Christopher Nolan's come far, fast

'Dark Knight' director's debut was less than a decade ago

NEW YORK -- When it comes to its director, the biggest three-day opening in Hollywood history has a backstory as probable as that of a caped man flying around a large American city.

Less than 10 years ago, Christopher Nolan had barely made his debut, directing a small indie called "Following," a fractured thriller about a writer who inexplicably follows strangers. It earned $40,000.

Nor was it the kind of film that immediately casts a helmer as a candidate for commercial gigs. Like Nolan's follow-up "Memento" a few years later, "Following" showed an experiment-minded director intent on playing with timelines and disorienting the viewer.

But since then he's managed not only to land on the studio map but redefine it, a process capped off by a record-breaking $150 million-plus opening weekend for "The Dark Knight."

Other directors have come through the indie ranks to make studio hits -- Spike Lee had "Inside Man" in 2005, and 1970's auteurs like Martin Scorsese later had studio blockbusters like "Cape Fear" and the Departed," to take two examples.

But most have done it over a long period, with missteps and detours back to the indie world along the way. Nolan (together with his brother and frequent writing partner Jonathan) pulled it off in less than a decade, jumping from indies to midrange studio projects like Warners' Alaskan murder mystery "Insomnia," which earned nearly $70 million, and Disney's "The Prestige," which landed $53 million, to the wildly profitable Batman reboot.

What's perhaps most remarkable in the arc of the one-time English lit student is that he has managed to migrate 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, his authorship. "He's not a product of Hollywood, and I think that makes him a better studio director," said Andrew Kosove of Alcon Entertainment, who produced Nolan's "Insomnia."

Kosove's Alcon partner, Broderick Johnson, adds that beyond the creative vision are a set of skills found only in a handful of directors. "He has the whole movie, every single scene, in his head before he stars shooting," Johnson said. "And then coupled with that he's a really good communicator so he can get that vision across to everyone on set." The producers say that Nolan had already calibrated every scene in "Insomnia" so precisely that they could find only one deleted scene to include on the DVD.

While Nolan's trajectory may be unlikely, those who've collaborated with him said they're not surprised that he had made such a large leap in so short a time.

Distribution guru Bob Berney, who worked with Nolan when he served as a consultant to Newmarket for "Memento," says that, unlike some indie directors who simply end up directing bigger movies by default when the offers start coming in, Nolan was aiming for tentpoles all along. "He exuded self-assurance and confidence that he'd be where he is today," Berney says. "He wanted to be doing movies like 'Batman.' "

The closest analogue to Nolan may be Paul Greengrass, who moved fleetly from edgy political fare like "Bloody Sunday" to the mega-earning Jason Bourne franchise. (Guillermo del Toro, who has enjoyed studio success and solid openings while staying true to his quirky vision is also an exemplar of the Nolan model, though del Toro's numbers are smaller, and the fanboy world to which he plays has always been a little more willing to reward originality and punish imitators.)

Nolan, who turns 38 next week, is also an anomaly for another reason: he's a director who's beloved by the money people, a function likely not only of his boxoffice but of his reported fiscal discipline. "I told (Nolan), 'I'd do anything with you. I'd do a wedding video with you,' " says Legendary Pictures financier Thomas Tull, whose company financed "The Dark Knight."

Wedding videos aside, 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 of his 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 1960's 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. Said one exec: "As much fun as it is to do a big movie like "The Dark Knight," sometimes you want to do something smaller because it's quicker."