Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller shared the stage in lower Manhattan Monday as the two directors participated in a Tribeca Film Festival discussion about the craft of filmmaking and working within the studio system.
Miller ostensibly served as the interviewer, exploring the themes of Nolan’s films and talking to the Interstellar director about how he got into filmmaking, what drives him, and the challenges of making movies for major studios and in the current economic climate. But the Foxcatcher director still shared a number of his own thought-provoking insights and a juicy story about how, while he was working on Moneyball, then Sony boss Amy Pascal told him exactly how he should behave in meetings with studio executives.
The latter came after Nolan talked about the “paradox” of working as a director in theatrical motion pictures. “You are hired by people who then give the appearance of wanting to control you, but they’ve hired you to defy them,” he said, “At no time is that ever acknowledged.”
“I had it acknowledged once,” Miller interjected.
He then explained that after he had worked on a version of the script for Moneyball, he had a meeting with Pascal and a group from Sony, where he recalled how he “reasonably reject[ed]” the “pages of notes” that the studio had. He said he “rationally” explained his objections, often saying, “No, because…no, because.”
“I thought it was a very effective and productive meeting, because we all got a lot of clarity, I thought,” he added. “I wasn’t five minutes off the lot when Amy called and said, ‘I’m only going to explain this once. We all know collectively at the studio, as the studio, that in the best circumstances, we will only ever exercise four-and-a-half-percent influence over you because you’re the director. But when we have these meetings, you have to make everybody feel smart and good.'”
Nolan said he thought he’d learned how to accept notes from the studio while still pursuing your own vision from Steven Soderbergh, whom he cited as a mentor.
The Oscar-winning director, who served as an executive producer on Nolan’s 2002 film Insomnia, taught him that film “is an individual pursuit,” Nolan said.
“You have to get out there and find a place for yourself,” he explained. “You have to make your own rules. You have to figure out what’s going to work for you…. That’s the thing he taught me, is that you’re on your own and you have to get out there and make it work.”
Nolan made his own rules when he was writing the script for Memento, attributing the film’s mind-bending storytelling approach to him just disregarding the rules.
“It’s the classic example of something interesting that can come about when you don’t know what you’re doing,” Nolan said when Miller asked how one writes a script like that. “You’re starting out and you think, ‘Why are there all these rules? Why do people take screenwriting courses? Why can’t you just write the movie you want to see as it would appear on the screen?’ And you do it, and for whatever reason it works. If I tried to do it again, I would be a horrible failure,” Nolan said.
The filmmaker was equally modest when Miller asked what has enabled him to make movies that have been “consistently profitable.”
“I do attribute a lot of it to luck,” he said. “I’ve certainly tried to work in a mainstream fashion. I’ve certainly tried to be respectful of the audience. I’ve tried to imagine myself as an audience member. But I think there’s certainly an enormous amount of luck involved, truthfully. You’re always, when you make a film, it’s a very long-term thing. You’re looking years into the future. So the idea that you can gauge what an audience is going to be interested in or what the marketing department can sell is completely untrue.”
Another one of Nolan’s early sources of advice when he was embarking on a film career, Stephen Frears, stressed the importance of luck, advising the aspiring filmmaker to “be a lucky man.” Frears added that Nolan should hang onto a script he wanted to direct “no matter who tries to buy it from you or tries to push you off it.”
As for his own advice for aspiring filmmakers, like the many in the audience on Monday, Nolan said, “The only good advice I’ve been able to give is, if you’re lucky enough to be telling a story with a camera on whatever scale you’re doing it, appreciate that as filmmaking. Don’t always be waiting for the real film to come along, because you may be making the real film.”
Nolan also revealed that in terms of works from young filmmakers that he admires, he “really loved Whiplash last year.”
“I thought that was an incredible piece of work,” he said. “That was the kind of film where when you see it, it’s very precisely put together, and you’re very jealous.”
And he shared one of his fears going forward.
“My biggest fear is embarking on a project that you lose faith in or fall out of love with,” he said. “There’s a huge investment of time [in a film], and the biggest fear is that I’d get halfway through and think, ‘No, this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, by writing drafts, by just living with it and really trying to dive into it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy, as obsessed with this film two-and-a-half, three years later as you are the day you commit to it.”
With Miller and Nolan trading self-deprecating quips, the discussion featured a number of funny moments. Miller asked Nolan about his family and being married to his producing partner.
Miller said, “How do you balance out a life — and this is really just personal advice for me. I haven’t figured out this part yet — but how do you balance out a life and shoot a film on four continents?”
Nolan replied, “It’s challenging. The best part of that equation is to find yourself a partner as a producer and as a wife who’s capable of raising four children while she produces a huge movie.”
Miller jokingly wondered, “Where do I get one of those?”
Nolan was also asked by an audience member, in light of his success with the Batman franchise, if there were other established properties that he wants to reimagine or reshape.
“Well, if there were, I’d be crazy to tell you about it,” he said to roaring laughter, before adding. “I’m always on the lookout to reimagine something.”
But he wouldn’t even go that far when one audience member asked him to offer his interpretation of the end of Inception.
“I’m certainly not going to answer that, or I would’ve in the film,” he said.