Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ON WRITING: christopher nolan on 'inception'

In the shooting script for Inception, Chris Nolan is interviewed by his brother Jonathon.

He makes a few interesting points about the way he tells stories. I particularly like his comments about 'the rules' which I think is key to any type of fantasy / supernatural sci-fi. I first heard the idea expressed by Borges, who talked about the 'orbe autonomo' (autonomous world) of his stories. The basic theory is that the audience needs to know the rule of your world in order to engage with your story. If you set a story in a world in which anything is possible, it becomes un-relatable to the audience and ultimately un-engaging.

For any good fantasy I think you need to 'sell the rabbit hole', as I would describe it. Like Alice, the transition from our world to one in which magic/the supernatural is possible has to be fundamentally unquestionable to an audience, even if it requires a suspension of disbelief, or a surrender to some pretty hokey movie logic. In the best fantasies we want to surrender to the logic.

Some rabbit holes:

Struck by lightning = magical powers
Cursed by Hungarian gypsy woman = seriously scary shit happens to you
Christopher Lloyd + illegal nuclear sh*t from the Libyans = time travel
Buying pets in China town from mystical eastern dude = little furry thing capable of eating you after a midnight feast.

To an extent we believe in these rabbit holes because we want to, not because we think they're real but from the point of view of story logic they all make locked-down sense.

Here are some highlights from the Nolan interview (thanks to Jonathan Wakeham for the edits). Full text here

On the need for rules When I saw the first Matrix film, I thought it was really terrific, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood the limits on the powers of the characters who had become self-aware. Inception, on the other hand, is about a more everyday experience …. It doesn’t question an actual reality. It’s just saying, “Okay, we all dream every night. What if you could share your dream with someone else?” And it becomes an alternate reality simply because the dream becomes a form of communication, like using a telephone or going online.

On the need for emotional risk I consider this script to have begun when I figured out I was going to use a heist movie structure … The problem I had was finishing it, because the heist movie as a genre tends to be deliberately superficial … And I realised that when you’re talking about dreaming, this universal human experience, you need the stakes of the story to have a much more emotional resonance. If you’re going to do a massive movie, you’ve got to be able to unlock that more universal experience for yourself as well as the audience. As soon as I realised that Mal would be his wife, it became completely relatable.

On melodrama I’ve written quite a few dead wives, that’s true. But you try to put your relatable fears into these things. That’s what film noir is, and Ido view Inception as film noir. You take the things you are actually worried about in real life, and you extrapolate that into a universal drama, painted as large as possible. You turn it into melodrama. People always talk about melodrama as a pejorative, but I don’t know what other word there is.

On actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with great casts on all my films. Particularly with a lot of the supporting characters, a great actor will come in with a whole take on it, and they’ll literally give what’s on the page some kind of life that you hadn’t forseen.

On trusting audiences There are points where you worry that you might be putting too much in and alienating the audience … Somewhere in the back of my mind, for example, I had assumed that the business with the spinning top in the safe would wind up being cut out of the film … But what we realised in showing it to people is that they actually grasped the imagery as something to hold onto, as an illustration of things that had happened off camera.

On sincerity I give a film a lot of credit for trying to do something fresh — even if it doesn’t work … I think the thing that I always react against as a filmgoer is insincerity, when somebody makes a film that they don’t really enjoy themselves, just to produce an effect on the audience. And what really frustrates me with a film like Inception is when you show somebody the film and they think you’re trying to be clever. Or show off. I always feel like I’ve completely failed at that point, because I know as a filmgoer that that’s something I react against … you want to believe that the film-maker loves the movie, loves what that movie does.