pictures Studio. He was interviewed by Vance Van Petten, national executive director of the Producer’s Guild of America, in front of a packed audience – mostly of producers – on the same sound stage where the TV show Wheel of Fortune is shot.
Van Petten spent much of the interview focused on how Nolan and Thomas got their start after meeting as university students in London. They made their first film together, Following, on a budget of $6,000, with a cast and crew he says could fit into one London taxi cab. When it was one Nolan and Thomas brought it to America to get exposure at film festivals. They entered it at Sundance, but did not get in. However, one of those on the Sundance selection committee who saw it was also involved with the San Francisco film festival and brought Nolan there to show his movie.
When it was well received, Nolan and Thomas were on a path that led them to get funding for their next film Memento, which became a critical and commercial hit. In the dozen years since they have made ever bigger movies, but both insisted that they never think about the budget, even when it soars into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nolan says he always focuses on the story and what the audience expects, not the budget. “For me the different skills of doing certain films is much more important than the large scale,” says Nolan, adding: “Doing large scale films is a matter of nerve. You get over it. ‘OK, I’m not afraid of that any more.”
That doesn’t mean Nolan and Thomas don’t have to deal with budgets and the reality of what things cost. The director says his approach is always to be clear and honest with the studio about what things are going to cost. “I look them in the eye and say ‘this is what it is going to take. I wish it was less but this is what it takes.’”
Thomas added that the main thing with big studios is not to surprise them. The secret to keeping creative control, they both said, was to make the movies on time and on budget so that there is no reason for the studio executives to interfere.
On their movies, Nolan says they do very little story boarding – only for big action sequences – very few re-takes and use no second unit. Nolan prefers to direct it all himself and says he finds second units are a hidden expense that often produces very little material that is actually usable. “I think second units are a very expensive luxury,” says Nolan.
One expense Nolan and Thomas insist on is seeing dailies every night after they finish the days shooting. Dailies are the scenes they most recently shot. “We project dailies so we know what we’ve got,” says Nolan. “It used to be an absolute requirement for my job and now for some reason it is not.”
“People see (eliminating dailies) as a way to cut costs,” adds Thomas. “But what I think is that it’s a massive help to everybody to see dailies every night. Frankly, you see what needs fixing.”
Nolan recalled working with actor Al Pacino on his first really big budget movie, Insomnia, which cost about $40 million to make. “As a director it’s very much about the creative relationship (with the actor),” says Nolan. “It’s about finding trust with each actor. Working with Pacino was a huge thing for me. As we shot I was rewriting the script for him and putting my own spin on the script.”
“People ask me ‘did he take direction?’” says Nolan. “Well, he demanded it. You had to fill that role.”
At first Nolan just wanted to write and direct but he says he soon found he had to be a producer as well to deal with all of the issues and problems that go with making a movie. For instance, when he assembles a cast he doesn’t immediately schedule his actors; but rather waits until he has them all and knows what he wants. “You have to think like a producer,” says Nolan, adding: “That is the only way you can make the puzzle all come together.”
By design, very little of the discussion dealt with the upcoming Dark Knight Rises. Nolan did say it would be his last movie in what has become a Batman trilogy. He says he never thought about doing three movies, but did everything he could to do his best on each film, and then did it again. He says that is why it takes him several years between each of the movies to start that entire creative process over again.
Nolan who writes with his brother, and has worked with many of the same crew members on all of his movies, says he just trys to make each film as good as he can. “I said to my brother I don’t want to save anything,” Nolan says of the development of each of the Batman movies.
Nolan says he did not refer to the Batman comics, and never found the origin story of the characters all in one place in any case. He focused on just telling the best story he could. If he was influenced, it was by earlier Batman movies, some of which he found fanciful. He wanted his movies to be much more grounded in a kind of reality.
“The source material is irrelevant,” says Nolan. “The challenge with Batman is to find what is a believable character. You put your stamp on it.”
Still, he was always keenly aware that Batman is an iconic figure and a “classic brand.”
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