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The Prestige - Christopher Nolan interview

Christopher Nolan, director of The Prestige

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHRISTOPHER Nolan talks about the challenge of directing The Prestige, as well as why he chose David Bowie for a prominent supporting role…

Q. You’ve been working on this film for seven years. What attracted you to the book in the first place?
A. Well for me, really, it was about the world that the novel dealt with – this world of stage magicians working at a time when they were important figures in entertainment and culture. My brother and I worked on the script for about four or five years and it was really about the world and the peculiar nature of the obsession of these characters.

Q. A lot of your films seem to tackle issues of identity and obsession…
A. Well, I didn’t think of that too consciously in terms of the films that I’ve worked on. But I guess I’m just drawn to stories about extreme points of view and storytelling that tries to put the audience in somebody else’s point of view. This film has multiple points of view.

Q. Was part of the fun finding out how these illusions were done? And, as director, were you concerned about how far you went in revealing the mechanics of a trick?
A. Well, to be honest, I’m not a big one for research. There’s a lot of information in the novel and my brother did a certain amount of research. But I enjoy not knowing. For me the fun in watching a magic trick is wanting to know but not quite being able to penetrate the secret. As far as what the film reveals, a lot of it is stuff we just made up. I’m sure it would be very difficult for any magicians to complain that we were giving away too much unless they’re prepared to admit to the awful things we did with birds in cages. I think we’re pretty safe.

Q. Can you tell us about the techniques you employed for creating a period film? Some of them were very modern…
A. I was very worried about doing a period film. I really didn’t want to make a film that would adhere to the formality that’s often found in these kinds of films. We shot the film entirely on location and the vast majority of the film on a hand-held camera because I really wanted to try and make a film where the fact that it’s set in a different period wouldn’t be alienating to the audience.

Q. What made you think about David Bowie for a role in this film?
A. Well, I was looking for somebody to play that role who as soon as you see them on-screen, you’d believe they were capable of extraordinary things. I felt that any movie star in that role would be distracting, or wouldn’t have the right kind of presence. For me, David Bowie has this extraordinary charisma and presence that an audience can invest in right away.

I sent him the script and he immediately said “no”. I’ve never really done this before, to be honest, but I called him back and asked if I could come and convince him because I had absolutely nobody else in mind who could possibly have done what I wanted him to do. Fortunately, that was a compelling argument for him and he signed on. I’m very glad he did because he was a real pleasure to work with.

Q. Had meeting David Bowie always been something you wanted to do as a child growing up?
A. Absolutely, I’m a huge David Bowie fan. I think if I’d met him when I was 17, or something, I’d have fainted. It would have been really embarrassing. Luckily, I got older and more jaded. But he didn’t disappoint; he’s an extraordinary presence and a lovely guy to work with. But he has a star charisma about him that was very evident to the whole crew the entire time he was working. They never got bored of him. You could always feel that the atmosphere on set was very fascinated by him.

Q. Did working with Guy Pearce on Memento influence the casting of Hugh Jackman on this?
A. Not consciously. I think Hollywood has been really taken over by Australians in recent years. A lot of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood happen to be from Australia and I have absolutely no idea what you’re feeding them down there. But it wasn’t conscious but a lot of great talent has come from that part of the world recently.

Q. Do you think audiences have become much more knowing and cynical nowadays?
A. I don’t think so. In technical terms, I think audiences become more sophisticated all the time because these tricks become more complex as it were. But I think that inate willingness of an audience to suspend disbelief, that sort of willingness to be entertained and want to participate, I don’t think that’s ever gone away and I hope it never will.

Q. Following on from that, do you think that sometimes studios underestimate the audiences’ intelligence?
A. Yeah I do. I think there’s often a bit of an us and them attitude – not just from studios but even from journalists and critics, and so forth. I think everyone can be a bit too protective of the audience in a way – the sort feeling that they won’t want to be made to think or work a little bit, or be active in watching the film. I think audiences are really up for a lot of different challenges really. I make films that I would want to go and see as an audience member and I like to think that there are other people with similar tastes to myself out there.

Q. How do you feel about the emphasis on opening weekends and the battle of the studios?
A. It’s tough. I’ve never released a film this time of the year in America, so it’s been interesting. It’s a very competitive time of year because there’s a lot of films coming out. But it is what it is I guess. You want a lot of people to see your film, if possible. What was fun for us was when I showed it to Disney I thought I’d made quite a small film, and a personal one, but they saw it as a much bigger film and put it on thousands of screens and gave it a very big release. As a former independent filmmaker, my biggest fear is that no one will ever see your film, and it won’t have a chance, so it was really quite wonderful that they decided to do that with this.

Q. Do you still consider yourself to be an independent filmmaker?
A. Well, I’m the same filmmaker I always was. That I do feel. But I don’t really know what the term means specifically. With something like The Prestige, I was given complete freedom to make the film I wanted to make – but it was made with the involvement of two studios. But we were really left alone and allowed to do what we wanted to do.

Q. Is there anybody left on your wishlist that you’d like to direct?
A. I don’t really have a wishlist. I’m often asked that but I don’t really think of actors in that way, partly because I know that the casting process is such a peculiar process. One of the really enjoyable things about having made a few films is that you do have access to a lot of very talented actors, which lends itself to exciting possibilities. I mean getting Scarlett Johansson to do quite a small part in this film was really a delightful thing – it was sort of unthinkable a few years before. But she was up for it and wanted to do it.

Q. You’ve worked with a lot of Australian actors, you’ll be working with another one soon in the form of Heath Ledger. What appealed to you about him for the role of The Joker?
A. Well, the thing with Heath is, if you look at his performance in Brokeback Mountain, for example, I think he’s a very fearless actor. He will really throw himself into a part with utter conviction. He just has an extraordinary intensity and dedication to his craft and that’s exactly what I need for that iconic role.

Q. Are you a fan of DVD extras? What do you think of Michael Caine’s opinion that the trickery used in making films shouldn’t be revealed?
A. I think Michael is absolutely right. I love DVDs and I love finding out about how films are made but the fact that you love wanting to know that – not unlike a magic trick – doesn’t necessarily mean that desire should be fulfilled. With the DVDs I’ve done, I’ve always tried to not put things on there that shouldn’t be there. So I never put outtakes or bits of actors messing things up.

Q. What kind of legacy do you think The Prestige will leave in people’s minds?
A. I don’t know really. I think it will be really interesting to see what people think of it when they’ve had time to sit with it a little bit – a couple of years or whatever. I hope it will resonate. It does for me because I have an interest in storytelling and narrative. What I realise now when I look at the film and when Hugh Jackman explains why they did what they did, I find that curiously moving. For me, there’s a real fascination with the idea that we create stories and enjoy stories to build complexity into a world that we fear may be too simple. I find that an interesting idea and maybe other people will.

Read our review of The Prestige

Read our interview with Hugh Jackman

Read our interview with Michael Caine