“Tenet” is only the latest film by Christopher Nolan to play with time and complicated action. “Inception,” “Dunkirk” and the Dark Knight installments all aimed for new heights in tightly coordinated suspense and spectacle. But how do the makers of these mind-boggling films pull it all together?
The mastermind is unquestionably Nolan, but he is not alone. The multiple narratives, the military-grade action set pieces, the unforgiving studio production schedules all demand masterminds in addition to the director.
I spoke with a few of the filmmaker’s collaborators, past and present, to understand what it takes to make his visions a reality — or an unreality, as the case may be.
Twenty years ago, “Memento” made Nolan a director to watch and introduced his penchant for slicing and dicing narrative. Dody Dorn was the Academy Award-nominated editor of the hit, which recounted in reverse the story of an amnesiac caught up in murderous intrigue. Dorn had to assemble Nolan’s clockwork mystery for audiences who didn’t know what to expect.
Her work in “Memento” underlined the importance of psychological purpose behind Nolan’s approach. “The point of view and the lack of information that you get by telling a story out of chronological order allows you to empathize with the main character, Leonard,” Dorn said. Not knowing the extent of Leonard’s violent actions and motives leaves us open to understanding this conflicted figure. When his vigilantism is revealed, the puzzle carries an emotional payload beyond the frisson of a mere twist.
The pause-and-rewind premise of “Memento” bears a definite family resemblance to the forward-and-backward conceit of “Tenet,” not to mention the nested storytelling of “Inception” and “The Prestige.” All of these movies require careful calibration. It’s a matter of withholding just enough to keep things interesting.
In “Memento,” that meant replaying a few seconds of the previous scene, but not a second too much.
“We absolutely have to make sure that people know they’ve gone backwards in time, but you don’t want to bore them with displaying the same material for very long if there’s no new information,” Dorn said. This balancing act is also noticeable in the orienting dialogue of “Inception,” for example, or the relentless time-keeping of “Dunkirk.”
As a point of comparison, Dorn mentioned another director who is known for innovative editing: Paul Greengrass, who shook up the Jason Bourne series with splintered perspectives. To Dorn’s eyes, Greengrass’s approach is “more prismatic,” whereas Nolan’s is “visceral in the frame, rather than visceral in the editing.”
It’s a subtle but intriguing distinction between Greengrass’s sensation of being in the moment, and a Nolan world that has a secret order being slowly revealed.
Dorn edited one more Nolan feature, “Insomnia,” but longer collaborations are more typical. Lee Smith has been the editor on many Nolan projects, orchestrating their multilevel crosscutting. Wally Pfister was the cinematographer on seven of his films, including “Memento” and “Inception” (2010), for which he won an Academy Award. But also key to these action-heavy movies is the stunt coordinator, George Cottle.
Cottle began as a stuntman and drove the Batmobile through all manner of chaos in the “Dark Knight” movies. His role as coordinator is critical because Nolan prizes practical effects and in-camera stunts over computer-generated imagery as a way of creating the sense of physical bodies moving through actual space.
Nolan’s most eye-opening sequences have a bravura quality along with rising and converging tensions, and Cottle maintains the energy on the ground. He presents the filmmaker with ideas for particular moves and choreography in fight sequences, and receives step-by-step guidance from the director.
“For a fight in ‘Tenet,’ he might say, ‘Look, in this part of the movie, John David is really coming into his own. So I just want to see full-on aggression, but I want a moment of weakness here, and then I want him to come back strong at the end. Maybe 20 to 25 seconds,’” Cottle said, referring to the main character played by John David Washington. He singled out the film’s Mumbai building-jumping sequence as especially nerve-racking.
Since these elaborate scenes can end up on huge Imax screens, the team also learns to adjust shots for audience comprehension.
“With that size of screen, we had to hold on shots for a little longer,” Pfister, the cinematographer, said. “When you’re watching this in such an immersive fashion, you need time to scan the screen.”
“And if it was going to be a really quick cut,” he said, “I needed a little more light to see things better because it’s only going to be on the screen for a fleeting moment.”
Many large productions use a separate filmmaking crew, a second unit, that can operate independently on action scenes. But Nolan prefers to direct those sequences himself. The resulting team, Cottle and other collaborators said, has a certain esprit du corps.
“There is a real sense when you’re on set with him that Chris is the headmaster and everybody else is working to keep the headmaster happy,” Cottle said.
A Hollywood veteran, Nilo Otero has been first assistant director for Nolan’s movies since “The Dark Knight” (2008). It’s a behind-the-scenes role that doesn’t receive much attention, but its existence frees up the filmmaker to do his job. Otero breaks down the script for Nolan’s review, and that can entail working out shooting days, wrangling actors and even scheduling around the ocean tides.
“You see all those guys on that beach in ‘Dunkirk,’ right? That beach disappears twice a day. OK, now schedule that!” Otero said. “The pier is a really great set, but nevertheless an obvious set once you look at it when the tide is low.”
Otero views Nolan as a rarity when it comes to blockbusters: an old-school filmmaker who can attend to all facets of production rather than specializing and who still prefers shooting with a single camera. (“I don’t know if they’re the biggest little movies in the world or the littlest big movies in the world, but it’s like you had an unlimited student film,” Otero said, approvingly.) Nolan’s level of involvement helps give his films a personal stamp, unlike some major studio productions.
It also means that the usual Hollywood waltzes can break a little differently. Take, for example, hashing out actor availability.
“During preproduction, I get calls from people’s agents: ‘Oh, my client can’t possibly work this time.’ I’ll go to Chris, and he’ll say, we’ll recast. No problem,” Otero said. “It’s unheard-of. I can hear the jaw hit the floor on the other end of the phone.”
Nolan is not the only studio-friendly filmmaker who can keep to a schedule, but there is a notable intensity to his focus and pace. “Chris would shoot a $200-million-plus movie like ‘Tenet’ at the same speed they would shoot an episode of TV,” Cottle said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Cottle has worked on other franchises that rely more heavily on digital effects. For him, both approaches have value, but Nolan’s has a grounded energy that’s distinct.
“The CGI is incredible, but it ultimately ends up that it’s some guy sitting in front of a computer, generating it like a cartoon,” he said. “And there’s a big difference between that and what we do.”